Monday, February 22, 2010

The recipe box

My mother died when I was just 22 years old. I sold, donated, and gave away most of her things, so that the items that were left took on mythic importance. A cookie jar shaped like a strawberry and a salad bowl shaped like a lettuce leaf. There was a taped diary, jewelry and some items of clothing. Her dishes. Her silver. Her paintings.

And there was a recipe box. Just a small wooden box, the one in the picture in fact, filled with index cards on which she had written the recipes of my childhood. There was an apricot-pineapple pie with a basket crust, and spice cake with caramel frosting that she always made for my birthday, when she wasn't making the pineapple upside down cake from another card. She used to make cheese crackers the color of ripe cheddar, shaped like flat sticks, crumbly and delicious.

For years, I couldn't bear to even open that box. And then one day I decided it was time to lay the ghost and make something of hers. So I opened it up.

And it was empty.

The pain of that moment was like reliving her death. I have no idea what happened to the recipes. They might have gotten lost in the chaos of that final move, or she may have dumped them all for some forgotten reason. Maybe, after carrying it around for a decade, this was not even the same box. I've managed to recreate some of her foods, but they never quite taste like my childhood memory, and they are taken from recipes that are written in an unfamiliar hand, or some anonymous typeface. I keep looking for facsimiles of these treats.

These romano crackers are tasty, but they aren't the thin, flaky crust-like delicacies that I remember.

Romano crackers
• 1 1/4 cups grated Romano cheese
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• 1/8 teaspoon cayenne
• 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
• 2 T half and half
• 1 cup all-purpose flour

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Combine the cheese, salt, pepper, and cayenne in a medium bowl and stir to combine. Add the butter. Using a hand mixer, beat the cheese mixture and butter until combined. Add the flour 1/4 cup at a time, mixing only until incorporated and the mixture holds together. If needed, add the half-and-half to make the dough pliable.

Place tablespoon-sized balls of the dough on 1 or 2 parchment paper-lined baking sheets, tapping the dough down gently with your fingertips. Bake until just beginning to brown at the edges, about 15 minutes. Let cool on the baking sheet for a few minutes. Transfer to a serving plate.

from a recipe


  1. Several years ago I was visiting a town I lived in as a small child. We had moved away the summer after third grade and I was now in my early 50's. On a whim, just before leaving, I went to the home of the parents of my best friend from those days. Both were still living, and my friend's mother was just the same, if older. My own mother had passed away about 6 years before. My old friend's mother was amazed to see me and invited me in for a cup of coffee. When she came out of the kitchen she had something in her hand that she handed to me. It was a recipe for moussaka that my mother had written out for her more than 40 years earlier. She had gone looking for the recipe after decades just a few days before I stopped by. Spooky. She offered me the recipe card, but I declined as I luckily have many recipes handwritten by my mother, and even a few written out be her own mother. I treasure them all.

  2. We're all waiting for the smell of the madeleines, I think.