Years ago I read a library book which really ignited my interest in recipes and made me think about women and recipes they hold dear. The book has the unlikely title of The Cure for Death by Lightning by Gail Anderson-Dargaratz. The story is told by a young girl, Beth Weeks, living in the depression era, on an isolated Canadian farm. The writing is excellent and I loved the way she talked about the recipes in her mom’s old scrapbook. Her passion for cooking and baking was contagious.
Here is a quote: “This was a woman’s pride, to have a recipe worth stealing. To this end my mother hid her scrapbook. . .” I have always been willing to share recipes when I am asked. I thought it unusual that a woman would not want to share her recipe with friends. Beth’s mom wanted a recipe worth stealing and just in case she had one, she hid her recipes in a scrapbook.
As I talked to others about this idea, I learned that keeping secret recipes is not at all uncommon among women. Some women willingly share their recipe when asked, but intentionally leave out a key ingredient that makes all the difference in the world in the finished product. One friend told me that her grandmother didn’t like to share recipes and wouldn’t give exact directions as to how to make them. She always had secret recipes that called for a pinch of this or a pinch of that, which she never shared. She wouldn’t even share those recipes with her own granddaughter! To this day, her granddaughter wishes she had the secret recipe for Gram’s graham muffins. Gram had never written even the basics of how to make them and though she tried by experiments to duplicate those moist flaky, rich muffins, she never got it figured out.
Another friend, Lucy, told me that she had enjoyed eating a great chocolate chip cookie at a friend’s house and she asked for the recipe but the friend’s mom did not want to share. But then some time later, she saw a recipe pinned to a bulletin board at a school that was like the cookies she had enjoyed. She copied the recipe and made the cookies for herself. Some time later her friend visited her and Lucy shared cookies with her. When her friend realized that the cookies were the same as the ones from her mom’s secret recipe, she became very upset and accused Lucy of stealing the recipe from her mom. This, in turn, upset Lucy, because she had not stolen the recipe and wouldn’t even think of stealing it. I don’t know if it ended the friendship or not, but it was a dramatic experience for Lucy.
Back to the book again, another excerpt: “Some cooks, to convince you of their miracle working, maintain that sponge cake is a difficult thing of chemistry, of eggs three days old and flour just so and the temperature and humidity just right, but making a sponge cake is the easiest thing in the world. A sponge cake is nothing but eggs, flour, sugar, and air, and if you’re new to the sponge cake, a little baking powder too, to ease its way against gravity. The secret is eggs, lots of eggs.”
Can you picture this activity taking place in an old fashioned kitchen? Beth’s mom used two bowls to make the cake, which was named, “Daffodil Cake.” One was for the egg whites and the other for the egg yolks. She added the ingredient of air by whipping the separated eggs until they were stiffened, then folded them into each other. There were two more secret ingredients to making this cake. One was the knowledge of folding and the other was to have an absolutely clean pan. A spot of grease on the baking pan would cause the sponge cake to come out flat.
More than any other recipe that Beth talked about, this recipe for “Daffodil Cake” made me want to make such a cake. But I never did! I had good intentions, but no follow through.
It’s just as well that I didn’t try to make the cake because I have a problem with following cooking directions to the letter. Invariably I come to a place in cooking where I don’t have or can’t find one of the ingredients. Therefore I improvise. Often my product is edible, even quite good, but it’s nothing like the recipe I set out to follow.
An example: I had to have a dish to take to a tureen dinner. I decided to make “Dreamsickle Salad.” I violated the first rule. Don’t make something new when hosting company. This wasn’t for company, and I wasn’t the hostess. It looked easy and it sounded good, so I decided to make it anyway. It called for boxed cooked puddings, two different kinds. My first substitution happened right here. I made my own tapioca pudding, from scratch, doubled the ingredients and skipped the second kind of pudding. Next step. Prepare one package of orange Jello. Oops. I have no orange Jello. I’ll use cherry Jello. Smooth sailing from there because I have the crushed pineapple and Mandarin oranges. Last step is: Combine puddings and Jello and refrigerate over night. Another oops! It was 9 AM and I needed it for 6 PM. In the morning break up the Jello and pudding and whip together and add the fruit. Am I defeated? NO! I improvise. I put everything into one bowl, beat it together and taste it. It’s going to be okay. Refrigerate until time to leave for the dinner. It becomes a very nice dish to take, but is nothing like the recipe I was using. Don’t ask for the name. It has no name.
If I ever try to make Daffodil Cake, my first step might be that I don’t want to use a dozen eggs. That way, if I cut the recipe in half, I won’t waste six eggs if I don’t do it right. On second thought, I really won’t be trying to make Daffodil Cake any time soon.