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Why bad things can happen to good cooks

Sunday, September 09, 2001

By Suzanne Martinson, Post-Gazette Food Editor

Some things always seem lost in the translation. Take our often feeble attempts to cook or bake one of Grandma's signature recipes. Know why?

When she describes how much salt is needed for the pierogi dough, Grandma opens her fist to show you-- "this much." She talks about butter the "size of an egg" for her famous frosting, she tells us to mix flour into her bread dough until it "feels right," or to bake the cookies or pie until "done."

Here's my dirty little secret: I like recipes, prefer them in fact to "oh, maybe a handful or two." Still, I sometimes feel a little envious when some of the great home cooks I've met say, "I just look at a recipe as a starting point." The best of them read ingredients, not cookbooks.

Talented chefs operate like that, too, which is why their recipes can evoke headaches for food editors trying desperately to duplicate their dishes. Some seldom make the same dish the same way twice.

Some admirers believe that only "bad cooks" need recipes. "Good" cooks are taught by their mother or grandmother, ostensibly by osmosis. I once spent a delightful afternoon with a talented pianist and minister's wife, trying to figure out the recipe for her delicious Sweet Potato Pie. Eventually the two of us cobbled together a recipe (for me -- she sure didn't need one).

I was thinking of that sweet potato pie recently as I played out a recipe disaster seldom equaled in my kitchen. This was a case in which the cook -- me -- followed the recipe right out the window. It was the pastry recipe for the Pine-Apple Pie that was a winner in a circa '50s Pillsbury Bake-Off. Having seen the scrutiny to which the Pillsbury people put their recipes, I was confident it would work.

Wrong. So trusting was I, that I attempted to make the pastry, though there was no shortening listed in the ingredients. No shortening was mentioned in the instructions either, so I tried to outguess myself, as in, "Well, maybe the egg yolk is the only fat required."

Working under pressure of deadline, I was baking something for a women's potluck that evening. It was 7 a.m., 4 a.m. in Washington State, too early to call my mother-in-law, who had given me the recipe. My early-bird husband, Ace, tried to bring up the recipe on the Doughboy Web site, to no avail.

The dough looked wrong. It felt wrong. It was wrong. A Frisbee crust would have been better. A hockey puck is more tasty.

Later, trying to piece together what had gone awry, I called my mother-in-law to ask if she ever had trouble with the recipe. No, she did not. We figured the shortening must have been devoured by the computer en route from her terminal to mine. She didn't know what had happened to the 2/3 cup shortening.

That early morning, my pastry Frisbee went sailing down the garbage disposal, and I turned to a refrigerated pie crust --the filling was delicious. So I showed up at the potluck with half-homemade, half-convenience.

That sordid experience proved an inspiration last week, though. Connie Black, a friend of my co-worker Nancy Anderson, gave me an interesting children's book over the weekend. It was set in my home state of Michigan and revolved around a farm, and a little girl who was afraid of thunderstorms -- like Pennsylvania, Michigan has tumultuous ones. Her grandmother helps her work through her fears by baking Thunder Cake.

The Old World grandma is portrayed in beautiful illustrations that hint at her Russian heritage. Author Patricia Polacco wrote a moving story, though it seemed filled with literary license (on our farm, the strawberries were long gone before our tomatoes ripened). And Grandma --called "Babushka" -- certainly had a collection of cranky farm animals for her granddaughter to be afraid of. Ours were rarely so nasty.

The story soared, but the recipe confused. Remembering the Pine-Apple Pie, I made the cake in the way I had been taught, folding in the whipped egg whites last, rather than as the recipe directed. There were no strawberries to be found, so pecans worked fine.

And Thunder Cake's secret ingredient? Better not leave the tomatoes out -- I think they're needed because the acid activates the baking soda and makes the cake rise. They blended with the cocoa just fine. I loved the house cat, too.

My Grandmother's Thunder Cake

1 cup shortening
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 eggs, separated
1 cup cold water
1/3 cup pureed tomatoes
2 1/2 cups cake flour
1/2 cup dry cocoa
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cream together, one at a time, shortening (we used half butter, half margarine), sugar, vanilla and egg yolks.

Sift together the cake flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt. Add to the creamed mixture, alternating the cold water and pureed tomatoes with the dry ingredients; beating well after each addition. (We used two Italian plum tomatoes, which we peeled, seeded and pureed in the food processor.)

Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold into batter.

Bake in two greased and floured 8 1/2-inch round pans (we used a 9-by-13-inch loaf pan) at 350 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes. Frost with chocolate butter frosting. Top with strawberries. (We used pecans.)

Pine-Apple Pie

2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup vegetable shortening
1 egg yolk
2 teaspoons lemon juice
4 tablespoons water

Pine-Apple Filling:

4 cups (4 medium) apples, pared and sliced
1 cup (9-ounce can) crushed pineapple, undrained
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon melted butter

Sift together 2 cups flour and salt into a mixing bowl. With a pastry blender, cut in vegetable shortening until the size of coarse cornmeal.

Blend together yolk, lemon juice and water. Sprinkle over the flour mixture while tossing and stirring lightly with fork. Add liquid to driest particles. pushing lumps to side until dough is just moist enough to hold together.

Divide dough in half. Form into balls. Flatten to about 1/2-inch thickness. Smooth edges.

Roll out one portion on floured surface to a circle 1 1/2 inches larger than inverted 9-inch pie pan. Fit loosely into pan.

Filling: Prepare apples, and add crushed pineapple, undrained. Combine sugar, cinnamon and 3 tablespoons flour. Add to fruit mixture. Place in pastry-lined pan.

Roll out remaining dough. Cut slits for escape of steam. Moisten rim of bottom crust. Place top crust over filling. Fold edge under bottom crust, pressing to seal. Flute.

Brush melted butter over top crust.

Bake in hot oven (425 degrees) for 10 minutes, then at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes or until apples are tender. (My mother-in-law cooks at 400 degrees for 45 minutes.)

Pillsbury Bake-Off winner, Susan F. Jones of Delaware, Ohio

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