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20 January 2008

Saturday Story with photos and recipe. Come in![More:]Having a weekend day completely free of scheduled tasks was something that had ceased to exist in my life by about October of last year. With the arrival of January, things settled down quite a bit. I spent the first few weekends reveling in the unstructured time, listening to music and puttering around the house. I undertook a large and cathartic winnowing process, going through the house to cull things that no longer meant much to me and pass them along, making room here for whatever is to come next. I found that by yesterday I had two very large boxes full of kitchenware, books, games, and tchotkes I no longer wanted. I also had a Norway Spruce that had served its time as a Christmas tree, and a broken kitchen chair that was splintered beyond repair.

Off we went to the dump, always a delightful way to spend an hour of Saturday. Those of you whose municipalities furnish you the supposed luxury of curbside pickup may be missing out. The dump is a social and rather festive place. Only townsfolk can go, so you often see your neighbors, virtuously and energetically tossing crates full of recyclables into the appropriate bay at the transfer station. It's a democratic place, where people of all stripes and all walks of life come to dispose of their refuse alongside their brethren and sistren, where candidates for council campaign in the fall, where Boy Scouts sell popcorn and Christmas wreaths.

But for me, the true seductive power of the dump run lies in the Freebie Barn - a garden shed set nearby the large piles of wood and metal scrap. The Freebie Barn is an exchange center for goods you don't want any more, but are too nice to become trash just yet. It's different every week, as people like me bring boxes of castoffs to give away, or the unselected remnants of a yard sale. There are shelves of books, stacks of cookie tins, piles of dishes, old skis and poles, LPs, puzzles and games, oddments and curiosities. It's always fun to poke around and see what you can find. Yesterday I found a nice vintage Christmas tree skirt, with reindeer applique. But I also found a cookbook.

On the bookshelf was a bright red book titled "Ruth Wakefield's Tried and True Recipes." I recognized the name - Ruth Wakefield is famed for her invention of the Toll House chocolate chip cookie - the gold standard among home cookie bakers. So I picked up the book. I love vintage cookbooks, pre-1950 especially, and have several of them, so I immediately decided to add this one to the collection. It had a nifty typeface, paper with great tooth, and what looked like some fun recipes.

It's often reported that when Ruth invented the Toll House cookie, she was trying to make a chocolate cookie, but had run out of baking chocolate, and so decided to chop up a chocolate bar and mix it into the batter, thinking the chocolate would melt and spread throughout the cookie. But just this month, while waiting at the eye doctor's office, I read a letter in Yankee magazine asserting that accomplished baker Ruth Wakefield would never have expected chocolate in a cookie dough to behave that way - she knew what she was doing.

After perusing the cookbook for a while, I had to agree. Ruth was a dietician and nutritionist, and ran the Toll House Inn with her husband for quite some time, at one point serving (as she says in the book's introduction) up to 1500 people a night. Her recipes are those of someone who knows her way around the kitchen - precise and direct. No hand-holding; she doesn't tell you what type of saucepan or baking pan to use (you'll know)or what parboiling is or how to make a simple syrup.

The recipes are wonderfully vintage. I looked to see how old the book was - it's from 1937, the sixth printing, and in discovering that I also discovered that my copy was signed by Ruth. Looking around a bit online, it appears that signed copies of various editions of the book sell to cookbook lovers for anywhere from $35-$85. Not bad for the Freebie Barn! I imagine they may have sold the book at the Toll House Inn, and that well-fed guests might have asked Ruth to step out from expediting in the kitchen or greeting at the hostess stand to sign their new cookbook.

We don't cook or eat this way much any more. The elegance of the meal was signalled, of course, by the appetizers to start: pimento-and-egg stuffed tomatoes, canapes of anchovy paste on fancy toast broiled with cheese. Consommes or a jellied salad followed. For the entree, crabmeat soufflee, oyster fricassee, crown roast of pork with marinated apple circlets, braised short ribs with potatoes a la Suisse. Her breads, especially breakfast breads, were surprisingly modern and healthy; she ascribed to the whole-grain philosophy, and offers a number of great-sounding wheat and bran muffins. Dates and prunes and walnuts make many appearances. I'm eager to try her cornmeal waffles (how could that be bad?) or maybe her orange biscuits (baking powder biscuits with dollops of warm orange marmalade concealed inside) and definitely her Boston brown bread made stovetop in the double boiler.

The recipes are so heartening to read in this day of Lunchables and Skillet Dinners and Hot Pockets. The ingredients are real, straightforward, and simple. Plenty of whole milk and eggs. Flour, sugar, cheese, meats, green peppers, cabbages, fruits, and spices. Every dessert sounded delectable. In a long list of puddings I came across "Cranberry Pudding." Huh! Never would have thought of that. And didn't I have a half pound of cranberries left over from the holidays, with nothing to use them for? I did. This was clearly a Sign.

Pudding isn't something I ever think of making at home, or even want. But it sounded fun and a little different. Looking more closely at the recipe, I could see that it contained an unusual amount of flour - it looked like more a cake recipe than the dairy-based concoction we call pudding today. An older-style pudding then, a moist sweet glop. And what's this - a sauce is recommended for it. Fluffy Sauce, in fact. Irresistible, and perfect for a Lazy Saturday recipe project.

Cooking: Dinner was underway but really simple (butternut squash soup out of the little rectangle container and spinach salad), so as soon at that got simmering, I whipped up the pudding batter - definitely cakelike - and baked it in a casserole dish. When it came out, it cooled under its browned crust while I tackled the Fluffy Sauce, a true cooked dessert sauce the likes of which I've never had occasion to make. It involved mixing a boiling sugar syrup with egg whites beaten stiff, and surprisingly to me, it didn't break at all when I folded the egg whites in.

Serving: A big spoonful of the pudding on each plate, followed by a hefty dollop of the sauce. It looked homey as can be.

Tasting: The kind of thing where you put it into your mouth, lower your fork, and sit in meditation for a minute before saying "oh, my, God. That is So. Good." It was definitely what I term with highest praise "Grandma food" -- the kind of food so unaccountably tasty that it's just leagues more satisying than other food. The batter had cooked into the consistency of strangely light cake, and tasted exactly like the batter part of a warm chocolate chip cookie - buttery, crisply crusted, nutty, and rich. In amongst that sweet soft cake were tiny explosive hot bombs of tart cranberry, balancing the sweetness of the cake and sauce. I've never tasted anything quite like it, and immediately nominated it for a Secret Weapon dessert the next time I need to cook for people - something I'm sure will be loved, and I'm also sure is pretty unique.

I can't wait to cook more from this book. It's a beauty. And it made for a really nice end to a relaxed, wandery winter Saturday. This was slow food at its finest.

It's not that it was an ambitious recipe, or technically challenging. It's not that a yummy, warm, home-baked dessert on a winter day is so comforting. It's not that the book turned out to be such a good find. It's that yesterday I had the gift of time - to notice the book, read the book, read about Ruth, choose a recipe, make it, and share it - unhurriedly and happily. Life has its hectic times and its stressful times. When the stars align, and you have a full larder, a peaceful weekend, warm shelter, and cranberries to use up, times are good, and appreciation is the appropriate response. I wish you all days as peaceful and full of simple joys.

Cranberry Pudding

2 egg yolks, beaten slightly, add
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup milk
3 tbsp. melted butter. Sift in
1 1/2 cups flour, mixed with
1 tsp. cream of tartar and
3/4 tsp. soda. Stir in
2 cups cranberries.

Bake 3/4 hour in a 350 oven. Serve hot with Fluffy Sauce. Serves 8.

Fluffy Sauce
(make this in a saucepan)
1 cup sugar with
2 tbsp flour; stir in
1/2 cup boiling water and let come to a boil. Add
1 tsp. vanilla and the
2 egg whites, stiffly beaten.
Serve hot on Cranberry Pudding.

That was a good read, and with pictures no less! Thanks!
posted by CitrusFreak12 20 January | 15:45
I agree with CF - your post is very well written. I almost want to try this tonight for my mom's visit. When I cook, I'm not much of a dessert person, so maybe not. Please share more recipes from the book as you try them!
posted by youngergirl44 20 January | 15:55
Delightful yarn, Miko. Thanks for the pics, recipes, and vicarious experiences. Your signed Wakefield book find is the shit!
posted by bonobo 20 January | 15:58
Perfect reading for a Sunday afternoon. Thanks, Miko.
posted by elizard 20 January | 16:02
I've been toying for a while with the idea of doing a Freebie Barn kind of thing at my public library. Any suggestions for making sure it's as good as it can possibly be?
posted by box 20 January | 16:08

This is inspiring. I have a Ruth Wakefield cookbook tucked away in a closet somewhere, its pages foxed and crumbling; maybe I'll pull it out and take another look.
posted by Elsa 20 January | 16:31
What a wonderful post!
posted by deborah 20 January | 16:41
paper with great tooth
I love it when you talk like that ;P

Wonderful story - thanks for sharing it. I feel like I'm there in your kitchen.
posted by iconomy 20 January | 16:48
What a charming book, recipe, and story!

And cream of tartar! What a nice touch to make a slightly savory pudding.
posted by muddgirl 20 January | 16:53
i like that there is something called Fluffy Sauce
and it almost doesn't sound dirty!

Oh, for a working camera.
posted by ethylene 20 January | 16:56
so pleased for you Miko! You deserved some good luck!
posted by Wilder 20 January | 17:19
This sounds freaking awesome.
posted by casarkos 20 January | 18:13
Wow Miko, I just got home from watching football and this post warmed me up. What a great day, and a great story.
posted by gaspode 20 January | 23:55
Box: I think it's a good idea! One place I used to work just had a sort of shelf with the label "Free to a Good Home," and co-workers brought in their stuff. It seemed to work fine. Occasionally someone would go through it and throw out long-unclaimed stuff - that's probably an important step to keep it from getting out of control.

youngergirl, I hope you do try the recipe if you like the sound of it. It was absolutely not hard to make.

I think it would be really good made in small ramekins, as well, but the cooking time would have to be a lot less. I also got to wondering if maybe cooking them in a water bath would make them spongier, which would be nice.

Oh, and also, definitely eat it while fresh and warm. We had it again today, reheated, and it was good but not quite-so.

Glad you all enjoyed your vicarious pudding.
posted by Miko 21 January | 00:34
A lovely story, and the pudding looks delish! Thanks for sharing, Miko.
posted by goo 21 January | 10:47
What a great post. Thank you for sharing, and the recipes too. =)
posted by Melinika 21 January | 14:41
My mother will be here in about two hours. || 1 year.