Saturday, August 15, 2009

In Search of Lost Time -- Memories and Taste

After I wrote about inheriting my Grandmother's cookbook, The Household Searchlight Recipe Book, I received an email from Judy in Oregon:

"That was one of two main cookbooks my mother used and from which I learned to cook. I am now 63 years old and have not seen that cookbook for over 40 years, but there is one recipe I truly miss and would love to have again."

"It's a one-crust pie made with sour cream and has a streusel top crust as I remember. It is so-o-o-o-o-o-o good!"

Judy was hoping I could send her the recipe fro Apple Cream Pie that she had such fond memories of baking and eating.

I turned to the pie section but no apple cream pie recipe was listed. But then I checked out the index and found it listed under Special Suggestions at the end of the cookbook -- go figure. But I was relieved; I didn't want to disappoint Judy!

I emailed her the recipe and then checked in with her a few weeks later. I wanted to see if it was as good as she remembered:

"I made the pie the next day and it was fabulous. I've had other sour cream apple pies through the years, but never as good as that one. Making that pie again took me right back to my youth and the cooking I used to do on our 1950s GE Pushbutton Range."

I was glad to help Judy relive a cherished taste memory. This got me wondering about just that -- taste memory or to use the term coined by Marcel Proust as he munched on those madeleines, involuntary memory (sounds better in his native French: souvenir involontaire).

I often wonder what will be the dishes from her childhood that my daughter will remember when she is older. Will she crave the chocolate chip coffeecake that we always make on Christmas morning? Or will it be the endless batches of my chocolate chip cookies that she often uses as currency at school? I often find myself wondering as I bake if this pie or cake will become a favorite.

That's part of the fun of baking and the challenge as well.

For me the taste of a ring-a-ling brings memories of Sunday mornings in the house where I grew up. For my sister, the perfect coconut macaroon evokes memories of Christmas mornings and for my sister-in-law, it's a sugar cream pie that transports her back to growing up on a farm in Indiana.

And it isn't just the taste that can transport us back to another time. In an article for The New York Times Magazine, cookbook author and food writer Molly O'Neill said, "Indeed, taste summons memory, but context imbues it."

So it isn't just the taste of the ring-a-ling that makes up my good feeling it is the ability of that taste to transport me back to the kitchen in my childhood home where I'm standing on a stepstool watching my mom fill and shape yeast dough into ring-a-lings while the smell of cinnamon and baking bread fills the air. It is the smell of the honeysuckle outside the window that drifts in as we bake and the hot and humid air that hangs heavy around us.

The context of that taste memory makes it a cherished memory. And in the same way, Judy remembered more than just how good that pie was, she was transported "right back to my youth and the cooking I used to do on our 1950s GE Pushbutton Range."

In a piece for The New Yorker, cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey relates a question posed to her husband who is a musician, "Can you hear the music as you read it?" In a similar way, even thought it was decades before I made my own batch of ring-a-lings, my taste memory had recorded much of what I needed to know to recreate them.

My grandmother used to wear an apron that almost looked like a dress. It completely covered her from the neck down -- it resembled a hospital gown with its full coverage in the front and exposed back. These aprons always had a flower pattern -- usually an explosion of wildflowers. The edges were often trimmed in white rickrack (talk about memories -- where did that word come from!)

I found just such an apron one day as I was poking around a vintage clothing store. It only seemed appropriate to wear this apron as I used my Grandmother's cookbook to make Judy's cherished Apple Cream Pie.

Like many older cookbooks, this one assumed that you grew up at your Grandmother's knee making these recipes. As such, a general assumption of baking knowledge was assumed. The recipe didn't elaborate on many of the details. For example, no mention of size or type of pan to use, no details on whether the butter for the topping should be soft, firm or melted. And bake in a hot oven then a slow oven? Huh? And is the pastry shell prebaked or partially baked? And how should I know when it was done -- what should I look for at the end of the baking time?

But I used my memories to assemble and bake the pie. I did know what to do simply because I did help my mother bake. My souvenir involontaire kicked in.

The day I baked the pie it was way to hot to be baking pies and apples weren't exactly in season but I didn't want to wait any longer to make Judy's pie. I decided to stay in the spirit of the book and use the book's recipe for piecrust. It was a standard shortening crust and was called simply, Plain Pastry, in the cookbook.

The finished pie was truly as fabulous as Judy promised. It reminded me (taste memory) of the apple puffed pancake my husband bakes every Christmas morning.

I would not have made this pie if I hadn't received that email from Judy. I'm of the two-crust pie with a fruit filling camp. But this pie was irresistible. It tasted even better right out of the fridge and it only got better the next day as the flavors deepened.

This pie would be right at home on the Thanksgiving buffet next to the pumpkin pie. The melding of sour cream and apples baked into a custard then topped with a buttery cinnamon streusel is a taste memory that will linger long after the pie was gone.

Apple Cream Pie
Mrs. Roy B. Olsen, Driscoll, N.D.
From The Household Searchlight Recipe Book, versions 1931
(no changes made to recipe. Use whatever piecrust you prefer)

2 cups finely chopped tart apples
3/4 cup sugar

2 Tablespoons flour
1 cup sour cream
1 egg, well beaten
1/2 teaspoon vanilla flavoring

1/8 teaspoon salt

Combine sugar and flour. Add cream, egg, flavoring and salt. Beat until smooth. Add apples. Mix thoroughly. Pour into pastry-lined pie pan. Bake in hot oven (450 degrees) 15 minutes; reduce heat to 325 degrees and bake 30 minutes. Remove from oven.

Combine 1/3 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/3 cup flour, and 1/4 butter or butter alternate. Mix thoroughly. Sprinkle over pie. Return to oven. Bake in slow oven (325 degrees) 20 minutes.

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