Stained and well-worn, a favorite cookbook is like an old friend.
I bought my copy of Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Cookbook in 1984, just after finishing an enlistment in the navy. At the time, I couldn’t do much in the kitchen beyond heating up a can of soup or frying eggs and bacon and the trout I caught. Even these modest attempts at cooking typically ended in less than satisfactory meals: eggs crusty and rubbery on one side and undercooked on the other, hit and miss bacon, and the trout… well, those noble fish deserved a more able chef.
I was rapidly growing tired of a rotation of dinners centered around hotdogs, frozen this or that, and canned glop. I loved good food, but the kind of well-executed cooking I occasionally treated myself to at fine restaurants seemed a million miles away.
My problem, as I look back on those days, is clear: I had no theory. And so, even when I did get something right – a hamburger reasonably well-seared and juicy, perfect bacon, or even an especially good fried egg, I didn’t know why it came out better than other efforts.
When I bought Claiborne’s book, the first thing I did was to pour over the first 44 pages, the chapter titled De Gustibus (regarding taste). The next thing I did was tackle his recipe for Chili con Carne with Cubed Meat. To my surprise and joy, it came out great; I was on my way to becoming a self-taught chef.
These days, my cookbook collection includes volumes on everything from Japanese fusion to regional American cooking, and of course now there’s the Internet as well. By modern standards, Claiborne’s 751-page tome – without a single photograph – is antiquated. But he offers something that has proved far more valuable than photos: from cover to cover The New York Times Cookbook is seasoned with anecdotes, insights, observations and theory that expand and deepen one’s appreciation of selecting, preparing, presenting and enjoying food.
A caveat regarding his approach to food is that Claiborne cooked with generous amounts of fat and sugar, and, comparatively speaking, not a great variety of spices. Recipes are suggestions, and most readily lend themselves to modification. So it is with Claiborne’s. In our kitchen, olive oil has largely replaced the copious amounts of butter he calls for, I drain off most of the fat from bacon and other meat rather than cook with it, and I typically cut the sugar by a third or more. Influenced by French cooking, there’s a lot of cream in many of Claiborne’s dishes. Sometimes I go with the full-on amount he calls for; other times I skirt around the cream with substitutions that emphasize other flavors.
The New York Times Cookbook has been the one constant in my kitchen for the past 28 years. It has survived numerous moves, a fair share of food spills and, recently, received a much deserved rebinding.
The following two pie recipes, part of Thanksgiving tradition for many years in my kitchen, are based on those in Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Cookbook with my own modifications. By the way, both pies are excellent served with whipped cream that has been sweetened with a little sugar and flavored with a dollop of the rum, Grand Marnier or bourbon that went into the pie.
Mississippi Pecan Pie
- pastry for a 10-inch pie. Keep chilled till ready to use.
- 1 1/2 cups chopped pecans
- 1 cup dark corn syrup
- 3 tablespoons melted butter
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 5 whole eggs
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 tbsp dark rum, Grand Marnier, or quality bourbon
- Place a baking sheet in oven and preheat to 350 degrees F.
- Combine the corn syrup and sugar in a saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring until sugar is completely dissolved. Let cool a little, but don’t let it crystalize. You want it warm rather than piping hot so it doesn’t cook the eggs when you add it to the egg mixture.
- Beat the eggs in a mixing bowl. Gradually add the sugar mixture. Continue beating and add the other ingredients.
- Pour the mixture into the pie shell. Bake for 50 minutes to an hour, or until the pie is set. You may need to use a pie ring or aluminum foil to keep the edge of the crust from burning.
- Let cool. Serve with whipped cream.
Pumpkin Cream Pie
- pastry for a 10-inch pie. Keep chilled till ready to use.
- 3 cups fresh pumpkin purée (Small “sugar” pumpkins are the best, but the big pumpkins work well, too.)
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
- 1/4 tsp grated cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp ground ginger (or use 1 tsp freshly grated ginger)
- 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 2 tbsp good bourbon
- Place a baking pan in oven and preheat to 425 degrees F.
- Combine the remaining ingredients in a bowl. Blend thoroughly and pour into pie shell.
- Bake for 15 minutes.
- Reduce heat to 350 degrees F. and bake for an additional 40 minutes, or until the filling is set.
- Let cool and serve with whipped cream. (Without whipped cream, pumpkin pie makes for a wonderful breakfast. Try a slice with a fried egg on the side.)
The pecan pie sounds heavenly!
I think it’s great that you actually had a cookbook rebound. I have a favorite cookbook too and it is well on it’s way to being stained and battered. I like to tweak recipes too to suit my family’s tastes so there are lots of notes in the margins. I love when I can lay a cookbook down and it opens to the page I want automatically. I am not a fan of pecan pie plus my oldest is allergic to them, but the pumpkin sounds delicious. I’ll have to try adding some booze next time.
My Mum was given her Constance Spry Cookery Book when she got married. It was first published in 1956 and is still going strong on Amazon (I checked). I have many memories of food cooked from recipes that book provided – it’s a piece of our shared family history. Amazing how food can do that…
It is amazing. And although I use the Internet for recipes, there’s still something I really like about having a shelf of cookbooks and leaving through them.
I have recently discovered using maple syrup instead of corn syrup in pecan pie. What a treat! The flavor of the pecans is not overshadowed by the heavy sugar of corn syrup. My husband loves it, too!
Hi Mary, Thanks for the tip. We stock lots of maple syrup each year and next time I make pecan pie…