To complete the second half of this aforementioned blog trade with the Joy of Cooking, Megan Scott, 4th generation baker and writer in the Joy of Cooking family, brings us a lovely post on her evolving relationship to the classic cookbook, thoughts on taking comfort in an ugly pie, and a beautiful recipe for Apricot Kuchen.
Now, from Megan...
The first cookbook I ever bought for myself was the Joy of Cooking.
I don't come from one of those families where the Joy of Cooking is passed down or gifted through the generations. In fact, I don't think I knew much of anything about the book before I bought it. I understood that it was meant to be comprehensive, and at the time, that was enough for me.
My mother is a Southern Living fan. She owns every last one of their yearly cookbooks. My grandmothers don't use cookbooks at all. When they aren't cooking from memory alone, they use recipes written on index cards. The women in my family are incredible cooks, but apart from some basic kitchen training, none of them actually took me aside to teach me how to cook.
I can hardly blame them. They were always, it seems, in the process of getting dinner ready, several children under foot, a phone squeezed between ear and shoulder, and a to-do list a country mile long. When did they have time to teach me?
Many in my generation and in generations before me have similar stories to share. Whether or not you come from a long line of incredible cooks, chances are no one taught you the finer points of getting a meal on the table.
Learning to cook can be a nerve-wracking experience. Although it seems like ages ago, I remember what it was like to not fully understand the concept of sautéing or to stand, bewildered, before a chicken with a ball of string in hand, clumsily attempting to truss it without losing my cool. 100 years ago, a mother might have transmitted these skills directly to her daughter. Today, most of us face the challenges of cookery alone.
In this regard, my copy of Joy was like an experienced and infinitely patient friend who lived in my kitchen. No matter how frazzled or unsure I was, the book was a steadying presence. It is easy to forget those early days now that I can step into my kitchen and prepare a meal on the fly, but I was not always so confident.
The Joy of Cooking saw me through my first roast chicken (which, as I recall, I also managed to stuff and truss without incident), my first batch of apple butter (that, for lack of a food mill, I strained through some unused, but probably not food-safe window screening), and my first pie crust.
Those exploratory years in the kitchen, armed with little more than thin and dented hand-me-down pots and pans, a stove with two working burners, and my trusty cooking bible, were formative. By the time I met John Becker (Irma Rombauer's great-grandson), who would later become my husband, a love of cooking and food had been imprinted on me.
When John and I started working on the Joy of Cooking in earnest, we didn't have an agenda. We knew painfully little about the book even though we had both learned to cook from it. Like a cathedral built over centuries, its various wings built in different styles and by different architects, Joy is a product of different ages, sensibilities, and generations. It took us quite some time, and several hundred recipe tests, to even begin to see patterns. The book is, in a word, vast.
Now that we are more familiar with the book's contents and history, we are able to see the bones underneath and to hazard an ambition or two. We consider ourselves to be stewards more than authors. Our job as we see it is not to re-write, but to revise, updating the out of date, culling the obsolete, adding the new and necessary. Most importantly, we want to translate into a text the sense of empowerment and liberation that comes with learning to cook. We want to enable others to experience the elation we felt after our first successful forays into the kitchen and to allay some of the uncertainty and fear that can cloud a budding cook's enthusiasm.
This is a tall order, and we know it. Which is why we have devoted ample space to pie. Pie is encouragement in food form. Long before I made a pie that was beautiful, I made many ugly, delicious fruit pies. And truly, there is a great deal of solace in an ugly pie. While beautiful pies are a baker's pride, homely pies are like Whitman's barbaric yawp--startling and magnificent and liberating.
And to think--there is an entire genre of pie that fairly exults in homeliness--the rustic fruit dessert. While I am not a scholar on the subject, I imagine the inception of the buckle and the pandowdy, the brown betty and the crisp, to be one of frugality and subsistence. The image of a bonnet-clad pioneer comes to mind. She is drowning in apples or peaches or blackberries but precious little else. Perhaps a bit of flour, some lard, maybe just maybe a little sugar, and no time to spare. This is my own fiction, of course, but I like to think the truth is not far from this.
Possibly my favorite rustic dessert is the buckle. A buckle is a cake with so much fruit in it that the top buckles or sinks slightly. It is a devilishly good concoction, and the sort of thing one makes when inundated with lush summer fruit.
The recipe below, while not called a buckle, is in the same spirit--loads of fruit, a simple cake batter, and a streusel topping. It resides in that delicious no-man's land between cake and pie, making use of the best of both. "Kuchen" is simply the German for "cake," but the designation belies the splendor of this simple dessert--at once pudding-like where cake meets fruit, and crunchy on top thanks to the sugary almond streusel.
Makes one 9-inch round kuchen
Position a rack in the lower third of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a 9-inch springform pan or 9 × 2-inch round cake pan.
Prepare the streusel topping first. Combine in a small bowl:
1/3 cup turbinado or granulated sugar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour or rice flour
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Blend these ingredients until crumbly. Add:
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/3 cup chopped or sliced almonds
Peel, pit, and slice, then spread evenly in pan:
1 pound ripe apricots (about 3 cups sliced)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
Grated zest of one lemon
Beat in a large bowl until fluffy:
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
Beat in one at a time just until blended:
2 large eggs
Stir in the flour mixture just until incorporated.
Scrape the batter into the pan and spread evenly. Scatter the streusel on top. Bake until the topping is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake (avoiding the fruit) comes out clean, 40 to 45 minutes. Let cool to room temperature on a rack.
Words and photos by Megan Scott