Thursday, October 24, 2013

That Pie Time of Year, or Sacrificing for One's Art

I, Donis, finally finished the original draft of the seventh Alafair book. For the past few of weeks, I’ve been testing the recipes that will go in the back of the book. It's good that the research phase is over, since I tend to overindulge in my test products. In fact I have to say that I really enjoyed the heck out of myself.

When it comes to the food of my childhood, I usually remember very well how to make the dish and can whip up the recipe in no time at all. Sometimes, though, I haven’t eaten whatever it is I’m writing about since I was a child, and recreating the dish is something of an adventure. When I was writing the first book, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, my mother was still alive, so it was easy for me to call her up and ask if I needed to have my memory refreshed about some ingredient. She was gone by the time I was writing Hornswoggled, and I was forced to begin expanding my resources. For instance, I ate plenty of my grandma’s chess pie in my youth, but I never made one myself. I found a recipe for it that was written out by my aunt Alma Bourland in about 1989, which is what I used for my second book, Hornswoggled. I did modify the language of my aunt’s recipe just a little, though I pondered long and hard before I did, because I so loved the way she wrote it. “Mix sugar and meal good,” she wrote. “Add beaten egg and butter and mix well. Add milk and vanilla. Pour into uncooked pie shell. Bake slowly until firm.”

Which brings up a problem I’ve discovered with old recipes. How slow is slowly? How hot is a moderate oven? “Use a hunk of butter about the size of an egg.” “Add about a teacup of milk.” “Two glugs of sorghum.” Huh? These recipes were written out by women who cooked by eyeball, who were so practiced, and so familiar with the chemistry of cooking that they knew exactly what kind of reaction so many teaspoons of baking soda would cause when added to so many cups of flour and milk and baked for just so long in an oven that felt exactly so hot when they stuck their hands in to test the temperature.

So, in order to make the recipe intelligible to today’s not-so-talented cooks, Yours Truly included, I am forced to test these recipes over and over until they are right. Sometimes my experiments fail miserably. For my third book, The Drop Edge of Yonder, I tried to make an apple cornmeal pudding and ended up with something rather alarming that was more suited for use as a doorstop. So, I worked and worked to to figure out what went wrong, made some modifications, and tried again until I got it right. The sacrifices one makes for one’s art!

I love hearing about anyone's family food lore, Dear Readers. It’s not just food, it’s tradition. I have enough food lore in my family to have recipes at the end of any and every book I write.

Since Thanksgiving Dinner is coming up (or just past for you Canadian Dear Readers), I'll share with you my mother's Chocolate Pudding/Pie Filling recipe. It is just the ticket for this time of year. This pudding is quite simple to make, but potent. You must be an extreme chocolate lover to eat this. I’m presenting it here exactly as my mother wrote it down.

1/4 cup powdered cocoa (use plain un-fancy cocoa, like Hershey’s)
1/4 cup white flour
2 cups sugar
2 cups whole milk
1 egg
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla

Mix dry ingredients thoroughly. Beat one egg well and mix into milk before adding to dry ingredients. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens and boils with a dull “plop”. Remove from heat, add vanilla and mix well. Pour into 8-inch prepared pie shell. Refrigerate until set. Top with whipped cream. Leave out the egg for chocolate pudding.


Charlotte Hinger said...

Wow. Donis, I'm going to have my granddaughter Leah read this. The family is getting very anxious about my writing down my recipes before I die. My instructions are as vague as your grand-mother's. At one time I was a good cook. Now I've gone to hell

Leah's mother (daughter Cherie) has never forgiven me for giving her my wonderful butterhorn roll recipe that lists the ingredients, then mix as given. She says there were twenty-five separate steps I had not written down. She still has not got the recipe right because she doesn't have the patience to let it rise long enough. I've given up on her and will make Leah (her daughter) my official culinary heir.

Donis Casey said...

Charlotte, in my upcoming book, I added an afterword about scratch cooking. One thing you had to have was PATIENCE to do it right, and PRACTICE. Cooking is like playing an instrument. YOu have to do it over and over and develop muscle memory for it.