I got two of my clients in this great article running today in the Wall St. Journal. It is about recreating lost recipes.
When Joseph Mooney saw the 1949 vegetable grater, he knew he had to have it. The hand-cranked Mouli Julienne was just like the one his mother used to shred cabbage for her coleslaw. Hit by a wave of nostalgia, he bought it and hit the kitchen. The shreds of cabbage came out exactly as he remembered. Now he is at work on the dressing—a homemaking secret his mother didn't reveal before she passed away. "The Mouli is one of a whole menu of things I miss about her," says Mr. Mooney, 59, a former nonprofit finance manager in Baltimore now working in home renovation.
There's a new obsession at the intersection of genealogy and foodie culture—reconstructing beloved, long-lost family recipes. Fueled by nostalgia and thrift, legions of eaters are returning to the kitchen for some food detective work, searching for the half-remembered dishes they grew up sharing at the family dinner table.
"As people become more accustomed to cooking in their own kitchens, they start looking for [the dishes] they have fond memories of," says Sgt. Maj. Mark Warren, 47, the U.S. Army's senior chef who trains military chefs in Fort Lee, Va., who has researched several family recipes.
He tried for years, without success, to reproduce the lobster bisque his mother made when he was growing up in Florida. When he complained to his brother, his brother asked for the list of ingredients. "Cognac?" his brother said. "What is that? She never used brandy in anything." He suggested using dark rum instead, and like magic, the bisque acquired his mother's signature Caribbean tang. "That was the missing link," Sgt. Maj. Warren says.
An aroma, identified in the brain's limbic system, can trigger an emotional memory, but it takes hard work in the kitchen to put the right ingredients together in the right proportions to produce the ancestral potato salad, pasta sauce or crumb cake. Family recipes often originate with a matriarch who isn't around to reveal the kitchen tricks learned from the previous generation. As a result, many modern cooks must start from scratch.
The first step is to develop a flavor profile. When Eric Zaidins set out to recreate his grandmother's kugel, the sweet noodle casserole he'd eaten as a teenager in the 1970s, he recalled as many specifics as he could. The kugel was on the dry side, and it was sweetened with raisins and decorated with maraschino cherries. He wrote a letter to his Aunt Phyllis to find out what she knew; she supplied a partial list of ingredients.
Next Mr. Zaidins scoured Jewish cookbooks and recipe websites and came up with a dozen similar-sounding recipes. He and his wife, Mindy Hermann, a registered dietitian, eliminated recipes calling for cream cheese or farmer's cheese, two ingredients they knew his grandmother didn't use. They found several recipes that seemed close, altered proportions based on their recollections and came up with one new recipe.
They nailed it. "It tasted just like my grandmother's kugel," says Mr. Zaidins, an attorney in Mount Kisco, N.Y. "It was very strange."
It helps to consider the cook's personal tastes and financial means. Often, frugal homemakers would refrain from using a lot of butter or cream in everyday cooking because they were too costly, Ms. Hermann says.
David Chenelle, a 51-year-old catering chef in San Diego, says it is valuable to do cultural research, to see "what culinary influences could have possibly affected the recipe." He sometimes goes to used bookstores and thumbs through old cookbooks and newsletters from women's clubs and other organizations. Vintage booklets from makers of branded ingredients like flour and gelatin can be excellent sources too. When Mr. Chenelle was working on an heirloom recipe for tourtiere, a French Canadian meat pie, he used venison instead of pork after learning that venison was widely available to his Quebec ancestors.
After narrowing in on ingredients, try recalling techniques. That will usually mean ignoring recipes that make use of a food processor. Consider using a hand-operated food mill, rotary whisk or potato masher to achieve the right consistency.
An heirloom recipe doesn't have to be complicated. In reality, most midcentury American home cooks didn't rely on fancy ingredients, says George Geary, 50, a culinary instructor in Corona, Calif. When recreating his grandmother's fudge cake for his father, Mr. Geary stuck with ingredients that were widely available in the 1940s, including cocoa powder and mayonnaise. He used his grandmother's balloon whisk to mix it and covered the finished cake in powdered sugar. "Simplicity was a big factor," he says.
Last year, Barbara Magro self-published a family cookbook, "Recipes to Remember," after her mother received a diagnosis of Alzheimer's. When she spoke with her own mother, Ms. Magro, 54, explained that the family needed to preserve these recipes and she was taking on the project.
Simply copying down a recipe isn't enough to truly capture an heirloom dish, Ms. Magro says. Decades ago, home cooks prepared well-loved dishes so often that they operated on instinct. Measurements and instructions may be vague. Ms. Magro spent six years perfecting her mother's techniques. "She'd tell me to just throw in a little Parmesan cheese—they go by intuition," she says. Take notes of relevant anecdotes and alternative ingredients, she adds.
Some people turn to professional help. Nicole Juliano Peranick, 30, is a Jersey City, N.J., pastry chef whose catering firm With Love From the Cupboard started a "recreate a recipe" service last October. She recommends using vintage baking pans and warns against improvising, which often works for savory dishes but not for baking. When preparing her family's Christmas cookie recipes, Ms. Juliano Peranick follows an old recipe for German Springerle biscuits, which her grandmother tore out of a newspaper; it calls for anise seeds and grated lemon rind. She uses her grandmother's vintage Springerle rolling pin, which presses cookie cutter-like shapes into the dough.
Sharon Greenwood, 60, of Weslaco, Texas, tried using a brand-new nonstick loaf pan to make her 84-year-old mother-in-law's banana bread. The results were too rich, so Ms. Greenwood was off on a hunt for old loaf pans. The recipe is proportioned for long, narrow vintage aluminum pans, which yield evenly baked loaves with browned sides, she says. She found the pans on Internet crafts website Etsy, in a vintage cooking-supplies shop called Laura's Last Ditch. She bought five and still needs three more—enough for her adult children and herself. "We're all trying to learn those special tricks," she says.
This Easter will mark Ruth Clark's 17th attempt at her grandmother's lamb-shaped cake. Ms. Clark, 32, writes the The Mid-Century Menu blog from Midland, Mich., and every Easter since she turned 16 she has used a vintage lamb mold she inherited from her grandmother to bake the cake.
Last year, the lamb ended up on its side. Ms. Clark says she won't give up. "It's something where you love that memory so much that you don't want to let it go," she says.
Nana Esther's Lokshen Kugel Recipe
(courtesy of Mindy Hermann and Eric Zaidins)
Yield: 8 servings
1 pound wide egg noodles
2 large eggs, beaten
16 ounces (2 cups) small curd cottage cheese
2 Tablespoons margarine, melted, plus margarine to grease a casserole dish
2 Tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup raisins
1/4 cup maraschino cherries, sliced
1. Cook noodles, following package instructions.
2. While the noodles are cooking, combine remaining ingredients excluding the cherries.
3. Drain noodles, shock in cold water; drain again.
4. Grease a 9x13-inch casserole dish.
5. Combine noodles with the cottage cheese mixture. Pour into casserole dish and decorate the top with the sliced cherries.
6. Bake at 350°F for 1 hour or until browned.
7. Serve warm.
Chicken Sweet & Sour
(reprinted from "Recipes to Remember" by Barbara Magro)
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Note: If an electric frying pan is not available, use a regular skillet on top of the stove but raise the heat as the chicken starts to brown.
1 stick butter
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 whole chicken, cut up into pieces (or substitute wings, legs and breasts for a whole chicken)
3 teaspoons parsley
3 teaspoons sugar
3/4 cup wine vinegar
Heat an electric frying pan to 350 degrees.
Add half the butter and the garlic. When garlic starts to brown, add half the chicken and half the parsley. As the chicken begins to brown, turn up the heat and add a teaspoon of sugar while constantly turning the chicken so all sides brown. Once it is browned, remove the chicken from the pan and place in a warm serving dish.
Put the remaining chicken and butter into the frying pan. Add another teaspoon of sugar and brown the chicken on all sides.
Return all the cooked chicken to the frying pan and add the remaining sugar, parsley and wine vinegar. Cover and simmer 20 minutes.
Granny's Banana Bread
(courtesy of Sharon Greenwood)
Yield: 2 loaves
Special Equipment: 2 loaf pans 10 1/4 inches long, 3 5/8 inches wide and 2 5/8 inches deep
2 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups corn oil
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3 large or 4 small over-ripe bananas, mashed (skin should be black and the flesh mushy)
1 cup pecans, chopped
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two loaf pans.
2. Beat sugar and oil together on medium speed until well-beaten. Add eggs and vanilla and beat thoroughly.
3. Sift flour, baking soda, and salt together, then add gradually to the sugar mixture, beating only until dry ingredients are no longer visible after each addition.
4. Add bananas and pecans. Do not over-beat the dough.
5. Pour mixture into greased and floured pans.
6. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 to 55 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean, and loaves have a dark, golden brown top crust.