Harriet Beecher Stowe: Maple Popcorn Peanut Brittle

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Harriet Beecher Stowe: Maple Popcorn Peanut Brittle

Pity the forgotten siblings of famous writers. Doris Salinger? Forgotten. Ursula Hemingway? Blank stares. Imagine constantly being introduced as “the writer’s brother” and tell me you don’t feel for the Ursulas and Dorises of the world, the little-known brothers and sisters that history forgot.

But in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s family, that sibling situation was reversed: It was Harriet who was known, for the first half of her life, as “the cook’s sister.” Before Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the advent of the Civil War, Catharine Beecher was the big name in the family—thanks, in part, to her expertise in the kitchen. At 16, after her mother died of tuberculosis, Catharine became the lady of the house and took on the task of preparing meals for her siblings, including Harriet, more than 10 years her junior.

It was Catharine, not Harriet, who became the family’s first famous female writer. A decade before the first installment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared in print, Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt-Booka collection of Catharine’s recipes and kitchen advice, was one of the bestselling cookbooks of the century. A vocal advocate for universal education, Catharine co-founded her own school for women (Harriet included), which taught subjects both academic (math, Latin) and domestic (cooking, baking).

Catharine’s concoctions were among Harriet’s favorite dishes: After watching her sister make her signature peanut brittle, Harriet would include the process in her books. “Mother would put on a couple of quarts of molasses to boil in the afternoon … the whole dark, smooth, ropy liquid was poured out from the kettle into a well-greased platter, and set out in a snow-bank to cool.”

But Catharine’s writing was also influenced by Harriet and her abolitionist views. Although her popular brittle recipe was officially titled “molasses candy,” Catharine advised against using the traditional cane sugar, a product of plantations’ slave labor. Instead she claims that, for true candy aficionados, Northern-made “maple is best.”

It looked like Catharine was destined to be the sibling that history would remember—until her little sister wrote the book that would push the country to war. Now her contribution to writing—and cooking—has largely been forgotten. After all, the only conflict it provoked was at the dinner table, arguing over that that last piece of candy.

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Maple popcorn peanut brittle recipe

 

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Victor Hugo: Venison with Balsamic Blackberry Glaze

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Victor Hugo: Venison with Blackberry Balsamic Tarragon Glaze

Whether you’re reading a Russian classic or a Great American Novel, Big Books tend to make big demands: on your time, your concentration, your upper arm strength. Just cracking one open can seem daunting … until you imagine writing one. Reading Les Misérables might take me a few months. It took Victor Hugo 17 years to write the Big Book that became his most enduring work, one that was fueled by a seriously Big Appetite.

“The world and his waistcoat are not wide enough to contain the glory of Victor Hugo—or his corpulence,” Théopile Gautier joked, after his friend had become a national literary star. It’s hard to tell what about the author attracted more attention: his body of work or his bodily girth. Visitors to the Hugo family table remarked on the multiple cups of hot cocoa in the morning, the “enormous pieces of roast meat” in the evening. Most everything in Hugo household was large, including Hugo himself.

Not only was Hugo’s hunger unstoppable, it was also indiscriminate. Anything that could be eaten whole, would be—even lobsters in the shell (Why waste perfectly good shell?). Even orange peels went down the hatch. A fellow author remembered, “At the end of the meal he dipped orange quarters into his wine and ate them with marked satisfaction. Everything about Victor Hugo was extraordinary, even his digestion.”

The problem with a ravenous appetite, though, is what happens there’s nothing left to feed it. Hugo was famously forced to slim down during the 1870 Siege of Paris, when the Prussian army blockaded the capital and waited for the city’s residents to slowly starve. But Parisians never say die, especially where cuisine is concerned. Throughout the siege, restaurant menus still touted delicacies like begonias au jus and rat salami with sauce Robert.

With his taste for excess, Hugo took the restrictions particularly poorly. “Decidedly horse is not good for me,” he wrote, not that it stopped him (“I ate some.”) Yet, while he sampled rat and other reject proteins most Parisians called dinner, his fame gave him special access to choicer meats. When the city zoo began to sacrifice some of its animals to the cause, Hugo’s kitchen got first dibs. “Yesterday we ate some stag; the day before we partook of bear; and the two days previous we fared on antelopes,” he wrote. Hemingway may have hunted elephant, but Hugo ate it first.

 

Venison with blackberry balsamic glaze

 

Recipe: Venison with blackberry tarragon glaze

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Lewis Carroll: Rosemary Olive Oil Crackers with Sea Salt

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Lewis Carroll - Rosemary Sea Salt Crisps

When you spend a lot of time talking about food, your friends begin to think you know something they don’t. That’s when the recommendation requests start coming in: for restaurants; recipes; the best thing to bring to a picnic, housewarming, boss’ birthday. This should be fun—flattering, even. But I must have read too much Lewis Carroll as a kid, because instead I feel myself becoming the Red Queen, my culinary commands spoiling someone else’s good time:

‘I know what you’d like!’ the Queen said good-naturedly, taking a little box out of her pocket. ‘Have a biscuit?’
Alice thought it would not be civil to say ‘No,’ though it wasn’t at all what she wanted. So she took it, and ate it as well as she could: and it was very dry; and she thought she had never been so nearly choked in all her life.

Reading Through the Looking Glass for the first time, the Red Queen stood for everything I disliked about adults: brash, pushy, imposing her will on people less powerful than herself (Every teenage invocation to “Stop telling me what to do, Mom!” was directed partially at her.) As her creator, you’d think Carroll (or Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, if we’re calling him by his real name) would have seen her as a warning. But instead, he was more like her than he’d probably care to admit.

For one, he was also really into biscuits. They formed the core of his diet; after a 9AM breakfast, Dodgson would subsist almost entirely on them for the rest of the day, occasionally pairing them with a nip of sherry. Even when visitors asked him over for a meal, “he assured [them] that he never took anything in the middle of the day by a glass of wine and a biscuit.” He’d often bring his own wine, too.

But, taste for biscuits aside, Dodgson also shared the Queen’s worst habit. He believed he knew best, especially where food was concerned. (Besides his Spartan diet, he was also a convert of “Whiteley exercisers,” a 19th-century training regimen bizarrely akin to today’s TRX.) In a classic Red Queen move, he imposed his habits on the children he cared for. According to his nephew, “When he took a certain one of them out with him to a friend’s house to dinner, he used to give the host or hostess a gentle warning, to the mixed amazement and indignation of the child, ‘Please be careful, because she eats a good deal too much.'”

Lewis Carroll - Rosemary Sea Salt Crisps

 

Lewis Carroll - Rosemary Sea Salt Crackers Recipe

Rosemary Sea Salt Cracker Recipe

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Ezra Pound: Spaghetti with Pancetta, Sage and Fried Egg

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Exra Pound: Spaghetti with Sage, Pancetta and Fried Egg

Has it really been over a year since I’ve posted a pasta recipe? It seems impossible to believe since, for the first three-quarters of my life, dinner was always a delicious mess of noodles, covered with enough sauce and parmesan to make any Italian blush. Besides satisfying all my cravings (carbs, cheese, twirling things on a fork), spaghetti was also economical, making it my go-to dinner party dish in college. Dress it up with some fancy cured meats and call me the poor man’s Lidia Bastianich (emphasis on poor).

But that was only a blip in pasta’s long history of feeding starving scholars—including, at the turn of the 20th century, London’s literary elite. When Ezra Pound arrived in 1908, he fell in with a group of writers whose weekly meetings in Soho Square involved as much spaghetti as books. Organized by the poet T.E. Hulme at a local restaurant, the salon was so known for its pasta-and-wine menu that the poet Louis Zukofsky, working on an analysis of the Cantos for the literary crowd, told Pound, “This should make matters simpler for the spaghetti eaters.”

Pasta became art, and art became pasta. In his 1918 collection Pavannes and DivisionsPound criticized a sculpture called Figure Representing Aspiration with a reference to his diet. “I never saw aspiration looking like that,” he wrote. “But I have seen spaghetti piled on a plate and the form was decidedly similar. A great deal of ‘representational’ sculpture is, in form, not unlike plates of spaghetti.” He would know.

When Pound moved to Italy, the Soho habits stuck—both the spaghetti and the wine. He commiserated with his writer-friends back the States, who were suffering under the yolk of Prohibition.”I go for days, at times even weeks (not probably very plural) without likker,” he wrote to H.L. Mencken in 1928, “but shd. hate to feel I had to square the cop or the local J.P. every time I wanted to … have a little rosso with my spaghetti.”

Of course, Pound’s Italian fascism is more well-known than his Italian diet. But even after he was arrested for treason and shipped back to the U.S., his meals weren’t much different from his London salon days. “We always have pasta & some Green pea army soup in the house,” he wrote to his wife. Cheap, or literary? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

Spaghetti with Sage, Pancetta and Fried Egg RecipeSpaghetti with Sage, Pancetta and Fried Egg RecipSpaghetti with Sage, Pancetta and Fried Egg Recipe

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Edna St. Vincent Millay: Wild Blueberry Pie

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Edna St. Vincent Millay: Wild Blueberry Pie

When we moved to San Francisco this spring, I had a few specific apartment-hunting criteria: good location, outdoor access, gas stove. My boyfriend had only one: a dishwasher. We never had one before, partly because finding a dishwasher is the holy grail of Manhattan apartments, but also because I also insisted they were unnecessary. Doing dishes by hand had a lot of benefits: We never ran out of wine glasses, for one (What? They get used up fast!). More importantly, it meant I never had to face the dreaded chore of my childhood: emptying the dishwasher.

Everyone has that one chore they can’t abide; for Edna St. Vincent Millay, it was berry-picking. Divorced and in debt, Cora Millay shuttled her three daughters between homes of friends and family. To earn their keep, she assigned each of the girls jobs around the house, and posted a weekly schedule of everyone’s tasks on the wall. Though there was no dishwasher to empty, Edna’s list was also kitchen-centric: “cook daily, bake several times weekly, wash clothing for herself and her sisters.”

“Cooking” often involved berry-picking, especially while the girls were staying on their Uncle Fred’s farm in Maine. The acres of blueberry fields were both an ideal place to play and a place to forage. Edna was tasked with picking buckets of them for dinner, often just berries and milk. “The blueberries came in the most perfect condition, not one crushed,” Millay recalled much later, when she had achieved literary success—and bought a 635-acre blueberry farm of her own.

Millay’s farm, Steepletop, must have reminded her of Uncle Fred’s, but now that she was in charge, those chore schedules were history. Her husband, Eugen Jan Boissevain, took care of nearly all the domestic duties—Edna “neither cooked nor shopped nor did housework … When Millay became tired after entertaining a houseful of guests at Steepletop, Boissevain simply picked her up and carried her to bed as if she were a child.” Sounds way more appealing than cleaning up after guests, even with a dishwasher.

But every now and then, Millay would head out to her vegetable garden, or pick a bucket of berries in the fields of the estate. She included some of the Maine specialties she once cooked among her favorite foods: “broiled or boiled Maine lobsters with melted fresh country butter, haddock chowder … and deep dish blueberry pie.” Looking back, childhood, even with the chores, didn’t seem that bad. Writing to a lover, Millay said, “I want to show you the tiny pool we built … & the hut in the blueberry pasture where I wrote The King’s Henchman, I want to sit on the edge of the bed while you have your breakfast—I want to laugh with you, dress up in curtains, by incredibly silly, be incredibly happy, be like children.”

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Hunter S. Thompson: Huevos Rancheros

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Hunter S. Thompson: Huevos Rancheros

Every day begins with breakfast, and every breakfast begins with a profound dilemma: Sweet or savory? For the reliably indecisive (myself included), reading a brunch menu is like watching two heavyweights sweat it out in the ring. Pancakes vs. omelets. French toast vs. hash browns. Doughnuts vs. bacon. Our brains weren’t equipped to handle decisions of this magnitude before noon.

Leave it to Hunter S. Thompson to figure out the two optimal solutions to this problem. One: Never get up before noon. Two: Order everything on the menu.

“Breakfast is a personal ritual that can only be properly observed alone, and in a spirit of genuine excess,” Thompson wrote in The Great Shark Hunt . He goes on to list his preferred meal: “four Bloody Marys, two grapefruits, a pot of coffee, Rangoon crêpes, a half-pound of either sausage, bacon, or corned-beef hash with diced chilies, a Spanish omelette or eggs Benedict, a quart of milk, a chopped lemon for random seasoning, and something like a slice of key lime pie, two margaritas and six lines of the best cocaine for dessert.”

Thompson’s penchant for excess was legendary—but how much of the legend was of his own making? Few question his extravagance where alcohol was concerned; those who partied with him recall downing round after round of his signature Biffs (a mix of Bailey’s Irish Cream and Irish whisky). But according to Thompson’s friends and family, his wild breakfast adventure was largely exaggerated. Instead, he usually ate like the rest of us: one dish at a time.

“He had some very specific ideas about what breakfast should be, and there were maybe four different ones that he liked,” Thompson’s wife Sandy said. “One was a Spanish omelet with bacon. One was mayonnaise and peanut butter on top of toast with bacon on the top. There was some sort of a spinach thing. There was huevos rancheros.” Thompson himself reported a more moderate approach to breakfast elsewhere in The Great Shark Hunt, saying, “I was on the verge of ordering huevos rancheros with a double side of bacon, but … I settled for grapefruit and coffee.” Other friends also remember his grapefruit addiction, but more often it was paired with “six Heinekens and a bottle of gin” instead of the coffee.

Thompson may have misreported his breakfast menu, but he was accurate about his favorite time to eat it: as late as possible. Juan, his son, remembered, “He’d be eating bacon and eggs and reading the paper, and I’d be finishing my dinner or doing my homework before bed. My friends at school thought that was funny.” They might not have thought so if they had run into Thompson enjoying his meal the way he preferred: “in the warmth of a hot sun, and preferably stone naked.”

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The Cocktail Hour: Raymond Carver

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Raymond Carver: Bloody Mary

It’s been well established that writing and drinking go together, but not all pairings are as elegant as Oscar Wilde and champagne or as cosmopolitan as E.B. White and his martinis. Some concoctions are born less out of delectability than out of necessity: specifically, a need to get epically sloshed, then somehow wake up the next day ready (or at least able) to work. Raymond Carver was an expert in both.

“I know you like to drink, and I like to drink, but I never met a guy who likes to drink like Ray likes to drink,” Carver’s peers would gossip among themselves. Getting drunk didn’t require any glamorous cocktails for Carver; a fifth of vodka in the morning and a fifth in the afternoon was what he preferred to do the job.

He was known for out-boozing even his fellow writers—no strangers to the bottle—including John Cheever, a colleague at the University of Iowa. “He and I did nothing but drink,” Carver wrote. “I don’t think either of us ever took the covers off our typewriters.” Their students became the responsible ones, cooking dinner for the duo to ensure they got down a few bites of solid food.

But although they shared a fondness for late-night partying, the two friends differed on their approach to another writerly affliction: the hangover. Cheever preferred to nurse his with a deliciously greasy sandwich, but Carver took a “hair of the dog” approach. “Most mornings, Ray woke everyone by calling out ‘Hot doughnuts! Steaming hot cups of coffee!'” his biographer claims. “But when they got to the kitchen, ‘heart starter’ Bloody Marys were the main offering.” In other words, Bloody Marys aren’t just a typical Carver drink; they are a full Carver meal—with just enough nutritional value to qualify as breakfast.

Bloody Marys also played a role in one of the biggest moments in Carver’s career. When the publisher of McGraw-Hill called to invite him to lunch, Carver wasn’t in the most … professional of mindsets: “I was drunk and hungover both,” he wrote. But he made it on time and downed two Bloodys before learning the news: McGraw was offering him his first advance, for a novel he hadn’t even written yet. He immediately celebrated with an ideal Carver lunch: a double vodka on the rocks, a couple of cocktail shrimp on the side.

Raymond Carver bloody mary recipe

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Kurt Vonnegut: Spiked Three Musketeers Bars

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Kurt Vonnegut: Spiked Three Musketeers Bars

To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a candy bar is just a candy bar. But a good one often takes on greater meaning: as a motivator, a mood-changer and, in my kindergarten class, a valuable form of currency. Trading candy at lunch seemed to determine the whole school’s social hierarchy—and nothing commanded a higher price than a Three Musketeers. Something about that weirdly aerated filling and the sweet-on-sweet combination of chocolate and nougat made our sugar-driven hearts race and sent the bids soaring.

But for Kurt Vonnegut, a world away from the playground, candy bars became something even more valuable: a reminder of home, when it never seemed further away. Part of the Allied invasion of France during WWII, Vonnegut’s regiment was captured by German forces. For six months, he and his fellow soldiers dreamed about their lives before the war—and the food they would eat if they ever returned.

Thanksgiving turkey was the most popular topic of culinary conversation among the other men, but Vonnegut had a different focus. “[He] obsessed about candy bars,” his biographer Carl Shields wrote in And So It Goes. “He swore he was going to eat every kind ever made when he got home—Almond Joy, Milky Way, PayDay, Hershey’s, Clark Bar—and loved to talk about what it would be like with his mouth stuffed.”

Three Musketeers, however, would take a special place in Vonnegut’s memories, and his fiction. In Slaughterhouse Five, the novel most directly inspired by his time as a prisoner of war, the candy bar pops up by name several times. And the name he gives his trio of central characters? The Three Musketeers.

Even years later, Vonnegut’s childlike devotion to sweets persisted; instead of offering visitors coffee, the default drink of writers everywhere, he’d suggest hot chocolate. And although he paired his nightly meals with two more adult pursuits—a glass of Scotch and water, jazz—his preferred recipes were equally simple, favorites of the kindergarten set that would have been a hot commodity on my childhood playground. His daughter, Edie, remembers the day he asked her for a recipe he particularly liked, “the one where the cheese melts.” It was grilled cheese.

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Mark Twain: Oysters Rockefeller

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Mark Twain: Oysters Rockefeller

Whenever I’m asked what famous writer I would invite to a dinner party, the easy answer is Mark Twain. I always imagined someone who could toss out one-liners like “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco” could be counted on to liven things up when conversation wound down. The thing is, there’s no evidence Twain said that famous line. What he actually wrote about his adopted city was far more generic—suggesting he may have been as prone to small talk as the rest of us after all.

“I fell in love with the most cordial and sociable city in the Union,” Twain remarked blandly after heading west and settling in San Francisco in 1864. A year later, he became nationally famous—one of the many fortune-seekers to find their future in California. 

I thought of Twain last week, as I prepared to make the same cross-country move, packing up my New York life to return to the coast where I grew up. Over the last five years, Manhattan became my own adopted city, and  with barely a week to say my goodbyes, I sought out the things it does best: tingling dan dan noodles at Lan Sheng, bagels loaded with whitefish at Russ and Daughters, the perfect pizza slice at Di Fara.

Which coast has the best oysters, though, is still up for debate, 100 years after Twain posed the question. A seafood connoisseur, he was a regular at San Francisco’s Occidental Hotel, taking his typical breakfast of salmon and fried oysters. He’d return for dinner at 7:30 p.m., when, he wrote, “if you refuse to move upon the supper works and destroy oysters done up in all kinds of seductive styles until 12 o’clock, the landlord will certainly be offended.” Twain’s relationship with the landlord, it should be noted, was excellent.

But Twain didn’t discriminate against Eastern oysters; he was an equal-opportunity eater. After spending two years in Europe, Twain drafted a menu of all the U.S. dishes he missed—over 75 of them. A whole section was devoted to shellfish, in preparations from around the country: “Fried oysters; stewed oysters. … Blue points, on the half shell. Cherry-stone clams. San Francisco mussels, steamed. Oyster soup. Clam Soup. Philadelphia Terapin soup. Oysters roasted in shell-Northern style.”

Twain returned to his home country through the food he ate there, and after a week away, I’m finding myself doing the same: jotting down smoked fish recipes and eyeing pizza stones, wondering if cooking up a taste of the past will be cheaper and easier than buying a plane ticket. Over the last five years, I fell in love with a most cordial and sociable city. Now I’m inviting Mark Twain to dinner, hoping he’ll help me do it again.

Oysters Rockefeller Recipe twain3

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E. L. Konigsburg: Cranberry Cinnamon Noodle Kugel

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E.L. Konigsburg: Noodle Kugel

When you’re 12, no one understands you like a book. When I read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler for the first time, in the summer before middle school, I was amazed to find a character who not only got me, she was me: oldest child, only girl, and routinely “subject to a lot of injustice.” Reading about Claudia Kinkaid was a brush with the familiar in an entirely unexpected place—a 30-year-old paperback, written by a woman old enough to be my grandmother (speaking of people who definitely didn’t get me).

When I learned of E.L. Konigsburg’s death, a year ago this month, I returned to my bookshelf to visit Claudia, re-reading the scenes I loved 15 years ago: ducking in the bathroom stalls, bathing in the fountain, ordering the mac and cheese at the automat. When Claudia meets the mysterious and well-off Mrs. Frankweiler, she’s dismayed that the menu is so familiar, so pedestrian. “Why it’s nothing but macaroni and cheese.” “You see,” Mrs. Frankweiler responds, “under the fancy trappings I’m just a plain lady.”

While my 12-year-old self might have sided with Claudia’s culinary snobbery, Konigsburg in the kitchen was more of a Frankweiler, relishing in the comfort of the familiar despite her fame. A regular patron of New York’s automats, she also would invite friends to grab a late-night meal at Denny’s; her editor Ginee Seo remembered her getting all dolled up just to slide into one of their faux leather booths. When cooking at home, she took a cue from her title character, with her favorite recipe for special occasions: lokchen kugel, a sweet version of Claudia’s savory mac and cheese.

Everyone’s family recipe for kugel is the best one; it’s the type of dish that always has a secret, and a story to tell. Some swear by topping the noodles with cherry pie filling before baking, or sneaking chocolate chips into the batter. Konigsburg’s version (as published in the fascinating collection Write Out of the Oven) calls for a can of pineapple—the kind of throwback recipe that recalls the days when automats flourished in Manhattan, and the ten pennies you pulled from a fountain could buy you your next meal.

Noodle Kugel Recipe

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Unlike my first encounter with Claudia, Konigsburg’s recipe didn’t elicit any nods of recognition from me; I had barely heard of kugel, much less tasted it, and immediately had so many questions. Is it a dessert? Is it a side? Why is it sweet? The combination of noodles, sugar, pineapple and cheese didn’t ring any bells (except maybe alarm bells)? But for the many families who grew up with a variation of the dish, kugel is a staple: a regular feature of holiday dinners, Shabbat meals, and (when made with with potatoes or matzah) a Passover must-have.

Having no family recipe to draw from, I decided to start my own tradition, using Konigsburg’s recipe as the foundation but substituting mascarpone for the sour cream and cranberries for the pineapple. As I mixed the cheeses together, I recalled a dish my mother used to make: a mass of noodles, tomato sauce and cheese thrown together, in a lazy approximation of lasagna’s neat layers. It was a mess—the kind of dish that might get some sideways glances at a potluck—but at our table, no one blinked. Instead, we had seconds. Books might help us discover ourselves in unusual places but when it comes to food, nobody gets you like your family.

(Adapted from Write Out of the Oven)

8 ounces flat egg noodles
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 cup mascarpone
1 pound cottage cheese
3 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 cup dried cranberries
2 cups rolled oats
3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
2 teaspoons cinnamon

1. Preheat oven to 350. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. add noodles, reduce heat to a simmer, and let cook 5 to 7 minutes, until just al dente. Drain and set aside.

2. In a large bowl, stir together butter, mascarpone, cottage cheese, eggs, sugar, and cranberries. Add noodles and toss to coat. Pour mixture into 9×13 baking dish.

3. In a small bowl, mix oats, brown sugar, and cinnamon. Sprinkle over the noodle mixture and bake 1 hour, or until kugel has set and edges are golden. Let stand 10 minutes, then serve.

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