Thornton Wilder: Nougat Ice Cream

When I got married, my Louisiana native in-laws gave me a new cookbook for my collection: Talk about Good!, a production of the Junior League of Lafayette. The giant spiral-bound tome was a primer on Cajun cooking, bringing together hundreds of recipes passed down by generations of members and their families. Now, when the instructions for any conceivable dish are just a Google search away, community-sourced cookbooks like these are a reminder that finding the perfect recipe wasn’t always so simple—and that good friends were an essential resource in the hunt.

Thornton Wilder had a particularly fruitful recipe resource: his friends Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein. Toklas’ most enduring cooking legacy may be her recipe for pot brownies (which Wilder called “the publicity stunt of the year”), but she shared many more recipes directly with her friends, well before deciding to publish a book of them

Thornton didn’t cook those recipes himself; that role belonged to his sister Isabel, with whom he lived for much of his life. (Isabel’s responsibilities weren’t limited to cooking. At one particular dinner party, Alice fried chicken and asked Thornton whether he wanted light or dark meat; he turned to Isabel and asked earnestly, “Which is it I prefer?”). But both Wilders loved to eat and were willing recipe-testers for Toklas, hosting her at their Chicago apartment and ordering groceries in.

Even more useful for his friends, Thornton was an international sharer of recipes, serving as go-between for his contacts in Europe and his family and friends in the United States. He brought Isabel recipe books from France (“Isabel was screaming with pleasure over the pastry-dessert book,” he wrote to Stein) and shared Toklas’ recipes with curious acquaintances in the U.S. (“They look mighty elaborate to me; but good,” he editorialized.) Even his lawyer’s wife tried to get in on the action: After receiving a long letter from Wilder, filled with details about dinners with French luminaries like Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, his lawyer responded tersely, “Anna is more interested in recipes.”

The Wilders sent recipes to Toklas too, but theirs were more, shall we say, focused: They were all about ice cream. “Alice has just had a charming letter from Isabel and all evening she was crowing over ice cream recipes,” Stein wrote to Thornton. Ice cream was the dessert for the Wilders over the decades: It appears throughout Thornton’s letters, whether as a treat for himself as a student in Italy (“I passed an American soldier … I ran back and spoke to him, inviting him to have an ice-cream with me”) or for his sisters during a hot summer on Long Island (“Passing through Amityville village get Charlotte a half-pint of vanilla ice-cream.”)

Toklas eventually published several of her own ice cream recipes in her famous book, perhaps inspired by those sent by Isabel. The recipes that Stein references in that have not been found; we also don’t have any of Thornton’s reactions to testing Toklas’ ice cream efforts. But we do have the words of Sabina, the dominant presence in his Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Skin of Our Teeth, whose philosophy I’m officially adopting when it comes to dessert: “My advice to you is not to inquire into why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it’s on your plate.”

Although Toklas presents six ice cream recipes in her book, the nougat flavor stood out to me; made with honey instead of sugar and packed with pistachios and almonds, it’s like nougat candy in frozen form. The toasted nuts also reminded me of a compliment Thornton paid to Gertrude Stein in a letter, calling her “A wonder … a seer … you’re my Toasted ice-cream.” This was a reference to one of Stein’s own poems, but the line’s meaning evolved among this recipe-focused circle of friends, in which comparison to dessert was the highest praise.

Adapted from The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book

  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 2/3 cup honey
  • 2 teaspoons orange flower water or Cointreau
  • 1/4 cup raw almonds
  • 1/4 cup raw shelled pistachios
  1. Heat cream and milk in a small heavy saucepan over medium-low heat. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally so the bottom of the pan doesn’t scorch.
  2. As the mixture comes to a boil, whisk egg yolks in a medium bowl until frothy and lighter in color.
  3. When the milk is just boiling, pour 1/4 of the liquid into the egg yolks, whisking constantly, then pour the egg yolk mixture into the saucepan. Continue whisking constantly over medium-low heat until the mixture has thickened slightly and coats the back of a spoon. Remove from heat.
  4. Stir honey and orange flower water into the milk mixture until completely dissolved. Let cool slightly, then cover and refrigerate overnight.
  5. The next day, preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spread almonds and pistachios on a baking sheet; toast 5 to 8 minutes, watching carefully, until fragrant but not burned. Set aside to cool completely, then coarsely chop nuts.
  6. Place ice cream base in an ice cream maker and churn according to manufacturer’s instructions; when nearly done, add the toasted nuts. (Alternatively, just pour the base into a cold-safe container, stir in the nuts, and pop in the freezer; Toklas’ step says simply, “Freeze.”)

Joan Didion: Crème Caramel

There’s a picture of Joan Didion’s kitchen that found new life on the internet shortly after the writer’s death in December 2021. It’s from a shoot for Vogue in her Malibu kitchen—hanging wire mesh baskets of produce, bountiful in their easy availability, but meticulously sorted into groups: onions, potatoes, apples, oranges. The yellow light and painted ceramic herb planters give the whole scene a distinctly California quality, one with which Didion would become inextricably linked. It’s a snapshot that’s already slightly nostalgic as it’s taken, “a hologram that dematerializes as I drive through it” as Didion would say of her state’s changing landscape.

The photo could be seen as a predecessor of the popular social media fridge shot, where every meticulously organized crisper drawer is #fridgegoals and every labeled, color-coded tupperware suggests that no food is actually prepared here. But Didion’s kitchen wasn’t just for show. “She cooked nonstop,” said Eve Babitz, quoted in Tracy Daugherty’s Didion biography, The Last Love Song. Dinner parties, held at her and her husband’s house on Franklin Avenue in L.A., were legendary, complete with Spode china and placecards on the table. The guest lists could number in the hundreds, with Patti Smith or Janis Joplin turning up for Beef Wellington, made for a crowd.

The idea of cooking at this scale might make many of us blanch (or, at the very least, order in), but it was second nature to Didion. “She could make dinner for forty people with one hand tied around her back while everybody else was passed out on the floor,” Babitz said. Many of her recipes, released in a bonus cookbook for the documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, were scaled to fit the occasion. Her recipe for parsley salad, serving 35 to 40 guests, was not an aspiration, but a necessity.

But as Didion’s California changed over the decades, her cooking did too. As the ’60s gave way to the ’70s, Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, moved away from the Sunset Strip to Malibu. And although there was still the occasional dinner party, food became less of an event and more of a daily practice, a routine. “After I married and had a child, I learned to find equal meaning in the repeated rituals of domestic life,” Didion wrote in The Year of Magical Thinking. “Setting the table. Lighting the candles. Building the fire. Cooking. All those soufflés, all that crème caramel … These fragments I have shored against my ruins, were the words that came to mind then.”

These routines became part of the Didion we would come to know through her work. Each day started with an ice-cold Coke before sitting down to write. In Blue Nights, we learn the process of packing school lunches for her daughter, Quintana Roo, an activity where no detail was spared. (Lunchboxes prepared by Didion included mini salt and pepper shakers for her homemade fried chicken.) And in Magical Thinking, after Donne’s death, we learn how Didion leans further on these food rituals in grief, eating only congee for days on end.

Daugherty notes that in one of Didion’s favorite books, Zen Mind Beginners Mind, Zen master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi sees this as cooking’s essential role: “To cook, or fix some kind of food, is not preparation … It is practice. … Work on it with nothing in your mind, and without expecting anything. You should just cook.” These fragments I have shored against my ruins. Cooking for Didion could be a public performance, but it was a private devotion too. The photos we see of towering croquembouches or epic Thanksgiving spreads on social media might be the image of cooking we’re most familiar with lately: the food of entertainment, or the food of celebration. But Didion helps us remember that it’s the cooking of the everyday that supports us, that heals us, and finally helps us become ourselves.

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion reminisces about the early Malibu years, when she and Dunne and nearby friends would visit each other’s houses for dinner, swapping recipes and dreaming about opening their own restaurant. These weren’t the heady, salad-for-forty days of Franklin Avenue; they were a middle ground between performance and practice. When Katharine Ross contributed some vanilla bean, brought from her travels, “we did crème caramel with the vanilla for a while but nobody liked to caramelize the sugar.”

A recipe for crème caramel, maybe the one that resulted from this series of experiments, made it into the bundle shared by Didion’s nephew. It’s a wonderful one for refining your own cooking ritual since, as Didion notes, the sugar is tricky to get right—but the result of your practice is its own reward.

Adapted from Joan Didion’s crème caramel recipe

  • 1 1/2 cups sugar, divided
  • 3 whole eggs
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1 vanilla bean
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. In a saucepan over medium heat, combine 1 cup sugar with 1/4 cup water, stirring just until sugar is dissolved. Heat without stirring until the sugar has turned a deep golden brown, swirling the pan as needed if one spot becomes too dark. Remove from heat and immediately divide caramel among four 6-ounce ramekins, swirling each ramekin slightly to coat evenly.
  3. Beat eggs, egg yolks and the remaining 1/2 cup sugar in a heat-proof medium bowl. Set aside.
  4. Bring a kettle of water to boil.
  5. Heat milk and vanilla bean in a saucepan over medium heat. When just simmering, remove the vanilla bean and slowly stream the milk into the egg mixture, whisking constantly.
  6. Pour the egg mixture over the caramel in the ramekins. Place ramekins in a baking dish and transfer to the oven; pour the boiling water into the baking dish, until it hits about halfway up the ramekin, being careful not to splash it into the ramekins.
  7. Bake 30-35 minutes, or until the custard is just set and jiggles but doesn’t ripple. Transfer to a wire rack and cool completely, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 12 hours, up to 2 days.
  8. Run a knife around the edge of each ramekin and quickly invert onto a plate to unmold.

Henrik Ibsen: Honningkake (Honey-Cake)

Henrick Ibsen - Honey-cake

Humans are creatures of habit. In our earliest years, we’re taught a routine (school, homework, food, maybe a sibling fight here and there) and it goes largely unchanged, even unremarked upon, as we move into adulthood (work, homework, food, and whatever family drama is still unresolved). The New Year is one of the few times we think about these patterns, and how to change them for the better—which is why this week I thought of Ibsen, whose adherence to a schedule lasted from childhood in Norway until his very last days.

Growing up, Henrik Ibsen’s life centered around annual routines that marked the passage of time: fireworks for the anniversary of Norwegian constitution, bonfires of St. John’s Eve, and the arrival of the fair in February. “We began to save up our skillings six months beforehand,” Ibsen wrote, “… for the purchase of honey-cakes in the fair booths.”

As Ibsen grew, these yearly rituals soon became daily ones—the more codified, more rigorous routines that would launch him to become the most-performed playwright in the world, besides Shakespeare. When he was working, he woke promptly 6:30 and insisted on being entirely alone until 1. After a quick break, he was at it again until 7:30, and was in bed by 10. He also required room to move around; his biographer, Henrik Bernhard Jaeger, observed, “He has to pace back and forth through three or four rooms while writing his plays.” Mental note: Don’t invite Ibsen to write in my studio apartment, otherwise the history of Western drama might be very different.

Eating, however, was no longer a part of the grown-up Ibsen’s routine. “When he sets about the execution of one of plans, he takes only what food is absolutely necessary,” Jaeger wrote. “A small piece of bread and half a cup of black coffee is all that he takes before sitting down to his desk in the morning. He thinks that he would be impeded in his work if he were to eat more.” He wrote to his wife, Susannah, that he was “not drinking any beer. … I am drinking milk, and a little—not much—white wine, with water.”

Even in retirement, Ibsen still stuck to a schedule. From 1:20pm to 2pm, and again from 6 to 7:30, you could invariably find him reading the newspaper at Oslo’s Grand Cafe. (His friend Edvard Munch painted him sitting there, paper in hand.) Although he lightened up on the food restriction of his more productive days, his meal was always the same: a sandwich, a beer and a honey-cake, the same kind he saved up his pennies for as a child at the fair.

This past fall, after 140 years, the Grand Cafe closed its doors, its patrons’ cake-eating afternoon routines forever disrupted. Those daily rituals can make us more productive, helping us feel as secure and at home as Ibsen in his cafe chair. But they can also bind us, blinding us to other possibilities we’ve never explored. For this New Year, may you discover a new Grand Cafe, a place where you’re a little more at ease, and where there is always cake.

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Ibsen Honeycake Recipe

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Laura Ingalls Wilder: Gingerbread Cake with Chocolate Icing

Wilder Gingerbread Cupcakes

There’s an old story in my family, one of those anecdotes that gets told to every dinner guest, about a Thanksgiving 25 years ago. A sleepy three-year-old me burst into tears in front of my dessert plate. When asked what was wrong, I sobbed: “I can’t decided whether to eat my pie or my ice cream first.”

I don’t cry about it anymore, but the weight of dessert decisions still bears heavy on my mind, especially when faced with the cornucopia of the holidays. It’s a feeling that might sound familiar to Almanzo in Farmer Boythe second installment of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. “When he began to eat pie, he wished he had eaten nothing else. He ate a piece of pumpkin pie and a piece of custard pie, and he ate almost a piece of vinegar pie. He tried a piece of mince pie, but could not finish it. He just couldn’t do it. There were berry pies and cream pies and vinegar pies and raisin pies, but he could not eat any more.” Do you eat your pumpkin pie or your custard pie first? It’s an impossible question.

My mom read the Little House series to me until I was old enough to dive into them myself, and (as many have noted) the food scenes still stand out—for good reason. Wilder was writing from her experience as a seasoned cook on her own farm, the basis for her books. “All the work of the farm centers in the farmer’s wife’s kitchen,” she wrote in an early column for The Missouri Ruralist, essays that germinated the idea for the children’s series. “[It] must be more than merely a kitchen. It is the place where house and barn meet, often in pitched battle.”

Wilder’s kitchen was a flurry of activity: “I skim milk, make butter, and cook bran mashes for the chickens and potato pairings for the hogs in mine,” she wrote. It also had to accommodate a variety of non-cooking uses. When re-doing the kitchen, her plans included storage for chicken feed buckets and pigs’ swill. The entire budget for her kitchen renovation? $49.84. HGTV would have a heart attack.

On the farm, multiple dessert options wasn’t a problem—it was a necessity, in order to make it through a physically-demanding workday. Rose, Laura’s daughter, described her father’s typical breakfast: “Here are bowls of oatmeal, with whole pints of cream, large dishes of baked apples, the big blue platter full of sizzling ham, with many eggs disposed upon it; here are hot cakes piled by the tens and dozens, with melting butter and brown sugar between them, and hashed brown potatoes, Graham bread and white bread, fresh butter, honey, jam, milk and the steaming pot of coffee. Here are doughnuts or gingerbread to accompany the coffee cups’ second filling.”

One way to solve the problem of what to have for dessert is simply to have it at all times of day;on the prairie, instead of being seen as a sweet, gingerbread served year-round alongside the main meal, like a side of cornbread, as an aid to digestion. But Almonzo Wilder went a step further, embracing the idea of dessert for breakfast with “just one medium-size wedge of apple pie to top off the meal and finish the foundation for a good day’s work.” At this time of year, we’re all Farmer Boys at heart; when we begin to eat pie, there’s no stopping us.

Gingerbread cupcake recipe

Boiled chocolate icing

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Jack Kerouac: Crêpes Suzette

Jack Kerouac Crepes Suzette Recipe

When was the last time you memorized a phone number? It’s been years since I learned a new one—just as I haven’t made much of an effort to brush up on multiplication tables, important historical dates, or birthdays (sorry, friends). But despite relying on my phone/the internet/Facebook for the bulk of my knowledge, I still memorize recipes. Having few great dishes tucked away in the back of your mind is, to me, far more useful than remembering how many pounds are in a kilo. These are the meals that come through in a pinch: the pasta that can save any failed dinner party, or that soup that you swear can cure a friend’s post-breakup broken heart.

Because they’re often so simple, our back-pocket dishes don’t get a lot of attention. A lot has been written about Kerouac and apple pie for instance—the bulk of it by Kerouac himself in the semi-autobiographical On the Road. “That’s practically all I ate all the way across the country … I knew it was nutritious.” But when it was his turn to cook, you wouldn’t see Kerouac rolling out a pie crust. Instead, he fell back on an old family favorite: crêpes.

While he might seem like an author as American as, well, apple pie, Kerouac was raised in a French-Canadian family; he was more comfortable speaking French than English up until high school. He was also more comfortable eating French, delighting in his mother’s Breton specialties. Kerouac later bragged about his mother’s signature French-American cooking, decadent even during the Depression: “crêpes with maple syrup, sausage and chocolate milk; pork meatball stew with onions, carrots and potatoes.”

These were the dishes that Kerouac filed away in his mental recipe box, to draw upon upon when the situation called for a homemade meal. And what better situation than a sexy one? “Dark Eyes came to my house tonight,” Kerouac wrote in a 1947 diary entry. “We sat on the floor, on the beautiful rug my mother made for me, and listened to the royal wedding at six in the morning. … I made Dark Eyes some crêpes suzette. We danced again, & sang.” A writer who cooks dinner and watches the royal wedding? I’m melting over here.

Kerouac used food to impress the ladies, but he also knew its healing potential. One of the founding members of the Beat movement, Helen Hinkle, remembers a fight breaking out between Neal Cassidy and William Burroughs. “Jack busied himself, started immediately to fill the vacuum … He asked to make crêpes suzettes. He had a recipe. Nothing was happening to he had to start saying something. he said, ‘Do you have flour and eggs?’.'” Clearly, Kerouac recognized the value of those back-pocket recipes. You never know when you’ll need to diffuse tension … through the power of French cooking.

Crepes Suzette recipe

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Edith Wharton: Christmas Pudding

Edith Wharton Christmas Pudding Recipe

Holiday parties usually follow a traditional recipe:

  1. Take several people who know each other either a little too well (friend parties with potential romantic prospects) or not well enough (anything work related).
  2. Add copious alcohol, perhaps with a brief food afterthought—a few Christmas cookies or maybe a random ham if you’re being fancy about it.
  3. Mix well.

The result is frequently uncomfortable, both emotionally and physically. The solution, as Edith Wharton deduced, is simply putting food first.

Wharton “liked rich and choice food and a good deal of it”; her favorite dishes included mock turtle soup, roast chicken, strawberries and cream, and lobster any which way. Dinner parties at the Mount, her estate from 1902 til her move to Europe in 1911, were lavish affairs, requiring a staff of 10 to prepare the elaborate menus.

The same servants were also charged with keeping Wharton’s guests fed throughout the day, including picnics on the grounds and snacks around the clock. “You needn’t bring supplementary apples or candies in your dressing bag,” Henry James wrote to a friend about his stay at the house, adding that as a hostess Wharton was “kindness and hospitality incarnate.”

At holiday time, though, Wharton took it to the next level, food-wise. A few recipes of her household recipes are preserved in Yale’s Beinecke library, including one for “Mrs. Wharton’s Christmas Pudding,” a dish that George Orwell later called “extremely rich, elaborate and expensive.” Maybe the most vocal author advocate of puddings in general, Orwell published his own pudding recipe; Wharton’s version, from across the pond, is very similar—in fact, nearly identical—except for her addition of glace cherries, a special touch for her high society friends.

Picking that perfect group of friends, of course, is the other necessary ingredient for a successful holiday party, another thing Wharton knew well. Her frequent guest Vivienne de Watteville noted that food at the Mount was only rivaled by the stimulating company: “Dinner was a poem to which brains and palate equally combined to bring a fitting appreciation.” Wharton was more blunt about how she settled on a guest list; when asked why her table only sat eight, she retorted, “Because there aren’t more than eight people in New York I care to dine with.”

Edith Wharton's Christmas Pudding Recipe

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Harriet Beecher Stowe: Maple Popcorn Peanut Brittle

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 best-selling cookbooks of the century. A vocal advocate for universal education, Catharine cofounded 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 as though 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 last piece of candy.

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Maple popcorn peanut brittle recipe

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Edna St. Vincent Millay: Wild Blueberry Pie

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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Kurt Vonnegut: Spiked Three Musketeers Bars

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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E. L. Konigsburg: Cranberry Cinnamon Noodle Kugel

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.