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

wharton1
Continue reading “Edith Wharton: Christmas Pudding”

Advertisement

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.”

millay5 millay4

Continue reading “Edna St. Vincent Millay: Wild Blueberry Pie”

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.

vonnegut 1

IMG_1314

Continue reading “Kurt Vonnegut: Spiked Three Musketeers Bars”

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

konigsburg2

konigsburg3

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.

Nathaniel Hawthorne: Chocolate Bread Pudding Trifles

Nathaniel Hawthorne: Chocolate Pudding Cake with Roasted Pears

Although it’s conspicuously absent from biology classes and science textbooks, I’m convinced that certain humans (myself included) have developed a rare but necessary extension of the digestive system: the “dessert stomach.” How else to explain our ability to be simultaneously completely full of dinner, but so ready for the final course? Friends with actual medical training tell me it’s all psychological, but I’m going with the two-stomach theory.

After all, the evidence goes back hundreds of years, to the New England table of Nathaniel Hawthorne. When you look at the dinner party guest lists now, they read like a survey of American literature—Emerson, Thoreau and a young Louisa May Alcott might be spotted, digging in—but the food was just as important as the company. “Should we be the more ethereal, if we did not eat?” he wondered in a letter. “I have a most human and earthly appetite.”

Even after those elaborate meals, though, Hawthorne could always find a little extra room when the main courses were cleared. Writing to his son after a particularly overwhelming feast, he admitted, “I had hardly any appetite left.” Nevertheless, “I did manage to eat some currant pudding, and a Banbury cake, and a Victoria cake, and a slice of beautiful Spanish musk-melon, and some plums.” If Hawthorne came to your Thanksgiving, he’d be the guy “testing” every kind of pie on offer (and don’t forget the ice cream).

Fruit was a frequent after-dinner treat, and Hawthorne doted on the orchards on his land (“What is a garden without its currant-bushes and fruit-trees?” he wrote). But, as anyone with a dessert stomach can attest, fruit alone isn’t nearly enough. After his daily walk through the grounds, Hawthorne would eat “a pint bowl of thick chocolate (not cocoa, but the old-fashioned chocolate) crumbed full of bread.” When fruit was in season, he’d add it to the mix—a stealth move to combine two desserts in one.

Chocolate Bread Pudding Trifle recipe hawthorne images

Continue reading “Nathaniel Hawthorne: Chocolate Bread Pudding Trifles”

Stephen King: Cranberry Orange Cheesecake

Stephen King: Cranberry Orange Swirl Cheesecake

This week, the internet has been embroiled in debate about “literary elitism,” but that same highbrow disdain for lowbrow tastes isn’t just confined to the world of words. Whether it’s a bodice-ripping romance or a doughnut dripping with sugary glaze, certain books and dishes are repeatedly (and unfairly) condemned to a lower status on our shared cultural hierarchy. It’s time to redeem the “guilty pleasure.”

For many readers, Stephen King (subject of yet another internet debate) is one of those authors we regard with divided hearts: someone we love to read, but only when no one else is watching. We don’t discuss The Shining in book club or self-consciously read our first edition of It on the subway, hoping someone will notice. It seems natural that King himself would dismiss the entire idea of “high” versus “low.” But, as it turns out, even he buys into the guilty pleasure principle—at least where food is concerned.

After his wife, Tabitha, lost her senses of taste and smell, King became the de facto cook of the house, learning to bake his own bread and devising his own signature dish (baked salmon with brown sugar glaze). But despite his kitchen credentials, King is still sheepish about some of his go-to meals. “My eating habits are horrible,” he wrote on Twitter, as if to anticipate his culinary critics. “Favorite restaurant is Waffle House. How sad is that.”

The same bashfulness appears in King’s quick defense of the microwave: “If you’re sneering, it’s because you think the only things you can do with the microwave are make popcorn and nuke the living shit out of Stouffer’s frozen dinners.” King’s alternative, coating a trout fillet with lemon, olive oil and basil before zapping it for a few minutes, is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s microwaved, yes, but much more virtuous than the helmet-size bowl of cheesy pasta I make on lazy nights, telling myself I am, technically, “cooking.”

King’s favorite food, about which he clearly feels no embarrassment, has the reputation for being the ultimate indulgence: a “monster slice of cheesecake.” Although two slices is his preferred dessert (according to a menu of his ideal meal), King’s taste for cheesecake isn’t limited to post-dinner; he also will have a piece before sitting down to write. “Cheesecake is brain food,” he says, a joking justification for a dessert that doesn’t need any excuse.

Cranberry orange cheesecake recipe

Cranberry orange cheesecake recipe

Continue reading “Stephen King: Cranberry Orange Cheesecake”

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Prohibition Ale

F. Scott Fitzgerald - Prohibition Ale

With the internet awash in Gatsby-themed gin rickey and mint julep recipes, F. Scott Fitzgerald has recently reasserted his reputation as “America’s Drunkest Writer.” It might seem like a dubious distinction, but Fitzgerald embraced boozing as a literary badge of honor (after all, he had to overcome some stiff competition for the title). He famously dubbed drink “the writer’s vice,” introducing himself at parties as “F. Scott Fitzgerald, the well-known alcoholic” or (when feeling particularly loquacious) “one of the most notorious drinkers of the younger generation.”

Gin has gone down in history as Fitzgerald’s particular drink of choice (he thought it would be harder to detect on his breath). But while gin was mainly for parties, beer was for every other time of day … including breakfast. It wasn’t a writer’s vice. It was his lifestyle.

When Zelda wrote to Scott in 1930, reminiscing about their early days back in New York, her memories were shaped by the beer they had shared. “We drank Bass Pale Ale,” she wrote. “We drank always.” It was after they moved to Europe that the Fitzgeralds started fueling their revels with hard liquor; good ales and lagers were hard to get in France, although Fitzgerald was pleased to encounter some decent brews on a visit to Germany in 1925.  He marveled at the wealth of “Pilsen and Munich beer of fine quality,” noting, “There is less than there was when I got here.”

When Fitzgerald returned to the U.S., he also returned to beer, his first love—a relationship that continued to carry him as his marriage to Zelda broke down. At his peak intake, he went through 37 bottles a day, using beer as a substitute for water (and if we were all that hydrated, our doctors would be so proud). To Scott, beer didn’t count as a real drink—just like when I was a “vegetarian,” fish didn’t count as real meat. In 1937, when Fitz claims to be “on the complete wagon,” he has to clarify: This time he means “not even beer.”

In the late 1930s, Fitzgerald tried to curb his intake of the beverage that had shaped his life: “I havn’t [sic] even had a glass of beer for a month + shall try it again,” he wrote. But even as he saw its impact on his health, he couldn’t help but indulge in a cold one every now and then. “The fact that I have abused liquor is something to be paid for with suffering and death perhaps,” he wrote, “but not renunciation.”

* * *

Prohibition Ale Recipe

Continue reading “F. Scott Fitzgerald: Prohibition Ale”

Marquis de Sade: Molten Chocolate Espresso Cake with Pomegranate

Marquis de Sade - Molten Chocolate Espresso Cake

I have always been semi-mortified about special requests in restaurants. Meg Ryan’s orders in When Harry Met Sally still fill me with third-party embarrassment. When I was in high school, my friends and I decided, instead of going to junior prom, we’d spend our ticket money on a fancy dinner in San Francisco instead. I anticipated it for weeks, poring over the menu in advance like it was some kind of ancient codex. After much deliberation, I picked the black pepper-crusted tuna steak—which, of course, arrived raw. 

What to do? Amazingly (this being California in the 90s), I hadn’t yet eaten raw fish and wasn’t planning to start then. But, determined to be accommodating  I picked at the seared edges of the tuna until a friend noticed, rolled her eyes, and asked our waiter to re-fire it. I watched him parade the plate back to the kitchen, as if announcing to the room, “That girl in the corner table is so uncultured, she didn’t know tuna is served rare, and we are all paying the price.” 

My tolerance for special requests has improved since then (It helps that I’m no longer in high school, when even the wrong nail polish was the apex of embarrassment). And whatever I order, I know it will never compare to the culinary demands of the Marquis de Sade, who showed as much disregard for dining conventions as he did for sexual ones—that is, pretty much none whatsoever.

For one thing, if I were in prison, I assume that I wouldn’t have a lot of input about the food; you get what you get. Not so the Marquis. In one of his many jail stints, he counseled the chef of the Bastille about the daily menu: it had to include a custard (vanilla or coffee flavored only), baked apples, and “an excellent soup (I will not repeat this adjective; soups must always be excellent.” Try this today, and I bet you’d get a big fat of soup in your face. It would not be the excellent kind, either.

I also admit that I’ve never once ordered cookies shaped to specific dimensions. The Marquis was all over this one. His requests to the Bastille are charming compared to the letters he wrote his wife, Renee, from prison, which listed his extensive food needs, including biscuits “six inches long by four inches wide and two inches high.” He was not only particular about his sweets; his appetite for them was insatiable. Another letter to Renee asked for “four dozen meringues; two dozen sponge cakes (large); four dozen chocolate pastille candies, vanillaed, and not that infamous rubbish you sent me in the way of sweets last time.”

And woe unto the person who forgets the chocolate. “The next time you send me a package … try to have some trustworthy person there to see for themselves that some chocolate is put inside,” he snarked. He may have been a libertine in the bedroom, but in the dining room with the Marquis, you don’t fool around.

* * *

Molten chocolate espresso cake with pomegranate recipe

IMG_1603

Continue reading “Marquis de Sade: Molten Chocolate Espresso Cake with Pomegranate”

Beatrix Potter: Gingerbread Cookies

Among all children’s authors I loved growing up, Beatrix Potter always seemed the most wholesome by far. My favorite books were the eyebrow raisers: the delicious nastiness of Roald Dahl, the nightmarish worlds of Maurice Sendak. Even The Velveteen Rabbit gets borderline traumatizing. When the only person you truly love gets scarlet fever, and all your friends are burned, you can finally become “real” if you cry? That’s more drama than a episode of Dawson’s Creek.

I remembered Peter Rabbit and Jeremy Fisher as cuddly and innocent in comparison, but on a recent visit to the Morgan Library, I realized I had it all wrong: Potter had a not-so-secret dark side. Not a book goes by without some cute animal about to be skinned, drowned in a sack, or baked in a pie. Potter began her original draft of The Tale of Mr. Tod, “I am quite tired of making goody goody books about nice people.” Her editor nixed it; turns out, readers wanted those goody goody books.

Still, a few less-than-goody bits made it into print. One of my favorite Potter characters is Cecily Parsley, an adorable rabbit who moonlights as a beer brewer. Potter’s illustrations show Cecily soaking some barley in front of comically large barrels marked “XX.” It’s impossible to imagine other favorite children’s characters doing the same: Anne of Green Gables opening up a distillery, or the Goodnight Moon mouse tippling on some homemade hooch.

Did Potter take a cue from Cecily and start her own homebrews? Probably not. She did cook; at her beloved Hill Top Farm, in England’s Lakes District, she planted an herb and vegetable garden that Peter Rabbit would have loved to pillage. Much of her produce came from those gardens, but not all her recipes were virtuous. When Potter’s family recipe book went up for auction this fall, hiding in her gingerbread was a good dose of ale—a little bit of naughty in the midst of all that sugar, spice, and everything nice.

* * *

Continue reading “Beatrix Potter: Gingerbread Cookies”

Nora Ephron: Frozen Key Lime Pie

My first Nora Ephron experience was watching When Harry Met Sally backwards. It was the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, that week when cable channels run marathons of the film, back to back, all day long. On holiday from school, with nothing better to do, I randomly flipped on the TV to the last scene, when Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan finally end up together and everyone sings “Auld Lang Syne.” I stumbled upon another scene later that day, on a different showing: the epic fight over the wagon wheel coffee table. Finally, I caught it at the beginning and watched the whole thing. Seeing it that way was pleasingly disorienting — Nora Ephron meets Harold Pinter.

Ephron might not fit the mold of other writers on this blog—Crazy Salad doesn’t occupy the same place as Crime and Punishment, nor should it—but she was in a class of her own when it came to pure food joy.” I have a friend whose mantra is: You must choose,” she said. “And I believe the exact opposite: I think you should always have at least four desserts that are kind of fighting with each other.”  She wasn’t shy to share her culinary opinions, either, particularly in the Great Egg White Controversy of 2007. Her recipe for egg salad began: “Boil 18 eggs, peel them, send six of the egg whites to friends in California who persist in thinking that egg whites matter in any way.”

It’s no surprise, then, that food made its presence felt in Ephron’s fiction writing too. Her 1983 novel Heartburn is maybe the best example, seamlessly integrating recipes into the plot. Now the novel/memoir-with-recipes genre seems ubiquitous—everyone from Kim Severson to Ruth Reichl has one—but Ephron did it first, and best. She knew that cooking and storytelling share a common thread: The words draw people in, and the food draws people together. Some books are best enjoyed in solitude, but not Nora’s. They beg to be shared, the best passages read aloud to anyone around to hear them.

I got the news that Ephron had died right before boarding a plane for California, where I grew up. Back in my family’s kitchen, I started squeezing the juice for her Frozen Key Lime Pie. Although I had read many of her recipes over the years, this is the first one I was attempting. Finally, I thought, I’d have what she was having.

* * *

Continue reading “Nora Ephron: Frozen Key Lime Pie”