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The cookbook reading group. October 28, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes.
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Silence Dogood here. Last night, our friend Ben and I braved the rain to head out to the Barnes & Noble nearest us so I could attend the first meeting of the Cookbook Reading Group. This group is the brainchild of our friend Delilah, and for the first meeting, we were instructed to bring a favorite cookbook and a cookie recipe to share. (I brought my beloved Chocolate Chip-Toffee Oatmeal Cookie recipe, which you’ll find in an earlier post, “A good day for baking cookies.”)

Now, I’ll admit that the name “Cookbook Reading Group” didn’t strike me as especially inspirational, but it proved surprisingly accurate. All of us who turned up for the inaugural meeting actually loved reading cookbooks more than using them. “I read them like novels,” someone said. I myself love to read them to relax before bed, or, in the case of exotic cookbooks, sometimes I just flip through the pages, letting the fabulous photos take me to distant lands before I drift off to sleep.

Our little group was small but passionate. (It’s hard to lure people out on a cold, rainy night, and even harder when you’re in Pennsylvania and the Phillies are playing what could be their World Series Championship game that very evening.) Delilah’s partner Chaz, who also loves to cook, braved a table of women to join us, while our friend Ben, who cooks only when necessary, skulked—I mean, browsed—in the travel section of the store until the meeting was over.

After the introductions, we shared the books we’d brought. Given that we were in PennsyIvania Dutch country, I’d brought along William Woys Weaver’s gorgeous Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking, one of the most beautiful, interesting, and authentic cookbooks I’ve ever seen. Erin had brought Padma Lakshmi’s inspiring Tangy Tart Hot & Sweet, a book I’ve picked up many times while browsing the “International cookbook” shelves of numerous stores. Delilah brought a book that’s also in my collection, The Great American Bake Sale, and Chaz contibuted another favorite of theirs, The California Pizza Kitchen Cookbook. They’d also brought a new favorite, Southern Living Best Loved Cookies. We all spent a happy time paging through them all and drooling.

One thing that especially interested me about the meeting was that, during the introductions, people discussed the first dish they’d ever learned to cook. For Chaz, it was scrambled eggs, with fried eggs a close second. Delilah’s mother had taught her to make gravy properly when she was four years old. Even our friend Ben, when I relayed this to him on the way home, recalled that the first thing he ever learned to make was toast.

I was mesmerized by this, since I have no memory at all of the first thing I ever made. I grew up with two incredible cooks showing me how to make food. My first memory of participating in a food-making event was helping at my mother’s annual fruitcake extravaganza, where our entire dining-room table was covered with jams, jellies, marmalade, citrus, candied cherries, raisins, currants, candied pineapple, nuts, wines, brandy, port, bourbon, flour, butter, and other good things, all being painstakingly added to make a batter for what would eventually become, to me, an entirely inedible cake.

How on earth could so many good things go into something so foul?!! But of course, my mother and father loved fruitcake, so the annual ritual continued. To this day, I believe passionately in the saying “Get even, give fruitcake.” My palate is simply not wired for fruitcake, spice cake, plum pudding, mince pie, and other (to me) harshly flavored delicacies my parents and many other people love. But I digress.

Thinking hard, I’ll bet that the very first thing my beloved Mama taught me to make on my own was salad dressing. We never, ever had storebought salad dressings in the house, and we were taught early on to despise French, Russian, and Thousand Island dressing as “bourgeois” (without, of course, ever even tasting them). I eventually did taste French dressing, which of course I (secretly) loved, but to this day I’ve never ventured into the Thousand Islands, Russia, the world of the Green Goddess, or many another exotic dressing locale. I have made the acquaintance of Ranch, Parmesan Peppercorn, and Blue Cheese dressings, all of which I enjoy.

I continue to make my own salad dressing to this day. But alas, I’ve left the very specific, very careful directions Mama gave me for vinaigrette practically in the dust. These days, I almost always put the fresh herbs and other seasonings right in the salad, then dress it with a simple mix of good olive oil, salt, and balsamic vinegar. I still have vivid memories of her showing me how to add the dried herbs, Colman’s powdered mustard, and lemon juice to the oil, then just so much vinegar, then shaking like mad before pouring it over the salad, though. Those were very happy times. 

So thank you, Delilah dear, for reviving happy memories for me and doubtless the entire group. Thank you for setting up the meetings and coming up with your bazillionth brilliant idea. Readers, if you love cookbooks and cooking, it’s worth thinking about setting up your own group in a bookstore near you. By the time our meeting reluctantly drew to a close, we were already discussing the possibility of taking a group trip to Maine next August for their blueberry festival. Good times!

Meanwhile, can you remember the first thing you learned to cook? Do you have a favorite cookbook or recipe to share? I’d love to hear about them! In return, I’ll leave you with the recipe for Delilah’s Mother’s Magic Cookies.

     ‘Til next time,



   Delilah’s Mother’s Magic Cookies

1 stick butter, softened

1 cup Graham cracker crumbs

6-ounce package semisweet chocolate chips

6-ounce package butterscotch chips

1 cup flaked coconut

1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk

1/2 cup chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Melt butter in a 9-by-13-inch pan. Sprinkle Graham cracker crumbs evenly over melted butter. Layer chcolate chips, butterscotch chips, and coconut over crumbs. Drizzle condensed milk evenly over top. Sprinkle with pecans. Bake 30 minutes. Cool completely, then cut into bars. Makes 12 to 16.