How to Create a Lost Family Recipe
Play 'culinary detective' and reinvent Nonna's meatballs or Abuelita's tamales
My maternal great-grandmother, Rose Newman, landed in Bayonne, N.J., in the mid-19th century with little more than her arsenal of Austro-Hungarian baking skills, but they served her well. My mom said the woman could stretch strudel dough so thin you could see her knuckles through it.
The first time I tasted a strudel as good as my great-grandmother’s — at Mrs. Herbst’s, a long-closed Hungarian bakery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side — it was like encountering a ghost from my culinary past.
Another cherished memory was her cookies. Every year when she’d visit us, her suitcase would be packed with cardboard boxes of butter walnut cookies, sweetheart cookies dotted with raspberry or apricot preserves, and pogachel, Hungarian biscuits made with sour cream that were my favorite. We'd devour them within two days.
In the 1970s, her daughter-in-law, my Aunt Ann, had the foresight to turn those imprecise pinches and jam jar “cups” into accurate recipes for posterity. Or so I’d thought.
In 1987, Aunt Ann handwrote those recipes out for me to include in my first cookbook, The Supermarket Epicure. When I tested the pogachel recipe, I thought they tasted like the ones I remembered. But then my cousin Fern told me that her own version — written out years before mine, when she was in the kitchen with our great aunt — was different and that she’d measured the ingredients just as Ann used them. Sure enough, when I tweaked the recipe, the firm but delicate texture of the biscuits was spot-on.
Therein lies the challenge of trying to recreate favorite foods from your past.
Food Creates a Culinary Identity
Throughout her long career, Lidia Bastianich, PBS cooking personality, restaurateur and author, has shared many family recipes and stories. “By eating these foods with my kids and grandkids, I’m passing our culture forward,” she says. “The family table gives us a sense of belonging because food, beyond its flavors, carries the philosophy of who we are as a family — our traditions and practices — and it opens doors to emotions.”
Gale Gand, a baking historian and pastry chef/partner at Tru Restaurant, in Chicago, feels similarly. She grew up cooking the Eastern European dishes of her family’s heritage with her mother and grandmother. “In my late 30s the fact that my kids, who were born after my mom died, didn’t know her or her recipes took on a greater meaning, and I made it my mission to share them with my family. By telling my kids ‘we’re eating Grandma Myrna’s chicken paprikás or palacsinta (crêpes),’ I could feel her spirit come alive in them.”
To chronicle family recipes, get Grandma or Auntie into the kitchen now while she’s still making a dish you dream about. Jot down the ingredients, ask questions and take notes as she works.
If you’re a few generations removed from a beloved dish — or its maestro — a good place to begin your detective work is with other family members. Their memories may or may not be keener, but a consensus can make your job easier. Start with oral histories and write down descriptions of the tastes and textures and how a dish was made. Reaching an agreement about which version is the "right" one may take multiple attempts.
Check the Internet for similar recipes. While one family’s poulet grand-mère (Grandma’s chicken) or goulash recipe may not be exactly like the one you remember, it’s a starting point for ingredients, equipment and techniques. If you’ve striving for historic accuracy, New York University’s Fales Library has more than 200,000 cookbooks and the New York Public Library has more than 16,000 books about gastronomy and food history. websites like Foodtimeline are also useful for researching how dishes were rendered over time, and regional churches, social groups and historical societies often have recipe collections, as well.
After a bit of trial and error, if the version you settle on satisfies your soul, does it matter if the seasonings or utensils aren’t quite the same as they were in the old country?
Modern Equivalents of Old Measurements
The next step, once you’ve hit on a close approximation of a dish (including the core ingredients, rough measurements and general prep process) whose flavors elicit all those warm, fuzzy memories, is to accurately measure the ingredients and write everything down for posterity. Grandma’s whiskey glassfuls or eyeballed amounts won’t cut it. Assuming she’s still alive, get the dear lady to pour liquids into a glass measuring cup and use standardized cups for dry ingredients.
Sometimes the amounts of herbs, salt and other seasonings in stews and soups aren’t given by the original author, in older cookbooks or on websites with historic recipes, or they are simply listed as “to taste.” So if you are using one to help reconstruct your family recipe, it’s helpful to give a range — e.g., 1 to 2 teaspoons — so future cooks can approximate the flavor you're trying to recreate.
Similarly, quantify the amount of liquid, for instance, “1/2 cup stock, plus more as needed to cover the meat and vegetables.” Baking, on the other hand, is like a chemical formula, so all ingredients, amounts and methods need to be precise. Too much or too little flour, baking powder or eggs can spell failure.
Old-fashioned oral or written descriptions of measures (like a “jigger”) can be converted online. To further clarify a recipe, include cooking times and precise descriptors like “roasted to 150º F on a digital meat thermometer.”
That’s technically speaking. If you are trying to recapture both the taste and emotional connection with your past, you may want to use the equipment of that era, or a facsimile. Gale Gand has a rolling pin that five generations of women in her family have used, including her Great-Grandma Rose and her Grandma Elsie. Whenever she uses it, she says, “I feel we are all in the kitchen together.”
Tips and Serving Tricks
Most cooks have little tricks or tips that are often shared almost as an aside as they are working in their kitchen or over a cup of tea. Aunt Ann told Cousin Fern that Grandma never refrigerated her eggs, but that fact was never written into my recipe.
“Housewives back then bought fresh, local eggs as needed, so the shells still had a natural protective coating and didn’t need refrigeration,” Gand says. Today’s bakers probably learn from their mothers or teachers that room-temperature eggs are also better incorporated into dough. To prevent pearls of wisdom like these from getting lost, include them as notes in the written recipe. Mention any special garnishes — like finely julienned orange zest, chopped oregano or confectioner’s sugar, tips about equipment and vintage serving dishes.
Create a Digital Recipe Book
A great way to preserve this legacy for future generations is to take pictures or videos while preparing the recipe. You can burn a disc with videos, photos and the written recipes. Over time, these archival documents can become priceless family treasures. (See the Next Avenue story about self-publishing.)
From here, you’re on your way to creating a digital family cookbook, complete with photos. Along those lines, adding an informative headnote or a sidebar to each recipes about its origins — from whom or where it came, what kind of equipment was once used or a charming family anecdote — will further enrich the dish’s meaning for generations to come.
Food Archeology: A Place or Taste in Time
Even with meticulous research, certain foods can’t always be precisely recreated, Gand says. Recapturing your past may require being creative about the techniques and ingredients that produced that beloved dish. Foods have changed. The flour in 1940, for example, had a different protein level and, alas, we’ve tinkered with Mother Nature and genetically modified some of her foods.
Our tastebuds are also jaded by modern flavors, like a higher tolerance for heat and spices, not to mention salt and sugar, and our kitchens have more gadgets and equipment. While they may speed up preparing a dish, they can also ruin the texture and even taste of Grandma’s original. Early on, thinking I’d save time, I made pogachel in a food processor. I wound up not so much with delicate biscuits as with hockey pucks.
“Once you’re a couple generations away from an original family recipe, recreating that dish is often a best-guess situation,” notes Anita Lo, the award winning chef/owner of Annisa, a “new American” restaurant in New York City.
“My mother tried to make chicken curry like her mother had made it in Malaysia, but we were living in Michigan,” Lo says. “She didn’t grate and squeeze fresh coconuts for the milk: She used Coco Lopez cream of coconut because that was all she could get in our local grocery stores. However, our relatives shipped us curry powder from a special shop in Malacca. Today I get curry powder from my Southeast Asian purveyor. To me it tastes pretty much the same, but I know it’s got to be different.
“That’s the beautiful thing about food and culture. Cuisine is a living, breathing thing. It changes at the hand of every cook; recipes and their stories are in constant flux and are subject to each individual's interpretation. At the end of the day, what’s most important is that it’s delicious. When a dish is delicious, it has integrity.”
Grandma Newman’s Pogachel
Makes about 2 dozen
I enjoy these simple biscuits on their own or dunked in cocoa, tea or sherry. They are also wonderful served with Grand Marnier–soaked strawberries.
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
5 ounces granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 tablespoon sour cream
- Preheat oven to 350º F. Lightly flour 2 cookie sheets and your work board or table and rolling pin.
- Combine all of the ingredients in a bowl and knead by hand into a smooth dough.
- Roll into an even thickness of slightly more than 1/4 inch. Cut out circles with a cookie cutter or a glass about 2 1/4 inches in diameter dipped in flour; gently transfer to the cookie sheets with a spatula dipped in flour. Gather up scraps, re-roll and repeat.
- Prick the center of each biscuit twice with a fork. Bake in the middle of the oven until lightly browned around the edges, 18 to 20 minutes. Remove and transfer biscuits to wire racks to cool. Store in an airtight tin. They will last at least a week or may be frozen.
Gale Gand’s Cabbage Strudel
Yields 1 log or 8 servings
Cabbage strudel is a much-loved Hungarian dessert. Serve it with lightly sweetened whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.
1/4 cup butter
1/2 medium head green cabbage, cored and shredded
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup dark raisins
1/4 cup walnut pieces, toasted in pan or toaster oven
3 sheets phyllo pastry (if frozen, thawed overnight in the refrigerator, and kept covered with lightly dampened towel)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup walnuts, lightly toasted and finely chopped
For the filling: In a large sauté pan, melt the butter. Heat it to medium-high heat and sauté the cabbage until tender. Add the salt and sugar and stir to dissolve. Add the raisins and cook a few minutes to reduce and thicken any juices. Stir in the walnuts and spread on a sheet pan to cool.
For the strudel:
1. Preheat the oven to 375º F. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper and lay 1 sheet of phyllo on the pan. Using a pastry brush, lightly brush the phyllo with the melted butter. Sprinkle on 1/4 of the sugar and 1/3 of the chopped walnuts. Repeat with the two remaining sheets of phyllo. Reserve the remaining butter and sugar.
2. Turn the sheet pan horizontal to your body. Working from top to bottom, spoon the cooled cabbage along the left side of the phyllo, about 2 inches in from the edge, and leaving 2 inches bare at the top and bottom. Turn the sheet pan 90 degrees and roll up the pastry to encase the filling, forming a log.
3. Move the log to the center of the sheet pan and tuck the ends under to keep the filling from leaking out. Brush the surface with the remaining melted butter and sprinkle with sugar.
4. Bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes. Let cool 10 to 15 minutes in the pan. Using a serrated knife, cut carefully into slices and serve warm.
Mama Lo’s Chicken Curry
A lovely family-style dish that is just exotic enough to add intrigue to everyday meals.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
3 to 4 tablespoons Malaysian curry powder for chicken
6 chicken thighs, bone in, skin on
1 bay leaf
2 Idaho potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 1/4 inch cubes
3 tablespoons coconut milk
1 1/2 cups long-grain rice, cooked according to package directions
- In a pot, heat the oil over medium heat until hot. Stir in the onion, cover, and sweat until translucent. Add the curry powder and stir until fragrant, about 1-2 minutes.
- Add the chicken skin-side down, and toss in the bay leaf, and cover with water. Add about a teaspoon of salt and bring to a boil, skim the surface, then turn down the heat so the liquid is simmering.
- Cook 30 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through and no longer pink in the middle and tender.
- Add the potatoes, return to a simmer and cook until done, about 5 minutes. Add the coconut milk and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve over white rice.
Lidia Bastianich’s Fresh Pasta Quills with Chicken Sauce
(Fuzi con Sugo di Pollo )
Recalls Lidia,“Grandma would begin the sauce by rendering the fat from the fresh hen and then proceed to make the sugo [sauce]. My variation is that I clean off the fat from the hen and then begin with olive oil. She also made homemade pasta quills, or fuzi, whereas today, I tend to use dried pasta.”
For the sugo:
1/2 cup (about 1/2 ounce) dried porcini slices
1 free-range chicken (or rooster), about 3 pounds
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, finely chopped (about 2 cups)
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt or kosher salt, or to taste
2 bay leaves, preferably fresh
4 whole cloves
1 small branch fresh rosemary, with lots of needles
1/4 cup (2 ounces) chicken livers, trimmed of membranes and finely chopped
1/4 cup tomato paste
3 to 6 cups hot poultry broth or other light stock, as needed
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
For cooking and dressing the fuzi and serving:
1 batch (1 1/2 pounds) fresh fuzi, or 1 pound of dried penne
1 1/2 tablespoon coarse sea salt or kosher salt
Extra-virgin olive oil, for finishing
2 cups freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese
- Soak the dried porcini slices in 2 cups of hot water for 30 minutes or longer. When rehydrated, lift them out of the container, squeeze out and reserve the soaking liquid. Chop the porcini into fine pieces.
- Cut the chicken into 6 or more pieces — divide the legs and breast pieces, if the bird is big. Rinse the pieces well, pat dry and season lightly with salt.
- Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan or skillet over medium-high heat. Stir in the onions, 1/4 teaspoon salt, bay leaves, cloves and rosemary. Cook, stirring, until the onions are wilted and lightly colored.
- Push onions to the side of the pan, clearing the bottom, and lay in the chicken pieces. Fry, turning frequently, until golden brown on all sides.
- Clear a small space in the pan bottom, drop in the chopped mushrooms and chicken livers, stir them around until brown and caramelized, then mix them into the onions.
- Clear another hot spot on the bottom, drop in the tomato paste and stir it in place for a couple of minutes until toasted and fragrant. Toss everything together, coating the chicken with paste and other seasonings.
- Pour the reserved mushroom soaking liquid through a strainer lined with a paper towel. Turn up the heat and bring to a boil, stirring the meat and vegetables and scraping up the caramelization on the bottom and sides of the pan.
- Cook for a few minutes until slightly reduced, then ladle in a cup or more of hot stock, enough to almost submerge the chicken pieces. Season with another 1/4 teaspoon salt, cover the pan and adjust heat so the broth is bubbling gently all over the surface. Cook covered, reducing the broth steadily and slowly.
- Check and replenish the liquid every 15 minutes or so to keep the meat about three-quarters covered, turning the pieces occasionally and adjusting the heat if necessary. After 1 1/2 hours or so, when the meat is falling off the bones, turn off the heat. Taste the sauce and add freshly ground black pepper and more salt if needed. Let the chicken and sauce cool completely in the pan.
- To finish the sugo, remove the chicken pieces, then pick out and discard the bay leaves, cloves and rosemary branch. Strip all the edible meat from the chicken bones and shred into bite-size pieces, discarding bones, skin and cartilage. Fold the shredded chicken into the sauce. (You should have roughly equal amounts of meat and sauce—if there’s lots more meat, use it in other dishes.) Use the sugo within an hour or so or refrigerate.
- To cook the fuzi, fill a big pot with 7 quarts of water and 1 1/2 tablespoons salt and bring to a rolling boil. Shake excess flour off the fuzi, if using fresh pasta, and drop them quickly into the pot. Stir briskly so they don’t stick together, cover the pot and bring the water back to the boil rapidly. The fuzi will rise to the surface as they cook; stir them and boil until al dente, anywhere from 2 to 5 minutes, depending on how thick and dry they are. (If using dried pasta, following cooking time on package.)
- Bring the sugo back to simmering in the pan in which it was cooked. If the sauce is very dense, loosen it with more broth (or hot water from the pasta cooking pot). If too soupy, cook uncovered to evaporate moisture. Lift the fuzi from the pot with a spider or flat strainer, drain for a moment, and add them on top of the simmering sauce. Toss together for a minute or two over medium-low heat until all the fuzi are coated with sauce.
- Turn off the heat, drizzle with 2 or 3 tablespoons of olive oil over and toss to incorporate with a cup of the grated cheese. Serve immediately, passing more cheese at the table.
Recipe courtesy of Lidia Bastianich from Lidia’s Italy, published by Alfred A. Knopf