“It came to me like a pie in the night.”
Such was a favorite expression of my old friend Claire, known to my daughter as Aunt Boo, for reasons that are now lost. Neither my daughter nor I have clapped eyes on Claire, or Aunt Boo, for decades, but I have never forgotten the expression. It didn’t take long to figure out what she meant: a piece of serendipity, something unexpected and wonderful coming out of nowhere.
Knowing Claire as I did, I surmised that being roused from a deep sleep only to find a big, delicious pie on her night table was her idea of the ultimate in unearned good fortune.
Personally, I was never as comfortable with the idea of a housebreaking midnight pie fairy, but I took to using the expression anyway. And still do from time to time when the occasion warrants.
As it did on Sunday when I was working on the unending task of organizing my bookshelves. In my living room, I have a 7-foot tall, 8-foot wide bookshelf. It’s solid oak, not veneer, and I’m quite fond of it. Paid practically nothing for it at an antique store where the owner said he had acquired it from a church where it had served time in the pastor’s office. I believe him because sometimes I can feel the shelves cringe when I place racier works of fiction on them.
I have two other bookshelves which I will not describe as they are not nearly as nice nor of such distinguished provenance. They are in a room euphemistically referred to as “the study” but which is, in actual fact, a junk room.
Books are not so much sorted as segregated. The pretty shelves in what I hope will someday be a pretty room gets the pretty books. Less attractive volumes are relegated to the erstwhile study. Which serves the purpose of making it an ordeal to find any given book.
For instance, is my autographed copy of Rose Levy Beranbaum’s “The Cake Bible” in the living room on the pastor’s shelves where a Bible would normally be lodged, playfully hiding among the larger, glossier cookbooks of celebrity chefs of days gone by, which someone paid way too much for and I found at Goodwill after they died? “The Cake Bible” is autographed, after all.
But it is also smeared with Callebaut chocolate from the many, many times I have baked Rose’s Chocolate Truffle Torte. There is also a bit of mysterious debris adhered to the chocolate stains which I desperately hope (but can not be sure) are desiccated raspberry seeds, a relic of the many batches of Rose’s fresh raspberry puree that I make to serve with the chocolate torte.
Perhaps condition has caused me to relegate this once-proud volume to the junk room shelves. I don’t remember. Multiply this debacle by every single time I want a book and you see my dilemma. So over the weekend, I was moving every single cookbook to the living room, even the raggedy ones without spines and the ones purchased at library sales with call letters etched onto the dust jackets.
I’m making space for this motley collection by banishing to the junk room some beautiful coffee table books of fashion and art that are masterpieces of 20th century photography. But I never use them anymore, so off they go, despite their beauty and value. Likewise the literary novels and fancy nonfiction that are supposed to make me look smart, but do exactly the opposite when I have to admit I didn’t like them or, worse yet, didn’t understand. Off they go. Away to the junk room.
And amidst all this sturm und drang comes my pie in the night. Wedged in behind the less-attractive cookbooks in the junk room I found a little cookbook that went missing years and years ago. It’s my favorite of all even though it came without a single recipe in it. It’s just a series of categories, ‘pies and cakes,’ ‘side dishes,’ etc., each of which is not a page, but a pocket. And from the time it was received as a wedding gift in 1983 until it was lost a decade ago, recipes were stuffed into the pockets.
Pulling them out one at a time and looking at each one was a walk down memory lane. Much like finding a long-lost photo album, but better.
Right off, I found a bunch of index cards where Claire had copied off some of her favorite recipes for me in her tiny, neat handwriting. There was the page from Parade magazine that had Julia Child’s Thanksgiving dinner, including the soup in a pumpkin that had been my sister’s favorite before she died. A Xerox copy of the carrot cake recipe my mom made for our wedding cake. It was the best carrot cake I ever ate, and Mom hadn’t lost the recipe, but she had forgotten which one she used that time. But I had made a copy of it. Don’t remember doing it, but there it was.
There were recipes from long-lost co-workers. A yellow legal sheet in my handwriting where I had written down how Annushka — a Ukrainian refugee who had come to the U.S. when the Soviet Union broke up and Jews were finally allowed to emigrate — had told me how she made stuffed cabbage. As soon as I saw the sheet, I remembered how good her stuffed cabbage was.
There was a typed sheet from Mary Ann Hart, who was another design assistant at my first fashion industry job. The recipe was for a boozy Christmas punch whose legend lived large in my family lore after the one Christmas we made batches of it. It’s got cream and eggs and is kind of like egg nog, but is way better.
It was christened “reindeer milk” by my sister’s first husband who got completely snockered on it. I think about reindeer milk every holiday season, but now, if I want to, I can make another batch and watch someone else misbehave.
And last, but certainly not least, I found a Xerox copy of the index card on which my mom had typed her recipe for Italian creme cake. It was my favorite cake growing up. I yammer about it all the time, but the index card went missing long ago, and I had no idea I’d made a copy.
It was also quite a shock to see that she used some Crisco in her cream cheese frosting. She was bad for that back in the day. Crisco made frosting easier to pipe and decorate with, but it tasted nasty. Maybe the cream cheese masked the Crisco taste, because my memory of that cake does not contain Crisco.
When I make the cake, I’m using all butter instead. Nostalgia will only take you so far.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.