Saturday, September 20, 2014

Disaster? Or opportunity?

I like to cook. And I like to read cookbooks, just for fun. (I got that habit from my mom, I guess.)

I subscribe to various cooking magazines, Cook's Illustrated and Cooking Light chief among them. Truthfully, though, when you're overseas, those magazines are just so much p0rnography sometimes - it's all pictures of things you can't possible make, because you can't find tempeh, or fermented black beans, or habanero chiles, or whatever it is you need to make that delicious-looking dish on the cover.

When I come across a recipe that looks promising, I tear it out of the magazine for safekeeping. I can't possibly keep years' worth of magazines, but I can keep the recipes I want to try. I have a stack of file folders, all carefully labeled (appetizers, soups, breads, main course, desserts....) according to what's inside.

Or, at least, I had a stack of file folders.

Today I decided to make a chocolate chip cake, because damn if it isn't the best dessert out there, and if you're going to have dessert, go big, people. I went to my kitchen bookshelf, my favorite bookshelf in the house, and broke out the file folders for the first time since we got here, looking for the recipe, which I happen to know is in the middle of the dessert file, scribbled by a young Donna Scaramastra on a scrap of lined notebook paper, the other side of which has information pertaining to the bookstore at the University of California. That's how long I've been making this cake.

The file folders were there on the shelf. So were the recipes. But for some reason, the movers must have decided to un-file the recipes. They were all stacked up outside of the folders, which were stacked separately, empty of all contents.

And I had a lot of recipes in those files.

Page after page after page, all jumbled together.

Honestly, I could make this cake without the recipe at this point. But I sat there on the floor and started rifling through the pages, in search of that one small scrap and lamenting the loss of my system more than a little. It seemed like a minor disaster, right there in the moment.

It turned out to be kind of a nice thing, though. In the hour that it took me to find the recipe, I found all sorts of other things I'd forgotten. The mustard greens recipe my friend Sam gave me back in college - can't get mustard greens overseas, so I haven't made it in ages. The chicken curry recipe my Pakistani student gave me at USC - he called his mother in Karachi and asked her to write it down for me because I love curry. The chili recipe from our DCM in Yerevan. The chocolate tarts from the Ambassador's chef in Amman. Bart's grandmother's half moon cookie recipe. The turkey recipe I use every Thanksgiving. My sister's taco soup recipe. My mom's/nona's spaghetti sauce recipe, with my dad's funny comments right on it.

It turned out to be a nice little trip down memory lane. But it was also a good reminder of why I like to cook so much - I like the way my kitchen ties me to the people I love. (I wrote an article on the topic years ago, for the Washington Post - you can read it here if you'd like.)

My kids are old enough to help out in the kitchen sometimes. More than that, they're old enough to remember their own favorites. I love when they ask for specific dishes sometimes, or talk about meals they've had in the past. I like how Ainsley tells people my food is so good because "the secret  ingredient is love." (I told her that, once, in an unsuccessful bid to get her to taste something, and she remembers it still...) I think that, some day when they get together as adults and talk about their crazy old mom, they'll remember the food I used to make for them, both good and bad. I like to think that, anyway.

It turned out to be a nice little break, sitting there on the floor of my kitchen, flipping through recipes. I didn't attempt to sort them out again. Maybe another day. For today, it was enough just to look through them.

The cake is cooling in the fridge, waiting for Bart's return to Moscow. It really is delicious.


Danielle said... [Reply]

I can imagine both how annoyed you must have been to find everything disheveled and also exactly how nice it must have been to go through all of those recipes. I'm a militant minimalist when it comes to our household belongings but I can't bring myself to throw out our cooking magazines even if I can find most of the recipes online. I love paging through them for fun just to look at what was trendy the year they were published, what the photos look like, where we were, what we cooked, who we cooked it for. Now in Italy I'm having too much fun at the markets. I don't think three years will be long enough to learn how to cook everything I want to.

Mrs T said... [Reply]

Please share the recipe!!!

Donna said... [Reply]

Mrs. T - It's the easiest recipe in the world - if you're in the U.S.! Overseas, where you can't get pre-prepared ingredients.... not so much. But anyway. Grease/flour a bundt pan and heat the oven to 350. Mix together: 1 box devils food cake mix, 1 small instant pudding, 1 cup sour cream, 1/2 cup warm water, 1/2 cup oil and 4 eggs. Mix on high in the blender for 3 minutes. Toss in a bag of chocolate chips (yikes! That's 8 bucks right there, just the chips, when you're overseas!!!) Pour in the bundt and cook for an hour. Top w powdered sugar once it's cool - and it really is best served cold, in my opinion. Okay, I'm totally embarrassed that the ONE recipe I've ever been asked for on this blog is so not a "real" recipe, but seriously - it is soooo good. I prefer to all of my from scratch cakes. Go try it and tell me if you agree...

Deborah said... [Reply]

Hint on the cake...I think it is better with just a cup of choc chips.

I can't believe you didn't tell the world your aunt's name for this cake....or have you forgotten?

Donna said... [Reply]


I have forgotten. Do tell.

Also? You are wrong about the chips. Best part of the cake is the obnoxious number of chips.

trixie comments said... [Reply]

Hi Donna--- we've never met, but a friend shared your blog with me last year and I continue to pop in. Just wanted to tell you that I enjoy it very much. I clicked on the link to the WaPo and did a double take--- an avid reader of the paper for decades, I remember when that story was published. It struck such a chord that I ran off a couple of copies to send to friends. Thanks for writing it and for bringing it back!

Mrs T said... [Reply]

Thanks for sharing the recipe. Oddly, I have all of the ingredients, but not my bundt pan!! Hopefully, our HHE will arrive next week. I will let you know how it turns out.

Brighid said... [Reply]

Love your recipe and the blog too! Can I share the recipe on my blog with credit to you?

Donna said... [Reply]

Oh dear am I going to become famous for my throw-a-bunch-of-packages in a mixing bowl recipe? I swear I can make stuff from scratch, I swear it! But of course you can share. Isn't it the best cake ever??

Brighid said... [Reply]

It is the best! As I'm not good at from scratch it is doable for me. Thanks!

Brighid said... [Reply]
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brighid said... [Reply]

I posted it with the name: "Donna's World Renown Yummy Chocolate Cake Recipe with Love from Russia"

Please. Write your own stuff.