Sister sleuths seek heirloom recipes

It's that time of year again, when even the most tentative bakers don an apron, grab a sack of flour, and dust off the old cookie cutters to make a batch of holiday treats. For inspiration, one need not look far. With the click of a mouse, cooks can call up hundreds of tantalizing holiday recipes on the Internet. But the best recipes just might be those that have been handed down through generations, the ones that reside, perhaps, amid a heap of musty papers in your attic.

No one makes a more convincing argument for digging up old family recipes – even for those notorious fruitcakes – than Sheila and Marilyn Brass, authors of "Heirloom Baking with the Brass Sisters" (Black Dog & Leventhal, 293 pp., $29.95). It is elaborately subtitled: "More than 100 Years of Recipes Discovered from Family Cookbooks, Original Journals, Scraps of Paper, and Grandmother's Kitchen."

If their delightful cookbook doesn't compel you to explore your own culinary legacy and track down Aunt Verna's recipe for her signature Banana Cream Pie, nothing will. To nudge you along, the Brass Sisters include a keepsake envelope in the back of the book.

"Heirloom Baking" is a keepsake all its own.

The Brass sisters, who have been baking in their own kitchens for a combined 95 years, are so passionate about collecting recipes from America's past – including those from family, friends, and total strangers – that they have devoted about 30 years to scouring yard sales, flea markets, and used bookstores in search of them. They are especially on the lookout for recipes that are not only simple and delicious, but also tell a good story, revealing interesting tidbits about the women, families, and communities the recipes came from.

So far, their treasure hunt has turned up about 85 "manuscript cookbooks," or collections of personal recipes compiled by home cooks, dating from the late 1800s to the 1980s from all across America and a variety of ethnic groups. From these manuscript cookbooks, the Brass Sisters researched, tested, and tasted numerous batches of brownies, cookies, and biscuits as well as cakes, cobblers, crisps, pies, and tarts until they finally arrived at about 150 favorite "living recipes," as they call them, to feature in "Heirloom Baking."

"We'd go to about 40 yard sales every weekend, mostly in New England," says Sheila Brass, recalling some of their finds and the nicknames they gave the unknown recipe writers. "There was the 'church lady,' who jotted down a wonderful recipe for Black-Pepper Hush Puppies, and the 'radio lady,' whose pecan cookie recipe turned out so well."

But, of course, many of their most- treasured recipes came from the women they knew best – their mother, Dorothy Katziff Brass, and their aunt, Ida Tucker Katziff. Dorothy was a very talented home cook and baker, and she taught her daughters the basics of cooking when they were young. "When we could barely reach the kitchen table," they write, "we were already turning scraps of dough into miniature braided challah loaves and turnovers, lovingly brushed with an egg glaze to make them shiny."

Sheila baked her first cake at age 11, and Marilyn had mastered filled cookies by the seventh grade. To this day, both sisters recall vividly the smell of sour-cream coffee cakes and yeast breads baking in the cast-iron and enamel stove in their kitchen or watching "Mama" frost her chocolate-velvet cake.

But even more powerful than the memories was the message, says Marilyn, explaining: "Our mother put so much love into everything she baked that she made us feel baking was all about giving love to a family."

It's that simple, say the motherly, down-to-earth Brass Sisters, who call themselves "two rounded, bespectacled women in our 60s." Their total lack of pretense – in their characters and their recipes – is especially appealing in this day of celebrity chefs and multistep cooking instructions that call for exotic, hard-to-find ingredients.

"We are just regular people," says Marilyn in an interview at her sister's office just outside of Boston. " 'Heirloom Baking' is written by home cooks for home cooks."

There was nothing pretentious about baking in America's past, and reflecting that, "Heirloom Baking" is not the least bit fussy. "Ninety-nine percent of the recipes in this book can be made with a wooden spoon," says Sheila.

The Brass Sisters updated recipes for the more sophisticated tastes of today's home cook, for example replacing stale bread in a Pumpkin Cheesecake Bread Pudding with brioche, and substituting butter for lard in a tart recipe. But they insist all ingredients can be found at one's local supermarket, and recipes are doable even for the once-a-year holiday baker.

But what about that tangerine oil in the recipe for Chocolate Tangerine Sugar Cookies? That's the only exotic ingredient in our book, says Marilyn, adding reassuringly: "If you can't find it, simply substitute orange or lemon extract or tangerine zest."

The organization of "Heirloom Baking" might throw some home cooks. It does not have separate chapters for cookies, cakes, tarts, and other desserts. Instead, the sisters opted for a more original, albeit less logical, approach with chapter headings such as "Holidays with Family and Friends," "In the Good Ole Summertime," and "Baking with Mama." These chapters are preceded by the useful: "How to Use This Book," which offers tips on various ingredients such as: "Do not use salted butter; its moisture content can affect the baking results."

Marilyn Brass says her favorite chapter is "Comfort the Family," which includes recipes for such classics as Banana Bread, Carrot Cake, and Bread Pudding, alongside a 19th-century "Compromise Cake" and "Miss Emma Smith's War Cake," a fruitcake that was born out of necessity and therefore, doesn't include butter, eggs, or milk.

Marilyn's choice is no surprise: Delivering comfort through baking is at the heart of "Heirloom Baking." Fortunately, for these first-time authors, "comfort food" still holds strong appeal across America, and their book is already selling like, well, hot cakes.

"It's truly a Cinderella story," say the sisters, whose postinterview plans included a tour of eight cities in the following 11 days. But almost more than the publicity events, Marilyn and Sheila, who are also culinary-antiques experts with a vast collection of kitchen molds and artifacts, can't wait to check out the used bookstores, flea markets, and antiques shops they might discover on the road.

Chocolate graham toffee fingers

13 or 14 chocolate or plain graham crackers, each broken into 4 sections
1 cup butter, melted
1 cup brown sugar
8 oz. semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped, or 8 oz. semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup walnuts or pecans, toasted and coarsely chopped
2 oz. white chocolate, melted (optional)

Set oven rack in the middle position. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Cover a jelly roll pan – approximately 11-by-17 inches with a one-inch-high edge – with foil, shiny side up, and coat with vegetable spray. Line the bottom of pan evenly with graham crackers.

Heat butter and brown sugar in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until mixture comes to a boil. Cook 3 more minutes, stirring constantly.

Pour butter mixture over the graham crackers in the jelly roll pan, spreading evenly with an offset spatula. Place pan in oven and bake 7 to 8 minutes, or until surface is bubbling and golden brown. Check every few minutes to make sure mixture is not burning or browning too quickly.

Remove pan from oven and place on rack. Sprinkle chocolate across top, let sit 5 minutes, and then spread melted chocolate with an offset spatula. Sprinkle toasted nuts across top. Drizzle white chocolate from a pastry bag over the surface. Cut into sections while still slightly warm, following the outline of the graham crackers. Chill in the refrigerator until set. Store between sheets of wax paper in a covered tin in refrigerator.

Makes 40 pieces.

Source: "Heirloom Baking with the Brass Sisters"

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