A slice of life inside a recipe box

Some women hoard successful recipes as if they were personal trophies. Not I. Mention that you like something I have made, and my response is immediate: "Would you like the recipe?"

You see, I learned years ago that recipes are possibly the easiest way to immortality. Here is an example: This morning I decided that the market's fresh raspberries merited a pie, for which I have a delicious recipe – whole raspberries, a jellied glaze, flaky crust, crème fraîche.

The trouble is, I can never remember the exact proportions of the glaze and invariably need to look up the recipe.

And this is where it all begins. My recipes, filed haphazardly in an old recipe box, would bring tears to the eyes of any organized person.

The box overflows with dog-eared recipes from newspapers, tear-outs from magazines, carefully written cards from early in my marriage, and shared recipes from friends and family. There is everything from croquembouche to Dennis Weaver's (remember him?) salad.

Add to this my problem of filing. Did I put raspberry pie under "P" for pie, "R" for raspberry, or "D" for dessert? I pause to think, but no clue comes.

Since this is not a new problem, I start methodically, alphabetically, leafing through the box. Thumbing through "D," I pause by Grandma's recipe for drop doughnuts.

Seeing that recipe takes me back to her kitchen where, as an 8-year-old with flour sifter in hand, I can hear her say: "Sift slowly. Add just enough flour [to the batter] so the spoon stands up."

Grandma never consulted a recipe or used a cookbook. She never measured except with her eyes. Instead, she relied on "pinches," "dabs," and "sprinkles," which made tasting (a spoonful of cake batter, a finger of mashed potatoes, a forkful of roast turkey) absolutely necessary – and a special treat.

As I think about Grandma's cooking, I believe that for her to rely on a cookbook contradicted values she held dear: pioneer independence, an ability to "make do," and the prestige of being a good cook.

I wonder what she would think of me and my helpers – fast food, carryouts, delis.

I move on to "P." There, the second card is Aunt Lyd's pineapple frozen dessert. I smile. It was no family secret that Aunt Lyd couldn't cook. One of the few career women of her generation, she spent her days managing a telephone office.

Therefore, at family gatherings she was never expected to bring anything but store-bought items such as cheese, potato chips, etc. That was, of course, in direct contrast to those asking for Aunt Eve's "wonderful" cranberry salad or Mom's "heavenly" angel food cake.

Even so, from someone, somewhere, Aunt Lyd had acquired a recipe for a frozen pineapple dessert that even the snobbiest cooks in the family had to admit was quite good.

It was years after her death that I received a call from a cousin who lived in Washington D.C. "Do you," she asked, "have the recipe for Aunt Lyd's pineapple dessert? I would so like to serve it for a luncheon at the Pentagon." (I envisioned the other aunts rolling their eyes.)

I go on to "R."

Leading off is "Uncle Al's Rum Cake." The only bachelor in our extended family, Uncle Al was known for this cake and insisted on bringing it to every family event. Al was the rebel member of the family, choosing not to marry but to live a bohemian lifestyle.

Grandmother, cutting that cake, would shake her head and mutter, "When will he settle down?"

I pause, remembering his two-tone shoes, his late-model car, how much fun he was – particularly in contrast to his sister, who marcelled her hair, wore proper-length voile dresses, "sensible" shoes, and was a vegetarian.

Not to eat meat in a farming community was almost unforgivable. However, family members reminded one another "She does live in the city," before politely taking small helpings of her baked rutabagas.

Finally, on about the fifth card, I see "Raspberry Pie With Crème Fraîche." Voilà! It has taken me 20 minutes to find it, and that was only because I made myself move on.

But I don't fret. Recalling the time, the place, and the uniqueness of the person from whom it came brings to each recipe a rich, treasured dimension.

As I hurry to assemble the ingredients, I wonder: Could this pie of mine reach the same status?

Raspberry Pie

3/4 to 1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
4 to 4-1/2 cups fresh raspberries, divided
3 tablespoons raspberry gelatin
1 (9-inch) baked pie shell*
Whipped cream or crème fraîche (recipe follows), for garnish

Combine sugar and cornstarch in a small bowl (amount of sugar depends on sweetness of raspberries and whether you top the pie with crème fraîche, which adds tartness); set aside.

Crush 2 cups of the raspberries with a fork and add enough water to make 1-1/2 cups.

In a medium saucepan, bring berry-water mixture to a gentle boil over medium heat; quickly stir in sugar and cornstarch mixture. Continue to cook, stirring lightly, until the liquid is thick and clear.

Remove from heat and add raspberry gelatin. Stir until dissolved. Set aside for 5 minutes.

Fill the baked shell with the remaining 2 to 2-1/2 cups raspberries. Pour the warm berry mixture over the whole berries. Refrigerate until set.

Use dollops of whipped cream for garnish or cover the top of the pie with 1 cup crème fraîche (purchased, or from recipe below).

Serves 6 to 8.

* Note: If buying a frozen pie shell, get a 9-inch deep-dish type.

Crème Fraîche

Whisk 1/4 to 1/2 cup of chilled heavy cream into 1/2 cup of chilled sour cream in a small bowl until lightly thickened. (If necessary, let sit at room temperature until it reaches the desired spreading consistency.) Spread over the pie and chill until serving time.

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