Home Cooking

Share My Holiday Recipe? I Can't.

December 21 2011 - 3:02 PM

STOLEN_1With Hanukkah beginning and Christmas just around the corner, even the reluctant home cook will probably find him or herself in the kitchen this week. This is the time of nostalgic smells, of kugel baking, of yeast dough rising, of mulled cider warming on the stove. Nearly every family has those few special recipes that only come out of the yellowed card file around this time of year, covered not only with a year's worth of dust, but with a layer of sentimentality and family tradition.

My family has a few such dishes, but my Oma's stolen (a German yeast bread-cake) is the stand-out favorite. I bake a few loaves with her every December and give away the ones I can't possibly eat. Recipients always have two reactions: First, a huge, powdered-sugar-laced smile, and second, "Can I have your recipe?" The disappointing answer is: No. It's not because I'm territorial or protective of my Oma's time-tested stolen, but because the process of making it is just that: a process, and a nearly impossible one to transfer to recipe form.

I'm sure the same is true of many family's holiday recipes. Originally clipped from a German-language women's magazine in the early 1960s, the base recipe for her bread has been tweaked, perfected, and customized over time so that by now, my grandmother bakes it without even consulting the page. As I've learned from baking alongside her, there is no way to measure "a pinch of this," or to explain exactly how long the dough needs to sit until it rises "so it looks like that."

I could probably walk someone through the basics of making the bread, but it would be nearly impossible to codify the rules, tips, and tricks I've learned from my Oma over the years. As it turns out, this is why recipes as we know them didn't exist until the 1880s. Until then, recipes were referred to as "receipts," and more closely resembled a set of general guidelines than a step-by-step process. Rather than containing exact measurements and precise cooking times, receipts listed a few basic ingredients with general suggestions for combining them. Of course, seasonality ruled, so fruits, vegetables, and meats that were available at the same time were listed together.

At Big Jones in Andersonville, chef Paul Fehribach actually bases much of his menu on the idea of receipts. With a nearly encylopedic knowledge of regional Southern food history, Fehribach pores through old receipts and uses them as inspiration for meals like "A Creole Dinner c. 1882" or "A Virginia Hunting Season Dinner c. 1920." Because the receipts aren't exact, it allows him to interpret these ideas in a modern way. If you're in Big Jones for lunch, dinner, or weekend brunch, ask Fehribach to explain a little of the dishes' history to you. It will not only inform your meal, but may give you a new perspective on the background of the holiday dishes you'll be cooking this week.

–Kate Bernot