One of the best cookbooks in existence, the bible of cooking, is a big thick book with just a few illustrations, black and white pages, and a spiral bound spine. That last is important, because the book lies flat as you follow the step-by-steps of a recipe that is practically guaranteed to be delicious. The book, if you haven't guessed already, is The Joy of Cooking, a labour of love and dedication from several generations of an American family that started with a little self-published volume by Irma Starkloff Rombauer, in the late 1920s. A sweet cherub-faced widow in her early fifties, she wrote and self-published with her legacy the cookbook that changed American home cooking and went on to become a standard classic that has been revised many times and is still loved by new cooks and old.
Julia Child said about the 1975 edition, " ...it is number one on my list...the one book of all cookbooks in English that I would have on my shelf if I could have but one."
It was the book that taught me to cook. Before The Joy I could make a few basic things quite well, and I had taught myself how to make some vegetarian things from The Diet for a Small Planet series, but I was in no way prepared to face the responsibility of cooking every meal when I assumed the role of Mom to my husband's young family and we moved hundreds of miles north, away from my grandmother, mother, and aunts who might have been able to give me more of a hand if they were a bit closer.
Fortunately I came upon a copy of The Joy of Cooking. I don't remember where but I do remember thinking a bit about whether I could afford to buy such a large hardcover book when the money could be spent on so many other things. Looking through it I must have noticed the breadth of recipes and the sections on measurement, oven temperatures, canning and baking, and sections of how-tos for almost any category of food I could think of. It was nothing less than an encyclopedia and I found it fascinating. It stuck to my hands like it was magnetized. I made the right decision and plunked my money down.
That book was my stalwart friend through Thanksgiving dinners, birthday parties, teaching myself how to bake bread, entertaining, making homemade jams and liqueurs with the wild Labrador Partridge berries, blueberries and raspberries we picked, turning out tasty pies and delicious puff pastries, and making Christmases happy with spiced cookies and puddings. The baked carrot pudding that substituted for plum pudding when I couldn't get ingredients in the north turned out to be so good and quick that I continued to make it for years. And I'll probably make it again when I cook a family Christmas dinner.
I taught myself to cook by working through the book, trying at least one recipe in almost every category and poring over the how-to sections until I understood what spelled success or failure and until I could substitute for almost any ingredient, and customize basic recipes to make things materialize from ideas I had for tastes I wanted to try. The book was a great teacher.
Years of cooking passed and I learned to cook without recipes. I rarely needed to consult a recipe for more than inspiration, unless it was an exacting one. Usually since baking is a little fussier to make perfect, I would consult the basic recipe for say, a muffin, and then improvise relying on my experience from years of cooking and what I had absorbed from The Joy.
That was until last year when I started eating vegetarian and gluten-free. That required a bit of research to understand how to get good texture in baked goods without relying on wheat. I started to read a lot of the gluten-free websites, blogs, and recipes online to find out what was possible. I experimented with gluten-free recipes but found after trying some, that though they were good, what I was really looking for were recipes that I remembered or tastes that I had loved or new tastes I wanted to love. I needed to customize similarly to what I had done years ago with recipes from The Joy.
So I started to try using different flours, based on classics from The Joy. This is for baked goods, you understand. For other things, unless I find something that looks delectable online, I just wing it.
I don't make desserts too often, because there's just me here to eat them. Delicious but dangerous. But occasionally, often on a Sunday around lunch time, when my grandmother produced her famous after-church pies, I feel a little pang for something sweet. Something sweet and homey, like those pies were. Reminiscent of Nannie's kitchen, with its buttery smell. Today I thought about the squares that were so popular in Nova Scotia when I was growing up. Many of them are indeed made with a pastry bottom and a pie-like topping, but without the difficulty of rolling out dough in a small kitchen. And I found squares are perfect for gluten-free cooking. The base can usually be "patted in" rather than rolled, which means no chilling, no waiting, no breaking. Easy as pie, or as easy as pie ought to be. And as good, maybe even better.
I found a wonderful recipe for Lemon Curd Squares in The Joy and adapted it to make it gluten-free. And just because I felt like it and I could, I added poppy seeds to make a lemon curd poppy seed topping. Serendipidy.
There's a bit of butter in this one, some I wanted to use up that's been frozen for quite a while now. Hokkaido butter, from the cold north of Japan, which is tasty and good. If you are vegan, you might want to try making this with a good non-hydrogenated margarine, or maybe even some vegetable oil. It will make the crumb more sandy and mealy, so you will have to experiment to get it good. I can't think of a substitute for the eggs. I'll try to experiment the next time I make them, but if any vegans out there have good ideas, please share.
Thanks to the Rombauers and the legacy of The Joy of Cooking for making my cooking life truly a joyful one. Here now, in their honour, are Lemon-Poppy Joy Squares.
Eat them and think of the woman who started it all. Here's to you Irma for all the joy.
*******Lemon-Poppy Joy Squares********
1 cup gluten-free mixed-flour(for baking)of your choicePress and pat into a greased small square or oblong baking pan. After you distribute the clumps of dough, press together to cover the bottom of the pan, then use your finger tips to even out the depth. Bake at medium heat (350 F or 180 C) for 10-20 minutes. Watch closely in a small Japanese oven, which cooks more quickly, and remove when golden brown. Mix:
or 1 cup all-purpose flour, if you can have wheat
1/4 cup powdered sugar (confectioner's)
1/2 cup melted butter (I used 1/8 cup mixed vegetable oil and the rest butter)
1 cup brown sugarPour the mixture over the warm baked crust and bake 20-25 minutes until brown on top and set. Let cool before cutting into squares or bars.
1/2 tsp. baking powder
2 beaten eggs
2 Tb. fresh lemon juice
2 tsp. grated lemon rind
1/4 cup poppy seeds (available in Japan from cake supply or bulk spice stores)
Try not to eat the whole pan. I recommend sharing.