It is a source of some amazement to me that the simple act of cleaning out a cabinet can be as meaningful as an archaeological dig.
On a recent evening Mr. Vino foolishly opened my recipe cabinet. Yes, cabinet. Not box, not folder, not drawer. I have an entire kitchen cabinet (3 shelves) devoted to my love of cooking. The majority of the contents of these 3 shelves came tumbling out on top of Mr. Vino that evening. Cleaning out the recipe cabinet was on my list of things to do. Looking at Mr. Vino’s expression, cleaning out the cabinet quickly moved to my list of things to do . . . . tomorrow.
Excavating through the cook books, recipes handwritten on post-it notes (Mrs. Vino’s favorite storage tool), and all my other sources of culinary inspiration was a journey through time. I found the cookbook I put together for my sisters, the Christmas after my father passed away. Dad got his love of cooking from his mother and her mother before her, but he had a particular fondness for HIGHLY UNUSUAL ingredients. To this day, I don’t think any of my sisters have made his recipe for Sumatran Spicy Tripe.
Digging deeper, I found the recipes from my weight loss period (note to self, bring those out and start using them). In order to lose 65 lbs in 6 months, I taught myself to cook in an entirely new way. Weight loss, I discovered, is simple math. You have to burn more than you take in. And, when you cook, adding more of the higher-calorie ingredients does not always make a better end result; but when you add more of the lower calorie ingredients (i.e. veggies) it is much more filling.
In the very back corner of the middle shelf, I found my mother’s recipe box. My mother was an absolutely amazing woman. Ten plus years after her passing, I still miss her each and every day. Cooking wasn’t her passion, it was her chore. I had completely forgotten that she had a recipe box. I hadn’t seen it or opened it since we cleaned up her possessions so many years ago.
It was made of gray metal; small, solid and cool in my hand. Completely innocuous. Really more of an office product than a kitchen tool. As I opened the box, I smelled pepper, lemon and cinnamon. The recipe cards had yellowed and some had crumbled around the edges. I think it’s rather telling and very indicative of the era when women were supposed to find joy in cooking that none of the recipes in her box were written in her own hand. In my recipe cabinet, EVERY book, magazine and Post-It is covered with my own notes, thoughts and suggestions.
Mom’s recipe box is most closely tied to my memories of the holidays. As the holidays approached, Mom, my sisters and I would all gather around the recipe box to decide what cookies to put in the holiday gift packages we prepared for teachers, family and friends. Amazingly enough, every year we made the same confections: Bourbon Balls and Sugared Walnuts. Looking through the recipe box now, I realize why. Bourbon Balls and Sugared Walnuts are the only confection recipes in the collection.
My mother’s passion wasn’t cooking. Her passion was her children. But every recipe she prepared was filled with love. I may have inherited my love of cooking from my grandmother and great-grandmother. But from my mother I learned that no matter how simple a dish, if it is made with love, it is nourishing.
With love from my mom and me, here is her classic recipe for Bourbon balls updated to be used with Il Tesoro (chocolate raspberry port) or other dessert wine.
1 1/2 cups pecans, finely chopped (or use the pecans that are already chopped fine)
1 1/4 cups finely crushed (about 1 dozen) Chinese almond cookies (or Vanilla Wafer Cookies–about 16)
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1/4 cup Il Tesoro or other fortified dessert wine
Additional ½ cup powdered sugar, for rolling the balls in when finished
Toast your pecans by putting them in a non-stick pan over medium-high heat. You can toast them whole, or chopped–if they are chopped, KEEP YOUR EYE ON THEM, they will toast really quickly. Continually move the skillet back and forth over the burner like you were making Jiffy Pop (for those of you old enough to remember Jiffy Pop). You can tell when the nuts are toasted by smell, more than appearance. They will start to smell a bit like popcorn too. When they start to smell toasted, pour them out of the pan onto a plate and let them cool.
Pulse the cooled pecans in your food processor to finely chop (if you are using whole pecans). If you used chopped Pecans, omit that step. Put chopped Pecans in bowl, then place cookies in your food processor to crush. Put the cookie crumbs in the bowl, too. Add the first ½ cup powdered sugar and cocoa powder and stir to combine. Add the corn syrup and the Tesoro and stir well. Chill the mixture for 10-15 minutes (if you are making these on a cold day, this may not be necessary).
Use a teaspoon to help you make 1″ balls. You are going to roll the balls in the second ½ cup of powdered sugar, so put the second ½ cup of powdered sugar on a plate or in a pie tin. I use the dry hand/wet hand technique. I roll the balls (kind of sticky) in my left hand, then put them on the plate with the powdered sugar. Use your right hand (dry hand) to roll the balls in the powdered sugar, then place them on a piece of waxed paper or parchment paper.
Once the balls have all been made, put them in an airtight container and store in the fridge. These are waaaayyyyy better if made several days in advance. The flavors mingle and get happy!
Happy Holidays and remember to TREASURE every moment.