As part of Bas Bleu’s 2015 Book a Month program, each month we’re offering discussion questions, author interviews, or other bonus materials to enrich your reading experience—for book clubs as well as thoughtful individuals. (We’ll do our best to avoid plot spoilers, but you should proceed with caution!)
During her all-too-brief lifetime, Laurie Colwin penned five novels and three short-story collections, yet it is her food writing—many of the essays originally published in Gourmet magazine—that continues to burnish Colwin’s literary legacy two decades after her death.
In our May 2015 Book a Month selection More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen, Colwin does, of course, write about cooking. But her brief essays also offer humor and insight into marriage, parenting, friendship, work, household catastrophes, and more of the everyday, well, life that most of us grapple with. It’s why writer and food critic Ruth Reichl dubbed her “the anti-Martha Stewart,” and why New York Times food writer Jeff Gordinier explains
her essays stand out as an antidote to glowy, glossy magazine photos in which carefree, beautiful people savor a spread of gastronomic wonder around picnic tables on some farm in Umbria, with shafts of Spielbergian sunlight illuminating the scene. By contrast, Ms. Colwin’s world is one of hangover cures, dinner parties gone awry, an apartment so minuscule that its inhabitant has to clean dishes in the bathtub, and the appeal of simple, unstylish grub like boiled beef, black beans, lentil soup and potato salad.
In More Home Cooking (published posthumously as a follow-up to the bestselling Home Cooking), Colwin shares her hard-won culinary expertise in essays such as “Jet Lag and How to Feed It,” “How to Face the Holidays,” “Real Food for Tots,” and “Down-Home Standbys.” There’s something for everyone in these pages, and today we’re sharing two of Colwin’s recipes from More Home Cooking.
First up: “a true, no-fault, idiot-proof dessert, beloved by adults and children (animals often go for it, too)” a.k.a. Classic Shortbread
1. Cream 1 stick of butter with ¼ cup confectioners’ (powdered) sugar. Add ½ teaspoon vanilla.
2. Work in ¾ cup all-purpose flour sifted with ¼ cup rice flour, 1/8 teaspoon baking powder, and 1/8 teaspoon salt. (Classic Scottish recipes use rice flour to give the shortbread a slightly grainy crispiness that is very delicious. You can find rice flour at specialty food shops and natural food stores. However, if an extra stop is not on your shopping agenda, you may eliminate the rice flour and use 1 cup all-purpose flour.)
3. Pat the dough into an 8-inch circle on an ungreased cookie sheet. This recipe gives you a very soft, delicate dough, so be patient with it. Before baking, score the dough, making 6 wedges, and mark the edges with the tines of a fork.
4. Bake the shortbread in a preheated 375ºF oven for about 20 minutes, or until the edge is golden brown.
5. While the shortbread is still warm, cut it into the wedges with a sharp knife.
(We baked this shortbread on Sunday. By end of business on Monday it had been almost entirely devoured!)
Next: a recipe that’s on our to-try list for this weekend, because have you seen bread prices lately???
1. An hour before you go to bed, fling 1 cup oatmeal into your blender and grind. Put the oatmeal, 1 cup of wheat germ, 6 cups of white flour, 1 tablespoon of salt, and ½ teaspoon of yeast into a large bowl. About 3 cups of tepid water will make up the dough. Knead it, roll it in flour, and put it right back in the bowl you mixed it up in. Cover the bowl and go to sleep.
2. The next morning, make the coffee and knock down the bread. Divide it in half and put each half into a buttered bread tin (you can butter them the night before and stick them in the fridge to save time). Cover the tins with a tea towel and go to work.
3. When you come home, heat the oven to 400ºF, paint the top of the loaves with milk (this is a frill and need not be done, but it makes a nice-looking crust), and bake for about 40 minutes, turning once. It is hard to describe the nutty, buttery taste of this bread, and it is worth the 15 minutes of work it took you to make.
Finally, as a lagniappe for the hospitable among you, we think you’ll get a kick out of Colwin’s “cardinal rules for self-catering.” Or as we like to call it, How to Host and Feed Friends So That They Have Fun and You Don’t Wind Up Crying in the Kitchen:
1. Unless you are that sort of person, don’t drive yourself nuts.
2. Realize that people are made happy by delicious food, and you do not have to knock yourself out to be thrilling or original.
3. If you are going to make a large quantity of hummus, use your food processor or borrow that of a friend.
4. Always buy more lemons than you think you need.
5. Think small.
6. Even if you associate putting together a party with chaos and panic, remember this startling idea: You can actually have fun at your own party.
Happy baking! And more importantly: Happy eating!