I recently returned from a trip to help move my mother-in-law to a wing of her assisted living facility for residents suffering from dementia or early Alzheimers. The physical move was the easy part–coping with the emotions, hers and ours, was far more traumatic.
The loving, upbeat mother-in-law I’ve known for 40-plus years is moodier now and more confused. Helen is not quite sure who I am or why she should trust me to touch her things. Those changes are painful but the memories remain, and some of the warmest are of time together in the kitchen and at the table.
As it happens, I’m the one who ended up with a large box of Helen’s recipes–written on recipe cards or clipped from newspapers–as well as notes written in her beautiful script during her years as a food and nutrition major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For the most part, it’s too late for followup questions.
When they realized their mom’s memory was starting to fail, Barbara and her sister spent hours asking her questions while making dishes from the family’s Southern Italian heritage. As Barbara culled photos from old albums and compiled stories and recipes from other relatives, this collection took shape.
It’s organized into two sections that match the family routine of Barbara’s childhood: everyday foods and traditional holiday dishes. Among the recipes that caught my eye are braciole cooked in a meaty ragu, a homey spinach-lentil soup, veal rolls filled with prosciutto and mozzarella, cavatelli with broccoli rabe, pizza rustica for the day before Easter, and several ricotta desserts.
Barbara has set a wonderful example for preserving family culinary memories. So did my sister-in-law Greta who, with her siblings, put together a small cookbook–also called Recipes to Remember–honoring their mother’s memory. They printed enough copies only for family and friends, and I felt fortunate to receive one. The photos and stories are charming. I love the list of Bertha Gill’s key ingredients for raising a large family, with admonitions like these: “Broth–make your own. Flour–purchase in 10-pound sacks. Dried fruits, walnuts, chocolate chips–just keep them hidden.”
I asked Greta why, when there wasn’t a drop of Italian blood in the family, there are recipes for pizzelles and anise “toast” (biscotti, really). Turns out family favorites like those originated with Italian neighbors and friends, who also introduced the children to sipping wine at an early age.
The box of our mother-in-law’s recipes is still in my storage unit, but doing something meaningful with them is now on my to-do list. Greta and I have started a list of key recipes that includes Helen’s “secret” chocolate cake, green beans parmesan, liver and onions with bacon, an Egyptian lentil soup recipe, Korean dishes from a two-year teaching stint at a Presbyterian mission, and the biscotti she took up making in old age.
I’ll be back with a recipe or two once we’re farther along with that project, but for now here’s Barbara Magro’s recipe for ricotta cookies. These have a soft, almost cakey texture. I tweaked the recipe a little by subtracting some of the vanilla and adding lemon zest. Colored sprinkles would be nice for the holidays, but I just used turbinado sugar, which contributes a nice sparkle.
(adapted from Recipes to Remember, by Barbara Magro)
Makes about 4 dozen cookies
2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for the pan
4 cups unbleached flour
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/4 cups sugar
15 ounces ricotta cheese
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Turbinado sugar, colored sugar crystals or sprinkles, or chopped candy canes
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter two baking sheets. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, lemon zest, baking soda and baking powder; whisk to blend.
2. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, cream together the 2 sticks butter and sugar. Gradually blend in the eggs, ricotta and vanilla extract. Add the dry ingredients, one third at a time, mixing just until incorporated.
3. Drop teaspoon-sized lumps of the batter onto the prepared baking sheets. Sprinkle with the decorative sugar or candy. Bake 10 to 12 minutes, or until cooked through and very lightly browned.