Thanking past cooks for a special book, pie

ledepie01We come to find things in a seemingly roundabout way…or do we? Perhaps it is true that there are no accidents and that coincidence is not merely that. What led me to a most delicious pie recipe was my mother, whose fancy and instinct was successfully piqued as she nosed through her own mother’s very old cookbook that happened to have the serendipitous name of “Searchlight Recipe Book.”

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Some of you may be aware of this book but most of you are not, as it came out in the 1930s, published by a Household Magazine (headquartered in Topeka, Kan.). The book is filled with recipes from readers of the magazine, as well as staff of the publication, who cooked and baked and tested all the concoctions within. An early precursor of “America’s Test Kitchen,” the editors of the cookbook describe The Household Searchlight as “a service station conducted for the readers of The Household Magazine…In this seven-room house lives a family of specialists whose entire time is spent i working out the problems of homemaking common to every woman…”

This seems both astounding and reassuring, and certainly bespeaks a time gone by. The recipes within this book are reflective of — given the date of publishing — managing on little, but still upholding the dignity of serving something proud. Such offerings as Oatmeal Soup (or Oatmeal Croquettes) indicated the leanness of the times. Other oddities, like Apple Eggs, where freshly boiled eggs were shaped by hand into a round apple shape, painted red and given a stem (parsley) and blossom (a clove), showed the reaches of a hostess attempting to be creative on very little.

The cookbook is very plain — it is all text (in a typewriter-type font) except for photos on the inside cover, with simple tabbed sections. It is no longer in print, but there are still copies in print floating around out there. I managed to find one of my own in an antique store in Abilene, Kan. It is far too clean a copy, compared to the version my late grandmother used.

granma01Her book was another piece of a mystery puzzle of knowing my maternal grandmother, who died tragically of leukemia two days before my first birthday. She was 49. I’m not sure the family ever recovered from the shock and sadness of the loss. I know my grandfather didn’t. Because she has been gone my entire life, I wanted to know her more. I know my sister knew her, called her “Granny” and spent nearly every weekend of her early childhood with our grandmother. I know beyond my lack of memories of her, I was left with a pillow she made me of terry washcloths (I called it “Billow Billow” and carried it everywhere) Despite having little contact, I have some understanding, I think, of who she might have been and have found myself at times following her whispers of intent, as if she was some sort of familial muse. I followed her to Kansas State University, where she was trained to become a schoolteacher. I later followed her to California, where she lived for a few years, giving birth to my mother and uncle. I have likes and dislikes which, according to some, mirror hers. I know she had many lighthearted loves — Frank Sinatra, Snoopy, the Grinch…she loved the holidays and family and food. She hated gluttons (stowing her much-revered fried chicken in the oven to stay warm, she attached a note to it to thwart any pickers: “No, no, no! This is for supper!”).

cookbook01Looking at her copy of “Searchlight Recipe Book,” I learned a little more. She was, as my mother claims, “hell on sweets.” Making them and eating them. She loved to bake…cakes especially — the cake pages are nearly unreadable, stained and spattered with long-ago batter. She scribbled her own recipes in the book, too. One for “Xmas Cookies” barely gives ingredients and instructions — it’s as if she could cook with penciled mental nudges, like a finger-string reminder.

The pie section, too, seemed well-used. I’m not certain she made the “Apple Cream Pie,” my mother discovered thumbing through the old book one day. It was outside the pie section in a special part of the book in back offering menu ideas. This pie was suggested as a dessert for supper. I’m not sure, looking at its simple components, I would have given it much thought, but once my mother made it and raved, I gave it a go myself. It is, to use a family friend’s description, “to die for.”

filling01Perhaps you have heard of sour cream pies — namely raisin — where the fruit is combined with a tangy base of cream, elevating something humble to something rich and decadent. Here the fruit is apples, mixed with a “base” of sour cream, sugar, egg and sour cream. A baking process begins the pie at high heat to set it, then the oven temperature is lowered so the pie may cook long and fully. Halfway through, a delicious crumble topping is added. The final result is apple pie turned royal. It never disappoints. On a recent visit home, my mother mixed dried cherries into the filling. Delicious! Inspired by her addition, I added dried cranberries to the filling and walnuts to the topping. The textures and flavors enhanced the pie ever more.

I will return to the “Searchlight” time and again, hunting for those past clues and cooking those dishes tried out not only by those “specialists” working round the clock in seven rooms in Topeka, but a grandmother who gaily spattered batter and relished in devouring the end result. Whom I’m sure meant to stay awhile a longer, but hopefully knows — somehow — that she built some steps I have been honored to try and climb.

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Apple Cream Pie
Adapted from “Searchlight Recipe Book” (1931)
2 cups finely chopped tart apples
3/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup sour cream
1 egg, well beaten
1/2 teaspoon vanilla flavoring
1/8 teaspoon salt

Combine sugar and flour. Add cream, egg, flavoring and salt. Beat until smooth. Add apples. Mix thoroughly. Pour into a pastry-lined pie pan. Bake in a hot oven (450 degrees) 15 minutes; reduce heat to 325 degrees and bake 30 minutes. Remove from oven. Combine 1/3 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/3 cup flour and 1/4 butter or butter alternate. Mix thoroughly. Sprinkle over pie. Return to oven. Bake in slow oven (325 degrees) 20 minutes.
— Mrs. Roy B. Olson, Driscoll, N.D.

Blogger’s Note: I used the pie crust recipe featured in my December 2010 blog entry. I added about 1/2 cup dried cranberries to the apple filling and about 1/2 cup chopped walnuts to the crumble topping. Though it does not specify, I have always used cold, unsalted butter, cut into pieces for the crumble topping.

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