Written by Sarah Hamilton.
Photos by Sarah Hamilton.
“In the childhood memories of every good cook, there’s a large kitchen, a warm stove, a simmering pot, and a mom.” —Barbara Costikyan, New York Magazine.
Food is intricately tied to memory. Certain smells can transport us to another time, another place. Loved ones long since past can come back to us instantly with one bite. Our childhood can be revisited and recalled in vivid detail with smell and taste. Every holiday has certain foods associated with them. I cannot think of Christmas Eve without thinking of my grandmother’s German cheesecake. Or mom’s carrot cake at Easter. And every time I eat lemon pie for as long as I live I will think of my mother in law. And then there are foods powerful enough that even if you only eat them one time in your life, you can recall the exact way they tasted on your tongue, a taste you never, ever forget. I’m looking at you Kung Pao calamari. It is amazing to think about the kind of nostalgia that foods elicit.
The past couple of weeks in culinary school have taken me back into the past as we’ve made recipes that have stirred dormant memories.
My first shimmer of a memory came when we made sugar cookies. The recipe is called 1-2-3 cookie dough and I think it is because it is basically as simple as that. I cut mine into pumpkins and bats for Halloween. The difficult part came in the decorating. I’ve never learned the royal icing flooding method as #1, it looks way harder than my skill level, and #2, because I love buttercream. A lot. Cake is probably my very favorite food. But nothing ruins cake faster than putting bad frosting, like the nasty whip cream frosting they put on grocery store cakes. Nothing is worse than biting into a beautiful, moist cake and having the whip cream coat your tongue and the roof of your mouth. And while I love whip cream, it is never a substitute for buttercream. Anyway, I’ve always just used buttercream, thrown a few sprinkles or candies on the top and called it a good sugar cookie. But today I make my royal icing. I start with the consistency of toothpaste. Apparently this is for the outline of the cookie. So I split it up into two bowls, one for orange and one for black. I put them into the piping bags with a very small, round tip and begin. What I quickly discover is that toothpaste icing comes out a lot faster than toothpaste. You have to really just go for the outline. No taking your time or trying to make it look right, it is drag and go. It doesn’t really take culinary skill, but an artists hand. Mine haphazardly outlines the cookies, occasionally falling off the cliff edges of the cookies or making curved corners instead of sharp, neat ones. Then I thin out the remainder of the icing to shampoo consistency. Once the outline has set, I spoon some thin icing into the middle and tilt my cookie to try to get it to fill in the space. Only while watching one side get filled to perfection, a side I wasn’t paying attention to goes spilling over my icing border into the abyss.
I try a new approach where I leave the cookie on the table and spoon a glob of icing into the middle of my border and then use the back of my spoon to move it to where it needs to go. Ultimately, however, I find that the best way is to spoon it into the middle and then use toothpicks to maneuver it over to the frosting borders. It is a painstaking process and takes more than a little patience. I glance over at a fellow student who is a seasoned baker and she is delicately drawing unicorns onto her cookies and they look like they should be on the glossy cover of a magazine. And the memory hits me like a ton of bricks. I am in probably junior high and I’m in my grandmother’s kitchen. It is warm and smells of cinnamon. And I am sitting next to my sister constructing a freshly baked gingerbread house. My house is more like a shack, crooked windows and imperfect roof shingles with candy eagerly frosted on in jagged patterns. I’ve got one side of my house caving in slightly because I had not been patient enough during the construction phase. My sister’s, on the other hand, is a grand estate with perfect, neat lines and elegant finishes. She was amazing long before Pinterest and Joanna Gaines, it is simply who she is. So I look over again at the exquisite cookies and smile and I feel my sister in the kitchen right next to me and I love it.
The next recipe that triggers my memories is the Chicago Deep Dish Pizza. So I told you that cake is my favorite food. Well, pizza is definitely my close second. And I love all kinds. New York pizza that folds like a sandwich and the grease runs down to your elbow as you eat it. Thin and crispy brick oven charred pizza topped with garlic, ricotta, pepperoni, and black olives. And Chicago pizza with cheese so thick that it eats more like a lasagna with a knife and fork. So getting to learn how to make it at school was like a dream come true. I remember the first time I ate it. We lived in Florida at the time and had taken some friends to Disney World with us. We saw a billboard for Giordano’s Pizza on the way to our condo. Our friends went crazy and told us we had to stop there. They had eaten it in Chicago and raved over how good is was. So we stopped for dinner. And it lived up the the hype. It had a cracker type buttery crust, with cheese for days and a bright, saucy top. It was like no pizza I had ever eaten and I was smitten. So our family tradition was born. Every time we went to Disney World, we ate that pizza. That pizza is tied to memories of my children when they are small hugging Mickey, flying with Dumbo, finding Nemo, battling pirates, and bouncing with Tigger. When we moved away from Florida, we missed it so much that we discovered that it could be ordered half baked, frozen and shipped in dry ice. So we started ordering it and eating it every year on Christmas Eve. It brings back powerful memories for me and it is one of my very favorite things. So this year I think I’m going to make the pizzas myself. How exciting is that!
We also got the chance to make whoopie pies in class recently. For those of you who don’t know what whoopie pies are, first of all, I’m sorry. You really are missing out. It is essentially a glorious, portable cake sandwich. We make a chocolate cake batter that we portion out with scoops and bake. Then we make an Italian buttercream, which is not as good as American buttercream, by the way, but considerably better than the whipped cream. And we sandwich the halves together. My memories tied to this food are two-fold. My late grandpa Elmo was a tiny 5’6” man who spent his career serving in the army. He went to war twice, smoked for 40 years, and had tattoos covering his arms. But I only knew him as grandpa and he had all these funny sayings for things. One of the things he would always say when he was excited about something was, “Well whoopie.” Every time I hear the word “whoopie,” I hear his voice. My other memory is from when we lived in Philadelphia and we would go to Reading Terminal Market and get the whoopie pies from the Amish. We would go to the booth and see the chocolate, red velvet, and pumpkin whoopie pies wrapped tightly with plastic wrap. I can see my kids noses pressed up against the glass cases with all the baked treats. I can see the Amish women with their long braided hair under simple bonnets, sweetly packaging the cakes into boxes for us to take home. The whoopie pies usually wouldn’t make it home before they were devoured. I’ll let you in on a secret. The best Philly cheesesteak is from one of the Amish stands at terminal market, as it is baked inside a pretzel. Amazing! We once drove from New Jersey to Arizona and we literally stopped at every Amish bakery we saw along that route and ate our way through the midwest.
While I’m confessing all my Amish bakery sins, I might as well tell you that ever since starting culinary school, I feel like I’ve been waiting for bread week. I heard on a movie once that “everything is better with bread.” So true. My husband went on the keto diet (worst diet ever, by the way. No bread, no thank you!) during bread week. Worst timing ever. I was literally bringing home bags full of bread. Needless to say, his diet didn’t last long. My 8-year-old had the best week ever. He exists on bread and Nutella and cheese. That’s it. No exaggeration, so he was living his best life. But all week I could smell the yeast and it overwhelms me with memories of my mom’s rolls. I think every Sunday growing up and of course every major holiday, her rolls were expected, demanded even. I remember her getting up early on Sunday morning to roll out the dough into crescent shapes. I would put on my dress and take out the sponge rollers I had to sleep in so that I could have big 80’s hair and we would leave for church. After church, the rolls were big and puffy and smelled like yeast and home. In school, we got to make beautiful, crusty baguette, soft yeast rolls, cinnamon buns, brioche, and focaccia. I had so much I gave it away to friends and neighbors. My kid’s piano teacher emailed me to thank me for the bread and she said, “It was so delicious, my family was fighting over it at dinner. That bread will live on in my dreams…” How powerful to get to create a food memory for someone else.
So I guess I just want to say thanks for the memories. Thanks for letting me go back and remember the people and places that come crashing in like a wave when we smell and taste and dream about foods from our past. And what I’m most excited about through my journey in culinary school, is getting to be the one to create new memories. I want my children to remember the smell of baguettes baking, the taste of a French macaron, and making chocolate chip cookies with me on Sundays. So someday they can say, “it smells like home.”