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Robert Frost said, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Well, my book group is the people who, when you screw up the dessert, they’ll still eat it and say “yum.”

I had signed up for dessert. It all started so innocently — cake and ice cream, easy, right? So I made a 1-2-3-4 cake from a really old stack of recipes that is somehow connected to Grammy (more on that another time). Great, simple cake, three layers, not too thick so there’s plenty of room for icing.

Then I started the icing. Again, a Gram recipe, this one marked as “Excellent!” in her handwriting. Caramel icing, meaning lots of light brown sugar, melted and swirling with cream, butter and vanilla. The kitchen smelled heavenly.

The trouble showed itself when I had to let the icing cool to room temperature, then beat it to thicken it up. Hmm, not much time. And I had used one of my favorite All-Clad pots, very heavy and thus superb at holding heat. I pulled out the arsenal of “cool it down” activities: The fridge for a bit. Ice cubes in a bowl, set the pot into that. Blowing on the bottom of the pot. Raking my fingers through my hair.

The icing would not set.

It was 7:30, time to actually BE at book group. I had three lovely layers of cake, two pints of ice cream . . . and a huge pot of caramel “sauce.”

I schlepped it all off to book group, arriving late and frazzled. In the warmth of that familiar circle of friends, I started to calm down. It helped tremendously that we were eating Bettina’s great food (for those of you who don’t know Loulies, that’s Bettina and Suzanne, and you want to know their food).

And the solution dawned: If the icing would not set, then I’d shred the cake too. Done. A pile of palm-sized cake chunks, piled on the antique cake plate and served with Bettina’s silver tongs, went around the table followed by ice cream — and the icing in a pitcher.

I love my book group: They said “yum,” and poured on the icing.

Caramel sauce (not icing) from Baking Family

I-Love-My-Book-Group Caramel Sauce

Serves 10 readers, plus a husband and three boys who came home later

  • 4-1/2 cups light brown sugar
  • 1-1/2 cups light cream
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Combine the sugar, cream and salt in a big-enough saucepan for them to boil up. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Continue cooking until the mixture forms a very soft ball in cold water, about 230°F if you have a candy thermometer. Remove mixture from heat and stir in the butter. Cool to lukewarm, or until it’s time to take the sauce somewhere. Add vanilla and mix in well.

Some of the recipes in my random stack from Grammy are larded with questions. This recipe surfaced on a largish piece of paper, written out in a rounded hand that is not my grandmother’s. The dish, called “Peach Melba,” contains no raspberry — as does the famous dessert named after Dame Nellie Melba. And this dessert is a bit unusual. Kind of eggy, but it works.

Where did it come from? Why is it made like it is? Whose handwriting was that?

I finally got a break on the handwriting. In the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, Grammy and Grampy — a judge in New York, and a prominent man on the local political scene — had “help.” For as long as I can remember, Grammy’s main assistant was her kitchen sidekick, a lovely woman named Gelena Slack. Gelena came in to cook, and serve at dinner parties, and who knows what else. What most of us remember is that Gelena batted clean-up in the kitchen. Grammy’s approach to cooking was enthusiastic and messy. When Gram was in the kitchen, her fingers seemed to have a permanent sheen of butter; this did not prevent her from opening a cabinet and pulling out a bowl or a jar. The counters were fully utilized. Pans, several bowls, multiple ingredients, teaspoons and measuring cups vied for space. Grammy measured accurately, but without fear of spilling. The bowl got what it needed, the counter and floors got the rest.

Butter and brown sugar meltingI make it sound like chaos. Actually, for someone who had been raised in the “pull one thing out, use it, put it away” method of cooking, Grammy’s all-out approach was charming.

For Gelena, it was a quiet eye-roll and an hour’s work. Perhaps Grammy felt she could move from one step of a recipe to another without cleaning up because she HAD Gelena there. That relationship certainly made its mark on subsequent generations: My father’s cry, “what, do you think we have Gelena?,” became a refrain in my kitchen adventures.

It turns out that the loopy green letters were Gelena’s handwriting. She had copied this recipe for Peach Melba (from where?) onto a large sheet that could be propped against the flour and sugar tins on the counter, easily read while working. The authentic spatter on this old copy? Gelena or Grammy, who knows.

To deal with another of the questions for which I don’t have an answer, I’ve renamed this recipe so that there is no confusion with classic Peach Melba. I want someone to try it and let me know if this new name really fits!

Peach Pan Cake from Baking Family

Peach Pan Cake

If you have it, a cast-iron skillet makes this look really nice. You can bring it right to the table, just so long as everyone remembers that the pan-handle is hot.

Serves 4-6

Peaches in the pan

Fitting the peaches in the pan

  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1/3 cup light brown sugar
  • 4 ripe peaches, peeled and halved
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tablespoons milk or buttermilk
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

Preheat oven to 350°F.

In a 9-inch oven-proof skillet, melt butter and brown sugar together until they cover the bottom of the pan. Remove the pan from the heat and arrange peach halves round side up — cut face down — in the pan. Seven whole peach-halves will fit snugly; cut the final half into chunks to fill in gaps.

In a medium bowl, mix together eggs, milk, granulated sugar, flour and baking powder. Pour this batter over the peaches and smooth it to the edges of the pan.

Transfer the pan to the oven and bake for 30-35 minutes, until golden brown on top. Serve pan cake hot or room temperature, with whipped cream if you choose.

Photographs and recipe copyright 2010 Garside Group LLC

Nutty, rich, small — yup, that’s a “delectabite.” These walnut cookies are related to Mexican wedding cakes (often made with pecans) but these are smaller and, well, made with walnuts. They were part of the panoply of Grammy’s Christmas desserts, but fell behind Almond Crescents in the race for tin-space. I don’t actually remember eating them at the holidays.

Delectabites from Baking Family copyright Garside Group LLC

I do, however, like these. They are smaller than other nut cookies. They really are bites. And the hit of vanilla transforms them.

Because these are nothing but nuts, butter and vanilla, here more than ever you have to use the good stuff. Fresh nuts and butter, and real vanilla. Don’t stint. It may also be worth your while to get out the Cuisinart to get the nuts fine enough — depends on how game you are for chopping therapy. If you use the Cuisinart, pulse to chop so you don’t end up with walnut paste.

I could see serving these cookies perched on the edge of a dessert plate laden with fresh fruit of some sort. Or sending a tin of cookies off to the spring bake sale, sure in the knowledge that these cookies will yield both cash for the school and happy customers.

Delectabites from Baking Family and Garside Group LLC

Delectabites

Makes 50 cookies

  • 1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup sifted flour
  • 1 cup finely chopped walnuts
  • Confectioners’ sugar

In a medium bowl, cream butter and sugar together. Add vanilla. Gradually add flour and walnuts; mix well. Cover bowl and chill dough for at least 30 minutes and up to a day.

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Remove bowl from refrigerator about 15 minutes before you’re ready to work the dough. Pinch off pieces the size of large marbles and roll into balls. Bake cookies on an ungreased cookie sheet until firm but not too brown, about 15 to 17 minutes. Remove pan from oven, transfer cookies to a rack and cool briefly. Put confectioners’ sugar in a small,wide-mouth bowl. Roll each cookie gently in the sugar; when thoroughly cool, roll cookies in sugar again.

(Note: You can skip the first rolling in sugar, but I kind of like the sweet crust that forms. There is very little sugar actually in the dough.)

Photos and recipe copyright 2010 Garside Group LLC.

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