Family recipes are a funny thing. They straddle a fine line between fond memory, mystery, comfort, and tradition. You grow up enjoying them as a kid but usually not actually preparing them. And then you get to a certain point in adulthood and you yearn to duplicate those family recipes on your own. In my experience, that’s when relative disaster strikes. Take, for example, my mom’s Million Dollar Spaghetti. Growing up, we had this probably once a week and as a teenager I requested it more frequently. I remember when I got my first apartment in my senior year of college and I asked my mom for the recipe. I was shocked to learn that it was basically an excuse to eat one pound of cream cheese, a cup of heavy cream and a bunch of pasta all in one sitting. Then there was my mom’s Raspberry Fool which I have fond memories of in the late spring and early summer. We’d have late dinners outdoors and she would make individual glass cups of these and stick them in the fridge so you could sneak into the kitchen and grab yours whenever the time felt right. About five years ago, I learned it was essentially all heavy cream. Utter deliciousness, but not the light summery creation I’d always thought it was.
But health concerns aside, family recipes can be questionable in other ways, too. Take Chocolate Jumbles. When I was growing up, around Christmas we’d receive a care package from Hilda–my grandmother’s across-the-street neighbor in the tiny town of Ames, NY. I didn’t care for the Chocolate Jumbles at first: they’re a little on the warmly-spiced side for most kids, I think. But then I came to appreciate their subtle hint of cocoa and cloves, their holey center, and their super soft crumb. They’re good with tea, perfect with coffee, kind of nice late at night when you can’t sleep. I made them for the first time this past weekend and made them again and again. Because sometimes family recipes just befuddle you. You stare at the old index card and think, why? The instructions seem far too complex, a few of the ingredients seem unnecessary, or you simply can’t make out the handwriting that’s been smudged and stained after years and years of use. In the case that you bake for a living, you really stare at this particular recipe and think, why?!
As I made them the first time, I tried to think about Hilda at her kitchen table pouring hot water into a shortening-based cookie dough and mixing. Out of all of the ways you could infuse a dough with liquid, this wouldn’t be my first choice. So I decreased the amount of water, raised the quantity of spice and used part bread flour in lieu of solely all-purpose flour (this makes for a sturdier dough). The result reminds me of Hilda’s jumbles although I’m still confused how she could possibly get from point A to point B using the recipe she gave us. Maybe there’s something in that country air or maybe Hilda just has a much softer touch than I do. Regardless, you’ll enjoy this adapted version. I’m sure of it. And at the end of the day after swimming in Chocolate Jumble dough, it doesn’t really matter that you’ve become a little frustrated and disillusioned with yet another family recipe, does it? It’s fleeting. You keep making those Chocolate Jumbles and reworking them until you get them just right because maybe — just maybe– you want to bathe in the memory, mystery, comfort, and tradition once more. If only for an afternoon, anyway.