About 10 years ago, with December baking duties looming, my mother, Kay, who was then in her mid-80s, told us that she wasn’t going to cook anymore. The Queen Mum of holiday treats had announced her abdication. No more impeccable shortbread, lightly browned about the edges, or raisin-dotted butter tarts, tangy with a splash of vinegar, or slices of fragrant tourtière, that supremely rich Quebecois pork pie that we ate hot and doused with ketchup on Christmas Eve. My father, who had a tremendous sweet tooth and had eaten these goodies through 60 years of marriage, didn’t object, perhaps realizing that he’d had a good run. My brothers and I, and our kids, were crestfallen.
A few years later, my father died. My mother, with dementia encroaching, moved into a lovely care facility; she had her own apartment but no kitchen and took only a few things, mostly pictures and a favorite coffee table. It fell to her sons to sort through her house full of stuff on British Columbia’s Salt Spring Island. We gave almost everything away, but in a box in a back closet, among my mother’s old books, I discovered something I had almost forgotten existed: her recipes.
There were about 300 notecards, in two boxes labeled A–M and P–Z, denoting alphabetized categories of Kay’s own devising: Frostings and Fillings, Pies, Slices, etc. Today, I use only a half-dozen of the recipes—the above-mentioned holiday treats and a few others that maintain a nostalgic grip. The other 294 constitute a sort of auto-biography of my mother’s cooking life. Reading her notes evokes her affecting, precise way of thinking like nothing else does.
The recipes are handwritten, most of them, in compact, looping longhand, a few even done with a fountain pen whose ink later blotched from contact with kitchen spills. The earliest cards, which might be 70 years old, are on blue-lined note stock that has turned the color of old vellum.
My mother was big on attribution, especially if a recipe came from a friend, for maintaining lifelong friendships was one of her great talents. The Butter Tarts recipe came from “H. Strang,” her sister-in-law, an important citation because rural Ontario, where Helen and my dad grew up, is an epicenter of world-class pie making. The shortbread came from a friend named Marney. There is a recipe for wild duck, from one Allan Bond, involving a lot of butter, fruit, and wine and four or five hours in a low oven. It begins with the instruction to “Clean & Dry birds” and ends with my mom’s commentary: “delicious.”
She was given to that sort of succinct praise but spare in offering it. One recipe was dubbed Most Successful Lamb Leg. The title of something called Xmas Morn Saver is underlined emphatically and accompanied by this: “(superb).” The dish is a make-ahead casserole of bread, eggs, milk, butter, ham, and cheese that I recently tracked down in the bestselling 1976 Canadian community cookbook Best of Bridge, where I was astonished to see that it is called Christmas Morning Wife Saver. My mom has been a feminist since the ’60s, and I suspect she shortened the title in protest.
The notecards tell the story of a woman who, after she stopped working as a nurse in order to raise her boys, did the thing that many middle-class wives did back then: lunch. The batch of recipes under the omnibus heading of Snacks Lunch Dips is one of the largest in the collection and hints at what was consumed before many a bridge game or confab, along with percolated coffee or white wine or perhaps even a Gin & Lime, for which there is a recipe from someone named Bill. At lunch, they ate Artichoke Heart Dip, Layered Salad “(really good),” Onion Pie from Judy Schiffbauer, and something called All Day Spread.
The names of the people cited bring back fading childhood memories of Mom’s friends—in particular, of her very best friend, Jean, a hilarious chain-smoking firecracker of a woman who lived down the alley and from whom I once stole a pack of cigarettes, which was about as smart as stealing the works from a heroin junkie. The theft was discovered and reported to my mother before I had walked the 200 yards home from Jean’s kitchen. I had to march right back and return the cigs, profoundly ashamed. That was the end of my smoking days. I think I was nine. I now have several recipes from Jean, including one for an old-timey sweet-and-tart salad dressing of the sort doused on coleslaw.
A recipe for Three Cheese Souffle came from another dear friend in epistolary form, ending with her confiding to my mother that “P.S. I am still smarting from the disastrous dinner party for Elspeth. I am afraid I will kill ‘Mr. Mom’!” I wish I knew what the hell that was all about.
My mother’s recipes are notes to self, not to newbie cooks. Some are so lean on process that they evoke a technical challenge from The Great British Baking Show. This is most notably true of Mom’s legendary pie pastry recipe, which only lists ingredients. One surely knows how to cut the lard into flour, so why bother with method? Except one doesn’t know; I have never been able to equal her pastry. I believe she had some trick with ice water, but the secret is omitted.
Other classics, such as Marney’s Shortbread, show how even a simple but Christmas-critical recipe was modified as Mom pursued her trademark rich crumble and nutty, browned-butter flavor across different ovens in several countries. The stained card shows evidence of six modifications with three pens and two pencils, the matters in question being 18 versus 20 minutes at 325 degrees and where in the oven the rack is best placed.
As she aged and traveled, my mom’s palate changed, as did her family’s, and so the boxes contain recipes for Moroccan lamb, Afghan borani banjan (a dish of eggplant, tomatoes, and yogurt), and Indonesian peanut sauce.
But she was rarely an adventurous cook—rather, a loving and reliable one. Living overseas on my father’s lean NGO-doctor salary for more than a decade, with just one home leave every three years, meant that my mother’s recipes were a lifeline to friends and roots.
It’s the holiday recipes that I use every year. The other day, I made Mom’s shortbread, and it came out almost as fine as hers. (The missing ingredient may, in fact, be that it was not hers.) To eat it is to remember my first Christmases. Mom would begin baking large quantities of shortbread and all the other treats weeks in advance, storing everything in tins in a basement room so chilly it was rightly called “the cold room.” Every day after school, I would sneak down, confident that my pilfering would go undetected, and stuff my face. No doubt, I reappeared with powdered sugar on my person. Much later, I realized that a baker knows how much she has baked for her family. My mother was simply allowing for the attrition. I’m sure she had a laugh about it down the alley with Jean, who died this year. Life ends, life goes on. In the meantime, if we’re lucky, we find some measure of sweetness in its recipe.
Scott’s Mom’s Butter Tarts
Makes about 18 mini tarts
Use your favorite pie dough to make these sweet, tangy, individual tarts. You can serve them with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, if you like, though that’s kind of gilding the lily. These tarts freeze well in an airtight container and reheat well in a low oven.
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup dark corn syrup
1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1/2 cup (4 ounces) salted butter, melted
3/4 cup raisins
Pastry dough, suitable for a nine-inch two-crust pie
Flour, for rolling
- Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Liberally coat two standard-size muffin tins (or three six-cup tins) with cooking spray.
- In a large bowl, mix the brown sugar, corn syrup, vinegar, vanilla, and eggs until just combined. Add the butter and stir vigorously until you’ve got what looks like a smooth caramel sauce. Stir in the raisins.
- Roll the dough on a floured surface until it’s just under 1/8-inch thick. Use a glass or round cookie cutter that’s about 4 inches in diameter to cut dough rounds; you want the dough to come all the way up the sides of the muffin cups. Dip the lip of the glass or cutter into flour to prevent sticking as you cut.
- Gently press the dough rounds into the cups. Briefly knead and re-roll the dough scraps to cut more rounds.
- Fill each pastry cup about three-quarters full. Bake until the crust is browned and the filling is no longer jiggly, about 17 minutes.
- Let the tarts cool for 15 minutes, then gently remove from the cups. Serve warm.