Like everyone I knew back then, I grew up in a kitchen that had a copy of Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking on the cookbook shelf. My mother’s copy was just like her mother’s, including instructions on best practices for skinning rabbits and squirrels. That 25th anniversary edition was kept close at hand for the calorie lists as much as for cooking instruction, I suspect. Probably more, since my mom’s culinary repertoire consisted nearly exclusively of meals she already knew how to make.
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Fast forward to sometime after my beloved and I had moved out of our little condo to a home with more counter space, and that’s approximately when my gingerbread tradition began. I have a vague memory of testing various recipes during my most adventurous cooking era, post-college and pre-kids. Martha Stewart was just getting a foothold in our creative conscience, which likely amped up my desire to produce something a little more lovely than those no-bake fudgy oatmeal drops. Again, the vague memories…somehow it seems like it might have been a less-than-stellar Martha Stewart gingerbread recipe (not the first substandard recipe of hers I encountered, just saying) that propelled me to look elsewhere for more trustworthy instructions. So I delved into my own copy of The Joy of Cooking (a wedding gift from a college friend whose mother also had a copy, I’m guessing) and found Irma Rombauer’s classic gingerbread recipe. Once found, I never looked back.
Never looked back, until yesterday, that is.
Alas and alack. Because right about here is where I should be posting a photo of my well-worn gingerbread recipe page, complete with my handwritten marginalia about using white sugar, not brown, and using Grandma’s (the brand, not my mother’s mother’s) molasses, the “robust” variety with the green label, not the regular yellow label version. But somewhere over the past summer of packing and moving and construction and relocation—yep, you guessed it, that critical recipe disappeared. Not the entire of my Joy of Cooking cookbook, curiously; just the chunk of pages from the “Cookies and Bars” section that had worked itself loose from the binding. That little packet of cookery info had come to a semi-permanent resting spot in my Plexiglas cookbook holder on the kitchen counter. Now, after turning all my cookbooks and folders of clipped recipes upside down and inside out, all I can find is the gap between pages 705 to 712, and no recollection around where I might have stashed pages 706 to 711. Which is to say, I couldn’t put my hands on my go-to, tried and true, best in all categories gingerbread recipe. Help!
Embarrassing fact: I can’t remember the recipe, even though I’ve made at least 100 batches of Joy of Cooking gingerbread cookies. By which I mean I’ve made at least 200 batches, because I always double the recipe. Always a whole stick of butter, always 7 cups of flour. That much I know by heart. But standing in my kitchen, without a reliable notion around the exact quantities required for the remaining ingredients, left me with nothing but a big blank thought bubble hanging over my head. How much molasses and sugar? How many teaspoons of baking soda? Cloves? Cinnamon, ginger, salt? I could guess, but I wouldn’t be sure.
I was lost. And in no adventurous mood to try a couple iterations and see how they might turn out. I needed my stalwart recipe, and I needed it pronto.
So I started with Google, searching on Joy of Cooking, gingerbread men. Simple enough. But I kept not quite landing on the recipe I knew by heart, if only I had it in front of me. Little quirks abounded—wrong amount of butter, calls for brown sugar, not white, and eggs, at all—my gingerbread dough requires no eggs. Curiously, for all that the world wide web offers, I couldn’t for the life of me turn up the page I needed.
So what next? Well, I did what you do if you live where I live. I walked into Harvard Square. Surely, surely, either the venerable Harvard Book Store (a delightful independent book seller not affiliated with the university) or the Harvard Coop (an ancient cooperative turned department store with a particularly excellent book section) would have a copy of Irma’s Joy. How could they not?
First stop, since it’s a tad closer to home, was the cookbook section at Harvard Book Store. I figured the Rombauer classic would be in their category of texts to always have at least one copy of in stock, and I was not disappointed. Amused, a bit, that the latest printing is the 75th anniversary iteration, fifty years beyond my mother’s edition, and confident that my search had ended successfully. But just to be sure, I sat in my favorite little HBS reading nook to peruse Joy’s Cookies and Bars section.
Ahem. What’s this? The diamond jubilee Joy of Cooking edition gingerbread recipe starts out thusly: “In a medium (2-quart) saucepan, melt 1 cup (two sticks! Plus my exclamation point) butter or margarine.”
Oh, hell. They’d changed the recipe! Rombauer et al. had deep-sixed their original and gone with a new version, apparently the brainchild of a cookbook author and baking teacher whose name I shall not mention. She lost me at “melt.” Then she lost me again at “or margarine.”
Seriously. What serious baker thinks butter and margarine are interchangeable?
I would have gone into a serious funk right about then, had I not remembered that the Harvard Book Store has a robust used book section in its cavernous basement. This would surely be a place where I could put my hands on the version I needed, no melting or butter substitutes allowed. So down to the lower level I headed, fingers crossed.
And so, here I am, back in business. And inclined to commit those quantities of dry goods to memory, just in case. That, and perhaps copy them down and paste them into one of my new kitchen cabinets.