I am always on the hunt for old regional cookbooks, and naturally, I keep my eyes extra peeled for books celebrating the hearty and molasses-laden foods of my beloved New England.
When I find them, they usually aren’t in any shape to be used in the manner in which they were intended. Measurements are clunky (a teacup of butter), ingredients are dated (one yeast cake), and sometimes the amount of lard called for makes me shudder, but I still buy them.
Then sometime I get lucky and come across a book like this one, “New England Cookbook” by Eleanor Early, a 1954 gem that is old enough to be vintage, but new enough to be relevant. Better than its functionality, however, is its authoress. Eleanor writes with chatty charm that makes you want to lean in close. Each of the chapters has a fact-filled, amusing, and entertaining introduction, and nearly all of the recipes that follow have an anecdotal preface — something I love in a cookbook. Recipes are supposed to have a heartbeat and tell a story.
For example, before giving a recipe for Chicken Soup, Eleanor recounts the following tale:
I had a letter the other day from a friend in a reminiscent mood. The first paragraph was startling:
“So you’re going to do a cookbook…I remember the day you showed me how to make a lamb stew out of a bone I was going to give to Mrs. Harris’ dog, and the night you salvaged some chicken carcasses at Marie’s dinner party. With your New England thrift, I bet it will be a mighty economical book…”
The day I cheated Mrs. Harris’ dog has slipped my mind, but I do remember the chicken carcasses. Those chickens had not been picked at all. It would have been a sin and a shame to throw them away, and I took them home to make a lovely soup. Later I heard that some of the guests thought I was a little queer, although anybody who has ever made a good chicken soup knows that the richest stock comes from a meaty carcass.
You tell ‘em Eleanor. I want to meet her for lunch, pull off my gloves by the fingertips, and have a serious discussion about how many potatoes are too many when it comes to chowder.
As usual, I started a list to tuck into the front cover.
I could have opened up the book anywhere (well, anywhere but the chapter titled “Meat as the Yankees Cook It”) but I chose to start with Harwich Hermits. I love the spicy, molasses flavor of hermit cookies — a popular seafaring New England cookie noted for its ability to last on long voyages — but had never made them myself. This recipe, named after the town of Harwich on Cape Cod, seemed like as good a place as any to start.
Don’t mind my unruly parchment.
The finished cookies (which are actually more like brownies in texture) were chewy, spicy, and packed with old-fashioned molasses and raisins flavor. A perfect treat with a mug of coffee or glass of milk. Vintage cookbook success!
I am already looking forward to my next culinary date with Eleanor!
Adapted from “New England Cookbook” by Eleanor Early (1954)
1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs, well beaten
1/2 cup molasses
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2/3 teaspoon baking soda
2/3 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 cup raisins, chopped
1/2 cup currants, chopped
1/4 cup walnuts or pecans, chopped
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease or line a 9″ baking pan with parchment.
- In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, cream of tartar, and spices. Place the raisins and currants in a small bowl and toss with a tablespoon (or as needed) of the flour mixture until the fruits are lightly coated. Set aside.
- In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and molasses and continue to beat.
- Add the flour mixture gradually until just combined. Fold in the raisins, currants, and nuts.
- Spread the mixture evenly into the pan and bake for 25 – 30 minutes or until deep golden and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
- Cut into squares or bars while still warm.