Some Recipes are Hard to Pass Down

. December 1, 2015.


When my mom died, there were only a few priceless things my sister and I wanted. One of those was her recipe box.

It wasn’t fancy, or even particularly useful. It was a humble little metal index card box, with recipes hand-written on notecards, torn from magazines or cut off the backs of boxes. Nothing was arranged by appetizer, snacks, meats or desserts. It was just whatever had caught my mother’s fancy at the time. 

Original Recipe

We were quite frankly amazed she even had written recipes. She was a fantastic, old-country cook who, unfortunately, never met a recipe she could follow. An infamous family story involved tuna noodle casserole. My sister had made it for her boyfriend, and my mother decided to make it for the rest of us. She didn’t have any cream of mushroom soup around. She didn’t have the type of noodle the recipe called for. We’re not even sure she had tuna. No matter – she made it anyway. And never made it again.

Within her recipe box there were some recipes with just a list of ingredients and no other instructions – not even a title. Who knows what they made? Some recipes even said “add a coffee cup of this” or “add enough” of that. 

When I was in high school my detail-oriented self sat at the kitchen table one day and grilled my mother about some of those family recipes. Which coffee cup? About how much? I was able to get the exact measurements for two of my favorite holiday treats: Italian Christmas cookies and pizzelles.

Every Italian family has its own recipe for those items, and each family probably recoils in horror at the tweaks another might make to “their” recipe. They are closely guarded secrets and sometimes get taken to the grave. My Comare Anna made the best sponge cake ever – light, airy and with just a hint of citrus. She shared the recipe with us but it never came out the same for anyone else. We suspected she withheld an ingredient or exact measurement so it would remain hers and hers alone.

Old Recipes, New Traditions

Luckily I was able to replicate my mother’s cookies and pizzelles. I made them almost too well, since for many years when I visited I was charged with making them. Slaving over a hot pizzelle iron surely must be one of Dante’s circles.

These days my family knows that Christmas means I will be baking, something I don’t normally do the rest of the year. A few years ago I started sending a box of cookies to my cousin in Pittsburgh. I’m not sure who looks forward to the tradition more – me for sending the goodies or him for receiving them. I’ve made a few tweaks of my own to those recipes, and I hope I’ve made them better.

Now when I make some of my personal specialties, I think about how I would explain them to my daughters. My pizza crust is a family hit, and relies on just yeast, flour and water. How much water? A sauce pan full. Which sauce pan? The small one I keep in the drawer under the stove.

Maybe I better start writing things down.