Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more! In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish they've inherited, and why it's meaningful to them.
There is a very old cookbook on my shelf, so old you can no longer see the title; its jacket has been lost for many years. A thin, netted cover (barely) holds the pages together. There used to be silver letters that identified it on its spine, but those are gone too. Its sticky pages crackle when you turn them. It was once a permanent fixture in my parents’ many kitchens: the one in their cramped London flat, the one in their Hyde Park house (in Chicago), the empty nest they live in today, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But now it resides with me, in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, wedged into one square of a gridded IKEA bookshelf near New Yorker back issues and novels I’ve yet to read.
But I don’t need a jacket or letters to recognize it. It's Hamlyn.
To clarify, that's what I've come to call the Hamlyn All-Colour Cookbook. It's co-authored by a certain chipper, pink-lipped octogenarian we all know (and love) her as Mary Berry, former host of The Great British Bake Off. Each of the 336 recipes is allowed exactly one picture and a tidy column that takes up half a page. I feel like I’ve memorized every single one, though I’ve probably tried fewer than an eighth.
The book provided my brothers and me endless amusement during our childhood in London; we sat curled on the couch and passed the volume back and forth, noting the recipes we most wanted to try. We fought over the 4-color ballpoint pen, and designated our personal hues: I got red, one brother got blue, the other black. Next to the recipes, we’d indicate our interest with a checkmark, an initial, or even—in the case of “Chocolate Dessert Cups”— a designation of “lovely,” in my five-year-old self’s scrawl.
My father gifted my mother this cookbook on December 18th, 1979, and the dedication reads “Love, H.” By the time we were poring over it in the early 1990s, much of it was outdated. Florid photographs herald ornate dishes with names like “sausage beanfeast,” “aspic chicken,” and “salmon chaudfroids.”
It is somewhat curious that my father, the family cook, presented it to my mother, a cooking-phobe that famously avoids the kitchen at all costs. They met as college students at Oxford in the 1970s. My mother wore diaphanous white dresses, and spent her time away from class unionizing the dining hall employees and participating in political protests. My father was renegotiating a life away from his Indian upbringing, trying to fight the English chill with colorful scarves and a mass of curly unkempt black hair. He studied literature; she politics, philosophy, and psychology. They made their early homes on small side streets in Oxford where landlords looked disapprovingly at an unmarried, mixed-race couple cohabiting. She would have received the book five years into their marriage.
When my Dad, a professor, departed for academic conferences, we all simultaneously groaned at the thought of the limp vegetables and still-crunchy pasta my mother might prepare after returning home from her job teaching immigration law and human rights. Though it seemed normal, the way one’s childhood inevitably does, I began to notice different gender roles at play at friend’s houses, like when I noticed my fourth grade’s best friend’s mother, not father, removing chocolate-orange scones from a baking sheet the morning after a sleepover.
Even though my father made meals for us nightly—burbling pots of Minestrone, tawny-skinned roast chicken, potatoes sprinkled with masala—he has never been a recipe follower. Dinner was put together based on what was fast-wilting in the refrigerator, not according to the latest trends in the Saveur and Bon Appétit magazines he bought just to flip through. So even though only a handful of Hamlyn recipes were used, mostly limited to special occasions and birthdays, it felt more like a family photo album than a cookbook.
So I am not sure what possessed me, on April 24th, 1998, to acknowledge it as a cookbook. I retrieved it from our cream cabinet-fitted kitchen in Chicago and vividly remember sitting on a wooden stool at the kitchen island, hunched over the book, doing the math between the date the volume was given and the date of that day. “19 years, 6 days + 8 months,” I proudly wrote in my uneven scrawl; I was ten years old. My family was not pleased by my addition to this heirloom, though now, twenty years later, my amendment has become an artifact in its own right.
And much has passed in two decades: I am no longer a child perched at a counter in a bustling family kitchen. My brothers have their own homes in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., and I have made mine in New York. Instead of poring over recipes and watching my father cook from afar, I am now a cook in my own right, and have fashioned a career as a food writer and recipe editor, inspired by a lifetime of breathing in roasting smells and agonizing over restaurant menus. But though my life is settled and full now, I crave the togetherness of family life decades ago, when meals together with the five of us were a daily occurrence.
A few months ago, when I visited my parents' home in Cambridge, I spotted the hallowed tome poking out of their kitchen bookshelf and decided to rescue it. I needed to have the Orange Buttercream Cake recipe at my disposal, eliminating the hours I might spend on the phone with my mother while she tries to locate the book. But also, I needed to be closer to the memories of my mother and I wiping candle wax off that cake, after one of our birthday celebrations.
As a 30-year-old who has lived in six different places, I've always felt unmoored. Though my family is an impenetrably tight unit—I speak to my parents and brothers on the phone every single day—it’s no panacea for the fact that we are all only gathered around a table only three or four times a year. The Hamlyn cookbook provides me with a strong sense of stability; between its pages, I see home.
When I cracked the spine in the comfort of my apartment, where my fiancé and I currently live, I smiled at the retro renderings of “Fried Sardine Sandwiches” and the colorful English classic “Battenberg Cake.” I flipped through sections titled “Main Meals to Cook Ahead,” “Chicken, Turkey, and Duck,” and “Continental Favourites” until I reached “Fancy Cakes.” It was full of red, blue, and black check marks from my brothers and me.
I encountered that recipe I yearned for on my birthdays all those years ago, the ornate “Chocolate Butterflies,” as enchanting as ever with their piped cream, chocolatey sponge “wings,” and my signature red tick. To make the wings, a cupcake’s top is cut off and split in two, set aside while the base is frosted, and returned to the cupcake facing away from one another.
As a kid, I always wanted to ask someone to make them for my birthday, but did not, because I knew it would hurt my grandmother, a skilled baker who made far more impressive frosted delights, ones that featured Babar the Elephant and circus jugglers. So when I finally made them, I was an adult, and it was for the birthday of my soon-to-be mother-in-law. I knew she'd be tantalized by the silky vanilla topping and dense chocolaty-ness of the cakes. I certainly was.
As I sifted the flour—I added baking powder to replicate the self-rising variety called for in the recipe—I pressed the page with my butter-slicked fingertips. I knew just when to stop the hand mixer for the buttercream and carefully cut off the rounded dome from each cupcake. When I proudly displayed them to my mother-in-law-to-be, she scooped up some frosting with her finger and had her first taste.
Subconsciously, I must have wanted to bring a Hamlyn recipe into my new family, to insert a crinkled page of my past (and my parents’ pasts before that) into the present and future iterations of my life. No matter where my fiancé and I find ourselves in the years ahead, Hamlyn will be there among the awkwardly crammed pots and pans, or somewhere between his biographies and my essay collections.
For the cupcakes:
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 pinch salt
- 1 tablespoon milk
- 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 teaspoons cocoa powder
For the filling:
- 2 1/4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 cup powdered sugar, sifted
- 2 teaspoons very hot milk
- 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
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