Some years ago, my grandmother gave me a spiral-bound notebook: soft-covered, nothing fancy. Inside, in her elegant cursive script, is written, “With my love and a few of my favourite recipes” – things like shortbread and Anzac biscuits, prune cake, Paula’s pud (Paula was a friend of hers), and lemon delicious pudding. The collection sits now, batter-spattered and butter-stained, in my kitchen among a throng of coffee-table cookbooks that offer not an ounce, or even a pinch, of love in comparison. In a house fire, I’d grab it and the family and run.
I imagine my grandmother’s beautiful, although arthritis-afflicted, hand with its perfectly manicured fingernails holding a blue Bic pen and forming the flowing words, the letters almost unrecognisable to my children: r’s with little loops at the top, z’s like descending figure of eights, and b’s suggestive of flamboyant l’s. All the measurements are, of course, imperial.
At the end of each recipe are phrases of advice and encouragement: “Leave on tray to cool” for the Anzacs; “Yum and simple” for apple crumble; “Add rum” for apricot sauce; “Foolproof recipe” for shortbread; “Great for a party!” for brandied fruit salad. The shortbread recipe, I discovered, was not foolproof. Or perhaps I am a fool. My fan oven was faster than her old gas one – famed for singeing off my mother’s eyebrows when she was young – and I didn’t reduce the cooking time.
When I bake from this book, now with my children beside me, my kitchen is transformed by the aroma of melting butter, dustings of flour sprinkled with cinnamon, glossy eggs and small mountains of sugar. It becomes my grandmother’s kitchen, with its short, marble benchtop and polished, copper-bottomed saucepans that hung, face down, smallest to largest, against the white vertical-board wall of her Brisbane home. I can see magpies at her window taking the mince meat she left for them in patient rows.
They came while she was cooking, unconcerned by the flight of her hands over the dough or biscuit mix. She talked to them.
I can feel her burning-hot dishwashing water and can see the cracked, yellow block of soap sitting upon the steel sink. I can smell overripe mangoes on the lawn, the ones that escaped the pot of mango chutney, or being diced and frozen to later be served as an accompaniment to ice-cream. I can smell, too, macadamia nuts, which we collected in my grandmother’s back garden, roasting under the grill.
I feel the sense of time she had. A slowness of life, although I am certain it wasn’t always that way. She had four children, after all. Before that she spent years alone when her husband, my grandfather, was away at war. I imagine her making the Anzac biscuits in the same kitchen and sending them overseas for him in tins, perhaps enclosing love notes. I don’t know.
Was that when she started her sewing group? Once a week, for as long as I can remember, her eight-seater dining table became a place where “the patchwork girls” sat and sewed, adding their fabric squares to a communal quilt. When they broke for morning tea, the table was spread with baked delights, the recipes for which reside in my book.
The collection, Cook’s Favourites, provides a line back to all of that – a reminder that life does not always have to be lived at a frenetic, go-getting pace. Not that the recipes themselves take long to make – many are, in fact, very quick – but the act of stopping and baking is itself a kind of pause.
And there is a lovely rejection of the cooking show and Instagram-driven palaver that goes with baking nowadays.
For my grandmother, baking was an act of generosity, pure and simple. It was straightforward, real and not at all high-brow. Take this recipe for brandied fruit salad, which relies heavily on tinned fruit. I will retype it loyally here, word for word. For the record, an ounce is about a heaped tablespoon’s worth.
Brandied fruit salad
1 x 32oz [about 1kg] tin sliced peaches
1 x 32oz [about 1kg] tin pineapple pieces
1 x small tin mandarin segments
1 x small tin cherries
1. Drain the fluid into saucepan and set fruit aside.
2. Add to the fluid ½ cup sugar, ½ cup chopped raisins, ½ cup chopped prunes, ½ cup sultanas.
3. Simmer till mixture reduces to half. Do not let it cook too long [or] it may burn. Allow to cool, add 1 cup brandy and the rest of the fruit.
4. Allow to soak for 24 hours.
5. Will keep indefinitely. Serve with ice-cream. Great for a party!
Tasmanian writer Katherine Johnson’s most recent novel is The Better Son (Ventura Press).