by Megan Labrise – Rebecca Miller Ffrench offers up old family recipes to evoke a delicious past & help the Phoenicia Library
Rebecca Miller Ffrench was trying to figure out how to recreate her local bakery’s apple-cider doughnuts at home, when her eldest daughter, Anna, made a helpful suggestion. “Why don’t you make the doughnuts that are in there?” she said, referencing a faded little blue book. The book was an inheritance — Ffrench’s great aunt’s recipe journal — and by adding apples and cider to the well-worn recipe, mother and daughter created the doughnut they craved.
Ffrench called her grandmother, the sister of the recipe-writing great aunt, to inquire about the origins of the doughnut. It was the same one her grandmother used to make with her grandmother, back in the 1930s, in Madison, Wisconsin. Every Saturday, they fried up 20 dozen for a Women’s Exchange.
Ffrench loved her grandmother’s reminiscence as much as the recipe. “She opened up a window into our family heritage,” said Ffrench. “Recipes really tell a story. There’s a lot to be learned from food.”
In Sweet Home: Over 100 Heritage Desserts and Ideas for Preserving Family Recipes (Kyle Books, 2012), Ffrench, a full-time resident of Phoenicia, shares the stories behind dozens of recipes passed down by elders and along by friends. On Saturday, May 19, she will be at the Tender Land Home, 64 Main Street in Phoenicia, for a 4-6 p.m. book signing, with samples of some sweet treats. All proceeds from books sold during the event will benefit the Phoenicia Library.
Ffrench is a former contributing writer for Cookie, a Condé Nast lifestyle magazine for modern mothers that ran 2005-2009. She planned to write a book about children’s parties — one of her specialties — but Sweet Home, and the urge to learn more about her family’s heritage, soon took precedence. The resulting recipe collection is an eclectic mix of crisp Norwegian cookies from her mother’s side, hearty German cakes from her father’s side, a selection of Jamaican desserts inspired by her husband’s father-in-law, who grew up on the island, and Hudson Valley staples from favored neighbors. In other words: it’s all-American.
“I hope to inspire readers to take the time to cook with parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, or even a very close friend, someone who they like to spend time with, someone who has a recipe that they really treasure,” said Ffrench, “and to carry on the tradition and the memory of that person, and the time spent together.”
Ffrench also encourages bakers to develop recipes and rituals of their own. The book’s four sections are: preserving, celebrating, giving and creating. All recipes are accompanied by the stories that shaped them.
There’s one for Mormor’s Rosettes, Norwegian cookies made by dipping cast-iron forms into a thin batter that’s then fried. (Her daughter Camilla categorizes them as “like a deep-fried waffle.”) German Apple Custard Cake, with a custardy layer and cobbled-top crust, originated at her father’s family’s Bockbierfest celebrations.
A recipe for Jamaican Sweet Potato Pudding leads with story about the family’s recent trip to the island to see where Ffrench’s father-in-law grew up. Oliver Bailey, owner of Oliver’s Dutch Pot in Treasure Beach, taught them how to make the traditional dish “with ‘ell on top, ‘ell on bottom” — “hell on top, hell on bottom” — that is, over an outdoor fire with coals above and below the pudding.
“The sweet potatoes were covered in red earth,” said Ffrench. “There was a spigot out back, where we washed them and the grater. That experience, with my father-in-law and my kids and my husband, all of us, was one we’ll treasure forever.”
My early favorite is Mom’s Banana Cake, made with too-ripe bananas and rolled oats and topped with a schmear of cream cheese and butter frosting. I liked the trick of incorporating the baking soda and the baking powder directly into the buttermilk, which I believe contributed to the hearty texture. It felt substantial, like it could tide me over till dinnertime. In the Ffrench spirit, I brought a big piece over to my neighbors, who provided the batter’s two fresh eggs.
I honestly can’t wait for June, when I can make the Mile-High Strawberry Cake pictured on the front cover. Three layers high, stacked with sliced strawberries oozing juice and fresh whipped cream, it looks like early-summer heaven. The book is full of such photos, taken by photographer and Ffrench neighbor Philip Ficks.
Ffrench is currently working on incorporating an interface into her blog, Sweet-home.com, that would let readers post their favorite family recipes and stories. “That’s my dream,” she said. It’s a sweet one.
For more information on Ffrench’s appearance this Saturday, call (845) 688-7213.
Mom’s Banana Cake
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
¾ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup buttermilk or sour milk*
1 ½ cup all-purpose flour
¾ cup rolled oats
1 cup mashed bananas (2-3 very ripe)
*To make sour milk, add ½ teaspoon lemon juice to 1/3 cup whole milk and let stand for 5 minutes.
Cream Cheese Frosting
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
One 8-ounce package cream cheese, at room temperature
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Dash of sal
1. Make the banana cake: Preheat the over to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a 13 x 9-inch baking pan using baking spray.
2. Cream the butter and sugars in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment for about 4 minutes on high, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as necessary.
3. Add the eggs one at a time, blending each time until incorporated.
4. In a small bowl, dissolve the baking soda, baking powder, and salt into the sour milk.
Alternately add the milk mixture and flour to the creamed butter mixture, starting and ending with the flour (add the flour in half-cup increments), mixing to fully incorporate the ingredients each time.
5. Blend in the oats and mashed bananas. With the mixer on low, beat for 30 seconds.
6. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the top is golden and a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let the cake cool completely in the pan.
7. Meanwhile, make the cream cheese frosting: In bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and cream cheese for 2 minutes on high, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as necessary. Sift the confectioners’ sugar into the bowl and beat for another 2 minutes, or until smooth. Add the vanilla extract and salt and beat on high for another 30 seconds.
Using an offset spatula, frost the top of the cooled banana cake.