Sunday, February 1, 2009

More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin

8. More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen
by Laurie Colwin
nonfiction essays, 1993
paperback, 210 pages
finished 2/1/09

I wonder if all of us who write about books on our blogs have our special favorite reviews. I know I do, and one of them is on Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking.

As I read More Home Cooking, my heart ached that this dear woman was no longer in the world. I kept reading things that made me want to email her, and say, 'yes' I feel the same way. In a chapter called Three Chocolate Cakes, I suddenly saw a recipe called Happy Winter Fudge Cake, from a children's book I've read a thousand times, and which I even wrote about in the early days of my blog. I don't know anyone else who has read this book, and there's Laurie Colwin including a recipe my kids and I baked many a time.

I came upon a neat connection to Pink Sugar by O. Douglas. In that book, Kirsty says:

This is what I have every night - a glass of hot water and a sponge-cake.

If you are like me, you've probably often wondered about the 'sponge' in British books. Laurie Colwin solved this little mystery for me.

Recently I became addicted to the kind of classic, basic sponge cake English women of a certain age can make in their sleep. It is generally used as a plain tea cake, spread with raspberry jelly and dusted with powdered sugar. It is absolutely delicious, and, best of all, it has four ingredients. If you want to be snooty you can call it a génoise. I use a 7-inch round tin, but an 8-inch square is fine.

Cream 1 stick of sweet butter and 1/2 cup of sugar. Beat in 2 eggs (or 1 yolk and 2 whites). Beat until light and fluffy with either a whisk or an electric beater. Fold in 1 cup of flour to which you have added 1/2 teaspoon baking powder and 1 teaspoon vanilla, if you like. (You can do without the baking powder or the vanilla). Bake in a buttered tin for 20 minutes to half an hour. You can eat this cake plain, with stewed fruit, or with ice cream, but it is best with jam and powdered sugar. For grown ups, bitter marmalade is very nice. Your actual work time is about ten minutes, which produces one of the best cakes you'll ever eat.

I love the conversational style of her writing, which of course only makes it harder for readers to realize this voice isn't in our world anymore. She is never intimidating, and happily shares her anxieties as she approaches difficult recipes. "It took me a long time to get over my fear of making jam." She encourages us to try making foods that seem beyond our capabilities. "If I had a dollar for every time someone said to me, 'I don't have time to bake bread anymore,' I would be as rich as Donald Trump used to be." She promptly tells us all the details of making bread that takes very, very little time and effort. She talks about dishes made from scratch:

When you feed them good food, they all say, "Oh, God, this is so great. This is really delicious." And then you say, "This is a cake that took four seconds to make, it was made from scratch by someone who can hardly add two and two. You do not have to go to MIT to make a scratch cake." And they say, " I've never done that. I've just used a mix." And you say, "But if you will just follow these simple directions you will have something excellent, and it will be better than what you have." They've never even thought of it.

The words from The Book of Common Prayer, "In the midst of life we are in death," are never so resonant as when we read something by someone who has since died. They write in a book or a diary as if life will go on, and we, the living, know what happens next. My mother's last diary entry was written the day before she entered the hospital for what she thought would be a simple gall bladder operation, but which turned out to be cancer of the pancreas. She was dead one month and one day after she wrote about her incredibly normal day:

Had tea and toast and tasted good. Raining hard. Tel. Sis to thank her for the flowers.

Yet, the very last words are so prophetic: "my chest and back so lame."

Doesn't it just kill you? It sure does me. In one of Laurie Colwin's essays, she's talking along and then in parentheses writes: "(I am writing in October before the election of 1992)." She never saw this election. She was gone before the month was up. She never got to see the Halloween, of which she wrote: "No matter what else happens in October, Halloween is still the big deal. ... My daughter likes the same thing, year after year after year, and I must confess that I do, too."

Yet, even with the sad fact of her death, it is so worth reading both Home Cooking and More Home Cooking. You will love her voice, her sincerity, her warmth, her humor, her encouragement. She is a joy to read.


  1. I adore Laurie Colwin's wonderful cookbooks as well as her novels. The world lost an amazing writer when she died....

  2. Your reviews are written so eloquently...I love them. Now I want to read this book that has touched you so and meet this woman who unfortunately is no longer with us.

    I've passed an award on to you..please stop by and pick it up...

  3. Thank you so much Wendy and Staci, this was a review straight from my heart. I'll be over to see this award! Thanks Staci.

  4. Wish her books were available over here.

  5. Her books are on my request list at the library, now I'm really looking forward to them :)

  6. I hope you like them as much as I do, Niki. Cait, I'm surprised amazon uk or book depository doesn't have them.

  7. Nan, SO funny, I've just been reading Laurie Colwin (not at all well known in UK) and thinking many of the same things. Although I made her broccoli soup for lunch the other day and it was too disgusting to eat. And she's not quite right about an English sponge - I'll email you proper instructions if you'd like.

    I found myself wondering about her daughter and her husband. Have you read any of her novels?


  8. Joanna, I'm sure she would be laughing along with you about the soup! Would you want to leave the sponge recipe here so people could read it?? Her daughter works for a California paper, and her husband wrote a book several years ago, but that's all I've read about them. I have not read her fiction yet, though I own three books - maybe this year.
    Cait (look in comments) was saying her books weren't available over there - might you let her know where you got yours??

  9. I remember Laurie Colwin's beautiful little book Happy All the Time and a few others. Hadn't read her cookbooks!

    What a sweet and loving presence she was in the world. Thank you for reminding me of her.

  10. I have Happy All The Time, Mary Lois, and a couple others which I look forward to reading. Home Cooking and More Home Cooking are cookbooks, and indeed, I shelve them among mine, but they are also memoir, family life, modern life. The writing is so beautiful and personal. I'm quite sure you would love reading them. Thanks for leaving your nice thoughts about her.

  11. Your post inspired me to "goog" Laurie Colwin. Wikipedia had a nice read but "goog images" has some inspiring photos - especially a nice cover of the New Yorker!

    I loved her books! Cooksbooks and novels. She was a wonderful writer and with others whom we love and cherish that were taken away too early in life - we are left with memories and longing.

  12. What a beautiful comment, Linda. I have a few sites bookmarked, but I didn't think to look for images. I'm going to go do that. Thank you!

  13. Oh my gosh! I had that book, read it years ago, do not know what happened to it and with my very bad memory- forgot her name! Thanks so much for reminding me - I LOVED that book- and it's what sparked my interest in cookbooks with personal stories. I found your site from Karin's One Perfect Little Miracle and and sooo happy I did :-) Your site has made my day :-)

  14. Thank you Utah Grammie for coming by and for taking the time to leave your nice words!

  15. Your enjoyment of cook books brings to mind one I read years ago at the suggestion of a much older friend. If you come across a copy of "The Country Kitchen" by Della T. Lutes, I think you would love it. Part essays, part recipes, first published in the 1930's. I see Amazon carries a newer edition. [Trying to post without a typo this time!]

  16. Morning's Minion, thank you! Gosh, I think I had that book once. It had a little red-checked cover. I don't have it now. :<( And have you ever read the Evelyn Birkby books?

    I loved them!!

  17. Nan
    Oh I l, love Laurie Colwin's books.
    And thanks for visiting me and your input re; the album transfers.
    I am with you and don't miss the skips!
    Do you mind asking your husband what you used or the name of the piece of equipment.
    It does seem complicated.
    I have some kids albums I can't part with and hope to share with my grandkids(if I ever have any!!!)

  18. I'm not surprised a bit that you love her work, Mim!

    I'll get the info and tell you over on your blog as soon as I can.

  19. thanks for this, Nan. I picked up Goodbye without Leaving at the library today. The Washington Post said "poignant and hilarious ... Irresistible". Sounds to be the perfect book for me to curl up with on these dark and rainy nights... can hardly wait.

    Have you seen or read Edna Lewis' The Taste of Country Cooking? She grew up in Freetown, Virginia, a community of farming people ... granddaughter of one of the first to be freed from chattel slavery. She begins each section (Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter) with a short essay about their lives and activities. Following recipes are scrumptious, and I want to make each and every one.

    James Beard said, "Edna Lewis makes me want to go right into the kitchen and starting cooking."

  20. Nan,
    Thank you for the link to Evelyn Birkby. I've printed the order form to send off for "Witching for William"--as I have spent any number of years searching for my own g-g-grandfather William, this should be a sympathetic read.
    I'm re-reading a lot of old favorites--the plots and the writing style seem more pleasing than much that our library is carrying of newer authors. Probably my age is showing in my preferences!

  21. I have Home Cooking in my stacks from a year or so ago. A gift from my hubby. I'll read it this spring.

    And I agree with Staci. Your reviews are lovely. Just as conversational as the books you review.

  22. Janice, I have that one on the shelf and hope to read it soon. Thank you for the book suggestion. I copied out what you wrote and put it in my book ideas folder. It sounds wonderful.

    Morning's Minion - that's so great. The other two books shown on the site are wonderful. I was so pleased to find that she has a website now. She didn't when I first read her books. There is a fiction book by Fannie Flagg called Standing in the Rainbow which features a radio homemaker. I loved it, as I did the nonfiction works of EB.

    Les, I'll be interested in your thoughts on the book. Thank you so, so much for your kind words. They are most encouraging to me.

  23. Lovely post, and poignant. I did not become aquainted with Laurie Colwin until after her death and, even now, I am only familiar with the cookbooks - which are wonderful. Have you read her novels, also?

    My father passed away from pancreatic cancer, so I know what a jolt this diagnosis is. I'm sorry about your mother.

  24. Thank you, Pamela. 'jolt' is the perfect word. I'm sorry you had to go through this as well. I haven't read her novels but I own three and look forward to them.

  25. A really nice variation on the classic Victoria sandwich cake (as we call it over here) is to leave out the vanilla (which I always add with the eggs, btw, not the flour) and add the grated rind of a lemon instead. Then sandwich the two cakes together with lemon curd and ice the top with a plain lemon icing. This is a big favourite with my family.

  26. Mmmm, Cath, thanks! It sounds great. I make my own lemon curd and this sounds like a perfect way to use it! Thank you so much.

  27. I'm no lover of short stories, but I have a volume of them by Laurie Colwin and they are marvelous. I didn't realise she had written novels and cookery books as well. Such an early death.

    Glad to see Cath sent the 'proper' Victoria Sponge recipe. When my children were all at home, this cake used to last about 10 minutes!!


  28. Carole, there's a nice piece here that talks about her work:
    I hope to make the sponge sometime!

  29. I'd not heard of Ms. Colwin. She sounds absolutely lovely.

  30. This book sounds lovely, Nan. I'm reminded of a book I've just read called "Kitchen Congregations" by Norah (Somebody!?!). You've probably read it already, as it's by an American author, but if by chance you haven't, I'm sure you'd enjoy it.

    Anyway, for a sponge all you have to do is remember all the 4s and a 2. All the fours for flour (self-raising)and 2 eggs. Or, and here's the beauty of the recipe, all the 6s and 3, or all the 8s and a 4. Just add other flavourings as you see fit!

  31. Thank you Nan, what a good article. I have 'The Lone Pilgrim', and her big heart shines through all the writing. So sad that this big heart was not a very strong one.

  32. Thank you for this exquisite entry. I admire your writing and your mind so much. And thank you also for the tribute to Laurie Colwin. I hope you will inspire more readers to seek our her works. She was one of those few authors whose works I purchase immediately in hard-cover.

  33. Colleen, she certainly does.

    Dulce, I went and checked it out - The Kitchen Congregation by Nora Seton. I've not heard of it, but it sure sounds like what I'd like. Thanks so much. It'll be one of the first ones I buy when my year of not buying books is done. :<) Now, I must be really thick but I don't get the 4s and 6s, etc. :<)

    Anonymous, what a nice thing to write. I must look into the Lone Pilgrim. I'm glad there's still lots for me to read.

    Sunt Lacrimae Rerum, wow! Thanks, really so much. I'm honored.

  34. Hi Nan
    No wonder you don't get the all the 4s and a 2 thing, I've just re-read my comment and it was gobbledegook!

    Here's what I mean.

    4 oz sr flour, 4 oz butter, 4 oz caster sugar, 2 eggs. Use the creaming method, add vanilla (or coffee, or orange zest/lemon zest) the fold in flour and enough milk for a dropping consistency.

    For a larger cake use 6 oz sr flour, 6 oz caster sugar, 6 oz butter, 3 eggs.

  35. Hey thanks Dulce D. for coming back with more info. Now, I really know what to do, and shall make it soon! Thanks again.

  36. Nan, I just received my copy of this book in the mail from Amazon ... what a treasure it is

    I do love short stories, and hers are some of the best. The one entitled "After the Holidays" speaks directly to me. After the explosion of Christmas, she looks forward to a quiet New Years Eve ... a nice, simple meal with friends. I intend to make Lemon Rice Pudding (pg.12) soon. This recipe is different, and prompts me to look up Jane Grigson's Good Things

  37. Janice, I'm so pleased. I wonder if you've read the first one?

  38. Love all of Laurie Colwin's books!

    1. I still have a few to read, but I've so loved the ones I've read.


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