January 17, 2012 / 2:58 PM / 6 years ago

World Chefs: Sisters revive heirloom recipes for modern bakers

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Self-described “roundish women of a certain age,” Marilynn and Sheila Brass, also known as the Brass Sisters, like to say they are home chefs 114 years of baking experience between them.

They are also inveterate collectors and discoverers of cookbooks, including the handcrafted kind held together by pins and long ago shoved in a forgotten drawer.

About 10 years ago the sisters began testing the recipes they trolled attics, flea markets and yard sales to find.

Their cookbook, “Heirloom Baking with the Brass Sisters,” which gathers 150 of their favorites, is the result.

The sisters, who share a house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, talked to Reuters about finishing each other’s sentences, testing recipes without a dishwasher and researching the meaning of “enough cinnamon to cover a tuppence.”

Q: Why did you write this book?

A: “We’re sort of forensic cookbook authors. We collect culinary antiques. We’ve collected 6500 cookbooks, some dating back to 1600‘s, many from yard sales, or attics, where there was often a box of cookbooks, or handwritten recipes held together with safety pins or nails. We began to wonder what these recipes would taste like so we started testing them.”

Q: What did you learn about the women behind these recipes?

A: “They ranged from society women in Philadelphia, to maids and housekeepers. Women would annotate the recipes. Someone would write, ‘She worked as a maid.’ But both socialite and cook would have been forgotten if someone hadn’t done this book.”

Q: What were the challenges in re-creating such old recipes?

A: ”It was mostly the archaic language. When they said ‘rinse the butter’ that was the way they used to churn butter and preserve it with salt. We knew sweet butter might taste different. But we also kept trying it. Some recipes we made 10 times ... We had to find out how much a gill was, 4 ounces (118 ml), or what people meant when they said ‘a suspicion of ginger’ or ‘enough cinnamon to cover a tuppence.

‘We went online and to our own research library to find out the equivalent ... But the biggest challenge was the word ‘cup’. A cup of flour, we thought, was a cup of flour, but was it a coffee cup or a tea cup? And often people meant their own tea cup, that they passed on down the family. So we had to keep trying and figuring it out.”

Q: How did you learn to cook and bake?

A: “Our mother was a fabulous, self-taught cook and baker. As soon as our noses reached the level of kitchen table, she would take us into the kitchen and show us how. We had our own child-sized tools, and if she made a blueberry pie, we’d make turnovers with the extra dough. She gave us that heritage, that when you entered the kitchen, that’s where you were most creative, the most giving. We still remember that old cast-iron stove with the green enamel.”

Q: How do you two divide the labor?

A: “We both bake and we both cook. When we both go into the kitchen, we don’t care who does what. We have fun. For some people going into the kitchen is such a challenge and it shouldn’t be. We tested all our recipes without a dishwasher. No one tested for us. We now have a dishwasher and we’re thrilled.”

Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring bakers?

A: “We encourage people to do a gentle interrogation of the elders at gatherings to get those stories and get those recipes.”

Winnie McCarthy’s Irish Bread

3 cups (450 g) flour

1/4 cup (55 g) sugar

4 teaspoons (30 g) baking powder

2 cups (475 ml) milk

2 eggs

1 tablespoon vegetable shortening

1/2 cup (85 g) raisins

1/2 cup (75 g) currants

1 tablespoon butter, melted

1. Set the oven rack in the middle position. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsuis). Cut a wax paper liner to fit the bottom of a 9-inch cake pan. Coat the pan with vegetable spray, insert the liner and spray again to coat the liner.

2. Sift together flour, sugar and baking powder into the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add milk gradually, beating to combine. Add eggs, one at a time, and shortening. Fold in raisins and currants.

3. Mix batter twice with folding motion before turning out into pan. Brush top of loaf with melted butter. Bake 55 to 60 minutes, or until top of loaf is crisp and golden brown and a tester inserted into loaf comes out clean. Cool in pan on rack. Store loosely wrapped in wax paper at room temperature.

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