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Explorations of new and old for the new year


Explorations of new and old for the new year I made pad Thai the other night, and I'm still celebrating. Days later, I get a little thrill just thinking about it. And no, my life isn't really that sad.

After several years of increasingly kidded-down meals, I'd begun to despair of ever eating interesting adult food again. Then, hark! Was that really a "Mom, this is great!" I just heard?

With that, we knew the joy of my son rediscovering his adventuresome baby's palate, and I was off on a (re)discovery journey of my own. For too long, I haven't bothered to try interesting ethnic food, or had the time to seek out some of the more unusual ingredients they require.

This year promises to be different. I'm finally going to follow through on getting the recipe for a friend's Persian celery stew, which she brought over when our daughter was born, warming our hearts as well as stomachs. I'm going to cook more of the Thai food we love. If the baby starts taking a longer nap, I might even spend an afternoon pleating dumplings.

I'm also setting off on an exploration of my past. The new year will bring me some old food loves, brought to mind again by a dish my big sister made for her son's birthday supper with friends.

Seeing that platter of Pepperidge Farm rolls brushed with poppy seeds, Swiss cheese, butter and ham instantly transported me to 1984, when we made pan after pan of these "Ham Delights" for holiday parties. These Junior League cookbook-ish rolls certainly weren't haute cuisine, but oh, were they good.

After I ate them again, I came home and asked my mother for her old Junior League books, now falling apart, crammed with clippings and check marks next to recipes Mom thought looked promising. I know I'm supposed to make sophisticated, witty and subtle put-downs about these books (as a recent New York Times article did), but I just can't get all snarky about something so innocent. Aside from the cream of (junk) recipes, there's much worth making in them.

And even the "cream of" recipes can be redeemed, if you make the soup yourself. For sheer comfort, some of the most basic recipes in these books can't be beat.

Flipping through those books transported me to the end of eighth grade, when appendicitis meant two things for me: I made my friends majorly jealous by getting to skip finals (I landed in the hospital the day exams began); and I ate almost an entire blueberry dessert when I returned home three days later and 10 pounds lighter.

My mother doesn't remember making it, but I've never been able to forget just how good that blueberry torte tasted as I lounged in the living room, unable even to walk up the stairs to bed. Pulled from the pages of "A Taste of Georgia," from the Junior League of Newnan, Ga., it called for a graham cracker crust, cream cheese filling, whipped cream, and a can of blueberry pie filling on top. After three days of Rex Hospital's finest "bouillon" and gross-green gelatin, I thought I was eating sweet clouds.

Returning to the recipe, though, reminded me of a major pitfall of these books: They are not created by cookbook authors who write in a standardized recipe format, and they're not rigorously tested, to put it mildly. The torte, which calls for a 9-by-13-inch pan, clearly has enough crust to cover that pan, assuming you figure out that the crust's butter needs melting first. But the next layer requires just 3 ounces of cream cheese to cover the crust. Maybe that would work if squirted from a paint sprayer; otherwise, there's no way. My mother probably just realized that from the outset and switched to an 8-ounce block of cheese--but you need to be a decent cook already to use these books successfully.

You should also be able to overlook, without gagging, recipes whose titles end in "Elegante" or begin with "Surprise." And if pleasantly old-fashioned writing doesn't please you, head for current chefs' books instead. Mom's Junior League books, in which virtually all the recipe credits follow the style of "Mrs. James Barrett (Sharon)," often sound to my ears even older than they are--more '50s-ish than 1977. Overcome those hurdles, though, and you're on your way to some solid meals your children will remember for years.

After all, I don't expect my son to grow up fondly recalling my pad Thai. But I bet he'll want me to make that Blueberry Torte again soon, telling and re-telling its story along the way.

Cook's notes: The only tricky thing about the ham rolls is splitting the rolls in half. Just use a gentle sawing motion and go slow to avoid separating the rolls and to keep the cut even. These rolls freeze well, unbaked and well-wrapped. You can bake them without thawing first, but increase baking time to 30 to 40 minutes, or until cheese is melted and rolls are hot. For the blueberry torte, I make my own blueberry filling instead of using the can listed in the recipe. I nearly always use frozen berries for this, but fresh berries (use 1 pint) also work. To cool the blueberry topping fast, place it over a bowl of ice water and stir often. For the crust, I ground half a box of cinnamon-topped graham crackers in the food processor, but plain graham cracker crumbs work, too. If you have time to chill the crust before spreading it with the cream cheese mixture, you'll find the filling easier to spread. You may also prefer to add a teaspoon of vanilla to the cream cheese. EndBlock

Ham delights
Makes 60

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons poppy seeds
1 medium onion, grated
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
3 packages Pepperidge Farm party rolls (20 per package)
1 1/4 pounds ham, sliced thin and shredded
11 ounces Swiss cheese, shredded

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a medium mixing bowl, beat butter, mustard, poppy seeds, onion, and Worcestershire sauce together until smooth.

Flip one pan of rolls onto a cutting board; don't separate the rolls. Split the entire pan of rolls in half horizontally with a serrated knife (as if for sandwiches); replace bottoms of rolls into foil pans. Repeat with remaining pans.

Spread both interior sides of the rolls with the butter mixture. Spread ham and cheese generously on the bottom of the rolls and replace the tops. Wrap the pans in foil.

Bake the rolls for 15 minutes, unwrapping the foil in the last 5 minutes of baking. Serve hot.

Bluebery torte
8 to 10 servings

Blueberry topping:
1 16-ounce bag frozen blueberries, or 1 pint fresh
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/3 cup cold water

1/2 of a 13 1/2-ounce package of graham cracker crumbs
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 8-ounce package cream cheese, at room temperature
3 tablespoons milk
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup coarsely chopped pecans
2 cups whipping cream

Make the topping: Combine berries, sugar and lemon juice in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat until sugar dissolves and berries thaw and give off some of their juice. In a small bowl, stir together cornstarch and cold water until smooth. Bring berry mixture to a boil and add cornstarch mixture, stirring constantly, until mixture turns translucent and mounds slightly when dropped from a spoon. Cool completely.

Make the crust: Stir together crumbs, butter and sugar until well mixed. Press into the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch dish.

Make the filling: In a small bowl, beat cream cheese, milk and sugar on medium speed or by hand with a wooden spoon until smooth. Spread gently over crust and sprinkle evenly with pecans. Whip cream in a medium bowl until stiff peaks form; cover pecans and cream cheese completely with cream. Top with the blueberries, swirling them a bit into the whipped cream. Chill well, then cut into squares and serve.

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