Letter: To Heidi Swanson of 101cookbooks.com

Hi, Heidi!

I just wanted to thank you again for your suggestions for food to make for my mother while she recovered from knee surgery. It was so helpful! I made a couple of the soups you suggested, as well as your summer squash gratin, an enormous batch of your tapioca pudding (my mother’s favorite), and the vanilla mashed sweet potatoes. My mother raved about the sweet potatoes–she was just delighted by them. They made the first couple weeks of her recovery much easier, and now she’s almost completely recovered! I’ve been thinking about the vanilla mashed sweet potatoes a lot lately, it being fall and chilly, so I thought I’d share with you the story of the first time I made them, back in the summer of 2007.

The first part of the recipe went off without a hitch. I opted to leave the skins on for the puree; the texture wasn’t quite as delightful, but I felt the nutritional boost was worth it. Yay, fiber! I was so delighted by them that I thought I would take your suggestion for their use: “add an egg or two, maybe some grated cheese for a tart filling”. I had been jonesing to make a savory tart, so I decided that this was the perfect opportunity. So I asked myself–what kind of cheese do I have? Parmesan! Okay, what goes well with Parmesan cheese? Garlic!

At that point I thought I might be getting too far into the savory side, and wanted to make sure I stayed true to the sweetness of the potatoes. So in went some nutmeg, and a little bit of clove, a pinch of cinnamon.

But what if that had tipped the balance too far towards pumpkin pie? Oh no! In went some paprika and a tiny pinch of cayenne pepper.

At that point, perhaps finally possessed by good sense, I stopped playing mad scientist with the spice cabinet, poured the tart into the pie shell, and set about to wait.

The smell filling the house was almost indescribably confusing, as though someone were cooking an entire meal, dessert included, all at once, possibly in the same cooking receptacle. It didn’t smell bad, the way my house did the time I cooked quinoa in pineapple juice with cinnamon and raisins. It just didn’t exactly smell good, either. It smelled unknowable–like something that required senses beyond the human sensory range to really comprehend.

When it was finally done, a friend of mine dropped by to chat. Concerned by the highly confusing scents emanating from the oven, we decided that we’d both try it together, at the same time. It was like a suicide pact–if it killed us, it’d kill us together.

The tart tasted very much like it smelled. It was not bad–technically, it turned out well. It was cooked through, no burned spots, nothing violently painful about the flavoring. It just couldn’t decide whether it was a dessert or an entree. It was trying to be both simultaneously, and was not succeeding very well. It was easily the most confusing thing I have ever eaten. The flavors didn’t so much complement each get into a brawl in your mouth.

The one bite didn’t kill us, of course, but it didn’t exactly encourage a second one. The tart sat in the fridge until it molded and was banished to the waste bin. The story lives on–my friends love to tease me about it as evidence of my inability to leave well enough alone, at least as far as cooking experimentation goes. I have not tried it again, though I think I might, soon. I am left with the question, however; what sort of grated cheese did you mean?

I think if I did it now, I would probably use Parmesan, again, or maybe feta or goat cheese. However, I would probably stop the flavor additions there! 🙂

One last note: I am spending a year abroad in Scotland, getting an MSc at the University of Dundee. The course I am in is very small–there are only 16 of us, and almost all of us are transplants from other nations. There are four of us Americans, two big-city coastal kids and two small town heartland types. (I am one of the latter.) It was somewhat intimidating at first–there was a little bit of an “Aww, your slang is so quaint! In San Francisco, we stopped saying that five years ago!” sort of thing going on for a while. However, once the young lady from San Francisco and I started talking about cooking, everything became much easier. The first thing we wanted to recommend to each other was your blog! So thank you for making a big world a little smaller.


Letter: To Heidi Swanson of 101cookbooks.com

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