Tuesday, September 28, 2010


by Sheila Connolly

Made you look, didn’t I?

But this blog is written by mystery writers who like to cook. And eat. We don’t do smut.

My dirty books are the cookbooks I love best. You know, the ones that fall open to your favorite recipe automatically. And when you look at that recipe, it’s hard to read because there are years of grease spatters and chocolate blobs on the page—but it doesn’t matter because you could probably make the recipe in your sleep anyway.

I own maybe fifty cookbooks, which I started collecting in my senior year in college (I lived in a dorm but we had “kitchenettes”—and we actually cooked a full Thanksgiving dinner there one year). The very first cookbook I ever bought was a cheap paperback edition of The Joy of Cooking, just for the basics. The second, a graduation present to myself, was Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking—and I still have it.

I surveyed my cookbook collection, and it was obvious which ones have received the most use over the (mumble, mumble) years I’ve been cooking:

--the aforesaid Julia Child (and I now own not one but two back-up copies, in case I ever decide the original is too far gone to use)

--my mother’s Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (aka “Fannie Farmer,” 1949 edition, so she must have acquired it shortly after she married)

--British and Irish Cooking (Around the World Library, 1974)

--Cookies and Candies (Better Homes and Gardens, 5th ed. 1966), which I think was the third cookbook I bought (I paid $1.95 for it—the tag is still on the cover).

These are the cookbooks I have gone back to time and time again. “Julia” is my bible, the go-to book for every meal with guests. The dirtiest page? Right in the middle: Boeuf a la Catalane, which is almost translucent with grease, and on the next page, Daube de Boeuf. I’ve been making these from Day One, and even my husband has adopted them.

I treasure the Fannie Farmer because it includes annotations from my mother and my sister, made over decades of us (my grandmother had her own copy, which I also kept). The spine fell apart years ago. Funny, but it looks like the section that got the heaviest use was…desserts. It makes entertaining reading, as it is filled with dishes that no one makes any more. There’s even a section labeled “Fish in Second-Day Dishes.” Huh?

I forget why I bought the British and Irish Cooking book, but it has the best lamb stew recipe I’ve ever had, and we make Toad in the Hole regularly, as well as Bubble and Squeak. (Gotta love the names!)

And finally, my much-loved Cookies and Candies. I think I have more cookie cookbooks that any other kind, and I keep buying them, looking for something new and different. But I always come back to my first love. It falls open to the page for Paul Bunyan Sugar Cookies, and I notice that there is an accumulation of flour in the groove there. I’ll give you the recipe—with my modifications (I’m not sure what copyright issues may apply, but I have changed this recipe over the last thirty-something years of use). It’s the recipe I used when I sent my then-fiance a box of pink hearts, and when I entertained my daughter and her ballet buddies after school, and of course for many years of Christmas cookies.

Foolproof Sugar Cookies

¾ cup butter
¾ cup solid shortening
2 eggs
1 Tblsp. vanilla
2 Tblsp. whole milk
4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
3 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt

Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Cream the butter, shortening, sugar, eggs and vanilla until light and fluffy. Stir in the milk. Add the sifted dry ingredients and blend well. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap or put in a plastic bag and refrigerate for one hour (this is important—it makes the dough much easier to handle when you roll it out).

Roll the chilled dough to ¼-inch thickness. Cut with your favorite cookie cutters. If you wish, you may sprinkle the tops with granulated sugar, or any other decorative sprinkles you like. Place the cookies about 1 inch apart on an ungreased cookie sheet. (You can combine the scraps and reroll the dough for more cookies.)

Bake at 375 degrees for about 10 minutes, or until the edges are lightly browned (don’t overcook!). Remove from the pan and cool.

These keep well in a closed container (I think the flavor actually improves after a couple of days—if they last that long!) Don’t ask me how many this makes—it’s a bunch, probably between three and four dozen, depending on how big you cut them.


  1. I love looking through my old cookbooks! You're right, Sheila, the annotations are priceless. :) It sounds like you come from a family of great cooks!

    Thanks so much for sharing your sugar cookie recipe--I bet my kids are going to love this one, and so will I! Not sure about that "Fish in 2nd Day Dishes" section, though!

  2. I love my cookbooks just as much as I love my mystery collection. The sugar cookie recipe will be used here as the boys love decorating them. With Halloween around the corner this will be great. I agree with Elizabeth fish in 2nd day dishes not too sure about ha.

  3. Dirty books. How cute! Yes, I have dirty books. My go-to is an old Gourmet book, one of 2. Love the beef stew recipe. And pie crust. And...
    Thanks for the memories.


  4. That Cookies and Candies Cookbook looks so familiar. I think I have the Meat version of that series! It has the all time easiest fried chicken recipe in it.

    ~ Krista

  5. Thanks for the sugar cookie recipe. I use one out of my original Better Homes and Garden Cookbook to bake cut out christmas cookies, similiar to your picture. This cookbook is falling apart. My very first cookbook I recieved when I was like 10, I am now 62. It is the Better Homes and Garden children's cookbook. It has survived all these years, Traveled many many miles, packed, unpacked etc. I still love the recipes in it. Brings back memories.


  6. I have several of those too. Just wanted to ask if you've tried almond extract in your sugar cookies?

  7. Avery, my mother had a copy of the Gourmet cookbook (which of course I still have), but I could never get into it.

    CindyD, after telling myself I hated almond flavor, including marzipan for years, I discovered I loved it. I've got a dynamite almond cake recipe that has half a pound of almond paste in it (and that one I found in a newspaper years ago).

    One thing that they didn't have in the Old Days was all this vivid food dye--makes frosting cookies a whole new experience! And then there are the sprinkles...I have shamrocks, and little tiny farm animals, and...

  8. I have my mother's old cookbook that has the blue War-time section in the middle. I believe this is a Better Homes cookbook but I can't be sure and can't check the title right now. These recipes were used during WWII when rationing left little to the housewife to cook with. Some recipes are...interesting...

  9. I treasure my reissued Betty Crocker cookbook
    from the 50's that a friend gave me. When I can't sleep, I like to read cookbooks or knitting patterns -- they comfort me! Love the cookie recipe. A must share with the dudes!

  10. I love old cookbooks, and sometimes give them away as wacky gifts to my readers.

  11. Oh what a wonderful topic. My mom's wedding gift copy of the Joy of Cooking holds a special spot on my shelves. Now way too fragile to use regularly, I still take it out, if only to see her handwriting. I actually have that cookie book!!! Also with a price tag on it...
    Thanks for making a rainy cold day here in Mittenland a bit warmer...with memories.

  12. I love cooking. I am very picky when it comes to buying a cook book. My number one priority is the need for pictures! I will not even look at a recipe unless it has a picture next to it.

  13. I have that Cookies and Candies book too! Also Julia Child - both volumes; Fannie Farmer; Craig Claiborne; but my favorite, the dirtiest of my dirty books, is my mother's old cookbook, now in many pieces and so worn as to be unusable: Meta Givens' Modern Encyclopedia of Cookery. I bought a slightly newer version in a used bookstore just to have a working copy, since Mom's is kept solely for its precious annotations and golden memories.

    Second to this is the handwritten book of family recipes my biological brother wrote out for me, shortly after we found each other. That's a treasure, and now much used, filled with English and Scottish recipes--like Toad in the Hole, Sheila. :)