The apartment that Scott and I live in once belonged to my grandparents. My grandfather bought it in 1966 and my grandmother Tutu lived here until she died in 2002. I moved in soon after her death and I spent the first two years here slowly going through boxes and drawers, letting go of her things and making room for mine.
My grandfather Phil never actually got to live here. He died of a heart attack just months before they were scheduled to move in. Though I never had the opportunity to meet him, I know that he was one of the kindest and most generous men of his generation. He took care of everyone around him, and in a essential way, has provided for me as well.
One of the boxes I found as I sifted and sorted contained every condolence card Tutu received after Phil died. Some were heartfelt letters, while others were simply a few words dashed on now-vintage greeting cards.
And one was this simple note from Laurie Colwin.
During my childhood, I loved hearing stories of about when my mom was young. She’d tell me about life in the suburbs of Philadelphia, of walking to school without parents, playing outside with friends every afternoon and long, snowy winter nights (living in Southern California, snow was particularly exotic). There were lots of characters in these stories, including neighbors, classmates and the mean kids who went to the Catholic school around the corner.
One such story-time bit player was Laurie. She was a family friend, who briefly dated my uncle in high school and grew up to be a writer. When I found the note, I knew of the connection. But in the years since those bedtime stories, I had also discovered and devoured Laurie Colwin’s food writing. Her words had made her important to me and so the note became instantly valuable.
I’ve lived a life that’s been fairly free of mentors. I’ve always longed to have someone swoop down and offer me guidance and encouragement when it felt that the road had turned impossibly rocky. For whatever reason, no mentor has appeared. So I made one up. I tucked Laurie’s note into my calendar as touchstone and pretended that she was still alive and cared about my career.
I re-read her books regularly in an attempt to glean just what it is that made her food writing so good. When I was working on my cookbook, I often asked myself what Laurie might have thought of this chapter intro or that recipe headnote. And when I write something I’m pleased with, I imagine that she might have enjoyed reading it too.
I realize that I may have just confessed something that will make me sound slightly off my rocker, but honestly, having my imaginary Laurie mentor has helped me through many a tough spot.
When the topic of gingerbread came up last night, it seemed only natural to turn to one of Laurie’s recipes (she has one in each volume of essays and each is a little different). I used the one in Home Cooking, as it was the easier book to put hands on, and began tweaking so that it came into alignment with my own gingerbread vision.
I used half blackstrap molasses and half Lyle’s Golden Syrup (her preferred sweetener in the More Home Cooking recipe) and swapped in some whole wheat flour for a bit of the all-purpose to give it a sense of virtuousness. I used some freshly grated ginger to boost the intensity of flavor and stirred in a cup of chopped pears.
The finished cake has a smooth, crackly crust and is all tender and spice inside. The pears add small pockets of juicy flavor and play so nicely with fire of the ginger. It’s the perfect thing to eat with a mug of tea on a cozy winter afternoon and I think Laurie would have loved it.
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter softened
- 1/2 cup light brown sugar
- 1/4 cup black strap molasses
- 1/4 cup cane syrup or honey
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 cup buttermilk or some plain yogurt thinned out with milk
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
- 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- 3/4 cup whole wheat flour
- 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1 cup peeled and finely chopped pear
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Butter an 11 x 7 cake pan and set aside.
- Cream butter and brown sugar together. Once they well integrated, add molasses, cane syrup, eggs, buttermilk, vanilla extract and grated ginger. Mix to combine.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the flours, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and allspice.
- Add dry ingredients to wet and mix to combine. Once they are well integrated, fold in the chopped pears.
- Scrape batter into the buttered baking dish and bake for 25-35 minutes. It is done when the edges pull away from the corners of the pan and a tester comes out mostly clean.
- Let cool just until it is warm enough to handle and cut yourself a slice. Gingerbread is good just about any way you slice it, but is SO good when eaten warm.
Nah, not off your rocker at all. I love it~ what a great story & sense of history. I adore gingerbread in general…but pears too? Be still my heart.
Thanks Meg! And as a gingerbread lover, I think you owe it to yourself to make this one. 😉
I love this post about gingerbread, I’ve never tried to make it, but I’ll cook it before Christmas
It is JUST the thing for Christmastime.
I had just “discovered” Laurie Colwin, only to learn of her much-too-early death and like you, I absorbed everything of hers I could put my hand on. I always wish that Gourmet would have collected all her columns in one place, a book, a link, something. What a wonderful connection … and mentor. (Don’t worry, if you ever really fall off your rocker, we food bloggers will be around to pick you right back up …)
Alanna, what a wonderful idea! Maybe someone at Gourmet Live will do it. And thanks, it’s good to know I can on my fellow food bloggers!
what a lovely post! thank you for letting us in Marisa, I loved hearing this bit of personal history and what inspires you. and strangely enough I don’t think I’ve ever had gingerbread. sounds like I need to!
Lady, I can think you would LOVE gingerbread. I see you adding a bit of cayenne for extra kick.
You are a beautiful documentarian, I love your sharing and your cultivation of personal culinary history. Admirable and uncommonly heartfelt… xo
What a lovely post. I’ve been fortunate to have several good mentors at various times in my life and even when they aren’t present, I still converse with them in my mind and ask myself what they might say or do. Then I do what I think they would want me to do.
Barbara, I’m so glad to know I’m not the only one conducting mentoring conversations inside my head!
It looks so moist and delicious! Why don’t I make this here at home, the gingerbread I only does is a cookie and not something as delicious looking as this one.
This was beautiful to read and to see, visually. And I know that bread will be beautiful to make and taste…pear and molasses and ginger bread sound like a match made in heaven. Thank you for sharing this!
It’s a dream of a cake. My only problem is that I can’t stop eating it.
I love that you imagined a mentor: I think that’s marvelous. And that pear gingerbread looks lovely as well. I adore gingerbread.
Thanks so much Sandy!
I love Laurie Colwin. I was just trying to explain to my boyfriend yesterday how much I love reading her food writing andwhy.
There’s something wonderfully universal and yet totally specific about her writing.
I love Laurie Colwin’s writing – I’ve read everything she ever wrote (including her fiction) but her cooking writing is the best. I am going to dig out Home Cooking again to reread it for the holidays. Thanks for the inspiration.
I think it’s perfect holiday reading!
What a great story and the gingerbread looks wonderful.
I too, love Laurie’s writing. Searched for her books (cooking) found 1 in a library sale! I’m happy to have “Home Cooking and More Home cooking”, in my library. AND Love to re-read them. She has good advice…”enjoy being the sustainer AND the sustained” as you cook. I also make sure I have Lyle’s syrup in my pantry.
Her recipe for “Corn Fritters” is reprinted in “The Gourmet Cookbook” (2004). Big book but nice to have.
Thoroughly enjoyed this post. Happy Holidays.
I always keep Lyle’s golden syrup around too. Never know when you’ll have a gingerbread emergency!
So beautifully written, Marisa. Thanks for this.
Thanks Jess. That means a whole lot coming from you!
Great post, Marisa! Colwin is great, and your grandfather sounds like a pretty special guy, too. Thanks for this.
I, too, have always wanted and hoped for a mentor. Maybe someday I’ll find one, but I think your idea of adopting one is great.
Anna, it has helped a surprising amount.
You are not off your rocker; my mentor is my sister who died when she was 14. She was my big sister and I know that she watches over me. Your story reminded me of her, and strangely enough, Ratatouille.
Last year I had some pears given to me from a neighbor with a big old pear tree and made gingered pears. The nice thing about the gingered pears is that they are canned and available at the reach of the hand. They are amazing on gingerbread. Very spicy and sweet and wonderful. I will try putting the pears right into the gingerbread next time; you and Laurie have inspired me.
Your gingered pears sound amazing! I put up some pears in dilute maple syrup, and they could have really used some ginger. Maybe next year!
Thank-you for sharing these lovely memories, thoughts and recipe. These two books have resided in my library since they were published — it’s time to dust them off, and make some gingerbread with pears.
Definitely pull them down for the holidays!
What a special keepsake and memory from your childhood and time with your grandparents. It is one of my favorite things to learn about the lives of my grandparents, great grandparents, etc. Often when I ask my grandmother about her childhood she claims it was “boring and ordinary”, but then she’ll launch into these stories that hold me for hours. I baked an upside-down pear gingerbread cake last winter, and it was a huge success for my husband and me. It’ll definitely be something we go back to, and this is a new twist to try!
Isn’t funny how fascinating it can be to hear about the lives of our parents and grandparents? And your upside-down cake sounds just wonderful!
That was a great story. No, you are not off your rocker. It can be awfully lonely when those around you don’t share your interests. Thank you for sharing that.
The gingerbread looks amazing. I love the idea of adding pears to it. Thank you! I wish I had a piece right now with my tea.
I so wish I could share a piece with you! 🙂
Thanks for sharing this. My husband loves gingerbread and tries out different recipes each winter. I haven’t been much of a fan, but something about adding the pears really attracted me to this recipe so much so that I will shopping for pears today. Would you recommend letting them ripen to softness (as if to eat) or using them less ripe (more firm) for the recipe?
I did the same thing, Dianne! The pears were calling my name!
The pears I used were soft to the point of being overripe, but I don’t think you have to let them go that far in order to make this cake. I’d say that as long as they’re not super crunchy, you’re good to go.
Thanks for the post. I’ve had Colwin’s cookbooks for years and it’s time to bring them out. Loved her fiction too. Time to reread “Happy All The Time,” perhaps with a slice of pear gingerbread on the side.
Happy All The Time is a lovely book. If you’ve never read it, so is Shine On, Bright & Dangerous Object.
I really enjoyed reading about your family, Marisa.
When you say your grandpa was one of the most generous men of his generation, I know what you mean. I feel that way about my grandpas too. Come to think of it, were men different back then? These days, we describe good men as hard working. Kinda missing those men who took care of everyone around them and loved full heartedly.
anyway, your mentor story does not make you sound crazy. I believe Laurie is your inner confidence 🙂
I think there are still plenty of good men out there, but the ones like our grandpas have become a rarer breed than they once were. Society has changed and we’ve all changed with it.
thanks for this Marisa. Every day that I get to spend a little thought on Laurie Colwin is a warmer day for me. What a gift.
Alana, it is always my pleasure to bring a little Laurie into your life!
What a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing.
I love your heart felt story and how you imagined Laurie as your mentor, that’s precious. I’ll bet she actually helped you along as your guardian angel. The bread looks scrumpdili-icious!
I am a Laurie fan, thank you for this article. More please?
What a beautiful post! I really love the idea of an imagined mentor, and what a great connection that allows you to have that note from yours.
The cake sounds delicious and I love the added “sense of virtuousness”!
Oh I do love Laurie Colwin and her top notch food writing. Thanks for the post and for giving us a glimpse into your mentor. I think writers, even those who have passed away, can make terrific mentors.
A dear friend gifted her books to me at a time in my life when they were desperately needed. I think you found a magnificent (if absent) mentor.
Thank you for the introduction to Laurie! I have never given up gingerbread cake, and I serve it with a fresh lemon sauce that makes my dessert a heavenly duo. A backyard neighbor has a lemon tree and lets me have whatever I want, and I make this dessert to thank her and to spoil us and our visiting kids. I can almost smell it now……
That was a lovely story. I love ‘remember when’
I can’t wait to try this recipe 🙂
Laurie started me down the cooking, reading about cooking path I’m on years ago. I miss her to this day. Her brownie recipe is my go to. I don’t even have to read the recipe but I always open the book.
Such a lovely post, and of course, lovely gingerbread!
I have long loved Laurie Colwin’s books, short stories, and essays about food. Her novels are suffused with love of food, family, and cooking – – and with all the interconnections among the three. I still wonder what she’d be writing if she were still alive today; whatever it might be, I know I would be reading, and re-reading, it.
I love Laurie’s writings as well. What a great personal story. The gingerbread looks yum!!! Thank you for sharing.
OMG! I made this tonight! Not only does my kitchen smell amazing but it’s delicious as well! I’ve never been much of a gingerbread fan but that could be because I always only ever had store made or box gingerbread and the studded pears were calling my name. This is sooooo yummy and I will definitely make it again! I just had a great thought too, this would go amazing glazed with your vanilla-pear jam! Just heat the jam up a bit and brush it over the top! OMG! I can’t wait for your cookbook!
You know, I thought about doing something like that. I’m all out of pear vanilla right now or I would have tried it!
Thank you for the memory filled post! I never knew Laurie Colwin was a food writer. Although I have read all of her fiction (it’s been years) I’ll need to now look for her cookbooks.
I love your gingerbread post. Love.
Yum, I love gingerbread!
Thank you for sharing… and for reminding me that it’s okay to listen to my inner voice of reason… my grandmother. Also, for reminding me of a Christmas tradition that I hadn’t thought of this year. In the past couple of years; we have lost more than we have gained. Needless to say things have been turned upside down! Gingerbread was always a Christmas dinner dessert in my grandmothers home. The only difference, besides the addition of pears, is that she always topped it with hot melted lemon curd. I think it’s time to start that tradition again in our new home; with our new family and friends. Thank you!
What a nice post to read on a Friday afternoon! One of my favorite things is gingerbread and I look forward to holiday time to indulge. As you said above, it is hard to stop eating it!
Beautifully written post. never having a mentor myself, i’ve often resorted to thinking what specific others would do. :] I love that you shared this.
What a delicious looking gingerbread recipe! Thanks so much for continuing to inspire me towards enjoyable time spent cooking and canning in my kitchen!
I love every one of Laurie Colwin’s writings and most of all her food writing. I call down to the Steen’s Molasses Co. in Louisiana just as instructed in book one and their molasses is wonderful. Her Home Cooking books make a great gift to any cook. Having her writing is like a friend in the kitchen.
You know, I’ve never made gingerbread before. I think that has to be remedied with this recipe – what a great story! How could I not make it?
Fabulous post. I’m definitely making this soon!
Just made the gingerbread – yum! This is the first time I’ve made any sort of gingerbread and it will definitely not be the last!
Books have long been my mentors, showing me undiscovered bits of myself that have been some of the real “aha” moments in my life. I’ve long loved Laurie Colwin, the unapologetic hominess, her unabashed quirks, her sort of elder sister bossiness when it comes to fried chicken, and have counted her (books) as mentors also. What would Laurie cook when she’s home by herself?
I just got home from a Thanksgiving trip during which I slept in the bed in the house in which my grandmother was born. I brought box of pecans back with me that my aunt gave me from the trees in the yard. I guess my roots are pecan tree roots 🙂
As we wait for our wood cookstove to be delivered, I sit here daydreaming of using it to make exactly the sort of recipes you share here. I’m so glad to have found this blog…I love recipes that have a story to them. 🙂
Dear Heart (she would have said to you),
Thank you for the lovely tribute to Laurie. She’d have swept you up in a second, sat you down while she prepared dinner and begun her interrogation: “Say everything!”
You should give serious thought to a food book of your own, you know.
What a lovely post and tribute to Laurie Colwin. I’ve never read her books but she is mentioned reverently several times in Sarah Ban Breathnach’s book “Simple Abundance” and now after reading your post, I’m going to put Laurie’s book on my reading list for 2012.
Gingerbread is one of those wonderful comfort foods from my childhood. In my family it came from a box and filled the house with wonderful aroma so that I couldn’t wait to finish supper and eat a warm square of it topped with real whipped cream.
Another Laurie Colwin fan here–and I find it touching how many others here like her, too.
A little edgier but along the same lines is Jam Today by Tod Davies.
Ground allspice has to be one of my all time favourites. It really is the epitome of this time of year. It’s wonderful that it compliments both sweet and savoury. My latest Mango and Cranberry Chutney features it really heavily. Its a sweet hot Christmas spiced affair for serving with cheese at Christmas supper time. You might like to give it a try, Marisa.
I’m making this bread in individual mini loaf pans for a Christmas party. I can’t wait to taste them (they’re in the oven right now!). I also made a Concord grape and ginger jelly and (lo and behold) your apple & cranberry jam (with rosemary and honey added)! I just now realized that 2 two of my favorite homemade gifts were bookmarked from your site! I look forward to finding more treasures on your website! Thank you! -Shelly
I tired it with canned peaches instead of overripe pears – super yummy.
What a beautiful post to read on a quiet, summery (it is summer here in Australia) evening. I like the idea of having an imaginary mentor as i too have found myself needing encouragement and support for what i do and not finding it anywhere, made it difficult to persevere.
Oh! What a sweet post, and what a nice little connection to Colwin. I love her books; I loved reading her in Gourmet magazine, way back in the day.
Hi Marisa, I just found you and via the post on Laurie. I am a huge fan of hers- I try to spread the word in the Uk too. Her book Home Cooking is being published for the first time in the UK later this month. She is a friend to me and it seems she has been the best mentor to you. I am off to look around your blog and excited to see you have a book! Jo xx
I’m so happy to hear that Home Cooking is going to be published in the UK. I can only imagine that Laurie would have been delighted by that turn of events.
I so miss Laurie Colwin. I loved Home Cooking and my favorite novel of hers is Shine On Bright And Dangerous Object. I still remember when I learned of her death. I was at a book festival in downtown Denver and I picked up a new book of hers, do not now remember the title. I read on the dust jacket that this was her last book. That she had died. My stomach dropped, I felt like I had lost a good friend. Still miss her and her lovely writing.