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If flipping through its pages makes you want to drop what you’re doing, run to the grocery store, go home and pull out a giant mixing bowl, says Sharon Kramis, that’s the sign of a good cookbook.
Not only did the former Reporter food columnist’s new book make me wish I was at home in my kitchen, it made me wish I was in my kitchen with my mom.
“The Dutch Oven Cookbook” (Sasquatch Books) is the second labor of love Kramis has produced with her daughter, 37-year-old Julie Kramis Hearne. A celebration of “the best pot in your kitchen,” it follows “The Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook” with a hundred or so dishes, from Vietnamese pho to French beignets, that can come out of this slow-cooking cast iron pot.
The enthusiasm that mother and daughter share for the ability of both the Dutch oven and cast iron skillet to yield perfection clearly comes from a shared history of successful meals and the happy times that surround them. In a family whose cooks have done time at the Herbfarm Restaurant in Woodinville, Anthony’s Restaurants, the California Culinary Academy and the cooking school of the legendary chef James Beard, memories are stored in the porous holes of cast iron as much as on the pages of photo albums.
“If only these pans could talk, the stories they would tell,” Kramis says.
While on a 21-city tour together to promote their first book, Kramis and Hearne encountered people from all over the country who would show up at book signings carrying their favorite cast iron pan. They met a woman who was upset that her ex-husband got the pan in the divorce. Another told them of her collection of 124 cast iron waffle makers. One man had paid $800 for a rare pan he found on eBay, while another woman said her cast iron skillet is the first thing she reaches for when she fears there’s an intruder.
No matter what purpose the pan serves as it is passed down through generations, Kramis says, “the more used it is, the better.” The surface becomes smoother and more non-stick as time goes on. The dry, even heat keeps meats tender, forms golden crusts on baked goods and acts like a wood fired oven for pizza and bread.
“We say it’s like the little black dress in your kitchen,” Kramis says. “The pan you can use for everything.”
When it comes to what goes on in the kitchen (or over the campfire, where many of their recipes can be produced), Kramis and her daughter are of one mind. When discussing food, it’s always “we” rather than “I.”
“It’s almost like we can read each other’s thoughts,” Hearne says. “When I’m cooking and I have a question, I just ask myself, ‘What would my mom do?’”
Even better than eating her mother’s food as a child, Hearne says, was helping to create it. “Making the pasta, making the sausage ... it was the whole process of baking that first loaf of bread,” she says. She recalls faking sickness so she could stay home from school to watch her mother teach classes in Sharon’s Kitchen, a cooking school Kramis ran for several her 40 years on Mercer Island. She later relished accompanying her mother as she trained with Beard at his cooking school in Seaside, Ore.
And after earning her degree in food science and nutrition (just like her mother), when Hearne met the man she would later marry, Kramis pulled from a box an old photo of Harker Hearne in the 8th grade, when he won first place in a cooking contest Kramis judged with his “Auntie Hope’s Fruit Pizza.”
“It all comes back to food,” Hearne says.
I don’t have a cast iron pan, but my mom does. So over the weekend I holed up in her kitchen with a copy of “The Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook” and took a shot at Kramis and Hearne’s “Warm Pear-Ginger Upside Down Cake.”
I had never before caramelized sugar properly, but this time my mom was there to help me. The result, as Kramis and Hearne predicted, was perfection.
The sweet, tender pears I picked up at the farmer’s market are bound together wonderfully by the caramelized sugar syrup, its subtly burnt taste suggesting having been somewhere significant before my dessert plate. The fruit is cradled in a spongy cornmeal cake that has far more texture than your average filling, and the occasional encounter with a morsel of candied ginger snaps you awake just when you think you’ve died and are slipping off to heaven.
A new appreciation for a traditional kitchen fixture, a rainy afternoon with intoxicating smells wafting from the oven, filling my mother and I with pride - these are the moments good cookbooks are written for.