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The Bookshelf: Baking with the Brass Sisters

Hilary Deutsch

February 03, 2016

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Marilynn and Sheila Brass are known for their devotion to America’s culinary past, scouring old cookbooks and handwritten recipes to ensure that our nation’s home-baked favorites survive for the next generation. In their latest tome, Baking with the Brass Sisters, the duo compiled recipes that traveled alongside incoming immigrants, as well as favorites that sprouted out of Yankee soil. Last month, the JBF Award–nominated  sisters stopped by the Beard House to discuss their charming and approachable collection of recipes at our latest​ Beard on Books event. Below, the incomparable Brass Sisters share their own culinary journey, which includes child-sized baking utensils, deer fat cookies, and their top tips for the home baker. 

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How did you get your start in the cookbook world?

Our story may be a little bit different from other cookbook authors. Between the two of us, we have 128 years of combined baking and cooking experience. Our mother, Dorothy Katziff Brass, first taught us to bake and cook from the time when we could barely reach the kitchen table! We had our own child-sized rolling pins, whisks, and baking pans and we've been in the kitchen ever since.  

When Marilynn was laid off from her job at the age of 60, she decided to write a cookbook. She felt that if she didn’t do it then, she might never do it. She would test four recipes a day by herself, even in the summer when the air conditioner stopped working! 

At that time, Sheila was 65 and still working, and did much of the recipe testing at night and on the weekends.

Do you have a favorite baking recipe from your childhood? 

One of Marilynn’s favorite recipes from her childhood is our mother’s Fruited Tea Bread. Our mother, Dorothy, used to make more than a dozen of them every holiday season as gifts for family and friends. 

When the spicy aroma of the bread fills our kitchen more than 50 years after our mother baked hers, it reminds us that the holidays have arrived. Our mother used candied cherries, candied pineapple, and raisins in her recipe. We're perhaps more adventurous, so we've added candied apricots and candied citron as well as golden raisins to the recipe. We also like to bless the tea cake with a liberal splash of brandy or whiskey and wrap it in cheesecloth to mellow in the refrigerator. We cut the moist cake into thin slices and serve with a glass of sherry or a cup of Earl Grey tea.

What’s the most interesting relic you’ve found in your 40 years of collecting culinary antiques?

We collect handwritten manuscript cookbooks and have more than 200 of them. Some are written in English, French, and German. We love looking through them and selecting recipes to “translate" for the 21st-century home kitchen.  

The earliest manuscript cookbook we have is from just after the French and Indian War and is written by a young girl. It’s only a few pages, and because paper was so scarce then, her brother used the front and back covers to practice his sums. The tiny book contains recipes like clam chowder and “crulls,” or crullers. We think it is from New York State. 

We encourage everyone to collect manuscript cookbooks, especially ones from their family and friends! They have a wealth of information about how people, mainly women, lived. We’ve found love letters, poems, prayers, knitting patterns, and grocery lists tucked between the pages. We like to think of ourselves as the stewards of these manuscript cookbooks, protecting and preserving them so that others can enjoy them.

What’s the strangest recipe or ingredient you’ve come across over the years?

We once found a recipe for cookies that used deer fat! We decided not to try it—it’s awfully hard to find deer fat on grocery store shelves!

Have you ever had any baking disasters?

Yes! We test our recipes at least six times, sometimes ten times each. We like to think that we're in the kitchen with the people who are baking from our cookbooks, so we want to be sure that the recipes will come out right—delicious and beautiful to look at! 

Marilynn's biggest baking disaster was when she made a plum dumplings recipe that a former boyfriend’s Hungarian grandmother gave her. They came out dense like small cannon balls, and even though it was 45 years ago, she still remembers them.

What’s the best advice you can give to someone who is just starting out as a home baker or cook?

Most of our advice is very simple because home baking and home cooking should be simple. We think it’s important to read a recipe completely at least twice before starting to bake or cook. We also believe that the home baker or cook should do a mise en place—lay out all of the ingredients and utensils before starting to bake or cook.

She or he should check the recipe for the oven temperature and the amount of time the recipe should be baked or cooked before starting. It’s also important to know the position of the oven shelf and exactly when the oven should be turned on. Some recipes ask you to chill the dough before rolling it out, and it would be wasteful and wrong to turn an oven on while the dough is in the refrigerator (trust us, some people have been known to do this). 

We also encourage kitchen safety, and we include safety tips in our cookbooks. To ensure that we always use ingredients that are fresh, we find that marking the container or package with the ingredient's expiration date or just circling the expiration date is helpful. Finally, be sure to clean up as you go along! There is nothing more disheartening than being left with a counter and sink full of dirty dishes.

Do you have a go-to recipe for entertaining? 

Marilynn is a huge fan of our mother’s Chocolate Velvet Cake. It's simple and delicious. Our mother won our father over with that cake.

Sheila loves our Chocolate Chess Pie. I've made it hundreds of times! I was once stopped by someone who recognized me 20 years after he first tasted the recipe, and he said that he hadn't forgotten about that pie since!

Get the recipe for the Brass Sister’s Chocolate Chess Pie.

Learn more about the James Beard Foundation’s Beard on Books program.

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Hilary Deutsch is editorial assistant at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Instagram.