How to live without a cookbook

05/25/2014 8:00 AM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

I made some corn bread for a family gathering last year and nobody ate it. Only two pieces were cut from the dish, and they were left uneaten on plates, only to be tossed into the garbage.

The bread was whipped up from one of those mixes that come in a bag. “From Wisconsin,” it said on the package. “Organic. Whole grain.” And it tasted about as dry and organic as a ground up Wisconsin barn door.

I couldn’t bring myself to throw it out, so I wrapped up the remainder to feed to the birds.

Then I remembered a clever baking trick I learned from a bunch of Mother Teresa’s nuns I worked with long ago at a soup kitchen in Gallup, N.M. It was a lesson in recycling, renewal and revival — a lesson in breathing life back into things destined for the dump. These nuns would drive all over town to supermarkets and restaurants to pick up any edible discards they could salvage to feed the hungry.

On this day they had a huge box of very ripe, bruised bananas and loads of bready things — semi-stale sweet rolls, cinnamon buns, dinner rolls and croissants.

On the floor of the kitchen they placed the biggest mixing bowl I had ever seen — big enough for me to sit in. They had us peel all of the mushy bananas and drop them into the bowl. Then they dumped in all of the dried-up sweet breads and rolls and poured in a gallon of milk. Nothing was measured or weighed. They were winging it. And my guess is that these women had spent years winging a lot of things, which is part of what made them so awesome.

One of the nuns handed me a potato masher, and four of us churned up the concoction in the bowl until it was a velvety batter. Then they poured it into about 20 greased bread pans and slid them into their cavernous ovens. The result was delicious, moist banana bread they served to their guests that evening. It was a modern-day loaves and fishes story — turning scraps into a feast.

So, taking a page from the sisters’ wing-and-a-prayer cookbook, I crumbled up the dry corn bread into a mixing bowl. I added some milk, a few spoonfuls of applesauce and several shakes of cinnamon and poured it into a couple of baking dishes. It was not only moist, but also really tasty. I was instantly inspired by how this little baking lesson can apply to my life and to my family.

I don’t necessarily need to throw out things, situations or relationships in my life just because they get a little dried and crumbly. Maybe I just need to add a little of this and some of that — like a pinch of patience or a dash of a different perspective — and remix it. Or maybe I could mash it all up with something sweet and bake it for a while, and then see what comes out.

Sometimes it’s best to ignore the recipe and just wing it.

To reach Jim Cosgrove, send email to: jim@jimcosgrove.com.

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