RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We take a few moments now to celebrate some truly American food. The team behind the public television show "America's Test Kitchen" is trying to save a slice of culinary heritage. They launched the Heirloom Recipe Preservation Contest and were flooded with entries. Family recipes dating back to the Revolutionary War, plus more modern fare like blueberry boy bait. It sounds like it's from the 1950s and it is. It's a coffee cake.

Chris Kimball is host of "America's Test Kitchen" and he's here joining us at NPR West with, right there behind me, luckily it's behind because I can't quite reach it right now. It's an impressive array of some of the contest dishes that you've prepared for us. Hello. Good morning.

Mr. CHRIS KIMBALL (Host, "America's Test Kitchen"): Good morning. Thanks for having me.

MONTAGNE: Before we get to this food, which I'm just ready to grab hold of and take a taste of, what is your definition of heirloom recipe?

Mr. KIMBALL: Well, my definition of a great lost recipe is like a great short story. You know, it's got a title, might have Tennessee stack cake or Hungarian sweet rolls or whoopee pie. So it's intriguing. It's interesting. It's kind of fun. And then the recipe itself is the narrative - where the recipe came from and how it was modified from the old country to this country, or how people in tough times like World War II; we have a recipe for wacky cake where they didn't have eggs and butter, at least not at all time, so they made a chocolate cake without any dairy. And they used vinegar and baking soda and water and vegetable oil. And it has an intense chocolate flavor; it's a great cake.

So, it's the narrative. And then the end, you know, the last paragraph for the short story is tasting the food. And you go, you know, a great heirloom recipe, a lost recipe, the food tastes delicious.

MONTAGNE: So, as you've described what it means to be an heirloom recipe, it sounds like in a sense seems you're describing what the contest was all about.

Mr. KIMBALL: Yeah. We do a lot of recipe contests, and I'd say you don't find a lot of great recipes. If you get five or 600 recipes, you might get a few that are pretty good. But this time we got almost 3,000 entries, and each of them also had to have a story talking about where they came from. And there were couple that were great stories.

This one I really liked is this recipe for Grandpa Coolies'(ph) Angry Deviled Eggs. I just love this. She writes, Grandpa Coolie didn't like kids, not even his grandkids. He was gruff at best, mean at worst, and owned a cherished rack of hunting rifles that towered over my grandparents' basement. Scary stuff to a soft city girl like myself.

But Grandpa Coolie had a side I loved. He could cook - baked beans, fried chicken, good on-the-farm standards. And my favorite of these specialties were his deviled eggs. Like grandpa, they were spicy - or full of horseradish - and not to the taste of his other grandchildren. But I gobbled them down like candy.

MONTAGNE: So that's lovely. Well, let's see what we've got on the table. And you can tell us some more stories.

Mr. KIMBALL: Sure.

MONTAGNE: We are looking at a spread of breakfast rolls, desserts and pretty much sweet things.

Mr. KIMBALL: Well, we have to start with my favorite recipe name of all time. These are crullers, and they're called Naked Ladies With Their Legs Crossed. But it's just a donut essentially, a cruller, and they slice part of it in half and they fold it over like crossed legs. They looked just like crossed legs.

MONTAGNE: Let me just take a little taste.

Mr. KIMBALL: Yeah, they're delicious.

MONTAGNE: Oh, very nice.

Mr. KIMBALL: Those are great.

MONTAGNE: Mmm.

Mr. KIMBALL: That was a shoo-in just based on the name.

MONTAGNE: So what else do we have here?

Mr. KIMBALL: This is a variation on a German chocolate cake. It's called German sauerkraut cake. And, I know you're making a face now.

MONTAGNE: I am but I'm looking at a very, very beautiful cake. It looks homemade.

Mr. KIMBALL: The secret of this cake is that you sauerkraut drained and rinsed, dried. They used it in the cake, which helps tenderize the cake. But it was used back in the '60s as an April Fool's cake because everybody thinks that it's coconut inside.

MONTAGNE: Okay, so I'm game.

Mr. KIMBALL: Here you go. There's a piece.

MONTAGNE: Okay. I'm biting in - it's really good.

Mr. KIMBALL: There you go.

MONTAGNE: It is like, oh, what have I done? What's this in my mouth?

Mr. KIMBALL: What a bad mistake this was, yeah.

MONTAGNE: No, it's great, actually.

Mr. KIMBALL: You're having more. That's a good sign...

MONTAGNE: I'm taking another bite. In fact, I really like it. Actually, it's quite an intriguing little hit of flavor, not sauerkraut, I'd never guess. But it's got a little almost a spicy feel. Okay, what else?

Mr. KIMBALL: Well, let's talk about - let's talk about this. This is one of the more interesting recipes. It's a Tennessee stack cake.

MONTAGNE: Looking at it sitting there on the table, it looks like a stack of carrot cakes.

Mr. KIMBALL: Yeah, it's about four or five inches high. It has eight layers. And these layers are essentially cookie dough. They're not like a typical American cake. And you bake the layers. They're about seven inches in diameter. Then you make essentially an apple butter with dried apples. And they layer in between each of the sort of cookie-like layers with about a cup of apple butter. And the secret to the recipe, and this is a wonderful letter we got, when she was a girl, her mother used to make it on Saturday and leave it on the dining room table and cover it with a clean table cloth and they wouldn't eat it until the next night, Sunday supper.

All day, you know, the kids will be going by waiting for supper because it was just sitting there. Because it needs time for that apple butter to soften up those cookie-like layers so you get more like a cake-like texture.

MONTAGNE: Are there recipes that were sent to you that you kind of wondered why did they send this, because they were so awful - maybe with a good story attached?

Mr. KIMBALL: Well, one of them which would have to go in that category, the infamous category, there was a recipe that was sent in called pineapple soufflé, which sounds...

MONTAGNE: Okay.

Mr. KIMBALL: ...in the surface. Okay. Two the ingredients, though, are a tip off: shredded cheddar cheese and crumbled Ritz crackers. And when you baked it, the cheese actually never quite melted. So it was not a winner. There was also a clam chowder, and when you added the clams the entire thing turned an army green.

Yeah, there were some of those. But I would say, overall, the number of great recipes was huge. It was really surprising. There were a lot of great recipes.

MONTAGNE: Chris, thanks for joining us once again.

Mr. KIMBALL: My pleasure. Hope you enjoyed breakfast.

MONTAGNE: Yes, I already have. Chris Kimball is host of public television's "America's Test Kitchen." He's also editor of Cook's Country magazine, which features all the heirloom recipe contest winners in its current issue. The grand prize winning dish is called Peach Puzzle. For that recipe and others in the contest, go to npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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