For everyone who enjoys cooking, there’s one dish that divides the time between when they were learning to cook and when they became someone who people acknowledge as a person who can cook. Quite a milestone!
The first dish I mastered came from a hardcover cookbook that my Aunt Doreen had cast aside. It had a lofty title like Great Dishes of France that should have intimidated a 12-year old but instead made me take it seriously. (In those days I believed that if information was in a book, it was sacred and special — I hadn’t read Shopaholic Takes Manhattan yet). Aunty Doreen’s cookbook was as thick as my grandmother’s family bible and just as impoverished for illustration. I remember thinking of the recipes in this book as so much more special and worthy than the ones in my mother’s Five Roses Cookbook and I took to studying my aunt’s book carefully.
I think I made quite a few things from that book but the one that I mastered, surprising no one as much as myself; was Chicken Marengo (that’s the version I made in the picture). At the time, I didn’t know this dish was connected to Napoleon Bonaparte but I knew that it was special because after I served it to them for dinner, my family looked at me in a new way.
I polled my Facebook group and foodie friends to find out what dishes they first mastered. Here are their answers.
• The first recipe I perfected, was shortbread cookies. I remember taking them — pretty classic butter, sugar and flour rounds, decorated with red and green glace cherries — to my mother who was visiting with a friend in the living room. Lavish praise ensued, and I was hooked. Who doesn’t like baking when the results are so pleasing?
Elizabeth Baird, Toronto, Ont.
• I’m embarrassed to admit it, but the first meal I mastered at a young age was Hamburger Helper!
Although, I remember a few mishaps in the cookie department — potato-chip cookies seemed like a good combination but never really came together well, then there was the shortbread made with coarse salt….
Regan Windsor, Sanford, Mba.
• I remember coming home from school for lunch to discover a dining room table lined with three to four different types of freshly baked homemade cookies. Once a week, my mom would bake up a selection to keep us happy at lunch and after school. That first decision to choose which cookie to have after lunch was a killer — chocolate chip, peanut butter, oatmeal, oatmeal raisin. Logically, the first recipe I mastered was the chocolate chip cookie. To this day, I follow the same recipe my mom pulled from her Canadian cookbook, which was so beautifully earmarked, with sugar, eggs and butter — a sign of a well-loved cookbook in our house.
Caroline Coulson, Toronto, Ont.
• I mastered making peanut brittle when I was nine. Watching melting sugar being transformed into amber liquid hooked me on cooking and baking. Sweet memories!
Norene Gilletz, Toronto, Ont.
• The first dish I mastered was chili. It’s so easygoing – measurements can be approximate – you can just add this and that and keep tasting until it’s about right. And it tastes even better the next day!
I knew I had mastered it when I won the Calgary Stampede Chili Cook-off at age 12. Not the kids’ cook-off, the grown-ups one! To be honest, I couldn’t even remember what exactly had gone into it!
Julie Van Rosendaal, Calgary, Alta.
• I was about 12 and I made this pineapple cheesecake. You know, the no-bake kind with gelatin and a tin of crushed pineapple? My Dad and my uncle Bob would polish off the 9” x 13” pan in one sitting.
Donna Paluk, Winnipeg Beach, Mba.
• My forte at the tender age of seven was cookies from no less than The Betty Crocker’s Girls and Boys Cookbook. I recall oatmeal chocolate chip were a triumph, shortbreads were a flop (given that I subbed out butter for “Betty Lou” Margarine — some neon-yellow nightmare my parents thought was better for us!) I’d sit my Curious George stuffed monkey on the counter and speak to him in my best Julia Child-inflected warble. It was love at first mix!
Mary Luz Mejia , Toronto, Ont.
• I gave my first dinner party at age 16…lasagna and Caesar salad. Friends still mention it and lasagna always takes me back there.
Ruth Daniels, Halifax, N.S.
• Believe it or not, the first recipe I made on my own (with my mother helping as needed) was bread. My sister and I took bread-baking as part of 4H Club in our early teens. I remember it was a braided loaf. It was my first encounter with the mysteries of yeast, kneading and egg wash. How wonderful it smelled and how proud I was to serve it to my family.
Later, when I had my own place after university, pasta with broccoli, tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese was a staple one-pot dish.
Julia Armstrong, Toronto, Ont.
• The first real meal I perfected (with only a little guidance from Mom) was Creamed Ham and Peas on Toast. I was determined to make it to earn my Housekeeping Badge as a Brownie (I was in Grade 3 or 4). My mom showed me how to make the white sauce (I had no idea at the time that it was the classical French Bechamel Sauce) and I added the rest.
This effort was to make up for my first, miserable failure — I made Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup and Grilled Cheese Sandwiches — the soup boiled over; I burnt the sandwiches; and after Mom wiped up the soup and my tears, she taught me the best lesson: that mistakes in the kitchen are not the end of the world and are the best way to learn!
Anna Olson, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
What’s the first dish you mastered? Please tell me by using the comments section below.