The best recipes from a selection of old family cookbooks

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The best recipes from a selection of old family cookbooks

Words by Eva Marchingo

There’s never been a better time to rethink how you cook.

Everyone has one dish they love to cook more than anything else. Sometimes it’s something of your own creation, and other times it’s something borrowed from someone else. Some families even make their own recipe books, a collation of recipes iconic to their family. After revisiting an old family cookbook, it’s evident some recipes and ways we eat have been lost, so I dove into some old family cookbooks to rediscover some recipes sure to spruce up your self-isolation menu.


People rarely indulge in starters anymore. Instead, charcuterie and cheese boards seem to have taken their place. They are supposed to set the tone for the meal – a sample of what is to come. The first section in my family cookbook – circa 1990 – is starters. An all-time favourite in the cookbook is my aunty Fran’s layer dip. Layer one is tinned Mexican bean dip; layer two is mashed avocado combined with lemon juice; layer three is half a pack of taco seasoning mixed with sour cream and spring onions and the final layer is cheese and spring onion. It’s best served with corn chips before a Mexican feast. Super easy to make and delicious.


In the age of 15-minute-meals and one-pot recipes, we’ve left sides behind. Sides are like little friends helping your main meal along – it could be the fresh burst of flavour a salad provides, a tasty vegetable dish or something else entirely. Looking to get a serve of legumes in? Fry some broad beans in garlic and serve with lemon juice and parsley. There are many recipes in my family cookbook that are not from my family at all, but rather from a woman named Egle Zocco. She was the mother of one of my mother’s ex-boyfriends. Her side of Pepperonata is always a winner. Served hot or cold, it’s a dish of onion, eggplant, tomato paste, tomatoes, green and red peppers, and lots of garlic.


Hearty main meals make for great dinners. My mother and her five other siblings grew up very poor, but her mother made sure they never went hungry by making brawn. You’ll need 500g shin beef, half a pig’s cheek, four sheep tongues, carrot, turnip, celery, mace blades, parsley, marjoram and a bay leaf. It’s the perfect cold cut to have for breakfast lunch or dinner. Next time you think of doing a roast, why not try a glaze?

My nan’s mustard glazed ham recipe – co-opted from Nancy Baldwin of the Herald Sun – is always a winner. Glaze the lamb with a combination of French mustard, soy sauce, garlic salt, ground ginger, crushed dry rosemary and oil. You can also make delicious gravy out of the drippings. A family favourite, perfect with polenta in winter is Osso Bucco, although I won’t be giving my mother’s recipe away – there are too many secret ingredients.


Sweets can be desert, and sweets can be had with a cup of tea. ‘Sweets’ is an all-encompassing term for anything you could possibly find in your Nan’s pantry or fridge come afternoon-tea time. The most obvious dish here is scones, but not just any scones – Betty’s scones. Betty is my nan and she made her scones with buttermilk, an egg, self-raising flour, salt and butter. Once the scones are baked you can make Puftaloons by frying them in fat until golden brown. Let them drain on kitchen paper and serve hot with jam, honey, or bacon.

Egle Zocco features heavily in the sweets section, including a recipe for an orange soufflé, but her greatest creation is her Italian Ricotta Baked Cheese Cake. There’s lots of ricotta and eggs, the usual suspects such as sugar, butter, self-raising flour and vanilla, and then there’s the unsuspecting characters that complete the dish – rum, mixed fruit, and vanilla egg custard mix.

Odds and ends

The most distinctive memory of my childhood comes in the form of beer bottles – Grolsch beer bottles to be exact. You know the bottles – they’re dark green glass with flip-top lids, the kind of thing you’d put sauce or lemonade in. At least that’s what my mum did. She used to make what she would call 50-50 cordial: rind and juice of three lemons and three oranges, four pounds of sugar, three pints of boiling water, one ounce of each tartaric acid, citric acid and Epsom salts. Mix altogether and stir until the sugar dissolves. “Bottle while hot. Cap when cold.” The tomato sauce mum made us was her dad’s favourite recipe, and it’s a long one at that, including Worcestershire sauce, golden syrup, curry powder and dry mustard.

Another sweet that I think has been greatly under-served is pudding. My mother’s grandmother has a recipe for her husband’s favourite pudding. It’s got dripping, sug dates and vinegar among many other ingredients – all of which are measured by teacups and breakfast cups. “Mum only puts the egg in if she has plenty.”

Reminiscing on times passed can make you feel connected and warm inside. Most people have their own family recipes for things like tomato sauce or scones so why not dust them off and bake your heart out. Don’t let the recipes die with those who created them. If you don’t feel like you don’t have the occasion to cook a three-course meal, then make an occasion. There’s a lot to be said for a dinner party, it’s cheaper than going out, they don’t stop serving drinks if you trip over once or twice, and you can have a sit in a comfy chair after dinner. Even if it’s a dinner party of one, find a time to cook some old favourites.

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