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  • Rose Bennett Gilbert

THIS CLUB COOKS BY THE BOOK By Rose Bennett Gilbert

Local chefs inspired by monthly cookbook recipes


Drama in the kitchen! You’re busy cooking and suddenly realize you’ve run out of masarepa for the arepas you’re planning for a picnic.


No worries if you belong to the SOMA Cookbook Club.


With 408 fellow members, mostly within Maplewood and South Orange, someone’s cupboard is bound to hold the answer to your problem. As longtime member Aleeda Crowley points out, “If I have lemongrass, why should you have to go out and buy it?”


Members of the SOMA Cookbook Club gathered on a Sunday with their dishes from the "World Central Kitchen Cookbook." Clockwise from left: Rose Gilbert, Nooshin Gol, Eileen Campos, Cora John, Laraine Pinnone, Aleeda Crawley, Jenn Wong, Judy Tu, Allison Oxman, Joanne Beckerich, and Elizabeth Rohan.

Sharing herbs, spices, ideas and enthusiasm has been the key ingredient in the success of the club since it was founded in 2016. Inspired by a Serious Eats article, “How to Start a Cookbook Club,” the club kept on cooking via social media through the pandemic and is now thriving in real life, buoyed by the robust nationwide interest in home cooking and healthy eating.


Americans are making dinner at home four nights per week, plus one or more times on the weekend, according to an April trends survey by TheKitchn, an online site with some 29 million monthly followers.


L-R: Laraine Pinnone and Judy Tu are two of the four founders of the SOMA Cookbook

No wonder we are constantly in search of new recipes. The club has volumes of them, literally. Members have cooked their way through more than 90 different cookbooks offering dishes and ideas from around the world. New and of special interest, they report, are recipes and traditions from “third-culture cuisines.” This explains the search for masarepa, a precooked corn flour used to make arepas, a Venezuelan specialty that are crispy buns to be split, slathered with butter, and stuffed with avocado and shredded cheese.


The club’s recipe for success is simple: Each month a member host chooses a cookbook from which members select recipes to prepare for the others’ delectation. Then, at exactly 3 p.m. on tasting Sundays, you can spot a line of cooks bearing covered dishes heading into the host’s home. The host has already set the table and stocked the bar with water, soft drinks and wine. Bottles of peach mango hibiscus tea are also popular.


The featured cookbook and the dishes cooked from it are the topics of discussion.

The number of cooks depends on the size of the host’s table, but participants are always local, for a good reason. “They have to live close enough that their dishes will stay hot while they’re being delivered,” Crowley says.


There are only two other club rules:

  1. Recipes must be followed exactly. No improvising or subbing ingredients.

  2. There must be enough copies at the library of each chosen cookbook to go around or share.


“We’re on our 90th-plus cookbook,” Crowley says. “Nobody has room enough to actually own them all.”


Ditto for consuming every morsel in the 10 or so different dishes that usually show up on tasting Sundays. After two hours spent tasting and discussing the cookbook, its methods, and recipes, the fun ends at 5 p.m. sharp. After all, many members have families still expecting supper at home, leftovers welcome. (Men are welcome as individuals or half of what the club calls “cooking couples.”)


Joanne Beckerich labels her dish.

“We bring containers, too, so we pack up and divide any leftover food,” says longtime member Laraine Pinnone. She is one of four administrators who organizes the club’s events. The others are Judy Tu, a founding member, Pam Bachorz and Jody Weinman. Cooking comes first, of course, but there are also field trips to foodie neighborhoods, restaurants and ice cream shops and a holiday cookie exchange in December. In summer, there is an ice cream cookbook tasting.


Invited to research this story firsthand when the club gathered recently at the Maplewood home of cook/crafter Eileen Campos, Matters sampled both the bounty on the table and the brisk exchange of ideas and opinions about the spotlighted cookbook, The World Central Kitchen Cookbook. Renowned U.S. chef Jose Andres authored the book and the movement behind the World Central Kitchen, the U.S.-based nonprofit that focuses on fighting hunger around the world. The organization had just lost seven workers in an airstrike in Gaza, which underscored the importance of the book’s subtitle, “Feeding Humanity, Feeding Hope.”

Eileen Campos hosted dinner for the World Central Kitchen Cookbook event.

On the table at Campos’ table that Sunday were:

  • Qorma-e-Nakhod, stewed chickpeas with spinach and goat cheese, a dish from Afghanistan

  • Guatemalan Pepian de Pollo, chicken with pumpkin and sesame seeds

  • Lamb Massaman Curry from Australia

  • Sheet Pan Pepito, a Venezuelan street food served with Guasacaca, a tangy avocado relish

  • Turkey Bolognese, a World Central Kitchen go-to favorite

  • Kimchi Mac & Cheese, a zippy version of the worldwide stalwart

  • Torta de Cambour, Venezuelan banana bread with rum and chocolate chips

  • Braised Pork al Pastor, Mexico’s unique take on a standby

  • Paska, Ukrainian Easter Bread


What’s next on the SOMA Cookbook Club’s menu? If Crawley has her way, it will be a summer special all about ice cream, her particular obsession. Who else owns six, maybe seven, ice cream machines and turns out flavors such as peach & bourbon, ginger, and lavender (for which she grows and picks her own)?


And what are the odds that Crowley’s tasting Sunday will be spelled “Sundae?”


You can find the group on Facebook if you are interested in learning more.


 

TORTA DE CAMBUR

Venezuelan Banana Bread


From The World Central Kitchen Cookbook: Cooking for Venezuelan families and refugees fleeing the economic situation from 2019 to 2022, the World Central Kitchen served “millions of bananas, called cambures in Venezuela….When the kitchen had too many ripe bananas – and for holidays like Children’s Day – we would bake Torta de Cambur for the kids. And don’t worry too much about the rum if you’re baking for kids because the alcohol bakes off ….”

To make a 1½-pound loaf:

Topping:

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

  • 2 tablespoons light brown sugar

  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

  • 1 ripe medium banana, peeled and cut lengthwise into thirds


Batter:

  • Softened butter and flour for the pan

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted

  • ½ cup packed light brown sugar

  • 1 teaspoon table salt

  • 2 teaspoons baking powder

  • ½ teaspoon baking soda

  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

  • 3 ripe medium bananas, peeled

  • 1 cup sweetened condensed milk

  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

  • 1/3 cup whole milk

  • ¼ cup dark rum

  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract

  • 3 large eggs, beaten

  • 1 cup chopped walnuts

  • (optional)

  • 1 cup chocolate chips (optional)


Directions:

  1. Make the topping: In a small bowl, use your fingers to mix the butter, brown sugar, flour, and cinnamon into small, pea-size clumps, and set aside.

  2. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Butter a 10x5x3-inch loaf pan (a 1-1/2-pound loaf pan: see Note) and dust with flour.

  3. Make the batter: In a large bowl, combine the flour, brown sugar, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and cinnamon.

  4. In a medium bowl, mash the 3 bananas until smooth. Add the condensed milk and mix well with a wooden spoon to combine. Add the melted butter, whole milk, rum, vanilla, and eggs, and stir to combine.

  5. Pour the banana mixture into the flour mixture. Stir in the walnuts and/or chocolate chips, if using, being careful not to overmix. It’s okay if there are some pockets of flour remaining in the batter.

  6. Transfer the batter to the prepared loaf pan. Lay the sliced banana on top of the loaf (it’s okay if it breaks into smaller pieces) and sprinkle the topping over everything. Cover the loaf pan loosely with aluminum foil and bake for 1 hour.

  7. At this point, the sides of the bread will be cooked but the center will still be underbaked. Remove the foil and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean and the top is browned, about 15 minutes longer. The banana bread can be wrapped in foil and stored at room temperature for up to 3 days.


Note: This recipe bakes in a l0x5x3-inch (1-1/2-pound) loaf pan; if your pan is a standard 8-½ x 4-1/2-inch (1-pound) size, fill it about two-thirds full and bake the rest in a muffin tin (the muffins will need less time to bake, closer to 30 minutes).


Don’t leave home without your tasting spoon, advises writer Rose Bennett Gilbert, who enjoyed exploring third-country cultures from a dining room chair.

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