The Good Cook List

Virginia B. Wood explains why "the best food in the world is cooked with love and is a joyous gift for the cook as well as the guest."

The Good Cook List
By Lisa Kirkpatrick

Even though I didn't start cooking until I was an adult, I grew up with the notion that all really good cooks were capable of making certain things well. This idea was the basis for what I came to think of as "the good cook list," as in, "I'll know I'm a good cook when I can make X, Y, and Z." The first installment of the list consisted of the specialties of the women whose cooking I admired: Nana's cornbread with black-eyed peas, her puffy buttermilk biscuits, Osgood Pie and peach cobbler; Mother's Sunday fried chicken and Banana Nut Cake; the creamy walnut divinity we discovered in a little one-woman candy store in Ruidoso, New Mexico; and Lillie B. Jowell's Boiled Custard.

Even before I'd done any cooking, I had my work cut out for me. With the exception of divinity (which continues to be the bane of my candymaking existence), I've long since mastered that first list. The longer I cook and the more interesting cooks I encounter, the longer my personal list becomes. I imagine most cooks have some concept of a list of their own. Good cooks develop a personal style based on their life experiences, their own palate, and the culinary and cultural influences around them. I've been extraordinarily lucky to have learned from many wonderful cooks during my professional career: Miguel Ravago, Susana Trilling, Ann Clark, and Maida Heatter come immediately to mind. Each one contributed greatly to my culinary skills and helped shape my concept of good cooking with the dishes they added to my repertoire.

Long before I met any of those remarkable professionals, however, I marveled at the knowledge and expertise of a longtime family friend, Lillie B. Jowell. Her cooking skills were a legend in my hometown. Gracious home entertaining -- true Texas hospitality -- was her trademark. By example, she taught me that the best food in the world is cooked with love and is a joyous gift for the cook as well as the guest. I'm eternally grateful for that important lesson. Lillie B's contribution to my "good cook" list was her Boiled Custard. Anyone lucky enough to have known her well can tell you about the custard, as it was her standard gift to friends and loved ones in times of celebration or convalescence. Elegantly simple and silky smooth, it never fails to comfort me, evoking feelings of being genuinely cared for and vivid memories of special family occasions.

During the years after I became a caterer and Lillie B. was still alive and cooking, we would often share a post-Christmas phone call to trade stories of holiday cooking excesses. Mine were always measured in hundreds of dozens of cookies and hers in gallons of boiled custard. My treasured copy of this recipe, in a lovely, legible script that belies her age when it was written, is framed and hanging in my home. Like all the best food, it's a treasure meant to be shared. The custard is wonderful by itself, with fresh fruit, pound cake, or shortbread cookies. With the holidays approaching, it's a perfect base for holiday eggnog. Just thin it with milk, bourbon, and brandy, fold in softly whipped cream, and raise a cup to toast all good cooks.

Lillie B. Jowell's Boiled Custard

4 cups whole milk

4 eggs

1 1/4 cups sugar

2 tsp. vanilla

Heat the milk in the top of a double boiler. In a mixing bowl, whisk the eggs together, add the sugar, and blend well. Temper the egg mixture with some of the hot milk, whisking as you pour, then whisk the tempered mixture into the hot milk. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture coats a wooden spoon. Remove from heat and stir, using a hand beater for smoothness, and then add vanilla. Pour through a strainer, allow to cool, and then refrigerate. If custard is too thick to pour, thin with milk as needed.

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