Recently, I was making guacamole and found myself thinking of Bailee Kronowitz.
For those who don't know the name, she was a beloved local artist, music lover, philanthropist, wife and mother.
She was also a gifted cook who shared her culinary knowledge with several generations of Savannahians through cooking classes conducted in her home on Jones Street.
But why, you may well ask, did guacamole bring Bailee to mind? She probably made it, but I never saw her do it, never heard a student mention that she taught it, and there's no recipe among her volumes of recipes.
I think it was because guacamole is an intuitive dish and Bailee was an intuitive, endlessly curious cook. It was just the kind cooking she loved.
She was a born-and-bred Southerner, native Savannahian and Jewish. But those things were merely labels: she never let them confine her. Her tastes knew no boundaries, and her collection of personal recipes included things that were, to name a few, Chinese, Italian, classic French and Spanish, right alongside fried chicken and chopped liver.
"She was a very generous cook," recalled cookbook author Nathalie Dupree, a longtime friend and colleague, "and as an artist, she cooked with all her senses, by instinct.
"She was also completely unafraid. She wasn't going to feel obligated to follow a recipe exactly when her instincts were telling her to do otherwise."
Another cookbook author, former Savannah Morning News food editor Martha Nesbit, warmly recalls, "I can't remember when I first got to know Bailee, but I do remember the first cooking class I took with her. She was sitting at the kitchen table, with her curls swirling around her head because the kitchen was hot, making challah.
"She was one of my favorite cooks and favorite people. And her recipes are some of my favorites, too. In my second book, I based an entire party around them. And when I give cooking classes in my home, I often make her chocolate mousse and Georgia Pecan Clusters."
The challah Nesbit learned from Bailee in that first class later became her son Zack's favorite bread, and he still makes it to share with friends to this day.
Dupree got to know her when Bailee came to her for cooking classes. People had begun asking her for cooking lessons, and she thought it would be a good idea to first have a few lessons on her own - not for cooking, but for teaching.
During those lessons, Dupree recalls that Bailee never tasted anything while she was cooking and that she took her to task for it. "How can you know it's good if you don't taste?"
Bailee, she remembered with a smile, merely shrugged and replied, "I just know."
And she did.
My own connection to this lovely woman began in pretty much the same way: I was myself a fledgling cooking teacher, still practicing architecture, and decided that if I was going to teach, I needed to observe a pro.
I couldn't have chosen a better example. Bailee taught the entire class from a tall stool. Her movements were economical, even spare, her teaching style matter-of-fact and to the point. And her cooking was, to borrow from Dupree, generous and flawless.
Toward the end of her life, optic neuropathy robbed Bailee of her sight and forced her to retire from teaching, but it didn't slow her down or dim her zest for life. To the end, she approached everything with the same keen curiosity and passion.
We should all hope that people will someday say the same thing of us.
Meanwhile, here are a few favorites from Lowell Kronowitz, Martha Nesbit and me.
Chicken a la Lowell
When Bailee compiled collections of her recipes for her children, this was on the cover of the one for her son, and is one of his own favorites.
4 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
Italian seasoning or chopped fresh herbs
4 thin slices mozzarella cheese
1 bunch scallions, washed, trimmed, thinly sliced
8 ounces champignon (white) mushrooms, wiped clean, sliced
3 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, chopped
About Â¼ cup dry white wine
4 cups hot steamed long-grain rice
1. Cover sturdy work surface with plastic wrap. Lay chicken breasts on wrap, cover with second sheet of wrap, and pound out to an even thinness. Remove top layer of wrap and sprinkle chicken with salt, pepper and Italian seasoning or herbs. Spread Dijon mustard thinly over each and cover with slice of mozzarella. Roll up tightly lengthwise and pinch ends. Lay on plate and refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour.
2. Film heavy-bottomed 11- to 12-inch skillet with olive oil. Place over medium heat. When hot, put chicken rolls in pan and brown well, turning often. Remove from pan and add scallions, mushrooms, tomatoes and more oil if needed. Cook, stirring occasionally, until hot through. Sprinkle in wine and bring to simmer. Simmer for a few minutes.
3. Return chicken rolls to pan and spoon sauce over them. Simmer until chicken is cooked through, about 5-8 minutes. Turn off heat. Spread rice on platter or serving plates. Top with chicken and spoon sauce over chicken.
Bailee's brisket was adapted from the one her mother, Rosaline Levy Tenenbaum, made for many years. It's a favorite of daughter Rachel Kronowitz, who always makes it for Rosh Hashanah. The original was for an 8- to 10-pound whole brisket. Here, she's trimmed her mother's recipe down to accommodate smaller families. Note: You'll need to begin this three days before you plan to serve it. Trust Rosaline, Bailee and Rachel on this one - it's worth the wait!
Serves at least 6-8
5 pounds beef brisket
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
5 pounds yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1 can Campbell's tomato soup
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 bottle (about 1 cup) Heinz ketchup
1 lemon, halved
1. Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 225 F. Wipe brisket dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Line large, heavy baking pan with heavy-duty foil. Scatter half of onions over foil and add half of soup, 1 tablespoon brown sugar, half of ketchup and juice from half of lemon.
2. Film large heavy-bottomed skillet with oil and warm over medium heat. When hot, add brisket and brown well on both sides, about 5-7 minutes per side. Put on top of onions in baking pan. Cover with remaining onions, soup, brown sugar, ketchup and juice of other lemon half. Cover tightly with foil.
3. Bake 5-6 hours or overnight. Let cool and refrigerate. When thoroughly chilled, skim the fat and thinly slice meat on bias. Return meat to pan and cover with onions and sauce. If sauce is too thick, thin with water. Recover tightly with foil. Reheat oven to 200 F and bake brisket a second time for 5-6 hours or overnight. Cool and refrigerate again until ready to serve.
4. 1 Â½ hours before serving, reheat oven to 300-325 F. Bake 1 hour or until completely heated through.
Bailee's Chopped Liver
Adapted from Martha Nesbit's second cookbook, "Savannah Entertains."
Makes about 2 Â½ cups
1 pound chicken livers
2 tablespoons (plus more, as needed) rendered chicken fat (schmaltz)
2 large yellow onions, peeled and finely chopped
3 large hard-cooked eggs, peeled
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
1. Trim livers of green spots and connective tissue. Put 2 tablespoons chicken fat and Â¾ of onions in heavy-bottomed pan. Saute over medium heat until golden, about 4-5 minutes. Add livers and saute until no longer pink at center. Use care: livers tend to "pop" and splatter when sauteed. Turn off heat.
2. Transfer livers with onions and fat to bowl of food processor fitted with steel blade or food mill fitted with coarse disk. Add raw onion, egg and salt and pepper to taste. Chop to spreadable consistency or run through mill. It should be a little coarse; do not puree. If too dry, add more chicken fat by spoonfuls as needed. Taste and adjust seasonings. Put into crock or set in mold and chill until ready to serve. Serve with plain crackers.
Bailee's Savannah Salad
From the recipe collection, this simple salad is a good example of the elegant simplicity of her cooking.
For the dressing:
Â¼ cup olive oil
Â¼ cup vegetable oil
Â½ teaspoon salt
1 large clove garlic, crushed and peeled
Â½ teaspoon white pepper or a few drops hot sauce
1 small sweet onion, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon crushed dried oregano or 1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
1 teaspoon freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 tablespoon water
Pinch sugar (if needed)
For the salad:
4 heads Bibb, Boston, leaf lettuce or combination
4 large hard-cooked eggs, whites and yolks sieved separately
Â¼ cup sliced and lightly toasted pecans
Toasted croutons (recipe follows)
1. To make dressing, combine ingredients except sugar in jar with tight-fitting lid. Seal and shake gently but thoroughly to combine. Taste and add pinch of sugar if needed. Best made early in day before serving or a day ahead.
2. Set aside 6 lettuce leaves and chill 6 salad plates. Tear remaining lettuce into bite-sized pieces. Toss with half of dressing. Put 1 whole lettuce leaf on each chilled plate. Divide dressed lettuce among plates. Drizzle with more dressing, to taste. Sprinkle sieved egg white over each, then sprinkle on sieved yolk. Scatter pecans and croutons on top and serve at once.
Toasted croutons: preheat oven to 275-300 F. Trim crust from 4 thick slices day-old bread. Cut into small cubes. Heat 2 tablespoons vegetable oil and 2 tablespoons butter in skillet. Add 1 crushed garlic clove and saute until lightly colored. Add croutons and saute until golden. Discard garlic. Drain croutons briefly on paper towels, then spread on rimmed baking pan and bake until dry and crisp, 10-15 minutes. Cool and store in tightly sealed jar or tin until needed.
Bailee's Georgia Pecan Clusters
One of Martha Nesbit's (and my own) favorites, this is the recipe Bailee shared in my "Savannah Cookbook."
Makes 2 dozen
2 large egg whites
1 cup dark brown sugar
2 cups pecans, coarsely broken by hand
1. Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 450 F. Beat egg whites in metal bowl until stiff. Mix in sugar and fold in nuts, holding back a few.
2. Line 2 large cookie sheets with parchment or lightly butter them. Drop meringue by teaspoonfuls onto prepared pans, spacing at least 1 inch apart. As you get to the bottom of the bowl, add reserved pecans to have enough nuts distributed among last cookies.
3. Turn off oven and put cookies into it. Leave for 30 minutes without opening oven door. Check and leave a few minutes longer, if needed, until lightly colored and set. Cool on pan on wire racks and store in airtight tins.
If you keep kosher and are serving challah with meat or poultry, you'll need to substitute non-dairy creamer and non-dairy margarine for the milk and butter. Adapted from the recipe Bailee shared for my cookbook "New Southern Baking."
The recipe here calls for two sets of braids to be stacked into a single loaf, but nowadays I usually bake it in two loaves. It cuts the cooking time by a few minutes, so start checking it after about 22-25 minutes. I also now bake to internal temperature, which is more reliable than the old tap-the-bottom method.
Makes 1 large or 2 medium braided loaves
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
Â¼ cup lukewarm water
Â½ cup whole milk
Â¼ pound (1 stick, or Â½ cup) unsalted butter
âœ cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
Â½ teaspoon salt
3 Â¼ cups (about 1 pound) unbleached all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
1. Dissolve yeast in water for 10 minutes. Scald milk over medium heat in heavy-bottomed pan and let cool to lukewarm. With mixer fitted with paddle or a wooden spoon, cream butter, âœ cup sugar and salt. Add milk and 1 cup flour and mix well. Separate 1 egg, setting white aside, covered, in a metal or glass bowl. Beat yeast into dough and then yolk and 3 remaining eggs, one at a time, beating well between each addition. Add remaining flour and beat 5 to 8 minutes. Dough should be quite soft.
2. Cover with double-folded damp linen towel and let rise until doubled, about 2 hours. Beat dough down by stirring vigorously with mixer or spoon. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 8 hours or overnight.
3. Working while dough is quite cold, punch down and turn it out onto floured work surface. Divide dough into 6 even pieces and roll each into a long, sausage-like cylinder about 1 inch in diameter and 12 to 13 inches long. Braid 3 lengths together (outside pieces alternate, always crossing to middle) and place them on a buttered baking sheet. Braid remaining 3 lengths together and put directly on top of first braid. (You may also leave as two loaves and bake side-by-side.) Cover loosely with a damp cloth and let double, about an hour.
4. Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350 F. Beat reserved egg white with remaining tablespoon sugar and brush generously over loaf. Bake in center of oven until golden brown and center reaches an internal temperature of 175 F and is hollow sounding when tapped, about 30 minutes.