Posts Tagged ‘Cookbooks’

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Breakfast on the run...

Breakfast on the run...

The brisk fall morning sight of children on their way to school makes me happy. No, it is not the prospect of learning or expanding one’s horizons that cheers me; it is the bald fact that I do not have to go to school anymore. I didn’t hate school, but I didn’t love it either.

Nah. Scratch that. I hated school.

I feel guilty admitting it, for I have a great respect for education. I’d probably be a better—or at least more attentive– student now than I was when I was a kid. I have a friend, a woman of “a certain age” who just got her Master’s Degree. She confided the same thing to me, including the fact that she was now a better student. My unscientific conclusion has always been that you can break school kids into the same basic categories as adults:

Category 1: the workaholic. My high school was loaded with them, including one annoying, “straight A” soul who would refuse to look at her tests as they were handed back with the big red grade on top. When the bell rang she would frantically exit to the hall, then perform ritual leaps of joy in celebration of her A+, like it was a big, freakin’ surprise. It’s several hundred years later and, yes, I’m still bitter and annoyed. (She now works for the I.R.S.)

Category 2: the rest of us. The “…For Dummies” series of instructional guides always manage to catch our eye. I don’t want to say that I was a bad student, but I recently flunked a vision test. Honestly, I can’t study a menu without breaking into flop sweat. (Ohhhh, I‘ve got a million of ‘em…)

I know that there are many of you out there who feel at home in this category.

The interesting thing is that being in one category as a kid doesn’t guarantee that you’ll end up in the same category as an adult. The workplace is littered with formerly indifferent students who now consistently take the later train home because they have “… just a little bit more to do.” I wish I’d been a better student, but as an adult part of me rejoices that I will never be labeled a workaholic. There’s so much other stuff to do…

Like you, I had a ten mile commute to school through forty inches of snow in one hundred degree heat. Uphill. Both ways. I would forestall my departure by eating a healthy breakfast. Our cook would have my pancakes, eggs, and bacon ready just the way I liked them, and I would…okay clearly I’ve gone off the rails here. I wrote the word “forestall” and everything went blurry.

The truth is I have only vague memories of eating breakfast when I was a kid. I know I did, but beyond the concept of a bowl of cereal the specifics are hazy. Wheaties? Cheerios? Cap’n Crunch? I’m really not sure. There may have been an experiment with instant Cream of Wheat, but that was short lived. We had a breakfast nook, but I think we used it to eat dinner and to watch my Dad’s 8mm home movies. Harrumph: a whole section of my life haphazardly executed.

Now I am much more deliberate about my breakfast choices. Will I get hungry too soon before lunch? Will it make me fat(ter)? Can I work and eat it at the same time? I look around and watch what others are eating for breakfast and notice with a great amount of apprehension that folks seem to be looking for one vital element in their breakfast: a kick start. Lordy, when did Coca Cola become the breakfast of champions?

No kick start for yours truly; if I wanted that I’d pay someone to slap me across the face a few times. (Don’t even try it.) Slow and steady is more my style. It works for me and I find that most mornings I am fully awake by 1 PM.

Still, I find my busy schedule sometimes doesn’t allow me to linger over breakfast. The question is: short of gruel-like instant oatmeal, what is a supercharged healthy breakfast that I can eat on the run? A chum swears by toast with a swipe or two of peanut butter. I need a bit more entertainment than that in the morning. I have devised my “best in show” breakfast on the run.

I almost resent the health benefits of oatmeal; Quaker oatmeal is practically advertised as an alternative to Lipitor. But I can put my crankiness aside long enough to include it as part of my breakfast. Thumbing through my beloved old copy of The New York Times Cook Book by Craig Claiborne I found a recipe for “Old-Fashioned Oatmeal Bread.” Oatmeal bread has always been a favorite of mine. Usually only mildly sweet, yet slightly dense, this recipe has a delicate crumb and a toasty crust.

Yes, I understand that the thought of baking bread gives most people pause. But if you are in possession of a Kitchen-Aid stand mixer bread making requires very little work and very little expertise. Yes the entire process takes several hours from bag of flour to loaf of bread, but most of that time you can do other things.

I also substituted almond butter for the peanut butter my chum uses. This was a choice dictated only by taste, and I also topped the almond butter with slices of green apple. The combination is almost pastry-like, but you can feel smug in the knowledge that the entire affair is very healthy. You can use any kind of apple you prefer, but I use green apple in the morning on the advice of a friend who is a singer. Green apples have an astringent quality that can help clear your throat of impurities.

That’s good news as a clear throat can help me maintain my phlegmatic demeanor through the rest of the day.


Click here for the recipe for Old-Fashioned Oatmeal Bread.


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In A Rhubarb

Rhubarb Thumbprint Cookies

Rhubarb Thumbprint Cookies

So, this past weekend I made Rhubarb Jelly. Yes, I know: I lead an exciting life, and you’re living vicariously through me.

I’ll get to the specifics in a moment, but for now I need to explain that I ended up with a quart of jelly. I was wondering what to do with that much jelly – even several slices of toast every morning, and many cups of yogurt won’t make a dent in it. A friend recommended that I pour it into little jelly jars and give it to away at a friend’s upcoming birthday party.

Now, putting myself into my friends’ various forms of footwear for a moment, I can’t help but worry about my poor friend Mikey who is taking this whole food blogging “thing” too seriously. Did he really give everyone little jars of jelly? And what kind was it? Rhubarb??

(Okay, now I’m “me” again.) So, no little jars of jelly. I‘ll explain why I am awash in Rhubarb Jelly. I was walking through the market and saw Rhubarb. It is the first of the season, and its bright blushing glow drew my attention. I have this strange fear of the stuff. After all, it looks like celery over which a Wicked Witch has cast a spell. To top it off, you really can’t eat the stuff unless it is cooked, and to make matters worse, its leaves are poisonous.

Angry celery?

Angry celery?

All of which begs the question (in my mind, anyway): who was the first person who saw this stuff growing and decided, “Mmmmm, looks good. I think I’ll make a Strawberry and “What-Ever-That-Stuff-Is” Crisp?” I see all sorts of questionable greens growing, but my mind doesn’t make the leap to eating them. (This also makes me worry about the first person who saw Poison Ivy growing and decided to use it in a salad. This itchy scene was never documented, but I figure the same trial and error that landed me with a quart of Rhubarb Jelly also taught us to steer clear of the shiny green leaves.)

I had never made Rhubarb Jelly, but jelly is pretty simple to make. When I was a kid I remember an Aunt making jelly, but that was just the beginning. There was also the whole canning process for “putting the jelly up.” This involved boiling the mason jars, their lids and seals, and topping the filled jars with paraffin wax before closing.

I had a much smaller-scale project in mind, figuring I’d buy a few stalks of rhubarb and make enough jelly to last a few days. Lesson learned: a little rhubarb goes a long way. And the stuff isn’t cheap: at $6.99 per pound its blushing red color brought to mind precious gems like rubies.

Why jelly? Because I’ve made Rhubarb Crisps and wanted to expand my repertoire. I was also curious to see if I could answer one simple question: “What does rhubarb taste like?”

My answer: a little grassy. A hint of soapy bitterness. Very tart.  Kind of herbal in a clean kind of way. Add enough sugar and it is very sweet.

If you’ve never made jelly it’s not an understatement to declare that if you can boil water you can make jelly.

This brings us back to my original question: what should I do with all that jelly? My technique to force an answer was to stand in my kitchen and stare at the pan of cooling jelly for several minutes as if divining from a steaming ruby-tinted crystal ball.

SpryCookbookWebMaybe it was the steam or perhaps the concentrated sugar vapors, but most certainly it was the hot, jammy, fruity, smell. The latter brought me back to the days when my Mom would bake what she called “Spry Cookies.” Spry doesn’t refer to how you’ll feel when you eat the cookies; rather it refers to a long-ago departed brand of vegetable shortening. Mom’s cookies were basically a thumbprint cookie made with Spry instead of butter, and filled with the jam or jelly of her choice. (Actually I remember my Mom using Crisco, which used to confuse little me.)

The tough part is that Mom’s recipe was somehow lost in the march of time. But you and I both know that you can find anything on the internet. Sure enough a search for Spry on eBay yielded the little 1955 promotional cookbook pictured here. (It would have been a little scary to find someone selling cans of Spry, which Lever Brothers stopped making back in the 1960’s. Scary, yes. Surprising, no.)

The cookies I made, lovingly dotted with my home-made Rhubarb jelly, are not quite like my Mom’s. These are a bit cakeier, but otherwise their home-made, rather simple quality speak Grandma and picnics, and summer barbecues. They are correct in spirit if not in accuracy.

My Mom shuddered a bit when I mentioned Spry, reflecting that back in the day no one knew about trans-fats, and that people even thought it was a healthy alternative to the lard that was used before.

The good news is that nowadays we really do have healthier shortening. The brand I use (Earth Balance) is made with non-hydrogenated oils, and contains no trans-fats. (I’m not saying it is health food.)

In the meantime, dive in: the jelly’s fine.


Click here for my recipes for Rhubarb Jelly and “Spry” Cookies.


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Just Like Mother Used To Eat

Three martini lunch?

Three martini lunch?

Here at Butter Flour Eggs, my mother is Executive Vice President of Food Nostalgia. Full disclosure: before she could be lured out of retirement to take the job, I was forced to sign a contract approximately the thickness of the Manhattan phonebook that contained a waiver forbidding me from referring to her age in any way. (So read on, and you do the math.)

Mom reminded me recently of a happy food memory she has carried with her for many years. Before my parents got married she worked for one of the high mucky mucks at the State House in Boston. On the days when she felt she could slip away without any risk that the wheels of state government would grind to a halt in her absence, she’d pop over to Schrafft’s for lunch.

Schrafft’s was before my time, but a couple of years ago I read a fun little book called When Everybody Ate at Schrafft’s by Joan Kanel Slomanson. More a reminiscence than a deep dive into the sociology behind the famous chain restaurant, I learned that in spite of Schrafft’s fame as a New York chain (they were almost as ubiquitous as Starbucks are now,) the company actually had deep New England roots. In fact, the Schrafft’s sign still hangs prominently on the Charlestown, Mass. landmark building that once served as the company’s candy factory.

My mom uses the same reverent tones when mentioning Schrafft’s Cottage Pudding that she uses when talking about some of the far-flung trips she and my Dad took.

I had no idea what Cottage Pudding was, and assumed it must have been something amazing. I grilled my mom: was it like bread pudding? No. Was it like those molten chocolate cakes that I just read have been declared old hat? No. Well, what was it then?

As she explained it, Cottage Pudding was a piece of plain white loaf cake served on a plate with warm chocolate sauce.

A piece of plain cake with chocolate sauce inspires a lifetime of reverent memories in a woman who is intelligent, cultured, and well travelled? Go figure, right? But that’s food: you never know what will grab you. And who knows what kind of emotions are tied up in the food we eat. With the weight of running the Commonwealth of Massachusetts practically resting on my Mom’s shoulders, maybe Cottage Pudding was some kind of soothing comfort food. Food is a primal urge. We can’t explain it.

Actually, a nice piece of cake with some warm chocolate sauce doesn’t sound too bad, does it?

But why is it called “pudding?”

I started with a little detective work. Cottage Pudding seems to have been around for a long time before my mother found it. There is a recipe for Cottage Pudding in the early Fannie Farmer cookbooks. A lot of people remember the name Fannie (or Fanny) Farmer from the chain of candy shops that disappeared a few years back, but actually she was a prominent New England cook and teacher, and wrote one of the first cookbooks that used standard measures (i.e., cups and teaspoons) in the recipes. The recipe for Cottage Pudding in the 1918 edition of her The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (now available on line here) is clearly for a cake.

The umbrella word that the British use for most desserts is “pudding.” If you take this somewhat wider definition of the word “pudding” into consideration, and keep in mind that Farmer was a product of the late 19th century when there was still a British colonial influence on American food you’ll see that it isn’t much of a stretch for this dessert to be called “pudding.”

I hear you: you don’t want a history lesson, you want cake and you want it NOW! Fine: class dismissed. I’m off to the kitchen. The Schrafft’s chain is long gone but Cottage Pudding lives. I’m performing CPR on it.

I have two tasks at hand. The first is to create a modern version of a “homely” old dessert. The second is to try to provide my mom with a little reunion with a consoling old friend.

The Schrafft’s book I mentioned above was a good source for the Hot Fudge Sauce recipe. It is a basic cream, butter, sugar, chocolate sauce. True to its Schrafft’s roots, the sugary sauce is very “candy-shoppe” in its influence and easy to prepare. But the book doesn’t mention Cottage Pudding, so for the cake I first considered Fannie Farmer’s recipe. It is also very basic, and is likely very simple to make. But it also seems plain to the point of being austere. I think a better challenge would be to bring a little vitality to this party while still staying within the confines of Schrafft’s reputation for plain, home-style cooking.

So I went to my old fallback recipe: Ina Garten’s Lemon Yogurt Pound Cake, which I mentioned in this space a few weeks ago. With a few changes, and perhaps a bit of cosmetic surgery, this would give me a foundation on which to build, and a chance to bring Cottage Pudding into the 21st century.

I started by scrubbing all of the lemon out of the recipe (Lemon and chocolate never seem to go well together.) But I thought the cake needed some kind of quiet counterpoint to the sticky ooze of the chocolate sauce. Vanilla seemed like the obvious choice, but not just the perfume of vanilla extract: I thought adding vanilla bean would give the cake its own vibrant personality to stand up to its overbearing saucy sister.

But how much vanilla bean? The normal rule in cooking is to start with less, because you can always add more of something but you can’t remove it. But this seemed like one time when breaking that rule was appropriate. I wanted to see what too much vanilla would taste like, so I added the contents of a whole vanilla bean.  This gave the dough an intense vanilla scent and a picturesque speckle of the little black dots from the bean.

In a nod to the current obsession with cupcakes I thought it would be fun to leave the loaf pan on its shelf for now, and try baking the dough in a muffin tin. That would accomplish portion control, yes, but also awaken the primal childhood instinct of having your very own cake (and yes, eating it too.)

My first hint that I was on the right track was the heady vanilla cloud that enveloped me and my kitchen when I opened the oven door to remove the cakes. Don’t be afraid to serve this dessert warm from the oven! The combination of warm sauce and warm cake throwing off its breathy vanilla-ness is intense. The combination of warm sauce and cool cake is equally gratifying—when the warm sauce hits the cool cake you get a slightly less aggressive vanilla hit, more like a poke on the shoulder reminding you, “I’m here too!”

By the way, Fannie Farmer recommended that the cake be served with Vanilla or Hard Sauce. Somehow it ended up at Schrafft’s served with their famous chocolate sauce. I wonder if that was Schrafft’s twist or my Mom’s? She’s been known to ask for a dollop of hot fudge sauce on everything but french fries.

Either way, my first thought on my first bite was, “Ohhhh! Ice Cream Shop!” Eat this and you are taken back in time to the cool air of a marble-lined neighborhood confectionary. I get it now, Mom. You just earned your cushy corner office.

By the way: if you’re into fondue, bake the cake in a loaf pan, cut it into cubes and serve with the hot sauce. I know fondue normally has some alcohol added: might I recommend the merest tipple of Cointreau?

And Mom? Please get back to work. That reminds me: I asked Mom what she had for lunch besides the Cottage Pudding. The famous Schrafft’s Chicken Sandwich? No. Their celebrated Lobster Newburgh? No.

Just the Cottage Pudding. That’s my Mom.

Click here for the Cottage Pudding recipe.

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They all laughed when I sat down to play the Choux.

My cookbook collection. Perhaps a bit single minded?

My cookbook collection. Perhaps a bit single minded?

I learned to cook from a book. When I was fourteen or fifteen I picked up my mother’s copy of The New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne and just started cooking. I think the first thing I made was Choux pastry so that I could make éclairs.

Yes, I know: fifteen years old and making éclairs. Hey, it kept me off the streets, alright?

Chefs may sneer at my learning from a book, but I never had any pretense about being a chef; that’s not my thing. I’m more from the school of cook well so you can eat well.

After my years as a child prodigy, my interest in cooking would then lay dormant. One day, like Rumplestiltskin waking up from his extended snooze, I found myself, wooden spoon in hand, stirring something in a pan. Poof: I was cooking again.

This has had some strange repercussions, the most notable being that unlike many New Yorkers, I rarely eat out. I think that has as much to do with my enjoyment of cooking as the fact that I was a waiter for many years and couldn’t bear to set foot in a restaurant for a long time. No busman’s holidays for me.

My naissance as a cook aside, I noticed recently on Mad Men that Don Draper was eating a dinner of cold chicken salad, Ritz crackers and a can of Bud which the director made a point of showing Don’s wife open with a church key.

(A church key is the little metal tool we used to open cans and bottles before the advent of the pop top and screw top.)

(OK, I will now pause while you insert the joke of your choice about how old I am.)

(No, I do NOT remember the strip mall they tore down to build Stonehenge.)

(The latter was for those of you who could not think of an “old”  joke.)

ANYWAY, watching Mad Men has made me think about the food of the sixties. I mentioned some weeks ago in this blog that I am always fascinated and distracted by food used as a prop in plays, movies, and TV shows. Don Draper’s chicken salad dinner is no exception, but it also made me wonder about the various fashions that come and go in food.

One of the current fashions is cupcakes. Cupcakes are everywhere, and frankly, without mentioning any names, some of them just aren’t that great. The point is though, that at some point cupcakes will get tired, and people will be waiting a half hour in line for something else. Lest you think I’m wrong, think back on the Chipwich and the Dovebar. Yes, you can still get them, but like Madonna’s punk wardrobe in Desperately Seeking Susan, you just kind of laugh and think, “Wow, I forgot all about those.”

My New York Times Cookbook was published in 1961, coincidentally the same year in which the first season of Mad Men is set. I always use this book like a dictionary, usually on a very specific mission, consulting the index first. But I have never read it like a novel, starting from the beginning. Reading the book that way gives you an almost Edith Wharton-esque view of mid-twentieth century food fashions.

You need only go a few pages in to find a world awash in aspic. The best way to describe aspic is that it is basically an amber-colored savory Jello used as a garnish. This lost world is landscaped in chopped aspic, aspic cut into neat geometric patterns, and aspic used as a coating on food, kind of like the shellac on a culinary decoupage. An appetizer of Galantine of Turkey wears its aspic coating like the tuxedo on the Maitre D’s who used to man the doors of fancy hotel restaurants.

The Galantine is the first recipe in the book, and like the opening number of a floor show at the old Copacabana, it is big and ornate. Bring on the dancing girls! Picture a fifteen pound turkey completely boned, flattened, and stuffed with fat back, veal, tongue, duck, raisins, and nuts. It is then rolled in cheese cloth, simmered in broth, chilled, and coated with aspic like a big fat bug trapped in amber. Wheee!

I don’t know how folks in 1961 reacted, but my 2009 mouth is agape.  I honestly can’t decide whether I should be revolted, or struck dumb with admiration. Everyone has an old aunt with a living room like this.  On the rare occasion that Auntie sweeps the plastic dust covers off the furniture and lamps, you’re blinded by the flash and brocade and realize you’re standing ankle deep in a plush-carpeted time capsule.

Admittedly, in 2009 we are perhaps a bit too aware of making sure we can see our feet in the carpet at all times, so I got to thinking, “Don’t be so damn judgmental.” After all, Thanksgiving is just eight weeks away. How many people across America are already thinking, “Yum! Time to order the Turducken!” And isn’t Turducken (and Turporken) just the hillbilly cousin of the Galantine?

Plus ca la change, plus ca la…plush carpeting.

But if you walk back into Auntie’s kitchen, pull up a chair around old Auntie’s dinette, and have your first adult conversation with her, you’ll find her well read, well travelled, with some good stories to tell, and still a great cook. Old Auntie didn’t have a food processor or Kitchen Aid stand mixer. A recipe direction to use a mortar and pestle to grind some spices is not unlike being admonished that we young folks have it so easy.

Yes, there is plenty of “goo-gaw” in the book, but if you wade carefully past the eight different kinds of pate, the monosodium glutamate called for in more than one recipe, and a tempting lesson on how to make your own Danish pastry, “…fit for a Royal Dane,” you end up with an aesthetic that is at once wise, worldly, and reliable.  That, along with Claiborne’s sprinkling of pithy advice, such as reminding the reader to, “…add garlic according to conscience and social engagements” remind me why this book remains a relevant touchstone in my kitchen—especially when I am trying to expand my repertoire.

Now before I go any further, I need to mention another appetizer recipe just a few pages further in. For this recipe, Claiborne wrote a short annotation:

“This appetizer has become almost as popular as pizza pie in metropolitan America but it is still worth repeating.”

Hint: You need to be a certain age to remember this appetizer. I only vaguely remember eating it as a kid—maybe it was at someone’s wedding, I’m not sure.

I speak of Rumaki.

How’s that for a name out of the past? Pizza, thankfully, is still with us. As much as I’d like to say, “Hey, let’s revive this old treasure and make it the new cupcake!” I’ll now print the list of ingredients to illustrate why Rumaki, like the hoop skirt, is not likely to have a comeback, er, return:

  • 6 chicken livers
  • 18 canned water chestnuts
  • 9 bacon slices cut in half
  • 9 scallions, sliced thin lengthwise
  • ½ cup soy sauce
  • ¼ tsp ground ginger
  • ½ tsp curry powder

Intrepid souls or folks into giving Mad Men-theme parties can click here for the full recipe. For the rest, suffice it to say that you make toothpick kabobs of the liver and chestnuts, and wrap them with the bacon and scallions, marinade in the soy sauce and spices, broil and serve.

We could, however, update this recipe by replacing the chicken livers with, say, thinly sliced chicken or beef tenderloin, couldn’t we?

Ah, now I’ve got your attention! All of the sudden my mouth is watering. See what I mean about this book? I’ll start experimenting…

Just by coincidence, my other “go-to” book is How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. Bittman is Claiborne’s direct descendant at the New York Times.

Finally, there is an irony here that is not lost on me. I am writing a blog, singing the praises of a cookbook anthology of fifty-year old recipes from one of the great metropolitan newspapers. In 1961, nobody could have known the price technology—like blogging—would extract on our newspapers. But I’m hoping that by changing their recipe a bit, as they seem to be planning to do, the great metropolitan newspapers will stick around. Like pizza pie.

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