The Junior League of Pasadena‘s classic Pasadena Prefers (1964) is another of those time capsule cookbooks that perfectly capture the home cooking of a particular time, place, and people. Here, it’s affluent suburban housewives in southern California in the 1960s, the kind of women who might be called upon to wrangle a hoard of hungry small children, whip up a weeknight supper for the family, or pull off some gracious, elegant entertaining at a moment’s notice, and make it look effortless.
This week, I not only wanted to cook a classic 60s meal suitable for a nice family supper or for grown-up company, but I also wanted to settle a question: why don’t people make leg of lamb and ice box cake anymore?
Are they too time-consuming? Not tasty? Dated? Or, in the case of the icebox cake, which calls for several uncooked eggs, potentially dangerous?
The first recipe from Pasadena Prefers that I made recently came up on an episode of Mad Men when Don Draper drops in on his schoolteacher mistress, who offers him a slice of date nut bread. While the quick bread is still alive and well, in pumpkin, banana, zucchini, and cranberry forms, the poor date nut bread has fallen from favor, unjustly, I might add.
2 cups dates, pitted and cut up; equivalent to one pound dates with seeds
1/2 cup boiling water
1/2 cup butter
1 t. soda
1 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
3 eggs, separated
1 t. vanilla
1 t. salt
1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup walnuts or pecans, chopped
Pour boiling water over dates, butter, and soda. Let cool. Then add sugar, egg yolks, vanilla, salt and flour, mixing well. Add nuts. Whip egg whites until stiff but not too dry and fold into dough, blending well. Pour into 1 large or 2 small well-greased loaf pans. Bake at 325 for 1 hour and 35-45 minutes if using large pan; 1 hour and 10-15 minutes if two small pans are used. Test centers with toothpick at end of 1 hour 15 minutes, or 1 hour, depending on pans. If mixture adheres to pick, continue baking; if not, remove. Cool first in pans; then continue cooling on cake rack. When completely cool, wrap loaves in foil or saran wrap, air tight. Can be eaten immediately, but improves in texture and flavor if allowed to ripen one or two days before using.
— Mrs. Varick D. Martin, Jr.
It’s a dense, sticky bread that, as promised by Mrs. Martin, becomes stickier and moister after a day or so. I kept meaning to send one of the loaves into work with Brady, but instead, we greedily kept both for ourselves, and got a week’s worth of yummy breakfast out of them.
I doubted if I’d like this next recipe (cold cream-based soups are not my thing), but it just seemed like such a perfect, clipped from an issue of Good Housekeeping, 60s appetizer that I just had to try it.
1 ripe avocado, pitted and peeled
2 cups cold clear chicken broth
1 cup cream
2 T. white rum
1/2 t. curry powder
1/2 t. salt
1 lemon, quartered, for garnish
Combine all ingredients, except lemon, in blender. Serve in chilled cups, with lemon quarter on the side. Serves 4.
— Mrs. Hubert Paul, Jr.
Actually, this was almost good. However, that little pinch of curry powder gave the soup a rather unpleasant aftertaste that sort of spoiled the whole thing. If you’re a fan of cold soups, though, you might give this one a try without the curry powder.
Next, it was time for the main event, the leg of lamb, which I had to buy at a specialty butcher as my local grocery store only sold little 1-pound packages of lamb stew meat. As is the case with most older cookbooks, the authors just assume that you know how to do things like trim and tie a piece of lamb, which I did not. Cook’s Illustrated provided some useful tips on this, and the rest I pieced together by consulting Food & Wine magazine and the Food Network website.
Still, I had little to no idea whether I was doing it remotely correctly, so that might impact exactly how instructive all of my instructive photos are here.
Lamb Roasted with Coffee and Cream
Leg of lamb
Salt and pepper
Salt pork, sliced thin
2 cups coffee with cream
1 cup port wine
Skin lamb. Rub with garlic, mustard, salt and pepper.
Place salt pork over lamb and roast 1/2 hour at 400 degrees until lamb is brown.
Remove salt pork. Pour coffee with cream over lamb and roast 2 hours at 325 degrees basting frequently. Add port wine and cook 1/2 hour more.
— Mrs. William A. Brackenridge
The roasting times for this recipe will result in a leg of lamb that is probably more well-done than modern diners tend to prefer. My meat thermometer read 140 degrees after two hours in the oven, so I added the port then, and cut the remaining roasting time to about 20 minutes in the oven, plus 10 minutes of resting on the cutting board. With a total roasting time of 2 and a half hours for a 5-pound leg of lamb, instead of 3, most of the lamb came out somewhere between medium and medium-well. So, if you like your meat a little bloodier, adjust accordingly.
I also found myself unable to procure salt pork to lay over the lamb during the first stage of roasting. I picked up some bacon instead, but had concerns that the smoked flavor would interfere with the lamb.
Thankfully, Pasadena native Julia Child came to the rescue. In those rare situations where the smoky, salty flavor of bacon isn’t necessarily a plus, Child recommends blanching it by placing the strips in a saucepan of cold water, bringing it to a boil, and allowing it to simmer for 5-8 minutes. Problem solved.
My final concern about the leg of lamb was its cost. However, Brady and I ate sliced lamb for two nights, then put the rest of the leg through a meat grinder, and made shepherd’s pie with the leftovers. So, two people were fed for 4 nights, making the leg of lamb, in the end, not so extravagant after all.
And, I might add, we were fed very, very well. Even though it was a bit more well-done than I would have liked, the lamb was still juicy, and the coffee/port basting juices were a delicious complement. Why don’t people roast leg of lamb anymore? Aside from the difficulty of obtaining it (which really wasn’t all that difficult), I can’t think of a single reason.
I wanted to make peas for a side dish (which would come in handy when we made the shepherd’s pie), and the recipe that I chose here was coincidentally, also submitted by Mrs. Varick D. Martin, Jr.
1 pkg. frozen peas
2 small tomatoes, chopped
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 T. olive oil – or half olive, half Wesson
1/2-1 t. sugar
1/2 t. sweet basil
Salt and pepper to taste
In saucepan, blend together all ingredients except peas. Cover. Bring to boil, reduce heat, and simmer 10 minutes. Cook peas according to package directions. Add to mixture, and reheat 1-2 minutes. Serve at once.
— Mrs. Varick D. Martin, Jr.
Finally, for dessert, I planned to tackle a version of a recipe that has fascinated me for as long as I’ve been collecting old cookbooks: the ice box cake. They’re ubiquitous in American cookbooks from the 50s or 60s, but nowhere else. And despite the raw eggs, they’ve always struck me as delicious-sounding. So, once again I had a moment of doubt, but ultimately decided that a) this dessert was eaten for decades and probably no one died of it, b) it was pretty sad that I had put it off this long, and c) who was I anyway to argue with the Junior League of Pasadena?
German Ice Box Cake
2 cakes German sweet chocolate
2 T. water
1 T. powdered sugar
4 eggs, separated
1 t. vanilla
1 dozen lady fingers
Melt chocolate and water in double boiler. Add sugar and beat well. Add egg yolks, one at a time, and beat well. Add vanilla. Beat egg whites stiff, and fold into mixture.
Line a one quart loaf pan with wax paper. Split lady fingers and line bottom and sides.
Pour in mixture.
Refrigerate overnight. Serves 8.
— Mrs. H.C. Krueger
I got this started with two hours in the freezer, then moved it to the refrigerator until the next day when it was time to eat. Then, I had to trim the edges of the lady fingers, which came up a little further on the side of the pan than the chocolate mixture.
Then, I inverted the loaf pan on a serving platter, removed the pan, and peeled off the wax paper. As you can see, I could have used some slightly sturdier lady fingers (or maybe some sponge cake, which can be substituted), but though there was a dicey moment, it did not collapse.
It is a very special day in a young woman’s life when she makes her first ice box cake. And as with the leg of lamb, I regret that they have declined in popularity, because it was delicious. The chocolate filling was like a cross between pudding and mousse, and though I would have liked a thicker lady finger, it make for a good combination.
As my week with the Junior League of Pasadena comes to an end, I have to admit that I’m no closer to answering my question about the leg of lamb and the ice box cake. They weren’t difficult or time-consuming to make, not that expensive, all things considered, and both tasted great.
And I think both should make a comeback, if for no other reason than that it is really satisfying to make something you’ve never tried to cook before, especially when it turns out more or less like it’s supposed to.
The time capsule cooking has been fun, but next week, it’s back to the present, and to the Midwest, with the Junior League of Minneapolis-St. Paul.