Before last week, I’d never made a biscotti in my life.  Now, I want to make them constantly in every flavor imaginable, and possibly dipped in dark chocolate or raw sugar.  They’re so much fun to bake, and elegant enough to serve with after-dinner coffee at a party, but easy enough that you wouldn’t feel too guilty if you ate the lot yourself.

This recipe comes from the Junior League of Atlanta‘s True Grits (1995), from which I prepared a meal earlier this year. Though hazelnuts are named in the title, you can substitute almonds if hazelnuts and hazelnut extract are not to be found, or out of your price range.

Spiced Hazelnut (or Almond) and Chocolate Biscotti

Spiced Almond and Chocolate Biscotti

1 3/4 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup baking cocoa
1 t. baking soda
1 T. cinnamon
1 t. freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 t. ground cloves
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 cup coarsely chopped hazelnuts or almonds
1/4 cup dark-roasted coffee beans, coarsely ground
3 eggs
1 t. vanilla extract
1 t. hazelnut or almond extract

Sift the flour, sugar, baking cocoa, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves into a large bowl. Add the chocolate, hazelnuts (or almonds) and ground coffee; mix well.

Beat the eggs with the flavorings in a small bowl. Add to the chocolate mixture; mix and knead until the mixture forms a stiff dough, adding 1 to 2 teaspoons water if necessary. Divide the dough into 2 portions. Dust each portion with flour and form into a 12-inch roll. Place on a baking sheet lined with lightly greased foil. Bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes. Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 300 degrees.

Place the rolls on a cutting board. Cut diagonally with a serrated knife into 1/2-inch slices. Place cut side down on a cookie sheet. Bake at 300 degrees for 40 minutes or until crisp, turning once halfway through the baking time. Cool on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container.

So good the coffee is really optional.  At this very moment, I am eating one all by itself.

My cousin Tracy recently gave me a copy of the Junior League of Gaston County, North Carolina‘s Southern Elegance (1987), so I decided to leaf through it and see if I could find a good Christmas cookie or two.  Linzer Hearts, those pretty little cut-out cookies that usually have a little picture frame top with raspberry jam inside, caught my eye. However, I decided to make them with more seasonally festive star cookie cutters.

I thought it would be easy. I thought it would be fast. I was so wrong.

Linzer Hearts (or Stars or Whatever)

Must prepare ahead

Linzer Stars

3 sticks sweet butter
1 3/4 cups powdered sugar, softened
1 egg
2 cups unbleached flour
1 cup cornstarch
2 cups walnuts, finely chopped
1/2 cup red raspberry preserves

Cream butter and 1 cup of the sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg and mix well. Sift together the flour and cornstarch; add to creamed mixture and blend well. Mix walnuts in thoroughly. Gather dough into a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for 4 to 6 hours or overnight.

On a well-floured surface roll dough out to 1/4-inch thickness. Using a small heart-shaped cookie cutter about 1 1/2 inches long, cut out cookies and place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Chill cookies for 45 minutes.

If you're short on room in the fridge, you can chill the cookies between layers of waxed paper.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Bake cookies for 10 to 15 minutes or until they are very lightly browned around the edges. While they are still warm, spread half of the cookies with raspberry preserves, using 1/4 teaspoon jam for each. Top each with one of the remaining cookies. Sift the remaining 3/4 cups powdered sugar into a bowl and press tops, bottoms, and sides of the cookies into sugar to cool.

— Jennifer Davis

While these are a delightful, yummy, pretty special occasion cookie, they are not the kind of cookies you pull out for a passing acquaintance.  In fact, they are probably not even the kind of cookies that you allow your loved ones to casually munch on around the house.  These are cookies to be cherished, rationed, and hoarded.  That’s what Christmas is about, right?  Hoarding?

It’s not that the cookies are exactly difficult.  The dough mixes up in no time, the baking is a no-brainer, and the assembly is pretty self-explanatory.  Rolling out the dough is another matter entirely.  Because it is comprised almost entirely of butter, you have a very small window of opportunity to get it rolled out, cut, and back on the plate before it turns into a sticky mess that refuses to do anything except stick to the counter.

So, after you cut out a batch of cookies, you’ll have to gather up the scraps, ball them up, wrap them back in waxed paper, and stick them back in the fridge for at least 20 minutes before you can roll them out again.  This gets… time-consuming.

Also, it just occurred to me that they are usually dipped in powdered sugar, something I completely forgot to do.  Rats!  Then again, as I started baking Christmas cookies at 2 in the afternoon, and wrapped up production around midnight, I think it’s miraculous that I didn’t accidentally fill them with ketchup.  (NOTE:  These cookies did not take 10 hours to make… I did make two other kinds that day.  However, it sort of FELT like they took 10 hours to make.)

Having dispatched with that old Christmas battle axe, the fruitcake, I decided that my next bit of holiday cooking should be an equally storied dish – the sugar plum.  However, I had absolutely no idea what a sugar plum was.  Like the children nestled snug in their beds, I, too, had certain visions of what I thought a sugar plum might be, possibly a plum version of a candied apple.  This turns out to have been completely wrong.

For the record, I also ran into this problem with Turkish Delight when reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a child.

Turns out that sugar plums are an assortment of finely chopped dried fruits, nuts, and sundry, mixed together and rolled in powdered sugar.  I was trying to figure out what made these particular sugar plums Byzantine in nature, and in my brief reading found that dates, figs, walnuts and pistachios were part of the average person’s diet during the Byzantine Empire. So, there you go.

This recipe comes from the Junior League of Chicago‘s Soupcon (1974).

Byzantine Sugar Plums

Byzantine Sugar Plums

3 pounds combined pitted dates, peeled figs, seeded raisins, currants, apricots, prunes

1/2 pound blanched walnuts or almonds

1/2 pound unsalted, shelled pistachio nuts

1/2 pound crystallized ginger

Grated rind of 2 oranges

3 T. lemon juice or brandy, or as needed

Confedtioners’ or granulated sugar

Put fruits, nuts, ginger and rind through the coarsest blade of the meat grinder. Add just enough lemon juice or brandy to enable mixture to stick together. Shape into balls, 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Roll in sugar before wrapping. Vary assortment of fruits and nuts to suit your own taste, using any one or all of those suggested.

The mixture will look a little something like this.

— Mrs. Thomas N. Boyden (Susan Dalton)

The mixture I wound up going with was dried apricots, figs, and pitted dates with walnuts, pistachios, and orange peel, crystallized ginger (though far less of this than the recipe called for), and brandy.  And instead of a meat grinder, I put everything through my shiny new Cuisinart (a Christmas present from my parents who’d apparently grown weary of hearing me complain about my shoddy kitchen appliances), and the consistency came out right.

These sugar plums are rich, sticky, dense, and yummy.  However, if you can eat more than one of them in a sitting, I’d be very much surprised.  I took a dozen and a half of them into work, and they disappeared pretty quickly. One person made the comment that they were “nice and Christmasy,” while another who despises dried fruit deemed them “better than I expected.” Also, I’d underestimated how much southern Californians like dates and figs.

Good as they are, however, I’m not sure that visions of them would necessarily dance in your head.  Then again, “Twas the Night Before Christmas” was first published in the 1820s, when an orange passed for a good Christmas present, and the average life expectancy was something like 35 (16, if you were a London pauper). So, a ball of dried fruit, nuts, and brandy was probably a really big deal.

Brady says I’m really selling the sugar plums short, though, and wants it noted that “the sugar plums are like the platonic ideal of the Fig Newton. And who doesn’t love those?”

I’m back from Thanksgiving vacation with my family, and geared up to do some serious holiday cooking and baking.  As a result, I’ll be doing something a little different for the next couple of weeks.  Instead of cooking an entire meal from one Junior League cookbook, I’ll be posting individual recipes suitable for holiday entertaining from lots of different cookbooks.

This first one comes from the Junior League of Dayton, Ohio‘s Discover Dayton (1979), which my awesome Aunt Margie gave me at Thanksgiving dinner.  We were in the kitchen, and she was unloading her bag of goodies for our feast when she reached in and handed me this book, saying, “I have been reading your blog.”  Little did she know I’d been paging through a copy of this very book at the library not two days earlier, and mentally putting it on my to-do list.

In addition to many tasty-looking cookie recipes, Discover Dayton also has a recipe that’s a twist on the much-maligned Christmas fruitcake.  The main difference being that this one comes out looking like something you’d actually want to eat, devoid of all the terrifying DayGlo cherries.  And besides, it has, like, half a bottle of booze in it.

Christmas Cake

Prepare Thanksgiving week to serve Christmas Day. Like fruit cake, but we rate it better!

Christmas Cake

2 cups white sugar
1/2 pound butter
6 egg yolks
1 pound cake flour (NOTE FROM MARY:  This comes out to about 4 cups)
1/2 t. salt
1 t. baking powder
1/2 cup whiskey or brandy
1 pound white raisins
1 pound pecans, chopped
6 egg whites, stiffly beaten
Whiskey or brandy

In a mixing bowl, cream sugar and butter; beat in egg yolks. Sift together flour, salt, and baking powder. Add dry ingredients alternately with 1/2 cup whiskey. Stir in raisins and nuts. Fold in stiffly beaten egg whites. Turn into a well-greased and floured bundt or angel food cake pan.

The batter will be fairly thick, more like a quick bread than a cake

Bake in a preheated 300 degree oven for 2 hours; cool. Wrap cake in cheesecloth wet with additional whiskey or brandy. Wrap in foil, and store in can or cake tin with a tight-fitting lid. Store in refrigerator. The longer it ages, the better it is!

Mummified in Jameson Irish Whiskey

YIELD: 1 10-inch cake, 32 servings

— Mrs. James C. Medford (Carolyn Lowe)

So, we’ll see how this turns out.  I did not have a cake tin that would fit in my fridge (where space will be at a premium for the next few weeks), so I have the thing wrapped in a million layers of aluminum foil right now.  But even though it will be taking up valuable space in my lousy 3/4-size fridge until Christmas, it pleases me to know that it’s sitting there, aging gracefully and soaking up all that Jameson.  Kind of like Jimmy McNulty on The Wire.

This week’s meal comes from the Junior League of Rhode Island‘s Windows:  A Tasteful Reflection of Historic Rhode Island, which I thought would be appropriate for Thanksgiving week.  I didn’t initially set out to make a Thanksgiving-type dinner – there was a recipe for pork tenderloin with whiskey-peppercorn sauce that I had my eye on – but things eventually shook out that way.

I also hadn’t set out to make a ridiculously easy Thanksgiving-type dinner, and didn’t realize this until I was going through the recipes this morning and realized that I could have the whole thing made in less than two hours.  Later this week, I am going to have a proper, much more fussed-over Thanksgiving dinner with my family in Pennsylvania, but it was nice to have something tasty and festive at home beforehand.

This menu could also be nice if you were hosting a very small Thanksgiving dinner, if you didn’t like to cook, or if you just didn’t have the time to roast a bird and do all the traditional fixings.

Cranberried Chicken Breast

Cranberried Chicken Breast

6 boneless skinless chicken breast halves
3/4 t. salt
1/4 t. pepper
3 T. margarine
2 1/4 cups cranberry juice
3/4 cup whole cranberry sauce
1/2 cup fresh or frozen cranberries

Rinse the chicken and pat dry. Sprinkle with the salt and pepper. Brown in the margarine in a skillet over high heat for 3 minutes on each side. Remove to a platter and keep warm. Add the cranberry juice and cranberry sauce in the skillet. Cook for 10 to 12 minutes. Add the cranberries. Simmer for 2 minutes or until the berries pop. Spoon over the chicken to serve.

The chicken was tender, and butter-crisp on the outside (you know I’d rather saute my food in turpentine than margarine), and the sauce was tartly sweet and delicious.  However, I must say that I have a bone to pick with Ocean Spray, which carelessly packed JELLIED cranberry sauce into a can clearly labeled WHOLE cranberry sauce.  The fact that the label was also affixed upside-down should have tipped me off to the fact that something was amiss.  However, I made do, and though the sauce was certainly thinner than it ought to have been, the taste was not affected.

Next, I made a batch of mashed potatoes.  These take no more time than regular mashed potatoes, but the flavor is different, rich, and very nice.

Garlic and Rosemary Mashed Potatoes

Garlic and Rosemary Mashed Potatoes

3 3/4 pounds red potatoes, peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces
9 large cloves of garlic
Salt, to taste
2 T. butter
2 T. chopped fresh rosemary or 2 t. dried rosemary
1/2 cup (or more) chicken broth
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Pepper to taste
Fresh sprigs of rosemary

Cook the potatoes and garlic in salted boiling water in a saucepan for 30 minutes or until very tender; drain. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and beat until smooth. Beat in the butter and chopped rosemary. Bring the chicken broth to a simmer in a saucepan. Add to the potatoes gradually, beating constantly until smooth. Stir in the cheese, salt and pepper. Spoon into a serving bowl and garnish with rosemary sprigs. Yields 8 servings.

I was surprised how easily the cooked garlic cloves mash right into the potatoes, and also at how delicate and understated the taste was.  I would have thought that with 9 cloves in there, it would be a little overpowering, but it wasn’t.  Also, I don’t know about most people, but I’ve always used milk in my mashed potatoes, not chicken broth, but I didn’t notice that the potatoes were any less creamy.  Flavor-wise, it was also a good move.  I didn’t have gravy, but these didn’t need it.  They also didn’t even need any extra butter – shocking.

Finally, for dessert, I decided on this recipe. You might notice that, despite its fancy name, it is essentially pumpkin pie without a crust.

Spiced Pumpkin Pudding with Walnut Cream

Spiced Pumpkin Pudding with Walnut Cream

3 cups half-and-half
6 large eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
6 T. unsulfured (light) molasses
1 1/2 t. cinnamon
1 1/2 t. ginger
3/4 t. nutmeg
1/8 t. (or more) ground cloves
1/4 t. salt
1 1/2 cans (16-ounce) solid-pack pumpkin
Walnut Cream (below)

Bring the half-and-half to a simmer in a small saucepan. Beat the eggs, sugar, brown sugar, molasses, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves and salt in a large bowl until smooth. Stir in the pumpkin and warm half-and-half. Spoon into a buttered shallow 8-cup baking dish. Place in a larger pan and add hot water halfway up the sides. Bake at 325 degrees for 50 minutes or until a knife inserted two inches from the center comes out clean. Cool completely. Serve chilled or at room temperature with Walnut Cream. Yields 8 servings.

Walnut Cream

1 1/2 cups whipping cream, chilled
3 T. confectioners’ sugar
1 1/2 T. spiced rum
3/4 cup walnuts or pecans, toasted, finely chopped

Whip the cream in a medium mixing bowl until soft peaks form. Add the confectioners’ sugar and rum and beat until smooth. Fold in the walnuts. Yields 8 servings.

And you know what it tastes like?  Pumpkin pie without the crust.  Sure, it’s a little bit lighter, fluffier, and creamier, but it is pretty much pumpkin pie without the crust.  As far as the recipe, it took about an hour and ten minutes for mine to set up, and for the whipped cream, I’d say the rum is definitely optional.  Though there’s only a little bit in there, the flavor is strong, and some people might not care for it.  The toasted walnuts, though, are a nice touch.

Is it Thanksgiving dinner like Mom used to make?  Probably not, but in a pinch, it might be just the thing.

After I get back from my Thanksgiving with family, the holiday cooking will begin in earnest.  Last year, my sister got me a cookbook from the Junior League of Greensboro, North Carolina that is nothing but Christmas recipes.  I may have to purchase several pounds of butter and bake me some cookies.

always superb

Yes, that's a table made of ice.

Visit a city like Minneapolis-St. Paul in high September, and you begin to find yourself mentally packing your bags, and imagining a life for you and yours in an idyllic Midwestern wonderland.  The streets are tidy, the people are interesting and kind, and the politics are progressive, and tempered by a kind of Lutheran good sense and practicality.  Local music is good.  Beer and cheese are plentiful.

Things get a little more Darwinian in February.  That’s when you realize that not only are the people interesting and kind, they are of a hardier stock than most.  This is Little House on the Prairie country.  Here, putting food up for the winter is more than a quaint, slightly anachronistic hobby, and ice fishing is considered recreation rather than torture.

The foodways that accompany the seasons, and the pleasures they bring are at the heart of Always Superb:  Recipes for Every Occasion (2003), a collaborative effort between the Junior Leagues of Minneapolis and St. Paul.  The editors write,

Today we are far removed from life on the prairie.  We gather with our friends and families not out of a common need but a common bond formed from generations of seasonal traditions.  We may not live in a log house, but we still go to the cabin.  Food is abundant year-round, yet we welcome thick soups and hearty meals in the winter.

In that spirit, I tried to put together an autumn menu with recipes that called for root vegetables and seasonal fruits, things that were warm and hearty, without being too heavy.  And to me, that says soup, salad, homemade bread, and a fruit crisp.

This first recipe intrigued me because two of its primary ingredients, wild rice and soybeans, are two of Minnesota’s biggest crops (at the time of this cookbook’s publication, Minnesota was the nation’s second-biggest producer of wild rice and the third-biggest of soybeans), yet they’re not things I’d necessarily put together in a dish, much less a salad.

Minnesota Salad: Wild Rice and Soybeans

wildricesalad

Minnesota Salad

SALAD:

1/2 cup frozen soybeans
Salt to taste
1 cup wild rice
2 T. chopped celery
2 T. chopped apple
2 T. chopped onion
2 T. chopped carrot
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1 cup craisins

DRESSING:

1/2 cup olive oil
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup orange juice
2 t. honey
1 T. grated orange zest
1 t. salt

For the salad, cook the soybeans using the package directions; drain. Rinse under cold running water; drain. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Sprinkle with a small amount of salt. Add the rice. Simmer for 30 to 35 minutes or until tender; drain. Rinse under cold running water; drain. Combine the cooked soybeans, cooked rice, celery, apple, onion, carrots, parsley and craisins in a large bowl.

For the dressing, whisk the olive oil, vinegar, orange juice, honey, orange zest and salt together in a small bowl.

Pour the dressing over the rice salad and mix well. Chill the salad, covered, for 2 hours or longer. Serve cold.

YIELD: 6 to 8 servings

While it’s likely that your local grocery store doesn’t stock frozen soybeans, they probably do stock frozen edamame, which is…. soybeans.  These are delicious little suckers, and make a fine snack on their own with a little salt.  They remind me of a much healthier, less messy version of boiled peanuts.  As for the salad itself, it’s excellent, unusual, and has an appealing crunchiness.  It also improves after a day in the fridge.

For the next course, I made a pureed carrot soup.  Unfortunately, I have the world’s smallest and worst food processor, so this is always a challenge, and I never get the soup as silky and smooth as I’d like.  Alas.

Carrot Ginger Soup

carrotsoup

Carrot Ginger Soup

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
2 pounds carrots, peeled and sliced
2 large onions, chopped
1 1/2 t. ground ginger
1 T. grated orange zest
1/2 t. coriander
5 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup half-and-half
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste

GARNISH:

1/2 cup (2 ounces) grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup fresh parsley sprigs, or chopped parsley

Heat the butter in a large saucepan until melted. Add the carrots and onions. Cook for 15 minutes or until tender, stirring frequently. Stir in the ginger, orange zest, coriander and 2 cups of the chicken broth. Simmer for 30 minutes.

Puree the carrot mixture in a blender or food processor. Return to the saucepan. Stir in the remaining 3 cups chicken broth, milk, and half-and-half. Season with salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat until heated through.

Ladle into soup bowls. Garnish with Parmesan cheese and parsley.

YIELD: 10 to 14 servings

As everyone knows, a bowl of soup is only as good as the bread you dunk into it. I love making bread from scratch, but almost never do it. In fact, I realized as I was making this that I hadn’t even baked with yeast since I made a King Cake – and that was during Mardi Gras. So, I was a little out of practice, but things worked out pretty well all the same.

No-Knead Braided Parmesan Bread

parmesanbread2

No-Knead Braided Parmesan Bread

PARMESAN GARLIC FILLING:

1/2 cup (2 ounces) grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
3 T. snipped parsley
1/2 t. garlic powder

BREAD:

1 envelope dry yeast
1/4 cup warm (105- to 115-degree) water
1 cup lukewarm scalded milk
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, softened
1/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 t. salt
4 to 4 1/2 cups flour
1 egg yolk
1 T. water
Sesame seeds

For the filling, combine the Parmesan cheese, butter, parsley and garlic powder in a bowl and mix well.

For the bread, dissolve the yeast in 1/4 cup warm water in a large bowl. Stir in the milk, butter, sugar, eggs and salt. Stir in 1 cup of the flour. Stir in enough of the remaining flour to form a soft, sticky dough, scraping down the side of the bowl occasionally. Let rise, covered, in a warm place for 1 hour or until doubled in bulk.

Deflate the risen dough by stirring 25 times. Roll or pat into a 12 x 18-inch rectangle on a lightly floured surface. Spread the filling evening over the dough. Cut the dough into three 4 x 18-inch strips. Roll each strip into a rope, sealing the ends.

Place the dough ropes diagonally close together on a lightly greased baking sheet. Brain the ropes gently and loosely; do not stretch. Seal the ends and tuck under securely. Let rise for 30 minutes or until doubled in bulk.

parmesanbread1

Combine the egg yolk and 1 tablespoon water in a small bowl and mix well. Brush over the dough braid. Sprinkle with sesame seeds Place on the lower oven rack.

Bake at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes or until golden brown and the bread sounds hollow when tapped.

YIELD: 8 to 10 servings

If I had to make this over again, I’d a) remember to sprinkle the sesame seeds over it before I baked it, and b) probably use about half as much sugar as the recipe calls for.  As is, it’s a very challah-ish bread, and the sweetness kind of overpowers the butter, cheese, and garlic.  And much as I like sugar, I’ll take butter, cheese, and garlic any day.  Still, it’s quite good, moist without being heavy, and it’s excellent toasted.

For dessert, I decided to make a fruit crisp because I’ve made a fruit crisp at least once every fall for the past decade, and I’d not yet met my fruit crisp quota.  And while I’ve made plenty with apples or mixed berries, I’d never made a pear crisp before.

Autumn Pear Crisp

pearcrisp

Autumn Pear Crisp

6 Anjou pears, chopped
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup sugar
1 T. cornstarch
1 t. cinnamon
2/3 cup flour
1 cup packed brown sugar
2 t. cinnamon
1 t. salt
6 T. chilled butter, cut into pieces
2/3 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup chopped pecans

Combine the pears and lemon juice in a large bowl and mix well.

Whisk the sugar, cornstarch and 1 teaspoon cinnamon together in a bowl. Add to the pears and toss gently to coat. Spoon into a 7 x 12-inch baking dish.

Place the flour, brown sugar, 2 teaspoons cinnamon and salt in a food processor container and pulse until mixed. Add the chilled butter pieces and pulse until mixed and chunky; do not pulse until smooth. Add the oats and pecans and pulse 2 times. Sprinkle over the pear mixture.

Bake at 375 degrees for 40 minutes or until the pears are tender and the topping is golden brown and bubbly. Cool for 20 minutes. Serve warm. You may serve this with cinnamon ice cream.

YIELD: 8 to 10 servings

I’d feared that the pears wouldn’t hold up well, and would just cook to mush.  However, between the cornstarch and the fact that I used pears that weren’t very ripe, they came out tender, and the crisp held its shape when served.  Of course, once the ice cream starts to melt over the warm crisp that’s a moot point, but also when the crisp is at its peak deliciousness.

It’s getting close to Thanksgiving, so next week, I’ll be going back to New England, to Rhode Island, where all the bad seed Pilgrims eventually settled after they got kicked out of Massachusetts.

Oh, and I should mention that the title of this post comes from the Hold Steady song “Stuck Between Stations,” an undeniably catchy tune that allows the listener to rock out while learning a thing or two about doomed American poet John Berryman in the process.

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.

Date Bread

datebread

Date Bread, which I did not offer to any philandering, cruel, yet devastatingly handsome and charismatic Manhattan ad men

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.

Avocado Soup

avocadosoup

Avocado Soup

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
Ground pepper
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
Garlic
Dry mustard
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.

lamb1

Place salt pork over lamb and roast 1/2 hour at 400 degrees until lamb is brown.

lamb2

lamb3Remove 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.

Savory Peas

savorypeas

Savory Peas

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.

icebox1

Line a one quart loaf pan with wax paper. Split lady fingers and line bottom and sides.

icebox2

Pour in mixture.

icebox3

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.

icebox4

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.

icebox5

German Ice Box Cake

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.

pasadenameal

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.

pasadena prefersThis week I’ll be cooking from the Junior League of Pasadena’s Pasadena Prefers (1964), because I felt like moving a little closer to home, preferably towards a city with no Major League baseball team (though Jackie Robinson did grow up there, and cut his sporting chops at Pasadena Junior College in the 1930s).

Though Pasadena is just a few miles north of downtown Los Angeles, it seems worlds away, an outpost of quaintness, quiet, and beautifully landscaped yards within easy reach of the squalorous city.  As a result, it’s both a city in its own right, and an uncommonly pleasant suburb, possibly the closest that southern California comes to recreating life as experienced on Leave it to Beaver.  When Brady first moved to Los Angeles, he stayed with a friend there while apartment-hunting in the city, and began to refer to Pasadena as “The Womb.”

Even in its beginnings as a modern city, Pasadena was very much a product of that line of thinking.

first pasadena mapLet’s travel back to the 1870s, when a group of asthmatic, consumptive Hoosiers is so eager to escape another brutal Midwestern winter that they form a trust, the California Colony of Indiana, whose sole mission is to acquire some land in California, so that its membership might settle there.  A Mr. D.M. Berry was sent to survey the state, and wound up deciding that the land then known as the Rancho San Pasqual was ideal for their purposes.  In 1873, that particular chunk of property was owned by two men, Benjamin D. Wilson and Dr. John S. Griffin.  Griffin was eager to get rid of his land, while Wilson wasn’t (until a few years later).  The dividing line between their properties is now known as Fair Oaks Avenue.

Complicating all of this was the Panic of 1873, which was nearly the end of the California Colony of Indiana.  However, Berry was quick on his feet, and formed the San Gabriel Orange Grove Association, which sold stock to Angelenos eager to move to the area.  Each new settler got 15 acres of land for each share of stock, and thus, a city known for being settled by Midwesterners actually wasn’t… exactly.

In 1875, the city was named Pasadena, from a Chippewa word meaning either “valley between hills” or “Crown of the Valley,” depending who you ask.

Houses, churches, and schools were built, and then hotels, making Pasadena a prime destination for wealthy tourists, many of whom became residents.  A “Millionaire’s Row” sprung up along Orange Grove Avenue, boasting residences owned by families with names like Wrigley, Gamble, and Busch.

Pasadena is probably best known for hosting both the annual Tournament of Roses Parade and the Rose Bowl.  Both got off to interesting starts.  The first parade was held in 1890, and consisted of a bunch of buggies adorned with flowers, followed by a day of sporting events (today, it’s not uncommon for a ToR float to run about a quarter of a million dollars).  Football didn’t enter into the picture until 1902, when Michigan trounced Stanford 49-0.  Though the event was a great success, drawing around 8000 people and creating an enormous traffic jam, it was thought too rough and wild, and the football game was discontinued until 1916.

However, in 1964, both traditions were alive and well.  That year, former President Dwight D. Eisenhower would serve as Grand Marshal of the Tournament of Roses Parade.

tournament of roses cover 1964

 

As for Pasadena Prefers, the Junior League of Pasadena’s Cookbook Committee reads like a Who’s Who directory of Los Angeles County, though perhaps the best-known person on the roster is Marilyn Chandler, then wife of Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler.  Despite its pedigree, the Foreword to the cookbook has a down-to-earth, slightly dippy, harried housewife tone worthy of Erma Bombeck (who would serve as the Tournament of Roses Grand Marshal in 1986):

Next came the tasting forms which enlivened many a dinner party and tried many a husband who had been busy at a desk all day and might have preferred to eat his dinner without comment… Without their help, we would never have been able to collect anything we were sure they that they would like.  Children helped, too.  For the strictly raised child who is normally not allowed to remark about the food on his plate, tasting forms were a real boon.  “Do I like the taste?  Ugh!  Would I serve it to guests?  Only if they were enemies.”

… Determining the length of time necessary to prepare a given dish was fraught with difficulties… Kitchen utensils have a way of disappearing just when you need them.  Foreign objects sometimes find their way into cake batters (remove all Lego pieces before baking).  Mud-covered children invade your domain.  Under these conditions, there is no such thing as a quick recipe, but remember, it is all relative.

1964 rose queen

1964 rose courtThe book itself divides recipes not by standard courses, but by their “adaptability to sporting activities either as accompaniment or postlude.”  As a result, chapters have names like “Lawn Sports” (outdoor picnics) “Skiing” (hearty, fortifying meals) and even “Bridge” (ladies’ luncheons), “Parlor Games” (entertaining in), and “Armchair Sports” (small gatherings of close friends and family).

The recipes themselves are textbook examples of 60s home cookery.  Aspics abound, ethnic foods are adapted to middle American palates, and there’s even a tamale pie or two.  Later this week, I’ll be trying out a number of them.  Most are dishes that I’ve never even come close to attempting, and two have greatly fallen out of favor in our times:  the roasted leg of lamb and the icebox cake.

We’ll see if that’s for good reason or not.  I will say, however, that leg of lamb is not exactly cheap these days, and icebox cake usually calls for raw eggs, so we’ll see how this all turns out.  Hopefully not with a trip to the ER (or as in that classic Roald Dahl story/Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, to the morgue).

For the record, my leg of lamb is not frozen, thus making it an improbable murder weapon.

pasadena freedom loving

As I mentioned before, the Frenchified ’70s vibe of the Junior League of the City of New York’s New York Entertains is ideal if you’re hosting a retro ladies’ luncheon, a benefit for the Philharmonic, or perhaps a key party.  However, any cookbook that suggests cream of scallop soup for a tailgating menu just does not have its finger on the pulse of the sporting community.

Sure, it’s not trying to, so I don’t fault it for that.  And besides, I did truly enjoy reading all the menus, which were very much a product of their time, and very entertaining in that regard.  But I needed baseball-watching food this week, and as it would turn out, comfort food as well.  Things turned out poorly for my Dodgers.

While what I was able to round up wasn’t perfect, and certainly wasn’t very Manhattan at all, I did get one very good recipe out of it, and had an opportunity to pull out an old favorite.

This first recipe comes from a menu for “An Election Night Celebration for Twelve”:

Beef With Beer

Beef With Beer

Beef With Beer

6 pounds top round of beef, cut into 2-inch cubes
1/2 cup bacon drippings or peanut oil
6 cups thinly sliced onions
4 tablespoons flour
4 1/2 cups each light and dark beer
Tied in a cheesecloth: 2 teaspoons whole allspice, 2 bay leaves, 1/2 teaspoon thyme, 6 peppercorns
4 pounds whole mushroom caps
Salt, freshly ground pepper
12 to 16 slices French bread
Seeded French mustard
Butter

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Dry meat with paper towels and brown in hot drippings in a heavy pot. Remove meat and set aside. Add the onions to oil in the pot, and cook until browned, then sprinkle with flour and stir in beer. Return the meat to the pot and simmer gently, uncovered, for 25 minutes. Add the cheesecloth bag of spices, and simmer, covered, for 1 hour. Uncover, and continue cooking for 30 minutes. Add mushroom caps 20 minutes before end of cooking time. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Spread one side of the bread with mustard, and butter other side lightly. Pour beef into a deep, heavy, ovenproof casserole, put bread on top buttered side up, and put in a 375 degree oven for 20 minutes to toast lightly. Serves 12 to 14.

beefwithbeer1

Now, I’ve made many pot roasts and beef stews and beef braised in Guinness in my day, but never once did it occur to me to serve it with good mustard.  Silly, really, because nothing tastes better with tender, cut-it-with-a-spoon beef than mustard.  It’s almost a slightly more refined take on the open-face hot roast beef sandwich.

A couple of notes on the preparation.  For my dark and light beers, I used Guinness and Pilsner Urquell, but play around with your own combinations.  And we don’t care for mushrooms in any form at the Potts-McCoy house, so I omitted them.  If you’re not planning to eat all of this in one night, I might suggest only baking the beef with as much bread as you plan to eat in one sitting.  Otherwise, the bread will mush up your leftovers.

For a side dish, I made a leeks vinaigrette so utterly unremarkable and undelicious that I won’t bother posting it here.  And what I made for dessert is also sort of unremarkable – lemon squares.  But who doesn’t like a lemon square?  They remind me of bake sales and Little League games, and for my purposes, they were just the thing.

Lemon Squares

Lemon Squares

Lemon Squares

2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 pound butter (2 sticks)
1/2 cup plus 2 teaspoons confectioners’ sugar
4 eggs
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons lemon juice
Grated zest of 2 lemons
Confectioners’ sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream together 2 cups of flour, butter, and 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar. Press into a 9 by 13-inch pan. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes, until pale gold at edges.

Mix eggs, granulated sugar, and salt, then blend in lemon juice and grated zest. Sift remaining flour and confectioners’ sugar onto egg mixture and fold in. Pour egg mixture over crust and return to oven for 30 minutes. Sift confectioners’ sugar over top and loosen edges with a spatula. Cool, then cut into squares. Makes about 48 1 1/2-inch squares.

Who can argue with that?  Keep an eye on the lemon squares in the oven, as I found mine to be a little over-browned on top when they came out, but otherwise, it’s pretty unscrew-up-able.

Since my highly invested baseball-watching has come to an end for the year (especially if the Fall Classic winds up a match-up between the odious Yankees and the villainous Philies), I just don’t know if I have the heart to pursue my MLB postseason-themed cooking for another week.  If the Angels pull it off, I will totally dust off the Junior League of Newport Beach’s cookbook.  But otherwise, next week, I’ll be looking for a cookbook from a city that doesn’t even have a baseball team, or at least, doesn’t have one that’s broken my heart in the past five years.

As I continue with my theme of MLB postseason cooking, this week, I looked at cookbooks from the Junior Leagues of New York City, Philadelphia, and Orange County (of course, I’m saving Los Angeles for a later date).  All three of the cookbooks I had access to had similar drawbacks.  All were published in the 1970s, and presented recipes that were, at that time, considered quite upscale (i.e. not food you’d want to eat while watching a baseball game).

Additionally, both NYC and Philly presented the recipes in their book in menu format, which I don’t like, for two reasons.

First, the circumstances surrounding these menus, such as “A Theater or Benefit Supper for 12” or “A Derby Day Luncheon for 16” rarely come up in my life.  I am simply not that influential, well-connected, or possessed of a living space that can graciously entertain more than 6 at a time.

Second, they tend to wind up presenting many variations on what is more or less the same recipe.  One Junior League cookbook I’ve looked at, and which shall remain nameless, contains virtually nothing but recipes for cheese balls and meatballs (let’s just say that it comes from a certain Rust Belt city of which I am fond… and that they’ve gone on to produce better cookbooks).

Though the Junior League of the City of New York’s New York Entertains (1974) is guilty on both counts, it did represent a unique opportunity.

How do you cook a meal that is representative of a city’s cuisine when that city is New York?  You could cook for a year and not get close.  You might not even get out of Queens.

And that’s where New York Entertains comes in.  I’m not saying that it’s not a good cookbook.  In fact, it embodies one of my favorite things about older cookbooks:  it’s a time capsule.

It takes us back to a time when the popular view in cooking was, “If it’s not French, it’s crap.”  There is also little place for ideas like comfort food, fun food, or simple food.  Here, food is a performance, and probably in many cases, a show of status.

There is an entire menu devoted to offering guests a selection of six different kinds of quiche and salad.  Even some of the “earthier” menus are not entirely accessible, like the one for a tailgate party, which suggests cream of scallop soup, or a menu for “moving day,” which offers duckling and wild rice a l’Orange en Casserole.  My personal favorite was the menu of “Hearty Fare After Touch Football in Central Park for Eight” which includes a salad of curly endive, sliced red onion, and tomatoes with vinaigrette and pumpkin souffle.  While ethnic foods make a few appearances, they are very much relegated to novelty “theme night” dinners, and are not an integral part of the cuisine.

Reading this cookbook, I began to understand the joke in 80s movies where characters go to a fancy party, and are incessantly offered:  “Pate?””

So, my challenge was clear:  to go through this cookbook, and find at least three recipes appropriate for serving during the viewing of a contemporary sporting event.

It was not easy, but I found them.

Recipes to follow, but in the meantime, the Tiny Banquet Committee has made an insightful dip into this cookbook, with some great images, to boot.

View recipes and photos from the Junior League of the City of New York’s New York Entertains (Beef with Beer, Lemon Squares)