Tuesday, January 28, 2014

How to make a chocolate cake out of damn near anything

As I mentioned earlier, I grew up not far from a sauerkraut factory, and that meant contests at the county fair to see who could stuff sauerkraut into the most unusual recipes. I'm not surprised to find it on a baked potato or in chocolate cake, for example.

The modestly-named A Collection of the Very Finest Recipes Ever Assembled into One Cookbook Conventional and Microwave (1979) apparently had such jaded readers in mind. If a sauerkraut chocolate cake (Mmmm! Stringy!) seems too common, how about this?

This is the kind of dessert that could make one stick to a New Year's resolution to skip sweets. Sauerkraut, beer, and raisins with chocolate, anyone? (And is it weird that I am more troubled by the raisins in a chocolate cake than I am by the beer? The chewy little blobs that taste like something that's been in the back of the cupboard for WAY too long have never had much appeal to me. If it says anything, my grandpa used to get me to eat raisin bran by saying it was full of dead bugs. I liked the idea of dead bugs better than the idea of raisins.)

(Hey! I have a new idea for a chocolate cake ingredient.  Bet you can't guess what it is....)

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Herbicide recipes

I am not usually surprised to see cookbooks put out to advertise a particular product. I love my Jif and Campbell's cookbooks, and know that even Betty Crocker's numerous books are advertising the brand. I was a little surprised to realize that The Soybean Cookbook (1974) is actually put out by Amchem Products, Inc., makers of a soybean herbicide called Amiben. This may be my first advertising cookbook that never calls for the item being advertised to be used as an ingredient. (Amiben casserole, anyone?) Since the alternative is herbicide-laced recipes, stuffing soybeans into everything starts to look a bit better.

Well, maybe. Even though it's not full of Amiben, I'm still not sure I'd plan to have a bunch of friends over to eat this dip at a party:

This seems to me like the dip a band of aliens would come up with if left to their own devices. They might look through a bunch of dip recipes, observe the types of things people generally put into dip, and then just throw them all together without any real understanding of the goal to make dip taste good. Zorg sees a bean dip recipe and decides any beans will do as a base. Why not soy? Gamadjin sees a chili con queso dip and keeps the cheese. Then Mojitar is checking out a vintage Weight Watchers recipe and decides everything needs a liberal dose of dry milk powder, while Choxub  sees a deviled ham dip and insists they need chopped meat too. They mash it all up with sweet pickle relish, salad dressing, a bit of onion and pepper, and of course whatever mind control compound they intend to use to enslave the human race. Then they wonder who tipped the humans off because those wily humans stubbornly refuse to eat the dip they worked so hard on.

Although I have been hard on soy desserts before, these look a bit better in comparison to the dip-by-alien-committee.

When I saw "Elliott's B-nut Pie," my mind instantly turned to butternut squash for the "b-nut." That might be pretty similar to a pumpkin pie, using butternut puree in pumpkin's place? But of course, this is a book about soybeans, not squash. I'm actually not sure what b-nut stands for, though. It's clearly the roasted soy, so maybe it's short for "bean-nut," since "Elliott's Soybean Pie" does not sound particularly appetizing. Since this is supposed to taste like pecan pie, I'm not sure why one wouldn't just make pecan pie instead. Amchem may want us to eat more soybeans, but that doesn't mean I'm ready to swap pecans for soybeans just to help them out.

The same goes for soybean brittle and chocolate covered soybeans. Peanuts aren't that expensive and I'll bet they taste way better in this application. To re-appropriate Hank Hill's observation about Christian rock, they're not making soybeans better. They're just making dessert worse.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Hey, chum!

I was fortunate enough to pick up Picture Card Series Cook Chinese by Nancy Chih Ma (first edition 1964, but mine is the third printing from 1967). It is a beautiful book with color pictures of every recipe and sturdy, laminated pages so it can survive any cooking mishaps. (I know the previous owners liked sweet and sour pork recipes because several of those pages are stuck together! At least there is no harm in prying them apart.)

Many of the pictures are colorful and have an interesting composition, such as this one displaying the possible fillings for Mandarin Pancake Rolls:

I love the design of the bowl, the various colors, the little line-up of chopstick holders in the corner, the basket full of pancakes arranged like a fan. This picture illustrates the point from the Preface that eating should be "an esthetic pleasure."

While the next picture does have a certain playfulness to it, my first thought is not about any kind of pleasure:

My first thought is that a shark barfed up a partially-digested fish and someone put it on a plate. Maybe the kittens are delighted by such a prospect, but I am considerably less tempted. (Okay, I think I would have to suppress my gag reflex if I just tried to wash the plate that this monstrosity was served on.)

In case you want to make your own shark barf, here is the recipe:

It's probably fine if you are a devotee of sweet and sour, but it is (unsurprisingly) not something I enjoy. Even so, I trust Nancy Chih Ma's claim that this is "authentic Chinese cooking," far removed from the chop suey and chow mein of the '50s.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Death or Dumplings?

It's cold. It's snowy. You're down to nothing but canned goods and a few staples. You could make it simple and just starve to death. (January makes that option seem more attractive than it really should be....) You could venture out and risk freezing to death. Maybe you're an optimist and wonder if you can make something without moving too far from the nest of fleece and faux fur throws on the couch.

Maybe Betty Crocker's Dinner in a Dish Cookbook (1970) will help.

Almost entirely made from canned ingredients? Cream of chicken soup, canned Lima beans (I love their insistence on capitalizing this!), jarred pimento, and canned "pork luncheon meat." (Betty didn't make Spam, so she dared not speak its name.) Check.

Only a few other staples? Flour, milk, oil, and crushed potato chips. Check.

And suddenly the options to freeze or starve to death start looking even better.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Oatmeal Loaves!

I am crazy about oatmeal, especially in winter. I will make variations every morning for weeks on end: a scoop of cocoa, pumpkin puree and spices, cranberries and orange zest, or a bit of peanut butter. I thought oatmeal could make a dreary winter day just a little bit brighter.

Then I discovered the "Oatmeal Casseroles" page in 1968's Favorite Recipes of America: Casseroles Including Breads. (I am not really sure how breads count as casseroles, but I always find afterthoughts at the ends of titles to be quite charming. The editors are more worried about utility than unity, and choose substance over style. It just seems so quaint.)

Anyway, since I like my peanut butter oatmeal, the title of this recipe did not strike fear into my heart as quickly as it could have:

Then I saw the oatmeal was full not only of peanuts, but also of green pepper, minced onion, lemon juice, cheese, and (presumably bread or cracker) crumbs. Would the addition of mushroom or tomato sauce lead to a significant improvement? Maybe, in the same sense that my cat improves the smell of the litter box by throwing some litter on top of his work once he's done.

At least the title of the other recipe tells us right up front that we are in for something scary:

Cottage cheese baked with oatmeal and topped with a clove-spiked tomato sauce. Yum.

I imagine these recipes were included to help families with tight budgets; the casseroles are made with cheap ingredients and have a good amount of protein without costly meat. Here substance over style comes into actual practice, and I have to admit I find myself significantly less charmed.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Bleak Housekeeping

There's something about January that makes me feel stuck. In a hopeless position. FOREVER. Maybe it's the cold, the small amount of daylight, the uncertainty of a new semester ahead. Whatever it is, it kicks into high gear right about now.

One way to try to escape the mid-January funk is to take a trip to the tropics, and in any retro cookbook, the tropics means pineapple. Let's see what Betty Crocker's Good and Easy Cookbook (1971) might suggest:

Hula away those winter blues with Pineapple-Cherry Bologna! The bologna in question is ring bologna, which I have to admit I have never had. I guess it's similar to lunch meat bologna, but made in the shape of a smoked sausage ring. I'm not a fan of regular bologna, so we're not off to a good start.

The ring bologna gets to look as if it's been in a slasher movie: sliced up and oozing organs. The special effects are courtesy of the pineapple-cherry glaze: crushed pineapple, maraschino cherries, corn syrup, vinegar, and cloves slopped on before baking the whole mess around a mound of Potato Buds.

That tropical vacation is looking less appealing by the moment, trying its best to make January look a little better by comparison.

Bonus recipe:

Just because it was on the same page as the Pineapple-Cherry Bologna, here's a recipe in the "most work for smallest payoff" department:

Chili dogs sound fine: hot and filling on a cold day. The thing that kills me about this recipe is the cheese. Cooks are instructed to cut a single slice of American cheese "into 36 strips, about 1 x 1/4 inch" and then stuff the tiny strips of cheese into the corresponding 36 diagonal cuts they have previously made on 12 hot dogs. What is the purpose of this precision? Was American cheese considered a rare and expensive variety back then? Was the recipe for people whose children would count individual cheese molecules to make sure their siblings didn't get more than their fair share? Maybe it wouldn't be artistic enough to instead sprinkle a handful of shredded cheese on top before throwing this in the oven?

A part of me suspects that counting the cheese strips could serve a similar function as grabbing a pineapple in January: concentrating on some small detail will allow the bleakness of the bigger picture to disappear into the background. As long as women didn't THINK about their lives being reduced to cutting a cheese slice into 36 identical strips that could be used to stuff hot dogs, they would be fine.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A resolute ladies' luncheon

We're a full week into the new year by now. Most of the people who have resolved to eat better are probably starting to break into the chocolate stash (or Reese's cup stash if they're anything like me!) when nobody's looking, but it's still important to keep up a strong public front....

I have found the perfect ladies' luncheon for those who want to seem perfectly austere in public (and who know they'll have something more substantial waiting at home) in Suzy Chapin's Low-Calorie Party Cook Book (1971).

Perhaps you will agree with me that most of the emphasis seems to be on "low-calorie" part of the title and not so much on the "party" in this "Ladies' Luncheon for Eight":

First, get the party started with 3/4 of a cup of chicken bouillon garnished with a quarter of a black olive and a quarter of a lemon. Wooo!

Then go on to a piece of poached chicken breast with fruit and celery seeded vanilla yogurt. I guess serving it in a pineapple half is supposed to make it seem festive rather than sad, but I have my doubts about the effectiveness.

And don't forget, this is supposed to be so festive and "rich-tasting" that "no one needs dessert"!

Perhaps the ladies can all pretend to believe this because they're fantasizing about what they'll really eat when they get home.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

A healthy resolution from 1972

It's resolution time for a lot of people, so let's get healthy in my favorite style. Yes, it is time for more '70s health food. (I'm trying to resist the urge to put scare quotes around both "health" and "food," but that effort only worked until I wrote this aside. I can't hold out forever.)

For today's fix, we'll try 1972's Natural Cooking-- The Prevention Way.

Brown tulips with avocado-green leaves and red somethings (berries? grapes?) set up the '70s mood quite nicely. Now let's find some recipes to make diners feel the full force of their resolutions.

The first rule of healthy eating for many people is to go for a salad with plenty of leafy greens, but the layer of solid ice coating (and trying to invade) the house this January makes a cold pile of greens so unappealing. What to do?

How about a mug full of "thin, light-green liquid"? Salad problem solved.

Now for a main dish: something hot with plenty of protein.

Try a fish slice dipped in "thick" nut or soy milk (Doesn't that adjective help make it sound tasty?) and wheat germ and baked with a banana on top to ensure an extra serving of fruit. I am sure the recipe is right that "This dish needs no other seasoning," but I'll bet I could get it to serve more than three or four....

This meal wouldn't seem complete without some grain component, though, and traditional bread is considered fattening. Luckily, this book has just the solution:

At least, it claims to be bread. I'm sure it's not fattening, especially since it will probably end up being used as a brown-rice-and-cornmeal-based doorstop.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Cooking Calendar

I recently acquired Betty Crocker's Cooking Calendar (1962), and I thought it would be fun to use it to outline the cooking year here so we can start out each month with a little advice from Betty.

Although I often use this space to make fun of crazy food trends from the past, the first thing I noticed about this book is that the food trend it celebrates is once again foremost in many cooks' minds: seasonality. The first page notes that this "is a cook book written to inspire you to lend variety to your meals by using fresh fruits and vegetables when they are at their peak of flavor and are most plentiful." Although many now think of paying attention to seasonally appropriate produce as being the new big thing, it was of course the only option for far longer than having a grocery full of fresh tomatoes and strawberries in January.

What are the recommendations for this month?

January is broccoli and orange month! That sounds fine to me, as long as I don't have to put them in the same recipe.

What are Betty's recommendations for broccoli and orange month? Since I have a bit of a fixation on ladies' luncheons (and because there is such a pretty picture of the Orange Baked Alaska-- seen above), this will be our representation for the month:

I am impressed that this includes actual food: it's not all sugar and potato chips and many ladies' luncheons are. Okay, the "Turkey Divan" is really just another variation of the ubiquitous green bean casserole recipe, featuring fresh or frozen broccoli in place of the green beans. At least there are no instructions to dye it pink so everyone will know that the dish is meant for a ladies' luncheon!

The orange baked Alaska is lovely in the picture and probably tasty too, but another recipe I suspect I would never have the courage to consume with company. Wrestling ice cream and meringue free of an orange rind sounds like yet another opportunity to inadvertently ruin someone's table cloth.