"SOMETIMES A cigar is just a cigar," Freud was supposed to have said. And sometimes a cookbook is just a cookbook, something you thumb through one Christmas and give away the next. But a few cookbooks work their way into your heart over the years, and end up as private legacies of a sort.
In our family, "The Junior League Cookbook of Boise, Idaho, 1930" is a precious heirloom, a repository of recipes that read like history, and a storehouse of dessert ideas still turned to after three generations. Cracked and yellow with age, rich with associations, decorated with the multi-colored spatters of half a century of kitchen puttering, the Boise cookbook evokes oilcloth on the table, and the old fridge with the coil on top, and bottles of milk at the back door with rings of yellow cream you could whip.
Those were the days when a "convenience food" was butter in stick form. Since we hadn't yet sold out to the pasty little dough boy's entreaties about "lovin' from the oven," your mother made the biscuits and, if she was crazy-indulgent enough, you sometimes got to make your own taffy, in a glorious, stringy mess. That was before Cocoa Puffs. Before Twinkies even. When you ate The Breakfast of Champions and longed to be like Jack Armstrong on the radio.
But there's more to thumbing through the brittle pages of the old Boise cookbook than personal memories. A book like this is a veritable time capsule, the recipes and local ads crammed with the minutia that chronicle what small-town America was like 50 years ago. The nation was three decades into the 20th century, for example, yet technology in the kitchen was still a little suspect, still competing for legitimacy with the old ways. "A modern household necessity," trumpets the ad for Frigidaires. But, several pages later, the Boise Ice Co. boasts of its artesian well water and advises, "Remember, a block of ice never gets out of order." Take that, Frigidaire.
With Herbert Hoover in the White House, the Great Depression just under way and the New Deal's welfare "safety net" still to be woven, good works were the order of the day. Like submitting your favorite recipe to the Junior League Cookbook (the proceeds went to charity, of course). And a local laundry reminds the women of Boise, "By taking advantage of the services we offer, you can afford yourself time to do your bit toward bringing happiness or relief to the needy and less fortunate."
If thrift was the watchword of the times, the people of Boise had their pleasures, too. The most popular, judging from the ads, was entertaining each other. The Cuyhee Restaurant advertises itself as "quite the smartest place for Saturday luncheons." But dining in took precedence over dining out. Our cookbook's original owner, now a lively octogenarian, tells us that for women the chief social ritual was the rotating bridge club, with women joining the Tuesday club or the Thursday club (or both) and taking turns entertaining, sometimes two or three times a month. And these weren't soup-and-sandwich snacks, either. They were elaborate dress-up affairs, three- and four-course meals with carefully planned entrees and elaborate desserts. The party might dine together at a white linen cloth covered master table (remember, no permanent-press), or in groups of four at smaller tables, later cleared for playing cards.
There was time for luncheons because this was an era when the middle-class woman, for the most part, didn't work, at least not in an office. Home was something else. There she stayed, in charge of the household command post ("domestic engineering" was the catchword). She saw to her children's "upbringing" (discipline was in) and nutritional needs (two green and one yellow vegetable daily), and she cleaned and waxed (rugs weren't nailed to the floors in those days).
The luncheons, obviously, were respite from it all, as well as a clever answer to the demands of the new, frugal society. One could "go" as much as one wanted, and since most of the luncheons came on the rotating plan, the costs evened out. A few dollars for a young woman to help cook, serve, clear and clean up was the only real expense (or so went the rationale). And it was a chance to get out in the world, to make friends, to share experiences and problems, and to establish yourself as someone in the community. In the absence of more global aspirations for women, skills as cook and hostess were benchmarks of ability, of competence, of standing. So Bungalow Stores advertises groceries for the woman "who expresses herself in the distinguished service of her table . . . fine enough to express the delicate compliment which the perfect hostess tenders in serving only the best to her guests." If you couldn't be a geophysicist or bank president, at least you could whip up a dynamite meringue.
By today's standards, there's a touching naivete' in the book's "foreign" dishes. The pages reveal an America still a decade away from World War II, still deeply entrenched in isolationism, still largely untouched by European ways. So the "Hungarian goulash," made with canned corn and tomato soup, has not a hint of paprika, and the herbless, spiceless "Italian dinner," also based on canned soup, features baked spaghetti.
Among the non-desserts, most of the book's recipes are more valuable as history than as guides to good eating. This wasn't 19th century country cooking, but an amalgam of tradition and what was thought to be new and stylish in 1930. Canned soups and marshmallows, for example, are prominent in many dishes.
But the dessert recipes are something else. Simple, honest, with plenty of what those cooks did know about: butter, sugar, cream, eggs. And those raw materials were still uncompromised by technology. "You can whip our cream but you can't beat our milk," was the catchy slogan of the Guernsey Dairy -- and it was probably telling the truth. Homogenization and cream that lives forever hadn't yet begun to make everything taste like everything else.
Inevitably, some of the recipe instructions have been snagged in history. "Choose a nice hen," begins one. With today's mass-produced chickens, that's like advising the reader to "choose a nice box of cornflakes."
"Add butter the size of an egg," says another. (That's not a bad instruction -- if you're a butter lover, you'll tend to imagine a large egg, and vice versa.) But our favorite for benign vagueness is the cake recipe that begins, "Prepare everything."
"Foreign favorites" and enigmatic instructions aside, there are dessert recipes in this book worth rediscovering (it wasn't hard, we just followed the spatters), and worth keeping. Here are a few of them, slightly adapted and clarified, where necessary, for those of us who need a little more detail than just "Prepare everything."
MRS. GIGNAY'S DEVIL'S FOOD CAKE
A moist, dark chocolate beauty that was a family favorite for birthdays. As far as we know, no one ever turned it down -- not in three generations. We even remember an old mutt, Jill, who devoured an entire cake (frosted, yet) at a single sitting. It was not her birthday. You must use butter for this cake. Incidentally, you can increase the amount of chocolate in the recipe, up to double the amount, if you're a bittersweet bug. 1 1/2 cups sugar 1/2 cup butter 1 cup cold coffee 1 teaspoon baking soda 2 eggs, well beaten 2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted 2 cups flour 1 teaspoon vanilla Butter for pans
Cream the sugar and butter. Combine coffee with baking soda and add to creamed mixture. Add eggs, chocolate, flour and vanilla, in that order. Beat well, and pour into well-buttered pans. For a large loaf pan, bake about 35 minutes in a 350-degree oven; for two 9-inch pans, about 20 minutes. We think the soda is one of the secrets of this cake, but it calls for getting the cake into the oven without delay, and gentle handling during baking.
MRS. THOMETZ'S FUDGE FROSTING
Convention (nothing else) dictated that the only possible frosting for this cake was Mrs. Thometz's. The mere suggestion of a substitution could bring on a crisis. 3 tablespoons butter 1 ounce unsweetened chocolate, melted (more if you wish) 2 1/2 cups sugar Few grains of salt 1/2 cup milk 1 teaspoon vanilla
Melt butter. Add chocolate, sugar, salt and milk. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly, and continue boiling about 8 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool for a few minutes. Add vanilla, and beat until creamy. (We like to gild Mrs. Thometz's lily by adding a teaspoon of instant coffee just before we take the frosting off the heat.)
MRS. LOGAN'S MOCHA TART CAKE
Mrs. Logan is represented in the book several times. She must have been one of Boise's great bakers. Her mocha cake is simple but unusual, in that it's butterless and has a spongy consistency almost like angel food. For a richer coffee flavor, we add one teaspoon of freeze-dried coffee to the cold brewed coffee that goes into the cake, and half a teaspoon to that which goes into the filling. The freeze-dried crystals dissolve nicely in the cold coffee with a little stirring. This cake should be kept in the refrigerator; in fact, we've found that storing in the freezer helps keep the creamy filling from soaking into the cake. Serve very cold.
Cake ingredients: 4 eggs, separated 2 tablespoons cold strong coffee 1 cup sugar 1 cup flour 1 teaspoon baking powder Dash salt Butter for pan
Filling ingredients: 1 cup ( 1/2 pint) whipping cream 1/3 cup confectioners' sugar 1 teaspoon cold strong coffee 2 ounces almonds or pecans
To prepare cake, beat egg yolks, then add coffee and sugar, beating continuously. Add flour, baking powder and salt and stir until well-combined. In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until stiff. Gently fold the whites into the batter. Pour into 2 well-buttered, 9-inch cake pans. Bake at 325 degrees for about 18 minutes, or until cake begins to pull away from sides of pan. Don't overbake. Cool cakes on wire racks.
To prepare the filling, whip the cream until stiff, adding the confectioners' sugar and coffee. (Again, we add a little freeze-dried coffee to the liquid coffee.) Spread between and over the top of the cake layers. Sprinkle the top of the cake with the nuts, which have been browned briefly under the broiler. The nuts aren't just a garnish here -- they add a needed crunch to the soft cake and filling.
MRS. FAIK'S CARAMEL SAUCE FOR ICE CREAM (Makes about 3 cups)
Next time you buy a caramel sauce at the supermarket, read the ingredients on the label. Then note what goes into this one. So simple! Butter the size of an egg (about 3 tablespoons) 1 cup whipping cream 2 cups brown sugar
Mrs. Faik's instructions? Simpler, almost, than opening the sauce from the supermarket. All she says is, "Boil." To be a bit more specific, bring all the ingredients to a gentle simmer (active boiling will degrade the texture), stirring all the time. Continue to cook just long enough for the grittiness to disappear. This recipe serves at least a dozen ordinary people, or five greedy kids. Store in tighly sealed jars in the refrigerator.
MRS. MEIERS' APPLE PUDDING
Mrs. Meiers doesn't specify how many apples to use for this unusual pudding-cake-pie, but we've found that about 3 good tart apples is about right. Feel free to play around with this amount. Butter for baking dish 3 medium apples Grated peel of 1 orange 1 cup sugar Butter the size of a walnut (about 1 1/2 tablespoons) 1 egg 1 cup flour 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 cup milk 1 teaspoon vanilla Whipped cream sweetened with confectioners' sugar and vanilla for garnish
Butter a deep, 9-inch baking dish and slice peeled apples into it until the dish is about 1/3 full. Grate the orange peel over this, and sprinkle with half the sugar. The rest of Mrs. Meiers' instructions could win a prize for brevity: "Make cake from (remaining) ingredients and bake in oven until done." She may well have assumed (and in 1930 it may have been true) that her readers automatically knew the rest. This being 1981, here are some relevant details: Cream the butter and remaining 1/2 cup sugar. Add the beaten egg. Combine flour with baking powder and add to the batter, alternately with the milk. Finally add the vanilla. Pour the cake batter over the apple mixture and bake in a 350-degree oven for about 35 to 40 minutes. While still warm, turn upside down on a large serving dish. Serve with whipped cream sweetened with a little confectioners' sugar and flavored with a dash of vanilla.
MRS. THOMETZ' UPSIDE DOWN CAKE
Something about the 1930s seems to have encouraged baking cakes and puddings upside down. It's really a nifty idea, both spectacular and easy (cake and topping are baked together). In this recipe, the utensil of choice is a heavy, high-sided iron skillet, which helps avoid singeing the brown sugar. (If your iron skillet is enamel-lined and comes from France, Mrs. Thometz will understand.) We've used this recipe in many variations. Make it this way once, then try your own. (With berries, for instance, or coconut.) Topping: 1/4 cup butter 1 cup brown sugar 20-ounce can sliced pineapple 1 cup chopped walnuts
Cake mixture: 4 egg yolks, beaten 1 cup sugar 4 tablespoons pineapple juice 1 cup flour 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder 4 egg whites, beaten stiff Pinch of salt Whipped cream for garnish
Melt butter and brown sugar in the skillet. Arrange slices of pineapple and nuts decoratively on this mixture. Put aside and prepare cake mixture as follows.
To the beaten egg yolks, add the sugar, the pineapple juice, the flour and the baking powder. Mix gently. Then fold in the beaten egg whites and a pinch of salt. Pour the batter over the pineapple-brown sugar mixture in the skillet. Bake 35 minutes at 350 degrees. Allow to cool a few minutes, before turning upside down on a cake plate. Serve with whipped cream.
MRS. ERSTAD'S SPRITSAR
These almond cookies, made in a cookie press, are so rich and good you can almost guarantee that they'll be gone in a flash. 1 1/2 cups butter 1 cup sugar 1 egg plus one additional egg yolk 1 teaspoon almond extract 3 cups flour
Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs, unbeaten. Stir well, then add almond extract and flour. (Mrs. Erstad tells us to "measure flour before sifting." In other words, use a bit more flour than called for. We find that a level tablespoon of extra flour is about right if you're using the pre-sifted kind.) Mix well, then cover dough and chill. Put mixture in cookie press and press onto ungreased cookie sheet. Bake until golden brown in a 350-degree oven (10 to 15 minutes, depending on thickness of cookies).