Thursday, June 25, 2015

On the Menu: Picnic On A Stick

This recipe appealed to me for a number of reasons. First, the words "on a stick".  Sold. I love almost any food presented on a stick. Shish Kebabs, corn dogs, satay, caramel apples, the list goes on and on. Because I'm always on the lookout for new foods that can be be-sticked, I always have bamboo skewers at the ready. In fact, here is an amazing article listing 100 foods to try on a stickCheck it out if you are a fellow food-on-a-stick fancier. You won’t be disappointed.
Second, this recipe was found in the Children’s Favorites section of the recipe card collection.  So, to me, that meant that my six-year-old could most likely prepare these herself, as long as I was there to make sure that she did not have imaginary sword fights, poke her eyes out, jab her fingers, or impale the dog.
Third, there is no cooking involved in this recipe, only assembly. 
Finally, the weather was lovely and a picnic sounded like a great idea.
Assembling the picnic on a stick was great fun.  We used mini dill pickles, cheddar cheese cubes, salami, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and ham.  The recipe did not call for cucumbers, but we were inspired. I don’t know why, but we were. And, why not? This is one of those recipes that cries out for improvisation. I know we will make these again.  Perhaps  next time we'll choose cubes of Havarti, roast beef, green peppers, and mushrooms.  The possibilities are staggering. 
After assembly, each picnic on a stick is supposed to be placed in its own plastic bag, but we just piled them on a plate. The recipe also states that a hot dog roll, slathered in butter and mustard, should accompany each kebab. The recommended method of serving is to place the picnic stick in the roll and then slide out the stick. No,thank you. We tossed the sticks into a gallon plastic bag and walked outside to enjoy our stick-y picnic.  Occasionally, we tasted some of the pieces together, combining salami and cucumber or ham and pickle. But, for the most part we just slid the pieces off one at a time. When we were done, we took our empty sticks, went back inside, and ate a hot dog roll sans butter or mustard.  As I suspected, it WAS a great day for a picnic.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Regrettable Meal: Perfection Salad

Another gem from my mother's collection. This salad sets the bar pretty low for "perfection".

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

On the Menu: Fresh Berry Trifle

I try to have at least one new experience every week, especially during the summer. Not necessarily an elaborate adventure, like skydiving or running with the bulls, but more along the lines of trying maple bacon ice cream or turning left instead of right just to see where a road leads. This past week, my daughter and I went blueberry picking. It was quite relaxing and the berries were huge and ripe and the most beautiful shade of deep, purplish blue. These were picturesque blueberries; the kind you would see in an artist’s still life painting.  In no time, we had filled two pint containers. And, the taste? Well, one of the most wonderful things about picking fresh blueberries is that you can eat them straight from the bushes or, in our case, the pint container.  There were no pesticides or chemicals used in the growing process. So, there was snacking.  A lot of snacking. This was definitely an experience I will want to repeat. 
We decided to make a Fresh Berry Trifle, or Triffle, as my daughter liked to call it.  Her pronunciation made me think of the famous Star Trek episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles”, which you can read about here, if you like. While assembling the trifle, with Star Trek on my mind, I felt inspired to deliver any and all instruction in the style of William Shatner. “We need…more pudding.” “Sprinkle…the berries…on top. How many?  I…don’t…know. Bones?” I received mostly blank stares from my daughter. I’m not sure she appreciates my humor.  Actually, I’m not sure anyone would appreciate my Shatner impression.  It’s abysmal. 
Anyway, back to the trifle.  It is really just a layer dessert and there is very little cooking involved; none if you substitute instant pudding for the cook and serve variety.  The recipe did call for cook and serve vanilla pudding, but I opted for instant, which allowed me to forego using the stove and dramatically decreased the prep time before assembly could begin. We used ladyfingers as the first layer in our trifle and lined the inside and bottom of the bowl with them. The next layer was one half of the vanilla pudding which been enhanced with a teaspoon of imitation rum flavoring. Fancy. Then, we sprinkled a layer of fresh blueberries over the pudding and repeated the pudding/berry layers once more. The trifle was finished with a topping of sweetened whipped cream, which was heavy cream whipped with brown sugar.  There was supposed to be a sprinkling of sliced almonds on the top, but we couldn’t find them in the grocery story. So, we used the  leftover berries on top.  After assembly, the trifle was supposed to be refrigerated for at least one hour.  We managed to wait twenty two minutes.  It was delicious.  Out of this world, even.
Who knows what the next recipe will bring? These are the voyages of the Retro Recipe Test Kitchen.  Our mission: to explore strange new recipes, to seek out new ingredients and discover new tastes, to boldly cook what no one has cooked before.  Beam me up, Scotty.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Retro Advertising Love: EZ Serve Liver Loaf

E-Z Serve Liver Loaf. The Grandest Discovery? Really? I beg to differ. I found a penny in the dryer the other day. That was grander.

Friday, June 19, 2015

On the Menu: Chicken Matzo Ball Soup

I love matzo ball soup. Perhaps, it is because I am Pennsylvania Dutch and have a love of all things dumpling-like imprinted on my DNA. Perhaps, it is because I have had matzo ball soup lovingly prepared by a Jewish Grandmother. Either way, the bar for this soup recipe is set pretty high.  After studying the recipe and its ingredients/preparation, I began to wonder how a recipe so iconic could appear to be so simple to create.  I grew suspicious of the recipe. I imagined a scenario where I was humiliated in front of a tasting panel of Bubbes because a key ingredient or integral step had been purposefully left out of said recipe. To borrow from the Yiddish, I was schvitzing even before I began. Oy vey.
Pressing forward, I prepared my grocery list. Glancing at the bottom of the recipe card, I noticed a box entitled, “Talking Chicken”. This box contained the instructions on how to make your own chicken broth. Seriously? I thought I was just going to get a couple of cartons of chicken broth (which, I admit, made my imagined panel of Grandmas hang their heads in resigned disappointment). Now, because I wanted to be as true to the recipe as possible, I had to schlep a five pound chicken home. Again, I say, oy vey.
Thank goodness the grocery store had whole chickens, complete with the required giblets, already cut up.  The recipe card had hinted that this was something I might have to do myself. Since hacking away at a whole chicken with a cleaver while possibly sobbing was not something I wanted to do that afternoon, I was grateful.  As an aside, I should admit that I am absolutely repulsed by raw chicken.  I try to never, ever touch it…ever. So, after donning rubber gloves, I used two set of tongs to place all the chicken pieces and giblets into the stock pot. Then, I washed my hands twice. Just to be sure all remnants of raw chicken were gone. The only other ingredients in the pot were water, one stalk of celery, one small onion, salt, and pepper. After bringing the stock to a boil, I simmered it for two and a half hours.
After it was cooled, I removed the chicken and vegetables, froze the meat for use in later recipes, and strained the broth.
Sometimes in life, the simplest things turn out to be the most extraordinary. In this case, the extraordinary can be described in three words: homemade chicken broth.  I never expected there to be that much difference between this broth and store bought, but I was wrong. So, so wrong.  It was less salty, yet so much more flavorful and more…chicken-y. Try it yourself.  You won’t be sorry.
When it came time to prepare the matzo balls, my daughter actually did most of the work.  She beat the eggs and added the matzo meal, butter, salt, and pepper. I chopped the parsley and added the chicken broth.  Then, we both mixed… and mixed…and mixed.  It seemed to take an inordinately long time for the ingredients to fully combine.  But, finally we were successful and we placed the mixture in the refrigerator to set for thirty minutes.
 I am noticing a pattern with these retro recipes.  You must have patience. There are no short cuts. There is no microwaving. There is no sense of urgency or time constraints. The cooking is leisurely. It unapologetically takes as long as it takes.  It is a long journey from preparation to tasting but, so far at least, it has been well worth the effort.
After the required chilling period, we took generous spoonfuls of the matzo dough and rolled it into balls, a dozen in all.  The balls were then dropped into the simmering chicken broth and cooked for about forty five minutes.  The resulting soup was a hit with everyone who sampled it.  My imaginary panel of Bubbes would have been proud. Mazel Tov.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

On the Menu: Babka

I feel every person should have at least one hobby.  An activity or pastime that brings happiness, allows for creative/artistic expression, or provides an opportunity to put hidden talents on display.  One of my personal favorite hobbies is acting and, for the past three weeks, I have had the distinct pleasure of performing in a play with a wonderful group of people.  This particular play tells the story of a proudly Polish and slightly dysfunctional family full of memorable characters.  So, for the cast party after our final performance this past Saturday, I decided to bake Babka, a traditional Polish delight. 
This recipe, first and foremost, illustrates the saint-like patience that is required when baking homemade breads and pastries.  Patience that I, as a non-saint-like person, woefully lack.  The total time from start to completion was a whopping three hours.  That does not mean that the steps were difficult, however, just that there were long periods of waiting between executing them.
This was also the first recipe that called for a piece of specialized kitchen equipment. A spring pan.  Now I had, of course, heard of a spring pan before. But, I only had a vague notion of how it worked.  In fact, if I were asked to write down everything that I knew about spring pans, the result would most likely have been a poorly drawn picture, in crayon, of two people eating cheesecake.  I knew that you needed a spring pan to make cheesecake.  But, since I have never made a cheesecake nor had any desire to make one, I’ve never owned one.  After a quick tutorial from one of my friends who also happens to be a chef, I now knew that I needed to look for a pan with a buckle on the side. This buckle releases, or springs, the sides off the pan.   I also learned that it didn’t have to be an expensive purchase; a cheap pan was ok.  So, armed with this knowledge, I headed to the nearest discount superstore and  got a set of not one, not two, but three spring pans. Small, medium, and large. They could not be purchased individually. Now, I have three more spring pans than I ever thought I would own.  Yet, the label on the set clearly stated that these were “Essential Everyday” items.  Apparently, people all over the world are using these pans on a daily basis. Baffling. 
Babka is basically a sweetened yeast cake with raisins and coffee cake crumble topping. Immediately, I made one change to the ingredient list.  I substituted chocolate chips for raisins. Raisins are lies. I cannot tell you how many times in my life I have bitten into a baked good expecting chocolate chips and gotten raisins instead.  No one deserves that disappointment. That’s the kind of thing that can ruin your whole day.
The first step was activating the yeast.  This, for me, was the most intimidating.  The recipe said that the water had to be precisely 105 degrees to properly activate the yeast.  I didn’t know how to accomplish this level of accuracy, since I had no type of kitchen thermometer.  Apparently, this was one more piece of everyday, essential equipment absent from my kitchen.  So, I improvised and washed and sterilized my daughter’s digital thermometer. Don’t judge. The first reading simply stated “High” and made a sort of screeching beep that I have never heard before.  I guess if a human temperature were this high, medical attention should be sought immediately.  Eventually, the thermometer read 104.5 and, although the thermometer still chimed in that sad way it does when a fever is present, to me it sounded like victory.  I decided that 104.5 degrees was close enough to 105, so I added the yeast, along with the rest of the ingredients to start the Babka dough.   After it was mixed, I covered it with a kitchen towel and set it aside to rise…for one hour.  Thus began the first of three, hour-long waiting periods.
After an hour, the dough had indeed doubled in size, just as the recipe claimed it would, so then it was transferred into the greased and floured spring pan.  Then, waiting period number two began.
At the end of the second hour, I was surprised and slightly unsettled to find that the dough had risen above the top of the spring pan. A quick re-reading of the recipe reassured me that this was, in fact, supposed to happen.  One quick egg wash over the top and a sprinkling of buttery, cinnamon-sugary crumbles later, and the Babka was placed in the oven to bake for the third and final hour.
The resulting Babka had a beautifully glossy top and the crumbles made the whole kitchen smell of cinnamon.  It was definitely an interesting cake/bread. It had just a hint of sweetness and the texture was dense and slightly crumbly.  I, however, like my cakes/breads a bit on the sweeter side, lighter and slightly less crumbly, so Babka is not going to become a favorite around the homestead.  Since this was the first recipe I served to an unsuspecting public, I was pleased that the reviews from those who tried it at the party were positive. But, it could have been that they were just too kind to say otherwise. Nevertheless, I am confident that they appreciated the chocolate chip substitution. Because, not raisins.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Retro Advertising Love: Pream

Mmm. There's nothing like a little Pream in my Poffee. Delightful. 

-1953 Illustrated Ad, Instant Pream Creamer 

Friday, June 12, 2015

A Regrettable Meal: Ham and Bananas Hollandaise

When I began looking through the recipe card collection after thirty years, I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of the recipes could be updated or adapted to fit our family's taste. Some, however, could not. Some were too horrible. This is one such recipe.  I cannot fathom the thought process where, when asked to create a delicious meal, this was the final result.  I suspect mind altering drugs played a role here. After all, it was the 70's.
To me, this looks like a platter full of Freudian analysis just waiting to happen..."sometimes a ham-wrapped, hollandaise-doused banana is just a ham-wrapped, hollandaise-doused banana." Now, tell me about your mother. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

On The Menu: Steak Au Poivre

Peppery. That's really the dominant word that comes to mind when describing this dish. Pepper-tastic or pepper-riffic would also work quite nicely in conveying the peppery peppery-ness of this dish. Now, I love black pepper and it's nice to see it take center stage in a recipe. I've always thought it had untapped possibilities. Sure, when you season, it's always included. It's always salt and pepper. Yet, somehow, I feel that pepper always takes a backseat to salt. Pepper is usually salt's wingman. Well, not in this dish. Nope. This pepper is in your face. Aggressive pepper. Pepper that you would not want to meet in a dark alley. Needless to say, there was a lot of sneezing. A lot.
Steak Au Poivre is a simple preparation of coating steaks with freshly ground pepper and then frying them in butter. Then, after the steaks are cooked, brandy, white wine and more butter are added to de-glaze the pan and make the sauce.
Since there are only five components to this dish, I realize now how important it is to get the best ingredients possible. If one of them is not up to par, it's really noticeable. For me, that ingredient was the steak. I mean, it wasn't bad or past its prime or anything like that. It was just the wrong cut of meat for this dish. It was thinner and fattier than it should have been and it showed in the final product. Although the brandy/wine/butter pan sauce was wonderfully rich, I was frustrated that I had to cut off a good bit of the pepper crust to remove the excess fat from the meat, thereby losing a good bit of flavor. But, it was the steak I had on hand, so as the French would say, c'est la vie. I'll know better next time. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

It's All in the Presentation: Release the Kraken!

Release the Kraken!

Sharing the Retro Recipe Love: Frankfurters in Crust

Everyone should have a website that makes them as giddy as Archie McPhee makes me. Looking around my living room, I can identify at least six items ordered from their website with just a cursory glance. In years past, Archie McPhee would often include a free gift with every order. Mostly, these were packets of vintage recipe cards. Thanks to our McPhee obsession, we have amassed what I can only surmise is a close to complete collection of vintage recipe cards from Curtin Publications, dated 1973. I have looked through all of these cards and never really considered making any of them. Perhaps it was the fault of a low budget or poor lighting, but most of the dishes barely looked edible. A lot of the photos resembled special effects from a Hammer Horror film. As I look at these images I can just imagine the photographer complaining, "Well, I don't know. The food just doesn't look as low contrast as I'd like. Could we possible make it more brown? Oh, and ketchup. We need more ketchup. It just makes the food look so shiny…I love that." So, since we had accumulated a large number of these cards, we began giving them away to our unsuspecting friends and family. We attached them to birthday presents and tucked them into Christmas gifts. Never in a million years did we think that anyone would ever make any of the dishes. So, imagine our surprise when one of our dear friends showed up to our annual Halloween bash with "Frankfurters in Crust". Her explanation was that since we had been thoughtful enough to give her the cards, the least she could do was make one of the recipes for our party. I think it was revenge. A karmic lightning bolt for giving our friends crappy novelty gifts. But, we added the huge plate of encrusted weenies to the buffet table. And…people ate it. It may have been the free flowing alcohol, but I tried a piece of it too and it wasn't bad. It tasted like a giant pig in a blanket with hot dog relish and mustard. That's it. Not earth shattering, but not stomach churning either. Suddenly, I began to see my friend in a new light. She was bit of a rebel. A culinary outlaw, if you will. I mean, it takes a certain amount of moxie to bring a dish called "Frankfurters in Crust" to a party where fifty people could comment on your strange epicurean choice. But, her gamble paid off and she went home with an empty plate. Bravo, my friend. Well played. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

On The Menu: Red-Eye Ham/Biscuit Squares

Step one: Soak the ham for an hour in warm water. Why? I couldn't figure it out, but I did it anyway. After carefully reading the recipe, I came to the conclusion that nothing involved in the preparation of the ham filled me with culinary feelings of inadequacy. I understood all the steps and was feeling pretty confident. The biscuit squares, however, were a different story. They filled me with a sense of foreboding and dread. So, I put off making them as long as possible. You see, I do not really bake from scratch. Ever. I began to wonder why I had picked this recipe to start my retro recipe cooking adventure. I had heard that red-eye gravy was tasty, but now, I was apprehensive and unsure. I gave myself a pep talk. I could do this. Forty five minutes into the ham soaking period, bolstered by a pre-pre-dinner cocktail, I took a sideways glance at the first step to prepare the biscuits: cut the shortening into the flour. I cautiously approached my bowl of dry ingredients (snuck up on it, really) and began to gingerly add the shortening a little at a time. I opted for a butter knife technique of my own creation, where I furiously traced tic-tac-toe grids over and over across the entire surface of the bowl with the tip of the knife, hoping that by literally cutting (stabbing) the shortening it would work. And, it did. The recipe card indicated that I should stop cutting in the shortening when it was the size of small peas. Done.
After the wet and dry ingredients were combined, I began to roll out the dough.  I found that I did not have enough counter space to roll out the entire batch at once.  So, I improvised as best I could and rolled, cut, and buttered small batches at a time.  I ended up with twelve biscuit squares, which close to the sixteen the recipe says it will yield.  I just figured my biscuits were slightly more generous.  Perhaps the early seventies were a time of stingy biscuits. I slid the baking sheet into the oven, quickly closed the door and immediately felt calmer.  While the biscuits were baking, the ham was really no problem.  I figured out the benefit of soaking as soon as the meat hit the pan.  The slices of ham released all that extra moisture as they cooked and it added a lot of flavor to the gravy.  Red-eye gravy really couldn't be simpler. After the ham is cooked through, remove it and then de-glaze the pan with one cup of coffee.  After it comes to a boil and simmers a bit, just spoon the red-eye gravy over the ham.  It's absolutely delicious.  It tastes simultaneously of coffee and smokiness and hammy goodness.  So, the ham was a hit.  As for the biscuits, they were perfect.  Now, it could've gone either way.  I could have just as easily been standing in the kitchen screaming "you think you're better than me!" to charred biscuit remains  Thankfully, I had a bit of beginner's luck.  They were so good.  Tiny squares of buttery goodness.  They were a revelation.  Maybe I should bake more.

Monday, June 8, 2015


My mother got them at a yard sale. Two complete sets of recipe cards in pristine condition. The "McCall's Great American Recipe Card Collection" from 1974 and "Betty Crocker's Step By Step Recipes" from 1975.
The McCall's collection was housed in a box with a clear, hinged top which allowed me to peer inside and get a good look at the brightly colored divider cards emblazoned with names like "New England", "Creole Country" and "The Old South". I found these titles so intriguing and authoritative that I implicitly trusted that the recipes chosen for each category were, in fact, the quintessential recipes that embodied these geographic locales. Yes, the rich cultural and culinary heritages of these regions could be boiled down to twenty or so carefully chosen recipes. Surely no others would ever be needed…or wanted.
The Betty Crocker collection was encased in a solid mold of thick, orange plastic that gave no hint of the treasures it held within. And, when I say orange, I mean that special shade of orange that, along with mustard yellow and dirt brown made up the holy trinity of the 70's color palette. It was more orange than orange, if that's possible.  This set offered not just one picture of the final product, but several step-by- step color photos of how to create it. I was fascinated.
I spent hours looking through the recipes, marveling at the colorful photos. I had never seen or tasted dishes like these. These offerings were oh-so fancy, and oh-so cosmopolitan to a young girl of five. In my imagination, these recipes were served at lavish dinner parties where elegant, worldly women wearing Windsong perfume and dashing men wearing Old Spice cologne sipped endless snifters of Harvey's Bristol Cream. After all, those were the most grown up things I knew.

For years these boxes occupied a place of prominence in our kitchen. An odd place for a collection of recipe cards that, as far as I could remember, my mother never used. She claims that she did, but the only evidence that I have ever found of my mother's presence is the word "good" written in her hand in green ink on one of the stray cards stuck in front of the box. A card that belonged to neither set.
The years passed and I forgot about the cards. Then, about five years ago, my mother called to ask me if I wanted any of her cookbooks since she didn't use most of them anymore. Suddenly, the cards flashed in my mind. "Do you still have those boxes of recipes I used to love..."
So, at last, my beloved cards and I are reunited after more than three decades.  As I began to go through the boxes with the eye and palate of an adult, however, I realized that some of the recipes were not only dated, but horrific. Undaunted, I pressed on and managed to sort the cards into three basic categories:
  1. Recipes that I would make.
  2. Oh. My. God. No...Seriously? Eww.
  3. I bet you I could get so and so to try this. They'll eat anything.
So, my plan is to make some of the recipes from these collections and post about my cooking adventures. Some will be easily assimilated into a weeknight menu. Others...not so much. And, who knows? I may even serve Harvey's Bristol Crème…