Sugar Spun Success: It’s the 1920’s, It’s Wilton and It’s the Winter Snowflake Cake!

Although it was invented technically in 1927, television didn’t make a widespread appearance in homes until the 1950’s. And cooking shows didn’t reach their heyday until the 1990’s. That means there was no Food Channel, no Great British Baking Show, no Martha Stewart. If you wanted expert instruction in the 1920’s on how to bake a festive looking cake for the holidays you basically had four options as far as guidance… your mom, your grandmother, your favorite cookbook or your favorite radio show…

Agnes White Tizard, the voice of Betty Crocker on Betty Crocker’s Cooking School of the Air taught listeners how to cook for 20 years. Read more about her here.

Very reliable sources for sure, those options would have definitely produced a delicious, time-tested cake that everyone enjoyed, and had been enjoying for years and years. But none of those options would have been able to show you how to make something new and innovative. For that you would have had to go to Chicago – to the Wilton School of Cake Decorating, where you’d get expert hands-on-training on how to make the most pretty and modern cake of the holiday season.

Dewey McKinley Wilton

Started in 1929 by confectionery artist Dewey McKinley Wilton,  the Wilton School first taught classes to area pastry chefs in the hotel industry. Dewey had a special relationship with these guys in particular. As a traveling pulled sugar expert, Dewey would show up in hotel kitchens around the Midwest when the pastry chefs needed an extra bit of magnificence to wow their hotel guests.

An example of pulled sugar ribbons atop a modern day cake. This is the type of work Dewey did for area hotels in the 1920’s. Photo via pinterest.

Most of these pastry chefs were wonders themselves in the cake baking department, having been trained in Europe, and were very proficient with a frosting knife and lofty buttery layers. But they weren’t quite as familiar with Dewey’s flair for pulling sugar into hardened shapes and intricate designs.

A 1920’s pastry chef with confectionery creation. Photo courtesy of snackncake.com

Quite curious, they wanted to know about techniques, about processes, about possibilities. And most importantly, all these pastry chefs wanted to know how exactly a pot of boiling melted sugar could eventually turn into a big, brilliant ribbon or a bird or a crunchy piece of abstract art. Dewey was more than happy to share what he knew, but after so many pastry chefs in so many hotels kept asking so many of the same questions over and over again, his entrepreneurial spirit kicked in.

Instead of telling each chef, one by one, how pulled sugar was done, he realized he needed to be teaching one class geared towards many minds.  So that’s what he did. He started the Wilton School of Cake Decorating in the dining room of his house in 1929 and charged $25 a class for an expert lesson on how to pull sugar and make hard candies. The class filled up in a jiffy. Nothing excites a pastry chef more than a newfangled way to decorate a sweet treat, and in all that sugary merry making of the new School there was plenty of learning going on.  While Dewey was teaching his students, he was also learning about their classical European ways to bake, frost and assemble cakes in eye-catching ways.

An image from the early years of the Wilton School of Cake Decorating.

Soon word spread beyond the pastry chef community. The school was fun and informative and produced the most spectacular and delicious cakes the Midwest had ever experienced. People started arriving for instruction from other towns beyond Chicago, and then other states beyond Illinois. Home cooks, caterers, food economists and restaurant owners were clamoring to learn Dewey’s special way with cakes – a method he wound up calling the Wilton Way – which combined the best parts of European baking with simple easy-to-replicate American designs.

Now getting ready to celebrate its 100th birthday in a few short years, The Wilton School of Cake Decorating and Confectionery Art still remains a bustling educational center for all baking aficionados.  Determined to create interesting and engaging art through butter and suagr, Dewey and his following generations grew the business into not only a school, but also a food product and accessories line that can be found in most grocery stores around the country today as well as on their website. They even offer online classes for those who can’t make the trip to Illinois to join the fun in person.

That’s a pretty remarkable career for any business, let alone one in the baking industry where it can be difficult to remain innovative and approachable at the same time. Thanks to Dewey’s Wilton Way  and his easily accessible method, he helped dispel the myth that cake decorating was an intimidating, complicated art meant for only a certain type of person.  Thousands of accomplished students have graduated from the Wilton program since its inception, many continuing on with successful careers in the baking industry.

Here in the Vintage Kitchen, I was introduced to the Wilton Way through this book…

a 1991 reprint of their 1979 cake decorating book. It is full of attractive cakes, some vibrant with retro charm, others timeless and elegant…

Laid out like coursework, it teaches readers progressively in master class style. Meaning that if you start at the very beginning, and work your way through each chapter, by the end of the book you’ll have amassed so much skill you’ll be able to confidently tackle the baking and decorating of a multi-tiered wedding cake festooned with  a bevy of frothy details.

This past week, I endeavored to make their Winter Snowflake Cake – a pale green pastel beauty that consisted of two layers and frosted snowflakes…

This was my first foray into cake decorating with an intentional design, multiple frostings and more than one piping project, so it was a fun adventure, but it definitely didn’t go quite as planned. The Wilton’s are fast to reassure in their book, saying that the best way to make a perfect cake is to practice, practice, practice. I fast forwarded through the beginning chapters and went straight to this cake. That being said, here’s my finished version…

You’ll notice it is missing some elements from the original cake – most noticeably the side snowflakes. I’ll explain how they went awry further down in the post. I’m also sharing the recipes, as I go along too, in case you want to take yourself to school and experiment with making your own vintage snowflake cake this winter as well.

One funny thing about this cake decorating book in particular is that it’s all about cake decorating and only cake decorating, which means that you have to gather a recipe in order to bake the actual layer cake part from another source. I used Martha Stewart’s Butter Cake recipe which turned out great because it baked flat and even on all sides – characteristics you definitely want when making a multiple layer cake.

Martha Stewart’s Butter Cake 1 

(makes two 9.5″ inch round cakes)

8 ounces unsalted butter

3 cups cake flour, plus more for dusting

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups sugar

4 large eggs

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup whole milk

Preheat oven to 350. Butter cake pans and dust with flour, tapping out excess flour.

Whisk together flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, mix butter and sugar until pale (about 2-3 minutes). Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add vanilla and mix again.  Add flour mixture in three batches alternating between each batch with two batches of milk. Stir until evenly combined.

Distribute batter evenly between cake pans (this is about 3 1/4 cups of batter per pan).

Bake for 20-25 minutes or until cake tester inserted in center comes out clean.

Let cakes cool in pan on wire rack for 20 minutes. Invert cake layers and remove cake from pan. Let cool on wire rack completely then wrap each cake in wax paper and then plastic wrap and store in the fridge until you are ready to frost.

There are two types of frosting used for this cake. A pale green buttercream and a bright white royal icing. Both icing recipes are from the Wilton School and are easy to use. They both include a curious ingredient called meringue powder (made by Wilton!) which can be found in the baking section of your grocery or online.

I didn’t even know there was such a thing as meringue powder before this project,  but basically it is an egg-white substitute used in place of whipping up fresh eggs. Normally, I’m not a fan of substitute convenience products but since this was the first time I was making this cake I wanted to use the products they recommended. Next time, I’ll try to make my own meringue using fresh eggs. Now it’s onto the frosting…

Snow-white Buttercream

(makes 8 cups)

2/3 cup water

4 tablespoons meringue powder

11 1/2 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar

1 1/4 cups butter

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

2-3 drops green food coloring

In a large mixing bowl, combine water and meringue powder and whip at high speed until peaks form. Add 4 cups sugar, one cup at a time, beating at low speed after each addition. Alternately, add butter and remainder of sugar. Add salt and vanilla and beat at low speed until smooth. Add food coloring one drop at a time, (a little goes a long way!) mixing thoroughly between drops until a desired shade is achieved. The color will deepen as the icing ages, so keep that in mind when adding drops.

Special note: This  recipe makes enough frosting for one two layer cake  including top, sides and  filling between layers, plus a little extra. Leftover frosting can be stored in an air-tight container in the fridge for several weeks.

Next, I set to work frosting the top of the first layer and then the top and sides of the next layer…

When it was all sufficiently frosted, I cleaned the frosting knife and then gently scraped it as evenly as possibly around the sides of the cake to create a smooth texture.That same treatment was repeated on top of the cake too so that it maintained a flat and level surface. At this stage, I learned a fun little trick. A little drop of water helps to smooth icing out – so round I went once more on the sides with a wet frosting knife. Then the cake was set aside so that the icing could harden (or “crust” as Wilton described it). Next on the schedule was making the icing for the snowflakes…

Meringue Royal Icing

(makes 3 1/2 cups)

3 level tablespoons meringue powder

1 lb. confectioner’s sugar

3 1/2 oz. warm water

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

Combine all ingredients in a medium sized mixing bowl. At first, mix slowly with an electric mixer then increase the speed to medium and mix for 7-10 minutes.

Things is where things got a little bit tricky. While the snowflake icing is super easy to make,  the method used to make the snowflakes is really difficult. It involved piping icing onto wax paper…

letting each snowflake dry for an hour…

re-piping each one again (aka over-piping), letting it dry for another hour…

and then carefully removing each snowflake from the wax paper and adhering them to the cake one by one. In theory, this sounds simple enough, but each snowflake was very tricky to remove without them doing this…

After many attempts and many hours, I abandoned this method of snowflake making altogether. Evidently I need more practice in this department! Instead, I just carried on and piped the large snowflake directly on top of the cake, freehand style, and left the sides bare.

Finally, this winter snowflake cake was trimmed on top and bottom with little snowballs. Wilton recommended using two-different sized pastry tubes #3 and #6 for this task, but I just used just one ziploc bag and it worked great.

And that was how this vintage snowflake cake came to be. It definitely isn’t a perfect cake compared to Wilton standards, but it was a whole lot of fun to make and has me thinking about future designs once I practice, practice, practice as Wilton often recommends.

Have you guys ever decorated cakes like this before? If you have any tips or techniques or adventure stories of your own confectionery creations, please share them in the comments section below. It will be fun to help propel the educational portion of this post, so that we can all learn together. And most definitely, if you embark on this winter snowflake baking project, please let us know how it all tuned out in your kitchen.

In the meantime, learn more about the wonderful world of Wilton and their inspiring vintage cake decorating book  here.  Several other shop items also made an appearance in this post’s photos as well… find the 1960’s era glass cake stand here, the 1920’s silver plate water pitcher here, and the vintage embroidered tea towel here.

Hope your weekend is as sweet as buttercream and as lofty as a layer cake! Cheers!

 

Weekend Shop Sale! 30% Off Now Through Tuesday

Hope you had a lovely and festive Thanksgiving holiday and are still enjoying lots of fun with friends and family. For all you post turkey shoppers, just a quick little note from the kitchen to let you know that there’s a 30% off sale in the shop starting today through Tuesday. If you’d like to get your gift gathering done early than this is the sale for you! It covers all categories and collections in the shop from linens to serving pieces, kitchenwares to cookbooks and everything in-between. And it is also the final sale of the year, so if you are looking for some unique gifts for yourself or others, now is the time to shop and save.

Whether you’ve been eyeing a set of antique French dishes from the 1800’s, a pretty little linen from the 1920’s or a cookbook filled with hundreds of recipes from the 1960’s, I hope the sale will inspire an extra dose of joy as we continue to party our way through the holiday season.

Please use coupon code HOLIDAYCHEER upon checkout to recieve 30% off your entire order.

Cheers and happy shopping!

The Cake That Fed An Entire Town: {Part Two} On Election Day in 1700’s America

Ladies and gentlemen, the results are in!  Eighteen ingredients, nine hours, three loaf pans and one historic recipe later  – we have a winner – in Election Cake. Yesterday, when I wrote about the history of this patriotic confection, there was uncertainty and speculation about what exactly it was (cake or bread?) and if it was going to be a palatable sweet treat that transitioned well across three centuries. Today, we discovered what this celebratory concoction was all about. Let’s look…

The recipe began yesterday, simple enough, with yeast and water and flour, and a dash of sugar and oil…

It was left to rise six hours on its own, which it did, like a good little cake…

Next, went in a handful of ingredients…

After they were all mixed together, the batter was ready to be parceled out into three loaf pans…

and were left to rise again, for another hour, which they really didn’t do at all. It would be generous to say that after the hour was up, each loaf was half an inch taller, but that would be an exaggeration. Maybe, indeed the batter did rise a little, but if so it was barely noticeable. I hesitated here at this stage, thinking maybe I should let them sit longer so that each loaf could get bigger. But then I remembered that the author of this recipe, Fannie Farmer, was a stickler for precision and instruction, so into the oven the three loaves went, without any extra rise time. Just follow the recipe. That’s what Fannie would have said.

Exactly at the one hour mark, no less and no more,  the loaves came out sky high and golden brown…

Fannie didn’t fail us after all! The tops even cracked open themselves, and looked like little lips about to say yum. A good sign of things to come.  After a short cooling off period, the loaves were ready to cut and serve and taste…

And that is when I discovered that this very old Election Cake is in fact, very delicious. I understand how people could get confused about whether to call it a cake or a bread because really it is similar to both.  It has a texture and consistency like banana bread or zucchini bread but also it has a light and fluffy body like cake. The combination of the whiskey, yeast and nutmeg gives it a subtle hint of almost root beer-like tang that is lovely and warm. And although it already has a cup of butter in it, this little darling of a delectable is calling out to be sliced and toasted with an extra slather of butter.

While no one ingredient is powerfully overwhelming, all of them work well together to create a balanced flavor that hints at citrus and at spice, which leads me to understand how so many varieties of Election Cake came about between the 1700’s and now. It’s wonderful just as it is, but it’s also one of those recipes that might spark your creativity. After you have made it once or twice, it will make you feel brave – enough to confidently add your own little twist. Not an improvement, just a twist.  Maybe you’ll want to add some nuts or orange peel or cinnamon or cranberries. Or maybe you’ll get creative on the serving side and want to pair it along with thinly sliced pieces of ham or brie or cream cheese for a savory little snack. I love recipes like this – ones that feed your brain as well as your belly.

Either way you decide to approach this recipe,  you’ll be most successful with it if you use good quality ingredients like local eggs, fresh nutmeg, European butter, etc. They might be a little more expensive to buy, but the more fresh and natural your ingredients, the more flavorful this cake, in particular, will be. And because it makes three loaves at once, you can freeze two for later, preferably when its cold and snowy, as this would be especially nice for winter breakfast alongside a cup of coffee, for lunch or tea-time or even afternoon hors d’oeuvres. Sweet in a satisfying, robust way (not in an empty calorie way), it will give you renewed energy to carry on with your day, which was exactly the original intention way back on voting days in the 1700’s.

Fannie Farmer’s Election Cake

(Makes 3 loaves. Recipe written exactly as it appeared in the 1965 edition of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook)

Put in a bowl… 1 cup warm water (not hot)

Sprinkle over it… 1 package yeast

Add… 1 tablespoon sugar, 1 tablespoon salad oil (I used olive oil), 2 1/2 cups flour

Beat thoroughly , cover, and let rise overnight or at least 6 hours.

Butter three loaf tins. Cream 1 cup butter. Cream in 2 cups dark brown sugar.

Add 4 eggs, well beaten.

Stir in 1 tablespoon grated lemon rind and 1 tablespoon lemon juice.

Sift together 1 1/2 cups flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda, 1/2 teaspoon powdered cloves, 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, 1/2 teaspoon mace (if you can’t find this spice, substitute it for an additional 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg), 1/2 teaspoon salt.

Add to the the butter mixture. Add 2 cups seeded raisins, 1 cup whiskey.

Stir into the yeast batter and beat to blend well. Divide the dough in the tins. cover and let rise 1 hour. Bake about 1 hour at 350 degrees.

Interested in learning more about Fannie Farmer and her historic recipes? Find the 1965 edition of her original 1898 cookbook in the shop here.

And just a little reminder… there are just two days left to save 20% off all vintage and antique platters in the shop! Find your favorite here. 

The Cake That Fed An Entire Town: {Part One} On Election Day in 1700’s America

Once upon a time in history long, long ago there was a cake that fed the whole entire town on Election Day. Called simply, Election Cake, it was an active participant in the voting scene of early America. But while the recipe’s origins are as old as the United States itself, the exact history is a little bit varied depending on which source in which state is telling the tale.

The first American cookbook was written by Amelia Simmons and published in 1796. Her second edition of this cookbook, published two years later in 1798, features the first published recipe for Election Cake.

Essentially though, everyone pretty much agrees that it boils down to the early days of New England (some say Connecticut, some say Massachusetts) when Election Day was celebrated in the Spring and considered one of the biggest party days of the year. Enjoyed with the same amount of zeal as our modern St. Patrick’s Day festivities, Election Day in 1700’s America was a boozy holiday full of ale and camaraderie and community support. Only people weren’t celebrating one particular heritage like we do the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. They were celebrating everyone’s heritage, as Americans, on Election Day. The fervor was for freedom. And the cake was needed to sop up everyone’s spirits (the ale especially).  It also provided a little motivation to actively vote for the political candidates of the day, because even in 1700’s America, people (and politicians!) were aware of the powerfully compelling nature of cake and its ability’s to attract favor.

Being such a big festivity in the lives of Colonial America, with people traveling from miles around to attend special gatherings,  it made sense to local residents, at the time, to bake one enormous cake to serve all who showed up. So out of thirty quarts of flour and fourteen pounds of sugar and ten pounds of butter, Election Cake was born from the loving hands and hearts of local women who couldn’t vote themselves but could at the very least feed the men who were voting for them. Some historians say that this proves that women were important members of the political spectrum even back then when they had no vocal authority.  I don’t know about that, they may have just looked at the voting day in a practical feed-the-masses way,  but it is fun to think that while they were baking, they were also discussing political topics among themselves. Even if they were just hushed whispers while they were mixing batter and melting butter, I like to think they were formulating their own ideas about what should and could happen in the future shaping of America.

An election cake recipe from 1889 by Ellen Wadsworth Johnson. Photo courtesy of connecticuthistory.org

The interesting thing about Election Cake though is that it is not really cake. Since its inception it has really been more of a fruit and spice studded bread than a traditional cake. And in true American spirit it has been revised and enhanced and reworked over the centuries into numerous different versions like breakfast buns, frosted bundt cakes and drunken fruit cakes. The core of the recipe remains the same though – flour, butter and sugar – but over the years different variations have been included and excluded that involve milk, eggs, raisins, currents, citrus fruits, whiskey, rum, brandy, wine, confectioner’s sugar, etc. Baking equipment differs too. Originally, back in the day when one giant cake was made, it was too big to fit into any bakeware so it just baked free-form on the oven floor. Next came bread loaf pans, a smart decision that produced numerous easy-to-handle loaves that could be made by numerous hands. Then there was the bundt cake method, the cast iron skillet method, the baking dish method, etc.

The 1965 edition of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook originally published in 1898.

For this post, I’m making the Fannie Farmer version from her 1965 Fannie Farmer Cookbook, which was first published in 1898. True to form, this recipe has changed a bit over the Fannie Farmer years too. The 1960’s version involves raisins, whiskey and loaf pans. Her original recipe from 1898 called for figs, sour milk and bread dough starter.

The bulk of this project lies in waiting for the dough rise (six hours!).

A nine hour baking project from start to finish, this is a kitchen adventure that will unfold over two days and two blog posts. Tonight, we discussed the history behind the recipe, and tomorrow we’ll discuss the actual recipe and how it all turned out. Will it indeed be more like a raisin bread rather than a fruit cake, as it is listed in Fannie’s cookbook? Will our modern palettes fall in love with this old fashioned recipe enough to resurrect it and recommend it in the Vintage Kitchen?  Will it become a repeat labor of love on future days of election or will it be a one hit-not-so-wonderful? Only time will tell in this case. Tune in tomorrow for the 2018 Election Day results, vintage kitchen style…

 

Thanksgiving Prep: The Platter SALE That Starts Now and the Random Conversation That Inspired It

Happy November! Isn’t it exciting to think that Thanksgiving is just 20 days away? All summer long the shop has been filling up with vintage and antique platters in anticipation of the big turkey day soon to arrive.

An array of antique and vintage platters available in the shop. They range in age from the early 1900s to the 1970s.

Unlike some other pieces of dishware in the kitchen, a large platter is pretty much essential when it comes to dealing with big food for a big crowd. Big plates are one of those items you can’t really skimp on or try to improvise with something else. I know because I’ve tried. Back in the day when I lived in several tiny apartments in New York City with either no room for a big dish or no extra room in the budget to buy a big dish, I tried all sorts of creative ways to present a turkey. 

There was the year of the giant wood board, when the roasting juices ran all over the table. There was the year of serving it in a speckled enameled roasting pan, which I hoped was going to look wonderfully homey but instead looked wonderfully woebegone. There was the year we hoisted the turkey up on an elevated cooling rack, only to have it slip and slide around each time we attempted to carve it. That next year, the turkey was carved in the kitchen and separated out onto several dinner sized plates according to white meat and dark meat,  but that lacked all the festive  pomp and circumstance of bringing a big bird to the table. Then I found an antique platter on a weekend getaway trip in South Carolina and everything got a whole lot easier. Every Thanksgiving turkey since has come to rest on this two hundred year old dish that originally came from England…

It is my most prized treasure in the kitchen. The cracks and the crazing and the beautiful staining carry so many stories. It has a lovely decorative backstamp and a deep rim which is perfect for holding not only the turkey, but also all the herbs and the onions and the citrus fruit that go with it for presentation. I don’t  have to worry about the juice running all over anymore or the bird slipping and sliding as we carve it. 

I love this platter so much it gets used for non-holiday meals too like tacos, cheese and crackers, charcuterie, etc.  Everytime I use it I think about how I’m adding another layer, another meal, to its 200 years of meals. And that feels exciting. I like to think about what the Victorian Englanders would say about their platter being used as a serving dish for 21st century tacos. I like to think about all the Thanksgiving turkeys that have been presented here on this very platter over the course of two centuries. And I like to imagine the people who used this dish and how they carried it and where they lived. I love that it is not only a platter but it’s also a piece of history from other people’s past lives.

More platters in the shop!

This summer I overheard a conversation between two women at an estate sale who were talking about tableware. One woman remarked on the fact that she had a different platter for every holiday.  And that her collection, a mix of vintage pieces and contemporary pieces, acted as the anchor for her table decorating decisions every year. She went on to say how it made party planning easier because she knew what food looked good on which platter and what colors worked together and which didn’t. Her platters helped narrow down the choices of what to make and how to serve it.   

Her friend responded by saying that she only owned three platters – all plain white and all in different sizes. She admitted that she used them but didn’t love them and certainly never thought of them as inspiration for her table decor. 

The collector explained that it had taken over a decade to find just the right platters but now that her collection was complete and all the holidays were accounted for, she looked forward to celebrating each occasion,  anticipating new memories while remembering old ones. The two friends went back and forth about holiday decorations, and other things not related, but the best part of this story comes when it circled back around to the platters and the collector who had one for each holiday. “Mine feel like old friends,” the collector said.  “I look forward to seeing them every time I pull them from the cabinet.”

For four months that conversation has stuck in my head and I’ve thought of that woman, the collector, every time I’ve been out curating items for the shop. I think it is her, and all the like-minded dish lovers out that I have been shopping for all along. I love the fact that her platter collection is now a tradition and helps carry sentiment along with food and festivity. 

I wanted to help bring that sense of nostalgia to your table too, in hopes that you would find a new friend and a new helper from history. One that would make your party planning and your table setting  easier and more interesting at the same time. From now until November 9th, the kitchen shop is hosting a 20% off sale on all platters, antique and vintage. They run the gamut as far as styles and patterns from traditional to boho, plain to fancy, and small to large. A little something for everyone.

 As with all the items in the kitchen shop, my greatest desire is to pair old pieces up with new people so that the stories of food and family and history can continue to thrive long into this century and many more beyond. Hope you find a platter that’s suited just for you!  

To see a list of all the platters available in the shop click here or visit the serving pieces section here and hunt around yourself. All eligible pieces have already been marked down so you don’t need to worry about entering coupon codes or any additional sales info upon checkout. 

Happy friend finding!

 

From Tragedy to Triumph: The Monumental Mid-Life of Irma S. Rombauer

Irma with her children circa 1914. Photo courtesy of Stand Facing the Stove by Anne Mendelson.

Long before Irma Rombauer became a household name, she was an everywoman of the early 1900’s living in St. Louis, Missouri with her husband and two children. As the wife of an attorney who had political aspirations, Irma was actively involved in the social scene of St. Louis, a well-connected member of various clubs and organizations and a fun hostess of house parties and local events.

St Louis in 1906, seven years after Irma married. Photo courtesy of Vintage Everyday

When the stock market crashed and her husband tragically committed suicide as a result, the rosy colors of Irma’s St. Louis lifestyle suddenly took on a whole new shade. Without much money in savings, Irma, now in her early 50’s, had to quickly figure out what to do. Most importantly, she had to figure out how to survive on her own and care for her family, as a single woman, after thirty years of marriage.

While the Great Depression was a very hard time financially for families around the country, it was also a very creative period in home cooking. As everyone struggled to survive and to feed their families, barriers started breaking down as far as people’s pre-conceived notions of kitchen work and culinary skills. The wealthy could no longer afford kitchen staff and therefore had to start cooking for themselves. The middle class no longer had the same budget for groceries and had to learn how to cook more frugally.  And the lower class had to stretch their meager food supplies even further. That meant a whole wave of new cooks were beginning to emerge. Cooks who needed answers on how to do new things whether it was learning basic skills, innovative recipes or new techniques.

Irma saw an opportunity here in this great depression of both her own and the country’s. Americans needed a practical, instructive cookbook that offered good nutritional food for all budgets and all skill levels. Assume nothing, teach everything and most importantly find the joy, those were the thoughts ruminating in Irma’s mind.  This cookbook idea seemed especially relevant after a fellow St Louisan published a cookbook in 1929  featuring all sorts of expensive ingredients and decadent dishes – a notion that seemed totally inappropriate to Irma for both the time and the town.

The funny thing about Irma though at this point in her life, was that she wasn’t exactly known for her cooking. Her parties with her husband in the past had been memorable – not for the food but for the atmosphere. While Irma herself was a dynamic hostess and an interesting, intelligent conversationalist, what she served was overshadowed by her charming personality. People didn’t come away from Irma’s kitchen raving about her food but instead raving about Irma.  So the very idea that Irma would embark, could embark, on writing a cookbook, as just a sort-of-okay meal maker, was a great surprise to everyone who knew her. But none of that mattered. Irma had a plan in mind that was going to turn her kitchen from dull to delicious.

One of the groups Irma belonged to was The Wednesday Club where women gathered to discuss intellectually stimulating topics. Photo courtesy of wednesdayclubstlouis.org

Because she was so well connected and knew a lot of people in her community, Irma started collecting recipes from her friends and their families. Recipes that were proven hand-me-downs, time-honored and beloved. Once gathered, she went home and tested each recipe herself… adapting, tweaking, altering and omitting along the way if needed. When a satisfactory bundle of approved recipes emerged that suited her taste, she organized them into book form, named it The Joy of Cooking: A Compilation of Reliable Recipes with a Casual Culinary Chat and had 3,000 copies printed up by a local print shop. Tah-dah, the Joy of Cooking was born.

Irma mailed out copies of the cookbook from home and handled publicity and sales campaigns herself, enthusiastically spreading the joy of Joy.  The rest is cooking history. Bobbs-Merrill picked up professional publishing of the book in 1936 with the debut of the second edition. Irma became a trusted authority known for her reliable recipes and engaging writing style.  And the book went on to sell 18 million copies across eight updated editions. Covering everything from how to skin a squirrel to how to make a souffle, Joy of Cooking raised a nation of home cooks (18 million of them!) by assuming nothing, teaching everything and finding the joy.

All the editions of Joy of Cooking through the years and a photo of Irma and her daughter Marion, who worked on many of the cookbooks.

That is a wonderful contribution to the American food scene. At a time when women could have felt marginalized by their roles as domestic cooks, Irma made cooking exciting and delicious and easily attainable. Her cookbooks turned into confidence and that confidence radiated into all other aspects of life.  Rumor has it that a new addition is scheduled for publication in 2019, edited and updated by the  Rombauer family, who have faithfully handled the cookbook and its revisions since Irma’s death in 1962.  Thanks to Irma’s children and her grandchildren, they have made the Joy of Cooking a record holder as the oldest cookbook in history that is still maintained by one family.  A legacy that hopefully will keep Irma in our kitchens for another 80 years.

Cheers to the Rombauer family and to Irma, in particular, who would have celebrated her 141st birthday today, and cheers to always finding the joy in both good times and bad.

Looking for your own vintage edition of Joy Of Cooking? Find two ediions currently available in the shop – one from 1967 here and one from 1975 here. And if you missed the previous blog post, catch up with a recipe for Irma’s Plum Cake Cockaigne here.

Plum Perfect for Fall: A Joy-Filled Dessert Recipe from 1964

Over on Instagram the other day, I posted this photo above of the first Fall-themed dessert to come out of the Vintage Kitchen oven. It’s called Plum Cake Cockaigne and is from the 1964 edition of one of the most popular cookbooks in American history – Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer.

Also over on Instagram, I learned something new recently about cooking blogs and recipe finders. It seems not everyone wants to scroll through a whole entire story in order to get a recipe, so I’m trying something new with this post – recipe at the top,  story at the bottom. You guys let me know how you prefer this new layout.  Time always seems to be so short during these last few months of the year, so if this makes your life (and your cooking experience!) easier please let me know by comment or message and I’ll adjust as you prefer.

Plum Cake Cockaigne

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon double-acting baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons sugar (I used brown sugar)

1 1/2 to 3 tablespoons butter (I used 3)

1 egg

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Milk

3-4 cups thinly sliced plums, skin-on (about 5 plums)

1 cup sugar (I used brown sugar)

2 teaspoons cinnamon

3 tablespoons melted butter

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl, sift the flour. Add the baking powder, salt, and sugar to the flour and re-sift.

Add the butter (Note: The juicer your plums, the less butter you need to add. My plums weren’t excessively juicy so I used the full 3 tablespoons of butter), mashing it up in the flour mixture with a fork, until the entire mixture looks crumb-like.

In a measuring cup, add the egg, vanilla, and enough milk to equal a 1/2 cup of liquid (this was about 1/4 cup milk in my case). Whisk together until these three ingredients are combined.

Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture and stir until a stiff dough forms. Spread the dough mixture evenly on the bottom of your pan or baking dish and then set aside. (Note: Irma recommended a 9×9 x 2 1/2 inch pan but I used a round 10″ inch x 2″ inch baking dish and that worked great as well).

Next, thinly slice your plums so that you will have enough to overlap each one in your pan – tart style and then arrange them on top of the dough. This is the fun, creative part! You can make many different types of designs with your plums if you like.

In a small bowl, combine the sugar, cinnamon and melted butter and then sprinkle the mixture on top of the plums.

Bake in the oven for about 25 minutes until the top is bubbly and brown.

Our plum cake was so bubbly I couldn’t help but take a little video of it as it was coming out of the oven!

I recommend letting the whole thing cool before slicing and serving it if you prefer to plate it in wedge-shaped slices.  Since the top layer carmelizes it is easier to slice when it is in a  cooler, more solidified state.  If you’d rather eat it warm, right out of the oven,  simply scoop it into a bowl and enjoy. Serve it on its own, with a dollop of whip cream or a bit of vanilla ice cream and taste the season unfold in all its cinnamon sugar splendor.

What is really fun about this dessert is that it is like two sweet treats combined into one – half tart and half cake. Because there is only one cup of flour and one egg, the cake part is very thin and the fruit arrangement on top is very much like a tart, so this turns out to be a light and less filling alternative to two traditional desserts yet retains all the lovely flavor of both. Plums don’t get as much attention in the Fall as apples and pumpkins in the baking department, but they are still in season until the end of October, so they make a lovely unexpected seasonal dessert.

That’s Irma on the left and her daughter, Marion on the right. 

Plum Cake Cockaigne (pronounced caw-cane) was a favorite recipe in the Rombauer household. The word cockaigne was a term of endearment in the cookbook and was tacked onto various recipes throughout the Joy of Cooking as a way to signify the absolute personal favorite recipes of the Rombauer clan. Derived from old French, cockaigne literally refers to a mythical land of plentiful luxury, comfort, and peace. Such a dreamy notion of an ideal paradise was so charming to the Rombauers it was also the name they chose for their country estate.  How fun!

The 1964 edition of the Joy of Cooking came out two years after Irma died, the first edition to be edited, revised and enhanced by Irma’s daughter, Marion and Marion’s husband, John. Not without its own dramas, this edition needed all the cockaigne it could get. The first printing of the 1964 edition was published without Marion’s final approval, which meant that various inconsistencies and typos were present. This drove Marion crazy, as she wanted to really honor her mother’s work and keep up with the trusted reputation that the Joy brand had accumulated over 30 years since its debut in 1931. So the 1964 edition went through several reprints in order to right all the wrongs that Marion doggedly corrected herself. You get a sense of the enormous responsibility and weight of the legacy that Marion felt surrounding the whole Joy endeavor from her dedication at the beginning of the book…

The edition that is available in the shop is the 1967 printing of the 1964 edition, the one that Marion was finally satisfied with. All of this devising and revising is a real testament to the dedication of the Rombauer family. One that started with Irma way back in the 1930’s and still continues through present family generations today.

Irma’s launch into cooking stardom is a fabulous story, one that we’ll discuss later on in the month as we celebrate her birthday on October 30th. For a woman who wasn’t known for cooking skills when she first started writing a cookbook, she certainly has proven her abilities time and again over the past 80 years. Stay tuned on that front.

In the meantime, there are a couple of weeks left to enjoy plum season. Hope you “fall” in love with this recipe as much we did!

Find the cookbook in the shop here and a link to our Instagram account here if you’d like to keep up with daily doses from the Vintage Kitchen.

Cheers and happy baking!