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!

 

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…

 

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!

Luther Burbank, The Reliable Russet and Everyone’s Favorite Way to Eat A French Fry {1970’s Style}

They come with names that sound like 1970’s rock bands… Bodega Red, Arran Victory, British Queen, Golden Wonder, Bellarosa.  Or like types of prize-winning chickens… German Butterball, Champion, Adirondack Red, Tyson.  Some even sound like certain breeds of dairy cows… Shetland Black, Royal Jersey, Blue Bell, Annabelle, Cream of the Crop.

But today we are not talking about chickens or cows or headliner music. Instead,  today we are talking about potatoes. All those names previously discussed are specific types of one of the most consumed foods on the planet- the noble and nourishing potato.  With more than 5,000 varieties in the world, you might think that it would be hard for one lone potato type to stand out in his vast tuber family of brown, round, knobby eyed dirt dwellers.  But there is actually one big-time celebrity in the batch – a spotlight stealer known around the world –  a superstar of the food and restaurant scene that represents the most frequently consumed potato on the planet.

It is my pleasure to present the story of the wondersously addictive potato variety known as the Burbank Russet. Haven’t heard of it, you say? Ah, but just you wait…you’ll know it. Maybe not by backstory but definitely by bite.

On Friday, it was National French Fry Day and we celebrated with a homemade batch of Russet potato french fries in honor of the guy who created them. Meet Luther Burbank, 19th-century American botanist extraordinaire…

Luther grew up in Massachusetts in the 1850’s playing with seed balls in his mother’s garden instead of playing with sports balls in his farm neighborhood. His interest in botany from the time he was a youngster fueled his curiosity for plant cultivation, a field of study that would eventually turn into a lifelong career. Throughout his childhood and into early adulthood, Luther tinkered around with seed starting and plant breeding.  Although it was a laboriously slow process, most often times ending up in disappointment, Luther came by this area of study naturally. His mother also shared his interest in gardening and the two of them would happily spend hours working in the garden, talking about the life stages of various plants.

The plant world was a playground to Luther, something that represented creativity and freedom from set rules and rigid disciplines. He had aspirations to one day have his own farm in California where he would grow vegetables and flowers for the retail market and try his hand at growing new breeds of plant life. In his early 20’s, he started experimenting with potatoes.  But developing a new variety wasn’t as easy as you might think.  Potatoes are peculiar things. They can be regenerated in two ways – through seeds or eyes. Either method produces similar results or slightly different results in the form of mutations or sports each time off-spring are generated.  It is difficult to determine at the onslaught of a growing project how the potatoes will turn out at the end of the project. More often than not the experimentation stage for Luther in trying to cultivate a new variety was long and finicky.

If you have never seen how a potato grows, this is a good illustration. Plant above the ground and lots of potatoes nestled together below ground. Image from the 1893 L.L.May & Company Seed Catalog featuring Northern Potatoes.

But in 1873 gratification came, finally, to Luther’s ruddy, soil-covered hands. One day in his 24th year, Luther went out into the field to dig his latest sample crop, half expecting to uncover the same old story of growing the exact same plant he started out trying not to grow. But this time, something was different.  Instead of digging up an ordinary round potato, Luther pulled a tuber out of the ground that was twice as big and twice as long. It was reddish-brown in color and hefty in weight. A totally different specimen than the parent potatoes he had started this most recent batch with.  Success at last! His first genuinely original new potato had emerged.

He christened this new masterpiece the Burbank Russet and immediately sold it for $125. Was that enough money for Luther to retire early to his California dream farmhouse and garden? Not quite yet, but that’s not important to this story.  Money never mattered to Luther, only the science that stood behind it. He made a new potato and that was pretty motivating stuff to keep his heart in the game and his hands in the soil.

Luther’s Burbank Russet was an exciting and innovative new addition to the agricultural market for its time because of its size. Almost twice as large as typical potatoes of that era, it also boasted an adaptable consistency (good for baking, mashing and frying) and was more disease resistant to common blights that affected many potato crops around the world. But after it was introduced in the late 1800’s, it took some time for the Burbank Russet to catch on. The US government initially started farming it in Oregon and from there it slowly spread to neighboring states and then the region and then the rest of the country.   Eventually, it became the best-loved potato cultivator in the US.

Russet potato farmers in 1940’s Idaho.

Farmers loved it because it was easy to grow and held up well in both shipping and storage. Once it became a successful and abundant crop, the food industry got on board. Its size, consistency and cooking adaptability made it an ideal food product for both general household consumers as well as commercial food companies and restaurants.

Although the actual cooking process of making French fries – cutting strips of potatoes and frying them in fat – had been around in France and Belgium since the 1700’s, it wasn’t until a valuable American discovery was made in the 1930’s that fries started to take hold as an American food staple. This important discovery was that french fries froze well and could be reheated easily while still maintaining the same shape, taste and texture.  In the early days of refrigeration, this was exciting!  This mere fact opened up opportunities for the retail, transportation and restaurant industries as french fries could now be shipped around the country in both frozen and fresh forms.

A midcentury newspaper ad for McDonald’s french fries.

By the time hamburger stands started popping up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, french fries became a main attraction at the drive-in burger stand as well as the family dinner table.

A vintage frozen french fry ad from the 1960’s. Photo courtesy of itsjustoldpaper on Etsy.

The novelty of enjoying french fries both at home and at restaurants offered plenty of potential in the form of culinary creativity.   In mid-century America, the common condiments for them were simple… ketchup (or catsup, however you prefer!) and salt.

A 1955 advertisement for French Fries featuring Hunt’s catsup.

But by the 1970’s, these little potato favorites were garnering more international gourmet attention. Common toppings and condiment companions of the disco-era included the following…

…paprika, cracked black pepper, parmesan cheese, malt vinegar, crushed herbs, ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard,  salt and a special mayonnaise/mustard mixed combo variation. In addition to frying, it also became much more commonplace, especially in the latter decades of the 20th century, to oven bake freshly cut fries. This method of cooking was believed to be a “healthier” version since it involved less oil and a  tamer cooking experience (no vats of hot fat to contend with!) as opposed to traditional deep-fry methods.

Because a lot of people tend to think it is easier to go to a fast food restaurant and buy a serving or two of fries or grab a box of frozen ones from the grocery store, we made the oven-baked variation for this post to prove how simple, quick and easy it is to take a fresh potato and turn it into a delicious hot french fry  in less than 30 minutes. This recipe comes from the Joy of Cooking (1975 edition) cookbook and was a breeze to make. Literally, it took 5 minutes to prepare and 20 minutes to bake,  which makes it a fast side dish for your summer burgers.

Oven “French-Fried” Potatoes (serves 1-2)

1 large russet potato (scrubbed)

1/8 cup olive oil

A generous sprinkling of sea salt

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Slice potatoes lengthwise into long  1/4″ sticks (you can do this by hand or by using the julienne setting on your vegetable slicer. Either way try to keep each stick as uniform as possible to ensure even baking. Lay the freshly cut sticks between a couple layers of paper towels and pat dry to remove extra moisture, then spread sticks out on an ungreased baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil.

Using your hands, toss the potatoes and oil together so that all sticks are coated and spread them back out in the pan as flat as possible.

Bake in the oven for 10 minutes. Then remove from the oven and flip the fries over and  return back to the oven for an additional 8-10 minutes.  They should look something like this when they are ready…

Remove fries from the baking pan onto a paper towel-lined plate. Sprinkle with salt and pepper (or any of your favorite spices) and serve immediately.

Inspired by the 1970’s list of approved condiments, I kept thinking while writing this post how fun it would be to have a french fry bar party where guests could pick and choose their own toppings from a wide assortment. So many flavors pair well with potatoes, so the possibilities would be endless as far as dips and dredges, sprinkles and submersibles. The one element of homemade french fries that should always remain constant though is the potato – always use russet potatoes. They are the variety of choice in almost every fast food french fry you’ll ever eat – including McDonald’s whose fries are legendary. And besides, you’ll make Luther happy,  using his version over any other!

Luther never lived to see the ultimate french fry-loving success of his humble potato breed, although he did live a fulfilling gardening life up until the time of his death in the mid-1920’s. He did acquire that dream farm in California that he always wanted…

Luther Burbank’s house as it looked in the 1920’s
Now in 2018, his house is a city park and garden that is open to the public.
Luther Burbank House and Garden, 200 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa, CA

And he built a garden where invented new varieties of fruits and flowers and vegetables. We have Luther to thank for cultivating these beauties…

Clockwise from top left: The Plumcot – a mix between plums and apricots, the Fire Poppy, the July Elberta Peach, the Spineless Cactus and the Shasta Daisy

So while he never did see his potatoes bubbling up in oil at the golden arches,  he did see his lifelong passion laid out in the golden hour light of each day into night. Satisfaction was never going to be found in fame or fortune when it came to Luther Burbank. He didn’t care about either of those two things. His happiness lived deep within the dirt – a vast canvas of potential fueled by creativity and curiosity that never ceased to inspire him.

Cheers to Luther for inventing one of the most delicious potatoes in the world. And cheers to all the farmers who keep growing the russets. May they continue to add a bit of indulgence to our diets and serve as a basis for inspiration in our culinary endeavors.

Find out more about Luther and his Santa Rosa, CA garden park here.  Find the vintage Joy of Cooking cookbook in the shop here. 

If you guys have any favorite toppings or condiments that you prefer on your french fries please post them in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!

A Mare-gerita Affair: Happy Derby de Mayo Day!

It’s twice the fun… Happy Cinco de Mayo and Happy Kentucky Derby Day! Our busy week of posts winds up today with the table decorations for our Derby De Mayo party. On Tuesday,  we got out our vintage cookbook and planned our menu…

On Wednesday, we pulled out our dishes and planned our table settings…

On Thursday, we posted the story of Adelaida Cuellar, the inspiration (and the vintage recipe supplier!) behind this year’s party…

On Friday, we posted fun facts for this year’s Derby, picked our winners….

and made a second batch of Carne Mexicano and Ranchero Sauce for today’s party…

And for the final bit of merry-making, this morning we made our table decorations for our burrito stations and cocktail bar…

 

Our signature cocktail of the day is a traditional margarita with a touch of mint and a new name… the Mare-gerita complete with our sombrero-ed host…

Our final activity was making papel picado banners (traditional Mexican paper bunting) to adorn our make-your-own burrito station…

Mexican paper banner bunting, also known as Papel Picado

Needless to say it was a very fun and busy week. And now its time to celebrate. Thanks for following along all week. We hope your Derby parties and/or Cinco de Mayo celebrations are the best ones yet!

Cheers to a safe race and festive celebrations!

Adelaida from Mexico & Her Lasting Impact on America {Plus Two of Her Recipes!}

Adelaida Cuellar photographed in 1901 with three of her children. photo courtesy of D Magazine.

In 1892, two young lovers crossed the border from Mexico into the United States and got married in Texas. They spoke no English but were very fluent in the language of love. They were dreamers yearning for better opportunities then their home country could provide, and they were determined to work hard to create a beautiful life that would bring them all  they desired.

The newlywed years of Macurio and Adelaida Cuellar led them through a myriad of jobs on ranches around the Texas countryside. For five years they moved about before they settled down in Kaufman, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, where Macurio started sharecropping and Adelaida started a family. As the seasons passed, their family grew, eventually producing twelve babies.

This is an unidentified farm photo from the Cuellar collection. It may have been the farm where Adelaida and Macurio raised their family. If not, it gives an interesting perspective on what farm life looks like in Texas during the time Adelaida and Macurio lived and worked there.  Image courtesy of the University of North Texas Digital library.

Ranch and farm work weren’t the most profitable of jobs, so Adelaida took a stall at the Kaufman County Fairgrounds in 1926 selling two things…  chili and tamales. It was her hope that her homemade recipes, so loved by her family, would bring in a little extra income to help support her children.  To her surprise, the food stand was an instant success.  The profits she made from her entrepreneurial endeavor were much larger than farm or ranch work earnings, so Adelaida kept at it, turning her stall into a tidy little family business.  Some of her children helped her cook while others formed a family band playing Mexican music to entertain the eaters.

During the 1920’s, Tex-Mex cuisine was a new style of cooking that combined traditional recipes from Mexico and Spain but with toned down spice factors which were more appealing to American palates. Adelaida’s chili and tamales debuted at just the right time – exotic enough for adventurous eaters and flavorful enough without being too spicy to dissuade repeat business. With every taste of tamale and every cup of chili, Adelaida’s reputation for preparing delicious Mexican food began growing.

Adelaida’s Cafe – simply called Cuellar Cafe – opened in  1928.  Image courtesy of the University of North Texas Digital library.

In her mid-fifties, Adelaida opened her own restaurant which did well until the Great Depression hit and she was forced to close due to the terrible economy.  Each of her grown boys inspired by their mother’s own entrepreneurial spirit opened their own independent Mexican restaurants in different cities throughout Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana using the recipes that Adelaida made for them growing up.

Each of the sons, enamored with cooking just like their mom, quickly realized there was something missing from their independent ventures… family love and support. From the beginning, in the county fairground days, the Cuellar family was successful at the tamale and chili stand because they all worked together towards one common goal. But now the family was spread over many cities, and their restaurants couldn’t be as successful because they all weren’t working together.

This is one of the original porcelain neon signs from the first El Chico restaurant in Dallas. It’s now for sale on ebay here.

So in 1940, five of the brothers banded together to form one restaurant in Dallas, which they named El Chico. The entire family and extended family worked there together, each bringing their own unique talents.

Opening night of El Chico featured a Mariachi band to entertain the crowd. Image courtesy of the University of North Texas Digital library.

Everyone who worked at the restaurant was fluent in Adelaida’s style of perfection when it came to selecting quality ingredients and blending the spice mixtures in the correct way, so the food was authentic and consistent, which kept customers coming back. And the Cuellar family was proud of what they were accomplishing.  At the heart of their restaurant lay the heart of Adelaida and all that she stood for.  Her children wanted to extend that same level of love and devotion with all who dined at El Chico.

A popular dining place indeed! This photo was taken in 1945. Image courtesy of the University of North Texas Digital library.

Just like Adelaida’s chili and tamale stand, El Chico became phenomenally successful, making the Cuellar family and the El Chico brand one of the greatest American success stories. They went on to open more than 40 restaurants throughout the country, built a successful packaged food division for the retail market, and offered franchise opportunities for budding entrepreneurs. By the 1970s, they were the largest full-service Mexican food company in the world. They cooked for United States presidents at the White House, for princess Grace Kelly at her palace in Monaco and entertained movie stars like John Wayne in Dallas. The family stayed together through all these years and all this growth, never veering from what they knew – good food taught to them by Adelaida.

A Cuellar family portrait with Adelaida and Macurio in the front row center. Image courtesy of the University of North Texas Digital library.

Adelaida passed away in 1969 at the age of 97, not before experiencing the overwhelming success of her family and seeing how her humble tamale and chili stand at the Kaufman County fairgrounds grew into a multi-million dollar corporation over the course of forty years. The Cuellar children credit both their mom and their dad with teaching them about the value of working hard (and quickly) toward their goals and the importance of taking chances.

In 1970, El Chico published a small, spiral bound cookbook of some of the family recipes that they used in the restaurant, along with some others collected from their travels. Hailed as one of the most authentic Tex-Mex cookbooks ever published, it’s now a hard-to-find treasure.  It is in fact, so special and represents such an importantand  integral part of the ethnic American food landscape, that it’s held in special collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. We are also very pleased to offer a copy in the kitchen shop. 

Since Cinco de Mayo is coming up this Saturday, on the same day as the Kentucky Derby, we thought it would fun to highlight two vintage recipes from the El Chico cookbook to ring in the festivities. A general crowdpleaser with a ton of creative toppings, these recipes are fun party foods so whether you are celebrating Mexico or Kentucky, or both this weekend, there will be something edible for everyone.

On the menu it’s El Chico’s Homemade Beef Burritos & Ranchera Sauce. Both are really easy to make. You’ll have the whole thing whipped up in under 30 minutes. Each recipe features fresh ingredients with generous amounts of spices, so you can skip buying the taco seasoning packages and the taco sauce at the grocery store. There’s plenty of flavor between the two recipes.  In addition to ground beef, you could also incorporate ground pork, turkey or chicken if you wanted to offer multiple variations.

What’s especially great about the Carne Mexicano recipe is that it includes vinegar which gives it a little bit of tang and de-greases the pan all at once so you don’t need a thickening agent like cornstarch or flour which is included in most commercial taco seasoning packets. As with many vintage recipes, we cut down the salt by 2/3rds, so we recommend starting with our measurement first and adding more to taste if you feel it needs it.

Carne Mexicano for Burritos

2 lbs. ground beef (we used grass-fed beef)

2 tablespoons chili powder

2 tablespoons paprika

2 tablespoons salt (we used only 2 teaspoons)

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 cup vinegar

1/4 cup chopped onion

In a cast-iron pan over medium-high heat brown the beef and onions until cooked through. Add the spices and cook for 1-2 more minutes. Add the vinegar, scraping the bottom of the pan to deglaze it. Remove from heat and serve immediately or store mixture in a covered dish and keep warm until ready to serve.

El Chico’s Ranchero Sauce (A La Caballero)

2 cups fresh chopped tomatoes

1/4 cup chopped onions

1/4 cup chopped hot green peppers (we used serrano peppers)

2 tablespoons shortening (we used olive oil)

Salt and Pepper to taste

Saute the onions and peppers in shortening (or olive oil). When the onions are translucent add the tomatoes and simmer over a low fire for five minutes.  Serve it immediately or at room temperature.

Obviously, the hotter your peppers, the spicer your sauce is going to be. This recipe makes about 1/2 cup of sauce so if you are cooking for a crowd you might want to double or triple the recipe. We used serrano peppers which were quite hot so a little bit spooned on top of your Carne Mexicano goes a long way!

There are so many topping options when it comes to burritos, so your creativity can really shine here based on your preferences.  El Chico suggested that their burritos include only cheese, refried beans, Carne Mexicana and the Ranchero Sauce. But we added a bunch of our favorite toppings too which included sour cream, spring lettuce, red onion, mango, tomato, cilantro, avocado and lime juice.  Other possibilities re guacamole, green olives, rice, etc etc. The sky is the limit. Can your burrito ever really have too much stuff?

Coming up tomorrow on the blog, we’ll be sharing our picks for the Kentucky Derby winner, as well as our table decorations for the Derby Party, which tie together both the Mexican theme and the horse theme. If you are planning a party for either event, we’d love to hear how you are celebrating.

In the meantime, cheers to Adelaida and the Cuellar family for sharing their long-time favorite family recipes with all of us. We will definitely be sending a toast their way on Saturday!

Explore more information about the El Chico cookbook here. And learn more about the restaurant chain, still in operation, here.