Bacon, Montana & The Family Pie Crust: It’s Tradition Time!

If you are looking for a fun dessert to make for Easter dinner or you are heading out to someone else’s house for the holiday and want to bring something new (but old) along, we recommend the little known but amazingly delicious Rhubarb Custard Pie.  It has been an Easter tradition in my family since the 1960’s when my mom first started making it with the help of her husband’s grandfather’s homemade pie crust recipe and Betty Crocker’s 1950 Picture Cookbook.

Rhubarb in its natural state.

Rhubarb is one of those quirky vegetables. Some people call it pink celery. Understandably, it really does resemble the green hued variety with its long stalks and tufted green leaves. But rhubarb is actually part of the buckwheat family and celery is part of the parsnip family so their similarities end at face value.  Unlike the subtle soapy taste of celery, rhubarb is tart like a Granny Smith apple and more spongey in texture than a crisp stalk of celery. It’s ideal baking consistency is soft like a ripe pear with a bright white interior and a pale pink exterior. The general rule of thumb when it comes to selecting rhubarb for purchase is the firmer and redder the stalk the tarter the taste.  Ideally, you want something in-between – slightly spongy to the touch and a 40/60 ratio of stalks ranging from deep red to pale pink for dynamic flavor.

Two important factors go into making this pie a repeat favorite year after year – the filling and the pie crust.  Most people (and pie recipes) pair rhubarb with fresh strawberries, which is a good Spring combo since both are usually in season at the same time.  Sometimes though, these two put together can result in a watery pie which makes the crust soggy and each bite extra drippy. The secret addition to the rhubarb custard pie is the eggs. They act like a binder holding everything in place, so that you get all the sweet-tart taste of the filling without the thin and liquidy consistency. Betty Crocker’s 1950’s version is easy to prepare and always delicious.

The second important factor to this pie (and to all pies, really) is the homemade pie crust. It only takes about 10 minutes and four ingredients to make no-fail pie dough and it cooks beautifully and consistently every time.  Passed down through the generations, this recipe is so good it has been in active use in my family for almost 100 years thanks to this guy who taught everyone how to make it in the very beginning…

Bacon & Dolly Day in Montana circa 1950’s/1960’s

Meet Bacon Day and his wife Dolly. Bacon (yes, that’s his real name!) first moved to Montana in the 1920’s where he married his bride, Dolly, in Missoula and went straight to work in the rural mining town of Gold Creek, as the train depot clerk for Northern Pacific Railroad. The railroad was so eager to have Bacon join the team, that they gave he and Dolly two railcars to live in and set up homekeeping. Bacon was originally from St. Paul and Dolly from Seattle, so this railroad life was a whole new and exciting adventure for the newlyweds.

1930’s Northern Railroad travel poster

We don’t have any pictures of Dolly and Bacon in their rail car housing but we can imagine that it looked something like these two (now serving as luxury hotel accommodations in Montana)…

Or maybe it looked something like the rail car library built in 1926 that serviced the reading needs of Montana’s lumberjack and logging communities…

Library rail car built in 1926 to serve the literature names of logging camps in early 20th century Montana. Read more about the library car here.

Either way, it must have been a pretty unusual first home for Bacon and Dolly, and a pretty unusual life for two people new to a state that was not quite yet developed. 1920’s Montana wasn’t for the timid or the faint of heart.  Interesting but also tumultuous, it was stunning in topography, erratic in business opportunity, progressive in gender equality and rebellious when it came to law and decorum. Especially when it came to train life.

Northern Pacfic Railroad Advertising 1910-1920’s

When the railroad companies first started building tracks out west with the ultimate goal of connecting the East coast to the West coast, Montana was marketed to new settlers as a land of stunning beauty and abundant farming opportunities. Homesteaders came from the East coast with intentions of building farms, raising livestock and growing food for commerce. But when these newcomers arrived they experienced a climate far different then what they knew back home. The winters were longer, the temperatures were colder, the open prairies were vast and resources were scarce forcing everyone to be immediately self-reliant. By the early 1900’s, livestock brought in from the East (mostly cows) had arrived in such excess they depleted the natural prairie grasses and upset the delicate balance of the natural eco-system, basically reducing the landscape to bare patches. Add-in an almost decade-long drought that occurred in the 1920’s, and the typography of Montana came to look more like a dessert of death than a lush and verdant valley of promise that all the postcards had been promoting..

Butte, Montana postcard from the 1920’s

The rail companies wanted to keep tourism and homesteading moving through the state though, so they would pay local homesteaders $1000 to grow the most attractive crop they could manage from the poor soil and then took those displays back East to show people how wonderful the agriculture was in Montana.

Montana Homestead Poster

This unscrupulous marketing ploy worked, and new settlers came by the train-full to start a fresh life in green and growing Montana. Only when they got they got off the train, they could see the landscape was devasted and the dry soil virtually unmanageable.  Bacon, in his train depot office, would have been witness to all the excitement and disappointment that came through his station, especially when he worked in Gold Creek which was known for its gold mining potential.

Eventually, all this agriculture business got sorted out once the rains came and residents were properly educated on how and what to grow in this new environment. Montana began to thrive once again. Leaving Gold Creek, Dolly and Bacon moved on to settle into another rural rail town, Phillipsburg, where Bacon worked as a train conductor on a transportation line for livestock and mining equipment.

Now an abandoned track, these are recent photos of the train line running through Phillipsburg with views that Dolly and Bacon would have seen on a daily basis.  Photos courtesy of D & D Travel.

From their wedding forward, Bacon and Dolly lived in Montana and loved it. Dolly often wrote poems about the natural beauty of her surroundings. They both mastered baking – Bacon with his pies and Dolly with her bread. Stories have been passed down that tell of breakfast at their house – often fresh caught trout and a homemade loaf of bread, served possibly with a slice of pie. For over 55 years, these two watched the growth and evolution of their marriage,  their state, their family and their landscape all from the vantage point of the railroad tracks that ran through their lives and their hearts.

In some future posts, there will be more stories about Dolly and Bacon and their wild Montana life, but in the meantime, we have a holiday to celebrate and a pie to bake so it’s back to the rhubarb custard.

I recommend preparing the filling first. It can sit off to the side for a little bit while you make your pie crust.

Betty Crocker’s Rhubarb Custard Pie Filling

Makes enough filling for one 9″ inch pie

3 eggs

2 2/3 tablespoons milk

2 cups sugar  (I use cane sugar)

4 tablespoons flour

3/4 tsp. nutmeg

4 cups chopped fresh rhubarb (about 8-10 long stalks)

1 tablespoon butter

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Wash, dry and cut the rhubarb into small bite-size pieces.

In a medium mixing bowl, beat 3 eggs slightly. Add the milk and then mix again before adding the sugar, flour and nutmeg.

Toss in the rhubarb and mix thoroughly. Then set aside while you make the pie crust.

Great-Grandpa Bacon’s Fool-Proof Pie Crust

2 cups flour

1/2 tsp salt

3/4 cup butter or shortening ( I always use butter)

1/2 cup ice cold water

1/8 cup milk (reserved until the end)

In a bowl, mix the flour and salt. Roughly chop the butter and add to the flour mixture. With a fork press the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles course meal. If its easier, you can also do this quickly using your hands – jus don’t crumble the butter so much that it starts to melt from your body heat.

Once the butter is mixed in, add the ice-cold water (the colder the water the better). Mix until the dough clumps together and you can easily form a crumbly yet cohesive ball.

Place the dough on a lightly floured pastry cloth, board or marble slab and cut in half with a sharp knife. Place one half of the dough ball off to the side. Roll out the remaining half of the dough with a wooden roller that has been dusted with flour. If you don’t have a wooden rolling pin you can use a wine bottle, or a cylindrical jar or vase (if you use either make sure to dust it with flour). Roll the dough out as much as possible without tearing it. Makes sure it is big enough to accommodate your pie dish. Once the dough is the right size, gently fold the dough in half on the cloth.

Line the crease of the fold line up with the center of your pie dish and gently lay the crust (still folded) down so that it covers just one side of your dish, then unfold the other half to cover the other half of the dish.  There should be excess dough hanging off the sides of the dish. It should like this…

Pour the rhubarb mixture into the pie dish and set aside.

Next, in the same fashion as before, roll out the other half of the dough ball. In order to make a basket weave design for the top crust, you’ll need a sharp knife to cut strips of dough.

Place the first strip of dough vertically on the pie and the second strip of dough horizontally so that it forms a cross. Next weave the remaining strips in an over-under pattern, alternating each slice as you go.

Next, cut away the excess dough along the sides, leaving a collar of about 1 inch of extra dough all the way around the rim.  Pinch the edges of the top and bottom crust together.

When finished dot the exposed holes with the remaining tablespoon of butter and brush the top crust lightly with milk.

Bake for 50-60 minutes until the crust is golden brown and the rhubarb custard is bubbling. Let cool on a wire rack before serving. This pie is very versatile in the presentation department –  serve it warm, cold or at room temperature.

Like pecan pie it is pretty sweet as it is, so you don’t need to add whipped cream or ice cream. Its ideal companion is a hot cup of coffee. And no one would look twice if you wanted to enjoy a slice for breakfast. Sometimes that’s the best time of day for a little decadence. If he was still alive, Bacon would be right there with you, enjoying a plate of breakfast trout.

If you get a chance to try this recipe, please let us know how you liked it. And if you have any questions on how to make your pie crust please comment below and we’ll get right back to you.

In the meantime, cheers to all the recipes that turn into traditions and cheers to Bacon and Dolly for always being a part of our most delicious holiday celebrations.

Katharine’s Norah’s Cousin’s Irish Soda Bread: From the Kitchen of the Hepburn Household

If you’ve been a long-time reader of the blog, you’ll know what big fans we are of Katharine Hepburn.  Last Fall, we made her famous Lace Cookies. The ones that were in constant request at both her city house and her country house, so much so, that extra batches were kept on hand either freshly baked or on standby in the freezer. Was Katharine always the one baking away? Sometimes. But mostly it was Norah, Katharine’s longtime personal cook, domestic helper and treasured friend.

Norah Considine. Photo from the book At Home With Kate.

Norah Considine worked for Kate for 30 years, day in and day out, making the kind of food that Katharine loved best – simple, hearty and well-balanced. Sometimes though Norah would sneak-in her own recipes, a combination of food from her Irish heritage and dishes that she made up on the fly to feed her five kids. With guests continuously coming and going from the Turtle Bay city townhouse and from Fenwick, the Hepburn family compound in Connecticut, mealtimes were always eventful and Norah was always up to the task to make them as delicious as possble. Cooking for everyone with equal aplomb, making meals that were thoughtfully prepared and proven to please, Norah was accustomed to feeding an ever-evolving crowd that ranged from household staff to famous celebrities. In turn, she became a little bit famous herself, with returning guests regularly requesting her rum cake, or her beef stew, or her creamed chipped beef on toast.

Katharine Hepburn’s townhouse in the Turtle Bay neighborhood of NYC

Even though Kate liked to run a tight ship, she was generous with her friends and her staff. Every year on St. Patrick’s Day, Kate would leave New York City and head to Fenwick, so that Norah could have the townhouse to herself to entertain her friends and family for St. Patrick’s Day. This party was no small gathering, sometimes counting over 100 people or more.  But no matter what the attendance numbers were, large or small,  Kate always wanted Norah to be the star of the show for her special event, so she’d graciously leave in order to give Norah the run of the place.

For a change, Norah would cook for herself and her friends, and she would relax into the traditional celebrations of her heritage day.  At these parties, you didn’t always know who was going to be attending – friends and family flew in, drove in and walked over from all corners of the city, the country, and the world. There were homemade costumes and contests, musicians and dancers and tables full of traditional food and drinks. One of the edibles Norah always made for these parties was her cousin’s Irish Soda Bread, a recipe that traveled all the way from Ireland.

This was the soda bread recipe that was legendary in Norah’s family and in Katharine’s house. It has fed hundreds of people throughout hundreds of parties and like, Kate’s Lace Cookies, it represents wonderful memories and extraordinary experiences.  Not bad for a humble bread born out of lean economic times.  With a consistency somewhere between a fluffy cake and a crumbly cornbread, Norah’s cousin’s Irish Soda Bread is a decadent little treat both sweet and hearty in a satisfyingly nourishing way. One slice makes you understand how it fortified a country for two and half centuries.

Although technically, not really Irish in origin (the Native Americans were the first to come up with the general idea), Ireland has been proclaiming soda bread a national staple since the 1830’s. Because it contains no yeast, an expensive ingredient in times past, soda bread gets its bulk from baking soda which chemically raises the dough when combined with flour and any acidic property like sour milk, buttermilk, or in Norah’s case, sour cream.  Some people even add a touch of orange juice or lemon rind to their soda bread for an extra dose of certainty that the chemical reaction will yield a tall and fluffy loaf.

That are lots of variations on the traditional soda bread recipe, but Norah’s is interesting because it includes caraway seeds and sour cream and just a little bit more butter. Super fast and easy to put together, this recipe only takes about 15 minutes to prepare and bakes to a crunchy, golden brown within an hour. Norah recommended enjoying it warm, just minutes out of the oven, or if you want to wait a bit,  let it cool to room temperature and toast it with a little butter right before you are ready to serve it. The one drawback of Irish soda bread is that it dries out quickly – so if you are not going to serve it the day you make it, then it is best to freeze it and reheat it when the occasion arises.

Not as hard as biscotti and not as dense as cornbread, Irish soda bread lands somewhere in the middle as far as form. It pairs beautifully with any salty meat like ham, sausage or brisket for a savory-sweet combo, and would be marvelous with a soft creamy-textured cheese like Brie or goat cheese.  In an adventurous mood, we might even top a toasted slice with cream cheese and bacon and kale for an interesting brunch option or serve it alongside baked apples or a chopped salad of pear and fig.  In the next couple of months, we’ll be experimenting with Norah’s soda bread recipe, trying out some different food pairings. Once we’ve determined our favorites, we’ll post them here on the blog.

In the meantime, we encourage you to try this delicious holiday bread and look forward to hearing your thoughts on it.

Norah’s Cousin’s Irish Soda Bread

4 cups unbleached flour, plus more for dusting

4 teaspoons baking powder

1 cup granulated sugar

2 cups raisins

4 teaspoons caraway seeds

4 eggs

1 pint sour cream (2 cups)

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/2 sticks, salted butter, plus more for pan

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a large mixing bowl combine the flour, baking powder, sugar, raisins and caraway seeds.

Roughly chop the butter into the flour mixture and combine to the point that the mixture looks like coarse meal. You can do this with the tines of a fork, a wooden spoon or your own two hands. Set aside.

In a small bowl combine the sour cream, eggs and baking soda.

Mix well and then slowly add the liquid mixture to the dry ingredients…

Mix until combined and until the bread is no longer sticky. You might need to add as much as 1/4 cup extra flour to this process, but be careful not to overmix the dough.

Ideally, you want the dough to be just smooth enough so that you can pick up in your fingers and transfer it to a lightly floured cutting board without it sticking to your hands.

On the board, shape the dough and then transfer it to a greased 2-quart baking pan. Keep in mind – the dough expands to fit its baking container and then rises – so if are using something other than a 2-quart dish – just be aware that it will grow in size.

Bake for 1 hour. Cool on a wire rack for a few minutes before removing from the pan and slicing.

However you choose to spend St. Patrick’s Day, whether it be at a big house party like Norah’s, or at a simple celebratory supper for a few (much more Kate Hepburn style) we hope you have a wonderful holiday full of good food, good friends, and good spirits!

Cheers to Kate and to Norah and to Norah’s cousin, whose family recipe has traveled across countries and continents and kitchens and time. Happy St. Patrick’s Day with much love from In The Vintage Kitchen.

That’s Norah (wearing the polka dot blouse) in the midst of her St. Patrick’s Day merrymaking.

Four Little-Known Faces Behind One Big American Icon: The Building of Betty Crocker

97 years ago one of the most famous women in the world was born. She wasn’t a movie star or a political figure or an artistic phenomenon. She wasn’t an athlete or a poet or a musician nor a doctor or a scientist or a spiritualist.  She didn’t even have a face in the beginning – she was just a voice and a pretty, handwritten signature. She called herself Betty and when she signed her name she wrote it out completely… Betty Crocker.

In the 1920’s, Betty came alive as a spokesperson for the Washburn-Crosby Company, a Minnesota-based milling factory that rose to fame for their Gold Medal flour brand.  Betty signed off on letters written into the company asking for baking advice which in turn naturally led to general household advice, quickly establishing herself as an authoritarian presence on all domestic issues.

By the 1930’s, Betty became even more familiar to Americans as her voice was launched into households across the country via the radio. With her program, Gold Medal Home Service Talks (which would eventually be called the Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air) she discussed various culinary tasks like how to make husband’s favorite dinner or how to whip up homemade lemon pie for 15 people. Here’s a clip from a holiday episode where she features sweet treats that the whole family will enjoy…

Because of her wise words, handwritten signature, and engaging radio personality, everybody believed in Betty. They formed a deep attachment to her as a real champion of the cause for good housekeeping and enjoyable cooking endeavors.

By 1945, Betty became the second most recognized woman in the world trailing just behind Eleanor Roosevelt, and when the  1950’s and 1960’s rolled around Betty was a regular face on television, hosting cooking shows, appearing in commercials and making guest appearances.  To millions of Americans, Betty was a real-life person just like them.

Only she wasn’t.

It was true that in the very beginning Betty was nothing more than a figment of the imagination. A creative marketing concoction whipped up by a Washburn-Crosby executive in order to sell some flour. But behind Betty’s make-believe identity stood some very remarkable real-life women who helped build an authentic character. It was their efforts and their abilities that made Betty the national treasure she became.

Back in the early hand-written signature days, Betty replied to various questions about cracked cake tops, burnt pie crusts, and budget-friendly meal planning.  The real-life woman doling out solutions on behalf of Betty was Marjorie Husted Cumming, the company’s field rep in home economics. Marjorie established the original writing voice of Betty Crocker… the tone, the phrasing, the kind counsel that made readers feel like Betty truly understood their needs.

Marjorie Husted Child (1892-1986)

Marjorie studied education in college, so she knew how to teach people. She worked as a Red Cross nurse during WWI so she knew how to treat people with an appropriate amount of kindness and compassion and she had experience in business working for a well-known pasta brand before she went to work at Washburn-Crosby, so she knew how to talk to industry consumers.  It was the trifecta of the three T’s – teach, treat and talk – all of which Marjorie creatively instilled in Betty, so that when questions were answered via mail about cracked cake tops it sounded as if Betty herself had experienced a similar issue and had just figured out a crafty yet easy solution to the problem. Soon so many letters with so many questions were coming in daily, Marjorie had to set up a staff of employees to tackle all the correspondence.  America was smitten.

When Betty spoke on the radio, her voice was at first, Marjorie’s voice. But Marjorie had a lot to do – managing the correspondence staff, writing the radio scripts and training workers in Betty’s style of communication. So company home economist and recipe tester Agnes White Tizard stepped in to portray Betty on air and stayed there for 20 years.

Agnes White Tizard portrayed the on-air voice of Betty Crocker for 20 years.

In 1936, celebrated illustrator Neysa McMein gave Betty her first-time face…

The first portrait of Betty Crocker was achieved by combining features of female employees working for General Mills at the time the portrait was commissioned.

From the very beginning, it was decided that Betty was going to be an everywoman – a typical reflection of the values and traditions held in regard by most American women. Betty was friendly and helpful. She was a comforting and reassuring presence in the kitchen and a trusted role model with attainable skills that all women could assimilate if they followed her lead. In order to achieve this everywoman persona visually, Neysa studied the faces of the female employees working at Washburn-Crosby’s newly renamed corporation, General Mills. Combining their features just like you would combine ingredients in a cake, Neysa adapted a little bit of this skin color, a little bit of that eye shape, a pinch of this hairstyle and a smidge of that cheekbone, etc, etc. until the “official” first portrait of Betty Crocker emerged.

Ironically, as the artist commissioned to paint Betty’s portrait, Neysa McMein, was anything but typical. She lived a life far removed from the traditional role that most women possessed in the early years of the 20th century.

She was a bohemian in all ways – changing her name from the practical Marjorie Frances to the exotic Neysa, attending art school,  establishing a sought-after creative career, traveling internationally in support of war efforts and women’s rights, developing friendships that swam in prominent literary circles, and  participating in an open marriage with lovers on the side that included Irving Berlin and Charlie Chaplin.

Samplings of Neysa’s cover art for various women’s magazines.

Neysa was a lively conversationalist, a natural gatherer of people and a free spirit known for hosting fun parties with an eclectic mix of guests in her art studio. She was also one of the most well-regarded female illustrators of her generation, working prolifically for her entire career. Neysa was an “it” girl in the art world while Betty was an “it ” girl on the home front. Together the two made an indelible mark.

For 19 years Neysa’s depiction of Betty loomed large over the General Mills brand and was the image that came to mind when people around the world discussed their culinary pal, Betty Crocker. Outliving Neysa by six years, Betty’s image didn’t get an update until 1955 when she was modified by artist Hilda Grossman Taylor (1891-1967)  to reflect the style, attitude and values of a typical mid-century woman…

This was Betty’s official 1955 portrait. Note that her eye color has changed from brown to blue here – a color that would remain with Betty for all her successive portraits up until the latest one in 1996 where her eye color becomes brown again.

But by the time this new image of Betty was introduced, more people knew the face of Adelaide Hawley Cumming than Betty’s updated portrait. Adelaide played television Betty in commercials, featured guests appearances and as a cooking show host from 1949-1964. Here is Adelaide as Betty in a 1950’s cake mix commercial…

Adelaide came from the Vaudeville singing scene and was a popular radio show host before she became the on-screen presence of Betty Crocker. For 15 years, General Mills kept Adelaide and Betty busy, introducing special cooking segments on popular nighttime comedy shows as well as hosting her own cooking programs, The Betty Crocker Show, Bride and Groom and Betty Crocker Star Matinee.

Adelaide Hawley Cumming (1905-1998)

Originally inspired to be an opera singer, Adelaide worked in broadcasting for 35 years focusing particularly on stories surrounding women’s issues and strong female figures of history. Like Marjorie, Neysa and Agnes, Adelaide was an educated career woman who championed female empowerment and education. After she was let go from General Mills in the mid-1960’s, considered no longer a sophisticated enough image to portray Betty, Adelaide went back to school to teach English as a Second Language and continued that career path up until just days before her death at the age of 93.

What is interesting about these four women and their formation of the character that became the famous Betty Crocker, is that they were all incredible, independent role models in their own right before they had a chance to make their mark on an indelible kitchen icon. By the time the opportunity of building Betty came about, their seasoned professionalism enabled them to mold this fictitious character of Betty Crocker just like a wise mentor guides a young protegee. By securing a valid connection between Betty Crocker and her customers they managed a relationship that lived not only through their present generations but then continued into our present generation today. That’s pretty spectacular!

None of these four women were the typical stay-at-home example of happy housewife and perfect domesticity that Betty represented. They were all career women reaching their own dreams and aspirations independent from family, home and husbands. Marjorie and Agnes added their real-life sense of competence and confidence to the voice of Betty, Neysa lent her glamour and sophistication and Adelaide brought professionalism, conviviality, and validity to a spokesperson who could have easily felt outdated as the years progressed.  Betty herself may have been a fantasy but she was built by real people for real products. In the 1940s, when rumors first started to spread that Betty wasn’t a real person, some people felt hoodwinked by the Betty Crocker brand, but most people didn’t care. They loved Betty for what she represented and for the undisputed help she gave them in the kitchen. It’s not important that Betty wasn’t real.  She was raised by real women and that’s really all that matters.

Cheers to our four ladies, Marjorie, Agnes, Neysa and Adelaide for their efforts in building one of the most prolific brands in the history of the American food industry. And to Betty, who continues what these women started.

Betty Crocker – through the years…beginning in the top left corner with Neysa’s portrait  – 1936, 1955, 1965, 1969. Bottom left…1972, 1980, 1986 and 1996.

Interested in learning more about the recipes of Betty Crocker? Find some of her vintage cookbooks, like this one here, in the shop

The 1972 Edition of Betty Crocker’s world famous Picture Cook Book published in 1950.

Whimsical Winter Baking: Russian Tea Cake Snowmen

Russian Tea Cakes… those dense little snowy bundles of sweet confectionary sugar, butter, flour, and nuts is a classic Christmas cookie that has been a staple in our holiday baking since I was a little kid. One of the most simple of cookies to make, it has other aliases as well…Mexican Wedding Cakes, Rolling in the Snow, Holy Rollers and the plain Jane, practical name… Pecan Balls.

The history behind these guys is muddy but a popular theory is that they originated in Europe as a tea time snack (hence their name Russian Tea Cakes) and migrated to Mexico with European nuns where they became a popular cookie served at weddings (Mexican Wedding Cakes!).  A friend who grew up in Canada knew them as Rolling in the Snow cookies (how very fun!) and at a church-sponsored flea market in the South, I once saw them advertised as Holy Rollers on the food and beverage table. That could have been someone’s clever name made up just for that day, so I’m not sure if this one has actual traction, but it does pay homage to the nun theory anyway.  And of course, for all the literal lovers out there, the Pecan Ball needs no explanation as to how that name came about since indeed these cookies are ball-shaped and can contain pecans.

Traditionally they look something like this…

and can contain any nuts you like – pecans, walnuts, peanuts, pistachios, macademia, etc. My mom always used walnuts and favored the recipe from the Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book printed in 1950…

so that became my family tradition as an adult too. Some other recipes include additional ingredients of cinnamon or loose tea, lavender or lemon zest but Betty Crocker’s version is the one we like best.

Russian Tea Cakes

1 cup soft butter

1/2 cup sifted confectioner’s sugar (plus additional following baking)

1 tsp. vanilla

2 1/4 cups sifted flour (Betty recommended Gold Medal flour back in the day)

1/4 tsp. sal

3/4 cup finely chopped nuts

Mix butter sugar and vanilla together in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Sift flour and salt together and mix into butter. Stir in nuts and then cover the bowl with plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for about 20-30 minutes. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Remove dough from fridge and roll into 1″ inch balls* using your hands. Place 2.5 inches apart on an ungreased baking sheet and bake until set but not brown (between 10-12 minutes).**  While still warm roll in confectioner’s sugar. Cool and then roll in sugar once again.

* To make snowmen: You will need to form three balls per snowman ranging in size from big (base) medium (middle) small (head). Roll each ball in your hand to shape it into a typical snowball shape and then flatten the big and medium balls on the top and bottom with your hand so that that they will sit on top of each other without rolling off. The smallest ball (the head) should only be flattened on the bottom (so that your snowman will have a round head on top). The snowmen pictured here are three inches in height, so use your judgment when shaping as far as ball sizing. If you want to make bigger snowmen, baking times will need to be extended.

** If you are making snowmen –  Bake all the big bottom base snowballs together on one sheet and then the medium and small balls on another sheet since the smaller balls usually take 1-2 minutes less baking time then the big balls. Your snowball sizes will look something like this…

After you’ve baked and sugared all your cookies, now you are ready for the fun part of decorating. This is what I had on hand in the “props” department…

Orange rinds for the scarf and nose, black peppercorns for the eyes and rosemary branches for the arms. To make the scarf and nose just take a vegetable peeler and peel about 3 inches of rind in one long continues piece. Trim with a sharp paring knife to your desired scarf thickness and curl the rind around your fingers to shape it like a scarf (once the rind dries out it will hold the shape perfectly). Wedge the scarf into the section where the head meets the body.

Press the peppercorns into the head gently. They will stick on their own (this step might take a couple of attempts!).

Cut a thin long triangle out of your excess orange rind (to mimic the shape of a carrot)  and gently press into the head where the nose should be. The orange rind will stick to the cookie on its own but might take a couple of attempts too.

Cut rosemary branches to size and poke into each side of the middle ball.

And now your snowman has come to life! Just like the ones you make in your yard, each one will have his own little personality depending on how you style it. The sky is the limit when it comes to decorating your guy so feel free to get creative if you want to make a hat, a jacket or a corncob pipe. Additional mounds of powdered sugar help set the stage for a little wintertime scene, day or night…

Hope this project adds a little fun to your day! Cheers to a winter wonderland from the sweetest little snowmen in the Vintage Kitchen!

Katharine Hepburn’s Lace Cookies

 

Red meat, big salads, tea, butterscotch pudding, ice cream, meatloaf, homemade cookies… those were some of Katharine Hepburn’s most favorite foods. Whether she was staying at her Turtle Bay residence in mid-town Manhattan or at her family’s compound in Old Saybrook,  Connecticut, Katharine liked most entertaining people at home with a homecooked meal.

Kate in her natural element… cleaning up the kitchen of her Connecticut waterfront home, Fenwick,  and dining outdoors in the courtyard of her Manhattan townhouse.

If you were lucky enough to be invited to dinner at either of Katharine Hepburn’s houses, you’d arrive promptly at 6:00pm and leave by 8:00pm so that she could be in bed by 8:15pm. A notorious early riser, Katharine lived by her own clock, bustling through the hours of her day with an admirable endurance that lasted her entire life.

But needless to say, even the most energetic of crusaders experiences a point in each day when blood sugar runs low and a brief rest is welcomed. For Lady Kate that small break in her schedule came at tea-time, her most favorite part of the afternoon, which she’d serve in antique teacups collected from her travels around the world. The saucers hardly ever matched the cups, the handles were sometimes repaired in one or two spots and there might be a chip in the rim, but none of that mattered. They were perfectly lovely serving pieces for a perfectly lovely time of day.

These are some of Katharine Hepburn’s serving pieces that she collected throughout her ninety-six years of life. In 2010 they were up for auction at Sotheby’s.

“Nice things are meant to be used,” said Kate when it came to living with antiques. The older the item the better it seemed. And because she was sentimental and somewhat thrifty she saw no harm in repairing a broken dish so that it could return to its previously useful state.

Along with a strong batch of freshly brewed tea, she would also always serve a homemade sweet treat believing that dessert tasted better in the afternoon than it did at night after a full meal. One of the dessert recipes she was most well-known for was her Lace Cookies which take their name from their paper-thin constitution and delicate web-like appearance.

This past week, the Vintage Kitchen moved to a new space and like Kate our energy was running on high as we packed and unpacked in a dizzy array of busyness. But now finally that we are settled and the moving boxes have been emptied, our own tea-time has come calling. We don’t get the luxury of having Katharine Hepburn come join us, but at least we have her recipe and a good imagination to make up the rest.  Tracy Lord (The Philadelphia Story), Ethel Thayer (On Golden Pond), Tess Harding (Woman of the Year) … if we could somehow magically invite these Hepburn characters along with Kate this surely would be a tea-time of legend. If you are unfamiliar with Kate’s movies here is a little clip from our most favorite, The Philadelphia Story, where she plays a bride-to-be whose dealing with cold feet and a complicated heart.

When Katharine was on set or on stage she was known to give helpful training and technique suggestions to less-experienced cast members who were struggling with a scene or a role. She was careful never to tell them exactly step-by-step how to get from point A to point B because she thought that would just yield a copycat performance. What she did offer instead was advice and recommendations that would help shape the parameters of a character or the foundations of a scene so that actors could confidently put their own personality into the performance. In essence, she offered helpful broad strokes and left the details up to the individual to interpret. The same can be said for her recipe sharing.

The first thing you’ll notice about her cookie recipe is how simple it is.  But we all know simple things can sometimes turn out to be most complicated. Kate’s approach to acting was often described as enigmatic, precise, contagious, controlling, all-consuming, accommodating and effortless. Her lace cookies share all those same attributes. They were absolutely delicious but they can be a little finicky, so before you whip up your own batch please note the following bits of advice from the Vintage Kitchen.

  •  Do not use anything bigger than a teaspoon to drop your dough onto the cookie sheet. (We first made tablespoon sized cookies, thinking the bigger the better,  and once heated up in the oven each separate cookie  spread out to meet up with the others and form one giant cookie that covered the entire baking sheet and never fully cooked.)
  • A disposable foil cookie sheet works better than a metal non-stick cookie sheet because of the raised perforations in the disposable sheet design.
  • Don”t forget to grease your cookie sheet in-between each batch or the cookies will stick like glue to the pan.
  • It’s best to serve these within 30 minutes after they’ve come out of the oven.  That’s when they are crispy like a potato chip. Over an extended amount of time, they relax to a more limp and chewy state (although still delicious!)

Also, Kate made her cookies with finely chopped walnuts, but we used roughly chopped peanuts because we thought the cookies would stack in a more whimsical way for the photograph. We were right – rough chopping adds a little more volume to the stack. So depending on your preference, nuts and chopping style these cookies call for a little of your own creativity as well, just like Kate would have encouraged.

 

Katharine Hepburn’s Lace Cookies

1/4 cup butter, softened

1 egg, room temperature

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1/3 cup raw sugar

2/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1 1/3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 cup finely chopped walnuts (or roughly chopped peanuts or any nut of your preference)

Beat butter, egg, and vanilla together until smooth. Add sugars and flor to egg mixture, mix thoroughly. Stir in nuts. Drop dough by teaspoonfuls on greased baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 7-8 minutes. Cool on baking sheet. Makes about 30 cookies.

With a consistency like very thin peanut brittle and a taste like toffee, these cookies are delicate coasters of caramelized sweetness. And because they contain so little flour, they are a crisp and light dessert alternative to something dense and gooey. Keep in mind, they don’t travel well because of their fragile nature, so these treats are best enjoyed at home with friends and family and a late afternoon pot of tea just like Kate would’ve have done.

Cheers to Kate for her delicious recipe and to finding a little sweet respite in your busy schedule!

* This post was originally intended to appear as part of the Spencer Tracy & Katharine Hepburn blogathon hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Unfortunately, our move interrupted our ability to participate, but you can still catch up on all the fun posts featuring the great Kate here.

 

On This Day in 1930: A Behemoth Was Born

On this day – August 4th, 1930 –  a giant marvel of a masterpiece was unveiled on Jamaica Avenue in Queens, New York. It involved a big building, a big parking lot and a plethora of products that extended far beyond what anyone could have imagined before. Aptly named King Kullen, it was King Kong-ish in size and scope and quickly took over an industry in a way only a behemoth of a good idea could.  It was the birth of the super market – the very first large space grocery store that contained not only food items but also hardware, paint, automotive, cosmetics, shoe shine, kitchenware, confectionery and drug departments all under one roof.

Michael J. Cullen (1884-1936)

The brainchild of grocery store employee, Michael Cullen (who spent half of his adult career working at The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company and then grocery retailer, Kroger) imagined a better, larger, less expensive shopping experience that would cut grocery prices in half for the customer and allow more space for the store to sell bulk items in mass quantity. Essentially it is the same concept that our modern American grocery stores still follow to this day.

Before Michael and his big-brained idea came along, people grocery shopped in small pocket stores like this one photographed in the 1920s…

These independent stores definitely filled a need and were vital businesses to the community but they were also very limiting and not very private. Space was an issue for the store owners which meant that many items had to be special ordered for customers on a need-by-need basis,  extending the shopping transaction by days or sometimes even weeks.  Service was also an issue as items were frequently stored up high or behind counters making it necessary for grocery employees to gather specifically what was needed.

This one-on-one buying model may have helped develop customer relationships but it also created lengthy wait times for other shoppers while each order was filled.  Speculation and gossip seeped into the buying process too as the whole store could see (and hear!) what everyone was buying. Combined with the fact that meat was purchased from the butcher, bread from the baker, fish from the fish monger and specialty cans and shelf stable items from the grocery, meant that the whole shopping experience could take hours out of the day.

Refrigerators of the late 1920’s provided enough storage to stock foods for up to a week.

Michael took note of all these clunky patterns, accessed the growing rise of refrigerators popping up in American homes and started jotting down ideas for something easier and faster involving less commotion and less expense. While he flushed out his thoughts he was still working at Kroger. He brought up his ideas to his boss who didn’t give Michael’s thoughts any merit. So Michael left Kroger and opened King Kullen Grocery Company independently months later. Michael knew he had a great idea – the right concept at the right time. He had worked in the grocery business for 28 years at that point, long enough to see where the consumer experience needed improvement and how profits could be made.

By building a bigger store in a bigger space, King Kullen initiated the self-serve shopping concept where all products were in easy reach of the customer with a large quantity of the same item available. So you could zip in and out of the store much more quickly. No more waiting, no more special ordering, no more gossip.

King Kullen also eliminated the idea of credit registry systems, another time sucker, by only dealing with cash transactions. And they axed the local delivery system which for small, independent grocers meant additional employees and additional expense. Combining all these elements – bigger store, easy to reach items, large selection of product and a faster payment system was much more efficient and empowering to shoppers.  Independent groceries were old-fashioned and pokey where King Kullen, in 1930,  was up to the minute modern.

And then there was the significant pricing system. Upon opening, King Kullen boasted that they could reduce your average grocery bill by 10-50% which during the Great Depression years was a major attraction for struggling wage-earners. By offering everything from house paint to ham (the “super” market concept)  under one roof, King Kullen became a one-stop shop. You can see the price difference between Kroger in the 1920’s and King Kullen in the 1930’s in these advertisements…

Late 1920’s Kroger grocery advertisement on the left, 1933 King Kullen Advertisement on the right

Some of the significant savings included:

  • Tea –   $0.29 per 1/2lb at Kroger vs. $0.39/per 1lb at King Kullen
  • Boiled Ham – $0.33/lb at Kroger vs. $0.21/lb at King Kullen
  • Catsup – $0.15/bottle at Kroger vs. $0.10/bottle at King Kullen
  • Whole Chicken – $0.33/lb vs. $0.19/lb at King Kullen
  • Beans – 4 cans for $0.23 at Kroger vs. 6 cans for $0.25 at King Kullen

Finally, by providing a large parking lot able to accommodate a vast amount of cars, King Cullen changed how people shopped. Families went together, some traveling up to 100 miles away from home so they could fill their car with foodstuffs and stock their shelves for a lengthier period of time. The super market also hosted all sorts of product events and giveaways making each shopping trip to King Kullen unexpected and engaging. It was a seamless, adventuresome outing, easy to navigate and fun to participate in.

King Kullen caught like wildfire in the hearts of the American public. Thousands flocked to the new Jamaica Avenue store on opening day, leading a trend that other grocery stores (like Michael’s previous employer, Kroger) noted and then soon replicated. Throughout the 1930’s store after store opened under the King Kullen brand. Unfortunately in 1936 tragedy struck when Michael died just six years after debuting his first Jamaica Avenue store from complications following an appendectomy.

With the help of his wife and his sons, Michael’s legacy and the King Kullen brand continued to thrive. Today there are 32 King Kullen grocery stores still in operation, proving that Michael was a true visionary. The motto of the brand from the beginning was “We are here to stay and to please the public.”  Eighty-seven years later and still going strong, they have definitely accomplished their mission and in doing so affected change across the entire grocery industry.

Just listed in the shop this week is a cookbook published in 1955 celebrating the 25th anniversary of the supermarket. Titled the Silver Jubilee, it contains over 500 pages of recipes utilizing ingredients easily found at King Kullen-sized stores.

It is hard to imagine this being a novelty cookbook now but if you think about having to stop at 5-7 different food stores to pick up ingredients for one recipe you can understand how enormous this concept really was between the 1930’s – 1950’s. We take so much for granted now in the form of food buying and what we expect from the process. The Silver Jubilee really helps us understand the marvel behind the modern just like Michael helped us experience the efficiency behind the industry.

Cheers to Michael and his revolutionary idea and a happy birthday to King Kullen!

Later this month we will be featuring a few recipes from the Silver Jubilee cookbook in our first ever cross country cook-a-thon. Stay tuned for that!  In the meantime, find the celebratory Super Market Cook Book in the shop here.

Mabel in the Market: The Search for a 1920s Doughnut Shop

Somewhere between the 1920’s and the 1930’s my great-grandmother Mabel had a doughnut shop in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. This has been family lore for generations but like other interesting tidbits that lurk around the ancestry closet… a New York City Rockette, an indentured servant, a lost family fortune… there isn’t a lot of information or validation to support this entrepreneurial endeavor. But in a couple of weeks I hope to change all that.

Mabel grew up in Iowa, the youngest child of an 11 member family.  She trained to be a teacher in the rural country schools surrounding her hometown…

Mabel, aged 18 pictured in her teacher’s attire about 1905

But once she met and eventually married William Earle she gave up the teaching profession all together.

Mabel’s Wedding Portrait taken in November 1907, and a photograph of William Earle, unknown date

Earl, as she called him, was a salesman for the National Biscuit Company but he suffered from some sort of health issue that was bothered by the heat of the Iowa summers. So a few years following the birth of their only child, Phillip, they packed up and headed west in a 1917 Model T Ford towards the cool climate of Seattle.

All three of them – Mabel, Earle and Phillip, plus their belongings traveled half the width of the U.S. (over 1800 miles) in this car – the  1917 Model T Ford.

This was 1922 and my grandfather Phillip remembers sitting in the back of the Model T on top of bed rolls and tents, squished between pots and pans and spare tires. It took them 8 weeks to get to Seattle where they eventually settled into the Capitol Hill neighborhood overlooking downtown. William Earle went to work as a foreman at a biscuit cookie factory.  Presumably this would be the time period that Mabel also went to work – in her doughnut shop in the bustling big city market. By 1940 Mabel and Earle would say goodbye to the city sweet treat businesses of factory and farm market to take on country life once again in a move out to the far suburbs to pursue dairy farming. That put an end to the doughnuts at least in the professional sense.

Mabel’s poem to her granddaughter on her 5th birthday written in 1947.

Mabel was a very creative lady – a clever writer, a sketch artist and a baker. We have a few of her recipes in the family cookbooks but no mention of any prized doughnuts and no mention of any experiences running a business at Pike Place Market, which makes for an interesting little mystery.

Depression era photo of Pike Place Market chicken vendors. Photo courtesy of pauldorpat.com and the Seattle Public Library.

 

What must have it been like to be a  female entrepreneur in the early decades of the 20th century? Especially as a newcomer in a much bigger, more metropolitan city and with no professional experience to bolster her confidence? How did a country school teacher become a city doughnut maker? What made her start and ultimately what made her stop? Did she do it by herself or have a partner? How big was her space? What did it look like? What were her hours and how many doughnuts did she make in a day? And maybe most importantly, why doughnuts?!

Pike Place Market first opened in 1907 and quickly became a cross-cultural beehive of people and products offering everything from fresh fish to flowers, art to textiles and practically everything inbetween.  You can feel the excitement in this 1914 ad from the Seattle Star as the market gained momentum…

Advertisement from The Seattle Star April 17, 1914. Photo courtesy of

By the 1930’s, when Mabel was making doughnuts, the market was bursting and bustling with success and sales. There was a sizzle in the air of possibility and potential that must have felt catching and all-consuming. When I head out to Seattle in the middle of June I hope to answer all the questions raised about Mabel and her doughnut endeavor. I hope to be able to walk in her shoes for a time and learn more about what must have been one of the most interesting and intriguing periods of her life. Perhaps a doughnut recipe or two will even be discovered!

Stay tuned for more on this front as I report directly from the Market mid-month. In the meantime, cheers to mysterious Mabel and her doughnuts. Happy National Doughnut Day!