An Interview of Botanical Interests in Cooking and Cuba By Way of Miami

Now that the days are getting longer and the temperatures warmer, it seems like everyone’s fingers are itchy for a little bit of gardening these days. This week, I’m happy to present a special botanical post to satisfy all the green thumbs out there.  In the kitchen, our around-the-world culinary escapades take us to Cuba, where we are making Santiago Pork Roast, a slow food recipe that takes two days to prepare from start to finish.

And in this post, you’ll also meet one of our blog readers, Jorge J. Zaldivar, a Cuban-American farmer who is dedicated to preserving Florida’s horticultural history in Miami via food and fruit. Welcome to Week 11 of the International Vintage Recipe Tour 2020!

That’s Jorge on the left and Chef Daniel Boulud on the right!

There are quite a few readers of the blog who live in Florida and enjoy gardening and adventuring around their state. I’m hoping this post in particular will offer some new insight into their favorite hobbies. Jorge is a font of knowledge when it comes to botanicals and is anxious to share all that he has learned in regards to horticulture, cooking and connecting with others in this tropical landscape.

In addition to being involved in the farming of heirloom guava varieties, Jorge is deeply connected to promoting the tropical fruit community of South Florida in so many interesting facets. He operates PG Tropicals (creators of locally sourced artisanal products including tropical fruit jams and jellies), writes a food blog called Sub-Tropic Cookery which features the recipes and botanical adventures of vintage cookbook author Alex D. Hawkes (1927-1977), and previously sat on the board of the Rare Fruit Council International (RFCI) headquartered in Miami and the South Florida Palm Society (SFPS). I caught up with him to discuss his Cuban heritage, his passion for plants and his inherent interest in food history. He also recommends some of his most favorite places to visit in Miami and shares a few Cuban themed eateries in his town that all newcomers to South Florida must check out. Let’s see where he takes us…

In The Vintage Kitchen: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

My name is Jorge J. Zaldivar, I was born in Miami, Florida to two parents from Cuba’s Oriente province. Cuba had six provinces prior to the communist regime reapportioning and dividing everything. My mother’s side is from Manzanillo, the birthplace of el Son, one of the island’s most important musical genres.

A vintage map of Cuba circa 1947
No other country has originated a greater number of musical styles and genres than Cuba, this is due to the melange of interesting cultures, particularly African and their rhythms. My father’s side is from Banes, Cuba where the U.S. Airforce U-2 airplane was shot down in 1962. I currently live in Miami-Dade County and travel between home and the farm which is just North of the Florida Keys in Homestead’s Redland.
Redland, located at the entrance to the Everglades is South Florida’s farm country. It’s known for its red clay soil and unique agricultural products that do not grow anywhere else in the United States. Photo by Jorge J. Zaldivar
Tell us a little bit about your Recipes Lost blog. What inspired it and what attracted you to the culinary explorations of Alex Hawkes?

While collecting cookbooks and hunting for Caribbean recipes, not only did I discover Time Life’s Foods of the WorldThe New York Times Int’l. Cookbook and various other titles, I found Alex D. Hawkes’, A World of Vegetable Cookery (1968). I noticed in the flap that Hawkes was from Coconut Grove, my very same zip code in fact. I made it my mission to learn about his story which has resulted in researching and writing his biography which is laden with stories and recipes from my hometown, many botanically inclined and filled with wonderful anecdotes.

American botanist and cookbook author Alex Hawkes (1927-1977) worked extensively throughout his life in the study of tropical horticulture including that of orchids, palm trees and bromeliads. He also traveled frequently around the Caribbean islands collecting authentic recipes. Photo courtesy of Sub-tropic Cookery.

His other titles are highly recommended such as his books on Rum (1972), Shrimp (1966), Caribbean and Latin America flavors (1977) and his coveted South Florida Cookery (1964). The Sub-Tropic Cookery blog was my dedication to Alex D. Hawkes and some of his recipes, this was done via my Recipes Lost project.

As a fellow Craig Claiborne fan, what do you like about his recipes and/or his approach to cooking?

Craig Claiborne (1920-2000) – longtime Food Editor at the New York Times and the inspiration behind the International Vintage Recipe Tour

As a cookbook collector the goal was to try and put a finger on this guy with loads of books and a New York Times column. Hawkes is more of my personal Claiborne but the two did meet and speak for an interview. He was mentioned in Craig Claiborne’s: A Feast Made for Laughter.

the-new-york-times-international-cook-book
The vintage 1971 cookbook that launched the International Vintage Recipe Tour.

In the end what I like most is how important the NYT Cookbook became. Of all his books the NYT Int’l Cook Book is my favorite aside from the work he did with Pierre Franey for Time Life’s Foods of the World. I have not pursued their books together as much as I should have. There’s always time for 60-Minute Gourmet and the many evolving themes of cookery.

It’s wonderfully fascinating that you are a part of the Rare Fruit Council International in Miami. How you are involved there? How did your interest in rare fruit come about?

I have served on the Board of the Rare Fruit Council Int’l. (RFCI) in Miami. As I began studying our history I fell in love with the story and am getting documents ready to formalize an archive for the Council. By becoming the official Historian it will allow members to notice that these documents are not just historical and sitting here. I intend to help spread awareness of the RFCI’s efforts to promote rare tropical fruits in this region and to put all this wonderful information to good use again.

I discovered the RFCI when I found their famous Tropical Fruit Cookbook, the rest is history. I am also the 2020 President of the South Florida Palm Society (SFPS) and Member of the Tropical Fruit & Vegetable Society of Redland (TFVSR) at the Fruit & Spice Park.

Tell us a little bit about PG Tropicals. Do you make all the preserves yourself? What inspires you about it? 

PG Tropicals is the partner that purveys fruit from Guavonia Guava Grove in Homestead’s Redland Agricultural Area. All of the preserves are made in small batches, generally to order which are purveyed to a portfolio of dedicated chefs and artisans committed to the same ideals I believe in. As we say “Keeping it local”, which comes with other benefits such as lowering our carbon footprints and positively affecting our community.

PG Tropicals’ platter of sliced fresh guava and Redland Guava marmalade

What is your most favorite tropical fruit and why?

This is as difficult as the infamous “What’s your favorite mango?” question. The reason I neglect answering this question is because the seasonality of fruit allows most divine fruits to shine at the proper time of the year. It’s just perfect in design right? Just imagine, it’s the peak of winter and you have had a great year sampling plenty of longan, lychee, sugar apple, guanabana, mamey, abiu, and plenty more to boot.

Tropical fruit display at Redland’s Fruit & Spice Park

When you haven’t tasted mango for some months and you find a bag in the deep freeze, victory. When your taste buds catch a glimpse of that flavor and your mouth lights up that’s when you notice how special each fruit is, and how mango although not the best, is certainly in a class of its own when you experience that taste again. I find it difficult to choose just one. I am also fascinated at how the fruit is seasonal, not all plants are ever bearing. It shows us some patience.

Did you study botany/agriculture in school or did you explore these fields of interest on your own?

I studied Elementary Education at Florida International University, I also DJed on the student radio station and had a quite successful classic 1970s disco / dance radio program. I am lucky to have grown up in a family that always had plants everywhere, whether the nursery they operated pre-Hurricane Andrew (1992), and our yards.

Under the palm trees in Miami, FL. Photo by Matthew Hamilton.
My grandfather left us a considerable number of palms and curious fruit trees. My father loves to grow plantains, sugar cane and citrus. His brother ventured more towards the ethnobotanical route filling in all the loose ends with medicinal plants and herbs in addition to various fruit crops such as mamey, avocado, Bixa (annatto), mango, guava, guanabana, canistel, mammee apple and many more worth exploring and enjoying. In Cuba, my family lost various acres of land which was originally given to my great grandfather for fighting in the war of independence against Spain. As my father has told me, “From here to the end of the block and much more.”

Would you ever consider moving to Cuba? 

I wouldn’t consider moving somewhere that is simply 90 miles, and a boat ride away from lunch or supper. More Americans lived in Cuba pre Castro, or pre revolution as we say. This is known because of the major interests and financial investments U.S. corporations had on their neighboring island. I would not choose to reside in Cuba until they hold democratic elections and acknowledge the nationalization of property that occurred. It is the largest mishandling and misappropriation of U.S. assets in history. As an American I cannot let that go unnoticed. It’s hard to be on one side of the Atlantic Ocean, is what I am trying to say.

How does your Cuban heritage influence your cooking?

I always wonder if Chinese people or other cultures around the world explore “international” food as much as we do here in the United States. What I am trying to describe is that I find it very humbling to imagine that aforementioned Chinese example, cooking traditional food and fare in China, without the need or desire to explore other cuisines. This is what I consider humbling, because these people may not know anything else, yet here in the U.S. where options are plentiful, I along with other cooks are simply trying to emulate the flavors that encapsulates these humble Chinese cooks and many other cultures around the globe.

I am enamored by finding my own Cuban flavor and trying to get it just right, in the eyes of my grandmother and those that have perfected these recipes for us to say, “that tastes Cuban.”I strive for perfecting the flavors of Cuba to ensure that our heritage is not offset by a few distasteful events in our island’s history. 

Photo by Tijana Drndarski

Who first taught you how to cook?

I learned to prepare Pan con Ajo aka Garlic Toast by mashing garlic with a pestle, then olive oil and salt is added to the mortar. This is to be slathered on Cuban bread, which is then optimally toasted. This is the teachings of my parents and grandmother. I recall my abuela’s / grandmother’s first apartment in Miami Beach prior to the cultural wave that took over and transformed it into that hyper busy city it is today. I recall sitting on the counter with her learning to peel garlic.

Tell us a little bit about life in Miami. If one of our readers was to visit the city for the first time, what five places would you recommend that they visit first?

1. Fruit & Spice Park in Homestead’s Redland, Miami’s bucolic countryside to visit the only botanical park in the United States that showcases several hundred species of rare tropical fruits that grow nowhere else in the continental United States. Please say Redland to appease the locals, as Redlands is a city in California! 

Fruit & Spice Park is situated on 37 acres and boasts over 500 varieties of fruits, vegetables, spices, herbs and nuts as well as plant specimens from around the world.

2. Los Pinareños Fruit Stand who has been open for business in Little Havana’s Calle Ocho (8th St.) for over 40 years. Situated directly adjacent to the eternal burning flame dedicated to the Cuban Bay of Pigs 2506 Brigade, on Cuban Memorial Boulevard & Memorial. The proprietors are from Pinar del Rio in Cuba hence the name “Pinareños”. A region famous for their Guayabita del Pinar rum made with guavas, among other things. 

Los Pinarenos. Photo courtesy of progresoweekly.us. Read more about this history of this fascinating market and fruteria here. 

3. Azucar Cuban Ice Cream Co. Since you are already on Calle Ocho (8th St.) drop by Domino Park across the street and get some of Miami’s freshest and most unique flavors of freshly made ice cream.

Azucar Ice Cream Shop. Photo by Sarthak Navjivan

4. The Kampong in Coconut Grove, is open by appointment only. This is the home of Dr. David Fairchild. The foremost food explorer that changed that American palate more than any other individual in modern history.

Facing Biscayne Bay at Dr. Fairchild’s Kampong. Photo by Jorge J. Zaldivar
Photo by Jorge J. Zaldivar

His thousands of plant introductions not only gave Washington D.C. their famous cherry blossoms, but our plates are indebted to his introduction of broccoli, soybeans and countless other staples the American diet simply couldn’t live without. (Drop by Ariete nearby or Chug’s Diner for some Cuban snacks.) 

American botanist, photographer and author Dr. David Fairchild (1869-1964)introduced over 200,000 exotic plants to the United States as well significant agriculture crops to our modern diets including kale, quinoa and avocados.

5. HistoryMiami Museum is certainly worth the visit in Downtown Miami. Go here before everything else, even though it’s last on the list! So it helps you understand the city you are about to explore.

HistoryMiami is Florida’s largest history museum in the state.

Also check out Edible South Florida for the most updated and relevant info to South Florida. They are the only FREE local print magazine available. I am their Goodwill Ambassador and highly recommend scouting out a copy while in town.

For new tropical home gardeners, what three trees, flowers or plants would you most recommend for their gardens?

Carica papaya
Psidium guajava

Plinia jaboticaba

From left to right: Papaya plant (Carica papaya), Guava tree (Psidium guajava), Brazilian tree grape (Plinia jaboticaba)

What is one tropical fruit everyone should know about or experiment with in the kitchen?

The most overlooked fruit by far is fruta bomba, papaya. Botanically Carica papayais one of the fastest growing plants in the tropics. It’s not a tree, just like bananas, which are botanically speaking herbaceous plants. Papaya, aside from being one of the healthiest and best things you can eat, is so versatile that a separate homage is needed.

Antique botanical illustration of Carica papaya by Berthe Hoola van Nooten circa 1863
The leaves can be used for a tea and eaten after being boiled. The seeds add a piquant taste to a salad dressing. The pulp can be made into juice and smoothies. Baked into a delicious Eve’s Pudding or pie. Papain, meat tenderizer is derived from this wonderful plant. Improved cultivars exist in various colors of gold and orange. The fruit is nutrient dense with antioxidants, among the best things one can eat. The ability to use it raw as a vegetable, pickled or in soups is also a fact that makes this much overlooked fruit truly utilitarian.
 

It’s available in most ethnic markets and should certainly be approached by more people in the United States with access to quality fruit. The imported or Florida grown varieties are excellent. A word of note in Cuba many regions call this fruit, fruta bomba (bomb fruit) because the word papaya is actually a vulgar term for female genitalia in some parts of the island. When you cut one open you’ll figure it out. Nonetheless do not fret because botanically the species of the Carica genus is papaya.

Although some people are reluctant to buy papaya because of the smell, it’s a must to try it. This recipe is the most accessible, and the lemon helps mellow it out. This “breakfast papaya” is from none other than Dr. David Fairchild’s files, which we have Alex D. Hawkes to thank. 

If you could only grow one fruit for the rest of your life, which would you select and why?

I cannot answer this question easily. I guess if it had to be my entire life I would choose coconuts, the fruits of the Cocos nucifera palm. That way I can die drinking coconut water. Didn’t think that was coming right?

Coconut Tree. Photo by Kilarov Zaneit.

If you could invite 5 famous people from history, living or dead, to dinner at your house who would you invite?

As silly as this would turn out and the criticism may turn out to be a blunder I would invite for the purpose of my personal story…

The dream dinner party! Clock-wise from top left: Dr. David Fairchild; Ann Seranne and Eileen Gaden; Alex D. Hawkes; William “Bill” Whitman; and Richard D. James.
1. Alex D. Hawkes
2. Dr. David F. Fairchild
3. William F. Whitman
4. Ann Seranne & Eileen Gaden (I know it’s two people but they are a team!) Eileen was the original Food “Blogger” Instagrammer IMO. 

5. Richard D. James (Aphex Twin) maybe he would DJ

Photo by Francesco Gallarotti

 What are two goals you hope to accomplish this year?

I want to continue expanding my rare plant collection, mainly grown from seeds. I also want to take every opportunity I can to lower my carbon footprint in everything I do. Composting, traveling, wastefulness, conserving resources, water management and many more ways to positively impact the planet. 

Photo by Gabriel Jimenez

One thing that I really admire about Jorge is his passionate commitment to understand all aspects of tropical fruit trees and plants, from studying to growing to eating.  Horticulture is such a slow, steady, scientific  pursuit that requires much patience, time and thoughtfulness in order to achieve successful long-term results. It is inspiring to see the ways in which he is bringing information learned from past botanists and recipe collectors forward into the light of our modern day landscape.

Like the growth of a fruit tree, our recipe also requires a bit of time and patience in order to be successful. With just a few basic ingredients, it’s simple to prepare but does require 15 hours from start to finish. Most of the time is spent in marinating (12 hours) in the fridge and then roasting (3-3 1/2 hours) in the oven, so it leaves plenty of opportunity to do other stuff in your life while waiting for dinner to be ready. Maybe in that time, you can start planting the seeds of your own tropical garden:)

The recipe calls for a large roast 6-7 lbs., but you can also easily cut all the ingredients in half, and make a smaller 3lb version if you aren’t feeding as many people during these days of quarantine. Like Thanksgiving turkey, this makes a wonderfully delicious dinner that has all sorts of potential and possibilities when it comes to serving. I’ll talk about that in a minute, but first here’s the recipe, so that you can get to marinating already.

Santiago Pork Roast (serves 8-10)

1 loin of pork (6-7 lbs)
1 large onion, thinly sliced in rings
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
3/4 cup soy sauce
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

2 cloves garlic finely minced

Place the pork loin in a roasting pan or  glass dish and scatter the onion rings over it. Combine the remaining ingredients and stir until the sugar dissolves. Pour this over the meat and cover with plastic wrap (Note:  you can also transfer all the ingredients into a plastic Ziploc bag and marinate it that way, which is what I did). Refrigerate 12 hours or so, turning the meat once in while.

After 12 hours, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Remove the meat from the plastic Ziploc bag (if using) and place in a glass dish or roasting pan.

Bake, basting frequently about 3 and 1/2 hours or until the meat is thoroughly cooked.

(Note: if you are using a smaller cut of meat, you won’t need to bake the roast that long. The general rule of thumb when it comes to pork at this temperature is 20 minutes of cooking time per lb. When it is ready, the internal temperature will read 145 degrees.)

Let rest for about 10 minutes before slicing and serving.

Filled with flavor notes of lime, ginger and garlic, this roast turned out to be wonderfully delicious. The caramelized sugar adds a bit of sweetness to the roasting juices, which makes its own rich sauce for drizzling. The onions, had an unexpected crunch to them and a sweet tangy taste that reminded me a little of pickled vegetables.

Traditional Cuban serving companions with Santiago Pork Roast are black beans and fried plantains. You could also serve it alongside rice, another staple in the Cuban diet. I wound up making sandwiches. Served on rolls, each one was layered with thinly sliced pork, mixed salad greens, mayonnaise, a drizzle of the juice from the pan and a pile of the roasted onions. It was delicious, I forgot to take a photo of them:) If you didn’t want to use rolls, bread works also – ideally, it would be a loaf of Cuban bread. Perhaps you could even follow in Jorge’s footsteps, and make garlic toast, just the way he made it with his grandmother.  Possibilities abound. Culinary creativity awaits! Cuban style pork roast is open to everyone’s interpretations.

A big cheers to Jorge for sharing his slice of tropical paradise with us. Cheers to all the agricultural accomplishments of the botanical gardeners that settled the Sunshine state and made it beautiful. And cheers to vintage Cuba for providing us with a new favorite roast recipe!

To keep up with Jorge, find him on Instagram, Twitter and his blog.

Next week, we’ll officially be one forth of the way through our Recipe Tour, as we hit the three month mark! Join us for Week 12, next Wednesday when we visit Czechoslovakia via the kitchen! In the meantime, keep your chin up and stay healthy please.

To Be or Not to Be: It’s Fondue in Belgium

Oh for the love of cheese already! How many weeks does it take to get yourself all discombobulated in the kitchen? As it turns out that number is five. Welcome to Week Five of the International Vintage Recipe Tour 2020. Last week we were in Barbados dancing around the kitchen with rum punch in hand. Tonight we are headed 4300 miles north to beautiful Belgium – the country that gave us diamonds, Audrey Hepburn, fancy chocolates, waffles, Brussels sprouts, and pretty sites like these…

But the way I went about this week’s cooking task I might as well have taken us all to a foggy headed mountain in Switzerland.

The most important rule of cooking, the number one rule, the golden rule of all rules is to read your recipe first. All the way through. This way you have a good understanding of what’s involved ingredient-wise and what’s coming up at the start of each step. It’s a no-brainer activity. Something that just occurs so naturally you don’t even have to think about it. Of course you always read the recipe first, silly. Except that one time you actually didn’t.

I’ve been anticipating this week’s dish since the very beginning of the project because  1) it features a food I’ve never made before but have always wanted to try, 2) it is cozy sweater weather fare ideal for this time of year and 3) it offers a fun dinner idea for upcoming Valentine’s Day. On the menu this week we are making Fondue Bruxelloise, a dairy laden comfort food that conjures up images of shared dining, pots on pedestals, and unabashed consumption of all the bread and cheese you ever wished to eat. How fun and delicious!

The first order of business this week, the fun order of business, before market shopping even ensued, was to purchase a fondue pot. In this case, of course it would need to be vintage, so out I went all around town looking for such a find. Three days later, nothing. There was not a vintage fondue pot to be had anywhere in my fair city. In a frenzied, last-minute search online, I found one in a neighboring state that could be here in time for the cooking project deadline.

Tah-dah… a sleek 1970’s stainless steel set complete with floral design work on the legs, teak accents on the handle and on the lid, and a set of forks to match. Perfect! While that gadget was flying through the air, I was busy collecting vintage advertisements from the 1960’s and 1970’s – the two decades in culinary history when fondue parties were at the peak of popularity. The retro ads circulating around the magazine world at that time captured a real sense of colorful joy and excitement when it came to showcasing the novelty of a fondue party.

With an exciting feast on the horizon and a new (old) fondue pot now in possession, it was time to buckle down and get to cooking. Like all the other dishes we  have made in the International Vintage Recipe Tour so far, the ingredients for Fondue Bruxelloise are not complicated ones. Basically the recipe consists of four main components… butter, milk, eggs, and cheese.

The night before I was going to make it, my husband inquired. Is this the type of fondue where you dip vegetables or just bread? Confidently, I said just bread, but then immediately went back to the kitchen to check the recipe just to make sure. And that, my fellow kitcheners, is where Week Five officially went south.

The preparation of Fondue Bruxelloise involves six steps which include a glass dish, overnight refrigeration, a vat of frying oil and cheese cutouts. It does not, at any stage, involve a fondue pot, fondue forks, or a steaming pool of cheese. Oh dear. My stainless steel beauty.

Somehow, in all this excitement of knowing that we were going to be making fondue and searching for a retro pot in which to prepare it, I forgot to read the recipe first. As it turns out, fondue, in the traditional sense that I was thinking of, is actually Swiss not Belgian in origin. The word fondue comes from the French and simply means melted, so technically lots of dishes could be considered fondue and lots of countries can claim their own variations. That’s why there are chocolate fondues (American), saucey and brothy fondues (Asian), oil fondues (Italian) and cheese fondues (French, Swiss and American). But Switzerland’s version of melted cheese remains at the top of the most popular hot pot recipes and it’s the first image most people think of upon hearing the word fondue.

This is what I had in mind originally!

So where does this leave Belgium, you ask? The answer lies in an Italian American named Nika Standen Hazelton.

Nika Standen Hazelton (1908-1992)

Nika was a trusted authority of regional cooking from cuisines all around the world. She started her writing career as a reporter in the 1930’s, and never lost that level of curiosity or scrutiny for the topic at hand. She approached each cookbook and each country with an investigative eye and a thorough understanding of the food scene, the culture and the eating habits of the places she explored. She was also a tremendous home cook and hostess herself, managing to turn both her own passion for food making and her insatiable interest of other countries into a life-long career. By the time of her death in 1992, she had published 30 cookbooks in total, taking readers on tour with her around the globe highlighting all sorts of interesting food ways with a candor that made her writing legendary.

In the 1960’s, Nika got to work collecting recipes for her Belgian Cookbook.  Exploring the country quite intimately, she was determined with her latest project to create a book of traditional everyday Belgian foods as prepared by the home cook. She wasn’t interested in featuring fancy dishes that you’d find in Belgian restaurants, nor she was interested in featuring foods that were so traditional and so foreign sounding that they would dismay the American reader who was just trying to gain an introductory sense of food in Belgium.  “All one wants are some feasible and pleasant dishes…” she wrote in the introduction to The Belgium Cookbook, published in 1970.  It is from that cookbook that Craig Claiborne collected this recipe for Fondue Bruxelloise, which literally translates as Melted from Brussels, for his New York Times International Cookbook, which was the springboard for our year-long cooking project here.

Still regarded as one of the most tastiest Belgian recipes out there, Nika’s Fondue Bruxelloise is similar in preparation to a croquette, looks like a mozzarella stick and contains an inner filling that tastes a bit like a lemony Hollandaise sauce, even though there is no lemon in it.

Once I actually read the recipe the whole way through, I was slightly intimidated. I’ve never fried anything in a big pot of oil before, something almost unheard of since I’ve lived in the South for over a decade now. Needless to say, I had to do a little bit of extra research on how to go about that, since the recipe assumes you already know what type of oil to use and what temperature to heat the oil to and so on. I’ve included those notes along with the original recipe below in case you are a frying novice like me too. Overall though it’s not a difficult recipe to manage, but it is a bit unusual in its preparation. Refrigerating the cheese batter overnight yields a rectangular creation that has the consistency of somewhat rubbery, somewhat softened butter. The bread crumbs are made fresh, chopped up in a food processor from a day old loaf. And the cheese squares require frying in small batches giving this cooking project an awkward stop and start rhythm as you wait for things to come together, at first in the fridge, and then in the frying pot. This is what this year is all about though. Learning new techniques and new foods from old recipes. Intimidation aside, there’s nothing to do but jump right in. So here we go…

Fondue Bruxelloise

(Makes 8-12 servings which equates approximately to 18 pieces that are roughly 2 1/2″ inch x 2 1/2″ inch squares)

1/4 butter

All-purpose flour (I used about 2/3 cup)

2 cups milk

1/4 lb. Gruyere cheese, grated

1 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

5 egg yolks

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

3 eggs lightly beaten

2 teaspoons cold water

1 tablespoon peanut oil

3 cups fresh bread crumbs (I made these using a day old baguette)

Oil for deep frying ( I used 24 oz of peanut oil)

Parsley

Melt the butter in a large saucepan and stir in six tablespoons of flour, using a wire whisk. Add the milk, stirring rapidly until the mixture is thickened and smooth. Simmer 5 minutes.

Remove the sauce from the heat and add the cheeses, cayenne pepper, nutmeg, egg yolks, and salt and pepper to taste. (Note: I used about 1/2 teaspoon salt and a 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper). Return the sauce to the heat and stir rapidly with the whisk. Cook, stirring until it thickens further, but do not allow it to boil. (Note: I cooked this until the mixture just started to form a couple of big bubbles).

Generously butter a 13×9 inch or a 9×9 inch square pan and pour the sauce into it. (Note: The longest dish I have is 8×11 so I used that. See more notes about this specific choice of dish further down).

Spread the mixture smooth with a rubber spatula. Cover with buttered waxed paper (parchment paper) and refrigerate overnight or longer. (Note: I kept mine in the fridge for 24 hours).

Now firm, cut the mixture into squares, rectangles, rounds or diamond shapes. (Note: I chose squares because they were most simple and because while the top side of this mixture was firm, the underside was slightly gooey, so any well defined shape, like a diamond would have gotten all gummed up).

The bottom consistency might not have been as solidified as the top because I was using a smaller dish than was recommended, adding a thicker dimension to the overall mixture. Surprisingly though, even with this consistency the squares were fairly easy to remove from the dish and retained their square shape for the most part.

Top side!
Underside!

Beat the eggs until frothy, then beat in the water, oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Coat the cutouts on all sides with flour, then dip them into the egg mixture.

Finally, coat them in the bread crumbs tapping lightly with the flat side of a knife so the crumbs will adhere.

Heat the oil in a deep fat fryer to 360 degrees and cook the cutouts until golden. Drain on paper towels. Serve hot garnished with parsley.

(Note: As I mentioned earlier, this step was a little vague, especially for first time fryers. If you are a new experimenter with home frying, there are a couple of things I wanted share about the process. I don’t have a deep fat fryer myself so I used a heavy stainless steel medium-sized saucepan which worked perfectly well. I set the pot of oil over medium heat and let it warm gradually. It takes about 20 minutes for the oil to heat to 350 degrees, but use a thermometer to test the temperature to make sure it is hot enough before you add the cheese squares. The trick to frying is to do it in small batches. I could only fit three squares in at a time based on the size of my pot. This number still allowed ample room for them to bob around in the oil. I cooked each batch for 3 minutes. Also, it is important to let the oil warm back up to 350 degrees between batches. That step generally takes about 5 minutes).

After the squares have drained on a paper towel for about a minute it is best to serve them right away or keep them hot in the oven while you finish frying all the rest. That way when you cut into them, the melted cheese will ooze out into a little pool on your plate.

 

The longer they sit at room temperature, the more solidified the cheese gets inside. In the photo below, you’ll see that the plate on the right has been resting at room temperature for about 15 minutes. The cheese is still soft on the inside but is more like the consistency of fresh mozzarella rather than a melting pool…

Delicious in a very rich and decadent way, these cheese squares are like a little mini meal. Nika recommended serving Fondue Bruxelloise with fried parsley, but because they are so creamy, I’d recommend forgoing the extra frying and replacing it with anything acidic to balance out the flavors. Fresh parsley adds a bit of bright tang, as does freshly squeezed lemon juice. Other possible companions include a dollop of mustard or hot sauce, a side salad tossed in a citrus vinaigrette, a few slices of home grown tomatoes or simply a cold glass of dry white wine.

The cafe crowd in Brussels…

In Belgium, especially in the 20th century, locals used to enjoy a habit of a small snack everyday at 4 pm. A little delight like Fondue Bruxelloise would be perfect for such a time of day. Because of their velvety richness, you’d only want to eat one or two per setting, based on the size suggested in the recipe. Crunchy on the outside and soft and billowy on the inside, this serving size is a petite portion that is filling and satisfying but won’t risk spoiling your appetite for dinner a few hours later. As a national favorite, several Belgian cookbooks include Fondue Bruxelloise in their appetizer or hors d’oeuvres sections with suggestions to serve them at parties large and small. I like the idea of the 4:00pm Belgium tradition though and would next serve this at that time of day along with a glass of wine or a Belgian beer as part of a special happy hour treat. After all, it is fondue. It only seems fitting to involve some friends.

While this recipe was certainly not what I had anticipated at the start of the week, it turned out to be a curious adventure in cooking techniques and frying lessons. I may have not have gotten to use my new fondue pot, but perhaps when we visit Switzerland on the Recipe Tour towards the end of the year, I’ll be able to test out its capabilities with a classic Swiss fondue.  Then we can circle back around to this recipe and compare the two. In the meantime, I encourage everyone to read your recipes first:)

Cheers to cheese for offering up a few surprises and to Nika for taking us on an unexpected cooking adventure.  Also, a big cheers this week goes to blog reader Angela, who baked our featured Australian recipe, Queen Mother’s Cake for her neighborhood and received rave reviews! If anyone else has their own stories to share please send a message or comment below, we’d all love to more about your cooking experiences too!

Next Wednesday, just in time for Valentine’s Day weekend, we are headed to the passionate country of Brazil, where romance and recipes bloom in the kitchen. Stay tuned!

Announcing the International Vintage Recipe Tour 2020!

Happy New Year! Hope your holidays were festive and that your new year is off to a great start. Here in the Vintage Kitchen, there are lots of fun things in the works for 2020 – ones that incorporate both cooking and collecting. After the emotional events of last year, I’m ready to pour a giant amount of joy into this new decade starting right now, with January, and the announcement of a big year-long project…

international-vintage-recipe-tour

Pack your market bags dear readers, we are going on an adventure. Welcome to the International Vintage Recipe Tour of 2020! Each week throughout the year, I’ll be cooking an authentic heritage recipe from a different country that was featured in the 1971 edition of the New York Times International Cook Book. Sharing both the experience (and the recipe!) here on the blog every Wednesday, I hope you’ll join me in exploring together the cuisine of 45 countries over the course of 12 months. It’s going to be an epic year of discovery, one in which I hope will shine a spotlight on some old, wonderful, possibly forgotten dishes that may have gotten covered up over time.

the-new-york-times-international-cook-book

Throughout this project, we’ll cover all the food groups and prepare unique dishes for all meals of the day including breakfast, lunch, dinner, cocktail hour and dessert. Organized alphabetically by country, we’ll circumnavigate the globe, exploring an eclectic range of landscapes and cuisines together. One week, we’ll be making island fare fit for a summer beach party and the next we’ll be deep in another hemisphere’s mountain range cooking up cuisine much more suited for skiing and snow. Some recipes will be quick to make like mixing up a tropical cocktail or making homemade mustard, while others will involve more time and detailed technique like making a layer cake or pickling vegetables. We’ll visit all the continents (except Antarctica) and we’ll touch upon interesting aspects of each country’s history through interviews, books, movies, music, art and artifacts.

james-spanfeller-illustration

A year-long cooking project is quite a commitment. It’s the biggest endeavor I’ve ever attempted here on the blog and I’m not quite sure how smoothly it’s all going to run.  But exploring foreign foods has been a favorite source of joy and curiosity for me since my college days, when my sister and I used to throw International Dinner Night parties in our Brooklyn apartment. By traveling around the globe via the kitchen this year, I hope this project will spark some unexpected fun in your cook space too.

Since I haven’t previously tested or tried any of these recipes listed in the cookbook before, there’s a good chance we’ll encounter some mishaps along the way and uncover some unusual cooking situations. There are foods from many countries included in this adventure that I have never even tried before, and there are some countries listed in the cookbook that don’t even exist anymore thanks to changes in world history. But through this project I hope to start some conversations with you about the validity of vintage recipes, the ways in which we prepare foreign food and the effect these recipes have upon our modern palettes.

There are lots of books that could have been referenced once this idea of a vintage recipe tour started swirling around, but The New York Times International Cook Book is an ideal fit for this type of world-wide exploration for two main reasons. First, Craig Claiborne…

The recipes in the International Cook Book were collected and tested by Craig Claiborne (1920-2000), a long-time editor at the New York Times and a treasured favorite cook here in the Vintage Kitchen. Throughout his career, Craig came in contact with all sorts of foodies from all sorts of places around the world – famous chefs, restaurateurs, caterers, food critics, industry professionals, home cooks and “those who wanted to communicate their culture via their kitchen.” He was also a talented wonder in the kitchen himself and the author of over twenty cookbooks. There is not a recipe that I’ve tried of his that I haven’t absolutely loved. Needless to say, he knew a good recipe when he saw one and he knew the good sources from which to get them. When he was preparing The New York Times International Cook Book he consulted hundreds of people and traveled thousands of miles to collect the most highly prized recipes he could find. Although he hasn’t been as widely recognized or remembered as some other famous culinary icons of the past, I’m excited to re-introduce him here on the blog. With his name attached to this cookbook, I have a feeling we are in good gourmand hands.

Ingredients for spaghetti and anchovy and clam sauce from the Italy chapter of the The New York Times International Cook Book

The second reason why the International Cook Book is an ideal vintage recipe springboard is because of the decade in which it was produced…the 1970’s. The first edition came out in 1971,  a decade of heightened curiosity and savvy in both the international travel department and the cooking department. While the 1960’s made air travel to foreign countries appear glamorous and exotic, by the beginning of the 1970’s international escapades were more widely accessible to Americans. This interest in other cultures reflected in the food scene of the 1970’s too – by exposing American palates to more diverse cuisine and broadening their culinary horizons.

1970’s travel poster for Qantas Airlines

The disco era ushered in a decade of cosmopolitan dining and entertaining that was backed by newly found confidence, curiosity and skill in the kitchen. Swiss fondue parties were all the rage, Spanish paella became a fashionable dinner food, and homemade Italian tomato sauce consisted of garden-raised ingredients instead of the 1960’s version that often combined conveniences like ketchup and canned tomato soup. Cooking in the 1970’s revolved around excitement, a desire for authenticity and an interest in cultural awareness that is similar to the way we approach food today. Over the course of the year, it will be interesting to see how these vintage recipes compare to our modern palates and standards of both cooking and eating. It is often said that history repeats itself, I’m curious to see if that cliche applies to food as well.

I hope you join me each week in this around the world journey and discover some new favorite recipes yourself. We kick off the big adventure next Wednesday, January 8th, with our first country…

What’s on the menu for Armenia? You’ll just have to wait and see:) Until next week… cheers to the new year!

Hot Chocolate at the Hotel de Crillon: A Parisian Retrospective and A Recipe

Two days ago I woke up to a surprise. Snow flakes! Floating and falling and flying just outside the kitchen window, finally it felt like winter at last! For the first time all season the outside weather matched the inside holiday spirit.

We don’t get snow very often in Nashville but when we do it’s a call for extra special cooking adventures. The last time, we had a good dose of white winter weather, I prepared a Ruth Reichl recipe – slow simmered Chicken Fricassee from her 2015 cookbook, My Kitchen Year. That cookbook centered around Ruth’s rejuvenation of herself and her spirit via her kitchen in upstate New York. This year, inspired by the snow day, we are taking a little trip too, but not to New York. In this post we are headed to Paris to highlight a winter recipe that is famous throughout the city.

On the stove there’s a warm, rich pot of homemade hot chocolate derived from a recipe that was originally born in the kitchen of a beautiful historic hotel located at 10 Place de la Concorde, just steps away from the Champs Elysee.  This isn’t your everyday, ordinary hotel and this isn’t your everyday, ordinary batch of hot chocolate. This cup of cocoa doesn’t involve powdered substances, paper envelopes or hot water. It doesn’t include high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners or a long list of ingredients. You can’t go buy it prepackaged in a store and pour it into a cup at home for convenience.  This recipe is unique, prized and unavailable online. It tastes like magic. And for me, it taste like memories. I am very pleased to introduce you to the Hotel de Crillon and the most esteemed cup of hot chocolate in all of Paris.

In my growing up years, the Crillon was our home away from home anytime my family and I visited the City of Light. From the time I was 6 months old to the time I was 16, stays at the hotel were part of the fabric of my childhood. We had a very good family friend with a beautiful sing-songy name – Michele de la Clergerie – who was the VP of Public Relations at the Crillon. Because of that friendship and all the business my dad’s company did with her company, the Crillon turned into a natural home base for us whenever we visited Paris. Sometimes we were just there for a few days as a stopover on the way to the South of France or to Switzerland or to Africa or some other destination, but often times we stayed for a week or more, taking up two suites in this dazzling building.

Photo courtesy of jetsetter.com

Photo courtesy of crillon.com

The hotel has recently gone through a renovation which has included a more modern update of the furniture and decor, so it doesn’t look exactly like it did when we stayed there in the 1980’s and 90’s – but many of the hallmarks (the black and white checkered marble floors, the gold detailing, the big, sashed curtains, the outdoor dining patio, the lavish breakfast room, the en-suite balconies and baths, the beautiful French doors and of course the exterior of the building itself) all remain exactly as I remember.

When I look at pictures of this beautiful hotel now, as an adult, and then recall the experiences my family and I had there while I was growing up, it all seems like a fairy tale. Some sort of far off, fanciful, other life escapade… gauzy, romantic and lush… with a level of luxury fit for make-believe or movie sets or circumstances beyond reality.

My passport photo – age 3:)

But real it all actually was. Thanks to my dad’s career with a French airline, by the time I was three, I was an experienced international traveler, already well on my way to filling up stamps in my second government issued passport…

Those first years of life, I traveled with my own luggage, my doll, my favorite book of the moment, and my best friend, my sister, who was only a year and a half older than me.

Growing up with my sister and traveling all around the world felt a lot of the time like riding a lion… exciting, unusual and wild. That’s me on the right (age 2), my sister on the left (age 3 1/2).

Our permanent home address was  New York, but really it felt like we lived all over the globe due to the amount of traveling we did as a family. My mom kept our suitcases in the bottom of our closet, standing ready to fill at a moment’s notice. My sister and I had two wardrobes – a regular kid wardrobe and then a traveling wardrobe. The latter, our traveling wardrobe, was mostly made up of dresses and cardigan sweaters and shiny shoes. These were clothes that were light in weight, packed well, were suitable for most occasions and ultimately subscribed to my dad’s fashion philosophy of “it’s better to be overdressed than underdressed.”

A family photo on the Meditterarean Sea circa 1983! My parents are on the left. Family friends are standing behind my sister and I. That’s me on the left and my sister on the right.

It  wasn’t unusual for my mom to  wake us up from an afternoon nap  with a greeting that ran along the lines of  “Surprise, we are going to Hawaii – we leave in an hour,” or for my dad to come home from a day at the office and announce a family trip to Switzerland or the Bahamas or London with just a few day’s notice.

In the 1980’s the tourism industry was riddled with perks and freebies and gifts and complimentary tickets and special passes and personal invitations. For the most part, the industry overall was gregarious, charming, hospitable, convivial and fun. Mainly everyone who was lucky enough to be a part of it, was just out for a good time and an interesting story. Because of my dad and his job connections we always flew first class, stayed in luxury hotels, and dined in celebrated restaurants. This made us witnesses, as a family, to a pretty glamorous side of travel. One that allowed us to experience all the thrills of a high-end lifestyle without having to worry so much about how to pay for it all.

This is a photo from the family albums which captures the chaotic color and life and excitement of traveling when I was small. Lots going on, always and never in a language that I could easily read:)

Growing up as kids in this high-flying airline industry afforded my sister and I lots of special experiences and taught us so many life lessons it would take a year to write them all down. But the most important thing it taught us from the very beginning was how to be nimble. My dad always loved to tell a story about how discombobulated I could become as a kid when we traveled. Especially after waking up from a nap, opening eyes for the first time in a new city or a new country where I didn’t know the language or understand the culture. We’d be in Hawaii and I’d wake up at the age of 3 or 4 asking if we were in Monte Carlo or Germany or was it the beach in Bermuda?!

This whirlwind collage of first cities and first countries, and travel via cars and planes and boats and trains, in such frequent rotation quickly led my sister and I to associate certain small details with certain cities. Lake Geneva became known as the hotel with the herd of wild deer in back. Monte Carlo had the balconies that hung over the sea. The hotel in Abidjan had floor to ceiling green wallpaper. Hawaii had birds in the lobby.  Morocco had a walled garden. And Paris had the beautiful, welcoming Hotel de Crillon.  But my sister and I didn’t call it that. We called it the hotel with the great hot chocolate and also the place without the pool. Oh my.

The Hotel de Crillon pictured with the Fountain of River Commerce and Navigation. Photo by Eric-Cuvillier. Courtesy of the Paris Tourist Office.

The Hotel de Crillon was originally a palace built in the late 1700’s for King Louis XV – who was nicknamed the Beloved King. It was originally built to be an office building but throughout its existence seemed to beckon more like a siren than a bureaucrat, attracting a menagerie of artistic, colorful and creative inhabitants during the  18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Visitors and residents included Benjamin Franklin, Marie Antoinette, King Louis XVI, Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and countless celebrities. One of it’s owners, the eventual hotel’s namesake, was the Crillon family. They were descendants of an 18th century duke revered in the French Army for not only his courageous spirit but also his chivalrous demeanor. The Crillon family lived in the palace during the entire 1800’s until it was sold in 1909 and turned into a hotel.  By the time I came to know it in the latter half of the 20th century, as a little blond baby barely walking, the building contained so many exquisite historical attributes it was easy to imagine life as a real princess.

Photo courtesy of Artelia Group.

Embarrassing to admit now, I didn’t fully appreciate the spectacular beauty of the hotel then nor understand its cultural and architectural significance even during my teenage years.  Marie Antoinette was beheaded right out front. The building itself was caught up in the middle of the French Revolution. Dignitaries, heads of states, presidents, kings, queens and movie stars from all eras of history have stayed in the very rooms that we’d stayed in and walked the very floors (that beautiful black and white marble!) that we walked. Fashion shows, photo shoots, film crews and artists from last century to this one have crawled all over the hotel property documenting and decorating it for countless creative pursuits.

But for all the incredible circumstances, situations and events that have happened in and around the Hotel de Crillon since its beginnings, the one element that I can never forget about this special place, has nothing to with famous faces or elaborate decorating or stories from past centuries. It has to do with food. A simple cup of house hot chocolate. When we were little girls, it usually arrived via  room service on a breakfast cart, served by an attendant and poured from a silver pot.  As I got older and grew into my teenage years, my sister and I would take our hot chocolate at a table on the outdoor patio before heading out to explore the city.  Hearty, restorative and decadent, it was practically a meal in itself. But my dad taught us a little foodie secret before we even learned how to talk.  The perfect accompaniment to a cup of hot chocolate is a croissant.  As we discovered, these two foods made up a perfect pairing of flavors and forged an unforgettably indulgent tradition that we looked forward to with each visit. To this day my family still agrees.  No other cup of hot chocolate, wherever we traveled in the world, or attempted to recreate at home, ever tasted as good as the hot chocolate served at the Crillon.

We weren’t alone in thinking this. The hotel’s flagship beverage has been revered in Paris by both tourists and locals for decades. Mentions on the internet still to this day deem it one of the best, if not the best hot chocolate in the entire city. It is so beloved, it is difficult to come across an article about the Crillon that does not mention a more enjoyable cup.

Last January, I came into possession of an antique Nippon porcelain chocolate pot and a set of four matching cups and saucers. When I saw it, I immediately thought of Paris and the Hotel de Crillon and the delicious hot chocolate from decades ago. The hand-painted set was made in Japan at the turn of the 1900’s –  about the same time that the Crillon was turned into a hotel. As if fate had stepped in and lined up all the details, I knew that this chocolate set was the perfect match to pair a story and a recipe from the vintage family archives.

Just a few years ago, my sister had mentioned that she had seen the Crillon hot chocolate recipe posted on their website. But when I went to look, it was no longer there. The website had changed to reflect the hotel’s new style and new renovations. I wasn’t disappointed though because surely I thought, in our modern age, with all sorts of travel writers and food makers covering all aspects of Paris, on the internet there would be someone out there who would have shared the hotel’s hot chocolate recipe via an article or a cooking blog. Surprisingly, such was not the case.  So I contacted the hotel directly and explained the whole story about when I was young and my family’s experiences and the memorable hot chocolate. Right away, being the lovely and gracious hoteliers that they are, they promptly emailed the recipe over for use in the blog post. How wonderfully exciting!

I am so very happy to share this recipe with you. Nothing is more fun or festive, especially around the holidays, then making a big pot of hot chocolate fit for a crowd. This recipe is thick, rich and not overly sugared. It’s filling and hearty  and by the time you finish the last drop  you’ll feel delightfully satisfied. And if you live in one of those states where it snows and snow and snows  all winter long – this recipe will keep you fortified as you shovel and frolic your way through the season.

The recipe sent from the  Crillon is in hotel-size volume and contains French measurements, so I’m including the original French recipe (see photo), which makes 30 cups of hot chocolate, as well as the converted American measurements version (which also makes 30 cups!) and then further breakdowns of the American recipe into smaller quantities (15 cups and 7-8 cups) if you are entertaining a more petite crowd.

And a final note, it was tricky to find 66% dark chocolate, at least in my neck of the woods. In order to keep this recipe user friendly for all readers, I wanted to use chocolate that could be found easily in all grocery stores, so I combined two common percentages (56% and 100%) which are pretty standard here in the States when it comes to dark chocolate ratios. But for our European readers, you’ll probably be able find, more easily, the percentages the Crillon uses, so I’d recommend that.

 

The Hotel de Crillon’s Hot Chocolate Recipe

(American conversion) Makes 30 cups

  • 15 cups heavy cream
  • 15 cups whole milk
  • 3 oz sugar
  • 8oz 56% semi-sweet chocolate (56% cacao)
  • 4 oz. 100% unsweetened chocolate (100% cacao)
  • 4 1/2 oz. milk chocolate (3/4 cup)

For 15 cups:

  • 7 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 7 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1.5 oz of sugar
  • 4 oz 56% semi-sweet chocolate (56% cacao)
  • 2 oz 100% unsweetened chocolate (100% cacao)
  • 2 1/4 oz milk chocolate

For 7-8 cups:

  • 3 3/4 cups heavy cream
  • 3 3/4 cups whole milk
  • .75 oz of sugar
  • 2 oz 56% semi-sweet chocolate (56% cacao)
  • 1 oz 100% unsweetened chocolate (100% cacao)
  • 1 1/8 oz milk chocolate

In a large pot, combine the cream and the milk over medium heat, stirring frequently until just beginning to boil. Remove from heat, cover with a tight fitting lid and set aside.

In a double boiler, melt all the chocolate together. And then add in the sugar and stir to combine.

Pour the melted chocolate into a medium size bowl. Add one cup of the hot milk/cream mixture to the chocolate and whisk to combine until the texture resembles soft whipped cream.

Gradually incorporate the chocolate mixture into the big pot of milk and cream, whisking until well combined.

Warm the hot chocolate over medium heat for 5-10 minutes until it reaches a temperature warm enough to your liking. It is best served right away. If you have any leftover (which will probably not be likely!) you can refrigerate it and slowly reheat it the next day or simply enjoy it cold, like a glass of chocolate milk.

I love this hot chocolate just as it is without any adornment. But feel free to add some marshmallows or a peppermint stick, some flavored liqueur or a dash of whiskey, if you want to jazz it up in your own way. And definitely serve it alongside a basket of fresh croissants. (Side note: for anyone who does not live near a french bakery, Trader Joe’s sells wonderful frozen croissants that you can heat up at home in the oven). 

After my dad retired in the mid-1990’s, we rarely traveled to such glamorous locales or on such a glamorous scale as the childhood days. Instead we explored our hometown more (the great city of New York) and traveled around the United States, of which we didn’t know nearly as well as Europe. My sister and I grew into our adult selves, got married, explored careers, and forged ahead into lives of our own making. The flutter of those early travel experiences, and the decadence with which we enjoyed them, became cherished parts of our past… wonderful memories to be tucked away in our hearts and our minds.

I grew up in the time before Instagram and iphones and the modern desire to record every moment of every situation at whim. There are no day by day, detail by detail photo streams of all my sister and I saw and did in the first half of our lives. Just a few handfuls of random pictures taken on the run from one place to another. But what we do have are our memories swirling around in our heads.  Even though some of those are now slightly hazy and somewhat dim due to time,  I’ll never forget the Hotel de Crillon and their majestic building and their gorgeous hospitality. And now, thanks to their graciousness in sharing this treasured recipe, I’ll never forget the taste of their hot chocolate either.

The next time you are in Paris, I hope you get a chance to visit the Hotel de Crillon, if not to stay, than at least just to peek inside and treat yourself to a cup of their house hot chocolate.  It has been over 20 years since I last visited the Crillon, but if I could partake in some sort of magical time travel, my 2019 self would meet up with my 1980’s self in the foyer of the hotel and whisper into that little girl’s ear… “Chin up, they have a pool now.”

A big cheers and a big thank you to Sofie, Elcie and Victoria at the Hotel de Crillon for sharing this memorable recipe. Cheers to my dad for all the adventures big and small, to my mom for always letting us go, and to my sister, my forever travel pal, without whom these trips would not nearly have been as fun.

If you’d like to learn more about the antique chocolate pot, find it in the shop here. If you’d like to learn more about the hotel, please their website here. And finally, dear readers, if you try this recipe, please let me know what you think in the comments below.  I hope it becomes a new wintertime favorite for you too. Cheers!

Discovering the Legendary Family Babka

Once upon a time, there was a woman named Julianna. She was born in Poland in the mid-1800’s but immigrated to upstate New York around 1900. There, she married a man named Marcin, and had a baby named Martha. Occasionally Julianna, Marcin and the baby would travel to Chicago to visit with relatives. It was there in the Windy City, in a busy house, that Julianna met a little boy named Allen.

The first time Allen met Julianna he was scared to death of her. To him Julianna seemed very old and very gruff.  But Julianna, who was well-intentioned at heart, just settled in her old Polish ways, possessed a special skill. A skill so special that it could charm anyone, even a scared little boy named Allen.

Juliana’s special talent was baking and her most charming confection was a twisted bread called babka. Everyone in the busy house in the Windy City loved Julianna’s babka. The best in all the land, boasted her proud husband Marcin, who had a belly as round as Santa’s. Everyone agreed.  Even the little boy named Allen, for as soon as he took his first bite of the cinnamon flavored treat he watched all his fears of this old woman fly right out of his head.  It tastes like Christmas, he proclaimed! From that point forward, Julianna  no longer seemed quite so scary. She returned again and again to visit and quickly became little Allen’s most anticipated house guest. As long as she brought the babka, that is:)

That’s a true story from the family archives. Julianna was the second wife of my great, great grandfather, Marcin who hailed from the pretty pastel city of Poznan, Poland in the 1800’s. The little boy named Allen was my dad who was born in Chicago in the 1940’s.

Dad playing with a batch of kittens circa 1946

This information all came courtesy of a notebook of memories my dad filled out about a decade ago. Somehow this information of the famous babka got overlooked in the curiosity department and I never got the chance to ask my dad more about Julianna, Marcin and the famous yet mysterious family bread. A few days after my dad died, I came across the notebook of memories again and was reintroduced to the story of the babka.

Even though Marcin and Julianna shared 10 kids between them, there is no known recipe that’s been passed down through the family. Marcin’s daughter Jozefa, (my great grandmother) died from burns sustained in a kitchen fire when she was just 37, leaving eight children behind. That terrible family tragedy left little opportunity for conversation about lineage, ancestors and recollections when it came to Marcin and Julianna.  No one wanted to dredge up the sad circumstances surrounding Jozefa’s death in order to understand the family that came before her. So a silence fell on that side of history. For a long, long time distant relatives became just a blur of hazy facts and faces. I’m on a mission now though to learn more about my great great grandparents and about that beautiful pastel city where they came from…

Poznan, Poland

It will be a tricky endeavor since I’m dealing with foreign languages and far-off places, but they deserve the effort and it will be fun to see what gets discovered. In the meantime, this one little snippet of a food remembrance from my dad is a cherished link to knowing more about the lives of family members who lived over a century ago.

I don’t have any pictures of Julianna or Marcin yet but I do have a few photos of Jozefa, like this one taken on her wedding day in 1902. Sixteen years later she would die from the fire.

Because I’d never seen, or even heard about babka before it was referenced in the notebook, a new baking adventure was definitely in order. I scoured my vintage cookbooks but found absolutely no mention of it. Luckily, a great recipe was discovered online and the babka came into being in October. Two weeks ago, I posted it on Instagram and shared the story about Julianna.

It turned out to be a really fun and interesting baking project. If you are as unfamiliar with babka as I was, it is one of those cinnamon based desserts that is like a little slice of heaven for the season. Buttery, warm and full of aromatic spice, it tastes like a cross between a cinnamon role and a coffee cake.  Fittingly, (for this story anyway!) the word babka means grandmother in Polish and is a traditional heritage food of both Poland and the Ukraine. Historians suspect that it may date all the way back to the 16th century.

Babka comes in two classic variations – chocolate and cinnamon – and can be augmented with a variety of toppings including streusel, nuts, raisins, spices and dried fruit. Usually it comes in two shapes as well – either round or loaf style.  I chose to make the cinnamon version and baked it both ways – in loaves and rounds. The round version turned out to be a little fancier looking but the loaves are a bit easier to slice, so it comes down to your preference. Either way, it’s a winner of a recipe that tastes great at all times of the day, and is equally enjoyable at breakfast, during a mid-day snack or a late night nibble.

The key to an ultra flavorful babka lies in the freshness of the cinnamon. So if you can, try to find a spice shop in your neck of the woods that offers it freshly ground which would be most ideal. Luckily, as if Julianna was supporting my endeavor, a lovely new spice shop just opened up in my city, so I used Supreme Saigon cinnamon in my recipe. If you don’t have a good spice shop in your area, no worries, you can always order some online or buy a brand new container from your grocery so that you can experience the full bouquet of flavor.

New spice shop in the city!

Making babka from scratch is a three step process, but don’t let that intimidate you, as this is a very easy dessert to make. The only downside to homemade babka is the amount of time (about six hours) it takes to make from start to finish.  That’s because it is a yeast bread and requires time to rise twice. It is well worth the wait though. It also freezes well, so if you were feeling extra ambitious you could double or triple the recipe and stack the babka up in the freezer for homemade goodness all winter long!

Cinnamon Babka

{This recipe was sourced from family-friends-food.com and the Modern Jewish Baker Cookbook by Shannon Sarna}

For the dough:

1 tablespoon active dry yeast

1/3 cup + 1/2/ teaspoon cane sugar

1/2 cup lukewarm water

4 1/2 cups organic all purpose flour

2 teaspoons vanilla

1/2 cup whole milk

3/4 cup butter (melted)

2 eggs

 

For the Sugar Syrup:

2/3 cup water

1 cup cane sugar

1 tsp vanilla

 

For the Filling:

3/4 cup butter, melted

1/1/2 cups cane sugar

2 tablespoons cinnamon

pinch of salt

In a small bowl, combine the yeast, 1/2 tsp sugar and the lukewarm water. Stir to combine and then set aside for about 10 minutes so that the yeast can foam.
In a separate bowl, combine the flour, 1/3 cup sugar and vanilla, mixing until everything is blended together. Set aside.
In a medium saucepan, scald the milk and then remove the pan from the heat and let it rest for 1 minute.
Using a hand mixer, combine the water/yeast mixture, the milk, and the melted butter to the flour mixture and blend to incorporate. Then mix in the eggs, one at a time.
Continue mixing on a low to medium speed for 7 full minutes until the dough is shiny, elastic and smooth.
Place dough in a greased bowl and cover with a warm damp towel. Allow to rise 1 to 2 hours.
While the dough is rising make the simple syrup by combining the water, sugar, and vanilla in a small saucepan. Bring to a low boil until the sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
Next make the filling by combining all ingredients in a medium bowl and mixing thoroughly. Set aside.
When the dough has risen, cut it into two equal halves. Roll out one half on a lightly floured surface until it’s about 1/4″ inch thick. Try to roll the dough in as rectangular shape as possible.
With a sharp knife trim the rounder edges of the dough so that they form straight lines, which makes the babka braids look more tidy down the road.
Next spread half of the filling evenly all over the dough, leaving a 1/2 inch rim around the edge.  Ideal tools for this are a frosting knife, a spatula, the back of a spoon or even your fingers.
Then starting at the bottom edge, tightly roll up the dough (jelly roll style) to the very top edge.
Once your dough is all rolled up and resembles a log shape, trim each end with a sharp knife and then cut the log length-wise down the middle to expose the filling inside.
Now that you have to halves of one log, braid the two halves together, alternating one section on top of the other so that it looks like this…
Place the braid in a greased springform cake pan.
Repeat the above steps with the other half of the dough. And then curl the second braid inside the first braid and smoosh the two braids together lightly (like you are squeezing a basketball between your hands) so that it creates some space between the sides of the pan and the dough.
Finally, drape a moist kitchen towel over the pan and set aside to rise for 30 more minutes.
While the dough is rising again , preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Bake the babka in the oven for 40 minutes, then take it out and brush the top of the bread with two light layers of the sugar syrup. Return it to the oven and bake for another 20 minutes.
When it is ready, the babka will be a golden brown on top and the internal temperature will be 185 degrees. Place the pan on a cooling rack and brush the top with three more light layers of the sugar syrup. Let it cool for 10-15 minutes before removing the babka from the pan. The sides will be be rippled with ribbons of dough…
Slice and serve either warm or at room temperature. The babka pairs really well with a cup of strong coffee, tea or espresso.

Thanks to its bountiful size and rich texture, it makes an ideal holiday food since it can serve a lot of people, transports well and can be frozen for months ahead of time.
When I first posted the babka story on Instagram, several people sent messages requesting the recipe, so I’m pleased to be sharing it here on the blog today. I loved this bread so much that it is now going to be a new annual holiday baking tradition in my house. And I hope it becomes one of yours too. When my dad first met Julianna, she was in her 90’s. I love that she was still baking for her family at that age and still possessed the ability and desire to convince a small little boy that sweetness can be found even behind a sometimes gruff exterior.
Cheers to Julianna, Jozefa and my dad for providing glimpses into past family lives, to Helen and Shannon for providing the recipe and to Savory Spice for opening up shop just in time for this cinnamon-filled baking adventure. Hope you guys will be just as smitten with babka as I am.

 

Blackberry Baking with the Legendary Sally or Solange or Whatever She Once Was Called

In the historic baking world there’s a legend that springs from a yeast bread.  Depending on the sources and the provenance of specific recipes, facts about this legend vary widely and wildly. In some tales she’s a 17th century girl, in others an 18th century woman.  She was French. She was English. She was colonial American. She was an ordinary teenager, she was a famous baker, she was a lowly domestic servant. She had a name that was either Sally or Solange or Madame or Marie. She was a real human being but she then again she was a fake and then yet again someone else’s flight of fancy. For three centuries, this baking icon has tumbled through time on the flimsiest of resumes. This is the story of Sally Lunn and a cake (or it might have been a bread) that made her famous.

This weekend, after coming home from the market with a batch of blackberries that were so deliciously ripe they smelled like wine, I discovered a vintage recipe that is as difficult to describe as the lady it was named after. Called Fresh Blackberry Sally Lunn, it came from Meta Given’s 1957 Encyclopedia of Modern Cooking.  Surprisingly, out of a stack of forty different vintage cookbooks spanning the early 1900’s to the early 1980’s, Meta’s book was one of just a few that contained any recipes for fresh blackberries at all. Homemade jam and blackberry pie unified the books that did include the fruit, but Meta’s was the only cookbook that combined blackberries with a cake in the name of Sally Lunn. I love any recipe that is unique and stands out. The name Sally Lunn sounded curious and since I’d never heard of her before I had a feeling this might be fun to share with you too.

Like the age old conundrum of who came first – the chicken or the egg – there are two different variations of a baked good that purportedly  made Sally Lunn famous. One was a yeasted savory bread that looks like a cross between a bundt cake and a hamburger bun…

The yeasted bread version from the Williamsburg Cookbook, 1981 edition
Another version – not quite as bun-like on the bottom. Photo also from the Williamsburg Cookbook, 1981 edition.

and the other is a sweetened tea cake that looks like something between a blueberry pancake and a cobbler…

You wouldn’t be wrong to call either variation a Sally Lunn, even though they are two completely different types of food. Because of that, her name has popped up in recipe titles in a myriad of ways. There’s the Sally Lunn Bun, Virginia Sally Lunn, Sally Lunn Bread, Sally Lunn Cake, Sweet Sally Lunn and just plain old Sally Lunn among others.  Likewise, in indexes, you’ll find her popping up under L for Lunn, S for Sally or more specifically under category sections that include Cakes, Breads, Desserts, Baked Goods, Tea Cakes, Yeast Breads, Coffee Cakes, Coffee Breads, etc. So how could one possibly mythical person be identified with two types of very different yet specific baked goods over the course of hundreds of years?

As it turns out no one knows. And thus far it has been impossible to authentically identify any true source that leads to Sally and the bread and cake that share her name. Lots of ideas about her float around.  She was a teenage maid servant named Sally Lunn who delivered a newly invented bread to her master of the house, who in turn delightfully named it for her. She was a talented French baker named Solange, who escaped to a bakery in England where she began to make a popular brioche-style confection that looked like the rising of the sun. She was a working class woman in 18th century England crying out her name in the streets as a sales tool for the bread that became her trademark. There’s even a historic eating house in England that speculates they might have been the site of Sally’s original bakery in the late 1600’s.

Sally Lunn’s Historic Eating House in Bath, England

I like to believe the theory that Sally Lunn was an actual baker living in 1700’s England. The story details how she invented a sweet yeast bread that became very popular at first locally, then regionally, then across the sea. With this theory, it makes sense then that references to Sally Lunn would have shown up in early American cookbooks, a favored recipe brought over by the English as they colonized America. Possibly, at some point in history, when yeast either became too expensive, or there was a shortage, a non-yeast cake version was invented by some other creative and clever baker in the 1800’s who used all the same ingredients of Sally Lunn bread minus the yeast. Thereby keeping the name Sally Lunn in the recipe title. By the time, the 1950’s rolled around perhaps Meta made her own creative choice by marrying blackberries into the non-yeast version Sally Lunn cake. Whether this is an accurate assumption or not, no one will ever know for certain unless some of Sally’s baking notes happen to show up. But with all this mysteriousness that surrounds Sally and her two contributions to the baking industry, I think she’d be happy knowing that at least her name stayed attached even though the origin story didn’t. It is after all, the ultimate branding success story, 1700’s style!

Meta Given’s two volume Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking of Cooking from the 1950’s

Meta Given was a legend in the culinary world in her own right. A nutritionist at heart, she set out to write some of the most comprehensive cookbooks of the 1950’s that included recipes for people across the entire economic spectrum. Her books featured everything from thrifty staples like squirrel stew to elegant French dishes with layered sauces and nuanced flavors. Her mission was to make cooking fun, enjoyable and accessible for everyone while also making it nutritious and creative.  I’m so pleased to present her lovely sweet treat of a dessert that highlights the juicy, sun ripened flavors of blackberries nearing summer’s end. What I love about this cake in particular is that it is pretty healthy – using small amounts of sugar, butter and flour. The blackberries really keep the cake moist and add a familiar sweet tart flavor similar to cobbler but with a velvety more dense consistency like a blueberry pancake.  If you wanted to add an extra dash of sweetness you could drizzle the whole cake with honey or follow Meta’s suggestion of adding a lemon sugar glaze once the cake is out of the oven, but I loved it just as it was… simple and summer-y.

Meta Given’s Fresh Blackberry Sally Lunn Cake

1 pint box of freshly picked blackberries (enough for 2 1/2 cups)

1 tablespoon sugar

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons salted butter, softened

2/3rds cup sugar ( I used raw cane sugar)

1 large egg

1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice

1/2 cup sour cream*

1/2 cup whole milk*

(*Note – The milk measurement was left out of the original recipe, but was included in a revised edition in 1959. I used the sour cream/milk combination but you can also substitute those two ingredients for 1 cup of buttermilk).

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter well an 8 1/2″ inch springform cake pan.

Drop berries into a bowl of cold water to rinse and remove any stems or leaf debris. Swish berries gently and then by by hand remove them to a colander to drain. Once the berries have drained in the colander transfer them to a medium size bowl and gently toss them with 1 tablespoon sugar. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, sift the flour, baking soda, and salt together. Set aside.

In another bowl, whip the butter, sugar and egg together until creamy. Stir in lemon juice using  a wooden spoon and then add the flour, sour cream and milk, blending until smooth.

Gently fold in the blackberries until just well distributed. Turn batter into prepared pan.

Bake until golden brown (about 40-55 minutes) or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Once ready to remove from oven, let cake cool slightly in pan on a cooling rack before serving either lukewarm or at room temperature.

In addition to enjoying the end-of-season fruit harvest this month, Fresh Blackberry Sally Lunn cake also freezes well. So if you choose that storage method you’ll still be able to taste the warm days of summer even on the coldest winter nights. And because it does have a pancake-esque quality to it, it wouldn’t be terrible to serve it for breakfast or even alongside a summer salad for brunch or lunch. This Fall, I’ll share the other version of Sally Lunn as we dive into bread baking season to see how these two, and if these two compare in any way other than by name.

In the meantime, cheers to Sally and to Meta for baking delicious food that withstands not only multiple decades but multiple centuries too!  If you are interested in learning more about Meta and her cookbooks, find a few in the shop here. The Williamsburg Cookbook will also be heading to the shop shortly as well, in case you want to catch up on your colonial fare before heading into the holiday season. Find that one coming to the cookbook section shortly. And finally, this cake was styled using the lovely vintage 1960’s Italian cut glass cake stand which you can find in the shop here.

The Art of the Vintage Picnic

Happy August! As promised in the last post, here is the article written for Artisans List that highlights the beauty and joy of a vintage style picnic. We’ve got just six weeks left before Autumn officially starts, but rest assured that doesn’t mean that picnic season, as we most traditionally know it, is over. There are plenty of Fall foliage opportunities for all you Northerners intent on a day trip and a dine out in nature. If you happen to live in the Southern half of the hemisphere than lucky you – everyday is a good day for a picnic no matter what time of year. When we settle into the cooler months, I’ll also be featuring two outside of the box picnic ideas – the carpet picnic and the car picnic  – both which promise to hold as much fun as their summertime counterpart. So stayed tuned on that front. In the meantime, six full weeks of summer still await. From somewhere I can hear a basket calling your name…

Twentieth century foodie, gourmand and all around good cook, James Beard declared that “picnicking is one of the supreme pleasures of outdoor life.” Indeed. No other dining experience seems quite so decadent. The fresh air, the natural setting, the creative food choices, the deliciously idle intentions. Picnics have a wonderful way of engaging all of our senses in such a fantastic way. It’s almost overwhelming.

Those first few moments at picnic’s start – when you are dizzy with the view and the weather and the notion of doing nothing but relaxing and reveling in food and friends – is satisfaction enough. But then a truckload of simple delights follow one right after another. There is that liberating sensation of kicking off shoes and wiggling bare toes in soft grass.  The crisp, snapping action of the picnic blanket as it unfurls from containment, joyfully sailing on the breeze before floating to the ground. There is the laying out of the carefully wrapped food parcels and the first sip of a celebratory toast. The giddy laughter, the bird songs, the sound of leafy trees dancing on the breeze… suddenly you are aware of the musical vitality of nature and yourself in it.

On a picnic, the world shines newly bright with details mostly overlooked in the hustle bustle routine of everyday life. It is an activity that encourages you to stop and to breathe and to melt – into your surroundings, into your friends, into the food that makes up your lunch or your dinner or your breakfast time snack. Yes, picnics are a triumphant and pleasurable experience. And there’s no better season for them then right now. In today’s post, we will be discussing the art of of the vintage picnic – how it came to be, how it shaped us, and why we still need to celebrate it now. Highlighting a handful of old, but still very relevant recipes, this post also offers suggestions on how to build your own vintage picnic experience so that you too can succumb to the relaxing style of outdoor eating that our ancestors favored so long ago. It’s history in a most delicious form, unveiled, just as we are about to round the corner towards the 4th of July, the most popular picnic holiday of the year.

This idea of eating outdoors from a basket on a blanket is no trend. It has been around for centuries and has taken eaters on a plethora of picturesque adventures. But it wasn’t always a simple act. At first, outdoor dining began in grand style. Lavish entertaining in lavish settings. In the 1700’s, there were the hunting after-parties which made glorious outdoor feasts of animals bagged from the day’s sport. Garden gatherings in the 1800’s involved fine china, silverware and fancy dress. Plein air luncheons in the early 1900’s focused on seasonal foods, artistic creativity and exquisite manners. Today, picnics involve technology fueled cooling mechanisms, compartmentalized backpacks and fitted amenities made for details and devices. Needless to say, the desire to picnic has never been lost, but the way we eat outdoors has evolved quite a bit over time.

Nowadays, anything goes when it comes to picnic style and presentation.  An impromptu paper bag lunch for two in a city park can be just as engaging as a thoughtfully prepared country basket for six. But just like any activity worth doing, there is a certain art form to a well produced picnic that makes for a more pleasurable experience. The vintage-style picnic favors china plates and real glassware, classic cocktails and linen napkins, and most importantly, homemade food. It is the sort of affair that wraps you up in a long, restful lazy day adventure fueled with time-honored tradition and attention to detail. It discourages anything fast or obtuse- like technology and frenzied time schedules and plastic utensils. It champions a slower, simpler and more relaxing rhythm. The type of experience that not only feeds your appetite but also your senses, your spirit and your sanity. Basically, a vintage-style picnic is a big, long break in your day meant for resting, relaxing and restoring through small details… the time-worn touch of an old plate, the taste of an heirloom recipe, the time-out of technology, and the tune in to your natural surroundings.

Legend loosely states that the word picnic stemmed from the French pique-nique which derives from the action of picking and selecting small spots or things. Originally, pique-niques were more like potlucks, in that all invited guests were asked to contribute a little food or drink for the group to share together. But it was England, in the 19th century, not France who created the picnic in the modern sense that we know it as today. Both a mealtime and a leisure activity, the English made picnicking a deliciously long-term and lengthy event that could last all day and well into the night if done right. They played games, read books, plucked instruments, talked, sang, painted, swam, flew kites, played sports and generally just all around enjoyed themselves while snacking on small plates of assorted foods from wicker hampers and baskets.

Monet’s painting, Le Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe (Dinner on the Grass) was painted between 1865 and 1866.

In America, prior to the Civil War, there were no lackadaisical, carefree picnic outings. If any outdoor eating occurred before that time period, it was eating en masse – generally a large sociable event where whole communities of people turned out to enjoy a barbecue or a church social or a political rally. The Victorians ushered in more intimate, family-style picnic parties, rambling in close proximity to home, as their appreciation of nature and outdoor enthusiasm bloomed in the late 1800’s.  But the rise of the automobile, the building of the U.S. highway system, and the introduction of drive-up motor lodges and nationals parks all encouraged a whole new independence when it came to on-the-go eating as the 20th century began. Suddenly, the English style picnic took hold as Americans began exploring their more easy-to-navigate country. Economical, spontaneous and available to everyone, picnics naturally turned destinations into dining opportunities. All you needed was a basket, a blanket, a small collection of foodstuffs and an adventurous spirit. Outdoor eating euphoria had arrived!

A group of picnickers photographed in 1914 by Albert M. Price. Photo credit: Library of Congress

Back in earlier centuries, outdoor eating meant bountiful quantities and dramatic fare. Whole animals roasted over fire pits, multiple courses served by domestic staff, exotic ingredients, rich foods, elaborate presentation. But as outdoor dining began to evolve over time into smaller parties and simpler affairs, the food that accompanied it changed also. As serving staffs diminished and people became more independent, picnics and the baskets they represented, became simpler – filled with foods that could be easily made, easily transported and easily unpacked. By the time the mid-20th century rolled around, there was a definite type of picnic fare anticipated and defined by the activity. Fried chicken, salads and deviled eggs topped the favorites list, along with hot dogs, sandwiches, pies, cakes, bread and fruit.

The picnic basket spread out before you in this post highlights vintage recipes that capture that same essence of familiarity and practicality, while also providing a well-rounded balance of flavors and tastes. Vintage recipes include Sicilian-Style Marinated Olives, Oven-Fried Chicken, Deviled Eggs, Cheese Straws and Blueberry Tart. Americanos join the party as a refreshing aperitif to toast the season and the stars. 

Ranging from the 1960’s to the 1980’s, these recipes came from a handful of treasured vintage cookbooks. They pair gourmet creations from famous chefs like James Beard with regional favorites from lesser-known sources, like the ladies of the Junior League of Huntsville, Alabama. Covering all matters of taste from sweet to salty, savory to sour, they are considered traditional picnic foods, but each contains an unusual twist in the form of a cooking method or an ingredient pairing that makes them both interesting and innovative. Whether you make all of these recipes at once for your next outing or just focus on a dish or two to sample and try, you’ll discover that all of these options listed here are steeped in simplicity. Almost all of them can be made a day or two ahead of time, so that your restful day of picnicking doesn’t include you running around the kitchen like a crazed cook.  

And, just one more note before we get to the recipes. While food is obviously the main attraction in a picnic, the vintage-style picnic places just as much importance on the accessories that go along with it as well – a.k.a. the servingware.  While it is true that we may no longer entertain as formally as we did in centuries past, there is something lovely about incorporating some little niceties into your basket in the form of linen napkins, china plates and glass drinkware. These details add an elevated aesthetic to your picnic that reflects the elegant English versions of yesteryear, and really just makes for a nicer overall dining experience.  A cocktail enjoyed from a plastic cup or a homemade dessert pierced with a plastic fork is never quite the same experience as using real glass and real flatware. Even James Beard agreed about that point. “Skimp on all the other dishware if you have too – but never on the glassware for your cocktail,” he advised.

A few vintage items featured in this post are a handwoven picnic basket from the 1930’s, a matching set of W.H. Grindley hotelware salad plates made in England (also in the 1930’s) and a handful of embroidered vintage linens in various shapes and sizes. Vintage restaurantware dishes in general are a great choice for picnics because they are heavy duty and aren’t quite as fragile as delicate ceramic or porcelain dishes. Salad plates or bread and butter plates are also the perfect size for your small snack needs and aren’t as bulky to pack as dinner sized equivalents. Likewise, vintage tablecloths make ideal picnic blankets thanks to their soft fabrics (decades of washing and drying!), variety of sizes and nostalgic designs. As you build your vintage accessories collection, you’ll also notice that these elements have a fun way of engaging people in conversation too.  Each item in your basket expresses its own unique story.  When packing all these elements up I like to designate the sturdy picnic basket for fragile foods, a separate tote bag for the servingware and linens and an additional tote for drinks and ice. That way everything remains intact from the moment you leave your kitchen to the moment you arrive at your destination.

Americano (serves 1)

1 1/2 oz. Campari

1 1/2 oz. Sweet Vermouth

3 oz. Club Soda

Ice Cubes

Twist or Slice of lemon or orange for garnish

Add the Campari and vermouth to an old-fashioned glass. Add ice cubes and club soda. Stir to combine. Garnish with a slice or twist of lemon or orange.

Marinated Olives, Sicilian Style (from the Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook, 1985)

1 pound Ligurian, Nicoise or Greek Olives  or a combination, drained

8 cloves garlic, cut lengthwise in half

Zest of 1/2 orange

Zest of 1/2 lemon

2 tablespoons fennel seeds

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (about 2 lemons)

3 tablespoons olive oil

Combine olives, garlic, citrus, fennel and rosemary in a large bowl. Drizzle with lemon juice and oil. Marinate, stirring occasionally at room temperature at least 24 hours.

Deviled Eggs (from James Beard’s Menus for Entertaining Cookbook, 1965)

8 hard boiled eggs, shells removed

1 small tin boneless skinless sardines

1 small onion, finely chopped

1/4 cup parsley, finely chopped

Mayonnaise

Cut the hard-boiled eggs in half and remove the yolks to a small bowl. Mash yolks with sardines, onion and parsley. Blend with mayonnaise until you reach ideal consistency then fill each egg half. Chill in fridge until ready to pack into your picnic basket. These can be made up to 24 hours in advance.  * If you don’t have a portable egg carrier, disposable muffin tins make a great alternative.

Oven-Fried Chicken (adapted from Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book , 1965 Souvenir Edition)

1 lb. chicken cutlets

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

4 tablespoons Herbes de Provence

1/8 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped

1/3 cup butter, melted but cooled to room temperature

6 cups corn flakes, crushed

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine the garlic, salt, pepper, herbs, parsley and melted butter in a shallow dish and mix thoroughly. In a separate shallow dish add the crushed cornflakes. Dredge each piece of chicken on both sides in the butter mixture and then coat them on each side in the cornflakes. Place the prepared chicken on a lightly greased cookie sheet and bake for 20 minutes or until chicken is golden brown and crispy. *Note: This chicken recipe will loose its crunch factor the longer it sits. So if you are picnicking, this should be the last dish you make before packing the picnic basket and heading out the door. That being said, it’s still wonderful hours later or even the next day, but the corn flake coating will have a more breaded consistency rather than a crispy crunch.

Belle’s Star-Spangled Cheese Straws (from the Huntsville Heritage Cookbook, 1967 Edition)

1 lb. New York State sharp cheese (or any sharp cheddar), grated

3/4 cup butter

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon red pepper

smoked paprika for garnish

Leave both the cheese and the butter out overnight on the counter to soften. The next morning, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix all the ingredients together (except the smoked paprika)  in a medium bowl by hand. Knead the dough until it turns into a consistency like play-doh. Form into a ball shape. On a lightly floured pastry cloth, roll the dough out firmly to 1/4 inch thickness with a wooden rolling pin. By pressing it into the cloth with the rolling pin, you’ll be able to smooth out any crumbly or wrinkly areas as you work. Using a small star shaped cookie cutter, cut out the stars and place them on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake for 12-14 minutes or until lightly golden in color. Let stars cool on a rack and dust with smoked paprika just before serving.

Homemade Blueberry Tart (recipes adapted from the Smitten Kitchen and Martha Stewart)

For the tart shell:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

9 tablespoons very cold (or frozen) butter, cut into small pieces

1 large egg

In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugar, salt and cinnamon together. Add the chopped butter pieces and blend with with a fork until the mixture resembles small bread crumbs in various sizes. Add the egg and mix until combined. Form the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours.

Butter a 9-inch tart pan (the kind with a removable bottom). Place the chilled dough on a lightly floured pastry cloth and roll out to a size big enough to accommodate an extra 1/2 inch of dough in diameter when placed in the tart pan. Add dough to pan, trim any excess dough beyond the extra 1/2″inch that hangs over the sides. Fold the remaining  1/2″ inch of dough back into the tart pan, so that you are re-enforcing the side walls with an extra layer of dough. Pierce crust all over (bottom and sides) with a fork. Place tart pan in freezer for at least 45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Remove tart pan from freezer and place directly in oven for 20-25 minutes or until the tart shell turns a soft golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool on a rack.

For the blueberry filling:

6 cups fresh blueberries

2/3 cup cane sugar

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

4 tablespoons all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

pinch of salt

In a medium saucepan, bring 1/4 cup water and 1 1/2 cups blueberries to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and let berries simmer, stirring occasionally for about 4 minutes.

In a small bowl mix the flour with 4 tablespoons of water until smooth and then add to the blueberries in the pan. Next, add the lemon juice, sugar, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat. Let the mixture thicken for about 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in 3 1/2 cups of blueberries. Immediately, add this hot blueberry mixture to the tart shell.

Sprinkle the remaining cup of fresh blueberries across the top of the hot mixture, gently pressing the berries down so that they stick into the hot mixture enough to bind them together. Place the tart in the fridge for at least 30 minutes or at most overnight.

Additional Picnic Companions

One of the joys of picnic fare is the ability to snack and nibble on little bits of food at whim throughout the day. Since the original pique-nique days, small has been the favored size and serving proportion. For that purpose, a wooden cutting board filled with fresh fruit, a sampling of cheeses, cured meats, fresh herbs and bread offer an infinite number of little edibles that can be combined in interesting ways with the food options listed above. From chicken baguette sandwiches to cheese and crackers to deviled egg wrapped prosciutto, variety runs the gamut. The picnic board here included rainier cherries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, goat’s milk Gouda, cave-aged cheddar, blueberry Stilton, herb stuffed salami, thinly sliced prosciutto, Genoa salami, a bouquet of fresh herbs and a French baguette.

Finally, when bellies are full and appetites satisfied, the vintage-style picnic experience celebrates and salutes the pursuit of leisurely activities. There’s no rushing to clean up or clear out once you finish eating.  The whole, blissful idea behind a vintage-style picnic is to stay awhile and relax into yourself and your surroundings. One of my most favorite picnic activities is bird watching and tree scouting. I usually tote along a couple of species guides and a pair of binoculars, so that I can identify what’s flying over and growing up around me. Other fun activity suggestions (depending on your setting) include painting, sketching, walking, kite flying, playing cards, reading, talking, napping, swimming, collecting and just appreciating the people and places that share your afternoon. 

The world is a beautiful place. Time is a priceless gift. Eating is a ceremonial act. The art of the vintage picnic reminds us of that. Just as it has in the past and will continue to do so in the future. Wherever your picnic adventures take you this summer, I hope they are magical and delicious. Cheers to dining out in nature. Hope it is your best meal yet!