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…
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
Hello hello. Hope you had a wonderful 4th of July and are hours deep into a lovely holiday weekend. These past two and a half months have been officially the longest stretch of non-writing on the blog since its beginning all the way back in 2012. I’ve missed it. I’ve missed you. And I’ve missed all the fun topics that we like to discuss here. I wish I could say I was off on a magical adventure, like Ms. Jeannie, traveling the world and collecting fantastic food stories to bring back home to share with you. But the truth is not as glamorous and the circumstances definitely not as joyful.
At the end of April, my dad passed away. It has been hard and sad and writing has been difficult. I wanted to spare you all a bucketful of emotionally awkward and sentimentally teary-eyed posts that I started to write and then abandoned. All apparently a part of the grieving process which, ironically, is similar to the writing process too.
It has always been one of my goals for the Vintage Kitchen to keep things happy and interesting by featuring positive stories and positive people. We all know there’s enough heartache and negativity already shuttling around the world, who needs to add to it?! Especially when we are talking about such pleasurable topics as food and cooking and kitchens. The vintage kitchen is my joy and I’m always hoping that it is yours too.
That being said, it has taken me a couple of months to wrap my head around the loss of my dad and what that means, specifically, to my happy, healthy and still very much alive spirit. Especially when it comes to cooking and eating – two of my dad’s most favorite past-times.
All I could really muster in the writing department immediately following his death was his obituary and then two brief stories on Instagram about him here and here. Whenever it came to settling down to write a proper post about him and this whole experience here on the blog, each attempt fell apart, and the words turned into a jungle of wild declarations, rough meanderings and that dreaded word that tends to get over-sentimentalized these days … nostalgia. For two months I’ve mulled over what to say, how to say it and why it would be important. Then, just the other day, I looked at the apron and suddenly it all made sense.
When my sister and I closed up my dad’s house in early May to head back home to our lives, I took five things from his kitchen… his crock-pot, his orangey red dutch oven, two handfuls of 1960’s Air France ceramic nut dishes, an all-in-French cookbook featuring recipes from the Riviera, and his black striped apron. Like any good family heirloom passed down from one generation to another, I knew these five items would help make the memories I had of him last.
The apron was originally part of a set made by Now Designs in San Francisco in the 1980’s. It was from their Paris Bistro collection which also included a matching apron in white and grey stripe and a trio of coordinating potholders and oven mitts. Whether he bought it himself or it was gifted to him, I’m not sure, but the Paris theme matched his French airline executive career and the black cloth matched the color of his hair.
I have looked at this apron so many times throughout my life that I don’t really notice the label or even the stripes so much anymore. Whenever I look at the apron I see my dad in a bevy of situations. Standing at the grill on the back deck, when I was 5 and he was 40. Scurrying around the kitchen readying a weekend dinner party when I was in my teens and he was in his 50’s. Shaking martinis for Christmas cocktail hour when I was in my 20’s and he was in 60’s. At each turn of thought, the apron is always there, with him, with us, an active member of the family at mealtimes for more than three decades.
Looking at it now, you’d never guess it is over 35 years old. Probably this is a testament to the quality of the fabric, and the talent of the maker, and my dad’s neat and tidy ways. But as they say, appearances can be deceiving. This apron is definitely no amateur. It has lived in a suburban family house overlooking New York’s Hudson River, in a golf course bachelor apartment overlooking the Connecticut border and in two houses in Florida both overlooking lakes where alligators may or may not have roamed. As my dad’s go-to uniform in the kitchen and at the grill, it was instrumental in whipping up many of his favorite house specialties like apricot glazed Cornish game hens, cheddar chive biscuits, and barbecued chicken. It’s been a part of holiday parties, birthday parties, house parties and most every everyday dinner in between. It’s been dressed with shorts, suits, tuxedos, jeans, pants and even a bathing suit or two. It’s adventured through snowstorms, rainstorms, heatwaves, hurricanes, bad food, good food, burnt food and best foods. And best of all, at one point or another it has at been worn at least once or twice by every member in my family – my mom, my sisters, my brother and me for various cooking tasks. But most often it has been worn by my dad.
When my parents divorced in the mid-1990’s, my dad really took on home cooking with gusto. He was a world traveler by that point in his life, the consummate jetsetter, living a glamorous lifestyle while visiting glamorous places. But he hadn’t really traveled around his own kitchen with that much intrepid wonder yet. Always good at outdoor grilling, the indoor kitchen was new uncharted territory. One day he decided to change that. He read up on back issues of Gourmet magazine, bought a bunch of kitchen gadgets and got to work. What he produced, over time, were incredible meals fit for lavish occasions. His palate was vast and varied and nothing was off-limits, especially when it came to entertaining and indulging his friends and his family. When all this joie-de-vivre came about in his kitchen, I was teenager and a curious gourmet myself. We would spend weekends together, my sister, my dad and I trying out new recipes, new wines, new techniques while singing the night away to Frank Sinatra as we whisked and whipped and boiled and blanched our way through a plethora of recipes over a plethora of years.
My dad was fun to talk with about cooking because he almost always had a story to back up a food. Pigeon in Africa, pasta in Italy, lamb in New Zealand, croissants in Paris, rice in Kuala Lumpur… the adventures were endless. Plus we traveled a lot together so we each brought our own memories to the conversation of what we tasted and how we felt. My dad understood the power of food and the emotional vibrancy it brought to an atmosphere unlike anyone else I had known. Probably because he had attended enough work dinners and cocktail parties to last three lifetimes let alone one. Those experiences helped him craft the subtle nuances of cooking for others and added art to the act of entertaining. He knew that a pre-dinner cocktail could loosen the mood, that a dinner wine could bring out new flavors in the food and that a new style of cooking had the power to ignite curiosity and expand horizons. Once he got the hang of it all, he entertained with abandon. Almost every weekend his house was full with a party or two. And on the quiet nights, he ate just as interestingly.
When he became sick a few years ago my dad stopped cooking altogether. This transition came on slowly. A packaged Trader Joe’s food dinner here, another one there, “for convenience,” he said, when he didn’t have the energy to cook. The phone conversations between my sister, my dad and I became less about what we were all making in our kitchens and more about what he was eating in his. Week by week, it became more clear – convenience was in and cooking was out. By that point, his favorite apron became buried in a drawer beneath the oven.
In these new normal days, my sister and I would fly down every few months and prepare multiple meals for his freezer so that he could pull them out when he was hungry, defrost them and taste something homemade. We made all of his most favorites – French Onion soup, Split Pea, Chicken Cassoulet, navy beans, meatloaf, brownies, chocolate cake, cookies… whatever sounded good to him. Each time we cooked, I’d begin by opening the drawer beneath the oven and pulling out his apron. Within minutes the apron would be full of flour and food splashes, damp with water, as my sister and I dived into preparing our recipes. By the end of each of these cooking holidays, the kitchen, a war-zone of scattered pots and pans and ingredients, would get cleaned up and the apron washed and dried and returned back to the drawer. It seemed like every time my sister and I put it away, we would be surprised by how great the apron cleaned up. How it could still look so spotless and practically brand-new after days of flurried cooking and decades of use.
When his frozen foodstuffs inevitably ran out, my dad would resort to indulging his cravings with things he’d discovered at the grocery store… rice pudding, root beer, peanut butter, cheddar cheese popcorn, danishes. Over the phone, he’d fill my sister and I in on his new store favorites including a fast-food sandwich – Egg McMuffins from McDonald’s. All this from a guy who never ate prepared foods or fast food in his entire life, who almost never ate dessert unless it was homemade, and whom prided himself on eating a well-rounded diet. Out of fear that he was going to launch himself into some sort of sugar -induced coma, my sister and I would suggest greener alternatives like kale and granola, grass-fed beef and tuna fish to balance out his sweet tooth. But anything that involved even the lightest amount of prep work was usually taken off the grocery list. There was no way his apron was coming out of the drawer on a regular basis anymore.
This past January, at the end of another big cook-a-thon, I installed a hook on the back of my dad’s kitchen pantry door and hung the apron there, hoping the sight of it would help inspire him to start cooking again. Unfortunately, by that time, he was hardly spending any time at all in the kitchen let alone in the pantry. When I found four beautiful vintage French wine glasses from the oldest vineyard in France for my shop, and called to tell him about it and get some stories, he said he didn’t remember anything about the company or the vineyard and quickly went on to change the subject. I knew then that his foodie days were flickering. That the hook for the apron I recently hung, wasn’t going to be able to work any wonders.
My dad died on a Saturday morning four months later. He was in his bed, in his house the way he wanted to be. It was peaceful and calm. My sister and I were there with him right to the very end. The next few days and weeks passed. My wonderful husband took over kitchen detail and cooked all the meals while my sister and I made arrangements and plans. I felt anxious during that time in his house, like an impostor secretly living someone else’s life. Every activity felt strange, uncomfortable and slightly ridiculous as we witnessed life carrying on in his house, among his things, without him.
I never thought that release from those feelings would ever come in the form of 44″ inches of 35 year old cotton fabric. But when my sister and I sat down to make a list of the few things we wanted to take home with us, right away, my first pick was the black striped apron. Somehow, in some weird testament to its abilities, this apron has always felt the same to wear no matter how old I was – 8 or 18 or 38. It always fit my dad well too – no matter if he was thin and trim like he was in his executive years or stooped and slightly paunched in his senior years. Everything about it just fit right and felt right, always.
I wish I could remember the last meal my dad made for himself in this apron before he decided to stop cooking altogether. It must have been sometime in 2017 or maybe early 2018, when he experienced a brief burst of energy that had him not only talking about food but actually cooking a few dishes too. Stoic and loyal, the apron gives up no clues. There are no stains or spots that might have said he made bolognese sauce or grilled shrimp or chicken pot pie or lamb chops dolloped with a fresh mint jelly. There are no holes or burn marks or ripped threads from an adventure gone wrong. The apron tells no secrets. Instead it just quietly ties together and holds onto a lifetime of one man’s food stories.
I’ll never have the chance to cook alongside my dad or for my dad anymore, but as long as his apron hangs around my kitchen, I’ll always be able to cook with him. He may not physically be here but he’s also not really gone either. That’s the joy of inheriting his apron. Somehow, when I tie the strings of black stripe around my waist and get to cooking it feels like a hug. A hug from a dad to his daughter. From one cook to another.
Funny enough, I couldn’t locate one photograph of my dad in his apron, even though I know there are several somewhere in his photo collection. So in its place, I’m including this one, where he is neither cooking nor apron-ing but instead smiling big and happy, which is even better. As I said earlier, this post took a long time to write. There is still lots more to be said about this big man who led a big life in a big way. I look forward to sharing more about him in future posts. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this quote by Anthony Hopkins which I think wholeheartedly sums up my new philosophy, especially after going through this experience…
Cheers to eating the delicious food, to aprons that wrap us up in memories that last and to my dad who taught me so much stuff I can hardly know where to begin.
Cows are sacred, salt is expensive, cross the sea trading is prohibited and immigrants had to get to New York. In a nut shell, those are the four substantial situations that had to occur in order to bring brisket to your dining tables today. Happy St. Patrick’s Day dear readers! Today’s post is all about a traditional Irish food that actually is, in reality, a multi-cultural collaboration between three countries. While it is certain that many a crock-pot will be simmering away today in honor of the holiday, and the famous corned beef and cabbage that has become associated with it, you might be surprised to learn that the propulsion for this traditional heritage food actually has more to do with New York City than Ireland.
It all started back in Ireland’s ancient times when cows were considered sacred animals. Valued for their milk and their strength over anything else, Irish cows were essential components to a working farm and were never considered a viable meat source. But England adored beef, particularly roasts, so much so that by the 1600’s, England couldn’t keep up with their own country’s supply and demand. So they went to Ireland to see about some cows.
A good revenue stream for the Emerald Isle, and a can’t-live-without-it commodity for England, this cow commerce between countries was mutually beneficial for all. That is until the Cattle Acts of the 1660’s. In an instant, thanks to the Act, the sale of live cows to England was no longer allowed. The sudden halt in commerce left Ireland scrambling for a solution and left England grumbly with hungry bellies. This all came about at a time when salt was also an extremely expensive ingredient in England. Ireland, on the other hand, was not only flush with cattle but also abundant with coastal salt pans. The combination of these two riches formed a clever way for Ireland to package meat for export that skirted around the law. They created a new method of food preservation called corned beef – a salted meat product that could withstand time and travel to England without spoiling.
Coming from the brisket cut of the cow (located between the front knees and the shoulder area) this salt infused food was named corned beef because of the corn kernal-sized salt crystals used in preserving it. Generally known as a tougher piece of meat since that area of a cow’s body gets quite a lot of exercise, early corned beef was essentially just a slab of meat that was rumored to taste more like salt than beef.
Because it was shelf stable, easy to prepare and came in bigger portions, corned beef became a popular staple in the diets of 18th century Englanders as well as sailors away at sea for long stretches of time. It even made its way into the diets of Early American colonists who were struggling to produce food for their new country. The only people who were not enjoying this salty slice of protein were the Irish, who, in a terrible twist of irony, couldn’t afford to buy the very product they were exporting.
It would take one more century and a move to America before Irish immigrants were able to afford and enjoy the corned beef that made their home country famous. In the mid-late 1800’s, a majority of the butcher shops within the New York metropolitan area were owned and operated by Jewish immigrants.
Living in close knit communities, both Irish and Jewish transplants bonded over feelings of displacement and discrimination experienced in their new world. Financial resources were a challenge for most city dwellers, but especially for these two ethnic groups in-particular, as they faced prejudices in work and social environments. Luckily, food brought them together via thrift and necessity and novelty.
Upon arriving in America, Irish immigrants were delighted to discover that corned beef was much less expensive in New York then it was back home in Ireland. Likewise, Jewish immigrants liked brisket because it was one of the least expensive cuts in the butcher shop and could feed a crowd. Through experimentation in their New York City kitchens, Jewish and Irish newcomers developed the low, slow cooking methods that eventually evolved brisket from a salty slab of preserved meat into a rich and flavorful meal. Cabbage was often paired with it since it was the least expensive vegetable. Both cultures developed their own trademark dishes – slow simmered corned beef and cabbage for the Irish and smoked pastrami and sauerkraut for the Jewish community. Each specialty stemmed from the humble brisket cut.
Today’s recipe focuses on the Jewish side of cooking, with a brisket that quickly browns in butter on the stove top before heading into the oven for a slow simmer in red wine. If you are not a fan of the saltiness of traditional corned beef, or are wary of the seasoning packet that comes in most store-bought brisket kits, this recipe is a great alternative, since you can control your own level of spices. It comes from Annie, an avid cook, and a world traveler who lived in New York for most of her life. A dear friend to my father, she’s proud of her Jewish heritage and is famous for many signature dishes including homemade horseradish (more on that in a future post).
Annie sent this recipe to my dad over email 15 years ago while she was at sea traveling between Buenos Aires and Santiago. The trip was rough with wild waves and cold temperatures but Annie was more than happy to take a few moments to share her way of making brisket. In our modern age, email letters aren’t quite as pretty as handwritten ones – but the sentiment is there nonetheless. My dad has hung onto her correspondence for over a decade and a half. I discovered it recently, tucked inside one of his favorite cookbooks.
Although it requires two days to make, it is very simple and involves just a few ingredients. I used grass-fed beef from the farmers market and a red wine blend called Sheep Thrills for the fun pun. Also, Annie cooks like James Beard recommends – with your intuition – so she doesn’t specify in her recipe exactly how much seasoning to use. In the directions, I share my method, but you may want to add more or less depending on your preference.
Annie’s Wine Soaked Beef Brisket
4-5lb beef brisket ( I used a 3.5 lb grass-fed beef brisket)
4 tablespoons butter (only necessary if using grass-fed beef)
4 stalks celery
2 bay leaves
2 cups red wine
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Remove the brisket from the packaging and let rest on the counter for 45 minutes to 1 hour. If you are using frozen grass-fed beef make sure that it has completely thawed in the fridge before beginning this recipe. Do not trim the fat from the brisket.
In an ovenproof pan (preferably one that has a lid) over medium high heat, add the butter (but only if using grass-fed beef, otherwise omit the butter). Generously sprinkle each side of the meat with the onion and garlic powders and the celery salt (I did about five passes on each side with each of these seasonings). Brown the brisket, fat-side down, for 5 minutes on each side.
Roughly chop the onions and the celery and add them to the brisket pan.
Pour in the red wine and add the bay leaves. Cover and bake in oven for 2 to 3 hours or until the brisket reaches an internal temperature of 170 degrees. (Note: Grass-fed beef cooks faster then grain-fed beef, so watch the temperature and time closely. My 3.5 lb brisket came out exactly at the 2 hour mark.)
Let the brisket cool to room temperature and then refrigerate overnight it in the same pan that you cooked it in so that all the juices can soak back up into the meat.
The next day, remove the pan from the fridge and scoop off the top layer of fat.
Remove the onions and celery to a blender and mix until well combined. This will form a thin au jus style gravy which is delicious for dipping.
Transfer the au jus to a small saucepan and warm over medium heat. Next, thinly slice the brisket and serve cold or at room temperature alongside the au jus and/or with your favorite condiments like mustard, mayo or horseradish.
This style of brisket is perfect for French Dip style sandwiches served on crusty rolls. It also travels well for spring-time picnics and outdoor family gatherings. In Annie’s house it is a staple for many Jewish holiday celebrations. Simple fare with a collaborative past, that’s the brisket in all its wonderful ways.
There is something lovely about Annie’s recipe that ties all the historical elements of the holiday into one tidy package. With its Irish and Jewish heritage, its international transmittance and Annie’s New York roots, it feels like this recipe really embraces the spirit of the holiday. The parallels are endless. The recipe was written on a boat in the 2000’s featuring a food that was once eaten by sailors in the 1700’s. Annie lived in New York during the 20th century. The immigrants who helped perfect this style of cooking lived in New York in the 19th century. Annie is Jewish. The butchers who sold brisket cuts to the Irish in NYC were Jewish. Annie uses brisket to feed her family on Jewish holidays. The Irish-American community uses brisket to celebrate their national Catholic holiday.
St. Patrick’s Day isn’t only for the Irish – it’s for everyone in America who hand a hand in building a country where people and food worked together to create new things and new traditions in a new land. Cheers to foods that continue to bring people together in surprising ways. And cheers to Annie for sharing her delicious brisket recipe. Hope this St. Patrick’s Day is your most festive one yet!
In 1965, when James Beard published his new cookbook, Menus for Entertaining, he had one thing in mind… generosity. Unlike his 14 cookbooks published previously, all of which taught readers how to prepare good food, this one focused on the largehearted act of cooking for other people.
A subtle change from his more tutorial-style instruction favored in earlier cookbooks, this one captured an idealized, ethereal expression of how to combine the art of being a good cook with the art of being a thoughtful host. Two concepts that, surprisingly, don’t always meet up in the race to put a good meal on the table.
There are lots of elements that can inspire one to cook. Maybe it’s a particular ingredient or a time constraint, a season or a health reason, the weather or a garden, a particular holiday or a memory, a special piece of cooking equipment or a celebratory event. And there are lots of fundamental reasons to prepare a meal: to satiate, to learn, to nourish, to educate, to create, to boast. In James’ case, in this cookbook, his inspiration was people and his reason was gratitude.
“There is no greater reward than pleasing your audience,” James shares in the introduction. His cookbook was not only about preparing something delicious, it was also about spoiling his guests, about indulging the valuable time spent together, and about presenting a thoughtful, custom dining experience. Like a play or a live performance, this type of entertaining is a nuanced event. Something wrapped around food and friendship equally. To James it meant paying as much attention to what you were serving as to whom you were serving and why.
For example, if James wanted to throw a dinner party and wanted to include a certain guest whom he knew was on a diet, he would plan a light and low calorie menu for the night, making sure that it didn’t skimp on flavor but was fully satisfying for everyone, dieters or not, without being calorie heavy.
Or if he had a friend who longed to travel to Germany but couldn’t afford the plane ticket, James would plan a whole dinner party around German foods from start to finish complete with music and wine and Bavarian-style decorations. By putting focus on this German lover’s interests, it was his thoughtful way of acknowledging, satiating and celebrating his friend’s wanderlust.
This idea of unselfishly cooking for other people in an effort to please them and care for them is a notion that really hit home these past dozen weeks while I’ve been away from the blog. I spent the time in Florida, in and and out of the hospital with my sick dad as he fought hard through infections and medical procedures, rehab and rest. While I was there, I was overwhelmed by the love and support that people showed my family through gifts of food. From the vendor at the farmers market who tucked extra pastries into our packages, to neighbors who stocked the fridge with homemade meals, to family friends who stopped by with treats in their hands and empathy in their hearts, it was these thoughtful gestures of kindness that helped sustain and support our spirits during a daunting time. Like James suggests in his book, cooking is one of the kindest, most fundamental things that you can do for another person, so you might as well throw your heart into it and fill the effort with joy and passion.
On Friday over on Instagram, I posted a picture of this homemade pear tart which was made with the Rich Pastry Dough recipe from James’ 1965 cookbook.
This was a thank you food parcel too. A gift for my friend, Diane, who shared her vintage cookbook collection with me while she was packing up to move. Like James in 1965, and the wonderful people in Florida in 2019, I wanted to thank her for her kindness with a homemade dessert. One that could be easily kept and consumed over the weekend while she moved from one house to another. I wanted to make something for her that could be eaten on the run for breakfast or enjoyed by slice or sliver late in the afternoon when the moving boxes might seem endless and energy levels might be in need of a boost. Either way, tarts are very accommodating in that department. They travel well in the car, can sit on the counter all day, and can be eaten, provincial style without any need for plates and forks.
This pear tart in particular, is also a good transition dessert between Winter and Spring, and the wonky weather that always seems to be sorting itself out in March as the temps fluctuate between hot and cold. Comforting cinnamon and in-season pears are nods toward Winter, while the thin buttery crust with flecks of lemon rind adds a light, fresh note for Springtime. Diane’s husband is also a collector of vintage French cookbooks, so it seemed fitting to make a classically French dessert, but with a slight James Beard twist for them. This crust includes egg yolks, lemon rind and lots of butter and the filling is a combination of Julia Child’s pear tart, James Beard’s apple tart and my sister’s homemade apricot jam. (Note: If you don’t have a jam-maker in your family, don’t worry. Any good-quality, corn syrup-free store bought jam will work too.)
Whether you make this for yourself or as a gift for someone else in your life, I hope you enjoy every part of the process of making it and presenting it. That’s what James would have wanted and what he hoped for when creating his cookbook so many decades ago.
James Beard’s Rich Pastry Dough circa 1965
Makes 1 2 crust pie or 2 shells
2 cups unsifted flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup butter
1/4 cup vegetable shortening ( I used butter)
1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon rind
2 raw egg yolks
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Make a well in the center of the flour. Add sugar; butter, not too hard, not too soft, cut in small pieces; vegetable shortening cut in small pieces; lemon rind; eggs and salt. Work quickly with finger tips to make a smooth, firm pastry. Dough should form a ball and leave tabletop or bowl fairly clean. Chill dough ball in the fridge for at least 30 minutes before rolling.
Remove dough ball from fridge. Cut in half. Roll out one half of the dough on a floured work surface. Transfer rolled dough to tart tin and remove excess dough from the sides. Using a fork prick the dough all over the bottom and sides. Chill unbaked tart shell in pan in the freezer for 2 hours.
After two hours, remove tart pan from freezer and place immediately in a hot 450 degree oven for 10 minutes to pre-bake. Remove from oven and let cool in pan on a wire rack while you assemble the filling.
Pear Tart Filling
4 ripe pears
1/4 lb butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2-1 teaspoon cinnamon (depending on taste preference)
1 splash of white wine
2 tablespoons cane sugar + 2 more tablespoons for sprinkling
1/8 teaspoon salt
A dash of nutmeg
Juice of half a lemon
Leaving the skins on, dice two of the pears into quarter inch pieces. Add them to a small saucepan along with the butter, vanilla, cinnamon, white wine, salt, 2 tablespoons sugar and nutmeg and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and let simmer until most of the liquid is evaporated (forming a consistency close to thick and chunky applesauce). Remove from heat. Let cool.
While filling is cooling cut the remaining two pears in half. Then lay them cut side down on a cutting board and carefully slice them vertically into paper-thin slices.
Spread the filling evenly into the pre-baked tart dough. Arrange the pear slices in a circular fashion on top of the filling. Squeeze lemon juice over the pear slices and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons cane sugar. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes or until pears and crust are lightly brown on top.
Remove from oven. Spread a thin layer of apricot jam over the entire tart and let cool to room temperature.
Last November, my husband and I traveled through Gearhart, OR where James Beard grew up, spent childhood summers and eventually after a long and hardy life, became the final resting place for his ashes. We were hoping to see a glimpse of his life in town. Perhaps a restaurant named after him or his childhood house now a monument to visit. But there were no obvious signs. There was just a big stretch of beautiful ocean and the sound of the sea. Maybe that summed up his impact on the 20th century food scene best… a massive presence that still ripples through our modern days making us feel inspired, and impressed, soothed and comforted.
Cheers to James Beard, to good friends and to thoughtful food! Interested in learning more about James Beard? Discover a few of his cookbooks, including Menus for Entertaining, in the shop here,here and here.
Although it was invented technically in 1927, television didn’t make a widespread appearance in homes until the 1950’s. And cooking shows didn’t reach their heyday until the 1990’s. That means there was no Food Channel, no Great British Baking Show, no Martha Stewart. If you wanted expert instruction in the 1920’s on how to bake a festive looking cake for the holidays you basically had four options as far as guidance… your mom, your grandmother, your favorite cookbook or your favorite radio show…
Very reliable sources for sure, those options would have definitely produced a delicious, time-tested cake that everyone enjoyed, and had been enjoying for years and years. But none of those options would have been able to show you how to make something new and innovative. For that you would have had to go to Chicago – to the Wilton School of Cake Decorating, where you’d get expert hands-on-training on how to make the most pretty and modern cake of the holiday season.
Started in 1929 by confectionery artist Dewey McKinley Wilton, the Wilton School first taught classes to area pastry chefs in the hotel industry. Dewey had a special relationship with these guys in particular. As a traveling pulled sugar expert, Dewey would show up in hotel kitchens around the Midwest when the pastry chefs needed an extra bit of magnificence to wow their hotel guests.
Most of these pastry chefs were wonders themselves in the cake baking department, having been trained in Europe, and were very proficient with a frosting knife and lofty buttery layers. But they weren’t quite as familiar with Dewey’s flair for pulling sugar into hardened shapes and intricate designs.
Quite curious, they wanted to know about techniques, about processes, about possibilities. And most importantly, all these pastry chefs wanted to know how exactly a pot of boiling melted sugar could eventually turn into a big, brilliant ribbon or a bird or a crunchy piece of abstract art. Dewey was more than happy to share what he knew, but after so many pastry chefs in so many hotels kept asking so many of the same questions over and over again, his entrepreneurial spirit kicked in.
Instead of telling each chef, one by one, how pulled sugar was done, he realized he needed to be teaching one class geared towards many minds. So that’s what he did. He started the Wilton School of Cake Decorating in the dining room of his house in 1929 and charged $25 a class for an expert lesson on how to pull sugar and make hard candies. The class filled up in a jiffy. Nothing excites a pastry chef more than a newfangled way to decorate a sweet treat, and in all that sugary merry making of the new School there was plenty of learning going on. While Dewey was teaching his students, he was also learning about their classical European ways to bake, frost and assemble cakes in eye-catching ways.
Soon word spread beyond the pastry chef community. The school was fun and informative and produced the most spectacular and delicious cakes the Midwest had ever experienced. People started arriving for instruction from other towns beyond Chicago, and then other states beyond Illinois. Home cooks, caterers, food economists and restaurant owners were clamoring to learn Dewey’s special way with cakes – a method he wound up calling the Wilton Way – which combined the best parts of European baking with simple easy-to-replicate American designs.
Now getting ready to celebrate its 100th birthday in a few short years, The Wilton School of Cake Decorating and Confectionery Art still remains a bustling educational center for all baking aficionados. Determined to create interesting and engaging art through butter and suagr, Dewey and his following generations grew the business into not only a school, but also a food product and accessories line that can be found in most grocery stores around the country today as well as on their website. They even offer online classes for those who can’t make the trip to Illinois to join the fun in person.
That’s a pretty remarkable career for any business, let alone one in the baking industry where it can be difficult to remain innovative and approachable at the same time. Thanks to Dewey’s Wilton Way and his easily accessible method, he helped dispel the myth that cake decorating was an intimidating, complicated art meant for only a certain type of person. Thousands of accomplished students have graduated from the Wilton program since its inception, many continuing on with successful careers in the baking industry.
Here in the Vintage Kitchen, I was introduced to the Wilton Way through this book…
a 1991 reprint of their 1979 cake decorating book. It is full of attractive cakes, some vibrant with retro charm, others timeless and elegant…
Laid out like coursework, it teaches readers progressively in master class style. Meaning that if you start at the very beginning, and work your way through each chapter, by the end of the book you’ll have amassed so much skill you’ll be able to confidently tackle the baking and decorating of a multi-tiered wedding cake festooned with a bevy of frothy details.
This past week, I endeavored to make their Winter Snowflake Cake – a pale green pastel beauty that consisted of two layers and frosted snowflakes…
This was my first foray into cake decorating with an intentional design, multiple frostings and more than one piping project, so it was a fun adventure, but it definitely didn’t go quite as planned. The Wilton’s are fast to reassure in their book, saying that the best way to make a perfect cake is to practice, practice, practice. I fast forwarded through the beginning chapters and went straight to this cake. That being said, here’s my finished version…
You’ll notice it is missing some elements from the original cake – most noticeably the side snowflakes. I’ll explain how they went awry further down in the post. I’m also sharing the recipes, as I go along too, in case you want to take yourself to school and experiment with making your own vintage snowflake cake this winter as well.
One funny thing about this cake decorating book in particular is that it’s all about cake decorating and only cake decorating, which means that you have to gather a recipe in order to bake the actual layer cake part from another source. I used Martha Stewart’s Butter Cake recipe which turned out great because it baked flat and even on all sides – characteristics you definitely want when making a multiple layer cake.
Martha Stewart’s Butter Cake 1
(makes two 9.5″ inch round cakes)
8 ounces unsalted butter
3 cups cake flour, plus more for dusting
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup whole milk
Preheat oven to 350. Butter cake pans and dust with flour, tapping out excess flour.
Whisk together flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.
In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, mix butter and sugar until pale (about 2-3 minutes). Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add vanilla and mix again. Add flour mixture in three batches alternating between each batch with two batches of milk. Stir until evenly combined.
Distribute batter evenly between cake pans (this is about 3 1/4 cups of batter per pan).
Bake for 20-25 minutes or until cake tester inserted in center comes out clean.
Let cakes cool in pan on wire rack for 20 minutes. Invert cake layers and remove cake from pan. Let cool on wire rack completely then wrap each cake in wax paper and then plastic wrap and store in the fridge until you are ready to frost.
There are two types of frosting used for this cake. A pale green buttercream and a bright white royal icing. Both icing recipes are from the Wilton School and are easy to use. They both include a curious ingredient called meringue powder (made by Wilton!) which can be found in the baking section of your grocery or online.
I didn’t even know there was such a thing as meringue powder before this project, but basically it is an egg-white substitute used in place of whipping up fresh eggs. Normally, I’m not a fan of substitute convenience products but since this was the first time I was making this cake I wanted to use the products they recommended. Next time, I’ll try to make my own meringue using fresh eggs. Now it’s onto the frosting…
(makes 8 cups)
2/3 cup water
4 tablespoons meringue powder
11 1/2 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar
1 1/4 cups butter
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2-3 drops green food coloring
In a large mixing bowl, combine water and meringue powder and whip at high speed until peaks form. Add 4 cups sugar, one cup at a time, beating at low speed after each addition. Alternately, add butter and remainder of sugar. Add salt and vanilla and beat at low speed until smooth. Add food coloring one drop at a time, (a little goes a long way!) mixing thoroughly between drops until a desired shade is achieved. The color will deepen as the icing ages, so keep that in mind when adding drops.
Special note: This recipe makes enough frosting for one two layer cake including top, sides and filling between layers, plus a little extra. Leftover frosting can be stored in an air-tight container in the fridge for several weeks.
Next, I set to work frosting the top of the first layer and then the top and sides of the next layer…
When it was all sufficiently frosted, I cleaned the frosting knife and then gently scraped it as evenly as possibly around the sides of the cake to create a smooth texture.That same treatment was repeated on top of the cake too so that it maintained a flat and level surface. At this stage, I learned a fun little trick. A little drop of water helps to smooth icing out – so round I went once more on the sides with a wet frosting knife. Then the cake was set aside so that the icing could harden (or “crust” as Wilton described it). Next on the schedule was making the icing for the snowflakes…
Meringue Royal Icing
(makes 3 1/2 cups)
3 level tablespoons meringue powder
1 lb. confectioner’s sugar
3 1/2 oz. warm water
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
Combine all ingredients in a medium sized mixing bowl. At first, mix slowly with an electric mixer then increase the speed to medium and mix for 7-10 minutes.
Things is where things got a little bit tricky. While the snowflake icing is super easy to make, the method used to make the snowflakes is really difficult. It involved piping icing onto wax paper…
letting each snowflake dry for an hour…
re-piping each one again (aka over-piping), letting it dry for another hour…
and then carefully removing each snowflake from the wax paper and adhering them to the cake one by one. In theory, this sounds simple enough, but each snowflake was very tricky to remove without them doing this…
After many attempts and many hours, I abandoned this method of snowflake making altogether. Evidently I need more practice in this department! Instead, I just carried on and piped the large snowflake directly on top of the cake, freehand style, and left the sides bare.
Finally, this winter snowflake cake was trimmed on top and bottom with little snowballs. Wilton recommended using two-different sized pastry tubes #3 and #6 for this task, but I just used just one ziploc bag and it worked great.
And that was how this vintage snowflake cake came to be. It definitely isn’t a perfect cake compared to Wilton standards, but it was a whole lot of fun to make and has me thinking about future designs once I practice, practice, practice as Wilton often recommends.
Have you guys ever decorated cakes like this before? If you have any tips or techniques or adventure stories of your own confectionery creations, please share them in the comments section below. It will be fun to help propel the educational portion of this post, so that we can all learn together. And most definitely, if you embark on this winter snowflake baking project, please let us know how it all tuned out in your kitchen.
In the meantime, learn more about the wonderful world of Wilton and their inspiring vintage cake decorating book here. Several other shop items also made an appearance in this post’s photos as well… find the 1960’s era glass cake stand here, the 1920’s silver plate water pitcher here, and the vintage embroidered tea towel here.
Hope your weekend is as sweet as buttercream and as lofty as a layer cake! Cheers!
Ladies and gentlemen, the results are in! Eighteen ingredients, nine hours, three loaf pans and one historic recipe later – we have a winner – in Election Cake. Yesterday, when I wrote about the history of this patriotic confection, there was uncertainty and speculation about what exactly it was (cake or bread?) and if it was going to be a palatable sweet treat that transitioned well across three centuries. Today, we discovered what this celebratory concoction was all about. Let’s look…
The recipe began yesterday, simple enough, with yeast and water and flour, and a dash of sugar and oil…
It was left to rise six hours on its own, which it did, like a good little cake…
Next, went in a handful of ingredients…
After they were all mixed together, the batter was ready to be parceled out into three loaf pans…
and were left to rise again, for another hour, which they really didn’t do at all. It would be generous to say that after the hour was up, each loaf was half an inch taller, but that would be an exaggeration. Maybe, indeed the batter did rise a little, but if so it was barely noticeable. I hesitated here at this stage, thinking maybe I should let them sit longer so that each loaf could get bigger. But then I remembered that the author of this recipe, Fannie Farmer, was a stickler for precision and instruction, so into the oven the three loaves went, without any extra rise time. Just follow the recipe. That’s what Fannie would have said.
Exactly at the one hour mark, no less and no more, the loaves came out sky high and golden brown…
Fannie didn’t fail us after all! The tops even cracked open themselves, and looked like little lips about to say yum. A good sign of things to come. After a short cooling off period, the loaves were ready to cut and serve and taste…
And that is when I discovered that this very old Election Cake is in fact, very delicious. I understand how people could get confused about whether to call it a cake or a bread because really it is similar to both. It has a texture and consistency like banana bread or zucchini bread but also it has a light and fluffy body like cake. The combination of the whiskey, yeast and nutmeg gives it a subtle hint of almost root beer-like tang that is lovely and warm. And although it already has a cup of butter in it, this little darling of a delectable is calling out to be sliced and toasted with an extra slather of butter.
While no one ingredient is powerfully overwhelming, all of them work well together to create a balanced flavor that hints at citrus and at spice, which leads me to understand how so many varieties of Election Cake came about between the 1700’s and now. It’s wonderful just as it is, but it’s also one of those recipes that might spark your creativity. After you have made it once or twice, it will make you feel brave – enough to confidently add your own little twist. Not an improvement, just a twist. Maybe you’ll want to add some nuts or orange peel or cinnamon or cranberries. Or maybe you’ll get creative on the serving side and want to pair it along with thinly sliced pieces of ham or brie or cream cheese for a savory little snack. I love recipes like this – ones that feed your brain as well as your belly.
Either way you decide to approach this recipe, you’ll be most successful with it if you use good quality ingredients like local eggs, fresh nutmeg, European butter, etc. They might be a little more expensive to buy, but the more fresh and natural your ingredients, the more flavorful this cake, in particular, will be. And because it makes three loaves at once, you can freeze two for later, preferably when its cold and snowy, as this would be especially nice for winter breakfast alongside a cup of coffee, for lunch or tea-time or even afternoon hors d’oeuvres. Sweet in a satisfying, robust way (not in an empty calorie way), it will give you renewed energy to carry on with your day, which was exactly the original intention way back on voting days in the 1700’s.
Fannie Farmer’s Election Cake
(Makes 3 loaves. Recipe written exactly as it appeared in the 1965 edition of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook)
Put in a bowl… 1 cup warm water (not hot)
Sprinkle over it… 1 package yeast
Add… 1 tablespoon sugar, 1 tablespoon salad oil (I used olive oil), 2 1/2 cups flour
Beat thoroughly , cover, and let rise overnight or at least 6 hours.
Butter three loaf tins. Cream 1 cup butter. Cream in 2 cups dark brown sugar.
Add 4 eggs, well beaten.
Stir in 1 tablespoon grated lemon rind and 1 tablespoon lemon juice.
Sift together 1 1/2 cups flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda, 1/2 teaspoon powdered cloves, 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, 1/2 teaspoon mace (if you can’t find this spice, substitute it for an additional 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg), 1/2 teaspoon salt.
Add to the the butter mixture. Add 2 cups seeded raisins, 1 cup whiskey.
Stir into the yeast batter and beat to blend well. Divide the dough in the tins. cover and let rise 1 hour. Bake about 1 hour at 350 degrees.
Interested in learning more about Fannie Farmer and her historic recipes? Find the 1965 edition of her original 1898 cookbook in the shop here.
And just a little reminder… there are just two days left to save 20% off all vintage and antique platters in the shop! Find your favorite here.