Once upon a time in history long, long ago there was a cake that fed the whole entire town on Election Day. Called simply, Election Cake, it was an active participant in the voting scene of early America. But while the recipe’s origins are as old as the United States itself, the exact history is a little bit varied depending on which source in which state is telling the tale.
Essentially though, everyone pretty much agrees that it boils down to the early days of New England (some say Connecticut, some say Massachusetts) when Election Day was celebrated in the Spring and considered one of the biggest party days of the year. Enjoyed with the same amount of zeal as our modern St. Patrick’s Day festivities, Election Day in 1700’s America was a boozy holiday full of ale and camaraderie and community support. Only people weren’t celebrating one particular heritage like we do the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. They were celebrating everyone’s heritage, as Americans, on Election Day. The fervor was for freedom. And the cake was needed to sop up everyone’s spirits (the ale especially). It also provided a little motivation to actively vote for the political candidates of the day, because even in 1700’s America, people (and politicians!) were aware of the powerfully compelling nature of cake and its ability’s to attract favor.
Being such a big festivity in the lives of Colonial America, with people traveling from miles around to attend special gatherings, it made sense to local residents, at the time, to bake one enormous cake to serve all who showed up. So out of thirty quarts of flour and fourteen pounds of sugar and ten pounds of butter, Election Cake was born from the loving hands and hearts of local women who couldn’t vote themselves but could at the very least feed the men who were voting for them. Some historians say that this proves that women were important members of the political spectrum even back then when they had no vocal authority. I don’t know about that, they may have just looked at the voting day in a practical feed-the-masses way, but it is fun to think that while they were baking, they were also discussing political topics among themselves. Even if they were just hushed whispers while they were mixing batter and melting butter, I like to think they were formulating their own ideas about what should and could happen in the future shaping of America.
The interesting thing about Election Cake though is that it is not really cake. Since its inception it has really been more of a fruit and spice studded bread than a traditional cake. And in true American spirit it has been revised and enhanced and reworked over the centuries into numerous different versions like breakfast buns, frosted bundt cakes and drunken fruit cakes. The core of the recipe remains the same though – flour, butter and sugar – but over the years different variations have been included and excluded that involve milk, eggs, raisins, currents, citrus fruits, whiskey, rum, brandy, wine, confectioner’s sugar, etc. Baking equipment differs too. Originally, back in the day when one giant cake was made, it was too big to fit into any bakeware so it just baked free-form on the oven floor. Next came bread loaf pans, a smart decision that produced numerous easy-to-handle loaves that could be made by numerous hands. Then there was the bundt cake method, the cast iron skillet method, the baking dish method, etc.
For this post, I’m making the Fannie Farmer version from her 1965 Fannie Farmer Cookbook, which was first published in 1898. True to form, this recipe has changed a bit over the Fannie Farmer years too. The 1960’s version involves raisins, whiskey and loaf pans. Her original recipe from 1898 called for figs, sour milk and bread dough starter.
A nine hour baking project from start to finish, this is a kitchen adventure that will unfold over two days and two blog posts. Tonight, we discussed the history behind the recipe, and tomorrow we’ll discuss the actual recipe and how it all turned out. Will it indeed be more like a raisin bread rather than a fruit cake, as it is listed in Fannie’s cookbook? Will our modern palettes fall in love with this old fashioned recipe enough to resurrect it and recommend it in the Vintage Kitchen? Will it become a repeat labor of love on future days of election or will it be a one hit-not-so-wonderful? Only time will tell in this case. Tune in tomorrow for the 2018 Election Day results, vintage kitchen style…
They come with names that sound like 1970’s rock bands… Bodega Red, Arran Victory, British Queen, Golden Wonder, Bellarosa. Or like types of prize-winning chickens… German Butterball, Champion, Adirondack Red, Tyson. Some even sound like certain breeds of dairy cows… Shetland Black, Royal Jersey, Blue Bell, Annabelle, Cream of the Crop.
But today we are not talking about chickens or cows or headliner music. Instead, today we are talking about potatoes. All those names previously discussed are specific types of one of the most consumed foods on the planet- the noble and nourishing potato. With more than 5,000 varieties in the world, you might think that it would be hard for one lone potato type to stand out in his vast tuber family of brown, round, knobby eyed dirt dwellers. But there is actually one big-time celebrity in the batch – a spotlight stealer known around the world – a superstar of the food and restaurant scene that represents the most frequently consumed potato on the planet.
It is my pleasure to present the story of the wondersously addictive potato variety known as the Burbank Russet. Haven’t heard of it, you say? Ah, but just you wait…you’ll know it. Maybe not by backstory but definitely by bite.
On Friday, it was National French Fry Day and we celebrated with a homemade batch of Russet potato french fries in honor of the guy who created them. Meet Luther Burbank, 19th-century American botanist extraordinaire…
Luther grew up in Massachusetts in the 1850’s playing with seed balls in his mother’s garden instead of playing with sports balls in his farm neighborhood. His interest in botany from the time he was a youngster fueled his curiosity for plant cultivation, a field of study that would eventually turn into a lifelong career. Throughout his childhood and into early adulthood, Luther tinkered around with seed starting and plant breeding. Although it was a laboriously slow process, most often times ending up in disappointment, Luther came by this area of study naturally. His mother also shared his interest in gardening and the two of them would happily spend hours working in the garden, talking about the life stages of various plants.
The plant world was a playground to Luther, something that represented creativity and freedom from set rules and rigid disciplines. He had aspirations to one day have his own farm in California where he would grow vegetables and flowers for the retail market and try his hand at growing new breeds of plant life. In his early 20’s, he started experimenting with potatoes. But developing a new variety wasn’t as easy as you might think. Potatoes are peculiar things. They can be regenerated in two ways – through seeds or eyes. Either method produces similar results or slightly different results in the form of mutations or sports each time off-spring are generated. It is difficult to determine at the onslaught of a growing project how the potatoes will turn out at the end of the project. More often than not the experimentation stage for Luther in trying to cultivate a new variety was long and finicky.
But in 1873 gratification came, finally, to Luther’s ruddy, soil-covered hands. One day in his 24th year, Luther went out into the field to dig his latest sample crop, half expecting to uncover the same old story of growing the exact same plant he started out trying not to grow. But this time, something was different. Instead of digging up an ordinary round potato, Luther pulled a tuber out of the ground that was twice as big and twice as long. It was reddish-brown in color and hefty in weight. A totally different specimen than the parent potatoes he had started this most recent batch with. Success at last! His first genuinely original new potato had emerged.
He christened this new masterpiece the Burbank Russet and immediately sold it for $125. Was that enough money for Luther to retire early to his California dream farmhouse and garden? Not quite yet, but that’s not important to this story. Money never mattered to Luther, only the science that stood behind it. He made a new potato and that was pretty motivating stuff to keep his heart in the game and his hands in the soil.
Luther’s Burbank Russet was an exciting and innovative new addition to the agricultural market for its time because of its size. Almost twice as large as typical potatoes of that era, it also boasted an adaptable consistency (good for baking, mashing and frying) and was more disease resistant to common blights that affected many potato crops around the world. But after it was introduced in the late 1800’s, it took some time for the Burbank Russet to catch on. The US government initially started farming it in Oregon and from there it slowly spread to neighboring states and then the region and then the rest of the country. Eventually, it became the best-loved potato cultivator in the US.
Farmers loved it because it was easy to grow and held up well in both shipping and storage. Once it became a successful and abundant crop, the food industry got on board. Its size, consistency and cooking adaptability made it an ideal food product for both general household consumers as well as commercial food companies and restaurants.
Although the actual cooking process of making French fries – cutting strips of potatoes and frying them in fat – had been around in France and Belgium since the 1700’s, it wasn’t until a valuable American discovery was made in the 1930’s that fries started to take hold as an American food staple. This important discovery was that french fries froze well and could be reheated easily while still maintaining the same shape, taste and texture. In the early days of refrigeration, this was exciting! This mere fact opened up opportunities for the retail, transportation and restaurant industries as french fries could now be shipped around the country in both frozen and fresh forms.
By the time hamburger stands started popping up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, french fries became a main attraction at the drive-in burger stand as well as the family dinner table.
The novelty of enjoying french fries both at home and at restaurants offered plenty of potential in the form of culinary creativity. In mid-century America, the common condiments for them were simple… ketchup (or catsup, however you prefer!) and salt.
But by the 1970’s, these little potato favorites were garnering more international gourmet attention. Common toppings and condiment companions of the disco-era included the following…
…paprika, cracked black pepper, parmesan cheese, malt vinegar, crushed herbs, ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, salt and a special mayonnaise/mustard mixed combo variation. In addition to frying, it also became much more commonplace, especially in the latter decades of the 20th century, to oven bake freshly cut fries. This method of cooking was believed to be a “healthier” version since it involved less oil and a tamer cooking experience (no vats of hot fat to contend with!) as opposed to traditional deep-fry methods.
Because a lot of people tend to think it is easier to go to a fast food restaurant and buy a serving or two of fries or grab a box of frozen ones from the grocery store, we made the oven-baked variation for this post to prove how simple, quick and easy it is to take a fresh potato and turn it into a delicious hot french fry in less than 30 minutes. This recipe comes from the Joy of Cooking (1975 edition) cookbook and was a breeze to make. Literally, it took 5 minutes to prepare and 20 minutes to bake, which makes it a fast side dish for your summer burgers.
Oven “French-Fried” Potatoes (serves 1-2)
1 large russet potato (scrubbed)
1/8 cup olive oil
A generous sprinkling of sea salt
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Slice potatoes lengthwise into long 1/4″ sticks (you can do this by hand or by using the julienne setting on your vegetable slicer. Either way try to keep each stick as uniform as possible to ensure even baking. Lay the freshly cut sticks between a couple layers of paper towels and pat dry to remove extra moisture, then spread sticks out on an ungreased baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil.
Using your hands, toss the potatoes and oil together so that all sticks are coated and spread them back out in the pan as flat as possible.
Bake in the oven for 10 minutes. Then remove from the oven and flip the fries over and return back to the oven for an additional 8-10 minutes. They should look something like this when they are ready…
Remove fries from the baking pan onto a paper towel-lined plate. Sprinkle with salt and pepper (or any of your favorite spices) and serve immediately.
Inspired by the 1970’s list of approved condiments, I kept thinking while writing this post how fun it would be to have a french fry bar party where guests could pick and choose their own toppings from a wide assortment. So many flavors pair well with potatoes, so the possibilities would be endless as far as dips and dredges, sprinkles and submersibles. The one element of homemade french fries that should always remain constant though is the potato – always use russet potatoes. They are the variety of choice in almost every fast food french fry you’ll ever eat – including McDonald’s whose fries are legendary. And besides, you’ll make Luther happy, using his version over any other!
Luther never lived to see the ultimate french fry-loving success of his humble potato breed, although he did live a fulfilling gardening life up until the time of his death in the mid-1920’s. He did acquire that dream farm in California that he always wanted…
And he built a garden where invented new varieties of fruits and flowers and vegetables. We have Luther to thank for cultivating these beauties…
So while he never did see his potatoes bubbling up in oil at the golden arches, he did see his lifelong passion laid out in the golden hour light of each day into night. Satisfaction was never going to be found in fame or fortune when it came to Luther Burbank. He didn’t care about either of those two things. His happiness lived deep within the dirt – a vast canvas of potential fueled by creativity and curiosity that never ceased to inspire him.
Cheers to Luther for inventing one of the most delicious potatoes in the world. And cheers to all the farmers who keep growing the russets. May they continue to add a bit of indulgence to our diets and serve as a basis for inspiration in our culinary endeavors.
Find out more about Luther and his Santa Rosa, CA garden park here. Find the vintage Joy of Cooking cookbook in the shop here.
If you guys have any favorite toppings or condiments that you prefer on your french fries please post them in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!
You could assume a lot of things about Bette Davis. Perhaps you’ve watched her movies (all 100+ of them) and you know her characters… smart, complicated, dramatic… and you think, personally, she must have been like that too. Or maybe you’ve read her books and know that her life hasn’t always been charming or easy, and you might think she bravely dealt with a lot of disappointment. Or perhaps you’ve seen her past interviews on television or youtube and witnessed how funny and polished and magnetic she was even in the off hours of her professional life.
All those instances might lead you to assume things about Bette, making you define her as one thing more than another – brassy, smart, privileged, funny, vulnerable, demanding, narcissistic, intense, wise, melodramatic, sincere, even terrifying. Thanks to Kathryn Sermak’s new book, Miss D & Me, we can put our assumptions aside and know first-hand that Bette was a little bit of all those things. And so much more.
It is always fascinating to me to read about the behind-the-scenes lives of people in the public eye. Especially those stories shared by people who worked closely with a celebrity on a daily, detailed basis. Mostly because it breaks down the perception barrier of thinking that famous lives are so much more different than our own. That somehow fame and notoriety have morphed them into other-worldly figures washed clean from weakness and frailties. We generally only get to see one side of a famous person’s life depending on which part the media chooses to focus on, but with behind-the-scenes stories, you are offered a glimpse into a much more diverse landscape than any two-minute news clip or ten-minute interview could provide.
Ordinary people that work alongside extraordinary people are witness to the three-dimensional side of stardom – all the good and all the bad wrapped up in one experience. Like the relationship between Katharine Hepburn and her cook Norah, or Frank Sinatra and his valet George Jacobs or Madonna and her brother Christopher we are offered the chance to understand that the lives of these seemingly mythical creatures are really just fellow human beings, both flawed and fabulous.
When Kathryn Sermak first came to work as Bette’s assistant in 1979, Kathryn was a young, carefree Californian who spelled her name the classic way – Catherine – and had just newly spelled out a dream of one day living in France. Bette was in her 70’s, still working and very much set in her ways. Kathryn thought she was taking a simple summer job that would enable her to fund her way to France – not even really aware of who Bette Davis actually was. In turn, Bette thought she was getting a competent, sophisticated assistant in Kathryn whom would be both professional and perfunctory. Both were in for a very big surprise.
In the early, uncertain days, Kathryn didn’t expect to eventually count Bette as one of her best friends and Bette absolutely never entertained the idea that Kathryn would become like a daughter to her. At first, everything was wrong for both women. On Bette’s side, Kathryn was not enough – she wasn’t cultured, she wasn’t able to anticipate needs, she wasn’t sophisticated, nor groomed for the level of lifestyle that Bette had grown into. On Kathryn’s side Bette was too much… too demanding, too overbearing and too controlling. Both thought they would never last the first week together.
The turn in their relationship from bad to better came down to one simple little thing – an egg. Bette’s breakfast most always consisted of a three-minute egg. The proper cooking of it was her litmus test as to the value of any good assistant’s worth. There’s not much to cooking a three-minute egg. It involves a pan of boiling water, an egg still in its shell and three minutes of simmering. But Bette added a twist to this simple test. How do you cook a three-minute egg in a hotel room with no stove, no pots and pans and no kitchen? Perplexed, Kathryn had no idea until Bette motioned to the in-room coffee pot. Then hot water was brewed. The egg was placed in the glass coffee carafe and the time was monitored on a wristwatch for 3 minutes exactly. In this small test of skill, it wasn’t that Kathryn failed to quickly and cleverly assess the options of impromptu cooking in a kitchenless room, but instead, it was the trainability of her actions that caught Bette’s attention.
That was the beauty of their relationship and the bud that ultimately bonded them together. The fact that Kathryn was young, fresh and naive while Bette was experienced, opinionated and worldly proved a combination of character traits that formed a tight friendship that lasted the rest of Bette’s life. It wasn’t always easy for these two women learning about life and each other day by day, but by the end the experience was invaluable.
There were outlandish moments, like when Bette insisted Kathryn change the spelling of her name from Catherine to Kathryn so that she would be more memorable (which she did!). There were all the lessons Kathryn had to endure… etiquette, elocution, table manners, how to walk properly, how to dress effectively, how to eat with decorum and how to hold court at a table full of strangers.
There were awkward moments, when Bette’s insistence on how to appropriately handle certain social situations was so outdated, that Kathryn would bear the brunt of the embarrassment. This was especially apparent when Bette insisted on dressing Kathryn for a formal dance in Washington DC complete with fur coat, gloves, a designer dress, expensive jewelry and dance lessons only for Kathryn to encounter a room full of denim-clad twenty-somethings casually hanging out in a dance hall.
There were the vulnerable moments when Bette crumpled up in the face of public humiliation as her daughter wrote an unflattering tell-all book, or when Bette threw off her wig in the car one day and embarked on a temper tantrum that was heartbreakingly child-like. There was oodles of advice about men and relationships and sticking up for oneself in the face of adversity. And there were the laughs and the conversations and the sweet letters that Bette would write to Kathryn expressing all the appreciation she felt for her darling assistant and her close friend. There were silent treatments and long work days, elegant cocktail hours and thoughtful gifts, tears and tenacity, laughter and luxury. There was life, with all its good and all its bad.
And there were eggs – lots of eggs. Bette and Kathryn traveled the world together and ate at many fine restaurants, but the food Bette would choose to make for herself or her family on days off was simple fare that harkened back to her New England roots. Homemade burgers, cucumber salad, cornish game hen, wine spritzers, clam bakes, fresh berries with cold cream… those are the foods that she liked to make. For this post, our breakfast menu inspired by Bette Davis includes the following:
It’s a simple menu symbolizing all that was Bette Davis – sweet, salty, fresh, traditional, colorful, warm, cool and classic. It takes just a few minutes to make and is so easy it doesn’t even require detailed instruction. Simply boil an egg for 3 minutes. Slice some homemade bread and slather it with jam. Bake a potato in the oven for an hour and then finely chop it up with some scallions and salt and pepper and add the mix to a pan with some olive oil and let it cook until it turns brown and crusty. Adorn the plate with fresh fruit. Tah-dah! Breakfast, Bette Davis style, is ready!
Kathryn would be the first person to tell you that life with Bette was extraordinary for her last ten years. That the talented movie star was never far from the actual woman. That there was a glamorous side to her, a practical side, a petulant side and a vulnerable side that made her interesting and unique and ultimately endearing. That she was far from perfect but perfectly real.
“That’s me: an old kazoo with some sparklers, ” Bette once said.
Cheers to Bette for tackling life head-on, with grace and style and fortitude and being 100% unique about the whole affair until the very end. Cheers to Kathryn to giving us a very real look into the life of real woman and cheers to three-minute eggs – a new breakfast favorite here in the Vintage Kitchen!
This post is part of a blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood featuring the life and film Career of Bette Davis. Read more about this incredible woman and her work in a variety of posts contributed by a dozen different film bloggers here.
Find the vintage cookbooks that contributed recipes to this post in the shop here.
Find the recipe for homemade brown bread from a previous post here.
Find out more about Kathryn Sermack and her book, Miss D & Me here.
In Sweden, in 1939, as Nazi troops began their invasion of Norway, a young American journalist staying in Stockholm began delivering eyewitness accounts of the historic event. She was 28 years old and the only correspondent in that section of the world broadcasting live stories for CBS Radio. Her name was Betty Wason and her vantage point was intimate. Her reports were well-written, authentic and timely in the transmission of details. She was brave, dedicated and determined, eventually getting close to Nazi troops in Norway in order to tell the stories of wounded British soldiers and all that they had seen. She was a woman alone in a war zone, a thoughtful writer in a chaotic environment and a new traveler out discovering foreign lands. But for all the things Betty was, there was one thing she wasn’t. She was not a man.
And that affected everything.
Gender discrimination runs rampant in every field throughout history, except maybe one…. radio news broadcasting in the 1930s and the 1940s. Mainly because there wasn’t any argument against the discrimination. Things were simply done and not done and there were rules to abide by. One of those rules concerned women. Women simply did not, were not, allowed to read the news over the air. It was firmly believed that the feminine register could not convey the seriousness and importance of hard-hitting news stories. Instead, women’s voices were relegated only to entertainment-type shows… cooking lessons, homemaking stories, commercial ads and literature readings. Anything more serious or historically significant was left up to men to communicate on-air. This proved a problem, for our gal Betty.
Growing up in Indiana in the 1920’s, Betty was a creative spirit from the start with interests in music, art and fashion design. After graduating from Perdue University with a degree in home economics in the early 1930’s, Betty bounced around a few jobs in her home state before realizing she wanted a more exotic life than Indiana could provide. As a young woman full of vivaciousness and adventure and a desire to see the world, Betty went to New York and settled into a two-year job working at McCall’s magazine. But even in the exciting city of New York, her wanderlust could not be quelled. Europe was calling and Betty wanted to travel.
Not having the financial means to live abroad without working, Betty contacted TransRadio Press who was willing to pay young journalists overseas for eyewitness stories concerning World War II. A brief stint in Europe trying to make a go of it as a correspondent didn’t yield enough money for Betty to live on, so she came back to New York only to try again less than a year later. On her second go-around though, she worked with CBS who was desperate to get any and all international news they could get their hands on in regards to the war. That’s when Betty headed to Sweden, just before Hitler arrived in Norway.
There were many male war correspondents living and working overseas at this time, but they were mainly focused on print pieces suitable for newspapers and magazine readers. Radio was becoming more and more popular in terms of delivering news, but the seasoned overseas reporters, so focused on their writing, were out of the loop on the fact that radio news was rising in popularity. There was a niche market blooming in quick, short news briefs for ears instead of eyes and Betty saw an opportunity to be a part of it.
Since Betty was the only correspondent in the Scandinavian region, she was recording and filing her own reports for CBS and being paid on a weekly basis. But quickly, CBS determined that Betty’s voice was a problem (too light, too feminine, too high in pitch). It was believed, even in times of war, especially in times of war, that radio listeners didn’t want to hear a delicate voice reporting on death and destruction. Her reporting content was strong though, so CBS said that she had to find a male counterpart to step-in as the voice in front of her work.
Betty was upset that she couldn’t speak the words that she was writing, but she wanted to keep her job, so she trained Winston Burdett, an American newly arrived in Stockholm, in the art of journalism for a radio audience, and he read her reports for her. Incidentally, she trained Burdett so well that she wound up working herself right out of Sweden. Burdett was after all a man and now (thanks to Betty) a good broadcaster.
Trying to find another unique vantage point like she had in Stockholm, Betty went to the Balkan Islands, and to Turkey before settling in Greece where she again sent reports home to CBS. Again, CBS said she needed a male counterpart to vocally relay her stories. And again Betty complied, this time working with a male Embassy secretary, who, at least, introduced himself on-air as “Phil Brown speaking for Betty Wason.”
As the Nazis occupied Greece, Betty’s bravery was called upon again as she reported eyewitness occurrences on a regular basis through her Embassy mouthpiece. While there, she endured house arrest under Nazi supervision for two months before the regime flew her and several other journalists to Europe for questioning. Concerned that Betty might be a spy, the Nazis detained her for an additional week by herself before eventually allowing her to fly back home to the US, where she was greeted with fanfare for having endured captivity and detainment.
Invigorated by the attention she received upon returning home and by the contributions she had made to broadcast journalism overseas, Betty naturally went to the CBS offices in New York to inquire after more work or a new assignment. Shockingly, executives at CBS refused to acknowledge that she played any significant part in the broadcasting realm overseas and denounced her requests for more story assignments. In an instant, Betty was dismissed like she had never been a part of the reporting team in the first place. Immediately, her work was marginalized even though CBS had been using her content repeatedly throughout the war, finding it valuable enough at the time to pay her for it. But upon Betty’s return, none of that seemed to matter. Had Betty been a man she would have been offered a position like Winston Burdett or handed a new assignment and sent to another corner of the globe. She would have been encouraged and supported by her colleagues and eventually been able to dispel the ridiculous notion that women couldn’t vocally report the news. But that didn’t happen.
After being turned away by CBS, Betty left New York and went on to Washinton DC, where she joined forces with other women in broadcasting, collaborating on various news shows and continuing on with her writing. Those few years of dangerous foreign reporting and her budding career of broadcast journalism didn’t turn out the way Betty expected, but ultimately, good things came out of this redirection in her life. Her ability to believe in her own talents and to creatively work around roadblocks with persistence and perseverance led her to a fulfilling career as a writer, on her own terms.
Inspired by her travels and her curiosity to learn more about local cultures and customs, Betty was devoted to exploring the history and the food scene in all the countries she visited, each eventually yielding their own distinct cookbook. Through her explorations in The Art of Spanish Cooking, The Art of German Cooking… of Vegetable Cooking… of Mediterranean Cooking… Betty wanted readers to experience the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of her favorite places. That genuine, awestruck wonder led to over 20 beautifully written books that pull readers (and home cooks!) in from page one…
How I wish I were about to fly to Greece again, to relive once more that special thrill of seeing from the sky the ragged ochre shoreline with its-jewel-like border of turqouise merging into the royal blue of the Aegean…(from the introduction of her Greek cookbook)
In the Vintage Kitchen, we were introduced to Betty through her Greek cookbook simply titled Betty Wason’s Greek Cookbook, a stained and splattered edition worthy of it’s adventurous war correspondent author.
If a cookbook could ever be a travel guide, it would be Betty’s style of approaching food. Not only does she include authentic recipes, but she writes about them with the eye of a curious tourist learning a country in detail. In her Greek Cookbook, published in 1969, in addition to 200 recipes, she also included a state-by-state reference guide on where to buy authentic Greek ingredients in the US, a glossary of Greek terms and special tips and tricks to make sure that the cooking experience remained as easily replicated as possible.
Yesterday, it was Betty’s birthday and today it is International Women’s Day. We couldn’t think of a better post to publish than this one on the forgotten lady of broadcast journalism and now the remembered author of important vintage cookbooks. In celebration, we made her recipe for Spanakopeta from her Greek cookbook. With spinach now coming into season, it is an ideal dish for Spring and a guaranteed crowd pleaser for upcoming holidays like Easter and Mother’s Day. If you have never had Spanakopeta before, it is similar to quiche…. a mixture of cheese and spinach and herbs stuffed between two layers of phyllo dough.
It’s light in texture and constitution so it can be enjoyed as a side dish or a small dinner or a brunch accompaniment. Betty suggested that it could be served hot or at room temperature, which makes picnic basketing an option too. It reheats well and can sit in the fridge for a few days without getting soggy so if you are a make-ahead meal planner this recipe will be effortlessly easy and valuable.
Betty Wason’s SPANAKOPETA
12 phyllo pastry sheets
2 pounds fresh or frozen spinach (we used fresh)
1 teaspoon fresh dill, minced and chopped
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced
Salt to taste (optional)
1/2 lb. Gruyere-type cheese, feta cheese or dry pot cheese (* see notes)
1/2 cup melted butter or olive oil (we combined 1/4 cup of each)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
If frozen spinach is used, cook as directed on package and drain well. If fresh spinach is used, wash and clean the leaves to remove any traces of dirt and pat dry. Heat a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Do not add any butter, oil or water to the pan. Working in batches, add as many large handfuls of spinach as will fit reasonably in the pan and toss with a wooden spoon until all spinach is wilted (about 2-3 minutes per batch). You may have to do this step in several batches depending on the size of your pan. Spread each cooked batch of spinach out on a cookie sheet to cool.
Once all the spinach is cooked, it will look like this…
At this point, you’ll need to wring as much water out of the spinach as possible. The easiest way to do this is to grab clumps in your hand and wring them out forming tightly packed meatball-like shapes. The drier the spinach the better so wring as much water out as you can.
Next, on a cutting board roughly chop each of the spinach balls. Mix in the dill, parsley, and salt to taste and toss until combined. I found there to be enough natural salt in the spinach and the cheese, so we didn’t add any extra salt to this dish at all, but season it to your preference.
Add one egg to the spinach and herbs and toss to combine. Grate the cheese. We can only find Gruyere at our grocery store occasionally, so I used Danish Fontina which is similar. Other options are Jarlsberg, Swiss or Feta.
Add the second egg to the grated cheese and mix to combine.
Butter a square 9×9 baking dish and place 6 sheets of phyllo pastry in the bottom. Brush each sheet with the olive oil and/or butter. Then add the spinach, and top with the cheese.
Cover with six more sheets of phyllo, each brushed in butter/olive oil. Don’t forget to brush the top layer.
Bake in a 350-degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes until pastry is golden. Remove from the oven, let cool until the dish can be handled,
then turn out upside down on a baking sheet and return it to the oven so that the undercrust can become crisp and golden (about 15-20 minutes).
Remove from the oven, flip back over and cut into squares. Serve while hot or wait for it to cool to room temperature. We served our spanakopeta with a glass of sauvignon blanc and a simple side salad tossed in olive oil and lemon juice. Other additional sides that would be lovely with this include hard-boiled eggs, olives, mixed nuts, prosciutto, or roasted sweet potatoes.
Light, airy and full of subtle flavors that are a little bit nutty (the cheese), a little bit zesty (the herbs) and a little bit earthy (the spinach), Betty’s spanakopeta is packed full of good, healthy nutrients, providing a simple introduction to the lovely world of Greek food.
It’s a good-for-your-spirit food mirroring Betty’s healthy outlook on life. She cast aside all the bitterness and resentment that could have filled her up in the post-CBS days and instead stuffed her life full of light, bright joy that enriched her spirit and fed her soul. Cheers and happy birthday to Betty for continuing to inspire women around the world with your writing.
Interested in learning more about Betty and her Greek recipes? Find her cookbook in the Vintage Kitchen shop here.
We read and we watched, listened and researched and last, but definitely not least, we paired up old items with new owners in an effort to ensure that the stories of time-laden treasures were never forgotten, just like the 1950’s Chinese enamelware mug that originated in Tianjin, China and now adventures with Sally in Mississippi.
Based on all the fun we had last year, we can hardly wait to get started on 2018!
This January, we’ll be sharing our favorite list of books discovered over the course of the last 12 months, interviewing an inspiring international jet-setter, exploring an ancient art form born out of a kitchen catastrophe and celebrating a very special kitchen companion’s birthday. And since it is the new year and everybody is wishing each other good health and happiness, we will also be cooking up a few vintage health-conscious recipes that were made for dieting (or reducing, as they liked to call it) in the 1940’s. New vintage items, and all the stories they hold will continue to be added to the shop every week, so stay tuned for a colorful and eclectic month here in the Vintage Kitchen!
Cheers to a cheerful January, with much love from The Vintage Kitchen.
There’s something to be said about dramas that unfold slowly. Whether it be of the kitchen cooking kind or the visual arts kind, storytelling that marinates in its surroundings for awhile always proves worth the wait. In today’s post, we are kicking off the start of lazy summer weekends with a masterpiece of both food and television… the two season BBC drama Indian Summers and the two-days-to-prepare recipe, Tandoori Chicken. Both are steeped in the colorful, cultural land of India in the 1930’s and both do a big number on your senses.
Just like the beautiful bouquet that was Downton Abbey, Indian Summers is stunning in cinematography, costumes and casting. Taking place over several 1930’s summers in the Himalayan Mountains of British occupied India, the story centers around a brother and sister trying to navigate the political and polite terrains of affluent society.
Alice comes with baggage to the exotic land she left long ago, escaping an unhappy marriage and an uncertain future. Her brother, Ralph sets up house in a gorgeous mountain-side estate while pursuing a career in the British government that is vying for ultimate control over India. Romance, mystery, intrigue, murder and scandal surround both characters as their stories intertwine with local residents and visitors.
The premise sounds simple enough, but the story gets more complicated with each new episode. A murder occurs right at the very beginning but it takes more than half a season to even begin to understand how the characters are connected to the crime and why it is significant to the broader story. It is such a subtle, sophisticated form of writing that by episode four I thought I missed something completely and had to go back to episode three to find an explanation. But as it turns I didn’t miss anything. Explanations unfold gradually as all the characters try to figure out for themselves the details and the reasonings behind the mysterious death. This leaves plenty of time for your own theories about what happened and why which makes the whole show really engaging. Plus there are plot turns and twists that you’d never see coming.
Here’s the trailer from Season 1…
Unfortunately, Indian Summers only had a 2 season run before being canceled so there are just 20 episodes in total. But this actually turns out to be the perfect amount of viewing time if you find yourself in need of a break over a long weekend. No seven season stretches that require months (or more!) here. Indian Summers is one tidy, compact easily digested show that will hook you from the opening scene and have you sailing your way straight through to the end.
To complement this marathon of mini-series viewing is the perfect, low-maintenance Indian dinner that takes two days to make and results in a feast enough for six. Which means that you can binge-watch with friends AND feed them a fun dinner. Two days of cooking anything may not sound like it is low-maintenance to you at all, but even easier than a crock-pot recipe, all this chicken dish requires is ten minutes of preparation.
Introducing effortlessly easy Tandoori Chicken… the exotic entree that captured the appetites of mid-century eaters world-wide. Straight from Craig Claiborne’s 1963 Herb and Spice Cook Book, this recipe features simple ingredients, a slow marinade and a slow bake. As you fill your head with the dramatic experience of Indian Summers you’ll fill your space with an aromatic blanket of Indian spices. It’s a well-rounded sensory experience of a most magnificent kind!
The origins of this style of slow roasted chicken have their beginnings with Kundan Lal Gujral who experimented with tandoori (a method of clay oven cooking) in a restaurant in Peshawar, British India during the 1920’s and 1930’s.
By 1947 he perfected his methods and started serving it in his own restaurant in Delhi where it turned into a favorite signature dish. By the 1960’s it was all the rage being offered everywhere from humble houses to luxury hotels, restaurants and even on-board airplanes. Craig Claiborne loved it for its feature of the spice coriander, which symbolizes hidden worth.
There are many variations of Tandoori chicken featuring different spice combinations – some turning the chicken a bright fiery red, others turning it a deep orangey brown. This recipe lies somewhere in the middle. Dark upon exit from the oven and infused with a tangy warmth encouraged by the citrus and vinegar, it practically falls off the bone once it is out of the oven. Ideally you’d have your own tandoori to cook it in, but if not, then a regular roasting dish works just fine.
1 5-6lb. chicken
2 cups yogurt
1 clove garlic, minced
2 teaspoons coriander
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/3 cup cider vinegar
2 table spoons fresh lime or lemon juice
2 teaspoons salt
Wash the chicken and place in a close fitting bowl. In a seperate bowl, combine the yogurt, garlic, spices, vinegar, lime juice and salt. Mix well and pour over the chicken. Turn to coat well with the marinade. Place in the refrigerator and marinate at least 12 hours or overnight.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
3. Remove the chicken from the mixture and place it on a rack in a shallow baking dish or roaster. Save aside the marinade mixture for future basting.
4. Bake until tender, about 3 and a half hours. During the first hour and a half baste the chicken once with the yogurt marinade (at about the 45 minute mark). At the hour and a half mark baste again with olive oil. And then repeat the olive oil paste two more times within the remaining baking period (about every 45 minutes). You might need to tent the chicken for the last 45 minutes with aluminum foil to keep from over browning.
You’ll see in the photo above that the chicken does turn out quite dark – it was not burnt, as it sort of looks here – just very brown (similiar to the color of espresso) from the spices.
Once you remove the chicken from the oven let it rest for 20-30 minutes before carving. Serve it platter-style alongside warm naan bread and a simple salad of mixed greens and you have authentic Indian cuisine to pair with your Indian entertainment.
I hope the flavors and the film production transport you back to another era. If you have your own way of making Tandoori Chicken please share your recipe below. It would be fun to experiment with different herb and spice combinations!
It just came to my realization that we haven’t done many dessert style recipes here on the blog, even though our instagram feed is full of vintage sweet treats that we have baked over the past two years. Today we are remedying that with a three piece recipe adventure just in time for Easter. I call it an adventure because I’d never charted these waters before, the journey wasn’t quite what I anticipated and surprise situations popped up right and left.
It all began with a 1960’s recipe that my grandmother had clipped from some unknown source and tucked inside her recipe box. When she passed away at the marvelous age of 97, I inherited her box and carefully preserved all the recipes in her own handwriting, while also pulling out all the collected newspaper/magazine/packaging recipes that sounded interesting. While looking through these the other day this one caught my eye…
Easy petit fours! A fun colorful dessert for the Easter holiday. Perfect! I know I’ve eaten petit fours before – in France when I was young and most probably at a wedding or two since, but I don’t actually recall the details of those desserts except of course they were made of tidy little packages and came in an array of Easter egg colors. My grandmother, Dorothy, never considered herself a confident cook (although everything she made was delicious) so the fact that this recipe was in her box and that it was labeled easy seemed the perfect foray into this age old French confection. With that in mind, I set off to make my very first batch.
You’ll notice in the recipe above that the first ingredient is sponge cake – so I first started there, making a sponge cake from a recipe in Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book circa 1950.
Next I went on to make the buttercream frosting from the 1960’s-era Easy Petit Four recipe, which with its five ingredients was super quick to whip up. So far so good!
The Easy Petits Four recipe used food coloring to make the pretty pastel shades of this elegant, lady-like dessert. But not really a fan of the ingredients used to make food coloring (a mixture of mostly artificial and synthetic materials) I opted to create my own dyes using natural fruit juices. In my head pastel pink and orange seemed like a pretty arrangement so in the blender I finely chopped cherries for the pink and then manderin oranges for the orange and strained each into separate bowls using cheesecloth. As a just-in-case, I also, at the last minute, chopped and strained a batch of blackberries and blueberries for a purple shade if one of the other two colors didn’t work out.
This was where things started to get a little tricky. When I divided the buttercream into four separate bowls, and added a few teaspoonfuls of natural juice dye as the Easy Petite Four recipe suggested, the buttercream barely changed color. I added more juice dye and the color brightened but then the buttercream became too liquidy. So then I added more powdered sugar to bulk it back up again, which brought the buttercream color closer back to white again. You can see I had a situation on my hands. Setting these four batches of whites off to the side for a minute, I cut up the sponge cake into petite parcels and thought about some solutions to a bolder burst of color.
While I was cutting and the buttercream was resting, the colors in the bowl turned a little darker, so I trimmed up the little cakes into as even square shapes as possible (not the easiest of feats!)…
and set to work on frosting them to see what these buttercream versions would look like…
As you can see, there is slight (the slightest!) variation between all three frostings. Not exactly the dramatic shades I had in mind but at least they didn’t contain unnatural ingredients. By this point in the whole dessert endeavor I should have been ready to frost the rest of the batch, call this recipe done and serve them on a plate. The Easy Petit Four recipe suggested styling them with colored sugar or chocolate pieces or candied flowers. But because my frosting was a little mild on the color spectrum, I opted for a different topper – a mixed berry reduction and fresh sprigs of mint which would lend a spirited dose of revelry to this celebration. To the stovetop I went…
The colorful mixed berry reduction (a combination of red grapes, blackberries, blueberries, cranberries and raspberries) helped bring out the color in all the little petit fours and the flavors between fruit and cake were fresh and balanced. They definitely weren’t traditional but they were delicious. In the end these little bite-sized bundles turned out to be quite curious all on their own even though they didn’t wind up as originally intended.
Which goes to show you that you can still learn new things from old recipes! It also means the easiest route is not necessarily the most healthy route. And even though it took about a half day to work through the process of this vintage recipe, I came up with two other ideas in relation to other meals – one for an appetizer and one for an hors d’oeuvres (more on those latter this spring).
Like any travel adventure I started out on this journey thinking that I’d already know what my final destination would look like but somewhere along the way this kitchen trip side-stepped my plans and led me down another path from which I ended up returning wiser and more curious. Petits fours are part of French cuisine defined as small cakes baked in small ovens. Which means any cake-like dessert has a chance to be a petit four. What I thought of as a fairly traditional dessert with a singular style really has no boundaries – nut butter, chocolate, jam, fruit, honey, whip cream, herbs, vegetables all have the opportunity to be whirled up into a petite confection. So in this sense petite fours are very easy, very accommodating. The natural fruit dyes on the other hand are still a work-in-progress! If you have any recommendations or helpful hints, please share!
Below are the three recipes needed to make up the Vintage Kitchen’s version of a petit four. The 1960’s Easy Petit Four Recipe below has been adadpted to suit this new minty fruit-topped version. If you’d like to make the original mid-century version please consult the recipe photo near the top of the this post.
Betty Crocker’s Glorious Sponge Cake circa 1950
1 cup sifted all-purpose flour or 1 cup sifted cake flour
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup cold water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon lemon extract
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease the bottom of a 13″x 9″ inch pan.
Separate the egg whites from eggs in two different bowls.
In a large mixing bowl beat the six yolks together until thick (at least 5 minutes).
Beat in gradually the sugar, then the flour and then the water, lemon extract and lemon rind.
In a separate mixing bowl combine the egg whites, salt and cream of tartar and beat until stiff.
Gradually and gently cut and fold the egg yolk mixture into the beaten whites. Pour into prepared pan and bake 30 to 45 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean (depending on your oven this may take more or less time).
When cake tests done, invert and let hang until cold.
Easy Petits Fours circa 1960’s
1 sponge cake
1/2 cup butter
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
2 egg whites, unbeaten
1 lb. confectioner’s sugar, sifted
Few grains (one pinch) salt
Cut 24 petit fours from one sponge cake. Cream butter until light and fluffy; add egg whites, beat in. Add sugar and salt slowly while continuing to beat. Add vanilla. Divide frosting into 4 portions, leaving one white. With food coloring (or natural dye) tint the other portions pink, green and yellow respectively. Hold top and bottom of each cake between thumb and finger. Frost sides. Place cake on flat-surface and frost the top. Decorate with your choice of embellishments.
Mixed Berry Reduction
8 oz. of assorted fresh berries (the smaller in size the better!)
2 teaspoons butter
1/8 cup cane sugar
1/8 cup water
Fresh mint for garnish (the smaller the leaves the better)
Pinch of salt
In a small saucepan over medium heat combine the water and berries and bring to a simmer.
Add the butter, sugar and salt and toss to combine. Cover and reduce heat to medium low, stirring occasionally until some of the berries breakdown and form a thin sauce.
Remove the lid and stir until almost all the liquid has evaporated. Remove from heat, let cool completely before topping petit fours.