Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Last Cooking Day

Well the last cooking day is done and it was a success! Many, many thanks to my friend Megan, who I think saved the day. Before I started, I showed Megan the recipes and she commented on the “prepared biscuit flour” required by the cherry pudding. I told her I interpreted it as a type of flour—like bread flour, pastry flour—and I thought all-purpose flour would be fine. “No,” she said, “I’m pretty sure that means something like Bisquick, something for ready-made biscuits. But you have all the materials for biscuits here. Do you want me to whip a biscuit base up for you?” And she did. And the dish was saved. This is why cooking should be a communal activity. Thanks again Megan!

Thanks also to the friends who lent their good judgment for how long the pudding had to be boiled. More like modern dumplings, the word pudding historically refers to any boiled dish made with flour. Though I was at first skeptical of the little boiled clumps, they tasted surprisingly wonderful, especially served with the warm cherry sauce poured over the top. They tasted like little dumplings in sweet cherry sauce.

The Russian Mint Cookies probably required the least interpretation of any dish I made with this project. The cooking time and temperature were great to have. The recipe was simple, straightforward, and even edible for my vegan friends. There was only one ingredient that proved a challenge, baker’s ammonia, which should be available in specialty cooking stores, but as with the sago, I did not have the time to seek it out. I am once again grateful to the internet for letting me know that baker's ammonia is a leavener which makes cookies and crackers extra-crisp. Another website advised using equal parts baking powder and soda as a substitute for baker’s ammonia. I figured I might as well try it. I think this is part of the reason my cookies rose like biscuits, but they did have nice crisp shells. The finished product tasted great, the mint flavor was there, but not overwhelming: just right. I would say the mint flavor makes this a great festive cookie for the holiday season. All in all, the day was another delicious success.

This is technically my last blog entry for this project, but I may keep up with it more sporadically just for fun. This project has been amazing. It has been a bright spot in my day, teaching me not just about historic foodways but also a great deal about my friends (and at the risk of sounding corny) myself. I learned about being brave in the kitchen. I learned about how much easier cooking is nowadays with modern detailed cookbooks. Thanks to all who have helped, taste-tested, kept up with my blog, etc.! I couldn't have done it without you. Thanks also to the Watkinson Library for giving me the chance to try this wonderful project. I advise others to go forth and explore their own "art of imperfection in the kitchen"!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Modern Times

Hard to believe, but this is my last cooking session! And it promises to be an exciting one, with two fascinatingly themed books: 1937’s Meals on Wheels by Lou Wilson and Olive Hoover (fans of Little Miss Sunshine, do you think the screenwriter had a copy of this cookbook?) and 1961’s Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook edited by Beryl Barr and Barbara Turner Sachs. These two cookbooks are uniquely specific and undoubtedly modern. 

Meals on Wheels was written in the midst of the Depression. Therefore, one might assume it would include tips for families who have had to economize and start traveling the nation in trailers. On the contrary, the book completely ignores the tough economic times, and seems to be more of a guide to keeping luxury while traveling cross-country, advising readers that these tips will help make their “vacation enjoyable.” It is concerned not with economy, but with solving “the difficulties of cooking in a small space” and breaking up the apparent monotony of meals served in trailers. To give adequate variety to trailer meals, recipes are pre-arranged in menus. One thing I was not surprised by was the increased number of references to store-bought ingredients. Certain cake recipes suggest starting with a base of “bakery sponge cake.” The tomato sauce recipe suggests simply using concentrated canned tomato soup. I’ll be making cherry pudding from this cookbook. And the recipe, I can already tell, will not require halving- it makes four portions. We’re entering the era of modern family size. Perhaps the most modern thing about both cookbooks this week?  Oven temperatures and cooking times.

Despite the modernity of Meals on Wheels, it seems like one of the biggest leaps in time exists between the two books this week. Meals on Wheels, though oddly specific, is still a cookbook in the traditional sense. The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook reads more like a parody, a subversion of the traditional cookbook. By the time The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook came out, Betty Crocker had happened (character created in 1921), The Joy of Cooking had happened (1936), suburbia had happened. The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook responds to all these trends, with a beautifully decorated art book, for which the editors went and asked those of the creative elite to submit some of their favorite family recipes or a story related to cooking. My personal favorite is the “Menu for a Dadaist Day” by Man Ray. The menu is mostly composed of “children’s blocks” and “ball bearings.” To my taste-testers: be grateful I didn’t settle on one of these recipes!

The book includes recipes from figures as diverse as Harper Lee, Upton Sinclair, Marianne Moore, Conrad Aiken, and Burl Ives. The forward, by Alice B. Toklas, explains, “It is an enchanting book. The writers write as they write. The painters write as they paint.” The introductory line of the book is “Dedicated to imperfection in the kitchen,” which those of you who have been keeping up with the blog know is something I hold dear, making this the perfect book for me to end my historic cooking experiences with. From this book, I’ll be making Russian Mint Cookies, from a recipe by Alexandra Tolstoy, “the authoritative biographer of her father,” Leo. Alexandra also published her own memoir, I Worked for the Soviets. At the time she submitted this recipe, she had moved to New York and was working as curator for the Tolstoy Museum. After having just seen Anna Karenina in theaters this past weekend, I’m excited to try these festive-sounding cookies from the Tolstoy family for myself.