Sunday, April 28, 2013


Dear Reader,

It's is NOT quite spring yet, despite the date on the calendar. The telltale signs are all there -- fat robins, buds on trees, blooming daffodils (Grandma's favorite) but the thermometer says otherwise.

As far as seasonal cooking goes, there's not much local flavor to be had. At times like these home cooks have to rely on the pantry or freezer for inspiration and that is what I am doing today with raisins. sums up the history of the raisin like this:

"Raisins are simply dried sweet grapes, of course. Until medieval times, raisins were the second in choice as a sweetener, honey being the top choice. At one time in ancient Rome, raisins were considered so valuable that two jars could buy a slave. In the 13th century, Damascus had quite a reputation for their sweet raisins.

The majority of the world's supply of raisins comes from California, dried from Thompson seedless (95 percent), muscadine, or Black Corinth (Zante) grapes. In 1873, California suffered a devastating drought which literally dried the grapes on the vine. Looking to recoup some of the grape crop, an enterprising marketer in San Francisco sold the dried and shriveled grapes as "Peruvian Delicacies," and the California raisin industry was off and running.

Most raisins are dried naturally by the sun right in the vineyards, although some are mechanically dehydrated. Once sun-dried, a process taking two to four weeks, they are then graded, cleaned, and packed. Some raisins are kept golden in color by the use of sulfur dioxide (sulfites)."

A Google search for this cake brought up not only the English version one, similar to this recipe here, but a German and Russian cake as well. A few sites referenced the cake's popularity during WW II as pantry staples were scarce and raisins helped pull a basic cake into a more special place at tea time.

English Raisin Cake -- submitted by Alice Laub

1 1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter, creamed
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon soda
2 cups flour
pinch salt
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 1/2 cups seedless raisins
1 teaspoon lemon extract

This cake can be baked in a loaf; tube pan, or cup cakes in a moderate oven. Loaf about 30 minutes, tube pan 45 minutes, cup cakes 20 minutes.

Better Batter

The cake batter came together you know, the instructions are cryptic like many of the other recipes I've tried....tacit understanding again comes into play. I whipped the butter first, added the sugar and eggs and stopped. I then sifted together all of the dry ingredients and added them into the batter in an alternating fashion -- beginning and ending with the dairy (I opted to use yogurt instead of sour cream). I then added the raisins and extract plus the zest of one lemon for good measure. I greased a loaf pan (one of Grandma's Pyrex cast-offs) with the butter wrapper and then slipped it into a 350 degree oven.


Ms. Laub should have mentioned that the recipe makes TWO loaves, not one because the very-full pan was threatening to overflow the pan within five minutes of baking time. I hurried and pulled it out of the oven and spooned a good portion of the batter into two mini-loaf pans. Whew! I ended up adding an extra 15 minutes to the baking time until the toothpick came out clean. The mini-loaves were perfectly done and the large loaf a bit overdone (due to the Pyrex material).

Taste Test

Excellent! Mrs. Laub knew how to economize but yet achieve great taste. Reminiscent of soda bread yet a bit like pound cake, this one would be great to take to a picnic, gathering, or to serve at breakfast. Not too sweet, not too savory -- this is a cake that will be a permanent fixture in my files. Yum!

Soup Can Score -- Five cans out of Five

Saturday, April 20, 2013

One-Dish Dinner -- Parts I and II

Dear Reader,

Today's entry is straight from the ladies' pages and the Favorite Recipes column -- an anonymous submission by a mid-century modern lady simply know as "Friend". Perhaps Friend was a frugal woman or maybe just a busy cook but this casserole is the quintessential whatever-is-in-the-house preparation. Read on:

One Dish Dinner

Butter Casserole, put in 3/4 cup washed uncooked rice, next add a layer of raw sliced potatoes, then 3/4 pound ground beef, a layer of raw onions and lastly a small can of tomatoes. Season each layer with salt and pepper as you put it in the casserole. Dot top with butter. Cover and bake in oven 1 1/2 hours.

I chose this one for several reasons -- April 10 would have been Grandma's 97th birthday and we were also expecting a visit from John's mother, Marilyn, who I knew would enjoy a blog recipe. Plus, I did indeed had all the ingredients in the house except for the meat.

Meat -- to Cook or Not to Cook?

Speaking of meat, at the store I had several lean ground beef options. In the 1950s there was probably only one choice but for health I chose a 90% lean ground round. I couldn't imagine a casserole swimming in grease. But another question arose -- does the meat really go in the dish raw? Or, should I brown it first? The recipe gave no indication. After asking around, the consensus was to leave the meat raw. After all, the 1 1/2 hour cooking time should be suffice in cooking the meat to appropriate doneness.

Assembly Required

I chuckled to myself as I prepped the ingredients for layering -- I had Jasmine rice, Yukon Gold potatoes and Vidalia onions. A marvel of marketing or science? I buttered a french white Corning Ware dish and assembled the ingredients (yep, and the raw meat) in the order listed. I covered the whole thing with foil and placed it in a 375 degree oven since no temp was listed.

Mid-Century Meal

While the casserole was baking I cooked split peas, tore apart some Hawaiian rolls, and carved up a fresh pineapple. I could only imagine a similar meal taking place fifty-some years ago. I even grabbed a stick of real butter for the table. No tub butter here!

Moment of Truth

After laboring in the oven for 1 1/2 hours the casserole was done. VERY done. The rice was still semi-crunchy and stuck to the bottom like glue and whole thing was pretty dried out. Everyone was a good sport about it and overall taste wasn't a total loss. It was lacking seasoning and moisture but we decided it was good enough to try again -- with some minor alterations. After all, the convenience of such a meal was very appealing and after over-examining the whole recipe (Grandma used to do that as well, as I recall) I decided to have another go at it -- for the sake of all that was modern.

Casserole II

Exactly one week later I commenced with round two. This time, however, I felt smarter. I still had the Jasmine rice, Yukon Gold potatoes, and Vidalia onions but this week I had Worcestershire sauce and a can of fire-roasted tomatoes for flavor. I also swapped the ground beef for ground turkey to tie it all together. I knew I had to look for liquid opportunities so I also added a half-can of water to the whole dish after I poured the tomatoes on top. Extra butter all around and in it went.

Bake, Baby, Bake

I set the oven at 350 this time and vowed to check the dish at the one-hour mark to check for doneness. At one hour the potatoes still had some crunch but the moisture level was WAY up. This was a good sign. At 1 1/2 hours I removed the casserole and we dished up.

Moment of Truth II

Not bad. Paired with frozen broccoli and canned peaches we were back in the 1950s but the casserole still lacked something. The rice STILL stuck to the bottom but this time it had more liquid to absorb which was a good thing. The meat was fine but not terribly flavorful or interesting (could have used more Worcestershire) and the whole thing could have used a second can of tomatoes, perhaps with roasted green chilies.

The Future

Could the framework of this casserole take me to a speedy, frugal weeknight meal? I could imagine taking the whole thing down south with a Mexican feel -- rice, canned black beans, ground meat cooked beforehand with taco seasoning, and two cans of mexican-style tomatoes perhaps. The rice on the bottom needs a bit of additional liquid to start -- maybe that would correct the sticking problem -- or a big shot of cooking spray. Regardless, the search for a tasty, speedy weeknight meal is always a worthwhile pursuit no matter the century. I am sure Grandma would agree. Happy Birthday!

Strawberry Pie

Dear Reader,

Since the months of March and April flew by without so much as a single post, I have prepared a flurry of new posts and projects for your enjoyment! Though cooking the spring away normally would be a favorite activity of mine the trifecta of time, money, and calories prohibited such an undertaking. Plus, my new love of Thai food is certainly not in the notebook.

However, with spring attempting to spring in the Chicagoland area, I am again focusing on what is interesting and available in my local store.

Fresh Strawberry Pie -- from the Daily News Cooking School by Mary Starr

Plump gay strawberries bring a note of spring to the table to relieve the monotony of winter menus. Although the fruit is an out-of-season luxury, you will be amply rewarded for the slight extra expense when you cut this luscious pie and disclose the juicy whole berries that are concealed in the filling. 

To make the filling, wash one quart of fresh strawberries, hull them and drain well. Blend one three-ounce package of cream cheese with one Tablespoon of cream. Spread the mixture over the bottom of a baked pie shell that has been cooled. 

Selecting the choicest berries, pick over the washed fruit and place half in the pie shell on top of the cream cheese. Mash the remaining berries through a sieve.

Combine three Tablespoons of cornstarch with one cup of sugar and stir into the mixture of juice and pulp. Cook, stirring constantly, until the filling is smooth and well thickened. Then cook over boiling water for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. 

Cool the mixture and pour over the uncooked berries in the pie shell Place pie in refrigerator until thoroughly chilled. Top with slightly sweetened whipped cream before serving. 

Strawberry Season 

Ok, so strawberries are NOT local or in season, just like Mary Starr indicates, unless you are located in Plant City, Florida where my $.99 berries were grown. Yes, I  know they are one of the "dirty dozen" grown with tons of pesticides (sorry, Dr. Andrew Weil) but I forged ahead. I dutifully washed my fruit in my standard vinegar-and-water solution, hulled them, and set them on a towel to dry.

Crust Selection

I do not like making pie crust. Probably never will. Neither did Grandma -- she always used the refrigerated kind. However, I had neither on hand. What I did have was a Ready-Made Keebler Shortbread Cookie Crust in the pantry. I took the liberty of using that so as to be frugal, like a mid-century modern woman might do. It turned out to be a fantastic choice.

Smashing It Up

I set about to smash up the cream cheese with the milk (no cream on hand either) and it looked like lumpy cottage cheese. Then I remembered -- that's exactly what happens when you mix cream cheese by hand. But I wasn't pulling out a mixer for three ounces of dairy so I ignored the lumps and spread the mixture on the bottom of the prepared crust.

Berry Troublesome

Next, I chose the "choicest" berries and placed them top down on the dairy mixture. Very nice! The rest of the berries were to be smashed and place through a sieve. I pulled out a soup ladle for leverage and attempted to force a single berry through a fine-mesh wire sieve. Well, let me tell you, supermarket berries are WAY too firm. Berries from your backyard patch may travel through fine mesh but these did not yield even one seed. Plan B.

Plan B: I cut the berries into chunks and tossed the lot into a saucepan on the stove and added the cornstarch and sugar and fired it up. Fairly soon the mixture was more appropriately jam-like in texture but there was the problem of smoothness. Plan C: Immersion blenders rock. I plugged in and let it rip right through the hot liquid (disclaimer: I've done this sort of thing before, but a warning that it is a very HOT scalding activity should you lose control of your immersion blender). Ahh....much better.

Double boiler? Really? My jam mixture looked pretty good, gelatinous, and ruby-red. Couldn't i just stop there? Then it hit me -- I was actually in the middle of making the "gel" that today comes in the plastic bag sold in the produce department next to the berries and sponge cakes. Sigh. After an hour into this pie, it had better be worth it.

My double boiler is a dutch oven with boiling water and a stainless-steel salad bowl. Thanks Mary Starr. 15 minutes later the mixture looked exactly the same. I set it aside to cool.

Not Much Assembly Required

I poured the cooled mixture over the berries and placed it in the fridge to chill until dinner time. I did , however, swipe my finger through the jam mixture......fantastic flavor, texture and color. Mmmmm...

Serving Time

After slicing into wedges and topping with Cool Whip (sorry...i was exhausted) we dug in for a first bite. Simply amazing. The shortbread cookie crust was perfectly balanced with the deep berry flavor and the cream cheese mixture prevented what would have otherwise been a soggy crust. It even added the right amount of creaminess in each bite without being too rich. We couldn't stop eating. Originally the remainder of the pie was going to be unloaded on coworkers the next day but we opted to hoard it for ourselves and enjoy it several nights that week. Even after several days the crust remained light and the strawberry mixture fresh and firm in the fridge. A fantastic score -- even with supermarket berries.

Soup Can Score -- Five out of Five Soup Cans