Fast Food Can be Slow Food: Cooking Under Pressure

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Cooking Under Pressure
by Martha Esersky Lorden

The Slow Food movement has issued a challenge to the way we eat. Its premise that sustainable, locally raised plants and livestock can transform this nation’s over-dependance on a globalized, national food industry that markets unhealthy fast food products has everyone rethinking what they eat and how they cook.

In addition, the movement celebrates regional and traditional food products along with the personal history accompanying their preparation. Savoring our food, preserving old food ways and cooking methods and reflecting on how we source ingredients is at the very heart of the movement. So when I tell you that you can still march in the ranks of the Slow Food movement while accelerating cooking time, you might be a bit surprised. In this era of speed reading, speed walking, and even speed dating, you really can speed up the cooking process, yet stay true to the school of Slow Food, with an old-fashioned, ingenious piece of kitchen tech known as the pressure cooker.

In today’s home kitchen, cuisine rapido is an obsession and much needed skill in our overbooked lives. The preponderance of cookbooks promising Quick and Easy, Quick and Healthy, or 1-2-3  meals tells us that we desire tricks for getting simple-to-prepare, healthy meals on the table. The set-it-and-forget-it ease of the slow cooker is certainly an option, but you will find that a pressure cooker delivers a complete, nutritional one-pot meal in minutes that is as good as the long, stewing variety.

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History of the Device

In 1679, during the reign of the English King Charles, a French physicist and mathematician named Denis Papin invented a cast metal furnace with a locking lid that raised the boiling point of water from 215º to 250º. The high temperature cooked and softened meat quickly, but this “digester” posed dangers of explosion, given the difficulty of regulating the steam pressure. Eventually, Papin invented a safety valve, but there was still the problem of cracks in the cast vessel. Despite earning him membership in the Royal Society after a successful demonstration of the device to King Charles and Society aristocracy, Papin never saw the complete success of his concept, though the science and application of his invention were established.

The set-it-and-forget-it ease of the slow cooker is certainly an option, but you will find that a pressure cooker delivers a complete, nutritional one-pot meal in minutes that is as good as the long, stewing variety.

The pressure cooker eventually became more than a science experiment. Commercial cast iron models appeared in the 19th century, and small domestic models came later. By the early 1920’s, home cooks employed them, but some dangers still persisted. With the arrival of World War II, as most manufacturers converted production to wartime industries, commercial pressure canners prepared food for hungry soldiers across the seas. With the war’s end, home cooks could enjoy modern appliances at cheap prices as manufacturers capitalized on the “benefits of using a pressure cooker for preparing meals, cooking in just one-third of the time, preserving vitamin and mineral content of food, and saving both food flavor and color.” (Miss Vickie’s Pressure Cooker Recipes)  

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But by the 1950’s, the pressure cooker was overshadowed by products such as frozen foods, boxed preparations, and other convenience foods which touted a “modern” and “healthy” approach to food preparation. When the interest for a natural and healthy approach to eating surfaced in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the pressure cooker re-appeared briefly, only to be overshadowed by the arrival of increasing fast food options, the slow cooker crock pot, and the microwave oven. Once again, the pressure cooker retreated to the bowels of the kitchen cupboard. Considered old fashioned and not a major go-to appliance, some women were simply reluctant to use a mechanical device which sent out a plume of steam from a jiggling valve and sputtering top.

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Pressure Cooker Advantages

While most Americans kept grandmother’s pressure cooker stored in the cellar, European and Asian manufacturers perfected the device, still found in most homes abroad.

Why is this old-fashioned cooking method suddenly popular again today? New models have improved with the advent of better safety-valve design, nonstick surfaces, low noise, ease of use, and even electric models. Today, these new generation, high-end pressure cookers are being exported to America. The pressure cooker of old that rattled, belched, and steamed on the stovetop is a thing of the past.

The advantages of this cooking method are many:

1) You will eat healthier food in less time. Food cooks in up to 70% less time.

2) You can save money.  A quick cooking time means saved energy by using two-thirds less energy. Eat faster and pay less.

3) Less heat escapes into your kitchen.

4) Cheap cuts of meat can be turned into tender, better tasting dishes by the enhanced flavor.

5) Economical whole foods like dried beans, grains, root vegetables, and rice are quick dishes.

6) Flavors are preserved as the food cooks in its own juices, not diluting liquids, producing a rich gravy.

7) Modern pressure cookers are a multi-purpose pot and not just for steaming. They can be a Dutch oven, sauce pan, or a baking pan.

8) Pressure cookers are a quick way to can or preserve foods.

Cooks can count on making better tasting, nutritious food in the fraction of the time with a pressure cooker.

My mother’s pressure cooker was a slightly bent, aluminum affair with a dimpled surface. I remember the clickety clack of the dancing safety valve as the steam escaped. She still talks about the pot roasts and potatoes she cooked in it. When she offered me the cooker and food-stained manual with recipes, I declined, foolishly. It just seemed too passé, too complicated. But since then, I’ve enjoyed two memorable meals made in a pressure cooker. I once prepared a succulent pork posole with a Pueblo Indian woman at her reservation home in New Mexico. In fact, I was so enamored of this meal steeped in tradition, and so grateful for her day of cooking instruction, that I gifted her a new pressure cooker to replace her flimsy, worn-out model. Frankly, I’d be surprised if she gave up her ailing, tried and true model for the new one. I enjoyed another memorable dish of a tender, rosemary pork roast braised in milk. It was prepared by a Roman woman who hosted me during my first visit to the city. I still can’t get that dish and its sweet, rich and creamy sauce out of my mind, and I’ve included the recipe below.

The popularity of the pressure cooker is, well, exploding. As a cooking technique, it is wonderfully in sync with the emerging, modern food philosophy. With so many excellent models (see What to Look for in a Pressure Cooker, America’s Test Kitchen, www.youtube.com/watch?v=IiCUKA7dDUs) to choose from, the convenience of a fast, whole food meal is accessible and easy to schedule into our busy lives. A pressure cooker could just be a modern kitchen’s best kept secret.

RECIPE

Pressure Cooker Pork Loin Braised in Milk à la Romana

This recipe is adapted from The Classic Italian Cookbook by the late, great Marcella Hazan. The dish is excellent served on a base of warm polenta with a sauté of Porcini mushrooms. 

It’s hard to believe this company’s coming dish only takes about 40 minutes to cook, thanks to the magic of the pressure cooker.  

INGREDIENTS

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 pounds pork loin in one piece with some fat on it, securely tied

2 teaspoon salt

freshly ground black pepper

about 2 ½ cups or ¾ lt. milk

INSTRUCTIONS

1.In the pressure cooker, with the lid off on medium-low heat, melt butter and oil.

2.When the butter is melted add the meat, fat side facing down first.

3.Brown the roast thoroughly on all sides, and finish on the side where you started.

4.Add the salt, pepper, bay leaf and milk pouring it on top of the roast and adding enough for it to cover the roast by half.

5.Close and lock the lid of the pressure cooker. Turn the heat to high and when the pressure cooker reaches pressure lower the heat and begin counting 30 minutes cooking time at high pressure.

6.When time is up, open the pressure cooker with the Natural release method – move the cooker off the burner and wait for the pressure to come down on its own (about 10 minutes). For electric pressure cookers, when cooking time is up count 10 minutes of natural open time. Then, release the rest of the pressure using the valve.

7.Move the roast to a serving dish tented with tin foil to rest.

8.Let the sauce cool and spoon out the fat, discard the bay leaf and reduce the sauce in the open pressure cooker, if needed.

9.If you do not like the coagulated milk clusters, whisk in some fresh milk or cream or break them up with a stick blender. Taste to check seasoning and add any additional salt, if needed.

10.Slice the roast and arrange on platter. Pour on the warm sauce and serve.

The Last Dish

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by MELorden

I have a regular volunteer kitchen clean-up crew of one in my house– my husband.  Like many households in the modern era, kitchen duties are shared by couples and family members. Interestingly enough, I have no memory of ever brokering this arrangement, and that is why the fact that my husband leaps for the sink after mealtime to wash up touches the very depths of my heart. How generous, how thoughtful, how sweet. What better wish is there for the exhausted chief cook and bottle-washer than to pass along her dish duty to a willing and appreciative mate?

After several decades of this arrangement, I say, “Be careful what you wish for.”

My husband’s dish-doing has become a great source of frustration for me. The task has become, of late, a gesture with little skill behind it, and the more I request he attend to a few details of proper washing up, the less likely he is to oblige.

First of all, we have a dishwasher.  Yes– that’s right.  So how can simply loading it be problematic?  It’s not that I care about the arrangement of the dishes, but since the machine is on its last legs, and we don’t run it everyday, there are just a few simple considerations that would make a world of difference– like, please rinse the grease and goo off the dishes.  If not, the drying food festers and smells up the dishwasher, and oh, yeah– doesn’t come off in the cycle.  And wine glasses should not go in because they shatter from the extreme heat and break when the swirling water crashes them up against the other glasses in the top level.  And the peanut butter on knives and oatmeal on spoons need to be rinsed off because the dishwasher simply can’t clean them, especially after they have cured to cement.

Since hubby generously empties the dishwasher, too (What a love!), he obviously doesn’t mind putting dirty flatware  back into the drawer, or picking out the shards of broken glass. I spend pre-meal time re-washing and scraping the crud off the forks and dishware, particularly when we have guests.

His technique for washing pots and pans also leaves much to be desired.  It’s a quick perfunctory tour of the inside of the pot with the greasy and soap-less sponge.  Drying with a dish towel simply spreads the grease around. I used to redo them quietly, but now I toss them back into the sink, soap up the sponge with very hot water, and glare. Yup. You get a do-over, Buddy.

Most irksome of all is when my Dinnertime Dishman (I think there is a blues song in there somewhere) flicks off the kitchen light and retires to the living room with his coffee and reading material, well-fed and self-satisfied with his specialized and self-appointed marital role on the kitchen front. I enter the kitchen right behind and approach the sink with dread.  And as always, in the bottom of the double basin is the sodden sponge, chunks of food, along with both drain catchers full to the brim with bone and gristle and pieces of garbage. Shining brightly around the entire edge of each sink is a reddish-brown, tomato-tinged ring of soapy slime– evidence of my husband’s valiant effort.

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I cry out, deliver a stream of mildly cynical rantings, and commence a vigorous scrubbing and disposing of the nasty bits of food.  I sing out, “Remember, please, that the sink needs to be washed, too.  Think of it as the last dish, honey, okay?”    I hope the term ‘honey’  helps.  A muffled ‘yup’ is the only reply.

il_340x270.215472771 I am married to a very helpful man, and since hammering nails and any sort of house repair is really not his thing, I get a great guy who runs a vacuum, makes the bed, hangs up his clothes, and washes dishes– all without any begging on my part. He gets lots of points for that along with my adoration and love. But it’s his role as dishwasher that really seems to impress my family and friends. To that I say phtppp.

Sure, getting some fancy new dishwasher might forever end my anxiety about the whole affair, but there will always be the matter of the last dish, my husband’s last stand– a gentle and annoying reminder that when it comes to doing the dishes, he is going to continue to do them on his terms.  I think we’ll be going out to dinner more often.

Atomic Cake: An Explosive Confection

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From the 1950’s, here’s a birthday cake that mom can make even while the family is cowering in the fallout shelter. Bless her heart.

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Evaporated milk, crisco oil, powdered eggs, and 3 boxed cake mixes are used to make this  chocolate and vanilla pudding-filled cake with canned fruit layers. Slather the pudding between the  triple golden, vanilla, and chocolate cake layers with maraschino cherries and canned pineapple. Wrap the entire chemical wonder with Dream Whip and then—KABOOM! Atomic cake.

Heat source to bake the cake? Gas stove or electric if generator is running. Candle power won’t do.

Nothing like eating a sculpture of a hydrogen bomb.  It was all the rage.

e70063f96dc9e413ab94d30dd62a4b20 Who knew that this horrific technology which gave the United States an atomic monopoly would also inspire new culinary tastes?

Better living through chemistry, I suppose.


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Light-as-a-(radiation)cloud Confection.

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New fad of celebratory cake among the military elite.

Enjoying atomic pastry along with their atomic cocktails.

The Soviets were offended by this publicity photo and the idea of an Atomic Cake altogether.  US clergymen found it obscene. The newspaper headlines of the day reported on the indignation.  The atomic bomb was clearly best kept off the list of fun food themes with the great cake controversy that began in 1946.

Check out the following link:

Atomic Cake Media Controversy

Soviet Cake


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These creamy sweet layers are pretty luscious.

 You can substitute sliced bananas in one of the layers for the pineapple if you aren’t stuck in the bomb shelter.

This clever cake explodes with flavor.  Might as well eat up before you kiss your fanny good-bye.

Cooking From Comics: In the Kitchen with Disney Characters

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When Walt Disney was building his Disneyland empire in California in 1955, there was a growing fascination with all things Disney in post-war Europe, and particularly in Italy. Topolino, or Mickey Mouse, hit it big in Italy. By the 1960’s, a lively series of  paperback bound comics  emerged and were extremely popular.  The comics paralleled a fascination with American culture that was taking hold. Today, tees and sweatshirts and all manner of clothing are festooned with Topolino imagery, and a good number of grown men and women don this attire enthusiastically.  In Italy, Disney is not just for kids.

I have a large collection of  the Italian Disney comics, and I never fail to return from Italy without at least 3 or 4 new issues.  I am addicted. I learned a lot of my Italian and a multitude of colorful idioms from these illustrated books. And it turns out that many Italians learned a lot about “American” cooking from their Disney-Italian comic book characters.  You can thank Donald Duck and his extended family.

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A favorite series featured the adventurous tales of  Uncle Scrooge McDuck (Paperone) along with nephew Donald (Papernik) his three nephews (Qui, Quo, and Qua) and Grandmother Elvira known as Nonna Papera (Grandma Duck).  A rather distorted image of American family life was presented in these comics.  Picnics in the park, gold mining in the Rockies, cowboys wrangling cattle in the west, river rafting down the Mississippi, and trips to outer space were family adventure stories in the comics, all bankrolled by Unca Scrooge himself and in pursuit of some thief who was stealing his treasure chest.

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Thank goodness for Nonna Papera.  She kept the boys well-fed, the American way. The Italian comic book artists delighted in depicting her beautiful apple pies cooling on her window sill, and even several adventures involved mysteries around who swiped the cooling pastry. Italians  became fascinated with Nona Papera’s beautifully fluted pies–  and her cookies, sandwiches, and picnic fare, too.

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According to Barks’ and Rosa’s Who’s Who In Duckburg, “Grandma Duck is in many ways the head of the Duck-family. She is normally the one who arranges the family’s Christmas celebrations and she’s known as an excellent cook with pies as one of many specialities.”  It was Donald’s grandmother who made American pie popular in Italy.

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By 1970, a book of her recipes was published under the title Il Manuale di Nonna Papera (The Cookbook of Grandma Duck).  Many  Italian cooks will tell you today that this collection of recipes was their first cookbook and first venture into cooking.   Most of the recipes are an Italian interpretation of American dishes, but in reality, the recipes remain Italian in spirit. Sandwiches (or panini), a Chip and Dale Popcorn recipe, and lots of cakes and pies are included and are featured alongside traditional Italian sweets, finger foods, and several main dishes. Cleverly named, many recipe titles indicate that these are historical recipes handed down to Nonna Papera from very famous people of the past such as Queen Elizabeth or Christopher Columbus (appropriate personages for the settlement of America).

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I’m still reading Disney comic books.  I have recently acquired a reprint of Nonna’s recipe book and have yet to try out these “American” recipes. I am sure if I do, I will no doubt improve not only speaking in Italian but also cooking in Italian.  In time, I might even receive that fine compliment about my cooking from an Italian:  “Pareva la torta di Nonna Papera.” (“That looks just like a cake made by Grandma Duck!”)      –MELorden

NOTE:  Click on the sidebar menu under Recipes for more cooking with Disney!

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For a look at what the current world of Disney is offering in Mickey Mouse and Disney Princess cookbooks, check out these souvenir collections on Amazon:

Available Disney Cookbooks from Amazon.com

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Flora’s Fudge

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Disney Characters in the Kitchen:  Revisiting A Childhood Recipe

The Fantasy Behind Flora’s Fudge:  Almost As Easy As Magic  (SEE FOLLOW UP NOTE AT BOTTOM OF THIS POST)

I have spent decades yearning for a slice of fudge.  Not just any fudge.  I’ve wanted a hunka hunka burnin’ chocolate nut fudge that I made as a child on a snowy afternoon with my father and sister.  But the recipe was parts unknown, and I only held a faded memory of the comical source of that wondrous fudge recipe.

It was 1959, and I was in a dream world having just seen Disney’s now classic animated film, Sleeping Beauty.  This obsession with medieval castles, a trio of fairy godmothers, and a prince of my own would eventually be eclipsed by a different Disney obsession with Peter Pan, the pirate-loving fella who could fly and preferred to hang out on an island with a team of really cool and furry friends. (I never understood that simpering Wendy.)

At about the same time that I was encountering these Disney role models, I became enamored with cooking with my father.  He loved to cook, and it was obvious in his joy over the stove when he boiled shrimp and stirred cocktail sauce to go with his highballs, much to my mother’s chagrin.  There were his amazing pancakes, eggs, bacon, and all manner of breakfast food.  “I could eat breakfast every meal,” he said.  And sometimes we did.  Having grown up in and around his parents’ bakery and then general store, Daddy was full of food stories about loading and butchering meat, stealing from the pickle barrel, and (my favorite) filling jelly donuts.

Sunday mornings we picked up the newspaper at the local journal joint on Pleasant Street.  The owner was a big cigar smoker and looked like a villain straight from Marvel comics, which he sold racks of.  I liked looking at the comic books (which oddly were displayed near all the dirty magazines). There, that Sunday, in the more PG of the spinning racks, I saw a shiny comic depicting Sleeping Beauty’s own private team of wish-grantors– those  pink, blue, and green Fairy Godmothers.  This comic book was our Sunday morning treat, and soon my sister and I lapped up all the silly adventures of the winged and glittering Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather.  But the added joy was on the back page of the issue where we discovered a recipe, written in a rebus code, called “Flora’s Fudge.”

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That afternoon, we convinced our father to create what was sure to be a magical confection in our own kitchen. We decoded the recipe together and followed the directions. It was made in a saucepan, and the comic book image of the pot showed a small saucepan shaped like one we owned. For years, every time we made the fudge, about halfway through the recipe, we transferred the melted base into a mixing bowl to add all the confectioner’s sugar and chopped nuts. Within moments of adding the sugar, and nuts, the fudge became impossible to stir.

Of course, I believed, it never would have been a problem for Flora, the fairy godmother.  All she needed was a flick of her magic wand to transform the ingredients into fabulous fudge. Only our father’s brute force could maneuver the spatula enough to combine the ingredients, and I remember looking forward to and giggling at the funny faces he made in the effort. Our father was great in a pinch.

What follows is the exact recipe for Flora’s Fudge from the vintage comic.  After 50 years of wondering, and a few wild goose chases, I finally tracked down the very comic of my youth on e-Bay. I mistakenly had been hunting for the Sleeping Beauty comic and not The Fairy Godmothers issue. 

Even though I found a posting of the recipe itself on-line, it would not do. I had to have that illustrated rebus in my hands. I had to know if it was really as good and still as hard to stir as I remembered. My imagined solution, then, is to begin with a larger pot to accommodate all the powdered sugar, keep it on the burner at low, and see if this makes a difference in the effort required to combine all the ingredients;

Let’s test my hypothesis.  

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The Process:

All ingredients assembled. Chocolate selected was 100% Cacao unsweetened chocolate bar by Hershey.

Then I thought that a deep, non-stick  soup pot was a sure bet for handling the large amount of sugar and would prevent any chance of burning. I actually had a roll of wax paper on hand– shades of the fifties when mom wrapped my sandwiches with it for school lunch.

Butter and chocolate melted nicely,  Some panic set in when adding the egg right into the pot– what if it scrambled?  Use a whisk and then spatula and take it off the heat for a moment when adding the egg. Then add vanilla. The liquids kept the mass moving easily.

Then it was time for half of the confectioner’s sugar–  things started to seize up and turn to oatmeal consistency.  A continuous mixing seemed to soften the combination, and it accepted the nuts easily.

Adding the second half of the sugar required patient stirring for it to combine , but the stirring was not sticky or stiff as I remember it.  Everything was sliding around the pan nicely…

So it was time to dump it into the glass dish and ready it for the fridge.

It had only a moderate sheen and did not stick to together the way I remembered it. It came out rather grainy.  Why…..?  In retrospect, I made errors:

1)  I am not sure I would use the same unsweetened chocolate I did.  It was Hersheys.  I chose it because it seemed like what we might have used then, but next time I will try Bakers Chocolate.  It just seemed to not have enough fat or cocoa butter in it.

2) I will not use a non-stick pan. I’m going for my mom’s old Revere Ware. The non-stick pot never seemed to heat up correctly on the sides, it was too wide, and it may have created sugar crystals. I beat the fudge before it cooled sufficiently which affected the crystals.

(So, what we did long ago with my father when we transferred the hot mess to a mixing bowl to add the sugar may have been the right step to take in retrospect.)

3)  I think that I stirred the butter too much. It should just melt into the chocolate on its own to avoid separating the water and fat in it.

The fudge tasted fabulous, but the mouth feel was definitely off.  Why don’t some of you give it a try out there?  OTK would love to know how fabulous was your version of Flora’s Fudge?

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FOLLOW UP NOTE:

So 24 hours later, I can say that this first attempt at recreating Flora’s Fudge was a FLOP. But I have not given up and will revisit the recipe in the near future.

Readers out there who know about making candy or working with chocolate might offer up some good advice here. It would be appreciated.

And do let me know,  folks,  if you have tried it, too. The recipe is rather thin on directions, but then again, the comic artists at Disney in1959 were probably not chocolatiers– just Mousketeers.

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The Mother of All Mixers: The Sunbeam Mixmaster

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The Mother of All Mixers: The Sunbeam Mixmaster

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     In 1950, my mother was a new housewife with no cooking experience but plenty of will to learn.  Rheta had been exiled from her own mother’s kitchen, never taught to cook. On the eve of her wedding, the story goes, my grandmother Lena’s remark to her was: ”You’re so smart? If you can read, you can cook. Go buy a book.”

My newlywed mother took her mother’s advice along with a wedding gift from my uncles and aunts–  the hottest, do-it-all appliance of the day–  the Sunbeam Mixmaster. In time, she would set up a tasteful pink and gray formica kitchen with a chubby Frigidaire and a pushbutton GE stove to complete the suite of modern appliances.  Her Mixmaster model was the Cadillac version, complete with all the bells and whistles.  Unfortunately, its bells hardly ever rang, and its whistles rarely blew.

“You now have the finest mixer ever made,” said the manual written by the Sunbeam Home Economics department. The accompanying booklet welcomed home cooks to their “family of nearly five million homemakers” who now were, as owners of this extravagant but necessary device, “saving time and arm-work, and enjoying more delicious foods.”  Claims that “the more you use it the more helpful it will become”  would fall flat in my mother’s kitchen.

In those days, my mom’s cooking repertoire was limited. “I was a creative cook,” she asserts today, decades after her Sunbeam Mixmaster was shoved into the back of a cupboard, first in her home and now in mine.  Her efforts in the kitchen consisted mostly of timid experimentation and moderate success with various jello “salads” and “molds”;  however, her one claim to fame among the Wayne Avenue mah jongg-ers was her Orange Chiffon Cake. And the Sunbeam Mixmaster was the reason why.

The Mixmaster’s design is distinctive.  It is streamlined like the fins on a 1950‘s cadillac, and if it had doors, they would close with the same solid Caddy clunk. It sports a grill like that of a Ford truck– and weighs about as much. Shaped like the fuselage of a WW II Spitfire, the old Sunbeam helped my mom to win the dogfight that she faced in the kitchen when it came to Orange Chiffon Cake. (See recipe below.)

With over fourteen pages in the owner’s guide dedicated to multiple attachments, the booklet reads like a plumber’s manual with illustrations of couplings, joints, screws, and washers. An auxiliary motor drives a meat grinder, food chopper, can opener; a potato peeler, juicer, drink mixer, a knife sharpener, and– I kid you not– a silver polisher and buffer. And did I forget the butter churner, bean slicer, and huller for peas?  The homemaker of the 1950’s obviously had lots of time on her hands to use her time-saving appliances.   A miniature hardware store, this entire collection of geegaws constituted an enormous amount of crap that took up space and was just more mechanical stuff to break.  But it was this cumbersome electric mixer which built my mother’s confidence as a baker. While everyone else’s version of chiffon cake was, according to my mom, wet on the bottom and weeping citrus goo as it collapsed upon slicing, hers remained tight, firm, and dry. ( Dry? That was good? )  It was the one thing that came out well in her Mixmaster, she said.

My mother most certainly never read the first cardinal rule of the Mixmaster manual on page four:   “Do not overbeat.”   Since “more is better” was always one of her key cooking principles, the secret to her “success” was clear. If the recipe called for beating eggs whites for 5 minutes, Rheta, I can assure you, with the help of her fancy Sputnik era machine, beat them longer–  well past the glossy-and-stiff stage into the dry-but-not-separated realm.  Then, with her over-folding and over-baking, the fate of the cake was sealed.  Her orange juice laced chiffon cake may have been springy and held its form, but the women in her mah jongg club were more than likely enjoying a tasteless and arid confection which induced immediate thirst.

Today, Rheta has become a much more sophisticated and skilled cook than she ever was as a mother and housewife, and I am proud of her knowledge and interest in good food. But she still has no use for an electric mixer.   At best, she was more of a social baker who took her turn baking for activities at the synagogue, and I do remember enjoying a good many boxed cakes she beat to death in that mixmaster in honor of each of our birthdays.  I have no memory of ever eating her Orange Chiffon cake.

Rheta’s  Mixmaster just celebrated its 64th birthday last week. I take it out from the bowels of my lower cupboards occasionally for a test drive and just for nostalgic reasons. The smell of the overheating electric motor and bakelite finish are both a memory of my youth and a clear indication that the mixer could use a good overhaul and oil change.  In my childhood, I was not allowed to ever use the mixer. I did sneak using it once to make brownies for my Girl Scout troop and ended up with globs of chocolate batter dotting the kitchen cupboards and ceiling. The strenuous clean up and panic of being found out pretty much cured me of my fascination with the mighty mixer. To this day, I prefer whisks, stainless steel bowls, and wooden spoons.

 Happy 64th Birthday to my mother’s Sunbeam Mixmaster!

I don’t even own a KitchenAid stand mixer, though I am tempted to purchase one as a symbol of my foodie status and as a colorful embellishment to my kitchen countertops. (I’ll take pistachio or a burnt orange, thank you.)

The Good Housekeeping Institute boasted in the Mixmaster manual that “…you can’t overwork the Automatic Mixmaster.”  My mother took to heart the advice of the Sunbeam company in her one and only baking achievement.

 ORANGE CHIFFON CAKE

 The following recipe is from about 1956.   While chiffon cakes first appeared in the late 20’s, they became all the rage in the 50’s. Recipes were passed around, and that’s where my mother got her recipe.

 The key to a successful chiffon cake is properly beaten egg whites and a correct ratio of liquid to dry ingredients. Baking in an aluminum tube pan in an even baking oven is also going to give the best result.

INGREDIENTS:

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ABOUT THE EGGS: IMPORTANT

–Separate the yolks form the whites while the eggs are still cold.

–Cover each bowl of yolks and whites with plastic wrap and bring to room temperature (about 30 minutes).

PREHEAT OVEN to 325º and PREPARE PAN, a 10” tube pan UNGREASED.

In your ELECTRIC MIXER:

–place flour, sugar minus 1/4 cup, baking powder, salt, and orange zest and combine.

–Create a well in the center of the flour mixture and add the egg yolks, oil, orange juice, and vanilla extract and beat until smooth (about a minute). Scrape the sides of the bowl during beating.

In a CLEAN, GREASE-FREE, SEPARATE BOWL in your ELECTRIC MIXER:

–Beat the egg whites until foamy. Then add the cream of tartar.

–Continue beating until soft peaks form.

–Beat in, gradually, the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar, until STIFF PEAKS form. (You should be able to invert the mixing bowl and the egg whites will not slip out).

–Then FOLD the beaten egg whites into the first batter gently using a LARGE RUBBER SPATULA.  Fold until just blended. Avoid deflating the batter.

POUR BATTER INTO THE UNGREASED TUBE PAN:

–Lightly drop the filled pan onto the counter to release air bubbles..

–Bake for 55 to 60 minutes, or until knife or toothpick inserted comes out clean.The cake should spring back upon light compression.

–Remove cake from oven and cool UPSIDE DOWN. (You can suspend the pan on a bottle).

–Cake must COOL COMPLETELY before removing it from pan (1-1/2 hours).

After removing the cake from the pan using a spatula run along the edges, set it on a rack and dust with confectioner’s sugar or drizzle an orange flavored glaze on top.  Serve with ice cream or whipped cream. 

Food of the Fifties

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HAPPY DAYS AND HAPPY HOMEMAKERS:  FOOD OF THE FIFTIES

What? The boss is coming home for dinner?  What’s a happy homemaker to do?

No problem.  With her ideal kitchen now a reality, the housewife of the era could automatically get a fine meal on the table. Any decent suburban kitchen of the 1950′s was stocked to the gills with canned goods, frozen vegetables, boxed magic meal helpers,  fabulous cakes mixes, and instant puddings. Post- war appliances were affordable and stylish, and  consumers were on the march.

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Even with her hair still in curlers and the arrival of her husband and boss only a train ride away, the missus could not fail to whip up, on short notice, a quality home cooked meal. And to do so might contribute positively to the success of her husband’s future career.

Her kitchen was a masterpiece of  both modern efficiency and science as well as her haven and jewel. With the modern kitchen the center of her family life and femininity, the wife and homemaker of the 1950′s aspired to be the hostess with the most-est.

ed077399-c2cb-42b6-8de8-d60a1daca291The classic 1950′s kitchen was a housewife’s dream.  If stocked appropriately with the correct inventory and equipment, it became her domestic laboratory.  Correct tools, abundant and available prepared foodstuffs, and a practical outline of directions and cooking procedures meant that all women could feed their family, and be adored for it.  ”If you can read, you can cook,” was the saying. Cooking was first and foremost a practice, not a fine art. Add in a stylish apron, a string of pearls, a few copies of Good Housekeeping, and the Betty Crocker Cook Book, and the good wife and mother served up family happiness on a plate.

Anybody could make a perfect cake.  Take Betty Crocker’s word for it. She ( a totally fictional character and invention of the advertising world) guaranteed a perfect cake every time you baked.


There was a lot of magic that could come out of that well-supplied workspace.  With a simple wave of her wand, the food fairy of the fifties nourished and delighted her family.  This was her special territory in the household; it was the hearth and heart of the home in the most pleasurable of ways, and she ruled the roost.

In the top illustration, a  handsome husband steals his wife’s hot cinnamon buns as she catches him. Demurely bending over the oven door,  she assumes a submissive posture. The image is  rather subliminal and suggests a sexy secret is present between the couple over those soft, yeasty, and fragrant goodies that he desires. 

In the bottom illustration, the women and children in the family are all happily engaged in kitchen activities. They, and the tea kettle, whistle a happy tune while they work in the warm kitchen setting.  Look carefully to the upper left, and you will see father trying to sneak a peek.  Both illustrations suggest that husbands are guests in their wives’  kitchens. Here men are best kept at a distance from the place where all the magic happens and the secrets of good cooking are kept.

If a woman wanted to please her husband, said the advertisers of the day, it was through his stomach. As the primary shopper for food in her stay-at-home role, the budget-wise homemaker took this notion to heart.  The role of  homemaker and the keeping of the kitchen were serious business in the 1950′s.  But, oh so much easier than it was for her poor grandmother.73503_10150290996625051_3348269_n

Canned and packaged and frozen goods took on a renewed enthusiasm after the war.  Peace and prosperity reigned and veiled the atomic threat, but the atomic age also created a strange sense of security for Americans in the 1950′s. In the spirit of “better living through chemistry” (a version of the DuPont corporation slogan), the food industry flourished.  The 50′s saw the arrival of Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines cake mixes, frozen pot pies and TV dinners, and the important science of home economics. Homemakers were moms and wives, but they were savvy, too.  (For a hilarious look back at a strange and hellacious series of 1950′s food photographs, check out this site featuring typical food styling from the period. Prepare yourself for banana and fern green tinted images and cutlets topped with pineapple rings and red maraschino cherry adornment at the Gallery of Regrettable Food.)

No longer were the days of rationing sugar, eggs, and flour forcing Americans to sacrifice personal conveniences for the military.  Cars and appliances were in demand.  Other raw materials, metals and synthetics, were available for consumers to use.  Marriage and birth rates skyrocketed as did housing as a result.  The family unit in suburbia was the target of industry and advertising, and much of the market was the homemaker and her hungry family.


     

   

Silk stockings were no longer rationed and the 100% silk material called chiffon became all the rage.  The length of dresses fell, too.  Soon chiffon cakes and pies became very popular.  A chiffon cake was a fluffy cake that got its poof from stiffly beaten egg whites combined with vegetable oil, flour, baking powder, eggs, and sugar. A version of a one crust refrigerator pie , chiffon pies were made of beaten egg whites and gelatins.  Flavorings for chiffon cakes and pies were often fruits such as strawberry, lemon, or orange, and chocolate was a favorite, too.    For 1950′s confections, taste in fashion informed taste in food.

(See OTK Home Page article :  The Mother of All Mixers: The Sunbeam Mixmaster for Rheta’s Orange Chiffon Cake recipe)

Men, too, had a special role when it came to cooking in the form of the charcoal grill.   Without a fire pit of some sort, the suburban backyard seemed incomplete.  The man of the house could go primal over a smoking grill while discussing the latest anti-communist beliefs and enjoying a few beers.  Burgers, hot, dogs, corn on the cob, and kebabs were all the rage, thanks to the booming agra-business of the day.  Perhaps it was the post-war return from the Pacific islands where  the boys had enjoyed pig roasts and tropical fruits that inspired both the grilling mania and the cocktail party with Tiki drinks sporting little umbrellas. At any rate,  a man who could cook over a raging fire might just help his family survive an atomic apocalypse. The bar-b-que was one of  those 50′s fads that lasted and only got better over time. BBQ and the fine art of grilling has never been more popular in American society than today.

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Today we also celebrate another larger-than-life food style of the era in contemporary and nostalgic re-interpretations of the comfort food dishes found in the highway diner– burgers, fries, mile-high pies, chile, mac and cheese, and meatloaf with mashed spuds.  It was the growing automobile culture and imminent interstate highway system which spawned all manner of road food and drive-ins.  Rock and rollers in their souped up jalopies enjoyed sock hops under the lights of the local shake shacks. Most of these drive-in dishes remain distinctly American and have never waned in popularity.  But mom’s broiled Spam kebabs with pineapple, green peppers, sweet soy and honey sauce, and maraschino cherries have pretty much gone the way of the dining dinosaur, and all those casseroles made with cans of cream of this-and-that Campbell’s Soup may only occasionally surface at church suppers.

Convenience foods and deconstructed and reconstituted packaged meals are still,  unfortunately, de rigueur in areas of the modern diet.The 1950′s are hardly a faded memory when it comes to the major transformations that took place in the production and sale of food since the end of World War II. We are still feeling their effects in our health and diet.  What has changed  most significantly, however, are the expectations for the Happy Homemaker and her role in the kitchen.

In the life of the mid-century American housewife,  whenever the boss came home for dinner unexpectedly, the smart homemaker of the day was expected to design, plan, and execute an impressive dinner. Push a button here, turn a knob there,  or open a package and follow directions. She had only to then set the table, put on some lipstick, ice the glasses–  and remember to take the curlers out of her hair before the guest of honor arrived.        –MELorden