Mid-Century Classic Cooking

“My grandmother had one, my mother had one, my aunts had one (each), I had one – it was a traditional wedding present, my sister has one, sisters-in-law have one, I have one now, my daughter will have one again – she lost mine so that means the owner of the last house she lived in has one…”

– Goodreads book reviewer

Book Review: Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook, 1945 Edition

Celery Pinwheels

My cookbook collection is half the size it used to be but I still keep four editions of the Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook on the shelves. Following is my review of the 1945 edition.

How popular is BH&G? About 40 million copies have been sold, second only to Betty Crocker’s Cookbook (65 million). (Joy of Cooking is a distant third at 18 million.)

Better Homes and Gardens was a good cook book to grow up with. It was (and is) complete without being forbiddingly encyclopedic. It’s just colorful enough, and lays flat on the table for easy reading. Each tabbed section has its own index (in addition to the actual index), making it easy to browse similar recipes at a glance.

I picked up the 1945 edition somewhere and was immediately impressed with a recipe for refrigerator oatmeal cookies. I like how refrigerator cookies break the labor into two days, but I hadn’t encountered a refrigerator oatmeal cookie until this cookbook.

Domestic Engineer and Goddess

Reviewing this cookbook has refreshed my appreciation for our country’s culinary tradition and the women who took pride in frugal culinary excellence. BH&G debuted the cookbook during the Depression, and the 1945 edition predates the explosion of post-war prosperity in the 1950’s.

You need a full-time household manager to pull off great meals every day at a low price, and in 1945 nearly every household had such a manager. Today’s working moms (and dads) don’t have that kind of time and shouldn’t be expected to find it, but busy families can dip part-time into the high labor / low cost meals of the mid-20th century.

Forgotten Recipes, Techniques, and Tips

These mid-century ladies had serious cooking skills and a lot of tricks up their sleeves to manage their kitchens with art and economy. Making budget meals with everyday ingredients wasn’t a cooking gendre, it was how you cooked.

Below find a sampling of my favorite recipes and techniques from the ’45 edition. I didn’t pick them because of nostalgia but because they are great suggestions, just fallen out of use.

Recipes for Best Economizing

  • Baked Luncheon Omelet – just eggs and white sauce seasoned with grated onion
  • Green Rice Casserole cooked rice, cheese, eggs, and a cup of parsley
  • Sauce for Fish thickened reduced fish stock with salt, parsley, and dry mustard

French fried linguine noodles, the ultimate in economy (in place of chow mein noodles). Good grief!

Forgotten Recipes

  • Oven Fried Oysters – breaded, both sides sprinkled with oil, baked in a shallow pan in a hot oven
  • Pineapple Topper for Cake – mixture of canned pineapple, sweetened coconut, walnuts, brown sugar, and butter. Heap onto hot or cool cake and broil.
  • Baked Apple Butter – boil and strain whole apples, then cook in slow oven for eight hours before sealing in sterilized jars
  • Pressed Chicken – OMG I always wanted to try a recipe like this; it’s either an aspic or a galantine. No store bought gelatin, just reduced chicken stock, diced chicken, hard-boiled eggs and parsley, weighted down in a greased loaf pan and refrigerated overnight.
Pressed Chicken

I was eager to unmold the pressed chicken but not eager to eat it. To my surprise it was really enjoyable. The jellied stock gives a delicate flavor and binds the chicken with an elusive texture. It’s fun, easy, and delicious. A couple days later I was again not eager to eat the remainder, but I did and again enjoyed it.

  • Tamale Pie – Unbelievably delicious recipe! A complex assemblage of layered polenta (aka corn meal mush) and authentically ethnic picadillo. The polenta has two textures: creamy on the bottom, leathery on the top. Compare with today’s tamale pie, a pedestrian affair using cornbread batter and Tex-Mex chili variations.
Tamale Pie

General tamale pie instructions are easy to customize.

a. Make polenta using one part cornmeal to three parts water. Recipe calls for adding a teaspoon of chili powder per cup of cornmeal.

b. For every cup of cornmeal prepare 1.5 cups of filling, ideally picadillo but any sort of chili is fine.

c. Pour one inch of hot polenta into a greased casserole dish, add the filling, and cover with the rest of the polenta.

d. Bake 1.5 hours at 325 degrees. In the last 15 minutes of cooking add 1/4 cup of shredded cheese per cup of cornmeal used in polenta.

Uh oh, I didn’t have any cheese to melt on top of the tamale pie. I could have rushed out and bought some; instead in the spirit of my fore-moms I made an emergency substitution of sour cream!

Vegetable Dress-Ups

Vegetables are boring? Throughout the years the BH&G Cookbook has endearingly consigned the vegetable chapter to the end of the book. But this section has also consistently shown a good deal of sophistication, for example with a comprehensive chart for cooking vegetables.

The vegetable dress-ups in the ’45 edition evoke a time when homemakers didn’t have the daily variety of vegetable options of today, so they had to devise ways to keep each vegetable–abundant in its season–interesting.

  • Variation of Cottage Fried Potatoes – sliced or diced boiled potatoes browned slowly in butter AND cream
  • Super-interesting – Sauté sauerkraut and apples with salt, sugar, and caraway seed, then add two small grated potatoes and cook five more minutes
  • Add lemon juice to parsleyed new potatoes
  • The roasted potato variation below is awesome. Really awesome. Somehow the breadcrumbs insulate the spuds so that they retain wonderful moisture inside while getting really crispy outside.
    • Dip peeled and cut raw potatoes in melted fat (I used butter and canola oil), roll in dry bread crumbs, bake until nicely browned. Do not season the breadcrumbs or stir the potatoes.
Cook spuds alongside beef, chicken, or pork roast

Forgotten Techniques

  • Coffee for 40 – Place a pound of ground coffee in a “muslin bag large enough to hold twice that amount.” Drop bag into two gallons of boiling water, cover tightly and steep 6 – 10 minutes over lowest heat.
  • Popcorn Corsages – So cute! Make popcorn balls using red food coloring. Coat skewers with a bit of reserved syrup and push into balls. Slide paper doilies onto the skewers, and tie with cellophane bows.
    • Presented only for amusement. Popcorn balls are the worst. A huge amount of candy-making effort — cooking syrup to the very hard ball stage — for a ho-hum result. I have a bitter memory of children not wowed as expected.
  • Pectin Test for Jellies – Place 1 TBS fruit juice and 2 TBS grain alcohol in a cup and “move gently. A large solid mass indicates a large amount of pectin.”
  • When using cheese with yeast rolls, melt it with a lot of milk at the beginning or a little milk and spread on layers when shaping rolls
  • Scrambled eggs in a double boiler
  • Chicken fried round steak. Roll in eggs and bread crumbs per usual, then cover and cook 45 minutes over low heat.

Forgotten Tips

  • Pie pastry – until you are adept, make more pastry than the recipe calls for
  • Sides of cake pans should not be greased, hmmm
  • Veteran cooks need not, but beginners should count 225 strokes when beating dry ingredients into creamed ingredients for cakes
  • Archaic – three day old eggs “beat to best volume” for cakes
  • Archaic – for meats, use fat in pan only for ground beef. Pan-fry other meats without added fat.
    • I well remember from childhood: placing pork chops in a cold cast iron pan and cooking over medium heat. Can’t do that with today’s pork.

Great pro tip for grated onion: salt the side of an onion and scrape with a knife. Most recipes only call for a tiny amount, and this trick saves having to wash the micro-plane.

And the Other Half of America?

Lots of girls used to know how to make fudge: pre-teens mastering candy making. It’s not easy: in the past 15 years I’ve tried the old Better Homes and Gardens fudge recipe about three times and got it right once.

But a few girls and boys are still mastering candy making, and this sophisticated yet homely art will endure.

I loved reviewing the 1945 edition of my ancestral cookbook–the second best-selling cookbook of all time–but I wonder: What’s the fudge recipe in number one bestseller Betty Crocker’s Cookbook? My lifetime loyalty to Better Homes and Gardens is such that to my memory I have never opened Betty Crocker. Finally I’m curious.

2 thoughts on “Mid-Century Classic Cooking

  1. Aunt Marg, what a wonderful review! I enjoy finding older cookbooks to glean pre-canned food recipes; I cannot stand a recipe where the main flavor is coming from canned soup. We should have a BH&G potluck this summer. I have been baking bread recently and as I knead the dough I often think of your bread from my childhood. Cannonballs and torpedoes!

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  2. Three years ago, I moved across the country and had to fit all of my posessions into my car. Needless to say, I had to downsize in a big way. One of the 10 books I kept (and the only cookbook I kept) was the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook. Marguerite’s great article reminds me why it made the cut!

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