I recently watched an interesting video about a baker in California, Valerie Gordon, who is recreating recipes from popular restaurants and bakeries of the past on the West Coast. She specializes in baked goods and cakes and has produced a number of classic recipes that she stocks in her shop, Valerie’s Confections. To watch: https://dustyoldthing.com/bringing-back-vintage-desserts/ The Brown Derby Grapefruit Cake (<–see link for a version of the recipe from the classic Hollywood restaurant) is high on my list to attempt!
I love a good classic recipe, and not just because they may taste good, but because they taste……like history. The what, the why and the how of eating from culture to culture and decade to decade.
Which brings me to this gateway to history, culinary history. Though most of us assume that history is best accessed via books and dusty artifacts, one of the most delicious and accessible gateways is to cook up a recipe from the past. The advantage of the internet these days is that we have access to updated versions of some of these classic dishes, easier to make and with ingredients and techniques that aren’t so foreign to us now. (A few recommendations to get you started, if you are interested: Indian Pudding (think, colonial era, sweetened polenta), WW2 No-Egg Chocolate Cake, and Thomas Jefferson’s Ice Cream)
There is another way to experiment with classic and historical dishes, however, that is, through vintage cookbooks. One of my favorites, which is available in both original versions as well as reprints, is the Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking School Cookbook. For generations of American women, this was the foundation textbook for daily cooking. Fannie Farmer was the principle of the Boston Cooking School at the turn of the century, and therefore the cookbook was the product of her curriculum.
If you get adventurous and want to tackle a recipe, bear in mind a couple of things. First of all, in early 20th century editions of these cookbooks, there are no oven temperature directions. Instead, you’ll find instructions like “bake in a moderate oven” or just “bake for forty minutes…”
Yikes! What to do?
The simple solution is to look up a modern equivalent recipe, on the internet or in a compendium cookbook like my old standby, The Better Homes & Gardens Red Plaid Cookbook. Find a recipe that is similar to the classic one, say a chocolate cake for a chocolate cake, and use the heating instructions, usually 350 to 400 degrees. However, be careful, and watch your cake carefully to catch any variations that necessitate whipping the dish out of the oven before it burns.
But to answer the more important question, why didn’t they have temperature instructions back then?
Our modern electric and gas ovens are miracles of mechanics and technology. Back in the day, wood and coal fire ovens were the norm. So cooks got used to gauging oven temps by feel, adding a bit more fuel here or there to increase the temperature appropriately. It was as much an art form as it was a practicality. They were also in the kitchen a lot more than we are, as a rule, so they developed that feel by experience.
I have a degree (pardon the pun) of experience in this department because my maternal grandmother had a wood fire oven when I was a kid and I learned to cook with it from her. If you want to learn this skill yourself, when you set your modern-day oven to the proper temperature, and it has finished the pre-heat cycle, test the temperature carefully with your hand at the opening of the oven (don’t touch the hot metal, obviously). Get a sense of how hot it feels and make of note of the exact temperature and mentally connect it with that feeling. It will come in handy if you go camping and need to cook over a campfire, as well.
Finally, enjoy the process of discovery, and if things don’t go perfectly well…don’t panic. Chalk it up to experience and education, and then find a modern version that’s easier to do. Learning why your recipe works chemically is as instructive as figuring out why it tastes so good (or bad, as the case may be). Science, art, food, and history, all rolled into one!
Have at it and keep thinking history!
– Amanda Stiver