Monday, March 17, 2008

Hidden Gems: Spoon Bread

I have a neurotic fear of getting rid of cookbooks. I have a collection that includes some ridiculous offerings, yet I can’t bring myself to give them away. Really, do I ever think I’m going to need “World Cuisine: Cooking of Britain and Ireland”? I suppose if I ever have a dire need for a soda bread or bread sauce recipe, I might. But the truth is, soda bread recipes are a dime a dozen, and I happen to hate bread sauce. I’d be much more worried about this tendency, except that I have a friend who feels the same way, so I know I’m not alone. If there’s one more like me, there must be lots more like me.

What if, my friend and I say, somewhere in that maze of aspics, veal kidneys and swiss steak, there’s some hidden gem? Some diamond in the rough, waiting to be polished up, updated with new ingredients to make it gleam?

As a concrete example of this, I have the Hood Basic Cook Book, originally published in 1933 and distributed by H P Hood & Sons dairy. The copy I have is from 1949. It belonged to my mother, who I suspect got it from her mother. In 1949 my mother was only 10, so a shade young for making such delicacies as Sweetbread and Cucumber Salad, or Fluffy Fruit Sauce. Also, it’s inscribed with her married name. The most likely scenario is that my mother had already gotten married, and my grandmother was packing up to move, and gave my mother the book to keep from having to pack it.

This treatise is typical of the beginner’s manual for young housewives of the time, which seems to have been the most common kind of cookbook readily available, along with Junior League type anthologies. At least, that’s what the collection I inherited from my mother seems to consist of largely.

This volume is chock full of advice about tracking food spending by category, finding a reliable market, and the necessity of being flexible with menu planning (what if recent frosts have reduced the supply and increased the cost of inferior produce? The string beans are poor, but Texas spinach is of unusually good quality and very reasonable, but there are some bargains in canned options. What to do?). I read the opening chapters of this book and immediately felt an unreasonable urge to run up and put on my full-skirted shirt dress, my pearl choker, and my three inch heels, shove a breast of veal in the oven, and vacuum the drapes while it cooked. It could have been written by June Cleaver, Margaret Anderson, and Aunt Bea.

However, I did find some recipes that genuinely seem worth making. A couple of types of bread and muffins, some cakes and cookies, and a side dish that turned out to be exceptionally good which I did make. It’s not exactly novel and undiscovered, but it’s a good recipe for something we’re all familiar with but may have forgotten about: spoon bread.

The recipe is straightforward, just a few ingredients, and at first glance the proportions look odd. A half a cup of cornmeal? To all that milk and eggs? Yes. The result is a very custardy, slightly grainy (but in a good way) puff of gold with a lovely brown crisp around the edges.

Another thing that intrigued me was the number of servings. Cookbooks from this era tend to be fairly reasonable about portion sizes. This was before the Supersize meal, so meat portions are given at four ounces per person, and so on. However, this is said to feed four people. If I’d actually cut this into four portions, it would have been four of the most enormous slabs of spoon bread I’d ever seen. This recipe can comfortably serve six people as a side dish.

Either way, it’s a nice find, and a variation on the polenta that has become somewhat ubiquitous and done to death. Everything is cyclical, and like bell bottoms and platform shoes, someday everything in these books is going to be reinvented and take the food world by storm, which is why I’m loath to get rid of them. I’ll be interested to see how they manage to update the aspic.

Spoon Bread
from The Hood Basic Cookbook
serves 6

For the cooking time, 25 minutes would have been fine in my oven. It can, I found, be held in 200 degree oven for up to 15 minutes, but plan for it to fall (this doesn’t change the flavor or texture—it’s just not as puffily impressive).

½ cup cornmeal
2 c milk
1T butter
3 eggs

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cook cornmeal, salt, and milk over medium high heat until sludgy, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and add butter, stir until melted, then beat in eggs. Cook in 8” pie plates or 1 qt casserole (or pan large enough to hold the batter—mine was 7” x 10”) sprayed with cooking spray for 20-30 minutes until puffed and golden.

No comments: