This month’s recipe was inspired by a book. Recipe for a Perfect Wife, by Karma Brown, is a quirky look at the lives of two newly married women living in the same suburban house sixty years apart – Nellie, a typical 50’s housewife, who is trying to get pregnant, and Alice, a reluctantly transplanted New York City writer, who is trying not to. Told in alternating voices, Nellie 1956 and Alice 2018, with quotes of outdated advice at the beginning of each chapter and lots of 50’s recipes, it’s an interesting look at marriage, then and now.
Link to the publishers/GoodReads review.
This book appealed to me because of it’s unique format, plus I thought it would nice to read about what life was like for my mother’s generation – my mother had 4 children under the age of 7 by 1960. (It’s exhausting just thinking about that.) The book was immensely readable, but not quite the light fluffy read I had expected. While it started out okay, it soon took a dark turn and ended up with a strange ending. I didn’t really like any of the characters, dishonesty seemed to be a common trait – hard to base a marriage on that, even back then when people often didn’t know each other well before becoming engaged. Of course the author was trying to make a point, and it would make an excellent choice for a book club discussion. You could even make some of the 50’s recipes like Baked Alaska. I always like it when the book club dessert matches the book club selection.
My recent Hermit Cookies blog, sparked a discussion about family cookbooks, Betty Crocker and Fannie Farmer being old favorites, although my mother’s bible was the Purity Flour Cookbook. Growing up on a farm in the 60’s, my family meals were invariably our own home-grown vegetables and meat, and of course no meal was complete without a potato. No rice or noodle casserole dishes for us, and spaghetti was simply pasta doused with a can of Campbell’s tomato soup. My mother did not experiment with recipes like Tuna Noodle Casserole or Chicken A La King because my dad and brothers would simply not have eaten them, and I myself was a picky eater, although she did make a good meatloaf and macaroni and cheese with bread crumbs on top.
For many modern housewives that era saw the ushering in of convenience foods, instead of made from scratch. Although we had boxed cake and brownie mixes, my mother made enough homemade pies and tarts to feed a threshing crew and just once that glorious Sixties Desert – Baked Alaska.
Perhaps I remember this momentous event because of it’s rarity. It was not for a special occasion, but simply on a summer evening, a couple of hours after supper to ensure that no one was too full for dessert. If you go to all that trouble, you want to make sure your masterpiece is appreciated.
For those of you unfamiliar, Baked Alaska is basically a mold of frozen ice cream and cake, smothered with a layer of toasted meringue.
Although both my (2009 reissued) Purity cookbook recipe and the one in the book, call for white sponge cake and strawberry ice cream, my mothers version was reminiscent of this Martha Stewart creation, with chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream.
It was a marvelous sight to behold, with the meringue all puffy and peaked, and who would believe you could put ice cream in the oven! Perhaps I also remember it as chocolate cake was always my birthday choice growing up.
Baked Alaska can be complicated, if you want to mold it into a perfect dome shape, or use tea cups to make individual portions as in this Martha Steward recipe which calls for strawberry and vanilla gelato and of course, being Martha, she’s making the cake from scratch. What exactly do you do with all those separated egg yolks?
But it can also be easy if you just cut your cake and ice cream in a slab, layer it up, freeze it hard, and then smother it with meringue, as per this recipe in my mother’s 1965 version of the Purity cookbook.
Maybe not as fancy as the dome-like creation, but wouldn’t it be the same thing? I even wondered about using a carton of liquid egg whites but some sources said the heat from the pasteurization process would negatively affect the egg proteins. (Cream of tartar is included as an acidic stabilizer to keep the proteins in the egg whites from sticking together thus enabling a smoother stiffer consistency. Alternatives are lemon juice or white vinegar.)
So, I did a grocery run yesterday and bought a carton of liquid egg whites, and decided to experiment last night, and they whipped up just fine. I used lemon juice as I couldn’t find any Cream of Tartar at the store.
I forgot to buy cake, so I used two portions of Mug Cake mix from the pantry, not the best idea as the shape was not ideal and there wasn’t enough cake.
I froze two portions of vanilla ice cream in teacups (a la Martha above), and assembled them over the cake, and then added the meringue.
It wasn’t bad, but plenty sweet. I made the mistake of putting the assembled product including the meringue in the freezer for about ten minutes (as it said you could), while I cleaned up the mess, but I wouldn’t do that again, as it made the meringue hard and cold, and then it took too long to brown and by the time I took it out the ice cream was melting. Better to just put it in the oven as soon as it’s assembled. Of course I also stopped to take a few pictures, so that didn’t help.
If I was to make it again for a crowd, I’d do the slab cake, and maybe strawberry and chocolate gelato, which isn’t as sweet. Maybe when I can have people over again and hold a book club under the trees. It’s so brutally hot here this week, 35 C (95 F) and 42 (106 F) with the Humidex, that any ice cream served outside would melt lickety-split.
Despite my love of all things vintage, especially fashion, I don’t think I would have wanted to live in the fifties – it seemed very much a man’s world. I posed that question to my mother, and she said – it seemed okay at the time. Like many things, some decades are best viewed through a veil of nostalgia. I’ll leave you with some marriage advice quotes from the book – relics from the past….
Postscript: Have you ever made Baked Alaska?