I know that's a pretty shocking statement from a woman who makes homemade marshmallows and a cake that takes three days to make and includes making fresh orange curd (I only make this cake every 10 years). I use gelatin when making marshmallows so it's not like I can't use a Jell-O adjacent product successfully. I think my failure with Jell-O is twofold: 1. My water isn't the right temperature and 2. I don't dissolve the packet enough. Yes, these are simple things that can easily be addressed but since I don't really like Jell-O, my inability to make Jell-O doesn't matter. Good thing I wasn't in my mid-ish 30s in any year from roughly 1952-1973; my inability to make Jell-O would count towards my failures as a woman. No children, no husband, can't make a Jell-O salad - I'd be doomed. Lucky for me I live in 2016 and no one judges me on these things. No really, no one judges me. (Insert sarcastic tone here - sarcasm really should have a punctuation mark.)
Fun Jell-O/gelatin facts*:
- The first reference to geletine was in France in 1682 and involved beef bones.
- Jell-O pudding flavors have been around since the 1930s, not the 1970s as most people believe.
- The person who actually created what we all know and "love" as Jell-O was an unsuccessful cough syrup salesman and he was equally unsuccessful with Jell-O. He sold the product to his neighbor for $450 and that man, Orator Francis Woodward, would go on to make a success with the product.
Last month during my visit to Austin, I found a handwritten recipe/address book in a vintage store on S. Congress Street. It definitely belongs to a woman and is probably from the late 60s/early 70s. The faded, on the border of falling apart UT notebook is a mix of her own handwritten recipes and recipes from other people, either on index cards or random pieces of paper (like an invoice - one of my favorites). There are a few recipes that either came from a package (Knorr) or were cut from a box (the pistachio cake recipes). She stuffed them into pages in the notebook here and there. Some of the recipes have are crossed out with a large "X". Towards the back, the recipes abruptly stop and it's her address book, mostly addresses in Texas. Each one has a check mark next to it. I haven't decided if the marks and checks are part of a transfer system (maybe she got new books) or if the "X" means she didn't like the recipe and the check means she sent that person something. Maybe she was planning her wedding and this was actually the invitation list. Or a Christmas card list. There are endless possibilities. The best part? I'll never know. Other than the addresses, which belong to actual people, there are no identifying marks or notations in the notebook. She references the person who gave her a recipe in the first few pages but it's a notation like "Mrs. Gibson." Mrs. Gibson could be anyone.
This is the sort of thing I dream about finding in a thrift store. It's a little window into someone's life at a very specific time. Did she like any of the recipes in the book? Were any her go to recipes for parties or special occasions? The idea of Tomato Soup Cake makes me a little queasy but her recipe says to frost with chocolate or lemon icing so it can't be all that bad. Were any of the recipes handed down from her mother or her grandmother? Did she get together with other ladies on her street and trade recipes? Was pistachio pudding the cure-all of the early 1970s? Why were some recipes x-ed out and others were not? Why so many recipes including dates? It's all a mystery. A potentially delicious mystery.
When I came home from Austin I decided that I would work my way through as many of the recipes as I could make. A lot of the recipes call for oleo (margarine) and lard (not happening). Others are combinations I'm not totally sold on; the tomato soup cake falls into that group as does the beef and zucchini recipe. There's also one for sesame shrimp and asparagus; it reminds me of something a trendy single woman would make in a 1972 made for tv movie. There are few recipes that aren't named so I'm not sure if it's a cake or brownie or something else entirely.
I started with two recipes that I thought would be easy and delicious: oatmeal chocolate chip cookies and pistachio swirl cake. My only concern was whether I'd be able to find pistachio pudding but my trusty local Giant grocery store did not fail me. Not only did they have it but they had the Jell-O version and the store brand. I opted for Jell-O for authenticity. I also bought a brand new tube pan which means I can make my Grandma Garland's blueberry coffee cake sometime in the future. It's a magical cake that needs to be made more often.
I don't make oatmeal cookies often although I have a really great oatmeal raisin cookie recipe. The recipe was easy to follow and to make; it was a wetter dough than regular chocolate chip cookies. The result? A crispier cookie, more like a lace cookie than a regular oatmeal cookie. According to one of my co-workers this is literally the greatest cookie of all time. The only change I made was to use the entire bag of chocolate chips rather than half; you can never have too many chocolate chips in my humble opinion. These cookies are definitely on the "make again" list.
Which leaves us with the pistachio swirl cake. I may not be able to make Jell-O but I can make pudding. I also really like pudding, particularly vanilla pudding when I have a cold. It makes me feel better. I don't know why but it does. Pistachio anything also ranks highly in my book; I'm particularly fond of pistachio ice cream. The pistachio swirl cake intrigued me. Everyone I told about this recipe made a comment about it being so 70s because of the pistachio pudding. I haven't been able to find a definitive timeline of when pudding flavors were introduced but it's possible that pistachio was introduced before the 1970s although that is the decade where it's most popular. It's a key ingredient in Watergate salad which was super popular during that time. In addition to the recipe for Watergate salad the mystery lady shared with me, it still appears on Jell-O pistachio pudding boxes. Just in case.
The cake was the sleeper hit of these two recipes. Everyone who tried it loved it and a few asked if I'd make it again. The swirl part is a mix of cinnamon, sugar, and walnuts. I could have added more of that; next time I will. I want a more defined swirl. I hate the word "moist' but it's the only word to describe how perfect this cake turned out to be. The pudding was definitely responsible for that. Even after sitting out, lightly wrapped, it was still fresh and delicious. I was impressed with the cleanness of the cake once it was out of the pan; sometimes bundt cakes don't like to pop out of pans cleanly. This causes a lopsided cake but that didn't happen this time. I hated to cut into such a beautiful creation.
Pistachio swirl cake is also on the "make again" list. There's another pistachio cake recipe involving chocolate (it's a marble cake); I'll make that one soon enough. Overall, I'm pleased with my the first set of recipes from the book. Granted, I picked two of the easier ones but I had to start somewhere. There are lots more to try although I want to avoid the zucchini recipe for as long as possible. It's one of my least favorite vegetables. Maybe I can make for someone who really enjoys zucchini and I won't have to try it at all.
I have a similar recipe book and my mother has a recipe card box. Both are stuffed with handwritten recipes and recipes we've clipped from magazines or boxes of one thing or another. In my mother's recipe box, she has recipe cards from both of my grandmothers. I love those the most; a keepsake of their handwriting and the food they made. Several of my friends and co-workers mentioned similar notebooks and boxes in their own families. One friend shared that the copy she has of her grandmother's recipes is missing ingredients or has incorrect amounts; she often has to call her mother to confirm things while in the middle of a recipe. She figures her grandmother got tired; her book is the third one her grandmother made (the others are for her mother and sister).
Finding the UT book (as I'm calling it) makes me wonder what will happen to my own recipe book one day. Will it end up staying in the family; maybe with my cousins or one of their children if I don't have my own children? Will whoever inherits it end of throwing it away? Or maybe it makes its way into a donation pile and winds up in a vintage or thrift store (will those even exist?) waiting for someone like me to find it and scoop it up like a vintage designer handbag? The hopeless romantic in me hopes it has a long and wondrous life.
Time for you to help me: Which UT book recipe should I make next? Your choices are:
- Tomato Soup Cake
- Date Nut Loaf
- Pistachio Marble Cake
- Sesame Shrimp and Asparagus
- Strawberry Graham Cake
- No-Name Cake Recipe.
*From Linda Stradley, What's Cooking America
Photos by me