Ode to Joy
An old classic gets a dusting off
by Michelle Auerbach Brode
am the person all my friends call for cooking advice. I love these calls because I am a kitchen voyeur. I want to find out how people live by what they eat. I voraciously read cookbooks for the same reason. Cookbooks are tiny anthropological views into other people's lives and cultures and sometimes your own too.
So what do I do when I need cooking advice? I turn to my cookbooks.
I have such a wide range of interests that I probably have a book on any subject. Still, I find myself turning over and over to The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker. This book was one of the three my mother had on her kitchen bookshelf.
In the past I dismissed it as a musty old tome with nothing to offer me. I was beyond stuffed peppers. When I went to college I found a used copy of The Joy of Cooking on the street and bought it. It was familiar, musty, dusty, and homey. My mother's copy was covered in flour and fell open to Quick White Sauce. This all came back to me when I had a new love in my life and wanted to prepare my mom's Macaroni and Cheese. It seemed at the time an impressive feat and the ultimate display of affection. I opened the old 1975 Joy to the Quick White Sauce and went to work. The love affair ended but The Joy of Cooking was back in my life.
Now there is a brand new 1997 edition with new editors and mostly new recipes. It is a huge and daunting volume. I was prepared to hate it. The 1975 edition was my touchstone. Who was this Senior Editor Maria Guarnaschelli to change it?
Not so surprisingly, if you look at the impressive list of contributors, it is a wonderful book. The style is the same as the older Joy. The ingredients are listed in the directions. There is exhaustive information on the ingredients and the basics of what to do with them. That alone won me over.
But this new book reflects all the changes in the culinary world here in America since 1975. It has ethnic food. It has vegetarian food. It has microwave recipes. It has a sense of adventure and a killer German Chocolate Cake.
Old 1975 is still the book, in my mind, to teach you to cook like an idealized American Grandmother. Most of us lack this knowledge. My own grandmother was a terrible cook. She certainly did not make biscuits.
I turn to the 1975 Joy first for help when I am confronted with requests for anything American. You should try to find a copy in a used bookstore. You can make biscuits, Jell-O molds, pumpkin pie, jelly, all those sorts of things.
You will not find anything esoteric or healthy about this book but you can always adapt the comforting recipes to suit your 90s style. The recipes that epitomize this book for me are Graham Cracker Crust, Succotash, Blueberry Jam, and Rack of Lamb.
The New Joy has more immediately interesting recipes. They sound like a noveau bistro menu; Risotto Milanese, Caesar Salad, Jamaican Curried Goat, Buttermilk Layer Cake with Chocolate Satin Frosting. This book has all the "know your ingredients" information of the old book and some very interesting new recipes.
When I volunteered myself to cater a wedding and felt backed into a corner, so I opened this volume for ideas. I discovered the Buttermilk Layer Cake. Only the tangiest best vanilla cake ever. That recipe alone is worth the price of the book. It carried the wedding dinner and made my reputation as a know-it-all.
If you have saved a lot of money by getting a great deal on a used copy of the Old Joy I would splurge and buy the New Joy too. This way you can become the person you know who can answer any cooking question that comes your way.
And here is the recipe for my mom's macaroni and cheese adapted from the Quick White Sauce recipe in the 1975 edition of The Joy of Cooking.
Melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a saucepan. Add over low heat stirring constantly 4 tablespoons of flour. Keep cooking for about 10 minutes. Stir in slowly 2 cups of milk and season with a pinch of nutmeg, 1/2 teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce, and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Cook until thickened. Add in 2-4 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese. Stir until thoroughly melted.
Pour sauce over 1 pound of elbow noodles cooked al dente. Spoon into a casserole dish with a lid and dust the top with breadcrumbs. Bake covered at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Remove the lid and bake another 10-15 minutes until crispy, bubbly and a little brown.
Michelle Auerbach Brode was a professional chef. Now she is much happier cooking at home for her family and talking about food incessantly. If you need to talk to her about food or anything else she can be reached at Michelle.Brode@pobox.com.