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Vintage Cookbooks: Claiborne gave novice chefs confidence

Thursday, December 06, 2001

By Alice Strock, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The 1962 television series "The French Chef" with Julia Child spun off cooking schools and gourmet cookware stores all over the nation. American cooks exchanged their old-fashioned Dover egg beaters for wire whisks, their thin, wobbly pots and pans for heavy ones seriously constructed to thermodynamic perfection.

With the proliferation of newspaper and magazine food pages and books by cooking experts, such as James Beard, housewives experimented right in their homes with restaurant classics such as coq au vin, quiche and chocolate mousse, then catapulted into other ethnic cuisines or into the previously hippie enclave -- health food with an emphasis on vegetarian recipes and unprocessed, organic foods.

In 1973, Raymond Sokolov, who succeeded Craig Claiborne as food editor at The New York Times, introduced "Great Recipes From The New York Times" by observing, "Home-baked bread is in vogue, corner hardware stores sell stockpots and men own aprons."

Sokolov credits Claiborne, who served 14 years with The Times, as one of the ones who led the culinary revolution: "Claiborne helped to make good cooking practical by printing clear and sensible recipes in the paper, and later in books, for thousands of neophyte cooks."

I was one of those enthusiastic neophytes who embraced with abandon all on the American gourmet cooking scene. I collected thousands of recipes and bought every gadget and piece of commercial-quality equipment that came my way. The owner of a cookware store, for instance, who had exclusive rights to sell the famous Cuisinart food processor, assured me I was only the second person in the city to have acquired one. She had been the first.

Like many others, I craved sophisticated, from-scratch recipes to give my new cook's tools a workout. Claiborne's collection was a good choice. His Chef Spry's Wedding Cake, made for my younger sister's bridal shower in 1977, was probably the most elaborate culinary undertaking I've done -- or will do.

It involved making the recipe for the 10-, 7- and 5-inch genoise layers three times, cooling them overnight, "sawing" them in half and filling them with a mixture of Dundee orange marmalade and Grand Marnier, encasing the re-assembled double layers in marzipan, chilling them overnight, then constructing the tiers supported with iced cardboard separators and wooden dowels buried in the cake.

The icing, piped on in the shape of grapes and lovers' knots, was decorated with candied violets, silk decorator leaves and silver shot. Joycie loved it, so it was worth the effort, but I couldn't have done it without Claiborne's clear instructions that bolstered the confidence I needed to succeed.

I wrote comments in the margins alongside the other dishes I tried. "Very good!" beside the recipe for Cream Pie ( 1/2 cup sugar, 5 tablespoons flour, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 2 cups milk, 2 egg yolks, 1 tablespoon butter and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla), which I still make frequently in chocolate, banana and coconut variations.

Alongside this Hot Crab Meat Appetizer, I wrote, "Excellent!"

Hot Crab Meat Appetizer

8 ounces cream cheese (not whipped)
6 1/2 ounces fresh crab meat, flaked, OR 2 6-ounce cans of crab meat, drained dry
2 tablespoons finely chopped onion
1 tablespoon milk
1/2 teaspoon creamed horseradish (optional)
1/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/3 cup toasted, slivered almonds

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and toast the almonds for about 5 minutes or until golden. Set aside.

Combine all ingredients, except almonds, until well-blended (we used a wire whip).

Spoon mixture into an 8- or 9-inch pie plate or casserole.

Sprinkle with almonds.

Bake, just before serving time, about 15 minutes or until heated through.

Serve hot with raw vegetables and pumpernickel rounds. Serves 4.

"Great Recipes From The New York Times," Raymond A. Sokolov, (ed.), 1973.

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