I’ve been contemplating a Retro Cooking post since I started this blog, after all cooking, eating and anything food-related is quite a passion in my life and one of the few enjoyments I still make sure I have time for. I love a Saturday or Sunday afternoon when daughter and daddy head out (or at least into the yard) leaving me in peace to cook to my hearts content. Even preparing the weeknight dinners and my daughter sitting on the bench ‘helping Mummy’ is something I look forward to most days and try to make some effort with, though the days I work are usually left to my not-so-kitchen-savvy husband – it’s a good thing I don’t mind BBQ steak and a simple salad.
Even when I’m not in the kitchen I can find something food related to occupy my evenings when the TV offerings are not to my liking. I find there’s nothing better than to relax on the couch with a pile of cookbooks and just flick through looking for inspiration or finding those recipe gems you’d forgotten about. More recently I’ve discovered food blogs where I can read about and be inspired by other mad foodies. Cooking shows on TV are also high on my must-watch list, even better if there is a cookbook that goes with the show that I can follow along with each recipe – think Nigella Express and Jamie’s 30 minute meals. I’ve been told this last little habit is one of my quirkier and slightly more obsessive ones, apparently others don’t get the same thrill out of watching a cooking show with the appropriate cookbook sitting beside them.
In light of the retro theme going on in this blog, I’ve also been thinking retro cooking, those dishes that were classic in their time but perhaps out of fashion now. From my own childhood in the 80s and 90s I can remember dishes such as Apricot Chicken, Beef Strogonoff, rissoles, tuna mornay, spaghetti bolognaise and the classic meat and three veg. Having said that, I did grow up in a house where we ate a much wider variety of foods than many in the smallish country towns we lived in. My mum is also a foodie and has always experimented in the kitchen – usually with great success, though the continued mix-up between the cayenne pepper and paprika did make for some VERY spicy dishes. And I must say that many of the dishes I remember from my childhood I have since revived and now serve to my own family – my two year old loves Apricot Chicken, spag bol has never left the regular rotation and Beef Strog is a favourite of my husbands.
What I would like to learn more about and try out for myself is some cooking from earlier times. I love hearing about the kinds of dishes served up at my mum’s 70s dinner parties – a time when the dinner party was regular occurrence on most social calendars – and when finger food (or hors d’oeuvre) seemed to mandate the use of toothpicks often stuck into an orange, pineapple or melon and the fondue set was the centrepiece of a carefully laid table. Mum also talks about dishes she remembers fondly, including oxtail soup, of which I have recently come across a recipe (using metric measurements thankfully!!) that I may try out soon.
In the last year of my grandmother’s life I talked to her a little about my obsession with food, cooking and cookbooks. She herself was a great home cook in many ways – though her technique of boiling vegetables until colourless would not go down well in today’s world and certainly were not the highlight of any meal at her table – and could whip up a meal for any number of people at very short notice. A necessary asset given my grandfather’s habit of inviting people to stay for dinner without notice. In the midst of one of these food discussions she gave me a cookbook – The Australian Women’s Weekly Cookery in Colour (yes folks colour pictures were included!!) published in 1960. I have since poured over many of the recipes, puzzling at some of the ingredients and flavour combination and confused by the imperial measurements. I have to say these two elements (the strange ingredients and measurements) have left me somewhat intimidated and I have yet to attempt any of the recipes. However, I will give you a taste (pun intended) of some of my favourites. Firstly the Chicken Noodle Ring – ingredients include a packet of chicken noodle soup, gelatine (a feature of many of the recipes), cooked chicken and tomoatoes – these with a few others are mixed together and poured into a ring mould to set. Next is a dish called fried chicken breasts – nothing unusual about that until you realise the fried chicken is to be served with battered and fried whole bananas (and a boiled egg). Then there is the classic “party fare” of devils on horseback, angles on horseback and pigs in blankets. There are a few whole chapters that would not find a place in any modern day recipe book, for example “Television Snacks and Sandwiches” (several pasts dishes were included here so I’m unsure of what constitutes a TV snack), “Time-controlled Cooking” which apparently involves per-preparing dishes and using the oven timer to turn on and off at given times. I guess the slow-cooker is used in a similar way today. Finally there is a chapter on cooking using a pressure-cooker, which might actually find itself back in vogue as it seems pressure-cookers are making a comeback. While I have concentrated on the more bizaar or dated recipes, there are of course some wonderful insights into classic cooking. The sections of preserves, jams and chutneys is an obvious example.
In terms of family cooking the 50s, 60s and 70s don’t generally appeal to me, mostly consisting of basic meals of meat and vegetables (at least in Australia), but the baking at this time is perhaps unsurpassed. I’m sure most households would have been able to serve up a morning or afternoon tea consisting of tea or coffee along side home-made cakes, biscuits, slices or scones. Like many children learning to cook, I started with baking, mostly slices and biscuits, but also cakes as I got a little more confident. And though baking was put on hold for most of my 20s I have since revived the skills and often have some homemade sweet treat to offer visitors or just indulge in with my family.
Sadly, though, there are some classic recipes that the 1950s housewife would be appalled to know I have never mastered or in some cases even tried. My one and only attempt at a sponge cake was for father’s day when I was about 12 and it was a sad, flat, hard failure – despite this it was colourfully decorated and presented with much enthusiasm to the family dinner table. I have never even attempted scones, pavlova or yoyos, to name a few.
So, I have decided along with my challenges in the garden – see Retro Gardening – I will set myself a goal to master some of these classics in the coming weeks. Top of the list is the sponge cake. I have visions of a traditional two-layered sponge with whipped cream and strawberries – and perhaps some passionfruit icing. I may also try making scones and perhaps the pumpkin variety as well having recently stumbled upon Lady Flo’s own famous recipe. It seems this particular challenge may not be good for the waistline, but at seven and half months pregnant the waistline has pretty much been forgotten anyway. Success or failure – there will be a full report to follow, including pictures.