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January 20th, 2010:

The Joy of Cooking (2006 ed.): A Classic, Revised

chicken breasts baked on a bed of mushrooms

DinnerPlate3The Joy of Cooking was the first cookbook I remember working with. My mother owned a copy that dated from the early 1960s, I think, and it was loaded with fascinating information. I still laugh at the thought of a recipe my sister and I came across at random, “buttered crumbs”; it was clearly an ingredient in greater dishes, but we loved the idea of pitching it as an entree. SlicingMushrooms“What’s for dinner tonight, honey?” “Buttered crumbs!” “Oh, boy, my favorite!”

Yes, we were kind of weird as children.

But the Joy (as we called it) was a treasure trove, a reference. Any time we needed to know how to do something, we consulted the Joy. Roast a chicken? Slice a cut PanOShroomsof beef? Bake a cake? It was all in the Joy. My mother was a good cook, and like many good cooks she worked from innate skill rather than following recipes, but if she needed to know how to do something new she consulted the Joy, and if it wasn’t in the Joy it probably wasn’t meant to be tried.

Then I grew up and learned about PanOShroomsCloseupvegetarian cooking and ethnic foods and organics and whatnot, and found that the Joy was popularly seen as a throwback, a bastion of bad old midcentury American cookery. The recipes were unadventurous or constraining, the flavors limited. My foundational reference seemed less important, especially as I sought to learn more about vegetarian cooking, and as I ChickenToCookbought more cookbooks for my collection I didn’t try to get my own copy of the Joy (my mother’s remained safely at home, and I believe my sister still has it — stained and wrinkled pages and all). I did come across one volume of a two-volume paperback version, which I will be cooking from later in this project, but never found the second.

ChickenToCookCloseupAnd then a couple of years ago one of those cookbook clubs offered a revised and updated 75th anniversary version. New drawings, updated recipes, fewer potentially lethal techniques (or at least warnings about internal meat temperature and the use of raw eggs). So I got one, though I forget now whether I did so on purpose or if, on opening the accidentally purchased selection CookingThermometerof the month, my heart simply melted at the sight of a shiny new version of the old classic. The illustrations do seem a bit more modern, though the old ones were quite clear and easy to follow. The recipes still followed the format I remembered, tracing neatly through the steps and calling out each ingredient on a new line. I skimmed through the volume (no title CookedChickenInPan“buttered crumbs,” though its equivalent easy to find in a section on breading foods), tucked the iconic red ribbon between two pages at random, and set it on the shelf, where it sat until I started on the inventory for this project.

I wasn’t sure what to make from my new Joy. What would capture the classic feel and still be worth having for dinner? ChickenPlatterI settled on chicken breasts baked on a bed of mushrooms because that seemed to have a lot of the classic elements: roasting of poultry, a cream sauce, and a traditional-dinner feel.

The recipe offers options for the mushrooms. One can use large whole portobellos or shiitakes, or slice up smaller mushrooms to cover the bottom of a lightly oiled CookingCreamSaucebaking dish. I went with the smaller mushrooms as a more economical purchase, and sprinkled the slices with minced garlic (about a teaspoonful, or one modestly sized clove) and a bit of salt and pepper, then poured on about a cup of white wine. Atop this I placed some chicken breast halves, which I had seasoned with salt, pepper and some thyme. I brushed the DinnerPlate2chicken with olive oil and slid the pan into a preheated 400-degree oven. After about 25 minutes I turned the breasts skin-side down, basted them with pan juices, and let them bake until the internal temperature reached 165. (This business of using a thermometer is clearly part of the revision, not the classic approach.) This gave me a chance to use the new digital thermometer I bought with part of an Amazon gift card, and that kept me from overcooking the chicken; I would have left it in the oven for about five more minutes without the thermometer’s beep.

At this point I removed the chicken breasts to a platter, along with the mushrooms (spooned out with a slotted spoon). I poured the pan juices into a saucepan and skimmed off as much surface fat as I could, then put the liquid to boil and added some broth and some cream. I whisked them together and let it cook down and thicken a bit. After 10 minutes it was definitely thicker, but it could probably have gone five minutes more. Lacking patience, I drizzled some of the thick-enough-for-my-purposes sauce over the chicken breasts and mushrooms, added some steamed broccoli to the plates, and called it dinner.

And it was good. The chicken had a nice flavor, and the mushrooms were heavenly. I used a modest amount of sauce and it served as a good accent to the flavor without making the dish heavy. I think if I made this again, though, I’d keep the breasts skin-side-up the whole time to let them brown better, and would just baste the chicken a couple of times.

Verdict: Success. Yet another simple but elegant-seeming meal. And if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go heat up the leftovers.