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The New Joys of Jell-O: Joy Is Not the Word I Would Use

ring around the fruit mold

RingAroundJellO2I have never been a fan of Jell-O. I find the texture off-putting, the taste chemical-y and harsh, and the very principle simply wrong. This is probably one reason that I own three Jell-O cookbooks; in fact, it was a Jell-O cookbook that started me down the path to Recipes of the Damned, and eventually to this blog.

JelloFruitCocktailThe New Joys of Jell-O is not that cookbook. The New Joys of Jell-O is a slim hardcover published in 1973 and resplendent with early 1970s glory; lurid color photos display outmoded hairstyles, clothing and Jell-O dishes. The publisher is clearly trying to pull Jell-O out of a 1960s cultural tar pit by showing that hip, groovy people who are in touch with today’s modern world will show up on your doorstep carrying fruit encased in translucent goo.

JellOPowderThe last time I made a Jell-O recipe I played it safe, adding melon balls to lime Jell-O and leaving it at that. This time I decided that I really had to go big. Big and bad, as it happened. So I scanned the recipes for something that would encapsulate all the worst aspects of Jell-O cookery — no small selection of choices — and settled on ring around the fruit mold.

JellOInBundtPan2I began by making the Jell-O itself. Following the recipe’s instructions, I drained the liquid from a 30-ounce can of fruit cocktail, and added water to it to make 1 1/2 cups. I set this aside, possibly not as far as I should have. I dissolved a 6-ounce packet of strawberry Jell-O in 2 cups of boiling water, stirred in the fruit cocktail solution, and poured the liquid into a Bundt pan. This represented my first real sign that things weren’t going to go quite as hoped. (Well, first real sign after the realization that I was making Jell-O in the first place.) I don’t own any actual Jell-O molds, and I didn’t have anything at all ring-shaped other than my standard Bundt pan, and it’s about twice the size I needed. I worried a little about whether the Jell-O would unmold cleanly, then decided there wasn’t anything I could do about it at this point, and put the pan in the fridge to chill overnight.

DicingMarshmallowsThe next step was to assemble the fruit component. The recipe called for 1 cup of prepared Dream Whip, 1/3 cup of chopped nuts, 1/2 cup miniature marshmallows, and the fruit from that can of fruit cocktail. You can see already this isn’t going anywhere good. I’ll reassure you on one point, though: Dream Whip is (or perhaps was) the mix-it-yourself equivalent of Cool Whip. (It is not salad dressing; that’s Miracle Whip. Breathe a sigh of relief.) I don’t know if Dream Whip is available for sale today, but it certainly can’t be found in my neighborhood grocery store, so I substituted Cool Whip.

JellOFillingIngredsThe marshmallows were also a problem, because they didn’t have miniatures at FoodTown. I couldn’t be sure from the shelves if they were sold out or if they just weren’t available. I considered trying the other grocery stores in the area, but I decided against that. It’s been insanely hot here, and I didn’t feel like trooping from store to store. I also wasn’t confident that I’d find them anywhere else; after all, who runs out of or doesn’t stock miniature marshmallows? It wouldn’t be the first time that I’d gone store to store only to discover that nobody carries something that I had just assumed everybody would have in stock. And I had a party to prepare for; I didn’t really want to spend the time, especially if it wasn’t going to come to anything.

JellOFillingSo I bought full-size marshmallows and decided to chop them into bits. This was tricky, because marshmallows are gummy and sticky inside and really want to stick to your knife. I dusted my knife blade with powered sugar and dipped the exposed surfaces in powdered sugar as I went along, and while this didn’t completely solve the stickiness problem, it reduced it enough that I could accumulate half a cup of marshmallow bits without completely losing it.

JellOJelledMy sourcing problems addressed, I mixed together the Cool Whip, fruit cocktail bits, marshmallows and chopped walnuts. The mixture was pale and lumpy and distinctly unencouraging. I set it aside and prepared to unmold my Jell-O. I turned it onto a plate and it came out in once piece–a misshapen piece that was liquidy at the edges. I think I may have held the mold in warm water a little too long; I was afraid I’d mixed in too much liquid (package directions say no) or used boiling water when I should not have (package directions say boiling water, no problem there) or failed to let it chill long enough. But it didn’t continue to bleed liquid, so I think I just warmed the pan too much. Certainly once I’d turned it out into a cockeyed triangle, it didn’t remain malleable enough for me to shape it back into a ring.

JellOUnmolded2I began to spoon the fruit cocktail mixture into the center. There was a lot of it. Frankly, I think there was too much of it. For the amount of fruit cocktail mixture I had I think I needed twice the Jell-O. (It had occurred to me the night before, when I saw that the Bundt pan was only half full, that I might go get more Jell-O and make a double quantity. But then it occurred to me that I would have that much more Jell-O left over, because I had no illusions that the party guests were going to flock to the Jell-O mold and clamor to take some home with them. So I didn’t.) I spooned in as much as I felt I could reasonably keep on the plate without in fact hiding the Jell-O, and carried the dish out to the party buffet.

RingAroundJellO3Quite a bit later, after we’d enjoyed salad and dips and pickles and cake and whiskey (more on that in another post), Scott decided it was time to find out how the Jell-O was. He served himself a plate with even shares of Jell-O and fruit cocktail mixture, took a bite, and furrowed his brows. “You have to eat some of this,” he said, in a tone that implied “It’s your fault we even have this here.” He served some out for me before I could protest, though I agreed that it was my fault and it was only fair that I tried it for myself.

JellODishedThe Jell-O was the best part of it. This is not a compliment. The combination of Cool Whip and fruit cocktail and marshmallows was unpleasant, even more than I had expected. (The nuts did nothing to improve or degrade it, really.) The flavors and textures were completely discordant. There was the slipperiness and chemical tang of Jell-O, the sticky softness of marshmallow, and the mushy so-very-not-fresh-fruit sensation of the fruit cocktail pieces. I finished the serving because I kept thinking one of these spoonfuls was bound to improve, but they never did.

The apartment was really warm, but the Jell-O held up surprisingly well, and didn’t start to melt off the plate for some hours. Once it did, I took it out to the kitchen and disposed of it.

Verdict: Disgusting. Kids, don’t try this at home.

Today’s Country Cooking: Rhubarb Rhubarb Rhubarb

strawberry-rhubarb pie

PieSlice2Last Saturday I finally made it to the neighborhood Greenmarket, its third week of operation. I had good but annoying reasons for missing the first two and I was determined not to miss this one. I knew it was too early for tomatoes, but I was delighted to see there are still plenty of strawberries on hand. I picked up a couple of quarts, and on my way to join the line I saw stalks of PiecrustIngredsrhubarb, and I thought, this will be a blog recipe to knock off. One of my books has to have a recipe for strawberry-rhubarb pie, and I bet it’s Today’s Country Cooking.

And I was right, though I missed it at first; the index had no listing under strawberry, but when I searched “rhubarb,” I found rhubarb pie with a variation that included strawberries. Good PiecrustInPanenough for me!

Today’s Country Cooking is the last one I had left to try in the group of cookbook-club-published books I’ve accumulated. Like its fellows, it’s large and glossy and prettily laid out. It offers lots of glowingly American recipes: mashed potatoes, jam, meatloaf, cake, and something called “American Chop Suey Hot Dish.” Rhubarb2(Macaroni, garlic, ground beef…I think I don’t want to know, actually.)

I started by preparing a pie crust, following a recipe included in the book. I had reservations, because I’m a butter-crust person and the recipe here called for shortening. But one of my goals for this project is to get better at following a new recipe without Rhubarb5imposing my own ideas about what to do before I’ve even seen how it would work, and I knew that there would be a real difference in texture with shortening. I had to try it for myself. So I took a deep breath, bought a container of Crisco, and set to work. I blended some flour with a bit of salt and some Crisco, then mixed in some ice water. I used the amounts specified, and I Strawberriesexpected the crust to be a bit shaggy, but it was downright wet. I swiftly blended in some more flour until the texture seemed right, trying my best not to over-handle it and make it tough. I rolled out a bottom crust and laid it into the pie pan, then rolled out a top crust and folded it into a quarter-wedge, and set it aside.

Now it was time to put together Strawberries4the filling. I sliced rhubarb into half-inch-thick pieces and arranged them in the pie pan, then sliced up some strawberries and added them to the rhubarb. Then I blended some sugar, brown sugar and flour in one bowl; in another, I combined eggs, egg yolks, half-and-half, and vanilla. I poured the egg mixture into the sugar mixture and whisked it together, then FruitInCrust2poured it over the fruit.

Now it was time to top the pie. Well, I assumed so, anyway; the recipe doesn’t actually say to lay on the top crust, but the illustration shows a lattice-topped pie, so I decided that would serve as an implication that a top crust was intended, and carefully unfolded the top crust that I had set aside. It wanted to stick FillingIngredstogether, but I managed to tease it apart into a single layer with out shredding it too much. I pinched the edges, poked a few holes, and popped the pie into a 350-degree oven for an hour.

Once the pie had cooled, it was ready to slice and serve. The crust was surprisingly good: light, flaky, and with a delicate flavor that complemented the pie filling. ClosingPie2The filling was very good too, though I found it a little sweeter than I thought it should be; that could probably be taken care of by adding just a bit more of both kinds of fruit without increasing the egg-and-sugar mixture. The strawberries and rhubarb balanced sweetness and tartness.

Verdict: Success. I may have to make another within the next PieBaked3couple of weeks, while there are still strawberries in the Greenmarket.

You Deserve Dessert! Don’t Mind If I Do

cream cheese brownies

SoloBrownieYesterday afternoon I felt like baking. I’m not sure why; it was close to 80 degrees out and muggy as anything. But I wanted to make goodies to take to work, and I had some cream cheese that I’d meant to use for cupcake frosting but I didn’t get to make the cupcakes because I worked late the night I’d intended to bake. Of course I didn’t want to make cupcakes when it was 80 BrownieIngredsdegrees out — or at least, I didn’t want to make frosting, only to watch it melt — but I thought, surely somewhere in the books yet to be used I can find a recipe for cream cheese brownies.

You Deserve Dessert is another of those cookbooks from a cookbook club. I managed to accumulate several of these before I finally quit. They’re very pretty books, ChocolateButterwhich makes them the more tempting to keep instead of mailing back. This book consists of recipes contributed by members, and as soon as I saw that I knew I was sure to find what I was looking for. Cream cheese brownies seem like a key part of a household baker’s repertoire — though I suppose that doesn’t explain why I’d never made them for myself before.

CreamCheeseMixt2I started by buttering an 8×8-inch baking pan and then melting a stick of butter with two ounces of semisweet chocolate. I suspected this meant the brownies would be rather sweet, but I pressed on. I beat 8 ounces of softened cream cheese with 1/3 cup of sugar, an egg and 1/4 teaspoon of almond extract, and set that aside. In another bowl I beat the chocolate mixture with a MainBattercup of sugar and two eggs, then added a mixture of 3/4 cup of flour, 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon of salt.

I poured about half of the chocolate batter into my pan. Then I added the cream cheese mixture. The recipe says to spread it on top, but of course the mixture was just thick enough that I couldn’t quite spread it AddingFlourevenly. That was fine with me; one of the things I like about cream cheese brownies is the irregular marbling effect. Once I’d made sure that the cream cheese mixture was equitably if not uniformly distributed across the pan, I added the rest of the chocolate batter and poked at it a bit with a spatula to ensure more marbling. Then I put the pan into a 350-degree oven, swore loudly, LayeringInPanpulled the pan out, sprinkled on roughly half a cup of chopped pecans, and put it back into the oven. I let it bake for about 40 minutes and then let it cool for a while before cutting it into squares.

The brownies were good but, as I suspected, rather sweet. I like contrast; I like a strong chocolate flavor tempered by a sweet PanToBakebatter, or a tart cream cheese flavor balanced against sugar. Both the chocolate part and the cream cheese part were distinctly sweet, and the pecans were unsalted, so didn’t offer much tang in contrast. Don’t get me wrong; they tasted good, and the people at work today certainly didn’t complain to me about the sweetness. But if I were to do this again I think I’d substitute one BrowniesCoolingounce of unsweetened chocolate for one of the ounces of semisweet and reduce the sugar in the cream cheese mixture a little. I could also use salted pecans, or perhaps I could sugar-glaze them and use half the sugar in the cream cheese part. Hmm.

But I’m not making them again until it cools down here. I haven’t checked the weather forecast, so I’m not sure if that means next week or next September, but I can wait.

Verdict: Success. Certainly worth trying again, if only to play around with the recipe a little.

The New Hostess of To-Day: In Which I Rediscover the Joy of Custard Sauce

apple snow, with boiled custard (soft)

CakePlusSauceThe New Hostess of To-Day dates from 1916, so it’s not quite as impenetrable as Miss Leslie‘s work but is still chock full of vague directives and alarming ingredients. Pigeon Galantine, for example, though I may just be biased by living in New York and therefore seeing any pigeon recipe as no different from one calling for rat. (Possibly you’d find more meat on a rat here.)

YolksNSugarLinda Hull Larned offers introductory chapters on various kinds of entertaining: the formal luncheon, the informal dinner, the informal dinner with but one both to cook and serve (ah, for the days when you could take servants for granted), the wedding breakfast, the card party and more. She has an extensive section on chafing-dish cookery, leading me to suspect she’d YolksNSugar2received several for her own wedding.

So I was a little nervous as I flipped through the book looking for recipes, but I was determined not to set myself up for failure this time. Linda Hull Larned might not have had an electric mixer, but I do, and I was determined to use it if necessary. I was also determined to rule out any CookingCustardrecipes whose instructions truly mystified me. And as usual I opted against anything with scary or impossible-to-find ingredients, so it didn’t take me long to narrow my choices to a manageable number. The dessert chapter didn’t look too challenging, and soon I settled on a two-part dish: apple snow with custard sauce.

GratedAppleI spent a semester studying in London, and our host family often prepared desserts with custard sauce. Custard sauce on steamed pudding, custard sauce on fruit; hell, if they’d poured custard sauce on rusted nails I’d probably have lapped it up and asked for more. I knew that one could find mixes for the right version in shops that sell British foods, but it had not occurred to me to make it BeatenEggWhite2from scratch. I’d assumed it would be hard, and I was wrong.

I started by making the custard. I beat two egg yolks with 1/4 cup of sugar until the mixture was fluffy (and surprisingly light in color). I then scalded some milk, then added the egg yolk mixture and stirred the mixture while it cooked. Larned’s instructions say “Cook until spoon is coated,” and SnowMixturefor a while I was not sure just what that might mean, but as the sauce continued to cook and thicken, I could see the effect she meant: as I lifted the spoon from the pan, the custard clung to it, more and more thickly as I continued to cook. I kept cooking and stirring until the consistency seemed right, then added a teaspoon of butter, removed the pan from the heat, added a bit of CakeAndJam2vanilla, and was faced with the direction “Beat until cold.”

Now what kind of a cooking instruction is that? I considered two possibilities; if the idea was simply to incorporate cooler air into the mixture to chill it in a pre-refrigeration age, I could just put the sauce in the fridge to cool down. But if the stirring was necessary to maintain an CakeJamSnowemulsion — to keep the custard from separating — then I couldn’t skip that step. I decided to try stirring for a while and see how it went. It went slowly. I checked periodically, and while the custard wasn’t immediately separating if I stopped stirring, it was showing a certain paleness at the edges that prompted me to keep at it, but it was very slow to cool. After a while I got the bright idea to pour SnowOnCakeit into a cool bowl instead of the hot saucepan, and that helped considerably. By the time I quit and put it into the fridge it wasn’t exactly cold, but it was far cooler and not separating.

After that I made the apple snow. This was a fairly simple mixture: a grated Granny Smith apple — which I peeled, on the assumption that the “snow” was CakePlusSauce2not intended to have a green tinge — plus 3/4 cup of powdered sugar, a pinch of salt, and three egg whites beaten stiff. The recipe said to beat them together until fluffy, which threw me at first because adding the apple and sugar to the puffy egg whites deflated them quite a bit; however, I kept beating the mixture and it reached a point that I could consider fluffy, just not as fluffy as the egg whites alone.

The apple snow was to be served over sponge cake spread with a layer of jam, and topped with custard sauce. You probably know sponge cake as angel food cake; I used a store-bought cake because I didn’t want to go to the trouble of making my own, but I probably should have, as the cake was just OK. I opened up a jar of the peach jam I made last summer, which was rather better. I spread jam on cake and scooped on some of the apple snow, then poured on some custard. The combination was delicious: tart apple, light creamy foam, rich custard, fruity jam. It felt elegant and rich, belying how easy it was to make.

Verdict: Success. And I have lots of custard sauce left over. Now if I can just find some nails…

Special Diet Recipes: I Made Dessert With Baby Food

peach parfait

PeachParfaitBowl3Special Diet Recipes is a 1949 pamphlet of recipes that use baby food — perhaps a predictable approach for the Gerber Products Company. The recipes are recommended for various special diets. Peach parfait fits into a few regimens, including bland diet, soft diet, dental or mechanically soft diet, and liquid diet. So if I ever find myself needing to nurse someone through an antiquated EggWhitedisease I’ll have options for feeding them. (You laugh, but a friend did once get scarlet fever, and Scott suffers from gout. It could happen!)

I picked up this book for Recipes of the Damned because of the meat milk-shake (which is more or less what it sounds like: milk, Gerber’s strained meat, and refrigeration), but I’ve long had MakingSyrup2my doubts about all of the recipes. Baby food? Really? I mean, it’s not like it’s a booklet of recipes using dog food; theoretically baby food should be good stuff since you don’t want to feed crap to your baby. But it seems unpromising, and I’d probably never have used the booklet if it weren’t for this cookbook project.

EggWhiteCloseupAnd that would have been a shame, because I believe I have found a way to make homemade frozen desserts without buying an ice-cream maker. The recipe for peach parfait looks more difficult than it is. I started by making a sugar syrup, dissolving three tablespoons of sugar in a quarter-cup of water and heating it to the thread stage (230 degrees F for those of us who prefer using FoldingInEggWhitea thermometer to playing about with bowls of cold water). I then pulled the syrup pan off the heat, quickly beat an egg white to stiff peaks, and then continued to beat while drizzling in the syrup. Once it was fully blended, I covered the bowl with plastic and chilled it for about an hour.

When I decided the egg white-syrup mixture had chilled FoldingInPeachPureelong enough, I assembled everything and measured out a cup of heavy cream. I whipped the cream until it made sharp peaks, then folded in the egg white-syrup mixture, and then folded in a jar of Gerber’s strained peaches and a couple of drops of almond extract. I had misgivings when I poured the peach puree into the bowl, because it looked so unappetizing (and seriously, PeachParfaitthe baby food section at the grocery store was awfully monochromatic), but I forgot to taste the puree at that point to see what it was really like. It did smell peachy, though not as nice as actual fresh peaches.

I carefully turned the fluffy, creamy mixture into a plastic container and put it in the freezer. And this is the real magic of this PeachParfaitToFreezerecipe: You just have to freeze it, with no churning or turning. Several hours later when we were ready for dessert, the frozen mixture had a thick, creamy consistency.

And the real surprise was that it tasted good.

So I think I’m going to have to try this again, though not with baby PeachParfaitBowls2food. It seems like it should be simple enough to puree fresh peaches or other fruit, or to make a chocolate-and-nut mixture and fold it in. The flavor element is the last thing to be folded in, so as long as the proportion and consistency are right, I should be able to substitute my own ingredients.

Verdict: Success, and surprise. I’ll keep you posted on future experiments.

Cooking With Gourmet Grains: Easy Pudding

double chocolate pudding

PuddingBowlCooking With Gourmet Grains is a Recipes of the Damned book, sent to me by Sallyacious with sticky notes calling out some of the most egregious concoctions. The foremost of those is “wheat germ chicken with peaches,” which Sally tags “the reason I bought this book.” It’s basically oven-fried chicken and oven-fried peaches, breaded with wheat germ. The peaches are canned PuddingIngredientshalves, not fresh peaches, though I’m not sure that would help matters.

The book itself is a plastic coil-bound relic of the early 1970s, all brown illustrations on natural-tone paper and that dated typeface that I’m pretty sure was only really in use between about 1968 and 1979. I’d call it hippy-dippy but that would be DryMixtureunduly insulting to hippies. Its theme is the use of grains, and the category is quite broad, ranging from kasha and wheat germ to all-purpose flour; basically, if the Stone-Buhr company manufactures it, it counts.

I didn’t bother to try to search out Stone-Buhr brand grains, which I’m not sure are PuddingBattereasily available in this part of the country, and I didn’t feel compelled to make anything I found especially hippy-dippy. This left me with a lot of options, though since I knew I’d be working on a weeknight I ruled out yeast breads and breakfast foods. I also decided I should probably try something that wasn’t just a variation of something I’ve made before, BatterWSugarMixturewhich struck off a lot of the baked goods. Eventually I settled on double chocolate pudding, because it looked easy. Suspiciously easy, I thought. Surely this can’t work?

I started by mixing together some whole-wheat pastry flour, baking powder, sugar, cocoa and salt; in another bowl I combined melted butter, milk and vanilla, then PuddingPlusWatermixed the liquids into the dry ingredients. This resulted in a smooth and thick batter, which I spread in a baking dish. Then I mixed some cocoa and sugar (this second application of cocoa accounts for the “double” chocolate), which I spread evenly over the batter. Then I carefully poured some water over the whole thing, and put the now unlovely-looking mixture into the BakedPuddingoven for about 45 minutes. During the baking it puffed up and formed a crust with a moist interior. I let the pudding cool for a bit, then served it up; the warm concoction had a mixed consistency, dense cake-like structure with lots of soft gooey spots, which worked together nicely. It tasted rich and chocolatey. It would have been good with ice cream or whipped cream, but it was just fine on its own.

You may be saying that doesn’t sound like pudding. Certainly it’s not like stovetop puddings or Jell-O pudding, but it’s more like what one might call “a pudding,” a denser baked dessert. Whatever you call it, it’s tasty, and unbelievably easy.

Verdict: Success. Easy dessert, good flavor, no canned peaches.

Recipes for a New Majority: Pies, Potluck and Politics

Kentucky pie

KentuckyPieSlicedIt’s been 14 years since Recipes for a New Majority: Cooking From All Your Favorite Democrats was published, so I can’t remember for certain, but I think I helped proofread it. Recipes for a New Majority is a compilation assembled by the Democratic Party of Oregon, and Scott and I were friends with one of the co-editors. In fact, Scott’s illustrations are featured CookbookGraphic1prominently in the book.

I believe Recipes for a New Majority was done as a fundraiser, but I don’t remember whether it was sold or given away as part of a bigger project. It does feature a lot of recipes from leading Democratic figures, from all over the country; some are still prominent, such as Ron Wyden, then Congressman, now Senator (Democratic Chicken Chili), and Hillary Clinton, then First Lady, subsequently Senator, now PieCrustSecretary of State (Chocolate Chip Cookies). A few contributors have several entries, most notably then-Sen. Paul Simon. He must have had more free time than you’d expect. The recipes are varied; New England corn chowder, barbecued baby beef ribs, Cajun deep fried turkey, vegetarian lasagna. I briefly toyed with the idea of making “Mike’s Nutritious Snack,” a contribution from former Congressman Mike CookbookGraphic4Kopetski, which makes up in simplicity what it lacks in elegance.

Put Rice Krispies in a bowl, like you would if you were going to have a bowl of cereal. Arrange half spoonfuls of peanut butter (gourmets call it “dollops”) FillingIngredsover cereal. 8-10 dollops should do. Pour a cereal size portion of milk over all. Eat and enjoy.

Instead, I chose to make Kentucky pie, a contribution from Sen. Wendell H. Ford. I had no particular attachment to Sen. Ford, but I thought that the recipe sounded like it would produce something similar to FilledPieCrustDerby Pie, which is a Kentucky specialty; I’ve enjoyed it on both of my trips to Louisville. Of course Derby Pie is trademarked and carefully guarded, but it’s not surprising that there are lots of variations out there, and I thought the combination of pecans and chocolate in a dense filling would be well-received by my co-workers at today’s potluck and cooking contest.

BakedPieThe pie itself is easy to prepare. I started by making a pie crust — two, actually, so I could have one for the potluck and one for Thanskgiving — using a recipe from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything (but I’ve used that recipe before, so it doesn’t enable me to knock off that book too). For the filling I chopped pecans, melted butter, beat eggs, blended flour and sugar, and then mixed it TheSpreadall together with chocolate chunks and vanilla extract. I turned the mixture into the pie shells and baked them at 325 for a bit over an hour. Once the pies had cooled I put them in the freezer. One is to keep until Thursday; I wanted the other to be good and cold this morning, because I was also bringing an ice-cream pumpkin pie to the office and wanted to make sure it was well insulated against melting. And it worked: Tupperware salad bowl, Kentucky pie underneath, bag of ice cubes on top, and by the end of a half-hour commute the ice-cream and pumpkin concoction had barely begun to soften. I set the Kentucky pie to thaw so it would be easy to serve when the potluck began at 4.

MostlyDessertsThe potluck was a tremendous display of talent and skill. The spread included dips, muffins, mac and cheese, and loads of dessert. The offerings ranged from simple — peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cut into triangles — to elaborate — flourless chocolate cake umolded and dusted with sugar just before showtime. And the drinks! We all learned about the cocktail called PouringDrinkthe bee’s knees, which blends gin and honey syrup and bitters and lemon and did I mention gin? There was definitely gin in there. The elaborate mixology was in fact the bee’s knees. A bit of gin later, I agreed to be one of the judges for the appetizers and sides category, and happily sampled more food. This tasting duty also had the advantage of helping offset the gin, which was MacNCheeseimportant since I still had work to do before leaving for the day.

After we’d all made some dents in the non-sweets categories, I got things started by cutting a wedge of the pumpkin ice-cream pie, then one of the Kentucky pie. This encouraged others, and soon people were digging in. The TiropitaKentucky pie went over well; people liked the chocolate and the nuts, the dense filing, and the contrast of the sweet interior with the plain pie crust. I think they also appreciated the fact that it wasn’t as drippy as the gradually melting ice cream pie, though they seemed to be enjoying that one too.

The potluck rolled on, the PBJco-workers wandered in and out of the room nibbling more food, and at some point we remembered that we never got around to finishing the judging. Category judges were instructed to confer and get the results in tomorrow. So stay tuned; I’ll let you know if the Kentucky pie came away with the ribbon.

Verdict: Success, even without the votes in. Really, I think we’re all winners today.

(FYI, there are lots more pictures from the cooking and the potluck on my Flickr page. And you can find pictures from all the blog recipes tried so far in the 107 Cookbooks set on Flickr.)

McCall’s Cookie Collection: The next-to-last party book

crisscross peanut cookies

PBCookieDoughI knew that when it came to sweets, the Black and White Cupcakes would be the big hits of the party. Different, dramatic and delicious ‚Äî and did I mention they were chocolate? I am a rabid fan of chocolate. (I hesitate to use the term ‚Äúchocoholic‚Äù because there‚Äôs no alcohol in the stuff, and also I don‚Äôt have a problem and can quit any time I want.) I am such a rabid fan of chocolate, in fact, that I reflexively feel guilty when it comes to dessert. Any time I am planning dessert my immediate, powerful impulse is to choose something with chocolate. And then I have a momentary surge of doubt: Am I being too narrow when I choose chocolate? What about all those other delightful non-chocolate desserts, such as cr?®me brulee and blueberry pie and coffee ice cream? Am I missing something if I choose chocolate?

PBCookieDough2Most of the time I would say no, I’m not. (Though on mid-priced restaurant menus I am prone to choosing just about anything other than the inevitable Death by Chocolate Torte, especially if there’s a local or regional specialty to be had.) But I do try to be cognizant of the fact that not everyone is as wild about chocolate as I am, and to provide alternatives. In this case I didn’t want to do something very labor-intensive or fragile, nothing that would seem like it was competing with the cupcakes, so I opted for cookies.

I’ve had the McCall’s Cookie Collection book for decades — certainly since high school, possibly longer. I was the family’s designated cookie baker from about kindergarten, the year my mom PBCookiesRawdiscovered that I liked that particular task a lot more than she did, which also happened to be the year I discovered that people will ooh and aah over your cleverly decorated Christmas sugar cookies and then pass them over for the far tastier chocolate chip. Which is probably also a lesson for life: the pretty ones will get a lot of attention, but people quickly figure out who they need to rely on to get the job done right.

I have no idea where I got the book; a slim, battered paperback that might be better called a pamphlet than a cookbook, it looks like something that might have come free with a holiday bakeware purchase at a department store. There are a number of oddly lit photos of the finished cookies, all arrayed on trays or in large glass jars, PBCookiesplus some photos of a doll preparing and baking cookies. It must be a very large doll, because it appears to be in a full-scale kitchen, and in one of the shots there’s a real person in the background at the sink. All of which makes me wonder why they chose to use a doll instead of a person. Have some creepy with your Christmas cookies!

Not all of the recipes in the book are holiday cookies, but naturally quite a lot of them are. I’ve used this book a few times for my holiday baking, and I had to search for a while before finding a recipe I thought would be appropriate for summer. Peanut-butter cookies are a favorite of mine, so I settled on the recipe titled “Crisscross Peanut Cookies.” And it wasn’t until I was sliding the cooled cookies into zipper bags to hold until the next day that I had a sudden realization: Hadn’t I made these before? I might have. I’m not sure. I racked my brain but I could not be certain. PBCookies2So to err on the side of completeness, this book will have to go back into the 107 Cookbooks hopper; I’ll add it to the December cookie roundup, and will be sure to make something I know I’ve never made before, like Filbert-Chocolate Drops  or Walnut-Topped Cookies. (But not the sugar cookies; I’ve made them before and they’re boring.)

Verdict: Partial success. The cookies were delicious, but I didn’t ensure that I was using an untried recipe.