Sunday, July 6, 2008

Sweet Economy

This attractive little volume is about the size of a pack of cards, and only sixty very closely printed pages. It was published by the Woman's Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences (a mail-order dressmaking and cookery school that flourished from the First World War up to sometime during the Second) and appeals to the sense of frugality that was supposed to be one of the hallmarks of a good housekeeper.

This is a recurring motif in American cookbooks; you can find a similar appeal in Lydia Child's The Frugal Housewife, and later Marion Harland's Common Sense in the Household.

Interestingly enough, given the traditional conviction in the US of the frivolousness and depravity of the French, the writer of this cookbook (and numerous other American writers on domestic affairs) cites the belief that the average Frenchwoman can put together delectable and interesting meals with what the average American woman throws into the scrap pail.

I don't know how if there is a French equivalent for this dish (I checked my Cuisine Familiale and it's not there, but unfortunately Pellaprat, Marcel Boulestin and Julia Child are the only French cookbooks I own), but when I was growing up this could sometimes be found on the table, on those rare occasions when we had dessert.

It was cheap and good. I do not make this dish, not because I'm a decadent spendthrift, but because we rarely have bread stay in the house long enough to get stale.

Brown Betty

2 c. bread crumbs
3 c. chopped apples
1/2 c. sugar
1/4 t. cinnamon
1/4 t. nutmeg
1/2 lemon, juice and rind
2 T. butter
1/4 c. water

"Arrange one-half of the breadcrumbs in the bottom of a baking dish. Cover with one-half the apples, the sugar, the spices, the lemon juice, and the butter. Then, add one-quarter of the bread crumbs and the remainder of the apples, sugar, spices, lemon, and butter. Pour the water over all. Cover with the remaining bread crumbs and bake in a moderate oven until the apples are tender and the bread crumbs on top are well browned. Sliced rhubarb and raisings may be substituted for the apples if desired."

Personally, I'd be a little more generous with the cinnamon and throw in a quarter teaspoon of cardamom, as well. Cardamom, that lovely hot-country spice, complements cold-country fruits such as apples and peaches beautifully.

(If you would like to wile away a pleasant evening wandering among the cookbooks of the past, Feeding America and Project Gutenberg will offer you downloadable copies of several dozen pre-WWI cookbooks from Britain and the US. The next time I sigh about having to run the vacuum cleaner, I think I will re-read Miss Beecher's table of contents. It's enough to make you need a nap).

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