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The savory and the sweet

by Brian Clarey

A terrible lesson in kitchen dry-goods storage revealed itself last week in my house, one that could have been absolutely disastrous but wasn’t.

Still, it left the stink of garlic lingering over the whole exercise.

I’ll explain:

I decided to bake myself a cake a few days ago – nothing real fancy, nothing that would take the entire day or have me experimenting with new techniques or exotic ingredients. And because I’ve been on this kick lately for these retro 1950s desserts, I went right for my copy of The New York Times Cookbook circa 1961, though my copy was purchased and inscribed by my grandmother in 1979.

It’s full of all these old-school gems from back in the day, when America was creating her own palate based on post-war ingredients, French culinary tradition and bold new ethnic dishes like tamales, prepared in the form of a chicken tamale pie (page 193[are these page numbers necessary?). There’s an oyster pie, too (page 285); a recipe for anchovy and pimiento canapés; a whole chapter on relishes; and four recipes for tongue.

And each recipe was efficiently and expertly prepared by the Times’ home economist, Ruth P. Casa-Emellos of Winston-Salem, in the newspaper’s test kitchen in its Manhattan high-rise.

I picked out a strawberry sour-cream shortcake, which appealed to me on several fronts: shortcake is kind of old-timey, and the sour-cream topping is straight out of “Leave it to Beaver.”

Shortcake is basically a biscuit, made with dough buttressed by the addition of shortening. My recipe called for a small amount – a couple tablespoons – of butter to be mixed in with sifted flour, a bit of sugar and a pinch of salt, and the rest of the shortening was provided by cream cheese, another ingredient that brings “I Love Lucy” to mind. One beaten egg and some milk flesh out the sticky dough, which must then be moved into a greased cake pan.

Here’s where things got scary.

Against my wife’s wishes, I keep a small can of Crisco in the pantry. Talk about retro ingredients… in the 1950s, I think, people believed Crisco was an important part of a proper, balanced diet. Like scotch and cigarettes.

I don’t use it much, but nothing beats it for fried chicken and it tastes god smeared on the bottom of pizza crusts. Really… you should try it.

Crisco shortening also has 12 grams of fat per tablespoon, of which three are saturated fats, the kind that pretty much turn to candle wax in your arteries. And, it would behoove you to know, Crisco has a tendency to absorb the flavors of strong ingredients that it sits near for prolonged periods of time.

Mine sat on the pantry shelf for a couple of years next to this god-awful garlic-infused wok oil I bought a number of years ago and which made its way to the corner of the shelf near the Crisco after it proved to be unfit even for cooking with. Also, it should be noted, the wok-oil bottle lost its top at some point, I know neither how nor why.

What’s important is that at some point during their dormant years together on the pantry shelf, the wok oil completely corrupted the Crisco.

I thought it smelled funny when I began smearing it on the cake pan, but there was tortellini on the stove at the time, I had been eating some smoked cheese… there was a lot going on to distract my sense of smell, is my point.

So I smear this vile Crisco, made even more bilious by the absorption of noxious garlic, in the cake pan in which I plan to bake my strawberry shortcake, and I don’t realize it until the dough makes contact with the nasty, nasty surface.

Seriously: I screamed.

But I acted quickly, quickly dumping the contaminated shortbread dough back into the mixing bowl, knuckling it a few more times and then placing it into a different cake pan, this one greased with sweet, sweet butter.

The verdict: not bad, certainly no taste of garlic I could discern. But really, the dish would have been better served if I had broken up the dough into smaller biscuits and topped each one individually – I could even have frozen the leftovers and served them to the kids for breakfast one weekend.

The lesson, of course, is to be aware of chemical interactions going on in your dry storage areas. Spice cabinets, too, are vulnerable to the immutable laws of physics. And by all means, if you’ve got some nasty ingredient just hanging around in your pantry taking up space and improperly influencing its neighbors, just throw it in the trash.

To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at editor@yesweekly.com.

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