When the NYT had a test kitchen

by Brian Clarey

I’m in my kitchen separating egg whites and thinking about my grandmother, pot roast and Ruth P. Casa-Emellos.

Casa-Emellos held the antiquated title of “home economist” for The New York Times from 1943 until she retired in 1961 and moved back to her home in Winston-Salem, where she died of pneumonia in 1986.

I mention this because my copy of The New York Times Cook Book, ca. 1961, is dedicated to Casa-Emellos.

This was before Frank Rich, the era of the celebrity chef and the Food Network, before the Times’ much-vaunted Dining & Wine section held such sway over haute culinary circles, when a single food editor oversaw restaurant reviews, and recipes aimed at homemakers – each prepared by Casa-Emellos in the Gray Lady’s in-house test kitchen – made up the bulk of the coverage.

The fruits of her labor are evidenced in the contents of this cookbook, which holds with the palate and ethos of the 1950s.

“While it is true that scarcely a day passes in which some manufacturer or another does not introduce a new ‘instant’ product,” the preface by longtime NYT Food Editor Craig Claiborne reads, “it is also true that world travel on a scale unsurpassed in history is making the American palate more sophisticated.”

The book holds 1,500 recipes from a bygone era, the kind of stuff fictional gourmand and detective Nero Wolfe used to feast upon in his Manhattan brownstone – mushrooms stuffed with liver or snails, chipped beef with artichoke hearts, cream cheese-stuffed tomatoes, anchovy French dressing, cold trout in aspic and entire chapters on “composed butters” and desserts, a specialty of Casa-Emellos, who contributed to several books on cakes and candies in her day.

I chose to prepare an angel food cake, a delicacy whose heyday was in the 1800s, a product of the invention of baking powder.

I like how food has a connection to the past, and my copy of The New York Times Cook Book also has a personal link to years gone by: It belonged to my maternal grandmother who inscribed it, as she always did and likely still does, with her name and address and the date she procured it in her flawless and stylish script.

But the recipes I remember Grandma making were grand, stewpot affairs with a little bit of this and a dash of that. She was never one for hard-line recipes and her cookbook shows little signs of use.

The angel food cake recipe is an exacting one, calling for cake flour, cream of tartar and one-and-a-quarter cups of egg whites.

It takes the separation of nearly a dozen eggs to get that much white, and the process is a messy one. The whites succumb to a vicious beating in my Kitchen Aid mixer, itself something of a throwback, and then folds together with vanilla and almond extracts, extra-fine granulated sugar and mercilessly sifted flour.

And no matter how hard I have my mixer lay into the batter, it refuses to meringue to my satisfaction – perhaps because my egg whites were not room temperature as the recipe dictates, or possibly because of out-of-date cream of tartar, which is supposed to act as a volumizer. Or maybe my electric mixer has nothing on the seasoned forearms of Casa-Emellos, who surely mixed all her batters by hand in the New York Times test kitchen.

Nevertheless, into the oven it goes for nearly a full hour. And though my cakes does rise a bit, it never achieves the heights I wish for it. At the end of the baking process I’m looking at maybe three inches of white cake deliciously browned at the edges of my tube pan.

Refusing to admit defeat, I make whipped cream in my mixer and throw in a mango that I’ve peeled and pureed. It makes a fresh and light frosting that a cake less dense than mine would absorb in minutes. Mine holds.

And when I cut it up and serve it to the kids after dinner that night, they are unconcerned that my angel food cake is a less-than-perfect example of the form. They don’t really care about my grandmother’s book. They are also uninterested in the fact that The New York Times once had a home economist who tested old-fashioned recipes in an in-house test kitchen.

But I like to think Ruth P. Casa-Emellos would have approved of the whole matter.

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