Not your grandmother’s Betty: Updating some old ideas from the Betty Crocker Cookbook

Steve Peters / Photo

Steve Peters
RUTLAND BITES

I recently inherited my grandmother’s copy of “Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook,” a book created by General Mills specifically for the 1950s housewife.

In case you didn’t know, Betty Crocker never existed. She is a fictional character first created in the 1920s to serve as the face of the company and help sell products. Her name and ever-changing look over the years is all contrived. Although any close examination of Betty makes this pretty obvious, General Mills pretends she is a real person anyway, often signing off sections of the book with her signature and speaking from her perspective at times.

The majority of the book focuses on baking, with topics such as cakes, breads, cookies and pies. Betty will tell you, in inspirational quotes, that these are important topics for a homemaker to know. Did you know, for instance, that bread is the symbol of hope, home and hospitality? Or that every woman should aspire to master sauce making?

There are also some nutrition and meal planning suggestions, as well as smaller sections on sauces, suppers and vegetables. Just imagine a home economics class from the mid-20th century, and I don’t necessarily mean that in a cynical way. There is plenty of useful content, and the step-by-step photos of techniques are still relevant and helpful. My grandmother obviously got a lot of use out of the book. But when it tells the reader to do things such as prepare a fruit cocktail for a tired husband when he comes home from work, it’s hard not to find it condescending in today’s world.

On the other hand, it helps me better understand my grandmother and her views on cooking. I think she enjoyed baking, but never seemed too excited about cooking, despite Betty’s motivational tips. She seemed to find it more of a chore, as far as I could tell, yet considered just about anything I made to be gourmet.

Which is funny, because looking at some of the photos and recipes in one of her longtime cookbooks, they’re much more complex and extravagant than most of what I cook. Maybe Betty, while trying to help teach women to cook, actually made things more complicated than necessary. Maybe trying to tell women they needed to master cooking techniques to be a good wife wasn’t the best approach?

Nevertheless, I flipped through its well-worn pages and read through my grandmother’s notes, letters and cut-out recipes she tucked away inside over the years. I hoped to find something interesting to cook that might have fallen out of popularity over time, yet still hold up well today.

I didn’t get far. While reading through the salad section, learning how to assemble a basic green salad and that veal could make a good substitute in a chicken salad, I soon found myself caught up on the molded gelatin salads. Could someone please explain?

I thought the first recipe of the section — a strawberry gelatin with cheese balls — was odd. But that was nothing compared to the chicken salad in a lemon gelatin; or the seafood salad encased in gelatin; or the perfection salad, full of cabbage, celery, pimientos and pickles — yup, also in gelatin. Better yet, one recipe tells you to hollow out tomatoes and fill them with mint gelatin. These recipes are not only impractical, I’m not even sure if they are edible.

For a minute, I considered testing them out. Perhaps they’re better than they sound? But I opted not to waste the food, and I wouldn’t want to share recipes with you for food I wouldn’t eat myself.

Instead, I made a gelatin dessert without any weird savory components. No pickles, peppers, meat or fish. I’m happy that those kinds of dishes are no longer found in today’s cookbooks. Although I do think that gelatin is still worthwhile, as it does make for a simple dessert and is easy to customize.

I get why people may be wary of gelatin that is made with collagen. Yet, you can still make gelatin-like desserts using alternative thickening ingredients, such as agar. Agar, also labeled as agar agar, is made from seaweed. It’s a bit harder to find and is a slightly pricier, but it is available locally from the Co-op.

Try swapping out strawberries for any other berry, or use dark or milk chocolate instead of white.

Strawberry white chocolate gelatin

Serves 6

  • 3 cups strawberries, plus more for topping
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • 6 teaspoons agar agar
  • 1 cup half and half
  • 2 ounces high-quality white chocolate

Roughly chop the strawberries. In a blender, combine the berries with ½ cup of sugar, the lemon zest and about 1/3 cup of water. Purée until smooth. Add the purée to a small pan, and heat over low heat until hot and gently bubbling. Meanwhile, whisk 4 teaspoons of the agar with ½ cup of cold water until blended. Add this to the pot and continue heating until it begins to thicken.

Divide the thickened purée into six glasses or paper or plastic cups. If you plan to remove the dessert from the cups before serving, you may want to lightly grease them with cooking spray. But I was able to tear off the cup and keep the mold together without. Refrigerate for about an hour or until set.

Clean the pan and in it combine the half and half with the white chocolate and remaining sugar. Heat over low heat until the chocolate is melted. Whisk in the remaining two teaspoons of agar. Continue heating until the mixture begins to thicken.

Pour the white chocolate mixture into the cups over the set strawberry purée. Refrigerate two hours or until set. Remove the molds from the cups, if desired, and serve with chopped strawberries.

Steve Peters

Steve Peters is a cook, gardener and baker living in Rutland.

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