Sunday, June 05, 2005

You Sweet Talker

Some time ago, I came across a review of the book Finding Betty Crocker, Susan Marks' history of General Mills' iconic homemaker from the 1920s to the present. And since I finally picked up a copy at the library, I ripped through the pages (visually only) at astonishing speed this weekend.

You see, even with the Chef Mother to show me the ropes in the kitchen, I still learned an awful lot from Betty Crocker. I collected the coupons from bags of Gold Medal flour and, at the tender age of ten (or so), redeemed them for my first grown-up cookbook: the "new and revised" 1978 edition of Betty Crocker's Cookbook. (Alas, that was back in the day when Betty had a hideously starched bubble/flip hairdo... but then, I wasn't following her as a fashion role model.)

That basic cookbook still proves useful to me on a regular basis, though I no longer need the diagrams of cuts of meat. I still refer to "Big Red" when I need to know rice cooking times, and the pizza dough recipe and the never-fails flaky pie crust recipe that I use to great success come directly from this cookbook. And almost every Christmas I find myself turning to the same page in the cookie section for Russian teacakes.

A couple of years after acquiring this volume, I also received the Betty Crocker International Cookbook from the Chef Mother in support of my 4-H project on international foods (and the birth of my love affair with ethnic cuisines). From this book have come some of my favorite desserts: cassata alla siciliana, a rich pound cake filled with Grand Marnier-laced cream and topped with mocha buttercream; torta de almendra, an orange-almond cake sprinkled with Grand Marnier (do you sense a trend here?); and, of course, baklava.

Both books have inspired me many times over the years, and I would be loath to part with either one. Other cookbooks may come and go, but I'm always learning something new from my Betty Crocker cookbooks, even when that something new is something old (and there are a LOT of classic recipes).

So in tribute to America's First Lady of Food, I baked this weekend. I pulled out the delightfully old-fashioned recipe for vanilla refrigerator cookies, tweaking the flavors (adding almond extract, ground ginger, and mini diced candied ginger) to create a light cookie that would make a pleasant finish to a Chinese meal. (This recipe is a wonderful blank slate for other flavors, too: it's the basis for my lavender cookies, for example.)

And today I baked a pecan pie, one of my personal favorites because it always turns out so buttery and lush. Though I usually only bake pecan pie around the fall and winter holidays, I've been craving it lately and decided to brave the heat and surrender to the inevitable, knowing that no other pecan pie would satisfy me so well.

Recipes like these have been big crowd-pleasers at my dinner parties (and around the office) for years, and while I can take the credit for the final products, so many of the recipes began with that Big Red Book.

Betty, I couldn't have done it without you!

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