“Pies, plain old fruit pies anyway, were not In during the Sixties: too simple, too old-fashioned, too uncreative. But there was a class of pie that a modern gal could serve and still be considered a go-go gourmet. These acceptably chic pies almost always had a crushed graham cracker or cookie crust and were fill with ice cream, or pudding, or gelatin mixed with something sweet and creamy.” ~Sylvia Lovegren, Fashionable Food Seven Decades of Food Fads 1995
While researching twentieth-century cookbooks for my blog post Rhubarb’s Reign, I discovered a “lost” sixties-chic recipe for Rhubarb Whipped Cream Pie in The American Woman’s Cook Book 1966 containing then trendy ingredients including gelatin and heavy whipped cream in a crumb crust. The resulting refrigerator pie smacked of tangy rhubarb mellowed by the rich smoothness of whipped cream. The crunch of the graham cracker crumbs added a good textural contrast. Rhubarb Whipped Cream Pie is a delightfully retro alternative to traditional rhubarb pie — delicious on a hot summers day.
The recipe for Rhubarb Whipped Cream Pie, suggests a Cereal Flake (corn flake) Pie Shell, I opted for the now classic graham cracker crumb crust called Crumb Pie Shell (above) included in the same chapter as the pie. The crumb mixture was easy to work with, kept its shape and held together well, however, it was a little too sweet for modern tastes. Next time I would add maybe half the sugar called for to cut down on the sweetness.
While preparing the filling for Rhubarb Whipped Cream Pie (recipe above), I took a gamble and modernized the amount of unflavored gelatin in the recipe to coincide with the product packaging that is available now: instead of two tablespoons of gelatin, I used two packets (each packet equaling about 2 teaspoons) of Knox unflavored gelatin. In spite of this adjustment, the pie maintained a good set.
Like the crumb crust, the rhubarb filling ended up being very sweet. A full cup of sugar was more than the filling needed, nevertheless tartness in varieties of rhubarb vary so the amount of sweetener added is best left up to the cook. Next time I would start with 2/3 cup sugar and work my way up from there, tasting as I go.
My final adjustment to the recipe was to stabilize the heavy cream before whipping by blending two tablespoons of mascarpone cheese into the cream on a low speed before whipping at a higher speed. The combination of gelatin in the filling and the stabilized whipped cream kept the filling firm and the crust crunchy for several days. I would definitely make Rhubarb Cream Pie again. Enjoy!
Graham Cracker Crumb Mixture
Baked Graham Cracker Crumb Crust
Combine chopped rhubarb and sugar.
Dissolve unflavored gelatin in cold water.
Bring rhubarb, sugar and gelatin mixture to a boil.
Stablized Whipped Cream
Fold stewed rhubarb mixture with stabilized whipped cream.
“The minute the biscuit is taken from the oven, it is slathered with butter, and partially crushed berries are ladled over the hot wedges.” ~Marcia Adams, Cooking from Quilt Country 1989
When I was growing up, my family lived not too far from a U-pick strawberry farm. Each year around the first of June, it was tradition to drive the station wagon loaded with shallow boxes to the farm to pick berries at the crack of dawn (strawberries get warm and soft as the day wears on). We would crawl along the rows of strawberry plants filling our buckets and our bellies until we had gathered eight or ten or twelve gallons. We gently emptied the buckets into our boxes, spreading the berries out in a single layer to prevent them from getting mashed. The car smelled of damp earth and warm strawberries as we hurried home to begin our jam making enterprise. For dessert that night there would be Strawberry Shortcake.
My mother was a cake person, as opposed to a sweet biscuit person, so she would bake a large single-layer Hot Milk Cake as the foundation for our Strawberry Shortcake. She would crush and sweeten the berries and whip some cream. It was a fine reward for our hard work. We would eat the jam throughout the year (on homemade bread, I might add), pleased with our efforts.
As fate would have it, I married a man who was a sweet biscuit person, as opposed to a cake person, so I learned how to make sweet biscuits for the foundation of our shortcake. I picked berries each year around the first of June at the same U-pick strawberry farm, spread them out in shallow boxes and brought them home to make jam. For dessert that night I would invite the in-laws over for Strawberry Shortcake, with biscuits, sweetened berries and plenty of whipped cream.
Last year, to change things up, I made a Hot Milk Cake as the foundation for our Strawberry Shortcake. (Sadly the strawberry farmer got old and sold his farm, so I bought my berries from the store). I crushed and sweetened the strawberries and made some whipped cream. When I served dessert, I learned something about myself — I am a sweet biscuit person. (Its important to know these things).
Shortcake biscuits usually call for shortening so I did some research on this twentieth-century kitchen staple: The production and sale of vegetable shortening began early in the 1900s as a substitute for lard which could not be produced fast enough to meet America’s demand. Butter was also used in baking, but it couldn’t keep up with the demand either. Thus, prices for lard and butter went higher and higher. Producers of shortening advertised that not only is shortening less expensive, but it also created a better baked product. Shortening was even touted as being as healthful as olive oil. American home cooks were sold.
Interestingly, my oldest twentieth-century cook book, 52 Sunday Dinners 1913, is sponsored by a shortening production company — Cottolene, and it contains a classic recipe for Strawberry Shortcake (below):
The shortcake dough is made in typical biscuit fashion, however, I was interested to discover a “lost” method of creating double-decker biscuits:
“divide the [biscuit] dough into two equal parts, roll each piece [in]to [a round] one-half inch thickness; lay one piece on a buttered jelly cake pan, brush over with soft butter, and place remaining piece on top. Bake in hot oven”. Voila! Double-decker shortcakes.
For the assembly, the large biscuit is turned out onto a platter, separated, buttered again (gotta love all that butter) and the bottom layer is covered with strawberries. The other biscuit is placed back on top, layered with berries, sprinkled with sugar and “masked” (not sure what masked means) with orange flavored whipped cream. Fancy and delicious!
To prepare the strawberries for shortcake, the recipe (above) offers two suggestions. The first starts with washing, hulling and slicing or lightly crushing the berries. They are then sweetened with a simple syrup made from two cups sugar and one-half cup water, boiled together for four minutes. This boiling method is sure to dissolve all the sugar crystals so there is no surprising crunch in the strawberry mixture. The second suggestion is the way I have always done it — sprinkle sugar over prepared berries, stir to combine and let stand for an hour to allow the sugar to thoroughly dissolve.
Still curious about double-decker shortcakes, I wanted to find out if this concept was unique to one particular cookbook, or if they were featured in other cookbooks as well.
In my 1944 TheHousehold Searchlight Recipe Book, the instructions for Biscuit Short Cake (above) say to combine the biscuit ingredients and roll into a quarter-inch thickness. Different from the recipe above, these will be individual double-decker biscuits, as opposed to a full round. The rolled dough is cut with a floured cutter, then half the biscuits are spread with butter and placed on a baking sheet. The other half of the biscuits are placed on top of their buttered partners, brushed with butter themselves, then popped into a hot oven.
Inside an old battered copy of the Watkins Cook Book 1948 is a recipe for Strawberry (Biscuit) Shortcake. This recipe (below) also says to roll the biscuit dough into a quarter-inch thickness and cut into individual shortcakes, stack two together with butter between and bake.
Across the page from Strawberry (Biscuit) Shortcake is a Sponge Cake recipe (below), said to be, “An excellent cake to serve with… strawberries or sliced peaches and whipped cream”. Finally, a nod to the cake-loving people. (By the way, sliced fresh peaches sweetened with a little sugar over cake or rich biscuits makes an excellent shortcake)!
Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book 1950 and Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book 1953 both have recipes for double-decker shortcakes as well. I just don’t know how this method became “lost” as it appears to have been the standard way of making shortcake for some time.
I got a tickle out of the Betty Crocker Cook Book’s 1950 introduction to Strawberry Shortcake:
“The good old-time American dessert…still first choice”
Modern Meal Maker 1939, titled its recipe Old-Fashioned Strawberry Shortcake. In a charming 1935 recipe booklet named Crescent Creations, was yet another recipe for Old-Fashioned Shortcake. If shortcake was old-fashioned in 1935, what would we call it today? Let’s just call it delicious.
Speaking of old-fashioned, in The Searchlight Household Recipe Book 1944, the recipe for Biscuit Short Cake was found in the Pudding section. Americans haven’t called dessert “pudding” for over 200 years. What were they thinking?!
Versatile and Adaptable
Two great characteristics not only for humans, but also for our ideas and inventions, is the ability to be versatile and adaptable. The concept of Strawberry Shortcake is just that. Start with freshly baked cake or biscuits, adapt the recipe to the fruit in season and a home cook can create a variety of shortcakes. This concept of versatility was demonstrated throughout my twentieth-century cookbooks.
I have already touched on Peach Shortcake which was the alternative most frequently mentioned throughout my research. Not surprisingly, many varieties of berries were recommended — raspberries, blackberries and cooked blueberries. A number of fruit combinations were suggested as well: crushed raspberries with diced oranges, sliced bananas with strawberries, rhubarb with pineapple, raspberries with pineapple, and a mixture of cranberries, apple and crushed pineapple. Finally, the two ideas that seem really unusual were apricot shortcake and applesauce shortcake. Hmmm. Maybe with lots of whipped cream they would be okay.
Thanks for joining me on my shortcake adventure. Below is my mother’s old-fashioned Hot Milk Cake recipe and the recipe that I use for sweet biscuits. This year I’m going to make them double-decker with plenty of butter. Enjoy!
In a large, bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.
Cut frozen butter into thin slices, add to flour mixture and cut with a pastry cutter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs; set aside.
Measure the half and half cream into a small bowl, add egg and blend with a fork; set aside.
Create a “well” in the center of the flour and butter mixture. Pour cream and egg mixture into the “well”. Stir with a fork until mixture begins to form a ball.
Turn dough onto a lightly floured board and knead 8 — 10 strokes. Roll to a half-inch thickness and cut with a 2-1/2″ — 3″ lightly floured cutter. Place biscuits on an ungreased or parchment lined baking sheet.
Bake biscuits for 10 — 15 minutes at 450* or until golden brown. Remove from oven and brush lightly with melted butter if desired.
The coronation of young Queen Victoria of England in 1837 was a time of national celebration. British subjects of every class wanted to have a piece of the event. Manufacturers, having anticipated the forthcoming fervor, produced everything from pins to dinnerware as souvenirs. A horticultural commemorative was also announced at that time — a newly developed variety of rhubarb, dubbed Victoria Rhubarb in honor of the new queen herself. Said to be easy to grow, sweet, tender and flavorful, gardeners and dessert makers went wild! As a result, rhubarb reigned supreme in English kitchens throughout Victoria’s lifetime and is still highly regarded.
America’s Pie Plant
Meanwhile, as the British Victorians were adding rhubarb to every dish sweet or savory, Americans too were growing and cooking with rhubarb. The humble “pie plant”, a faithful perennial, has been growing in America’s gardens for hundreds of years, spreading its broad green leaves in the spring sunshine shading slender red/green stalks beneath. One of the earliest “fruits” from the garden (packed with vitamin C), home cooks were glad to have something fresh to put on the table. Needing plenty of sugar to offset its tartness, rhubarb is most often associated with desserts — typically pie.
In perusing the indexes of my twentieth-century cookbooks, I was astounded to discover that a number of books featured over one hundred variations of pie, including several types of rhubarb pie. It’s very apparent that Americans are fond of pie, but in order to have pie, one must also have good pastry, and it turns out there has been a British influence in our pastry making as well.
From Lard to Butter
For generations, home cooks, including my grandmothers, have used lard (rendered pig fat) — leaf lard to be specific (a higher quality of fat found near the kidneys) — to make pastry. It is reputed to make the most tender and flaky pie crusts attainable, however, its apparent that lard has been falling out of favor as only one (Joy of Cooking 1985) of a dozen or so twentieth-century cookbooks listed lard as a fat option. Almost all the other pastry recipes called for shortening to be gently worked into the flour with the fingertips or to be cut in using a pastry cutter or two knives scissor-fashion. Several cookbooks included a pastry option made with vegetable oil as opposed to solid shortening. Joy of Cooking 1985 also offered a more modern take on pastry calling for butter in place of some of the shortening (using all butter in pastry is trending at the present time). A few other unusual pastry additions that I came across were lemon juice, vinegar, white wine, an egg, milk instead of water, boiling water instead of ice water and — most surprisingly — baking powder.
In a cookbook pamphlet put out by the Royal Baking Powder Company, publication date unknown, I discovered a recipe for Plain Pastry (above) calling for one teaspoon of baking powder to be sifted in with the flour and salt. A paragraph at the top of the page (also above) explains why baking powder should be add to the pastry — “baking powder added to pastry will help to make it light and flaky”. Thinking that this was just a quirky idea put out by a baking powder company, I was quite surprised to find it again in my 1913 Fifty-Two Sunday Dinners Cook Book. I then discovered an English Pastry recipe in Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book 1950 that also calls for baking powder. Evidently the idea of using baking powder to make the perfect pie crust comes from across the pond. I don’t know if British home cooks still use it, but in America, I think baking powder in pastry is mostly “lost”.
Types of Rhubarb Pie
While researching, I categorized rhubarb pie into three general types: traditional Rhubarb Pie containing rhubarb cut in small pieces, sweetened with plenty of sugar, thickened with flour, cornstarch or tapioca, a pinch of salt and a pat of butter; secondly, Rhubarb Custard Pie containing the above ingredients, as well as, two or three eggs lightly beaten, a little milk or cream and a dash of nutmeg; and then thirdly — a combination Rhubarb Pie — similar to the traditional pie but filled with a mixture of rhubarb and another fruit such as strawberries, blueberries or pineapple. Yes, I found recipes with each of these combinations.
An Unusual Combination
Speaking of combination pies, the most unusual Rhubarb Pie recipe appears in my grandmother’s The HouseholdSearchlight Recipe Book 1944 (above). The recipe was sent in by a subscriber of Household Magazine and was included in their cookbook. It seems to be a combination of Rhubarb Pie and Raisin Pie. I like rhubarb and I like raisins, but combined? Not so much! And oddly, its thickened with cracker crumbs. Are we talking saltines here or graham cracker crumbs? I just don’t know. The other thing I wonder is why are there smudges on this page. My grandmother owned this cookbook her whole adult life so they would have happened in her kitchen. Did she try this rhubarb/raisin concoction?! I wonder if my grandfather liked it. Would I like some? No, thank you.
On the opposite end of the Rhubarb Pie spectrum is a recipe I am dying to try: Rhubarb Whipped Cream Pie (above) found in the newest of my old cookbooks — The American Woman’s Cook Book 1966. Not a typical baked two-crust pie, it is a sort of cream-pie-meets-ice-box pie with a crumb crust. To begin the filling, the recipe calls for stewed rhubarb which is simply chopped rhubarb and sugar simmered with a few tablespoons of water until the rhubarb is just tender. Unflavored gelatin is then added to lend stability to the filling. When the cooked mixture is cooled, the heavy cream is whipped and gently folded into the stewed rhubarb. The luscious mixture is spooned into a nine-inch crumb pie shell and refrigerated until firmly set. You will notice that the recipe calls for a Cereal Flake Pie Shell. This is simply crushed cornflakes made into a pie crust similar to a graham cracker crumb crust which could easily be substituted. It is really too bad that this recipe has become “lost” over the years. I plan to give it a try when my rhubarb comes on. I’ll get back to you. (I tried the recipe for Rhubarb Whipped Cream Pie!Here are my results).
I hope you have enjoyed our cookbook journey. Below is the Rhubarb Custard Pie recipe that I have used for nearly forty years. It is my husband’s favorite. Enjoy!