Far out on a distant sea lies the island of old-fashioned baked goods.
There, slices of applesauce cake play in the tall green grass. Charlotte Russians dance in the dappled sunlight. Coconut cream pies crawl with datenut bread to gossip about pineapple upside-down cake.
But despite appearances, not everything is happy on the island. The pleasant, hopeful veneer hides an undercurrent of sadness.
These baked goods were once beloved. They were in every magazine, they were on everyone’s tongue. But now they are almost forgotten.
Does that detract from their inherent quality? Does that make them less worth eating?
Does that make them… stale?
I say no. I say it’s time for these brave and tough bakeries of yore to take a stand, to leave the peaceful comforts of their island and make their way back to our tables – for the sake of nostalgia, if nothing else.
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I went back to some old cookbooks (and a cookbook that went back to old cookbooks) to make some favorite baked goods that haven’t lost their luster over the decades.
I started with butterhorn buns, which I always knew as crescent buns (the names are apparently interchangeable). These were a favorite of mine growing up, and I looked forward to dinners at my grandmother’s house when she would serve them.
It’s possible we only had them at Thanksgiving, but they popped into my mind because they were so buttery and flaky and delicious.
But I haven’t had them since I was a kid, nor have I seen them anywhere. Those store-bought refrigerated sandwiches popping out of their containers don’t count. They don’t count at all.
The homemade version is much better. And it’s not the yeast that makes them rise so beautifully, nor the eggs and milk that make them so rich. It’s not even the modest amount of sugar that provides a hint of sweetness.
It’s the butter in the butter horns that makes them so addictive, half a tablespoon of it in each bun.
Hillary Levin, the photographer who takes the photos of most of my food that graces these pages, called it one of her favorite breads I’ve ever made.
For my next baked treat, I turned to a cookbook published in 1940. My wife’s aunt bought “The American Woman’s Cook Book” that year, and I’d like to think she used it to make a lemon chiffon pie.
If she didn’t, she should have.
For example, I had forgotten all about lemon chiffon pies until I saw the recipe. And then the memories came back: the sweet, delicate tartness of the filling, so impossibly light, on a simple crust, topped with a dollop of whipped cream for an extra touch of sin.
It took a few steps to make, but that’s largely because I made my own crust (old-fashioned desserts deserve homemade crusts) and whipped up my own egg whites and my own cream (I don’t have an epigram for that, I just like the whipping egg whites and cream).
The result was magnificent. It was lemony and chiffony and delicious.
My wife said it had the taste and texture of the 50’s.
Then I made donuts. You could argue that there’s nothing old-fashioned about donuts, but I’d counter-argue that these were homemade. When was the last time you had homemade donuts? And why didn’t you invite me?
Plus, these are called Gram’s Donuts, which automatically makes them old-fashioned.
The recipe even dates back to the Depression, when one of the cookbook writers’ grandmothers invited local workers over for coffee and all the donuts they wanted for 10 cents.
That was a deal even in those pre-inflationary times because the donuts are amazing.
It’s not just that they were donuts and are therefore commendable, although that fact is undeniably true. These donuts are special because they are lightly spiced with ginger and nutmeg and then rolled in cinnamon sugar.
And yes, they tasted as good as that sounds.
Still, they weren’t my favorite of the old-fashioned baked goods I made. That honor went to the Swedish tea wreath, which enjoyed several decades of popularity around the middle of the last century.
At its core, it is a sweet bread with cinnamon and raisins in it. But it is so much more than that.
First, roll out the dough flat and grease the top with butter. It’s almost like you’re going to laminate it and make puff pastry out of it, but instead you roll it up like a jelly roll. But before you do that, sprinkle it with a generous mix of raisins and brown sugar.
The brown sugar is unexpected but important, as it brings an earthy hint of molasses into the dish.
Once it’s rolled up, join the ends together to form a circle. And then, to give it the signature look of a Swedish tea ring, cut into it every inch deep and fan out the pieces before it boils. That makes it a tearable treat, like monkey bread, if monkey bread was in the shape of a ring.
I topped it off with a simple glaze made of powdered sugar, milk and vanilla, which added just the right touch of sweetness.
But it also did more than that. I had leftover frosting so I dipped some of my homemade donut holes in it.
You can’t imagine how good that was. Those old-fashioned people knew what they were doing.