Far away on a distant sea lies the Island of Old-Fashioned Baked Goods.
There, slices of applesauce cake play in the tall green grass. Charlotte russes dance in the dappled sunlight. Coconut cream pies huddle with date-nut bread to gossip about pineapple upside-down cake.
But despite the appearances, all is not happy on the island. The pleasant, hopeful veneer hides an undercurrent of sorrow.
These baked goods were once beloved. They were in every magazine, they were on everyone’s tongue. But now they are all but forgotten.
Does that diminish their inherent quality? Does that make them any less worthy of being eaten?
Does that make them … stale?
I say no. I say it is time for these brave and stalwart baked goods of yore to make a stand, to leave the peaceable comforts of their isle and to find 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 one cookbook that went back to old cookbooks) to make some favorite baked goods that have not lost their luster over the decades.
I began with butterhorn rolls, which I always knew as crescent rolls (the names are, apparently, interchangeable). These were a favorite of mine when I was 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 have loomed large in my memory because they were so buttery and flaky and delicious.
But I also haven’t had them since my childhood, and I haven’t seen them anywhere, either. Those store-bought refrigerated rolls that pop out of their container do not count. They do not count at all.
The homemade version is vastly superior. And it’s not because of the yeast that makes them rise so beautifully, nor the eggs and the milk that make them so rich. It’s not even the modest amount of sugar, that brings just a hint of sweetness.
It’s the butter in the butterhorns that makes them so addictive, a half-tablespoon of it in every roll.
Hillary Levin, the photographer who takes the pictures of most of my food that grace these pages, called it one of her favorite breads that I have ever made.
For my next baked good, I went to a cookbook that was 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.
I, for one, had forgotten all about lemon chiffon pies until I saw the recipe. And then the memories came flooding back: the sweet, delicate tartness of the filling, so impossibly light, on a simple crust, with a dollop of whipped cream on top for an additional little taste of sin.
It took a few steps to make, but that is largely because I made my own crust (old-fashioned desserts deserve homemade crusts) and I whipped my own egg whites and my own cream (I don’t have an epigram for that, I just like whipping egg whites and cream).
The result was magnificent. It was lemony and chiffony and delightful.
My wife said it had the taste and the texture of the ‘50s.
Next, I made doughnuts. You could argue that there is nothing old-fashioned about doughnuts, but I would present the counterargument that these were homemade. When is the last time you had homemade doughnuts? And why didn’t you invite me?
Besides, these are called Gram’s Doughnuts, which automatically makes them old-fashioned.
In fact, the recipe dates back to the Depression, when one of the cookbook’s author’s grandmother would invite local workers inside for coffee and all the doughnuts they wanted for 10 cents.
That was a deal, even in those pre-inflationary times, because the doughnuts are amazing.
It’s not just that they were doughnuts and are therefore praiseworthy, although that fact is indisputably true. These doughnuts 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.
Even so, they weren’t my favorite of the old-fashioned baked goods that I made. That honor went to the Swedish tea ring, which enjoyed a few decades of popularity around the middle of the last century.
At its heart, it is a sweet bread with cinnamon and raisins in it. But it is so much more than that.
For one, you roll the dough out flat and then smear the top of it with butter. It is almost as if you are going to laminate it and turn it into puff pastry, but instead you roll it up like a jelly roll. Before doing that, though, you sprinkle it with a generous mixture of raisins and brown sugar.
The brown sugar is unexpected but important, because it brings an earthy hint of molasses to the dish.
Once it is rolled up, you join the ends together to form a circle. And then, to give it the distinctive look of a Swedish tea ring, you slice deeply into it every inch or so and fan out the pieces before it cooks. That makes it a pull-apart treat sort of like monkey bread, if monkey bread were in the shape of a ring.
I topped it with a simple glaze made from powdered sugar, milk and vanilla, which added just the right touch of sweetness.
But it did more than that, too. I had leftover glaze, so I dunked a couple of my homemade doughnut holes in it.
You can’t imagine how good that was. Those old-fashioned folks knew what they were doing.