Saturday, January 25, 2014

When retro goes wrong: "Sarah Bernhardts"




To love retro cooking is to be unable to resist a recipe for "Sarah Bernhardts," from the cookbook Saucepans and the Single Girl (1965), written by the wonderfully retro-named Jinx Kragen and Judy Perry. This was the cookbook that called to mind images of the newly independent, post-college Jinx and Judy strutting around the big city in their pencil skirts, high heels, and beehive hairdos, buying groceries and liquor after work for their smart weekend dinner party. "Happiness is a very dry martini," they announce in their introduction ("or, why we bothered"). Later, they would move on to marriage and motherhood, and a new cookbook, How to Keep Him (After You've Caught Him) -- which is where we got the idea for those nice rum-soaked fudge brownies.

Saucepans and the Single Girl is among the treasures available in the cookbook collection at the Chicago Public Library's main branch on State Street (fourth floor, call letters beginning with TX, should you happen to be toddling around town in your heels and pencil skirt). These Sarah Bernhardts struck me as pleasingly, encouragingly easy to make, and so I persevered despite the little warning bell in my head clanging away, telling me that Sarah Bernhardts, somehow, should not be easy.

Nor should they necessarily include a bucketful of oats. This retro recipe didn't go wrong, exactly. It's just odd. For Jinx and Judy's version, combine 4 cups of old fashioned oats with 2 cups of brown sugar. Add 1/2 pound (2 sticks) of butter, melted, and 2 Tbsp., that's Tablespoons, vanilla (I replaced one of them with 1 Tbsp. of brandy, and still found the cookies incredibly sweet).

Fill muffin tins half full with this batter. Cook 15 minutes in a preheated 350 F oven, and when they are done, cool the little cakes in the pans completely. They must solidify or else they will fall apart on a cookie rack.

This recipe is almost the same as that for old-fashioned lace cookies, except that lace cookies at least include some milk to cut the sweetness and some flour to hold the dough together. And these "Sarah Bernhardts" are totally unlike those that other cookbooks claim to teach. The true Sarah Bernhardt -- although who's to say? -- seems to be a complex confection of almond-flavored cookie topped with a chocolate cream filling, and then drizzled with a chocolate coating. Martha Stewart can instruct you in the real thing, if you are so undaunted. I suspect Jinx and Judy would have been content with these little butter-sugar-oat chews, perhaps washed down with some sort of chic little potable.

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