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    Retro food: Mac ‘n cheese & tea cakes

    I was reading the food section of my local newspaper recently and came across a story about retro food. A restaurateur was offering what the article called golden oldies, dishes from the 1961 “New York Times Cook Book” by Craig Claiborne.

    The chef, described as hip and cutting edge, was producing a series of these Retro Cookbook Dinners for $40. His menu included Steak Diane with spinach, potatoes duchess and cherry sauce; Trout Meuniere with green beans, almonds and lemon brown butter, and Crepes Marcelle with cognac, pastry cream and roasted pears.

    The chef said he chose Claiborne’s cookbook because “you can cook out of it.” As the reporter noted: It is kitchen-friendly.

    That got me to thinking about retro food from my own childhood, the dishes that my grandmother and mother made. I’m always picking up vintage cookbooks at auction, but this time, I decided to consult a booklet my family and I produced when my mother turned 70 years old. The booklet included a story of her life, testimonials from her children, and some of her favorite recipes. Among them were macaroni and cheese (she makes the best, but doesn’t everyone’s mother?) and tea cakes.

    I remember my grandmother making tea cakes. They were syrupy little concoctions that were not cakes at all. Flat and gooey, they were patted by hand and baked. We ate them like cookies – all the time. I came across the same name and recipe (with a variation in ingredients) in another cookbook  – “Big Mama’s Old Black Pot” – I picked up once at a pecan shop in southern Georgia.

    I found recipes on the web for tea cakes, including some that used syrup. I found a recipe with syrup at a site called “Uncle Phaedrus.”  

    Tea cakes probably have the same history as hoecakes, which I read somewhere originated with slaves who learned to make do with what they had. Wikipedia says hoecakes – or johnnycakes, as they are also called – originated with Native Americans but with a different name. Here’s how Food Network star and southern cook Paula Deen described them. Who knows how they came about, but I love them, too.

    In my mac ‘n cheese recipe, I substituted cheddar cheese with 2 percent milk because that’s the only kind I cook with, and I used Lactaid milk (I’m now lactose-intolerant). I seasoned it with Spike, Mrs. Dash and onion powder – instead of salt. My mac ‘n’ cheese had the consistency I remember (my mother still makes hers the same way) but it lacked the sharp cheddar taste.

    For the tea cakes, I substituted whole wheat flour, margarine, raw honey (instead of sugar), an egg-substitute mixture (only thing I had was garden vegetable Egg Beaters), cinnamon (didn’t have vanilla flavor) and a tad of ginger. These took longer to bake (almost burned them) and they were not overly sweet. I wanted a little more sweetness so I ate them with raspberry-vanilla frozen yogurt. They tasted so good that I ate two pieces. Also, they were not gooey enough; maybe I didn’t add enough syrup. Or maybe I made too many substitutions.

    I’m sure my dishes don’t match those of the retro chef, but for a few short hours, it was great to go back home.  

    Here are my mother’s recipes (she doesn’t write them down, so these were taken from memory):

    Tea Cakes

    1 stick butter or margarine
    1 cup sugar
    1 egg
    2 tbsp. sweet milk (or more if needed)
    ½ tsp. vanilla (or more if needed)
    1 ¾ cup self-rising flour
    ½ cup syrup

    Cream butter and sugar. Add egg, then milk and vanilla. Sift flour and add creamed mixture. Roll out and cut. Bake in 375-degree oven for 8 minutes.

    Macaroni & Cheese

    1 box (8 oz.) macaroni
    1 ½ cups sweet milk (or more if needed)
    ½ stick butter or margarine
    salt to taste
    4 cups sharp cheddar cheese (or more if needed)

    Cook macaroni until done. Drain. Add all ingredients. Top with extra cheese and bake in 350-degree oven until brown.

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