'50s fare makes comeback
BY JOHN F. CARAFOLI

After weathering several "in" and "out" cycles over the past decades, '50s food is once again making a comeback. Old-fashioned "comfort food" is reappearing on many restaurant menus, and the theme has spawned several new cookbooks. Signs of '50s favorites being back in favor are appearing closer to home, too. Following a recent photo shoot, I volunteered to bring desserts to a celebratory studio party. I brought two, one a rustic Italian specialty and the other an unsophisticated, retro very '50s Jell-O cake, which had been a favorite of mine as a child. When it was served everyone was wowed by it.

Here's how to make it:

Cut an angle food cake in half horizontally. Place 1 cup fruit in a bowl slightly larger than the cake. (I used fresh raspberries and blackberries.) Put the first layer of cake on top of the fruit, add another cup or so of fruit, then place second layer of cake on top of that. Next take three packages of raspberry Jell-O mixed with 2 cups boiling water and add 1 cup cold water (the Jell-O has to be made strong.) Pour this mixture over the cake. Press it down with your hands to ensure the Jell-O is absorbed into the cake. Place the bowl, covered, in the refrigerator and let it set for several hours or overnight. When ready to serve, invert the cake on to a plate (by dipping the bowl into hot water for 30 seconds) and slather the top with whipped cream.

The resurgence of '50s food has moved into home kitchens, too. Joe Smith, my swim coach, told me just the other day that he received a Spam cookbook for Christmas, and is enjoying trying out some recipes made from this '50s staple. And my very dear friend April Eberhardt, a writer who wears cat eye glasses, and occasionally sports leopard print Capri pants and pointy-toed pumps, has never stopped being an aficionado of the '50s, in particular that era's food.

While we were talking the other day, she mentioned several dishes she makes regularly, things like Tunaroni casseroles and quick and easy one-pot suppers.

We laughed about some of the other foods from that era that we remembered as children. "Yeah, what about that Hamburger Helper and those fluorescent orange Velveeta Cheese sandwiches?"

Since April seemed to be so into the '50s, and that, was my theme for this months column, I asked her to write a few paragraphs and to include some of her favorite recipes. She writes:

Let's get one thing right on the table: I'm from New Jersey. The middle child in a family of five kids, I came of age in the 1950s when food was still food, not cuisine.

Casseroles ruled, salads meant iceberg, and dessert was canned fruit, or some variation thereof. While my tastes have evolved somewhat during many decades spent traipsing through the world's capitals (and learning the meaning of fine food at Carafoli's table,) I can still appreciate a warm and creamy tuna-noodle casserole, a steaming dish of chili over rice, and a delectable fruit cobbler or moist sherry cake.

A big benefit of those large-family feeders is they're easy, involving little more than opening a few cans or boxes, plunging a mixer into a pile of ingredients, then dumping the whole thing into a pan and sliding it into the oven. Generally the results are eminently edible, and often downright delicious.

Here are a few favorites culled from my mother's collection of yellowed, dog-eared index cards still in active use after 60 years. Try these on a lazy winter day, and think of five eager kiddos in small-town New Jersey gathered around the table, clamoring for more.

Chili with Rice and Fritos

1 pound ground beef (ground turkey will do nicely too)

2 15.5-ounce cans kidney beans, dark red, light red or mixed,) drained

2 15.5-ounce cans peeled whole tomatoes, undrained

1 medium-sized yellow onion, chopped

2 tablespoons chili powder, or to taste

Salt and pepper to taste

1 cup Uncle Ben's converted rice

1 teaspoon salt

One large bag corn chips (Frito Scoops are the family favorite)

In a large iron skillet or Dutch oven, sauté onion in a dash of oil and water over medium heat until soft and translucent (about five minutes.) Add meat, separating with fork and stirring until browned (five more minutes.) Add kidney beans, tomatoes and their liquid, along with chili powder, 1 teaspoon salt, and several grinds of pepper. Turn heat to low and set timer for 30 minutes.

In a separate 3-quart pot, bring 2 1/4 cup water to boil. Add 1 cup rice and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to second boil. Reduce heat; set timer for 20 minutes (or use what's left on the chili timer.) Ladle chili over bowls of rice. Serve with a generous side of Fritos for scooping.

Tuna Wiggle

1 pound. fine noodles, cooked per package directions and drained

2 cans tuna in water, drained and flaked

1 10 1/2-ounce can cream of mushroom soup

1 cup sour cream

1 4-ounce can sliced mushrooms, drained

1 cup frozen peas, cooked according to package directions

1 cup potato chips, crushed

Salt and pepper to taste

Blend all ingredients except for potato chips. Pour into a casserole and bake for 30 minutes or until bubbly. Sprinkle with crushed potato chips before serving.

Serve with a side of steamed broccoli and an (iceberg) salad with Russian dressing.

Sherry Cake

1 box yellow cake mix

1 box instant vanilla pudding

4 eggs

3/4 cup salad oil (like canola)

3/4 cup pale dry sherry (the cheaper the better. I never spend more than $4.99 a bottle)

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, optional

Using an electric mixer, blend ingredients at low speed; whip at high speed 5 minutes. Pour into greased tube pan. Bake at 350 degrees 45 to 50 minutes, or until a knife inserted furthest from pan edges comes out clean.

Cherry-Apricot Cobbler

1 15-ounce can sour pitted cherries, drained, half of juice reserved

1 15-ounce can halved apricots, drained, half of juice reserved

1/2 cup white sugar

1 tablespoon. cornstarch, dissolved in 1 to 2 tablespoons hot water

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

Combine cherry and apricot liquids (enough to make about one cup.) Bring to boil. Add sugar, stirring until dissolved. Pour in cornstarch mixture gradually, stirring constantly to avoid lumps. Add cherries and apricots, stirring to mix. Remove from heat. When nearly cool, add almond extract. Pour fruit mixture into casserole. Top with cobbler topping (recipe below.) Bake at 350 degrees 30 minutes or until bubbly.

Topping

1/2 cup EACH flour, oatmeal, white sugar and brown sugar

1/4 cup butter, melted

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Blend dry ingredients; add butter and vanilla extract, stirring until blended. Spread over fruit and bake.

(Published: January 7, 2004)