*Like many of you, I sharpened my culinary skills on Helen Corbitt's five cookbooks and have been a devoted fan ever since. Corbitt's special way with food and words has delighted us for the past half century. My purpose in republishing this collection of Corbitt's best recipes is not merely to preserve them, but to make them accessible and useful to a wider audience. My challenge has been to reconcile recipes from Corbitt's five cookbooks, published over a span of twenty years. The University of Dallas houses Corbitt's personal papers, consisting of boxes and files crammed with recipes, newspaper articles about her that contain still more food ideas, plus cooking school booklets she used. This motherlode of material made recipe selection my most daunting task in putting this book together. Cookbook author Edie Acsell and I read and discussed hundreds of recipes, selecting the ones we thought most appealing for today's cooks. I hope I have included your personal favorites.
Recipes marked "Previously Unpublished" are taken from cards or booklets Corbitt provided for her students at cooking schools. Members of her men's cooking school kept their recipes on no-nonsense goldenrod colored cards held together by two metal rings. Smaller booklets, attractively designed and decorated, were handed out at Corbitt's various cooking schools around the country. The schools served as a testing ground for recipes, many of which later found their way into her cookbooks.
Corbitt's published recipes have idiosyncrasies not seen in contemporary recipes: she mixed narrative into the list of ingredients and her directions for combining ingredients were often cryptic. She neglected to include visual descriptions to help us judge when recipes are done: for example, oysters are cooked when their edges begin to ruffle; a cake is done when it pulls away from the edges of the pan and springs back when touched lightly in the center. In addition, her recipes had certain problems common to all historic recipe collections. Who remembers how many cups a #2-1/2 can holds? As new foods are introduced, some of the old standbys are no longer on supermarket shelves. Today's food packages sometimes contain less product than they did when Corbitt was writing her books. In her last cookbook, Corbitt anticipated our switching over to metric measurements, but to date only the beverage industry has done so in this country. Information I have added to Corbitt's original published texts is enclosed in square brackets throughout this book. I trust my occasional editorial interventions will make these recipes easier for today's cooks.
Most of Helen Corbitt's recipe titles were descriptive, meeting modern criteria. For reasons of privacy and the difficulty in locating individuals to obtain permission to publish, I did not include names of persons in recipe titles. A few other titles were changed to prevent duplicates and to more accurately describe the dish being prepared. My apologies for any disappointment or inconveniences these changes cause.
On page 195 of Helen Corbitt's Cookbook, we are instructed to save the leaves from cauliflower heads and cook them like broccoli and do them au gratin. In the fields, cauliflower leaves are tied up over the heads to blanch them. Today most of the leaves are removed before packaging and shipping.
In her cookbooks Helen Corbitt repeatedly used the words "chop parsley," to be used for garnishing when "mince parsley" may have been closer to her true meaning. According to one of the men from her cooking class, "You could never mince parsley fine enough to suit Helen.
Kitchen equipment has changed in the past fifty years, too. Corbitt often specified a blender for mincing ingredients; she also used a food grinder. Food processors and Pam were introduced toward the end of her writing career and Corbitt referred to their use in passing. She showed less enthusiasm for microwaves. I assume that if these are among your favorite kitchen tools, you will know when and how to substitute them for her suggested methods.
How to reconcile these various editorial problems has been the subject of much discussion and concern. Corbitt's recipes are intelligible to my generation because we learned to cook at our mothers' elbows. As
our daughters deserted their kitchens for the workplace, however, these basic skills too often were not passed along to their offspring. To meet the needs of less experienced cooks, contemporary food writers have standardized recipe formatting in an effort to make them more comprehensible and efficient. The result according to Judith Jones, Julia Child's editor for the past fifty years, is that recipes have become so sanitized, they're boring. I have tried to steer a middle road between these opposing editorial philosophies. Readers can be assured, however, that the foods they prepare from these recipes will be the same as Corbitt intended. I hope you'll also find her ebullient personality in them, for she wrote just as she talked.
Cooking temperatures throughout this book are in Fahrenheit. To convert Fahrenheit to centigrade, subtract 32 from Fahrenheit degrees, multiply by 5, then divide by 9. Most European cooks will find the following scale sufficiently accurate for their cooking needs:
Oven Temperatures, British and U.S.
Compared to English cooks, we Americans have fewer choices available in types of cream. Perhaps knowing our standards will help you select an appropriate substitute: light whipping cream, the kind most readily available here, contains 30 to 36 percent butterfat. Light cream or coffee cream contains about 20 percent butterfat and will not whip. Half-and-half refers to a combination of milk and light cream with 10 to 12 percent butterfat. Ultrapasteurized cream has been heated to 300 degrees to give it a long shelf life; it's a bit more difficult to whip.
Unsalted butter was not widely available to home cooks in the 1950s, so unless specified, use salted butter in these recipes. Because many of us favor less salt today, you may want to scant that seasoning. This works in recipes other than those for pickles, where it is a preservative, and yeast breads, where salt is needed to strengthen cell walls and control the leavening process as bread rises and expands. Corbitt employed sugar substitutes extensively in Helen Corbitt's Greenhouse Cookbook and Helen Corbitt Cooks for Looks recipes. Still inconclusive research casts doubt on the advisability of some people's use of these sweeteners. It's your call.
In this day of heightened awareness of the hazards of food-borne illnesses, there is a question about the wisdom of using uncooked eggs in any form. Foods containing uncooked eggs, such as chiffon custards or eggnog, must be handled with extreme care because of the danger of salmonella poisoning. This is why I omitted some otherwise delectable recipes. However, recipes like mayonnaise are too basic to ignore. Refrigerate such foods immediately after preparing and consume them as quickly as possible. When you cook whole eggs or yolks, hold them at 140 degrees for 31/2 minutes. Pasteurized whole eggs and whites, liquid or dried, are a safe alternative. (I shudder to think what Corbitt would make of that statement, for her associates say she never allowed a powdered egg in her kitchens; however, that product has improved significantly since her day.)
Large eggs are the right size for these recipes. Eggs are considered a liquid ingredient in recipes, so their size will affect the "wetness" of a mixture. Extra large eggs may necessitate adding a little more flour; very small eggs make it necessary to decrease the amount of flour in the recipe. The shells of commercial eggs are washed and sanitized, so do not wash again. Discard any eggs that are not clean or have broken shells. Refrigerate raw shell eggs in their cartons on a middle or lower inside shelf, not on the door.
All meats, not just poultry, pose a hazard for salmonella poisoning. Immediately sterilize work surfaces, cutting boards and knives that are used to prepare raw meats. A kettle of boiling water is an easy, effective way to clean your sink and equipment. It is important to boil marinade used on meat for at least 10 minutes before serving it at the table.
Corbitt sometimes instructs us to flame brandy or other liqueur to lend a moment of high drama to our entertaining. Here are a few tips for your safety and success: Be sure the food to be flamb¾ ed is bubbling hot. Set the dish over its heat source on a large tray to protect your table from scarring. Never open a bottle of liqueur near any open flame nor pour it from the bottle directly into the dish. Flames can climb up the stream of alcohol into the bottle, exploding it. Pour the liqueur into a long-handled pan or ladle, warm it separately, and light it with a long kitchen or fireplace match before pouring it, flaming, into the dish. Allow flames to burn out before serving.
Today's pork is raised to be leaner and more disease-free than was true in Corbitt's day. Then pork was always cooked to an internal temperature of 170 degrees because it was safer and the extra fat kept it moist. If you cook today's pork that long, you will turn it into is sufficient.
Know which flour to use in different recipes: cake flour is made with soft wheat, which makes it suitable for delicacies. Sift it before measuring. Pre-sifted all-purpose flour is the choice for quick breads, including pancakes and pie crust; use a fork to aerate it before lightly spooning it into a measuring cup. You can also use it to thicken gravies and sauces, but it's easier to use one of the special blending flours. Bread flour, milled from hard winter wheat, should be your choice for all yeast-raised breads; its higher gluten content provides more elasticity to ensure lighter loaves. Most of the specialty flours such as whole wheat, oat and rye flour do not contain sufficient gluten to make a light loaf of bread. This is why you add them to white bread flour, in proportions of less than 50%. You can add 1 to 11/2 tablespoons of gluten to bread recipes. For potato bread, you can substitute dried potato flakes and water, mixed according to package directions.
*Attributed to Tom Courtin by Tom Hunt in an interview, Dallas, March 15, 1995.