In my childhood living room, seated at our smooth richly stained coffee table, I would watch Julia Child moving around her television kitchen with her happy voice seeming to tell the world that cooking could be easy.
Somewhere between the steaming pots on the stove and her wishing us all “Bon appetit!” I wondered if that could really be true. It was decades before I realized she was absolutely right.
Later, Martha Stewart with her button-downs and well-coifed blond hair, would make elegant entertaining seem like this easy thing that anyone could do with her crisp, clear instructions. Need a centerpiece? Just go grab a few clippings from the garden and arrange them like so.
To follow our culture through cooking and entertaining is an interesting thing. From the introduction of SPAM in the late 1930s to the TV dinners of the 1950s to the boxes and jars designed to make cooking a snap in the 90s, it’s amazing how much convenience has changed how people eat.
Several years ago, I started collecting old cookbooks — the older, the better. Flipping past the tattered covers and yellowing title pages, each volume — from the pamphlets published by baking powder companies to the community church fundraising cookbooks, was like peering into the habits of kitchens at different parts of our history. Some used so many packages and cans. Others called for long forgotten brands of ingredients and unusual measurements not used anymore.
Last year, a kindly reader even brought me an old, delicate cookbook he’d found while cleaning his house called “Women’s Favorite Cookbook.” This turn of the century tome, published in 1902 by The Hoey Publishing Company in Chicago, Illinois, explores everything from dinner parties to “Economics for the House.” According to the title page, it was written by Annie R. Gregory, assisted with one thousand homekeepers (or, “Mrs. Gregory and Friends,” as the back cover says. It’s a delicious glimpse into the domestic economy of more than a century ago.
But the ones I’ve found myself drawn to the most are the baking cookbooks from the early 20th century, before convenience infiltrated American pantries. It’s in those cookbooks that I’ve discovered a world of baking that isn’t overly sweetened. Instead, flavors are more subtle and not relying on excess to make up for technique.
Reading the recipes, and cooking from those old cookbooks, was like being given permission to bake more lightly sweetened things, something I am so glad to do. Sure, sweet, rich, fudgy brownies are delightful, but when I’m having breakfast, I want something that doesn’t come with a side of sugar highs.
These muffin tops are a great example of how lightly sweetened can be absolutely perfect. Sweetened with only a little honey, these have a wonderful crustiness, and a tender crumb.
Eat them warm from the oven with a smear of butter.
- 1¾ cup self-rising flour
- 2 tbsp honey
- ½ tsp Kosher salt
- ¼ cup cold unsalted butter
- 1 cup frozen wild blueberries
- 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
- ¼ cup milk
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and then set side.
- In a large bowl, sift together the flour and salt (a wire whisk is great for this). Using a pastry cutter or two knives, cut the ¼ cup of cold butter into the flour mixture until it looks like coarse crumbs. Fold in the honey and frozen blueberries.
- Add the lightly beaten eggs to the bowl. Stir until just combined. Add the milk and stir again. The dough will be sticky, and you want to stir it until there's no visible flour.
- Using a large cookie scoop or a heaping tablespoon, drop the batter into lumps on the prepared cookie sheet.
- Bake for 18-20 minutes, until cooked through and golden.
- Enjoy hot from the oven or let cool and store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to two days.