This story comes from a Senior Friendship Centers fundraiser March 13. The party was built around “You Bet Your Life,” the well-loved and well-remembered 1950s TV show starring the one-and-only Groucho Marx. I planned the menu using old cookbooks from that decade. Yes, I still have them.
In the process of doing the research, I discovered that menu after menu included an item rarely encountered these days and certainly not at fundraising parties, which typically feature elegant dishes appropriate for their formality and expense. But the Senior Friendship Centers party was billed as an informal, “madcap evening.” And when I found an interesting-looking recipe for an apricot mold in “Thoughts for Buffets” (Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1958), I included it on the menu, mostly as a lark.
Phil Mancini, of Michael’s On East, was the caterer, and after he finished laughing, his exact words were: “You must be kidding.” But ever the good sport, he copied the recipe from my battered (in both senses of the word) cookbook.
The apricot mold turned out to be much more than the intended humorous, period touch. The guests loved it. It was pretty. It was tasty. It was certainly unexpected and different. Michael’s On East captain Tracey McCammack put it this way: “People were shocked that they were served an apricot Jell-o mold. The surprise came when they took the first bite ... it was a hit!” There were lots of positive comments and requests for the recipe, and a friend reported, “It was the talk of the ladies’ room.”
These things are never simple. Typical of its period, the mold was in layers — a mixture of cream cheese and crushed pineapple sandwiched between apricot-enriched orange and lemon gelatin. It turns out that when the recipe was copied, all that went to the kitchen was the ingredients list, not the instructions. So the Michael’s On East’s chef put everything together in one mixture to delicious effect. To make the version photographed here, combine the apricot puree with the pineapple and cream cheese and fold thoroughly into jelly-like gelatin.
Cooking and cookbooks, of course, have changed dramatically over the last half-century plus. In those days, there were few food stars (Fanny Farmer?) and many cookbooks didn’t have authors, much less famous ones. “Thoughts for Buffet” is anonymous, and even the foreword is signed only “The Authors.”
Recipes were written differently, as well. They were much briefer, assuming that cooks knew what they were doing and providing scant help on such matters as to how long it takes to cook apricots until soft (20 to 30 minutes, add a bit more water if needed) or chill gelatin to a “jelly-like” consistency (30 to 45 minutes, check frequently).
Another hit on the Senior Friendship Center menu — for three years in a row — is Groucho Marx’s recipe for brisket of beef, delicious but decidedly unphotogenic. The predictably sketchy recipe is above as well. Unlike Jell-o molds, the brisket has never gone out of fashion.
From “Thoughts for Buffets”
1 pound dried apricots, pureed
1/2 cup sugar
1 package lemon-flavored gelatin
1 package orange-flavored gelatin
3 cups hot water
1/2 pound cream cheese, softened
1 cup crushed pineapple, drained
Cook apricots and sugar in the 1/4 cup water until soft; force through a sieve; cool. Dissolve gelatins in hot water; let cool until of jellylike consistence. Mix apricot mixture with gelatin, and pour half into a six-cup ring mold. Chill until set. Combine cream cheese and pineapple and spread over the gelatin. Pour remaining gelatin mixture on top. Chill until firm. Serve on a bed of greens with clusters of grapes as garnish.
GROUCHO’S BRISKET OF BEEF
From “The Groucho Letters: Letters from and to Groucho Marx”
Brown in iron pot. Take out meat, add two large onions cut up, 1/2 green pepper cut up, three crushed garlic cloves, one small bay leaf and two 28.5-ounce cans of solid-packed tomatoes. Return meat and simmer for four-and-a-half hours.
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