Recreating a Tearoom Treat

Through the mid to late 20th century, department store tearooms gave shoppers a place to relax and regroup. Originally a clever marketing ploy to keep customers in the store, the tearooms became a beloved part of the community. Many were known for their regional specialties. That’s the case with Miller & Rhoads, one of the department stores that I frequented as a child growing up in Richmond, Virginia. My cousin and I saved our money from allowance and babysitting, then took the Westhampton 16 bus downtown. When we tired of sampling cosmetics and choosing outfits for each other to try on (some aspirational, some ugly), we stopped for lunch. Our tastes ran more towards burgers and fries than Missouri club sandwiches or turkey pot pie. We usually skipped dessert, saving our money for candy that we could savor after we returned home.

When I saw a pamphlet of Miller & Rhoads recipes from 1957-1985 (“Remembering the Miller & Rhoads Tearoom,” produced by the Virginia Egg Council, 2012), I became nostalgic. I don’t remember these “absolutely addictive” Date Ball cookies, but they suited my current craving for a bite-sized treat. The basic combination of Rice Krispies in a sticky base reminded me summer camp, when we made vats of Rice Krispies treats with melted marshmallows. Yet the other flavors – browned butter, pecans, and dates – now match my grown-up palate. Miller & Rhoads sold the cookies for holiday gift-giving. But why wait? These no-bake treats are going onto my (small and safe) Thanksgiving table. I cut the recipe in half; my adaptation is below.

Miller & Rhoads Tearoom. Source: Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries

Miller & Rhoads Date Balls

Makes approximately 24 1-inch balls

1 stick butter

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 pound chopped dates

1 egg

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1 tablespoon milk

2 cups Rice Krispies cereal*

1/2 cup chopped pecans

Approximately 1/2 cup coconut

  1. In a heavy saucepan, melt the butter. Add the sugar and dates. Bring to a boil, stirring. Boil 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly (approximately 5 minutes).
  2. In a bowl, beat the egg, vanilla and milk. Add to the date mixture. Cook on high another 2 minutes, stirring.
  3. Remove from the heat and add the cereal and pecans. *Note: I added about 1/4 cup of cereal because the mixture seemed too sticky.
  4. When cool enough to handle, use your hands to form into 1-inch balls. [If you pick up a handful of batter and hold it for a minute or so, it hardens slightly and becomes easier to shape]. Roll each one in coconut and let cool completely. These freeze well.

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Cucumber Soup: A Summer Soother

As our garden yields a profusion of cucumbers, slices in salads quickly become monotonous. I’ve tried cutting spears for vegetable dips, tossing cubes into smoothies, and making batches of blender gazpacho. Too bad I don’t like pickles! Americans have grown cucumbers in their gardens since the 17th century English colonies. Only in the 19th century did people begin stewing cucumbers, as cooked vegetables were supposedly easier to digest. Chilled cucumber soup combines the best of both ideas – cooking and coolness. This recipe comes from Donna Segal of the Indianapolis Star in Food Editors’ Favorites Cookbook (Hammond, 1983). Its pale green color and velvety texture stands up well to any kind of herb garnish.

Chilled Cucumber Soup (1980s)

Serves 4-6

  • 2 tablespoons butter or margarine
  • 1/2 cup chopped green onion, including some tops
  • 2 cups diced, seeded cucumber (approximately 1 large cucumber)
  • 1 cup watercress or leaf spinach, chopped
  • 1/2 cup peeled and diced potatoes (approximately 1 medium potato)
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon white pepper
  • 1 cup light or heavy cream [I omitted this as the soup seemed thin enough]
  • Thinly sliced radishes for garnish
  1. Melt the butter in a sauce pan. Add the green onions and cook over moderate heat for 5 minutes, being sure not to brown the butter or onions. Add the cucumber, watercress, potato, broth, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 15 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender. Cool slightly.
  2. Puree in a blender, adding 1 1/2 cups of mixture at a time [I used an immersion blender]. Put in a large bowl and stir in the cream. Cover and chill thoroughly for several hours or overnight.
  3. When ready to serve, float several thin radish slices atop each serving.
  4. Note: Other garnishes might be a sprinkle of paprika or curry powder, chopped chives, or a cucumber slice. [I used dill].
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Graduation Fare: Harvard Squares

How do you celebrate a Harvard graduation when coronavirus cancels the traditional ceremony? Turn on the livestream and bake a batch of Harvard Squares. I found this recipe, named for the crimson and white colors of the school, in The Eastern Junior League Cookbook (Ballantine, 1982). Cellist Yo Yo Ma entertained me while I mixed the ingredients. Later, I brought them to the campus, where my daughter and a small group of her fellow graduates held a gathering to celebrate. These taste a bit like Linzer torte and are so rich you may want to cut them into smaller squares. The perfect accompaniment? Champagne!

Harvard Squares (Makes 16 squares)

1 cup (2 sticks) butter

1 cup sugar

2 eggs, well beaten

2 cups sifted flour

1 cup chopped walnuts [I used pecans]

3/4 cup raspberry preserves

Confectioners’ sugar

  1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
  2. Cream the butter and sugar. Beat in eggs.
  3. Add the flour and walnuts. Stir well.
  4. Grease an 8×8 inch pan and spread half the dough in it. This is best done by scattering half the mixture over the bottom and patting it down. [You may want to lightly flour your hand so it doesn’t stick to the dough]. Spread preserves over this to within 1/2 inch of the edge. Cover with the remaining dough. [I scattered it in clumps and didn’t press it down].
  5. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the top is golden brown and the filling is bubbly.
  6. Let cool. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar while still in the pan [I omitted this step and didn’t regret it]. Cut into 2-inch squares.
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Southern Comfort: Cheese Biscuits

Growing up in Virginia, I ate my share of biscuits, but never took seconds unless they contained cheese. My New England friends can’t quite cotton to a salty, savory combination of cheese, flour, and butter. They expect my homemade version to be similar to the doughy, garlicky Red Lobster Cheddar Bay Biscuits. Introduced in 1992, these biscuits became so popular that the company now makes a mix (just add cheddar, water and butter!) For the 25th anniversary of the biscuits, Red Lobster even introduced a limited-edition, biscuit-flavored lip balm.

Both of my grandmothers passed down their recipes for their cheese biscuits, which are more like wafers than the fluffy biscuits you split in half and serve with butter. In need of comfort right now (aren’t we all), I made a batch from ingredients that I had on hand. They go well with beef stew – if you don’t eat them all first.

Grandma Bertie’s Cheese Biscuits (1920s)

Makes about 16 biscuits

8 ounces shredded cheddar cheese

1/4 pound (4 ounces or 1/2 cup) butter, softened

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups flour

Cayenne pepper, to taste (optional)

  1. Mix cheese, butter, salt, and cayenne pepper well.
  2. Add the flour and stir until well combined.
  3. Shape the batter into a roll approximately 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Wrap in foil or plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator at least one hour or overnight.
  4. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Slice the dough into thin wafers. Place a pecan half on top of each one.
  5. Bake for 15 minutes or until the cheese browns and the biscuits are crisp.
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Traditional Cookies with a Peppery Kick

Though more than 150 years have passed since my mother’s ancestors came to the U.S. from Germany, traditional recipes continue to migrate down through the generations. We are Jewish and light the Hanukkah menorah, but I also grew up making traditional German holiday sweets, including lebkuchen (a cookie similar to gingerbread) and pfeffernusse (small spice cookies).

I recently pulled a recipe from my mother’s collection and made a batch for a cookie swap. Its name, “Pepper Nuts,” is the translation of the German word pfeffernusse. The name is a bit misleading, as the cookies do not contain nuts but instead resemble the size and shape of nuts. The word pepper is more accurate. This ingredient is part of a long list of spices (I sneezed when adding it), giving the flavor a kick. Though the cookies are traditionally rolled in powdered sugar, I decided to use a chocolate glaze to make them more attractive for the swap. They keep well so I look forward to munching them throughout the holiday season. I also remember my mom, who passed away earlier this year, with every bite.

Family Pepper Nut Cookies (Pfeffernüsse)

Makes about 100 cookies

1 cup (2 sticks) butter
1 cup sugar
1 beaten egg
1 tablespoon molasses
3 1/2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  1. In a mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Add the egg and molasses.
  2. In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, baking soda, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and pepper.
  3. Mix the dry ingredients into the butter mixture. The batter will be very stiff. [I added a few drops of water just so it would cling together]. Form into small balls (about 1/2 inch in diameter) or roll the dough into a tube shape about 1 inch in diameter and cut into 1/4 inch rounds.
  4. Bake for 10-12 minutes until lightly brown. Cool on a cookie sheet. Sprinkle with powdered sugar or melted chocolate.
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For Mother’s Day: Grandma’s Apricot Bars

Though I didn’t spend much time in the kitchen with either of my grandmothers, I enjoy remembering them by making the recipes that they left behind. For Mother’s Day this year, I wanted something sweet and brightly flavored, so I pulled out Apricot Bars from Grandma Bertie. Her typewritten recipe isn’t attributed to anyone, nor does it list a cookbook as its source, so perhaps she developed it herself. Its shortbread base reminds me of lemon bars but its apricot topping adds an unexpected flavor. The fruit is sandwiched between a crunchy, buttery bottom and a golden, egg-and-sugar laced top. This one is a keeper. Happy Mother’s Day to all!

Grandma Bertie’s Apricot Bars (circa 1960)

Makes 16 squares

For the base:

1 cup flour

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

For the filling:

1 cup cooked apricots

1/3 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed

1 teaspoon vanilla

  1. To make the base: Sift the flour and sugar together. Cut in the butter. Pat down quickly into an 8 or 9 inch square pan (ungreased). Bake at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown. Cool.
  2. To make the filling: Wash the apricots well, cut into slivers with scissors, and cook 5 minutes with 3-4 tablespoons water. [Alternately, use dried apricots. Cut into slivers, place in a pot, and add water to cover. Simmer 5-10 minutes until soft.] With either method, set aside to cool before continuing the recipe.
  3. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt.
  4. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs lightly. Add the sugar gradually and beat until thick. Add the vanilla and apricots.
  5. Add the sifted dry ingredients with a wooden spoon, cutting through quickly so that the apricots will be well distributed throughout the batter.
  6. Pour onto the cooled base and bake at 350 degrees for about 35 minutes or until golden brown and set in the center.
  7. When cool, cut into squares. Dust with icing [confectioner’s] sugar, optional.
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Maple Sugar Season in March

Warm days and cold nights keep the sap in sugar maple trees flowing. In New England, Native Americans  taught settlers how to slash tree trunks and extract the sap to use as a sweetener. These buckets from a local farm are collecting sap near my house, a sure sign of spring! Once the buckets are emptied, boiling begins. It takes about 35 gallons of sap to create one gallon of syrup.

Hardy New Englanders pour maple syrup right onto a bowlful of spring snow, but I wanted something warm so I tried a Maine Maple Brown Betty from Wild Maine Recipes by Kate Krukowski Gooding (Northern Solstice Publishing, 2007). I liked her variation on a traditional brown betty recipe, with maple oozing from every spoonful. With a breakfast like this, who needs pancakes?

Maine Maple Brown Betty

1/2 cup butter, at room temperature

3/4 cup rolled oats

1/4 cup flour

1/4 cup graham flour [I couldn’t find this, so I used whole wheat flour]

3/4 cup dark brown sugar, packed

1 teaspoon nutmeg

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon mace

1/8 teaspoon ground allspice

1/3 cup water

1/2 cup pecans [the recipe calls for maple-roasted, but I skipped this step]

3 tablespoons maple syrup

4 cups apples, peeled and sliced (preferably Northern Spy or Granny Smith)

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Combine the brown sugar, oats, flours, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, pecans and butter. Stir with a fork until well-mixed and crumbly.
  3. Layer one third of the apples, then one third of the crumb mixture in a greased, 7 x 11 inch [I used 8 x 8 inch] baking dish. Repeat until all apples and crumb mixture are added.
  4. Pour water over the mixture and bake for 30 minutes. Serve warm with ice cream [I used plain yogurt].

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Vodka with Old-World Elegance

Raspberry vodka 1In between a one-two-three punch of snowstorms, I pulled out The Russian Tea Room: A Tasting (Clarkson Potter, 1993), a book of recipes and reminiscences from then-owner, Faith Stewart-Gordon. I never went to the Manhattan restaurant but its tea (and everything else on the menu) is steeped in history. Continue reading

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A Sweet Ending

Stuffed Cougar Chocolate ShortbreadFor a dessert to end 2018, I found a recipe with just eight ingredients, all of them pantry staples: butter, two kinds of sugar, eggs, vanilla, flour, chocolate, and nuts. The shortbread base with melted chocolate and nuts on top looks good and tastes appropriately decadent for a New Year’s party. The recipe comes from a classic Richmond cookbook, The Stuffed Cougar (William Byrd Press, 1973). Continue reading

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Here We Come for Cider Wassail

Cider Wassail done

Who remembers the English folk song that starts, “Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green”? That’s what I hummed when I saw the recipe for Cider Wassail in The Blue Ridge Cookbook. Continue reading

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