Old Joy

A Pair of Portlanders Wrote the New Joy of Cooking

Nearly century-old recipes and a fresh global pantry make this classic kitchen tome a holiday go-to for all. Plus: a go-to recipe for fig and brown butter spice cake.

By Heather Arndt Anderson October 23, 2019 Published in the November 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

A rich, dense fig spice cake featured in the 2019 edition of Joy of Cooking upgrades a 1960s-era Bundt bake with brown butter and cognac.

Image: Michael Novak

It takes a long time to produce a cookbook. It takes an inordinate amount of time to craft Joy of Cooking—try nearly a decade to perfect some 4,000 recipes for the latest edition of the iconic American kitchen text, which first hit bookshelves 88 years ago.

It turns out Joy of Cooking isn’t just a job; it’s a birthright and a responsibility. A homemaker from St. Louis, Missouri, Irma Rombauer wrote and self-published the first edition in 1931 to rebound from her husband’s suicide. Though it’s been through many publishers since, the book has, shockingly, remained in the family. The newest iteration debuts this month under the careful, loving stewardship of Rombauer’s great-grandson John Becker and his wife, Megan Scott, who live and cook in outer Southeast Portland. It’s only the ninth update in as many decades. (See previous editions, stacked up below.)

Image: Michael Novak

“Though I am confident we have not pleased everyone,” Becker writes in the introduction, “I hope we have managed to meld past with present in a way that readers will find elegant, informative, and perhaps even inspiring.”

Becker has succeeded. The newest Joy has been vastly streamlined—with writing more clear and concise than in previous versions—but with a respectful eye on
the book’s legacy. (The tome’s chatty “action method” recipe format, which lists ingredients with the steps in which they’re needed rather than at the beginning, has been retained.)

The new edition reflects an expanded global pantry and changing tastes (more butter, less margarine; more fresh vegetables, fewer canned) but assumes its readers have a desire not just to learn new skills (how to cook a duck breast sous vide) but to master old ones (how to achieve the perfect dismount on an aspic).

The ongoing kitchen conversation between generations is revealed in Joy’s Fig and Brown Butter Spice Cake (formerly “Fig Spice Cake;” a holdout from the ’64 edition). In 2019, cognac has replaced fig juice, and the butter—triple the original amount—is now to be browned, adding a nutty depth. (Advances in food science over the past 50 years have taught us nothing if not that the Maillard reaction makes everything taste better.) A deft blend of old and new, it’s the ideal capper to a holiday table set for every generation.

Image: Michael Novak


Fig and Brown Butter Spice Cake

12 to 16 servings 

This rich, golden cake is deeply flavored and irresistibly moist. It makes a stunning holiday dessert. (This recipe appears on page 731 of the 2019 edition of Joy of Cooking. Reprinted with permission from Scribner.) 

Have all ingredients at room temperature, about 70°F. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Coat a 9-inch Bundt pan with cooking spray.

Combine in a medium saucepan:

1 cup dried figs, chopped
½ cup Cognac or brandy

Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then cover, take off the heat, and let sit for 30 minutes. Melt in a medium skillet:

1½ sticks (6 oz or 170 g) unsalted butter

Cook over medium heat until the butter crackles and foams and the milk solids turn golden brown (keep a close eye on it, as it can burn quickly). Immediately transfer the brown butter to a large mixing bowl or a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, using a spatula to scrape the brown bits on the bottom of the skillet into the bowl. Beat on medium-low speed until cooled. Sift together into a medium bowl:

2 cups (250 g) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves

Add to the cooled browned butter and beat until smooth:

1 cup packed (230 g) brown sugar

Beat in:

1 teaspoon vanilla

Beat in one at a time:

2 large eggs

Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture in 2 parts, alternating with:

1 cup buttermilk (245 g) or plain yogurt (240 g)

Beat until just combined. Fold in the figs along with any unabsorbed Cognac. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes.
Let cool in the pan on a rack for 30 minutes. Invert onto the rack to cool completely. Just before serving, beat in a large bowl with a hand mixer or balloon whisk or in a stand mixer set at medium-high speed, until stiff and billowy but not grainy:

1 cup cold heavy cream
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon Cognac or brandy

Top each slice of cake with a generous spoonful of the whipped cream.

Family-tested holiday recipes to dog-ear from the new Joy of Cooking

Dry-brined turkey (p. 405): Instead of a wet brine, Becker and Scott typically go for a dry brine for their holiday bird. This means massaging your turkey with a generous amount of salt up to 48 hours ahead, instead of soaking in salt water to tenderize the meat. You can still rub in the aromatics (pepper, bay leaf, allspice, etc.), but these flavors only stay on the surface anyway, so you may as well save them for gravy.

Garlic-braised broccoli rabe (p. 221): Becker’s dad, Ethan, makes his signature brussels sprouts (p. 222) for holiday meals, and the recipe is fairly interchangeable with this garlicky rabe. The main difference? The rabe is vegan, with oil subbed for butter and a hit of chile that can bring all eaters to the table.

Sweet potato pudding (p. 279): This updated version of Scott’s grandmother’s holiday standby employs only half the sugar and butter of the original, but Scott swears no one can tell the difference. Although there’s a glaring lack of tiny marshmallows in the update, it does include pecans and coconut, and also uses roasted sweet potatoes instead of Grandma’s canned spuds.

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