Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Julie and Addy’s Lincoln’s Birthday Celebration: Barbeque Beef, Cornbread and Lincoln Log Brownies

Happy birthday to our sixteenth president!

February is kind of a tough month. March is probably worse, but February is definitely heading into that "too much cold, not enough sun" territory, and when you're snowed in or facing the threat of being more or less snowed in, things are even worse. Yes, we get Valentine's Day, which I have mixed feelings about at best, and President's Day weekend for sales on cars and furniture, but I've never found that especially exciting, or something to look forward to. I mean, what does that really have to do with Lincoln and Washington's birthdays? How would you even celebrate those things if you really wanted to?

As it turns out, my grandmother had the answer, and came up with a much better approach to finding things to spice up President's Day back when my mom was a kid, so I'm very excited to bring you guys an authentic 70's dinner inspired by Abraham Lincoln's birthday! It's definitely a more modern meal than Addy would have enjoyed, but it's got enough connection to Mr. Lincoln that I'm not surprised this was a tradition that carried on for years to keep my mom and uncle entertained during long New England winters.

I think it goes without saying that Lincoln is one of the most popular and widely respected US Presidents, and rightly so. Today is his birthday, and George Washington's is on the 22nd. Don't worry, I've got something planned for that, too, although I'm pretty sure we have less Washington related memorabilia and collectables than Lincoln. My sister's a fan.

But none of that really has anything to do with why we did these recipes today. All of this was inspired by a flash of memory and inspiration from my mom. She's been super enthusiastic about trying out recipes she remembers from her childhood now that Julie and Ivy are a part of the gang, and this idea sounded really fun.

My grandma isn't the most enthusiastic cook in the world. I enjoy what she does make - she's treated us to excellent stroganoffs, makes a mean steak au poivre and her cookie brittle is the most addictive thing known to man - but I just don't think she's someone who loves to cook, which I totally respect and understand. Sometimes I wonder how much I actually like cooking, or if I just like blogging and coming up with ways to talk about history and American Girl dolls. Anyway, she's definitely into decorating and coming up with fun ways to celebrate holidays, so I can't say I'm surprised to hear she came up with a way to make President's Day more exciting than it's ever been.

I guess the inspiration for the whole thing can really be blamed on...

Betty Crocker's Party Book, which was originally published in the 1960's, but I'm calling this a 70's recipe because that's when my mom was eating things out of it.

This book was hilarious to go through. So many of the party ideas just sound so tacky and horrible now, and the idea that any fifteen year old boy would want a "space age themed birthday party" complete with spray painted pineapples or whatever else is just too funny. It's obviously been out of print for years, and our copy has pretty much shedded its front and back covers, plus some weird brown spots on a couple of the pages that look like splatter from an old recipe gone wrong. It's got menu suggestions and decorating ideas along with recipes, and in general is a pretty cool piece of Americana. Even if parts of it are so incredibly tacky. I think it's safe to say we'll be revisiting this one in the future!

Like some of the American Girl cookbooks and party books, not every recipe listed is a full recipe so much as ideas and suggestions for making interesting dishes and desserts. Since it's a Betty Crocker book, I wouldn't be shocked if it told you to just use Betty Crocker brand mix instead of laboring through making your own cake batter. I don't mind this. As much fun as it is to make things from scratch just to brag that you did it yourself, mixes can be just as tasty in a pinch, and when it comes to a meal that has more than one element to it, I definitely don't mind the help.

The traditional family dinner for Lincoln's birthday starts off with the barbeque beef, which my mom warned all of us in advance that we might hate. I don't think it's going to shock anyone when I say that 70's food doesn't really have the best reputation in retrospect, although thus far, everything I've tried has been pretty tasty. Still, with a good amount of trepidation, I boldly went where my grandmother has gone before.

I have discovered that I really don't like dishes that require flipping over small pieces of meat in a skillet to make sure they're evenly cooked. It's much more frustrating than flipping larger steaks, especially when they're unusual shapes that just can't cook evenly. Fortunately, getting an even sear on these wasn't as important as it would have been if I was feeding them to someone right out of the skillet since they'll cook in the oven, but it was still irritating.

You could potentially make this a one pot dish? But that sounded like more of a pain than a help in the long run, so we pulled out a soup pot to transfer the meat into once they were cooked.

After setting them aside, you toss in an onion. I am happy to announce that I didn't cry at all while chopping this particular onion up, which is pretty much the first time in... well, ever. Maybe I've finally just found the right angle to wear my onion goggles at or something.

The sauce is made up of ketchup, grainy mustard, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce and a couple other ingredients. It doesn't get particularly thick while cooking on the stove, but I figured it would thicken up in the oven. The sauce smelled really incredible, so I was starting to wonder if my mom had given us all a premature warning about this being terrible.

This cooks in the oven for about two hours. Recipes like this are fantastic in my book, and so even if it didn't turn out to be all that tasty, I was satisfied that it wasn't super complicated and I wouldn't wind up feeling like all my hard work had been mostly for nothing.

The rest of the recipes were semi-home made at best. We considered making the cornbread and brownies from scratch, but I ultimately decided that I wanted to make this largely authentic to what my grandmother would have made for my mom, so we used box mixes instead. Unfortunately, the grocery store only had Jiffy baking mix, not cornbread like my grandmother used to make, so we had to use Betty Crocker, which I suppose is technically more accurate to the original recipe anyway.

We cooked it in our cast iron skillet, which was pretty fun. I'd never used the skillet for baking before, so it was definitely interesting to see how the recipe was a bit different.

I forgot to take a picture of the finished product while it was still in the skillet, but I assure you, it was normal looking cornbread.

We got quite a bit fancier with the brownies. We had a box of really fudgey, delicious box brownies left over, and quickly mixed everything together and got it in the oven after the cornbread.

Thanks to slightly bad timing (we ran out of canola oil and I had to make an emergency run to the grocery store, which is always a bad thing to do on the day before we're supposed to get hit with an end of the world style blizzard according to the weathermen. You would think people in New England would know by now to be prepared for this sort of thing during, you know. Winter.) the beef was finished before the brownies were, which obviously isn't the worst thing in the world. 

Now, I will be the first to admit that the beef does not look all that appetizing coming out of the oven...

But it smelled incredible, and the meat was really tender! The sauce wasn't thick at all, but from what I can tell, this is to be expected.

The brownies took forever to cool off, so I stuck them in the fridge and then the freezer to try and suck some of the heat out of them. Meanwhile, I whipped up the frosting. I just used the recipe on the side of the sugar box and added a lot of cocoa powder. At the last minute, my mom suggested adding some instant coffee. We've been watching a lot of dessert themed Barefoot Contessa episodes, and Ina almost always pairs chocolate and coffee, so I guess we were inspired.

Unfortunately, I don't think they incorporated too well because every once and a while you'd get a huge chunk of coffee, but it still gave it an interesting taste I'm not used to having with a brownie, so I'm not especially disappointed.

I don't usually frost brownies, but this was part of the recipe suggestion. To make them Lincoln log brownies, and not just brownies chopped into rectangles instead of squares, you frost them with chocolate frosting and score them with a fork to make "bark."

The effect was pretty nice! Unfortunately I kind of cut them in the wrong direction to look like real logs, but because the brownies sort of refused to come out of the pan, they ended up looking a tiny bit mangled anyway.

So, how did it all taste?

I think I'm just going to almost completely skip over the cornbread. It was cornbread, from a package and it's delicious. I didn't notice a huge difference between cooking it in a skillet versus a pan? I mean, it's awesome presentation, especially if you're going for something pre twentieth century, but otherwise it didn't add or take away much from the flavor. Give it a shot if you want!

The brownies were also pretty standard apart from the frosting. I did really like the suggestion to make it more Lincoln-y, even if the whole raised in a log cabin thing is a bit overdone when it comes to themes. The book included a few other suggestions for desserts, including making a chocolate cake roll and scoring the frosting in a similar way, and also encouraged picking up a decorative log you can hollow bits out of and stick appetizers in.

Or you can use a serving dish, but I guess if you're really into your presidential theme parties, you might as well go all out.

One thing that turned out to be an unexpected treat was when we left the brownies in the fridge and enjoyed the leftovers that way! They were super gooey and keeping them cool made it almost feel like an ice cream novelty rather than just a brownie made from a mix.

The biggest surprise here was the barbeque beef! Although the sauce was pretty runny even after it had been sitting out for a while, it was super tasty. It had a really good tangy flavor, and the meat was cooked really well and incredibly tender, so overall, it was definitely not the dish my mom had warned us it might be. The sauce also tasted great with the cornbread! You know something tastes good when people are mopping up the sauce with whatever bread they have available.

So overall, this was a really nice trip back in time, and I'm glad we decided to do it. Since my ethnic heritage isn't really represented by any of the dolls AG has out right now, it's nice to know that I've got at least one avenue to explore family recipes with, and this was a fun bit of family history I'd never heard of before creating this blog. If you're looking for a way to spice up your February, definitely give something like this a shot! You won't be disappointed.

So here's to you, Mr. Lincoln. Thanks for giving us something to enjoy during one of the lamest months of the year!


  1. This looks amazing! I love the combo of Addy and Julie for the post, too!

    1. Thanks! I can hook you up with the recipe if you want! And I'm glad you like the combo, I like when I get the chance to combine two characters who usually don't have too much in common food wise. c: