Saturday, March 1, 2014

Julie's Tuna Noodle Casserole

An authentic taste of the 1970's you can enjoy today!

I don't think you can get a dish that's much more 1970's than tuna noodle casserole. Ask anyone on the street to name a dish that was popular in this era, and they'll list it as the first or second thing to come to mind, even if they've never had it before and I honestly didn't know anyone who's ever come out and said they enjoyed eating it.

That all changed when I decided to make it last weekend for friends and family! I was fully anticipating everyone to treat this particular culinary experiment with a good deal of trepidation, but discovered that not only does my grandfather really like tuna noodle casserole, but one of our family friends really liked it growing up, and was very excited to try this out. He was doubly excited because his niece has recently gotten into American Girl, and after much deliberation decided on Julie as her first doll!

I was originally planning on making the casserole with a recipe from Julie's Cooking Studio. Despite my hit or miss experiences with the American Girl cookbooks, I still like trying out the recipes when I can because a few have turned out really good, even if a few were kind of gross or a pain to make. I figured this was a pretty foolproof one because there's not too much you can really do to mess up a casserole, and my mom planned on supplementing the dinner with a different casserole in case this one did turn out to be a disaster.

That said, I've mentioned in the past that I wasn't too sure how well researched the newer cooking studios were, in that in Kit's Cooking Studio, none of the recipes really seem that specific to the 1930's to me. While yes, I assume people ate oatmeal cookies back then, there's nothing in the book that really backed up why that particular recipe had been included versus any other cookie, or what about them really warranted them being featured in the book at all. In comparison, it's pretty difficult to argue the historicity of including St. Lucia buns in a Kirsten cookbook, and in general, Kit's just seemed to have less interesting culinary history from the 30's. I was curious (and maybe a little dubious) of Julie's Cooking Studio in fear that it would be the much of the same.

Fortunately, it's not! There's a lot of really interesting information about how food habits changed during the 70's, and as my mom looked through the book, there were several things she was very excited to see included because they reminded her of things she'd eaten as a kid, or otherwise just felt so seventies!

Most excitingly, she also got her hands on a cookbook her family has used when she was a kid: Betty Crocker's NEW Boys and Girls Cookbook, and there was a surprise for me waiting inside that would put all my fears about the authenticity of the cooking studio to rest once and for all.

This book was actually published in the 60's, and has obviously been out of print for a while. The original version came out in the 50's and the book boasts that the original had been tested by twelve boys and girls just like you who all approved the recipes they published, and this update had gone through the same rigorous testing process.

There are a lot of really great vintage recipes in here. I was especially amused by all the ice cream floats and combinations of soda mixtures they guaranteed would be a success at any get together you were having, and this summer I think I'm going to try a couple of them out for myself.

But the thing I was most excited to see was a recipe for tuna casserole, which was almost exactly the same as the one published in Julie's Cooking Studio!

Obviously I have no idea if Julie's recipe was pulled right from this book (and there's actually decent evidence that it wasn't, as the portion sizes are a little different and Betty Crocker's uses cream of mushroom soup, while Julie's uses cheddar cheese), but I was super excited to find out that this recipe wasn't just a modern interpretation or muddled remembrance of a dish the author remembered their parents making, but something that really seems like it belongs in the 1970's. 

So long story short, if you're having a tough time deciding if you want to add Julie or Kit's Cooking Studio to your collection, I'd enthusiastically endorse Julie's. It's got a lot of fun historical tidbits that older readers will fondly remember from days past and younger readers will find really interesting. I know I do! It's pretty incredible to see how much things changed in such a short period of time. It's really not that weird to realize that Felicity would have eaten and cooked things very differently from us, but it's pretty crazy to think that a time that doesn't seem that long ago boasts a pretty different culinary scene than the one we're familiar with.

After a lot of deliberation, I decided I wanted to make the recipe from the cooking studio rather than the Betty Crocker book, mostly because I (potentially somewhat foolishly) thought cheddar cheese soup sounded better than cream of mushroom and also because as I've said, I like trying out American Girl recipes when I can to see how kid friendly they really are. Although it's out of print now, Julie's Cooking Studio can be found for extremely reasonable prices on eBay or Amazon. I think I got mine for about eight dollars for a full set, including shipping and handling.

As it turns out, this casserole is just as easy to make as it sounds like it should be. You start by cooking the egg noodles on the stove until they're al dente, and then they get drained in a colander and set aside while you make the rest of the filling.

Next comes the soup. As I said, this was really the only major way the recipes differed from each other, and originally, I was pretty confident that cheddar cheese soup would be fun. I mean, I like cheddar cheese, I like when it's made into soup, what could go wrong?

As it turns out, this was the part that almost put me off entirely. Cheddar cheese soup out of a can is probably one of the most frightening things known to man. It's rubbery and smells really weird, and I was making pretty terrible faces the entire time I mixed it together with the milk because seriously, it was just kind of gross.

At this point I was kind of dreading actually eating the casserole. I can actually be a really fussy eater, even though I've been trying to get better about it as I've gotten older, but if something smells weird, I have a really difficult time getting past that.

I soldiered on anyway, and added the tuna, peas and noodles to the mixture. The recipe says you can substitute with chicken or carrots if you're not a fan of either of the other ingredients, which I assume might taste pretty good, actually. Cheese and chicken is an easier combination for people to swallow than fish and cheese.

This all gets mixed together and put into a casserole dish, as one does with casserole fillings.

And now comes time for the topping. I don't actually remember if Julie eats this during the course of her series - I've only read the books once - but the recipe begins with a note that it's one of Julie's favorite things to eat for dinner, especially when her mom crushes up potato chips to put on top!

My mom bought individual bags of chips instead of a giant sized one which turned out to be pretty handy. Instead of putting the chips in a different ziploc bag, you could just crunch them all up together in the bag and dump them out right on top of the casserole. I was a little worried they might get soggy in the oven, and was definitely curious to see how this turned out if still a little convinced I might not like it.

This goes into the oven for about fifty minutes. It doesn't look much different when you pull it out of the oven - the chips looked a little browner at certain parts of the dish, but not much, but they definitely kept their crunch better than I thought they would, which was nice.

This recipe makes a pretty modest portion of it. We got it to feed nine people, and they were able to have some seconds, although I'd like to point out that these were small portions that were supplemented by sides and the other casserole my mom made. If you're looking for bigger portions, the recipe's written serving size seems pretty accurate.

So, how did it taste?

My first bite did not go well. I wasn't sure I liked the flavor or the texture, but I stubbornly wanted to try more just to make sure I wasn't just getting caught up in how much I expected it to be gross. Taking a second bite turned out to be a good thing, because I actually started to feel like I liked it after I got over my initial distrust! I'm still not sure how much I liked it, as in I'm not sure if I'd ever go out of my way to eat it again, but it was tasty enough and had a really interesting flavor I'm not really sure how to describe.

It was more of a hit with my guests, who all thought it really tasted like something they'd eaten years and years ago. My mom said it was too bad we didn't do this during Lent, since apparently that's when my grandmother would end up serving it when she was a kid, as she's pretty Catholic and likes to follow those sorts of traditions.

Overall, this was a really fun day, even if I'm not a 100% convert to the tuna casserole fanclub. I was excited to be able to share a recipe that's part of my family's history with people who have been longtime supporters of my blogging efforts, and it was really cute to see how excited Chris got about being able to text pictures of Julie "cooking" with me to his niece, who was apparently very excited and confused about her uncle having dinner with "her" doll. I'm still not really sure if I'd ever make this again (although I am a little curious to see if using cream of mushroom soup makes a difference), but it was fun and I'm glad I didn't chicken out of making it, especially because it was really easy to do and is totally something a younger cook can make with limited adult assistance if necessary.

Since we used the cooking studio, we also got to break out the "Table Talker" cards that came with it. They try to get you to ask your friends and family questions about things that have to do with Julie's book series, and are kind of adorable. It's a fun little addition to the cooking studios which just makes me wish AG had sprung to make one for each of their currently available dolls, rather than only selecting a few and yanking them from publication relatively quickly. I'd love to have one of these for Addy or Rebecca!

Asking things like which historic American would you like to meet has always been something I enjoy!


  1. I was born in the mid-'70s, so I remember the era of tuna-noodle casseroles well. I know I've tasted it before, so my mom's must have been more like the one in the Betty Crocker cookbook, because I'm allergic to cheese. (Also wow, you're right, that cheese soup out of the can looks pretty terrifying.) I remember not being a fan, myself. Then again, it took a long time for my taste buds to accept tuna. But now I love it, so maybe I would like the mushroom-soup version....

    I love that Julie got to attend dinner. I can only assume she was a big fan of the casserole! Also, YAY, asparagus! I love asparagus.

    Finally, the picture of Julie on your countertop, with the two cookbooks, looks just like something that would be at the end of a commercial about the books. So cute!

    1. Might be worth giving a try! It's definitely not a recipe that takes a long time to make, and it's fairly inexpensive too, so it's not a huge deal if you make it and end up absolutely hating it, ahaha. Let me know how it turns out if you do decide to give it another shot!

      Thank you so much! I'm glad people are enjoying the pictures, I can't wait until the weather gets better so I can start taking them outside again. There are only so many ways you can make the inside of our kitchen look exciting!

  2. This recipe definitely brings back lots of memories for me! I even learned to make this in a cooking club that I belonged to in elementary school. And yes, always a staple during Lent in household. Thanks for giving this a try! It makes me want to give it a whirl with my own family.

    Happy Cooking!

    1. Good luck if you do give it a shot! Don't let them chicken out of giving it a try.

  3. Thanks for bringing back fond memories of tuna-noodle casserole! It was the first dish I learned to make as a little girl. We always used the cream of mushroom soup. It's an easy dish to prepare and I would think all mothers would welcome their children learning how to make this dish for the family because it's so tasty and easy.
    Your photography is terrific! It should inspire all cooks - young and old.

    1. Thank you, that's really nice to hear! And I have to admit, I'm still curious to try it with the mushroom soup. I wonder why the cookbook had the cheddar cheese soup as the binding agent, everyone I've talked to so far has said they had it with mushroom!

  4. *From Julie's doll mom:*

    Hi! I'm not much of a cook, but I find your blog intriguing. Using AG dolls to approach historical cooking is a great idea! As a child of the 70s, I loved this particular post. Mainly because I had that Betty Crocker cookbook as a kid! My mom (RIP) had given me several cookbooks throughout the course of my life, (guess she thought I'd eventually get into it), and I always loved this one. I don't remember if we ever tried the recipes, but it was fun to look at anyway. As mentioned in Julie's cooking studio, I am a fan of Tuna Helper, b/c it does come pretty close to the cream of mushroom version of the casserole. BTW, if you ever wanna check oout my blog, (well Julie's blog), it's all about growing up in the 70s. Julie isn't an AG doll, she's a Springfield Collection doll, (as I couldn't afford Julie at that time, I have her now, renamed Sunny), and your mom would probably get a kick out of it. Sorry for the lengthy post. Keep up the good work.

    1. That's very cool! I'll be sure to take a peek and show my mom. Glad you enjoyed the post! :D

  5. Late to the game suggestion...I use to make a dish my now ex-husband referred to as Roadkill. It was leftover roast beef, chopped to bite size (you can also use thick sliced deli cuts or restaurant leftovers as it's beef), leftover beef gravy (or canned or jarred), leftover stuffing (or bread cubes) and French cut green beans all mixed up and topped with potato chips. It was delicious. While it didn't look unappetizing, his name killed the recipe too and the kids wouldn't touch it...til now.

    PS Julie's blog is awesome too. ;)

    1. and then baked...duh

    2. That sounds delicious! Maybe not the prettiest thing ever, but I definitely think I'd like it. Definitely might want to think of a new name to convince people to try some, though. ;D

  6. Hey Gwen-

    I really enjoyed this post and just bought all the cooking studio books!

    FYI: they have an Addy cookbook, but it's by the Pleasant company. All of the original girls from the 90's have cookbooks :) I'm on the hunt for Kirsten' s and Josefina's!

    Have a great day!

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it! And I know they've all got them (I'm actually just missing Josefina's), I'm just bummed there isn't a Cooking Studio update for Addy and Josefina! The 90's cookbooks are fun, but they don't have quite as much stuff in them since the cooking studios are like the cookbooks plus stuff from the American Girl birthday party book, and it's a bummer they didn't make one for each character, especially the newer girls who didn't get a cookbook originally.