Confidential Chat was one of the most popular columns that ever ran in The Boston Globe, appearing daily for over 120 years. From 1884 to 2006, it was a chat room a century before the online kind, carried out by readers (mostly women, many people think) sending mostly handwritten letters via snail mail to the paper. Chat dealt primarily with the mundane details of ordinary life: how to get a stain out of a rug, ways to fix a handmade afghan whose pattern was lost, tips to get dinner on the table amid budget worries and periods of wartime food rationing. Chatters, as they were called, assigned themselves names — “A Fireman’s Wife,” “Beanpot Barbie,” “Cakes and Cookies,” “Dorchester Dottie,” “Lupines and Lilacs,” “Nonno’s Oldest,” “The Cantabridgian” — and addressed one another.
Recipes were the backbone of Chat; almost all had an old New England taste aesthetic (read: plain) and a strong sense of thrift. There were some Italian American dishes, but very little in the way of diversity. Paella, baklava, Swedish meatballs, and bouillabaisse were clustered under a heading labeled “Cosmopolitan” when the Globe collected these recipes in a cookbook.
Here’s what Chatters had to say: If you need a white sauce for a dish, open a can of soup. The two most common fats are solid vegetable shortening and margarine. If you’re looking for doughnuts that are not greasy, fry them in lard. Canned fruits will enhance all kinds of meats. A packet of dried onion soup mix will boost a pot roast wrapped in foil or a sauce for burgers. Use a heavy hand adding sugar to salad dressings. Hot rolls make a budget meal seem more special. Baked beans, ham, and brown bread are an ideal Saturday night supper. Crush odds and ends of dry cereal for breading cutlets. A package of processed cheese never hurt a recipe, nor did a package of cream cheese. Learn to make a really good cup of coffee.
We took some old-fashioned Chat classics into the kitchen and found that half a century or so later, they are fine examples of the legacy left by generations of Chatters. Ingredients and tastes have changed, of course, but the recipes are a valuable insight into another era and a bygone way of life.
>> These recipes here were sent in by today’s Globe readers, who either followed Chat as young cooks or inherited a mother’s or grandmother’s recipe box filled with clips. Some appeared in The Boston Globe Cook Book for Brides, a collection was first printed in 1948 with subsequent editions. When we made the recipes, we substituted butter for shortening or margarine and sometimes decreased the amount (except in Bride’s Easy Pie Crust). We added more exact instructions — Chatters assumed kitchen know-how — and adjusted some oven temperatures and times.
Perfect Lobster Salad
This recipe is reprinted exactly as it appeared in the 1963 edition of The Boston Globe Cook Book for Brides:
“The only way a New Englander knows how to make perfect lobster salad is this: plenty of cooked fresh lobster, mixed with good mayonnaise. Serve with salt and lemon wedges, and good appetite.”
Baked Stuffed Shrimp
Makes 4 servings
No name was attached to this superb recipe for stuffed shrimp, in which the little pink crustaceans are not stuffed individually, but rather covered with a blanket of crumbs seasoned with Parmesan cheese and lemon juice, then baked until crunchy.
Butter (for the dish)
1 pound large shrimp, shelled except for the last joint and tail
1 cup unseasoned dry white bread crumbs
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon white wine
Salt and pepper to taste
¼ cup (½ stick) butter, melted
1 tablespoon chopped, fresh parsley (for garnish)
1 lemon, cut into wedges (for serving)
Set the oven at 400 degrees. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.
Remove any veins from the shrimp. Arrange them in the dish so they are not overlapping.
In a bowl, combine the bread crumbs, Parmesan, lemon juice, wine, a pinch each of salt and pepper, and the butter. Stir well. Top the shrimp with the bread crumb mixture.
Bake for 15 minutes, or until the shrimp are bright pink and firm to the touch. If you want crumbs that are more golden, slide the dish under the broiler for 1 minute, watching it carefully.
Sprinkle with parsley and serve with lemon.
Bride’s Easy Pie Crust
Makes two 9-inch rounds
Chat contributor “Blossom” sent this pie crust recipe into the paper and it appeared in The Boston Globe Cook Book for Brides (1963). It’s a hot-water crust, which is quite an old technique, common in England. Instead of cutting shortening (or lard) into flour, as is typical, you melt shortening in boiling water, whisk to form a creamy mixture, then add an egg, vinegar, and flour. The dough comes together and rolls easily. Some bakers told me they get four rounds from this recipe, but start by dividing it in two.
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup solid vegetable shortening
½ cup boiling water
1 egg, lightly beaten
1½ teaspoons white vinegar
Extra flour (for sprinkling)
In a bowl, whisk the flour, salt, baking powder, and sugar to blend them.
In another bowl large enough to hold all the ingredients, combine the shortening and boiling water. Whisk to form a creamy mass.
In a small bowl, mix the egg and vinegar.
Whisk the egg mixture into the shortening mixture until well blended.
Stir in the flour mixture and use a rubber spatula in a cutting motion to blend it in until the mixture forms moist clumps. Turn the clumps out onto a lightly floured counter and work the dough with edge of the spatula or a bench scraper until there are no dry patches and it comes together. Gently shape into a ball, cut in half, and shape each half into a disk. Wrap separately in foil and refrigerate for 1 hour before rolling out and lining into a pie pan. Use as directed.
Makes about 50
Hermits, which date to the late 19th century, are bar-shaped spice cookies with raisins (here with walnuts, too). “The Cantabridgian” received more than two dozen requests for this recipe, an exceptional version, but not an easy one. You divide the batter between two rimmed baking sheets (not larger than 10½ by 15½, a standard jelly roll pan). You’ll think there isn’t enough batter to do this, but if you dip your hand in water, you can spread the dough evenly. If you can’t get it to fill the sheets, press a strip of buttered foil where the batter stops so you have an even edge. Bake the sheets one at a time. Let them sit for 5 minutes before cutting into bars, then quickly transfer the hermits to wire racks so they stay crisp. Store in an airtight container; they’ll lose their crispness and become pleasingly chewy.
Butter (for the baking sheets)
3½ cups flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground ginger
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
1½ cups sugar
½ cup molasses
2 eggs, beaten with 2 tablespoons cold water
¾ cup raisins, coarsely chopped
1 cup walnuts, lightly chopped
Set the oven at 350 degrees. Grease 2 rimmed jelly roll pans.
In a bowl, whisk the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and ginger.
Using a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar. Beat in the molasses and eggs. With the mixer set on low speed, beat in the flour mixture until thoroughly blended, scraping down the sides of the bowl several times.
Remove the bowl from the mixer stand. With a rubber spatula, stir in the raisins and nuts. The batter will be stiff.
Divide the batter between the baking sheets. Press it into the corners of the sheets with a hand dipped in cold water until the batter fills the sheets.
Transfer to the oven. Bake for 20 to 22 minutes, switching the position of the baking sheet from back to front, or until the centers are just firm to the touch.
Remove from the oven and let the hermits sit for 5 minutes. Use a long knife to make 2 vertical cuts in the rectangle to form 3 columns. Cut each column into 1¾-inch pieces. Use a wide metal spatula to transfer the pieces to a wire rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container.
Bake and cut the remaining sheet in the same way.
Best Irish Bread
Makes 1 large bread
When “Irish Indian” sent in this buttermilk soda bread, she wrote that she had received many requests for it. It forms a wet dough that is not kneaded, but poured, into a casserole for baking. “I often bake mini-loaves for friends and neighbors,” she told fellow Chatters. This recipe is a treasure.
Butter (for the pan)
2½ cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup sugar
¼ cup butter, cut up
1 egg, beaten
1½ cups buttermilk (or sour milk, made with 1½ cups milk with 2 tablespoons vinegar)
1 cup raisins
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
1 tablespoon butter, melted
Extra sugar (for sprinkling)
Set the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 1½-quart casserole or deep baking dish. Line the bottom with a round of parchment paper and butter the paper.
In a large bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar to blend them. Add the butter and use a pastry blender or 2 blunt knives to cut it into the flour mixture until it forms small pieces.
In another bowl, combine the egg and buttermilk (or sour milk). With a rubber spatula, stir it into the flour mixture with the raisins and caraway until it forms a wet dough. Pour it into the casserole or dish. Brush with melted butter and sprinkle with sugar.
Bake for 30 minutes. Lower the oven temperature to 325 and continue baking for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the bread is golden brown and pulls away slightly from the sides of the dish. Rotate the dish in the oven during baking. (Total baking time is 60 to 65 minutes.)
Set the dish on a wire rack to cool until warm. Turn it out and set it right side up on a platter or board. Cut into slices for serving.
Makes 6 servings
Chat contributor P & J’s Mama gave very specific stirring instructions for baking her rice pudding, which is still a little runny after 2½ hours in the oven. To get a nice cinnamon crust on top, add it near the end and don’t stir again. If you love rice pudding, this is for you.
Butter (for the dish)
¼ cup short-grain or medium-grain white rice
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ cup sugar
1 quart whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ cup raisins
Ground cinnamon (for sprinkling)
Set the oven at 325 degrees. Butter a 2-quart baking dish. Set the dish on a rimmed baking sheet.
In the dish, combine the rice, salt, sugar, and milk.
Transfer to the oven and bake for 2½ hours. Stir twice during the first hour. Stir three times in the second hour. In the last half hour, stir in the vanilla and raisins. Sprinkle the top with cinnamon but do not stir again for the last half hour. Serve warm.
Makes one 8-inch square
Chatters sent in many corn breads, all easy to make, with this one, from Doris, among them.
Butter (for the dish)
2 cups flour
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon salt
¾ cup sugar
¼ cup (½ stick) butter, melted and cool but still liquid
1½ cups milk
Set the oven at 375 degrees. Butter an 8-inch baking dish.
In a bowl, whisk the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt together to blend them.
In another bowl large enough to hold all the batter, beat the eggs, then stir in the sugar, butter, milk, and flour mixture until just blended. Transfer the batter to the dish and smooth the top.
Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the corn bread is starting to brown and a skewer inserted into the center of the bread comes out clean. Transfer the bread to a wire rack to cool. Cut into squares and serve warm or at room temperature.
Sheryl Julian can be reached at email@example.com.