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What's Cooking? Ask the Junior League of Denver.
Briana Marie/Junior League of Denver

What's Cooking? Ask the Junior League of Denver.

“Cooking for one is no fun,” says my mother, who lost her husband of 67 years early in 2018. My father would eat anything (unless it included green pepper or eggplant), which added to her fun: She could experiment with recipes old and new and almost always get a rave review.

But cooking for two was not standard for my mother, either. She’d raised a large family, and, when I was growing up, specialized in casseroles that served seven or eight. Make that seventy or eighty: She and my father also loved to entertain, which meant that a recipe that served just seven was a trifle. When she contributed recipes to her church’s cookbook, they were sometimes designed to feed ten times that many.

Cookbooks self-published by women’s groups, as both fundraisers and community-builders, are a time-honored tradition. The Junior League of Denver has been particularly successful with its efforts. Inspired by the first Junior League, founded in New York City in 1901 by a group of debutantes who wanted to improve their community, Denver’s Junior League started in 1918 with the goal of organizing similar philanthropic activities. It wasn’t until the JLD began its seventh decade that the organization focused on celebrating good food as a way to finance its good works.

The JLD’s first cookbook, Colorado Cache, is stocked with over 700 recipes chosen from 2,800 submitted by members, each tested and retested. People were so eager to get their hands on the first copies that they were delivered truly “hot off the press” to reporters, according to Ellen Kingman Fisher’s Junior League of Denver: 1918-1993 , with the group’s public-relations chair wiping off each cookbook before handing it over. Since 1978, the JLD’s five cookbooks have sold more than 2.1 million copies total, raising about $7 million.

The books have been so popular that the JLD ordered a first printing of 75,000 for its sixth cookbook: Centennial Celebrations , which comes out in July. Not only does this volume celebrate the group’s hundredth anniversary, but it also celebrates the Colorado style of entertaining, with some of the 238 recipes included (out of over 1,000 submitted) presented in a party format, photographed at iconic Colorado locations.

“We wanted not only to include a large variety of recipes across all cuisines, but wanted the book to be representative of how people really cook in 2019,” says Mary Beth McErlane, Centennial Celebrations chair. “The same person will make Buffalo Chicken Dip for a Super Bowl party and Champagne Shrimp for an anniversary dinner. We wanted to make sure they could find inspiration and a recipe for every occasion.”

And from almost every decade: The new cookbook includes a popular recipe from each of the previous volumes, chosen from the JDL president at the time of their publication. There’s the all-time fave Denver Chocolate Sheet Cake from Colorado Cache, which made the New York Times in 2003; Chili Blanco Especial from 1987’s Creme de Colorado; Chipotle Shrimp Won Tons from 1995’s Colorado Collage; Rhubarb Blueberry Cobbler with Pistachio Topping from 2002’s Colorado Colore; and Almond Raspberry Bars from 2009’s Colorado Classique. But while Centennial Celebrations includes historical tidbits about the JLD to help propel the celebration, it’s also completely up to date, with some simpler, four-ingredient recipes that reflect a more fast-paced lifestyle.

Because it’s no fun cooking for one, I arrived at Mom’s place on the Sunday before Mother’s Day with my collection of JLD cookbooks as well as a few advance recipes from the upcoming volume; we were planning on spending the afternoon in the kitchen, then feeding some adventurous friends the feast that we’d cooked up.

While the greatest hits from years past were heavy on desserts, I had my heart set on ending the meal with a recipe from Centennial Celebrations: the Tomato Soup Spice Cake that came highly recommended by McErlane. “We almost decided not to test the tomato soup cake,” she confesses. “We just weren’t sure how it could be good. But once we tasted it, we knew it had to be in the book. It is totally unexpected, a really moist and delicious spice cake with canned soup as one of the ingredients! We also loved that we could tie in some JLD history from the ’20s and ’30s, when tomato soup cake was first created. We knew based on the number of classic recipes we received during our submission process that people still love those old-fashioned comfort dishes as much as they love modern fresh food.”

(The recipe, reproduced below, might have been old-fashioned, but even so, we decided that my baking soda, which I discovered had expired in 2003, and my mother’s, which wasn’t much better with a 2004 end date, paid a little too much homage to the past. We bought fresh.)

For the main event, we chose a true classic from Colorado Cache: Beef Bourguignon. We’d vowed to stay faithful to the period, preparing the dish exactly as it would have been made in 1978, so did not resort to Google in order to translate the instruction “add Cognac, heat and flame.” Instead, I took the pan of mushrooms and onions outside, poured in the cognac and then dropped in a match. (Since my mother’s home had already been flooded during the Bomb Cyclone, I didn’t think she’d appreciate my setting off an explosion in her kitchen, à la the infamous Apricot Chicken published in the Denver Post back in 1983...but that’s another story.) The casserole went into the oven as the cake finally came out (in the excitement over the “flame,” we’d somehow turned off the heat), and then we cleaned the kitchen and chatted and remembered Dad.

As our guests arrived, we didn’t tell them what was on the menu. We didn’t need to explain the entree, because they’d smelled the bottle of burgundy in the casserole a block away; given that ingredient and more wine that accompanied the course, it was a hit as well as a blast from the past.

The Tomato Soup Spice Cake, on the other hand, was a complete mystery. Carrot, one guessed, as he grabbed another piece. Zucchini, suggested another, sneaking a few crumbs from the pan. Tomato soup, we revealed.

But then, soup is good food. Our entire Junior League of Denver meal was delicious. Above all, it was fun.

A slice of Tomato Soup Spice Cake.
A slice of Tomato Soup Spice Cake.
Westword

Tomato Soup Spice Cake
From the Junior League of Denver’s Centennial Celebrations
Serves 12

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon shortening
2 medium eggs
2 (10-once) cans condensed tomato soup

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease and flour a 9 x13-inch baking pan.

Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and cloves in a bowl and mix well. Beat the sugar, shortening and eggs in a mixing bowl. Beat in the tomato soup. Add the flour mixture and mix well. Spoon into the prepared baking pan. Bake for 40 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted near the center comes out clean. Let stand to cool. Spread with the Cream Cheese Frosting (below).

Cream Cheese Frosting
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups powdered sugar

Beat the cream cheese and vanilla extract in a mixing bowl. Add the powdered sugar gradually, beating until blended after each addition.

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