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Boiling lemon rinds for President Harding's lemon pineapple fruit punch, called a squall. (NPR)

Presidential Foods And What They Say About Our Leaders

by April Fulton
Aug 7, 2012 (Morning Edition)

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President Bill Clinton famously loved doughnuts on the campaign trail, and we've told you about current GOP candidate Mitt Romney's affection for serving the press corps Jimmy John's subs. But what do our past presidents and the presidential wannabes' food choices say about them?

Christopher Kimball of Cook's Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen tells Morning Edition host Renee Montagne that you can learn a lot about a president based on what he eats.

"You don't have to read their speeches, you can eat their food," says Kimball, who shared some recipes with NPR.

Presidential foods tell us a lot about the first lady, and something of the historical period the presidents lived in, he says.

Take Dolly Madison's Layer Cake from 1809. At the time, Kimball says, "Layer cakes were really the consummate test of cooking skills." She used egg whites to lighten the batter — a fairly cutting-edge step at the time, when more yeast-based cakes were the norm. Madison's egg whites trick was used for decades until baking powder came along.

More spy vs. spy than cutting edge, the Hardings served lemon pineapple squalls — chunky fruit punches made of pineapple pulp, lemons and lots of sugar — at their lawn parties, Kimball says.

But the drinks were probably not as innocent as they seemed. In the late 1800s and the early part of the 20th century, women were not to be seen drinking in public. "My guess is more than one lady snuck a little gin into that squall," Kimball says.

Then along came FDR, with his ritzy tastes, followed shortly by Harry S. Truman, who prided himself on being a man of the people. His wife, Bess, shared a recipe for Ozark Pudding, an apple and walnut pudding cake, which Montagne calls plain but tasty.

"That was him," Kimball says.

Later, Kennedy and Reagan brought some of the glamour and glitz back to White House food affairs, but in today's era of economic hardship for many, the 2012 presidential candidates seem to be culling their recipes from Truman's playbook.

"Both candidates have learned their lesson, so both recipes are very much of the people," Kimball tells Montagne.

Michelle Obama, promoter of the White House garden, has a veggie macaroni and cheese dish that cuts the fat in half, along with a few hundred calories, by swapping in some roasted cauliflower, Kimball says.

Ann Romney offers her grandmother's recipe for Welsh skillet cakes, which are essentially currant scones that were once sent down the mineshaft with the miners, he says.

Here are some of the recipes:

Dolly Madison's Layer Cake

(The basics of this recipe are from the White House files in the Presidents' Cookbook, but this version, including measurements, is from Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation by Cokie Roberts.)

Ingredients (Cake):

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, plus more for pans

8 large egg whites

2 1/2 cups sugar

1 cup milk

3 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup cornstarch

2 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter four 8-by-2-inch round cake pans, set aside.

Beat egg white in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment until stiff peaks form; set aside.

In the clean bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together butter and sugar. With the mixer running, slowly add milk; mix until well combined. Sift together flour and cornstarch; slowly add to mixer and beat until well combined. Add vanilla and mix well.

Gently fold in reserved egg whites and divide evenly between prepared pans. Bake until cake springs back when lightly touched, 30 to 35 minutes. Let cool in cake pans on wire racks about 10 minutes. Remove from pans and let cool completely on wire racks.

Place 4 strips of parchment paper around perimeter of a serving plate or Lazy Susan. Place the first layer on the cake plate. Pour over about 1/2 cup icing, spreading evenly to cover. Repeat process with 2 more layers. Repeat process with two more layers. Place the remaining layer on top of the third layer and cover cake completely with remaining icing.

Caramel Icing

Yield: Makes enough for one 8-inch layer cake

Ingredients

3 cups light-brown sugar

1 cup light cream

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Directions:

Whisk together sugar, cream and butter in a medium bowl. Set bowl over (but not touching) simmering water, cook until thickened, about 20 minutes. Remove bowl from heat; stir in vanilla. Let cool.

Warren Harding's Pineapple And Lemon Squall

(Adapted from The Presidents' Cookbook - Practical Recipes Rrom George Washington to the Present by Poppy Cannon, 1968)

Boil lemon peels in 6 quarts of water for 5 minutes. Strain, and add fresh juice of the same number of lemons. Grind a peeled pineapple in meat grinder, force through sieve, add the pineapple juice and pulp to the lemon liquid.

Blend in 1 1/2 pounds sugar and 1/2 teaspoon baking soda. Pour over ice.

Serve in small glasses or cups, each garnished with thin lemon slice.

Makes 14 servings

Nancy Reagan's Crabmeat And Artichoke Casserole

(From The Search for the Real Nancy Reagan by Frances Spatz Leighton, 1987)

1 14-ounce can artichoke hearts, drained and rinsed

1 pound best quality crabmeat

1/2 pound small button mushrooms, sauteed in butter

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons flour

1 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup dry sherry

Parmesan cheese, grated

Place artichokes in buttered baking dish. Arrange crabmeat over the artichokes, then add sauteed mushrooms. Melt butter in a saucepan and add flour, cook briefly, then add cream and sherry and stir until bubbly and thickened. Pour cream sauce over crab mixture, stir to mix, and top with Parmesan cheese.

Bake for 15 minutes in a 350-degree oven. Serve hot.

Anne Romney's Welsh Skillet Cakes

Ingredients:

1 egg

1 1/4 cups currants

1/2 cup milk

3 1/2 cups flour

1 cup granulated sugar

2 tsp nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup butter

Method: Beat the egg with the milk. Add currants. Sift all other dry ingredients together. Work butter into flour and mix until mealy. Pour milk and currants over flour and butter mixture all at once and mix well. Wrap in wax paper and chill for at least one hour.

Roll it a little less than half an inch thick — actually about 3/8 of an inch. You may think this is too precise, but it's very important not to roll too thin.

Cut with cookie cutter. Cook on a pancake griddle greased with oil (325 degrees Fahrenheit) on both sides. Flip the cookies when you see they are shiny. Cook it for less time on the second side. Roll in granulated sugar and let cool.

Resist the urge to eat them right away out of the oven — these are the only cookies that taste better cooled.

Michelle Obama's Cauliflower Mac And Cheese

(From American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America by Michelle Obama)

1/2 pound whole-wheat penne pasta

1/4 head cauliflower, cut into florets

8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded

1 ounce Parmesan cheese, grated

1/2 cup 1 percent or 2 percent milk

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Directions:

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta according to the package directions until al dente. Drain and set aside.

Bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil, add the cauliflower and cook for 5-7 minutes, or until soft. Drain. Place the cauliflower in a blender and puree.

In a medium pan over medium heat, place the pasta, the cauliflower puree, the cheeses and the milk. Stir gently to combine and continue stirring until the cheese is melted.

Season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle the chopped parsley over the mac and cheese and serve immediately.

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