Cottage Pie (1930)

This post’s recipe comes from a 1930 community cookbook. What’s a community cookbook? The main feature of a community cookbooks is a variety of recipes contributed by members of group like a church, women’s organization, or a club. These are frequently sold for fundraising efforts. This particular cookbook was collected by the Woman’s [sic] Auxiliary of Dundee Presbyterian Church in Omaha. The church is still around today — I used to drive past it on my way to work when I lived in Omaha. 

All of the recipes were submitted by women in the congregation and organized into categories like appetizers, egg dishes, and pastries. The cookbook includes advertisements between recipes, “a directory of reliable business houses whose courtesy and generosity in advertising has made this publishing possible.” The dishes were clearly written for people who already knew their way around a kitchen. I had to do some guesswork where times, temperatures, or measurements were vague.

Since I had leftover ground beef from my first try at slugburgers and leftover beef stock from macaroni enrico, I went with cottage pie (contributed by Lucy Harte). This dish is an excellent way to use leftover meat and vegetables — a use noted in even the earliest versions of this dish in French and English cookbooks. The recipe doesn’t even specify beef, just “3 cups finely chopped meat.” That said, beef was king in America at the time, followed by chicken. (Pork was a distant third, mostly popular in rural communities and the South.) This was particularly true in Omaha, which sat at the center of beef distribution lines in the U.S.

This dish is very simple, and requires little planning. It doesn’t deviate from kitchen staples. The first step is browning some sliced onion in butter at medium low heat. This recipe calls for 3 tablespoons —  a miserly amount compared to the 4 cups in macaroni enrico. Once the onion browns, add stock and cook for 5 minutes. The recipe just says “add meat” with no notes on cooking, so I just proceeded like I usually would when cooking ground beef. This was the one place I deviated from the recipe. Mixing in a tiny pinch of baking soda (like ¼ teaspoon per pound) keeps ground beef moist and helps get a nice browning effect by lowering the pH. Browning and caramelization in cooking is the result of the Maillard reaction, which baking soda speeds up. This tip also works if you want to quickly caramelize onions. If I cooked this dish again, I would brown the beef separately instead of in the broth to get more color. Even with the baking soda, all the extra liquid kept the beef from browning the way I wanted it too.

Once the meat is cooked and mixed in with the sauce, dump it into a lightly greased or buttered baking dish (I went with a 9×13 casserole dish) and top with mashed potatoes. The recipe didn’t give a measurement here, so I went with about a pound and a half, which ended up not quite enough to cover the meat as you can see in the pictures. I’d go up to two pounds of mashed potatoes if I made this again. Once you have everything in the dish, whisk an egg yolk and brush on top. The recipe just says “brown in the oven” so I had to guess with times and temps. I went with 350 F and 30 minutes, watching closely to make sure the top didn’t get too dark. If it’s been 30 minutes and the top isn’t brown, you can broil it for a minute or two. 

This ended up being a little bland in both texture and flavor. I stuck as close as possible to the original recipe when I made this, but I’d recommend adding more vegetables and spices if you ever decide to cook cottage pie (also known as shepherd’s pie, especially when made with lamb). I like garlic in just about everything, but this dish really needed it. I’d also add rosemary and thyme and maybe some tomato paste. A bit of grated cheese mixed into the mashed potatoes is another nice addition. Of course, those are luxuries that people didn’t always have during the Great Depression.

Ingredients:

3 cups finely chopped meat (I used ground beef)

3 tablespoons of butter

2 tablespoons flour

1.5 cup stock (I used beef)

2 slices of onions

1 egg yolk, whisked

Mashed potatoes (I used 1.5 pounds, but 2 pounds would have been better)

Salt and pepper to taste (I used a teaspoon of each)

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F
  2. Add butter and onion to a large pan; cook on medium-low heat until onion starts to brown (15-20 minutes)
  3. Add flour; stir until smooth
  4. Add stock; simmer 15 minutes
  5. Add salt and pepper
  6. Add meat; increased heat to medium and cook until meat is brown (about 15 minutes)
  7. Pour into greased/buttered baking dish (I used a 9×13 inch casserole)
  8. Spread mashed potatoes over beef mixture
  9. Brush the egg yolk over the masked potatoes
  10. Bake for 30 minutes or until the potatoes start to brown

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