Good Taste: Extreme Makeover, Tacky Hors d’Oeuvres Transformed

One of my favorite geeky pleasures is paging through a stack of vintage cookbooks. I’m not talking about early 1900s, when you can practically see the dreary shadow of the shackles that tied women to the stove darkening the pages.

Nope. Think Mad Men-era. I love the playful mid-century graphic design preserved in cookbooks of the ’50s and ’60s, as well as the idea of sexy femmes walking around in spectator pumps, backseamed stockings, and hostess aprons. I’m not claiming it was actually fun to cook in that getup (or do anything besides loll around popping happy pills), but it’s a hot look.

Trouble is, that era’s food is not appealing to our modern palates. I like to joke that canned cream of mushroom soup was the extra virgin olive oil of the fifties. And did Jell-O really need to invade every course? I like it much better where it is now: in its rightful role as a booze delivery system.

I’ve had McCall’s Cocktail-Time Cookbook (1965) for years, ever since I scored it at a yard sale — but only last week did I realize that ceci n’est pas un ananas. In other words, the pineapple on the cover isn’t really a pineapple. It’s made of molded cheese. Isn’t that freaky? It’s one thing to play with your food for fun, it’s quite another to make trompe l’oeil tropical fruit out of Velveeta with the goal of clawing yourself to the top of the cocktail party hostess heap.

“I like your deviled ham pinwheels, Bernice, but I’m afraid they don’t hold a candle to Doris’ pineapple surprise.”

However, the ’60s was the Age of the Canapé. I respect that. We live in the Age of the Crudité. Trays of veggies are boring. I love a high-end cocktail party, where each cater waiter circulates with a new tray of tempting, bite-sized delights (and as a Condé Nast editorial assistant, I went to my fair share). Wouldn’t it be nice if parties had more of that going on?

I decided to challenge myself to zero in on the recipes with the most potential, and re-do them to be healthier, tastier, and more appealing. Here’s what I came up with.

Date Nut Boats

3 oz. lowfat cream cheese
1 tablespoon milk
½ teaspoon powdered ginger
4 tablespoons chopped tamari almonds
18 pitted dates
2 tablespoons candied ginger, chopped into 18 little pieces

Combine the cream cheese and milk. I used my mini food processor, but you can also whack it into shape with a whisk or fork. (It helps to warm the cream cheese for a few seconds in the microwave.) Stir in the powdered ginger and half of the almond bits.

Slit date halfway through lengthwise. Using your finger, open it up in preparation for the filling step. Repeat with the rest of the dates. Using a small spoon, drop in the cream cheese mixture, arranging on a platter as you go. Once you’ve finished, adorn each appetizer with a piece of candied ginger. Sprinkle the dates with the rest of the chopped almonds.

Notes: This show-stopping vegetarian appetizer has a Moroccan vibe, but only in a fifties pastiche kind of way. I updated the recipe by upping the dried ginger, adding the candied ginger, using lowfat cream cheese instead of full-fat, and substituting tamari almonds for plain walnuts. Vegans, use Tofutti cream cheese and almond milk.