Retro Recipes: Better Homes and Garden's Clam Puff, 1966

Welcome to our new feature, Retro Recipes! Brought to you from the capable kitchen of Eat Me Daily's Stephanie Butler, each week we'll revisit a preparation from the past that straddles the line between ingenious and absurd. Inaugurally: The Clam Puff.

The 1966 edition of America's Favorite Recipes from Better Homes and Gardens is a tour de force of Johnson-era culinary abominations. The product of cultural trickledown from high society's mid-60s obsession with all things French (think Mastering the Art Of French Cooking, La Cote Basque, Le Pavilion), the spirit of French cuisine collided with the concerns of the convenience-oriented housewife to produce such horrors as powdered Hollandaise, Spam en croute, and pineapple chocolate chiffon.

Perhaps no example from America's Favorite Recipes is more egregious in its half-breed construction than The Clam Puff, which combines the glamour of a soufflé with the stark utilitarianism of canned mollusks. The editors of Better Homes thoughtfully included a small, black and white photo of a finished Clam Puff next to the recipe: it’s a beautiful cloud of eggy pastry, from the raised top to the little cracks along the crown. Seashells strewn on the tablecloth underneath help give the whole thing a classy, party look. Clearly, a Clam Puff at your table in 1966 meant that you had Arrived.

The trés français mise en place.

The making of a Clam Puff

To truly test the Clam Puff's mettle, I invited a couple friends over, polished my seashell collection, and prepared to be impressed. As long as your supermarket is located in an area with a high density of senior citizens, you'll find canned clams quite easily — they're usually found near the canned tuna. The rest of the ingredient list was already in my pantry - eggs, saltines, hot sauce, parsley. I drained the clams and set them aside, soaked my crushed saltines in the drained clam juice, and then folded the whole shebang into beaten eggs, clams, and seasonings.

The soaked cracker crumbs expanded in the liquid, turning into a mass about as attractive as day-old Cream of Wheat. It was heavy, too: good for weighing down the eggs, but not boding very well for the "Puff" part promised by the dish's name. Egg folding completed, the mixture went into a buttered soufflé dish and a 325 oven for one hour.

This is where my doubts began. Soufflés get their puff from egg whites, which are beaten until they hold peaks, and are then folded into a mix of egg yolks and assorted flavorings. When heated, the tiny air bubbles in the whites expand and fill with steam, raising the mix and creating the lovely puff the gives the soufflé its name. Soufflés also require a very hot oven to puff correctly; a cooler oven won’t create enough heat in the mix to fill those tiny air bubbles. This recipe didn’t mention separating eggs or beating the whites, and I wasn't sure that the low temperature and long cooking time would be sufficient to make much of a puff, either. But I soldiered bravely on, in hopes that the good people at Better Homes weren’t leading me (and thousands of housewives) astray.

Clam-juice-soaked saltines, left, and the clams themselves.

The soufflé falls flat

Sure enough, the Puff turned out flat, more of a fluffy omelette than anything else. There was no rise, no nice crusty top, no oohs and aahs from my dinner guests. Taking a look at the wan, eggy dish, one dejected guest said “It looks like a frittata. What happened to the clam soufflé you promised?” Still, I dished out generous helpings and waited for the applause.

The canned clams were artificial and gummy, like off-brand chowder, and I couldn't taste the hot sauce at all. But with enough seasoning, almost anything can be palatable, and the onion powder and hefty dose of chopped parsley certainly helped. It wasn’t awful — despite its lack of fluffiness, the verdict from my dinner guests was unanimous: the Clam Puff wasn’t great, but you couldn’t stop eating it, and at least one person asked me for a second helping.

The glory days of the Clam Puff might be over, but it still has some big selling points. It’s cheap and filling, and definitely something you can do if you have an extra couple cans of clams in your pantry. I imagine the recipe translating well to other canned proteins, too. Tuna Puff, Spam Puff, Chicken Puff: with a trusty can opener, your only limit is your imagination. If you want it to resemble the nice, crusty souffé promised by the photo, you're going to have to work for it (not to mention take more than a few liberties with the recipe), but if the Clam Puff as she is written is good enough for the busy mom of 1966, it's certainly good enough for you.

–Stephanie Butler

Clam Puff

From America's Favorite Recipes from Better Homes and Gardens, 1966 edition

2 7- or 7-1/2 ounce cans minced clams
1 cup fine cracker crumbs (24 crackers)
2 tablespoons instant minced onion
4 well-beaten eggs
2 tablespoons snipped parsley
1/2 teaspoon salt
Dash bottled hot pepper sauce

Drain clams, reserving liquor; add milk to liquor to make 1 cup. Combine liquid with cracker crumbs and onion. Let stand 15 minutes. Fold in clams, parsley, salt, and hot pepper sauce. Pour into 1-1/2 quart souffle dish. Bake in slow oven (325°) 60 or 65 minutes or till done. Six servings.

All photos by Stephanie Butler

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