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Be Retro Royalty With the Casserole Queens

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"The Casserole Queens Cookbook: Put Some Lovin' in Your Oven with 100 Easy One-Dish Recipes" by Crystal Cook and Sandy Pollock (Clarkson Potter, $17.99).

If your kid starting school each year brings back memories of your own long-ago schooldays, take the flashback one step further. Pick up a copy of "The Casserole Queens Cookbook: Put Some Lovin' in Your Oven with 100 Easy One-Dish Recipes" to whip up retro specialties for weeknight dinners.

Crystal Cook and Sandy Pollock, who started their Casserole Queens home-delivery service in Austin, Texas, fill you up not only with nostalgic dishes but with stories, as well. In the book, they recount their early family tales and blend them with food memories, while posing on the cover in 1950s-style dresses. Both the quality of the recipes and fun in the telling of the stories and presentation make this my all-time favorite retro cookbook. I like their newer cookbook that spotlights side dishes, but this is the classic, for-the-ages one.

The best of their bunch combine both tastiness and good storytelling, like Granny Haley's Orange Date Cake, a concoction made with sour milk that Granny served without fail to every Sunday afternoon guest for decades.

Had I been able to reap the hospitality of anyone associated with this fun book, I would have loved to be presented each time with Clementine Cake. That's my favorite fruit, which I look for any opportunity to indulge in. I might finally reach my fill with this specialty.

Similar to many dishes of the 1940s and1950s, this recipe is repetitive when it comes to the star ingredient. In addition to a foundation of boxed white cake mix, additional all-purpose white flour, thick vegetable shortening and three full cups of confectioners' sugar, the finished product includes the juice of seven clementines, a heaping of grated clementine zest, the sections of four clementines and 24 more chocolate-dipped clementine sections for garnish.

Give your sweet tooth a breather from their sumptuous dessert section for a second as you contemplate the real heart of this heartfelt book: the dinner casseroles (though there are also excellent chapters of brunch and side dishes, too).

Everything you might crave is probably front and center. Some standouts:

—A creamy tuna casserole that's rich and not from canned condensed soup, like many from the era, but heavy cream and Parmesan cheese, joined by homemade chicken broth.

—Their Aunt Joan's chicken divan that's made even more "neat-o" by turning it into a filling for homemade crepes and accented with Gruyere cheese.

—A gooey baked spaghetti that's comfort food of the highest order.

The book is a nice blend of homemade touches, such as the chicken broth and crepes, as well as easier ingredients. A can of cream of mushroom soup, for instance, is an option in the following delicious meatball casserole. The authors even further warn to use the non-gourmet part of your brain:

"Don't confuse chili sauce with hot pepper sauce or canned chili (been there, done that)," they write of an ingredient that was also a down-to-earth bottled favorite in my childhood home. "Chili sauce (such as Heinz) is found in the grocery next to ketchup."

MEATBALL CASSEROLE

1 pound ground beef

1 cup saltine cracker crumbs

1/4 cup chopped onion

1/4 cup chopped green bell pepper

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 large egg, lightly beaten

1 (10 3/4-ounce) can mushroom soup, or 1 1/2 cups homemade

1 cup whole milk

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup chili sauce (such as Heinz brand)

Yields 6 servings.

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Lightly coat a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish with nonstick cooking spray.

Combine the ground beef, cracker crumbs, onion, bell pepper, salt, pepper and egg in a large mixing bowl.

In a separate bowl, combine the soup and milk. Add half of the soup mixture to the meat mixture and mix well.

Carefully heat the oil in a large saute pan set over medium-high heat. Form the meat mixture into balls. Toss each meatball in the flour and shake off any excess. Working in batches, cook the meatballs in the hot oil, turning to brown all sides, for about 10 minutes. Don't overcrowd the pan. Transfer the meatballs to the prepared casserole dish.

Combine the chili sauce and the remaining soup mixture; pour over the meatballs. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the liquid is bubbling and light brown on top. Good served over rice.

GRANNY HALEY'S ORANGE DATE CAKE

Vegetable shortening for greasing dish, such as Crisco brand

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the dish

2/3 cup milk

2/3 teaspoon white vinegar or lemon juice

1 cup chopped dates

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

1 cup granulated sugar

2 large eggs

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

2 tablespoons grated orange zest

1/2 cup chopped pecans

1 cup confectioners' sugar

2 tablespoons orange juice

Yields 8 to 10 servings.

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease and flour a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish.

Combine the milk and vinegar or lemon juice and let sit 10 minutes before using. If it is longer than that before use, cover tightly and refrigerate briefly and bring to room temperature before using.

Put the dates in a bowl and cover them with hot water. Let them soak for 1 hour.

In a separate bowl, cream together the butter, granulated sugar and eggs.

Sift the flour, baking powder and baking soda into a medium bowl. Add the dry ingredients to the butter and sugar mixture alternately with milk mixture, adding a third of each at a time and mixing thoroughly before adding the next. Drain the dates and stir them in with the orange zest and nuts. Pour the batter into the prepared casserole dish. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until a toothpick, when inserted into the center of the cake, comes out clean.

Meanwhile, whisk together the confectioners' sugar and orange juice, making sure to break up any lumps. The consistency should be such that it can be easily drizzled or poured over the cake. If it's too thick, thin it with a little more orange juice. If it's too thin, add more confectioners' sugar, a teaspoon at a time, making sure to mix thoroughly before adding more. Drizzle the orange glaze over the cake while it is still warm. Cut into squares and serve while warm.

Store leftover pieces in an airtight container at room temperature for up to five days.

Lisa Messinger is a first-place winner in food writing from the Association of Food Journalists and the author of seven food books, including "Mrs. Cubbison's Best Stuffing Cookbook" and "The Sourdough Bread Bowl Cookbook." She also writes the Creators News Service "After-Work Gourmet" column. To find out more about Lisa Messinger and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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