When she popped into a nondescript antiques store in Brooklyn, after dropping her son off for art class, Jessie Sheehan had no idea she’d discover the inspiration for her first solo cookbook: a trove of vintage baking booklets. The former lawyer had begun working at a popular local sweets shop called Baked, famous for its layer cakes and cinnamon buns, and she had “had old-school comfort desserts on the brain,” she says. The booklets’ whimsical illustrations caught her eye but then the recipes captured her imagination.
“It was fun to see where the desserts I was learning to make had their beginnings,” Sheehan says. She honed her skills by making recipes from the booklets—and then started tweaking them. It proved to be a great starting point. “I found many of the recipes [in them] to be really foolproof,” she says. “Some of them lacked a little flavor or a little salt or needed to be spiffed up a bit, but in general what I love about them is that it feels like you’re making something your grandmother would have made, the way she would have made it.”
The result of those experimentations is Sheehan’s new cookbook, “The Vintage Baker,” filled with fresh, modern versions of the vintage desserts she found in her collection. Along with midcentury-style illustrations and photographs, the book features the covers of many of her booklets—she now has close to 200 of them—right next to the recipes they inspired.
The style of booklet Sheehan collects was produced from the late 1800s through the 1960s and 1970s. They were distributed with baking ingredients, such as baking powder, flour, cocoa, even marshmallows, and, later on, kitchen equipment like stand mixers. Brands like Hershey’s, Crisco, Nestle, Jell-O, and more appear on their covers. Their messages shifted with the times, so that they now read like little time capsules: Booklets produced during the Great Depression emphasize thriftiness and ingenuity; later ones, from the 1940s and 1950s—what Sheehan in her cookbook’s introduction calls “the salad days of the housewife”—call out their recipes’ convenience, glamour, and husband-pleasing qualities.
She has found that antiques shops and online retailers sell booklets like these for about $10 to $12 on average. Those in poorer condition may cost as little as $3, while older ones in great condition can go for as much as $20. Sheehan found many of hers at Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks, a vintage cookbook shop in Manhattan’s East Village.
Sheehan got the idea for her Peanut Butter Custard Pie with Marshmallow Whipped Cream from the Baker’s booklet. Meanwhile, the Runkel’s one, among her oldest, inspired her Chocolate Molasses Crinkles—“People don’t realize how yummy chocolate and molasses are together,” she says, “but it’s a great combo.” The Domino sugar booklet inspired her Cinnamon Red Hots Popcorn. But sometimes all it takes for a booklet to join her collection is a great cover: “I just love her very sweet face,” she says of “New Talks About Jell-O” and its cover girl. “She’s like the Mona Lisa of the Jell-O booklets.”
“I love this cover,” says Sheehan says of the Hamilton Beach booklet, in which she found a favorite recipe for Lady Baltimore cake. “I love how glamorous this woman looks, I love her apron, I love that chocolate cake with the pink roses on it.” She also loves the pink cover of "Learn to Bake You’ll Love It," a Swans Down cake-flour booklet that features a delicacy called an Angel Food Dream: “It’s an angel food cake that you slice in half horizontally and fill with brown-sugar whipped cream,” she explains. “I found angel food cakes in so many of my booklets, so I was certain I wanted to feature one.” For her own version, she added blueberries to the whipped cream.