Corn Flakes Top this 1950s Classic
Many home cooks in the 1950s were mad for the new convenience foods — canned this or powdered that. Although many of these items had become available earlier in the 20th century, they reached their zenith of popularity in the 50s.
The 1950s were also the decade of casseroles. “One-pot” recipes of the casserole persuasion have been around since mankind first invented cooking utensils, but people rediscovered them in the 1930s. And eventually people realized that many of those swell convenience foods — condensed soup in particular — worked well in casserole assembly.
Tuna Noodle Casserole was the quintessential 50s dish. It required boxed noodles! Canned soup! Canned tuna! Canned peas! And a topping of boxed cereal! How wonderful— you could make it without any fresh ingredients! Convenient, no?
And amazingly enough, it was also a pretty good dish.
Recipe: Tuna Noodle Casserole
In a nod to the post-Eisenhower era, my recipe uses frozen rather than canned peas. (Frozen peas became standard once the freezer sections of home refrigerators became large enough to hold more than two ice cube trays and a half gallon of ice cream.) Otherwise, my version doesn’t differ much from every other recipe you’ve seen. I say a bit more on recipe variations in the Notes.
This dish takes about 15 minutes to assemble (including cooking the noodles) and 20 - 30 minutes to bake in the oven. It serves 8 to 10. You’ll need a casserole dish that measures about 9 x 13 inches.
You can easily halve this recipe, although you’ll need to make a decision regarding the quantity of tuna to use (see Notes). Leftovers keep for a couple of days refrigerated in an airtight container.
- 8 ounces dried egg noodles (narrow or wide; you can substitute another pasta shape if you wish, although noodles are traditional)
- 1 tablespoon salt (for salting the noodle water)
- 3 cups frozen peas
- 1 - 4 cups corn flakes (to taste; see Notes)
- ½ - 1 stick melted butter (½ stick works, but a whole stick has better flavor; isn’t the rule with butter that more is better? See Notes.)
- 3 five-ounce cans tuna (for best flavor, use oil packed; you can skimp and use only 2 cans, but the flavor isn’t as good)
- 2 cans condensed cream of mushroom soup
- ½ teaspoon garlic powder (may increase to a teaspoon; optional, but good)
- ½ teaspoon onion powder (may increase to a teaspoon; optional, but good)
- 1 cup milk (whole, skim, whatever — doesn’t really matter what kind)
- additional salt to taste
- pepper to taste
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Put large pot of water (at least 4 quarts) on to boil. When it begins to boil, add a tablespoon of salt and the dried egg noodles. Cook according to package directions (usually 6 - 8 minutes). It’s better to undercook a bit than overcook (the noodles will continue to cook in the oven). Two minutes before the pasta is ready, add the frozen peas to the pot so they’ll cook with the pasta. Drain noodles and peas in a colander or strainer when cooked.
- While the pasta is cooking, melt the butter in the microwave.
- Pour the corn flakes into a bowl and crush until they’re breadcrumb size (it’s easiest to use your hands for this). Add melted butter and stir well to combine.
- Open and drain tuna and add to a bowl. Add cream of mushroom soup, garlic and onion powder (if using), and milk. Stir to combine. Taste, and add salt and pepper to your preference.
- By now the noodles and peas should be ready. Drain in a colander or strainer (if you haven’t already done so) and add to the tuna and soup mixture. Stir well.
- Pour into a casserole dish that’s been greased with butter or cooking spray. Cover with the corn flakes and butter mixture.
- Bake until the topping is well browned and the tuna mixture is hot and bubbly — about 20 to 30 minutes.
- A lot of people prefer to top their tuna noodle casserole with buttered bread crumbs or cracker crumbs rather than corn flakes. It’s not the One True Way, but do so if you prefer.
- Many people add cheese to this dish. I never have, but I’ve read adding a cup or so of shredded cheddar to the tuna mix is good. Some people dust the top of the casserole with grated Parmesan cheese.
- A bit of cayenne added in Step 5 is nice, if you like some zing.
- Likewise a bit of Worchestershire sauce (maybe a teaspoon or so).
- The original recipe for this dish specified 2 cups of peas rather than three (in part because a can of peas held a bit under 2 cups). But 3 works better IMO.
- You can skip the corn flakes, but we like the crunch and flavor they add. Use more if you want a heavy topping of them, less if you prefer a sparse layer. If you use 4 cups of uncrushed corn flakes (which will give you a pretty heavy topping), you'll get about 1 or so cups when you crush them. If you use less than 4 cups corn flakes (uncrushed), use correspondingly less butter in the dish (Step 4). BTW. some people prefer to substitute potato chips for the corn flakes. This Note updated 8/2021.
- In 1903 — when canned tuna became widely distributed in the US — the “standard” size of a tuna can was 7 ounces. In the last few decades, it has shrunk to 6 or so, and then 5. Most older recipes that call for a “can of tuna” are specifying a significantly larger quantity than found in modern cans. In the 50s the recipe for this dish specified 2 cans of tuna — but I’ve increased it to 3 because of the “downsizing” factor.
- Which means you have a decision to make if you halve this recipe. One 5-ounce can of tuna isn’t sufficient. So I’d go with 2 cans — it’s a bit more tuna than traditional, but good.
Worth a Trip to the Store
Casseroles practically defined the culinary habits of 1950s America. Most of those recipes have faded away — largely because they just weren’t very good. And they relied on ingredients that today we regard as less than healthy.
But two casseroles endure: Green Bean Casserole (still a tradition on many Thanksgiving tables) and Tuna Noodle Casserole — which in my opinion is the best of the casserole class. Even people who don’t care for fish tend to like it (and it’s convenient for those who observe dietary restrictions during Lent).
Back in the day, casseroles could be made at a moment’s notice. Most households had all the ingredients on their pantry shelves (that was part of casseroles’ appeal). Now? Many of us probably have to make a trip to the store for at least some of the ingredients.
“When was the last time we had this?” Mrs. Kitchen Riffs asked as she polished off her second helping. “I didn’t even know we had corn flakes and cream of mushroom soup in the house.”
“So long ago I’ve forgotten,” I said. “The corn flakes are left over from when we made Cherry Winks. In fact, I made this dish because I wanted to use them up. The soup I bought last trip to the store.”
"We should make Cherry Winks more often,” she smiled.
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