Monthly Archive for May, 2012

Why do we Write Recipes?

Recently, a friend asked me my opinion on why we write recipes::

I came across an article on a friends blog today (read the article here) and it made me curious.  She’s first generation chinese and says her family (and the chinese in general) don’t really use recipes.  I’ve found the same thing with my bubbe.  It’s pretty maddening, we’ve been trying to record her “recipes” for posterity for years to no avail…Curious if you think “recipes” are a more anglo-european thing???

I think it’s generational. The “bubbe” and the Chinese grandmother in question were both immigrants.  They grew up in a pre-industrial environment where the family group lived in close proximity to each other.  Children learned to cook at the side of their mothers or grandmothers.  There was no need for recipes, because the techniques were shown and passed down through oral tradition.

That would change as families split to move across oceans, or even from the countryside to the city.  Cook books became popular because America industrialized (starting in the mid-19thc), which means newlyweds were moving to the city to get jobs, which removed brides from the sides of their mothers.  So suddenly women couldn’t learn cooking from their mothers or grandmothers, and needed a resource they could take with them: written recipes.

So I think it has less to do with anglo vs jewish or chinese, but perhaps industrialized worlds vs. pre-industrial.  And perhaps the answer to trying to transcribe our grandmother’s recipes–which people ask me about all the time–isn’t trying to write them down for quick reference, but taking the time to cook beside our grandmothers everyday and learn their recipes through making it again and again.

What do you think?



The History Dish: 1840 Chicken Curry

Vigorously stirring curried chicken at my hearth cooking class in Brooklyn. Photo by Edmarie Crespo.

Surprising, isn’t it?  To see a curry dish from 1840?  The history of curry in the United States is actually much older than one would expect.

The History

The search for affordable spices pushed the English East India Trading company to establish routes into India as early as the first half of the 18th century.  By 1820, it had used its army to subdue most of India and the government assumed official control of the country by 1858.  It’s not a happy history, but because of India’s colonial government, the flavors many native dishes mixed with English dining habits.

At the same time the British Raj was establishing itself, Americans were busy falling in love with Queen Victoria.  Although England and America had had their differences in the past, when Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, we went gaga for the young Queen.  After marrying her fashionable German husband Albert in 1840, the power couple could do no wrong in our eyes.

Victoria led the trends in the Western World, from Christmas trees to crinolines to curry powder.  The highly-spiced seasoning blend came from India with returning soldiers; and after gaining popularity in England, became a trend in the United States.

Curry powder, and the use of the word curry, are Western inventions and do not reflect any specific Indian food.   A similar mixture of spices used in India is called garam masala, but the blend is proprietary and different all over the country.

The spice blend for an 1840s curry.

The Recipe

I don’t know if this is the earliest curry recipe in an American cookbook, but it’s the earliest one I have found so far.  The author, Eliza Leslie, directs you to make your own curry powder for this dish.

Chicken Curry
Directions for Cookery, in its Various Branches by Eliza Leslie, 1840

2 chickens, broken down into breasts, thighs, and legs; marinated in a salt water brine at least a half hour.

To make the curry paste:
2 tablespoons powdered ginger
1 tablespoon powdered turmeric
1 teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon mace
3 cloves
½ teaspoon cardamom
Pinch Cayenne
Pinch Salt
3 medium onions

Make the curry paste: combine all ingredients in a food processor and blend until it forms a paste.  Place a quart of water over heat to boil.  When it comes to a boil, add the curry paste and simmer until dissolved.  Keep at a boil until you are ready to pour it over the chicken.

Remove chicken from marinade and pat dry.  Heat a generous amount of butter in a pan, then add chicken pieces.  Fry, skin side down, until brown.  Add the curry water, adding more water if necessary to cover the chicken completely.  Simmer until chicken is cooked and tender.  Add two tablespoons of butter kneaded with an equal quantity of flour.  Simmer until the sauce has thickened.  Serve with boiled rice.

A student in my hearth cooking class adds curry paste to a pot of boiling water.  Photo by Russell Karmel.

The Results

The curry paste made in this recipe had a floral smell and flavor; and although spicy, not at all hot.  The turmeric gave it the typical coloring of a curry, but it tasted unlike any curry I had ever had before.

That being said, it seemed to be missing something.  Although the chicken was pleasant, it lacked the heat of contemporary curry powders which I find makes all of the more subtle spices in the bland marry and sing.

But I’ve also come to suspect that Americans, throughout history, have craved progressively hotter and hotter foods.  At the time of Ms. Leslie’s curry powder, the hottest spice mentioned in popular American cookbooks was black pepper.  In contrast, in the past fifty years chili powder, garlic, and peppers, with greater and greater concentrations of capsaicin, have become more and more common in American food.  I think we have developed a taste for, and a tolerance for, heat.  If Eliza Leslie tasted a modern Indian-American curry, I think her head would explode.

The History Dish: Pearlash, The First Chemical Leavening

Pearlash is powdery and slightly moist.

The History

If you were to scoop the ashes out of your fireplace and soak them in water, the resulting liquid would be full of lye.  Lye can be used to make three things: soap, gun powder, or chemical leavener.

A “leavener” is a substance that gives baked goods their lightness.  Today, we think nothing of adding a teaspoon of baking soda or baking powder to our cakes and cookies.  But using chemicals to produce the carbon dioxide necessary to raise a cupcake is a relatively new idea.

Before chemicals, cooks would use yeast.  Not just in bread, but yeast was often added into cake batter, along with a helpful dose of beer dregs or wine.  The alternative was whipping eggs to add lightness, like in a sponge cake, although that particular recipe didn’t become popular until the end of the 19th century, after mechanized egg beaters were introduce.

Sometime in the 1780s an adventurous woman added potassium carbonate, or pearlash, to her dough.  I’m ignorant as to how pearlash was produced historically, but the idea of using a lye-based chemical  in cooking is an old one: everything from pretzels, to ramen, to hominy is processed with lye.  Pearlash, combined with an acid like sour milk or citrus, produces a chemical reaction with a carbon dioxide by-product.  Used in bakery batter, the result is little pockets of CO2 that makes baked goods textually light.  Pearlash was only in use for a short time period, about 1780-1840.  After that, Saleratus, which is chemically similar to baking soda, was introduced and more frequently used.

I was curious to try this product out and see if it actually worked.  I ordered a couple of ounces from Deborah Peterson’s Pantry, the best place for all your 18th century cooking needs.   I used it during my recent hearth cooking classes in a period appropriate recipe.

The Recipe

The recipe, for orange-caraway New Year’s Cakes, came from the cookbook-manuscript of Maria Lott Lefferts, a member of one of the founding families of Brooklyn.  The use of pearlash, plus a recipe for “Ohio Cake,” serves to date this book to about 1820.  It looks like this:

“New Year Cake

28 lbs of flour 10 lbs of Sugar 5 lbs of Butter

caraway seed and Orange peal”

This recipe doesn’t mention pearlash, but several of the other recipes in this book do.  I checked the first cookbook printed in American, Amelia Simmon’s American Cookery, for an idea of how much pearlash to add.  Here is the recipe I came up with:

New Years Cakes
Based on Marie Lott Leffert’s cookbook, c. 1820

1 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 stick salted butter
3 teaspoons pearlash dissolved in 1/2 cup milk
4 cups all purpose flour
Zest and juice of one orange
1 tsp ground caraway and 1 tsp whole caraway

Whisk together flour, zest and caraway.  Beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Add orange juice and pearlash, then mix.  Slowly add flour; mixing until flour is incorporated.  Put in freezer one hour.  Break off small pieces and roll very thin; cut with a cookie cutter or knife.  Preheat oven to 300 degrees.  Bake until cookies are slightly golden on the bottom, about 10 minutes.


Cookies leavened with pearlash come out of the oven.

The Results

I made the dough in advance and froze it, then dragged it to Brooklyn to be baked in a very period appropriately in a wood fire bake oven.

When the cookies came out of the oven, they had risen!  They gained as much height, and as much textural lightness, as a modern cookie made with baking powder.

But how did they taste?  The first bite contained the loveliness of orange and caraway (for a modern version of this recipe, I highly recommend using this recipe, and replacing the coriander with orange zest and caraway).  But after swallowing, a horrible, alkaline bitterness filled my mouth.  My body reacted accordingly: assuming that I had just been poisoned, I salivated  uncontrollably.

At first, I wondered if I hadn’t used too much pearlash.  But then something dawned on me:  the earliest recipes to use pearlash were gingerbread recipes.  Of the four recipes in Simmon’s cookbook, half of them were for gingerbread.  A highly spiced gingerbread probably did a lot to hide the taste of the bitter base chemical.

And that’s why I like historic gastronomy.  If I hadn’t actually baked with pearlash, and tasted it, I never would have made the gingerbread connection.  There’s something to be said for living history.

The Gallery: Urban Hearth Cooking Photos

Here are some snapshots my students took the past two weekends at my Urban Hearth Cooking class at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn!  If this looks like fun to you, be sure to get in the class when it returns in September.  To be the first to know about future classes, sign up for my mailing list here.

Brandishing the proper sized wood for a good cooking fire. Photo by Russell Karmel.

Directing students on the most effective way to light a fire. Photo by Adriana Stimola.

Working on a stubborn fire in the bake oven. Photo by Adriana Stimola.

A student moves hot coals out of the fire. Arranged in small piles, the coals will be our cooking surface. Photo by Adriana Stimola.





A student prepares dough for rusks, a fried roll. Photo by Russel Karmel.

Rusks frying next to a simmering soup. Photo by Adriana Stimola.

The first course of our fire-cooked meal: rusks and a spring soup. Photo by Adriana Stimola.

Baking cookies in a dutch oven. Photo by Adriana Stimola.

Baking cookies in the bake oven. Photo by Adriana Stimola.


History Dish: Fancy Frank Fry

That frank’s gotta pickle and a cheese in the middle, and a bacon on the outside!

If you’re ever in the Bronx, and you happen to see a brightly dressed man digging around in the dirt, don’t be alarmed.  That’s my friend Jason.  He speaks for the trees.  He’s been journeying to the Bronx on his days off to care for the neglected city greenery.  You can read about his adventures on his blog here.

Jason, like me, is originally from the Midwest.  Also like me, when he was growing up, Jason would often travel around with his mother to local flea markets and garage sales.  I think rummage sales might be the best in the Midwest.  Someone suddenly decides to throw open their barn, revealing long-lost, dust-covered treasures that can be bought for a nickel or a dollar a piece.  Although, what qualifies as a treasure is different from one person to another.

Jason brought me a find from long ago: a set of matchbooks, printed in 1963, adorned with recipes using Hunt’s Tomato Sauce.  You can see more of the collection on my Tumblr blog here.

 The matchbooks have recipes on the inside!

When I handle them, open them, pull them apart to examine the recipes, I think about tearing off each match and striking it, lighting each until the recipe is revealed.  Ripping off the last blue-tipped match and then cooking myself a Hunt’s adorned treat.  The vision brings to mind chain-smoking while stirring tomato sauce covered pork, which I supposed is exactly what we were doing in 1963.

As Jason and I looked over the recipes, there was one that caught my eye: The Fancy Frank Fry.

The hot dogs are stuffed and ready for afryin’

The Recipe

Fancy Frank Fry
From Hunt’s recipe matchbooks, 1963.

8 hotdogs
8 3-inch strips Cheddar or Swiss cheese
3 dill pickle sticks, cut in thirds
9 slices bacon
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon Worchestershire
2 8-oz. cans Hunt’s Tomato Sauce

Split franks lengthwise, not quite through.  Stuff each with a strip of cheese and a pickle stick. Wrap slice of bacon around each frank.  Place in a cold skillet, fry over medium heat, turning often, until bacon is crisp on all sides; pour off excess fat.  Add remaining ingredients; simmer 25 to 30 minutes.  Makes 4-6 servings.


I cooked this recipe in two phases: first, I took the filled and wrapped hotdogs and fried them, plopped two of them on buns, and my boyfriend and I devoured them.  Golly were they good.  The cheddar had liquified in the middle, creating a taste and texture that far rivaled any store-bought pre-cheese-filled hotdogs.  The franks were Nathan’s, too, which were worth the money.  And the crispy bacon on the outside!  Salty, acid from the pickle, fatty…oh man oh man oh man.

A great way to ruin a good hot dog.

And then I dumped the tomato “sauce” on the rest of the dogs in the skillet.  This recipe had two problems which I anticipated in advance: one, some of the hot dogs split during cooking, causing them to bleed out their cheese-filled guts into the skillet.  Two: cooking the hotdogs in the sauce made the bacon soggy!  The pickle, too, was warm and floppy.  And who wants that?  After simmering for a half an hour, the dogs were flaccid and unappealing–although they were happily devoured by my coworkers the next day.  That’s what coworkers are for: gratefully devouring your failings.

But I think this recipe could be better.  Time to retronovate.

The Retronovated Recipe

Let’s cut the unnecessary tomato sauce out of this recipe–sorry Hunt’s.  Split the hotdog and stuff a strip of cheddar in there.  Wrap it in bacon and fry it until it’s crispy on all sides.  Put it on a bun and top with chopped dill pickles and BBQ sauce.

Voila. I’m going to call it “The Ohio Dog,” after the place where these matchbooks and I were born.

What is Steampunk Food?

Put a gear on it.

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the New York 19th century Society Extravaganza, an event that brought together history nerds and Steampunk fans from all around the city.

Steampunk plays with the idea of an evolved Victorian era; some describe it as the past if the future had come sooner.  It’s historical as well as fantastical and the movement is largely based in a fiction genre.  But it’s become a highly visual movement as well, focused on costumes,  artisanal jewelry and other accessories.  The clothes are crazy chic.

I enjoy the Steampunk folks, because they’re doing something I often play with on my blog: not recreating the past, but looking to history for inspiration to create something entirely new.

The point of the Extravaganza was the push the history connection.   Participates could attend a bevy of free classes on historical subjects as well as visit historic sites.

I gave a few classes on 19th century food, and it got me thinking:  what would qualify as Steampunk food?  I put the question out to the internet, and I got some great responses via Twitter and Facebook:

  • Victorian food merged w/ molecular gastronomy. Spherified figgy pudding? Black pudding dust? An English breakfast terrine?
  • Gear-filled tartlettes; whole boiled potatoes; green glowing plasma.

  •  I think a good tea, the dinner kind, with toast and cheese, such as an adventurer or tinkerer might enjoy.
  • Nothing green. Photosynthesis rarely happens in steampunk scenarios because the technology almost always creates environmental pollution and either blocks out the sun or drives people underground or to ocean. I always envision a diet of potatoes and tuber veggies. I think the cooking method is always heavy steaming or an unconventional open high heat source like a radiator, batteries or butane lighters. The foodstuffs would be highly preserved like pickled radishes and cured meats.
  • I think steampunk embraces the innovative and transformative, the implications of a super science without limits. Food that has those aspects in preparation, presentation, or taste seems to fit. Surprises, doing something completely unexpected with the available tools and parts. The more impossible seeming the better. I chose popcorn since it’s transformation is itself so remarkable. Toast actually has that kind of feel, bread slices vanishing into a metal box with two narrow slots to be returned with a new texture and taste.
  • Things that can be flambed in creative ways. Anything steamed and steamable, especially at the table. Pressure cooking.

So what do you think? What is Steampunk food?

Cocktail Hour: The Bronx and The Queens

The Bronx Cocktail. Photo by Kristy Leibowitz, taken at the Brooklyn Historical Society

After the creation of the Manhattan and the Brooklyn, cocktail jealousy ran rampant in the remaining three boroughs.  The Bronx and Queens were quick to follow with their own drinks, although few people remember them today.

The Bronx Cocktail was invented sometime right around the turn of the 20th century, and it did add something very important to the American drinking repertoire.  According to cocktail historian David Wondrich, it was the first drink to make the addition of fruit juice to a cocktail acceptable.  Yes, drinks before this had a squirt of lemon here and there; but The Bronx took a good teaspoon of orange juice and mixed it with gin and vermouth.  From this drink, all of our screwdrivers, mimosas, hurricanes, and cosmopolitans have spawned.

I think the more appealing version of The Bronx Cocktail is The Queens.  Instead of orange juice, gin and vermouth are combined with a muddled pineapple slice.  The original recipe calls for mixing The Queens in a shaker, and straining out the pineapple, but I say why not just leave that pineapple piece in there.  What’s it going to hurt?

The Bronx Cocktail
From The Ideal Bartender by Tom Bolluck, 1917

Fill a large bar glass (or shaker) full with shaved ice
1 oz dry gin
1 oz dry vermouth
1 oz sweet vermouth
1 slice orange (or, one teaspoon orange juice)

Shake and strain into a cocktail glass.


  • A drop or two of orange bitters is a lovely addition to this drink.
  • Replace the orange with pineapple or pineapple juice for a Queens cocktail.


The only borough of New York to lack a cocktail to call its own is Staten Island.  So if you were going to craft a Staten Island cocktail, what would be in it?  No cheap shots! (We love you, S.I!)  I want a quality cocktail idea.

Cocktail Hour: The Brooklyn

Photo by Kristy Leibowitz, taken at the Brooklyn Historical Society

You’re probably familiar with the Manhattan, the classic cocktail combination of rye whiskey, vermouth, bitters, and a maraschino cherry.  But did you know that three of the other boroughs of New York have cocktails, too?  Brooklyn, Bronx, and Queens all have their own variations–sorry, Staten Island.

This week, we’ll look at these outer borough concoctions starting with The Brooklyn.

There’s a more famous version of the Brooklyn than the one I’m going to share (recipe here).  I found this “Brooklyn” by poking around on good ‘ole Google Books; it’s from a 1910 issue of Mixer and Server, and the cocktail has a charming story attached to it:

Cincinnati Man Invents Concoction Guaranteed To Produce Results

There’s another new cocktail in town. This time, Brooklyn Borough has the distinction of naming it.

It’s the Brooklyn cocktail. Manhattan and The Bronx have been similarly honored; Richmond and Queens have yet to be heard from.

The inventor of the new drink is from the Rhine section of Cincinnati, and strangely enough now has his abode in Brooklyn, his lounging place being the Schmidt cafe, just at the right hand as one leaves the Brooklyn end of the bridge, first saloon you come to…

Hard cider is the basis or body or life or whatever it is of the drink. The ingredients are as follows:

Half a whisky glass of hard cider emptied into a long glass in which are three good-sized lumps of ice.

Half a jigger of absinthe.

Fill glass to brim with ginger ale.

Only three ingredients it will be seen. When asked what his excuse was for naming a pint of liquid a cocktail, Herr Hegeman [the creator] said: “I know a cocktail is supposed to be a small drink, but there is no law about it.  And I wanted Brooklyn to be known by a cocktail.”

The inventor recommends the drink for hot weather.  —New York Telegraph

A few notes:

  • “Richmond” is the old name for Staten Island
  • “The Rhine section of Cincinnati” – Cincinnati, Ohio had a large German immigrant population, second only in size to New York.

And on the drink: it’s great.  I recommend a little less absinthe: I use only a bar spoon.  Absinthe’s strong anise flavor can overpower the drink, but used in moderation it marries beautifully with the cider and ginger ale.  Additionally,  the drink takes on a characteristically cloudy color when the Absinthe hits the iced liquid.  It’s quite dramatic, and very mysterious looking.

The Brooklyn Cocktail is refreshing, it is great for hot weather, and it’s wonderfully easy to make.


The Brooklyn Cocktail
From Mixer and Server, via The New York Telegraph, 1910.

3 Ice Cubes
4 oz. Hard Cider
1 bar-spoon Absinthe (about a teaspoon or less)
Ginger Ale

Place ice in a tall glass. Add cider, then absinthe, then fill glass to the brim with ginger ale.


There is also a neighborhood specific “Carroll Gardens” cocktail, created by the folks at Death & Co., that I have yet to try.

UPDATE: There is also a Red Hook Cocktail, named after another Brooklyn ‘hood. (Thanks, Pitchaya!)