Monthly Archive for January, 2013

Podcast: Convienence Food

THE ONE YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF MSG IS TONIGHT! Swing by Public Assembly in Williamsburg tonight to catch us live!

MSG is our FREE monthly food science and history lecture, and this podcast is all about convenience food!

It’s evil, right?

Well, you may change your tune after Sarah’s Ode to Convenience Food in Three Parts: How Convenience Food Won the Civil War; How Convenience Food Almost Killed Us at the Turn of the Century; and How Convenience Food Liberated the Modern Woman.

Sarah is fairly certain modern society was built on the back of Borden’s Sweetened Condensed Milk, and at MSG, you’ll find out why.

Why does your bacon clamor about its lack of nitrites, but your soda keeps quiet about sodium benzoate? Soma will unwrap our love/hate relationship with modern preservatives, and how keeping our food safe may or may not kill us in the end. Learn to read the small print of food labeling with terrifying ease!

The History Dish: Coffee Pretzels

 coffee_pretzelA coffee-cookie-pretzel.

The History

This is the last recipe I’ll be featuring from The Practical Cookbook; it’s a for a German staple with a “twist”: coffee pretzels.

The origin of pretzels are shrouded in myth.  Scholars believe that they were first baked around 610 AD in a monastery in Northern Italy or Southern France.  Their creation may have been associated with Lent; at the very least, there has long been a Christian association with them.  The classic pretzel shape has been said to represent arms crossed in prayer and the Holy Trinity.

Pretzels have long been considered an inseparable companion to beer in German tradition.  Pretzel making in Germany was, historically, very regional, featuring a variety of flavors, textures, and shapes.  In Bavaria, starting in the mid-19th century, pretzels were dipped in a lye and water bath before baking, which gave them a deep brown color and distinctive taste.  These Bavarian-style pretzels are the ones we’re most familair with in the United States, known simply as “soft pretzels.”  Swabian pretzels have thin arms and a fat belly; pretzels from Fanconia could be flavored with anise; while pretzels from other areas could be sprinkled with caraway, sesame, or poppy seeds

I decided to try this particular pretzel recipe because, honestly, I’ve never seen anything like it before.

The Recipe




Coffee Pretzels
adapted from From The Practical Cook Book by Henriette Davidis, 1897 (English Version)

I busted out my kitchen scale for this one.

8 ounces flour
1 ounce finely ground coffee
Pinch salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature
5 ounces white sugar
Zest of one lemon
2 eggs
2 egg yolks and 2 egg whites, separated

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, coffee, salt, and baking powder.  In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat together sugar, lemon zest, and butter until light and fluffy. Add eggs and egg yolks, one at a time, mixing after each addition.  With mixer on low, slowly add dry ingredients.  Scrape bowl and mix until evenly combined.

Flour a work surface (parchment, cutting board, non-stick mat).  Take dough about 1/2 cupful at a time, rolling it first in the flour, then gently rolling dough into long “snakes.”  Using fingers to apply pressure to dough, roll back and forth, and gently stretching it side to side.  When dough is about 1/2 in thick, cut into 4-5 inch length and fold into a traditional pretzel shape.  Place on a cookie sheet.

Wash pretzels with egg whites and sprinkle with sugar.  Bake at 375 degrees for 10 minutes. Remove from cookie sheet and cool on a wire rack.

The Results

These turned out more like a coffee shortbread than a pretzel.  However, I am a poor judge of their flavor, because I hate coffee.  Tomorrow, I’ll distribute to my coworkers, and we’ll see what the verdict is.

Update (1/29): The results are in! The texture of these little cookies was generally praised, as was the sprinkled-sugar topping.  But opinions on the flavors were extremely divided: either tasters loved the strong coffee flavor, especially for dipping IN their morning coffees; other thought it was the most terrible taste they’d ever had, like chewing on coffee grounds.

The History Dish: Silesian Cheese Cake

silesian3A Silesian Cheese Cake!

The History

When The Practical Cookbook was penned in 1844, Germany wasn’t a unified country: it was a collection a various city states, each with distinct languages, cultures, and foodways.  The recipes is this book are often titled with the region of their creation: “Pork Croquettes in the South Germany Style,” “Frankfurt Sausages,” “Baden-Baden Pudding,” “Westphalian Cake,” and this recipe, Silesian Cheese Cake.  Silesia was a part of Prussia, which today is part of Poland–although when this book was written the area was German-speaking.  The Cheese Cake is a yeast risen dough, topped with a mixture of cheese curds, sugar, and cinnamon.


The Recipe


For the Dough:

2 1/2 cups white flour
1 cup yeast starter (It’s a moist, doughy yeast culture that lives in my fridge.  More on this in a future post.  If you don’t have fresh yeast, use 3 cups flour and 1 packet yeast dissolved in 1/2 cup warm water.)

1/2 cup apples, pared and diced.  (The original recipe calls for raisins.  I hate raisins.  But this dough needed some sweetness, so apples instead!)
1/4 unsalted butter, melted (The recipe calls for half butter and lard; I used schmaltz instead.  Butter will do just fine)
2 cups warm milk
2 tablespoons sour cream (or buttermilk)

Put everything in a bowl and mix it up, stirring in the apples last.  Cover with a clean towel and set somewhere warm to rise for 30 minutes.  Spread into a baking pan, and allow to rise 30 minutes more.

It’s about 10 degrees outside in Queens right now, so finding a warm spot in my house for the dough to rise was difficult.  But I found it by following the cat–she knows best.  She’s been camping out by the steam heat pipe in the bathroom.

silesianMoxy helps the dough rise.

For the topping:

The recipe’s directions confused me in regards to the cheese curds–“…The evening before wanted take 3 quarts of thick milk with the cream, put into a cheese cloth bag, and the next morning use for the cake.”  Okay, so she’s instructing cooks to strain the liquid out…but usually you have to make it curdle first.  Would the cook add salt?  Would the natural bacteria in the milk make it curdle? Would it be more like Greek yogurt? Maybe someone who’s reading this post knows better.

I found a package of “French Yogurt Cheese” in a weird, small grocery store near my house.  It looked, and tasted, like large-curd cottage cheese, which seemed to be about what I needed.

silesian1What is this? I don’t know.

1 cups vaguely defined cheese curds (try cottage cheese)
1/4 cup cream
1/2 stick melted unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 large egg (I put in two–but the recipe would have used 2 medium eggs, not two large. Ooops.)

Put it in a bowl and mix it up!

silesian2Mixing the Topping.

After the dough had its second rise, I poured the cheese mixture on top, then baked at 375 degrees for 30 minutes.

The Results

I cut a slice of this cake while it was still warm.  It had surprisingly moist, dense, and gummy texture.  I’m not sure if that’s the nature of the recipe, or if my yeast didn’t do much of anything.  Either way, I didn’t really mind.  It kinda worked.

I think this cake could use some technical improvements.  Perhaps the dough should be baked first, then spread with the cheese topping, and put in the broiler a few minutes to melt and brown it.  I think the ultimate incarnation of this recipe would be a slightly sweetened yeast dough, topped with poutine-style cheese curds, and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar.  Salty, sweet, and a little gooey–I think it could be a real winner.

 sliesian4Gummy, but decent.



The History Dish: Beer Soup

beersoupHot German beer soup.

The History

Beer soup!  Soup made from beer!  And there is no cheddar cheese or Guinness in sight–this is a sweet, German lager soup.

This recipe comes from the generically named Practical Cook Book one of the most popular German cookbooks of all time.  First published in 1844 (first English version in 1897), the book was written and compiled by Henriette Davidis, a woman known as the German Mrs. Beeton for the scope and scale of her work.

A reprint of this cookbook is available, titled Pickled Herring and Pumpkin Pie: A Nineteenth-Century Cookbook for German Immigrants to America; the evocative title makes me  think of this book tucked in the suitcases of the thousands of German immigrants that made their way to America in the middle of the 19th century.  Separated from their mother, young women could have brought this book with them as a reminder of the tastes of home.  Or, as the different German cultures mixed and married in the Kleine Deutschlands of the U.S., perhaps they used it to learn to cook a new regional cuisine for their husband.

I first worked with Davidis’ book while researching food for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s new Shop Life exhibit, which features a fully restored 1870s German lager beer saloon.  I made lebkuchen, a honey spice cake, and sauerbraten, a sort of pickled pot roast, from Davidis’ recipes.  They were molded in latex and cast to create the faux food on display in the exhibit.

But a few more recipes in this cook book caught my eye, so I’m going to revisit this tomb of classic German cooking to see if we can discover some gems.  First up, beer soup!

The Germans were responsible for bringing lager beer to the United States: a lighter beer with a lower alcoholic content, it became wildly popular in America, replacing ale as the favorite draught.  Currently, all of this country’s major beer producers make lager beer.

The Recipe


Beer Soup

From The Practical Cook Book by Henriette Davidis, 1897 (English Version)

1 cup beer
1 cup water
1/2 cup light brown sugar
Pinch salt
1 egg yolk
1 heaping tablespoon flour

Place egg and flour in a heat safe bowl; set aside. Heat beer, water, sugar, and salt until just before boiling.  Pour beer slowly over egg and flour, constantly whisking.  Return to pan. Serve hot.

beersoup2Beer, measured for soup.

The Results

I ended up using a hefeweizen beer, which is not a lager, because I thought its natural sweetness would work well in this recipe.  When I sipped my soup, it had a wonderful, soft, creamy mouth-feel.  But it tasted like the day after a party smells: warm, stale beer.


Podcast: Fake Meat!


Each month, MSG takes on a curious food topic and breaks down the history, science, and stories behind it. In this podcast, Sarah Lohman of Four Pounds Flour will give you a run-down of vegetarianism in the west. From Benjamin Franklin’s ”Tow-fu” to Dr. Kellogg’s commercial “Protose,” we’ll explore just how long we’ve been eating things that masquerade as meat.

Soma will be taking charge of all your favorite modern imitation meats, exploring the many faces of soy and revealing the not-so-secret fungi factories that power your favorite frauds. We’ll take a look at crafting mock duck and tempeh at home, as well as where to shop if your culinary prowess fails.

And if you live in the New York City area, come on out to see MSG LIVE at Public Assembly in Williamsburg on Tuesday, January 29th.

Events: Masters of Social Gastronomy does Monosodium Glutamate

MSG does MSG!

Tuesday, January 29, 7pm
Public Assembly (70 North 6th Street) in Williamsburg
FREE – but please RSVP on Facebook

To celebrate its one year anniversary, this month’s Masters of Social Gastronomy takes on its namesake: monosodium glutamate (MSG)! Savory spice or fatal flavor?

Sarah Lohman of Four Pounds Flour will track MSG back to its source in traditional Japanese food, showing how time and money can turned an innocuous plant into the darling of mass production

Soma will take on modern-day interpretations of MSG, from its role in “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” to its many relatives hiding in everyday foods. Science fact will be separated from science fiction as myths are deflated and truths laid bare.

While Sarah crafts organic MSG from scratch, Soma will bend science to his iron will and produce factory-farm MSG in his very own kitchen.

RSVP on Facebook so we can bring lots of MSG-laden samples to delight your palate

The History Dish: The Photographer’s Cheesecake

photo_cheescake2A cheesecake recipe for a 19th century Photographer.

The History

College was one of the most difficult and demanding times of my life.  I looked for small ways to escape the pressure, like ducking into Attenson’s Antiques on Coventry, a maze of rooms stuffed with treasures.  In the back corner was a bookshelf used as a dumping ground for an ever-growing collection of photographs.  Box after box, picked up at estate sales, ended up in this nook.  If the day was quiet enough, the shop owners would let me spread out on the floor to go through the black and white lives of people long dead.  After an hour or two, I’d have a pile of images set aside.  I’d pay ten or twenty dollars, and take my new friends home.

An albumen print of Tom Thumb and his wife, Lavinia.

An albumen print of General Tom Thumb and his wife, Lavinia.

If you’ve ever spent time sorting through thrift store images, you’ve certainly come across a type of photography known as albumen printing.  Albumen photographs are characterized by their sepia tone, glossy sheen, and sometimes a metallic shine in the dark parts of the image.  They’re also printed on a thin piece of paper glued to a thicker cardboard stock.

Albumen is made of egg whites.  This sticky substance allowed photographer to adhere photo chemicals to glass plates, allowing for the first commercially viable form of reproducible photography.  Additionally, when painted on paper, albumen created an ultra smooth surface on which to float photosensitive chemicals; the result was a highly detailed image when the photo was printed.

The process was revolutionary and used for much of the second half of the 19th century, and even into the 20th.  However, producing albumen paper used a lot of eggs whites and left a byproduct of a ton of egg yolks.  Some of those yolks could have been used in this recipe for “Photographer’s Cheesecake” published in The Wilder Shores of Gastronomy: Twenty Years of Food Writing.

The Recipe

In 1861, The British Journal of Photography suggested, to the amateur photographer, that he could use his excess egg yolks to make a cheese cake.  One day, after making a meringue, I had a lot of yolks on my hands and decided to give it a try.  It required very few ingredients and took less than ten minutes to assemble.  Problems started to arise when I baked it: the filling was still liquid although I had baked it longer than the recipe suggested.  When I put it in the fridge overnight, it was solid, but liquefied at room temperature. I still ate it, though.

The Photographer’s Cheesecake
Originally printed in The British Journal of Photography, 1861
Reprinted in The Wilder Shores of Gastronomy

To convert the yolks of eggs used for albumenizing to useful purposes: Dissolve a quarter of a pound of butter in a basin placed on the hob, stir in a quarter of a pound of pounded sugar, and beat well together; then add the yolks of three eggs that have been previously well-beaten; beat up altogether thoroughly; throw in half a grated nutmeg and a pinch of salt; stir, and lastly add the juice of two fine-flavoured lemons, and the rind of one lemon that has been peeled very thin; beat all up together thoroughly  and pour into a dish lined with puff-paste, and bake for about twenty minutes.  This is a most delicious dish.

1 stick butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
3 egg yolks, beaten
1/2 of a freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of Salt
Juice of two small lemons
Zest of one lemon
Puff Paste (store bought is ok!)

Beat (using an electric mixer, if you like) butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Add egg yolks, one at a time, mixing after each addition.  Add nutmeg and salt; mix.  Add lemon juice and zest; mix.  Pour into a baking dish lined with puff paste, bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes.

The Results

photo_cheesecake1Out of the oven.

Honestly, it tasted great!  I loved the citrus, which complemented the nutmeg well. At the same time, the technical aspects of the recipe didn’t work.  It was goopy and runny and not at all right–and I don’t think it was my mistake.  perhaps this recipe was originally published as a joke, not as a real recipe?  Which seems silly, because what on earth did those photographers do with all those egg yolks anyway?


Taste History Today: The Sugar Loaf Baking Company

sugar_loafI celebrated my birthday this week, so for the next few days, I present a few posts on cake!

I first want to write a few lines about an amazing man I met way back in August, at Deborah Peterson’s Pantry Foodways Symposium–a gathering of 18th century food enthusiasts (because that’s how I roll).  Niel V. De Marino had a vendor’s booth set up displaying the most gorgeous cakes I had ever seen–all from 18th century recipes.

I tried to convince Neil to open a stand at the Brooklyn Flea, but he seemed unconvinced there was a market for 200 year old cake in  New York City.  I disagree.  He has no website, so the only way to contact (and commission) him is by phone. His info is at left.

I sampled some of his cakes on site, and snapped a few photos–bear with me on the quality of the images, they’re cell phone pics.


IMG_20120818_105241These were filled with some sort of rose petal jam.

IMG_20120818_105206I think this one was called a “Queen’s Cake” – almondy, sweet, and moist.  My favorite.

I don’t remember what these were called; they had dried fruit in them and were soaked in brandy and aged much like a fruit cake.


IMG_20120818_105134An incredibly rich and complex gingerbread cake, filled with spices and chunks of candied ginger.

IMG_20120818_105109Cookies–I think they were anise flavored?  They were made with cookie stamps, and had the clearest impressions I had ever seen achieved.

IMG_20120818_105043Seed cake–flavored with caraway seeds.


Kitchen Histories: Biscuits You Can Beat With a Stick

biscuits3Beaten Biscuits

Over on Etsy, I’ve got an article up about Beaten Biscuits, an old Southern recipe where you smack the heck out of biscuits dough with  a rolling pin.  It’s from one of America’s oldest cookbooks, The Virginia House Wife–read the Etsy article here.

The Virginia House Wife also contains the oldest known written recipe for gazpacho; I’ve made it, and you can read about it here.

The Virginia House Wife can be found on Google books here, or a hard copy can be purchased here.

Menus: Two Meals of Henry VIII

This guy:

Ate this in 1520:

And this in 1526:

More details on these menus can be found here, on Ivan Day’s phenomenal blog.