Monthly Archive for May, 2015

History Dish: Burnt Cream, Grandaddy of Creme Brulee

IMG_8965We made a mess.

This spring, I led my annual “Campfire Cuisine Beyond Hotdogs: An Introduction to Hearth Cooking” classes in Brooklyn, to an enthusiastic and diverse group of students. I decided to try out a new/old recipe: Burnt Cream, the medieval ancestor of creme brulee, from the book Cooking with Fire: From Roasting on a Spit to Baking in a Tannur, Rediscovered Techniques and Recipes That Capture the Flavors of Wood-Fired Cooking.

The History

Left: A salamander, for sale from Jas Townsend and Son.

First a word on Cooking with Fire: if you like playing with fire, get this book. It starts with toasting marshmallows and progresses all the way to building a mud oven. It’s thorough and well written and I highly recommend it.

When paging through my copy, I came across a recipe I’ve wanted to try for a while: a 17th century English dessert, burnt cream. It’s an egg custard, flavored with a lemon peel and a stick of cinnamon (not vanilla, a new world fruit) and topped with a thick layer of sugar. The sugar was seared into a carmelized crust with a tool called a salamander, a flat disk made of iron on the end of a long handle, heated in the fire.

We know this dessert better as crème brûlée. How it a got a French name, no one is certain. Perhaps in one of England’s periods of Francophilia, the dish was rechristened. Perhaps it was the French, who reinvented the dish to incorporate their fanatical love of vanilla. In America, burnt custard appears as early as 1824 in Mary Randolph’s cookbook, but achieved astronomical success in the New York dining scene in the 1970s. In 1985, the New York Times wrote: “If there were a New York dessert of the year award, the 1985 ribbon would go to creme brulee, or burnt cream, which has appeared on countless menus in both French and American restaurants. I am not sure how a dish that has been consumed for centuries in Europe without great fanfare… has suddenly achieved such fame in America, but it has.”

The Recipe

IMG_8924Students Julie McMahon and CJ Knowles make the custard.

Brunt Cream
Adapted from Cooking with Fire: From Roasting on a Spit to Baking in a Tannur, Rediscovered Techniques and Recipes That Capture the Flavors of Wood-Fired Cooking

This recipe is intended to be prepared over an open fire, but is easily adapted for a modern kitchen.

2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 lemon peel (white pith excluded)
1 3-inch cinnamon stick
2 tablespoons flour
1/3 cup light brown sugar
3/4 cup demerara sugar
5 egg yolks

1. Slowly heat the milk, cream, lemon peel, and cinnamon in a heavy saucepan over low heat; do not boil. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour and 1/3 cup sugar. Whisk the yolks in until smooth.

2. When the milk mixture is steaming, discard lemon peel and cinnamon. Pour a steady, thin stream of hot milk into the eggs, while whisking the eggs constantly. Once the milk has been incorporated, return the mixture to the heating vessel, and cook over a low heat until the liquid thickens. If you dip a wooden spoon in the custard, it should create an even coating that holds a line when your draw your finger through it. Chill at least three hours.

3. Strew the top with the remaining sugar. Heat your salamander until it glows red; carefully touch the flat of the hot salamander to the sugar until molten. Or use your tiny kitchen blowtorch. Let cool just until the sugar hardens, and serve.

The Results

IMG_8937Thickening the custard.

I handed this recipe over to my students, and although I was there to offer direction, they had it under control. Making a custard over burning hot coals, 17th century style, is no easy thing. They totally nailed it, and the lemon-cinnamon custard was quite tasty. But we did have some technical difficulties, which were completely my fault.

See, I don’t actually have a salamander. I decided to try this recipe at the last minute, so I didn’t even have time to look for one. I figured we would find something to take its place.

IMG_8957A cream about to get burnt.

We first tried the lid to a dutch oven, covered in hot coals, but it was just a little too big to fit down in the custard tin. Then we tried an axe, which got nice and hot, but wasn’t big enough to be practical. Finally, we tried the bottom of a metal bowl, which was the right size, but would not get hot enough to sear the sugar. So, fail, on my part. We ate the custard anyway, and it tasted heavenly.

IMG_8961Creative, but not working.

When I give this recipe another whirl with a proper salamander, I’ll update this post!

History Dish: Maple Ice Cream and Maple Custard Pie

IMG_8768An excellent maple ice cream.

My Mom makes her own maple syrup. She taps trees on her five acre property in Ohio, boils down the sap on her kitchen stove, and makes the richest, most buttery maple syrup I have ever tasted.

It was a good sugaring season this year: a stretch of weeks with temperatures above freezing during the day, below freezing at night. Mom made over three gallons of syrup, which meant the last time I visited, I was sent back to New York City with this:

IMG_8701Homemade maple syrup, light and dark, and maple sugar.

I thought it might be a good time to test out some historic maple syrup recipes.

The History

Jefferson wrote to a friend in 1790 and said of maple syrup: “What a blessing to substitute a sugar which requires only the labour of children, for that which it is said renders the slavery of the blacks necessary.” Maple sugar was considered an ideal alternative to white sugar from sugar cane, and was championed by abolitionists throughout the 19th century. Unfortunately, the general population thought maple’s particular taste a negative and preferred the neutral flavor of white sugar. Maple tasted of poverty and necessity, while white sugar symbolized wealth and aspiration.

Today, we seek out the unique flavor of true maple sugar. Well, at least I do. But I always imagined myself as a Shaker or a Quaker, or in one of those wild vegetarian communes in the 19th century, anyway.

The Recipes

I had two recipes I wanted to try out, both came from a stack of handwritten papers and recipe booklets dating to the 19teens. Mark (who also helps my mom harvest the maple sap) gave them to me. The came from a storage unit, or an estate sale, or something–he has a thriving Ebay business and always finds me interesting ephemera.

IMG_9032Maple Parfait Recipe

Maple Parfait, a handwritten recipe, is actually a maple ice cream: maple custard is folded into whipped cream, which is a great way to make ice cream if your don’t have an ice cream maker at home.

Maple Parfait – Jessie

“4 eggs; 1 cup hot maple syrup; 1 pint thick whipped cream. Beat eggs slightly & pour on slowly the hot maple syrup; cook until the mixture; cool & add cream beaten until stiff. Mould, pack in salt & ice & let sand 3 hours. Use 4 parts salt to 1 part ice.”

You’ll notice the original recipes left out a few instructions. After some head scratching–and a recent conversation with Jonathan Soma of the Brooklyn Brainery about how to make ice cream without an ice cream maker–I figured them out.

IMG_8711The eggs after the hot maple syrup is added.

4 large eggs, beaten
1 cup maple syrup, brought to a boil
1 pint heavy whipping cream

1. Pour maple syrup in a slow, steady steam over to eggs while whisking constantly. You want to bring the eggs slowly up to temperature–not scramble them!

2. Return to a saucepan and heat over medium-low, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens to a pudding-like consistency. Allow to cool.

3. Beat cream to stiff peaks, and fold in egg mixture. Pack in small individual molds, or simply a Tupperware, and put in the freezer for at least three hours.


IMG_9037 IMG_9034Maple Marshmallow Pie Recipe

Maple Marshmallow Pie comes from a recipe booklet for Bunte Marshmallows, although I decided to leave off the marshmallow topping. I’m increasingly grossed out by marshmallow topped foods.

Maple Pie
1 pie crust (store-bought or homemade)
2 large eggs
1/3 cup Maple Sugar (You can purchase maple sugar, or make your own by putting maple syrup in a sheet pan, and sticking it in the oven at a very low temperature. Keep an ete on it as the water evaporates and the sugar crystalizes. This process can take and hour or more.)
1 teaspoon flour
2 cups whole milk

1. Preheat over to 450 degrees. Line your pie tin or plate with crust. Make the edges look fancy!

2. Beat two eggs with a fork until light, then add maple sugar. Allow to soak two minutes, then beat until sugar has completely dissolved. Add flour and beat; gradually add milk while stirring constantly. Fill pie crust.

3. Bake for 15 minutes, then turn down oven to 350 degrees and bake 45 minutes more, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, but the filling still has a little jiggle.

The Results

IMG_8728Maple custard pie

The maple ice cream is killer and I highly recommend it. It’s a fun summer treat that takes very little work and delivers a strong maple flavor. Try it with a dark syrup (Grade B) which tastes the most mapley of all the syrups.

The pie was a bit of a disappointment; the texture was pleasant, smooth and custardy, but the maple flavor didn’t come through. It tasted different from a vanilla custard pie, but was not easily identifiable as maple. Which is strange, because maple sugar should have the most flavor, being as condensed as it can be.

Do you have a favorite maple recipe? Share in the comments. I still have so much maple syrup left!

Party Time Reenactor: Mad Men Fondue

IMG_8877A 1960s cheese fondue. You want it.

The end of an era is coming, both for the characters of Mad Men and for those of us who have followed the show. If you’re planning a last episode party, may I suggest fondue, from a cookbook owned by Betty Draper herself.

The History

Back in the early seasons, when Betty was still Mrs. Draper, I noticed a cookbook on her counter:

You can see this set right now at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, btw.


IMG_8847Betty Crocker’s Hostess Cookbook.

Much like Betty Draper, Betty Crocker is fictional, a creation of the Washburn Crosby Company, which would eventually become General Mills. “She” answered letters written to the company by housewives with baking questions. The first cookbook under her name was published in 1950, and was so popular “…sales rivaled those of the Bible.” (source)

Betty Crocker’s Hostess Cookbook offered “A Wealth of Ideas for Today’s Entertaining.” Paging through the book, I came across a menu for a fondue party, entitled “Swiss Treat.”

“The menu couldn’t be simpler,” Ms. Crocker enthuses. “A cheese fondue, a marvelous tart-crisp salad, and a quick version of a classic continental dessert (pears au chocolat) are the only ingredients…It’s also possible for a wife with a job to start supper after work and have it on the table by seven thirty.” How progressive–even Joan could whip this one up!

According to David Sax, author of The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue, fondue started in late 19th century Switzerland as a cheap and filling meal of melted cheese and stale bread. It became a staple of tavern culture, and was most well-known in Neuchâtel, where fondue was a mixture of emmenthal and gruyere cheese, garlic, pepper, nutmeg, white wine and kirsch. It was popular among groups of young people, and games were invented: if a girl lost their bread in the pot, they had to kiss the first boy to their left. Fondue came stateside when it was served at the Chalet Swiss restaurant in New York, becoming particularly popular by the 1950s.

By the 1960s, fondue is suggested for entertaining in the home in books like Betty Crocker’s. Fondue sets were popular wedding gifts,and a fondue party considered a convivial gathering. Sax makes the interesting connection between these communal eating parties and the sexual liberation of the 1960s:

“It is no coincidence that the fondue trend rose in concert with the budding sexual revolution in North America. The hotpot gatherings involved inherent physical and social contact, even in their most G-rated form…Fondue could not work with inhibitions–there were not individual portions, no fondue for one–it was a meal of forced intimacy…With enough wine and kirsch, a fondue party was the perfect setting to really get to know the Franklins from down the block, if you know what I mean.”

The Recipes

Click for larger images.

I prepared the salad and dressing in advance. The composition of the salad really delighted me: whereas I was expecting just iceberg lettuce, I got a colorful and flavorful mix of leaf lettuce, endive (I substituted radicchio because my store didn’t have endive!) and spinach. I laughed that the “Classic French Dressing” included a 1/4 teaspoon of MSG, which I absolutely added, along with 1/4 cup olive oil, 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar, 3/4 teaspoon salt, 1 crushed clove garlic, and 1/4 teaspoon fresh ground pepper.

I assembled the pears next: they were simply chilled canned pears with chocolate frosting gobbed in the middle and melted over top. They were the most disappointing dish of the evening.

IMG_8885Pears au Chocolat, just before serving.

And last the cheese: I borrowed a fondue kit from a friend. Ask around! I’m sure you know someone that has one and vintage versions can be got for cheap in every second hand store in the country. I lit a sterno can under the vat and added a bottle of a hoppy IPA. As the beer heated, I slowly stirred in grated cheese, a handful at a time. In about 20 minutes, the cheese was steamy, smooth and ready to be eaten with torn chunks of baguette and pumpernickel rye.

The Results


While we waited for the cheese to heat, I served salads. The dressing was phenomenal, thanks to the satisfying umami of the added MSG. It had a nice garlic flavor, too, despite only having one crushed clove of garlic. Salad, over all, got nods of approval and a solid A+.

I was skeptical of the cheese because of the recipe’s simplicity: mostly beer and cheese. But it turned out tangy and hoppy; rich, but not overwhelming. Some thought the flavor paired best with the pumpernickel, but I liked it on the baguette. Underplates were a must to catch dripping strings of luscious cheese. The fondue recipe was just enough to feed four hungry people.

Hoisting a giant, cheese-soaked hunk of bread in the air, a party guest declared: “If someone put that in their mouth, it would be like the most sexual thing ever!”

After dinner, we didn’t serve coffee or tea, but lots of wine and eventually whiskey. Although the conversation got interesting, no one “got to know the Franklins,” if you know what I mean.

At the end of the night, we were stuffed with hot cheese and satisfied. My guests shared recipes their families made from the Betty Crocker cookbooks. Preparing this menu, I expected lackluster mid-century food; but on the contrary, it seems that Crocker’s cookbooks were popular because the recipes were basic but delicious.


Events in May: Garlic and Booze!

Garlic+for+SiteThe History of Garlic: A Special Dinner at the Farm on Adderley
Tuesday, May 12th, 7:30 PM
$60 / person (+ beverages, tax & gratuity)
To sign-up, send an e-mail to 

Americans are fanatical about garlic. Not just as food, but as an alternative-medicine cure-all. Our contemporary love of garlic is an irony considering that through much of garlic’s history its taste was considered repulsive. Not simply repulsive, but un-American. “Real” Americans a century ago, viewed Italian immigrants’ love of garlic as a manifestation of their resistance to American culture. This beloved bulb was condemned and marginalized.

Join us for a five-course dinner hosted by historic gastronomist Sarah Lohman. We will eat garlic-focussed foods from our kitchen and dive into how garlic became a flavor so desirable that it managed to transcend xenophobia and became the most widely used flavor in American cooking. Space is limited. Reservations required.


Bottle Images_CombinedDistilling Brooklyn
Thursday, May 14th
Doors open 6:30pm. Event begins at 7pm. 
@ The Brooklyn Historical Society, 128 Pierrepont St, Brooklyn, NY
$12 General Admission / $8 for BHS and G-W Members

Three of Brooklyn’s top distilleries share their personal distilling histories and look at the vibrant (and sometimes violent) history of distilling in Brooklyn. Moderated by historic gastronomist Sarah Lohman, tastings will be offered from the esteemed participants, Kings County Distillery, New York Distilling Co., Van Brunt Stillhouse, and Brooklyn Gin.

Buy tickets here!

Presented in partnership with Brooklyn Brainery.