Archive for the '17th century' Category

The History Dish: Washington’s Birthday

washingtoncakeWashington Cake: Dense, moist, and chock full of raisins.

Today we have a guest post from my intern, J.C. Paradiso! She’s a trained chef with her masters in Food Studies from NYU, and this “semester”, we’re working towards launching her own blog under the handle The Savage and the Sage. Look for it soon!

Presidents’ Day has never really resonated for me. If you are like me, a holiday just isn’t a holiday unless there is some kind of food involved. No food memories, no holiday.

I did some digging and realized that there is no holiday called Presidents’ Day. The holiday we celebrate is officially called Washington’s Birthday. 

At the time of his death in 1799, George Washington was largely considered the most important figure in American History. He was eulogized by Congressman and Revolutionary War General, Henry Lee, with the beautiful sentiment: “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen…”  Washington was a towering figure in the relatively newly minted American psyche; he was Pater Patriae, the Father of our Country. In the wake of his death, his birthday became an important celebration, including speechifying, fireworks, and “…taverns across the country filled with revelers celebrating the birth of the nation’s hero…” (source)

Washington’s birthday became an official holiday in 1879. In 1968 Congress passed the Monday Holiday Law to “provide uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Mondays.” The official celebration was moved to the third Monday in February, nestled between Lincoln and Washington’s birthdays. By creating more 3-day weekends, Congress hoped to “bring substantial benefits to both the spiritual and economic life of the nation.”

While there may not be food associated with Presidents’ Day today, historically there are food traditions associated with celebrating George Washington.  Perhaps the most well known story about George Washington is that of Washington chopping down the cherry tree, which is now regarded as having been fabricated by his biographer, Parson Weems. That being said, according to The Presidents’ Cookbook: Practical Recipes from George Washington to the Present, George Washington apparently loved cherries, and all things cherry continue to have an association with Washington, like marzipan cherries and a chopped-cherry Washington salad.

By the early 19th century, there are recipes in cookbooks and memoirs of various versions of “Washington Cake.”  The origin of this patriotic baked good may have been an American imitation of a British practice to celebrate a nobleman’s birthday with a special cake.  According to The Market Book by Thomas F. De Voe, in the early 1800s, a woman named Mary Simpson, who claimed to have been a former slave of Washington’s, took in laundry “for several bachelor gentlemen” in a basement storefront on the corner of Cliff and John Streets in Manhattan. She would also sell homemade baked goods, eggs and dairy.  According to De Voe, “She never forgot her old master’s birthday…and she kept it most faithfully by preparing a very large cake which she called “Washington Cake,” (once a favorite of Washington,) a large quantity of punch, then a fashionable drink, and hot coffee…” She arranged these treats under a portrait of her old master, and was called upon by prominent members of the community who would “..praise her old master’s portrait and his many noble and heroic deeds…She said she ‘was fearful that if she did not keep up the day by her display, Washington would be soon forgotten.” (ED Note: JC and I both agreed this story dealt with some uncomfortable, yet fascinating, stuff. It’s an interesting perspective on slavery, written by a man living in a free state in the midst of the Civil War. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.)

So, what exactly is Washington Cake? While there are a few variations, the first published recipe for Washington Cake that I could find appeared in 1831 in The Cook Not Mad or Rational Cookery, A Frontier Cookbook. It called for “One pound of sugar, one of flour, half pound butter, four eggs, one pound raisins, one of currants, one gill of brandy, tea cup of cream, spice to your taste.” As was typical of the time, it contained no chemical leavening.

And you know what? The Cook Not Mad recipe for Washington Cake is pretty delicious–how could it not be with all that fat and all that sugar? The one caveat is that you really do have to like raisins, because this cake is FULL of them. 


Washington Cake
Adapted from The Cook Not Mad, 1831.

2 cups sugar
2 cups flour, sifted
2 sticks butter, plus 1 TBSP for greasing
4 eggs
3 cups raisins (or 1 1/2 cup raisins and 1 1/2 cups currants)
¼ cup brandy
½  cup cream
¼ tsp each: cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg (all finely ground)

1.Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 9×5 inch loaf pan and set aside.

2.Cream together butter and sugar until mixture is light and fluffy and the color is light yellow, about 3 minutes on medium high speed.

3.Continue to beat mixture on medium high speed, adding in eggs 1 at a time. Add in remaining wet ingredients (brandy and cream).

4.Fold flour, by hand, into cake batter in three batches.  Add in spices. Add in raisins and mix well to fully incorporate all ingredients.

5.Transfer batter to loaf pan and cook for about 80 minutes, or until a cake tester (or knife) inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

6. Let cake sit for 15 minutes before removing it from pan.

150 Years of Thanksgiving

“Thanksgiving day Among the Puritan Fathers in New England” Harper’s Weekly, 1870. Courtesy the New York Historical Society.

Did you know that 2013 is the 150th anniversary of Thanksgiving?

I know what you’re thinking. What about the Pilgrims? Plymouth? 1621? Duh!

We all know the story–or at least, some version of it. After a difficult first year of settlement, the Puritans of Plymouth celebrated a successful harvest. They were joined by the nearby Wampanoag Indians, in recognition of their tenuous (and temporary) alliance. Here’s a primary source account of what happened on that day, from original settler Edward Winslow, written December 1621:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.” (source)

For three days, the two groups partied together: playing games, firing guns, and eating. And what was on the table? We know there was venison, brought by sachem Massasoit and his men; we know there was wild fowl like turkey, shot by the Puritans. There was corn, too, from the harvest, probably prepared as a “pottage,” a thick soup. And since they were near the ocean, it’s likely they would have had an assortment of edibles from the water, like oysters, lobsters and (everyone’s favorite) eels.

Most of the modern Thanksgiving legend was developed during a surge of Americana nostalgia after the Revolutionary War. The “pilgrims,” by the way, referred to themselves as Puritans. The use of the word Pilgrim to describe the early colonists seems to have evolved out of  Forefather’s Day, a sort of proto-thanksgiving celebrated in December. A line from Plymouth colony governor William Bradford was quoted during the 1798 speechifying – “…they knew they were pilgrimes…” and a song was composed using the same word. The term caught on afterwards. (thanks, wikipedia!)

Additionally, the Puritans did not think of the 1621 feast as a day of “Thanksgiving,” which was a specific holy day declared during events of God’s divine intervention (end to droughts, etc). In an 1841 books called Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers of the Colony of Plymouth, scholar Alexander Young footnotes Winslow’s letter by calling it “the first Thanksgiving,” which is the first reference found referring to the event of 1621 by that name.

Thanksgiving at a New England Farm House, Harper’s Weekly, 1871. Courtesy The New York Historical Society. On the table, they’re cutting into an immense chicken pie. Also, take note of the celery holder.

Thanksgiving, and food that accompanies it, did not evolve into the holiday we know today until the mid-19th century.  Over the years, Forefather’s Day sort of merged with annual harvest festival traditions and became a modern Thanksgiving.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln declaring Thanksgiving a national holiday. It was a popular writer of the time, Sarah Hale, who edited an even more popular women’s magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, who petitioned Lincoln to make the holiday official. “Would the next Thanksgiving might be observed in all the states on the same day,” Hale said in an editorial, “Then, though the members of the same family be too far separated to meet around one festive board, they would have the gratification of knowing, that all were enjoying the blessings of the day.”

A lovely sentiment, when you consider that our country was divided by war.

It was Hale’s magazine that also released an avalanche of holiday recipes every year, instructing housewives on how to make a proper Thanksgiving dinner. As though making up for our Puritanical forefathers, a Victorian holiday could include: Oyster soup, Turkey with Savory Stuffing, a Sirloin of Beef, a leg of Pork, a loin of Mutton, Gravy, celery, a goose, two ducks, Chicken Pie, cranberry sauce, pickles: sweet, mangoes (stuffed and pickled young melons), chow-chow, bell peppers, peaches, or cucumbers; mashed potatoes and turnips, cabbage, canned tomatoes and corn, baked sweet potatoes, boiled onions, fruit preserves (like grape jelly or stewed peaches), butter, wheat bread, plum pudding, mincemeat pie, pumpkin pie, apple pie, custards, rich cakes (with yeast, fruits, and many eggs), Indian pudding, fresh fruits and sweetmeats (candies), cheese. (source and source)

Today, I think the true beauty of the Thanksgiving feast lies in the side dishes. The turkey in omnipresent, but what is served alongside it makes every family’s celebration individual. So what’s you’re Thanksgiving like? Is it traditional New England fare, or does it reflect your own regionalism or ethnicity? And if you were going to jazz up your holiday table with a 19th Century side dish from the menu above, which one would it be?


History Dish: Martha Washington’s Ale and Apple Fritters

fritter1One little fritter.

Fried. Apples. Beer. This recipe appealed to me for obvious reasons. But, interestingly, it also goes along with the medieval theme of my last dinner party. Read on for Mrs. Washington’s link to Queen Elizabeth.

The History

Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats, the source for this recipe, is not a collection of Martha’s own recipes: they were transcribed by an unknown person in the 17th century and were given to her during her first marriage to Daniel Custis in 1749, perhaps as a wedding present.  Widowed at 25, she was Martha Custis until she met George, and together they raised Martha’s two children from her previous marriage; and later, two orphaned grand-children. Interestingly, Martha gave birth to no more children during her marriage to George.

The cookbook was passed down to one of the Custis grandchildren and the recipes themselves had likely been a family heirloom for generations before. Food historian Karen Hess writes “Many of the recipes must have seemed old-fashioned to Martha…the cuisine of the manuscript is that of Elizabethan and Jacobean England.” That’s the 1550s-1620s, which means many of these recipes are considered to be part of a late-medieval mode of cooking.

Put yourself in Martha’s shoes and imagine trying to make dinner from a 200-year-old cookbook. So who can say if Mrs. Washington ever cooked any of the recipes in this manuscript, but some of them definitely seem a bit more modern than others.  Take, for example, the two recipes for apple fritters: one combines nutmeg, clove, ginger, mace, cinnamon, saffron and rosewater–a startling amount of spices much more reminiscent of the Forme of Cury than a modern recipe.  But the other fritter only calls for nutmeg, cloves, and mace–and a little cinnamon sugar strewn on top. Simpler, its likely a later addition to the recipe collection.

The more modern fritter recipe also contains ale, probably added to make the batter light with yeast and carbonation. A beer-battered, fried apple sounded pretty fucking good to me, so I decided to give this recipe a shot.

fritters2Cut yr apples about yay big.

The Recipe

To Make Fritters

Take a pint of very strong ale, put into it a little sack & warm it in a little scillet; then take 8 youlks of eggs & but 2 whites, beat them very well; yn put to them a little flowre & beat them together, yn put in yr warme ale; you must put noe more flowre to ye eggs after ye ale is in. Yr batter must be noe thicker then will just hang on ye apples. Season batter with ye powder of nutmegg, cloves, and mace; then cut your apple into little bits & put them into ye batter; yn set on ye fire a good quantity of tryed suet or hoggs lard, & when it is very hot drop in yr apples one by one with yr fingers as fast as you can. When they are fryde, lay ym on a cleane cloth put over a cullender, yn lay ym on trencher plates, & strow on ym sugar & cinnamon.

Ale & Apple Fritters
Adapted From Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats

1 large egg + 2 yolks
1/2 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup ale (I used Guinness, it’s what I had on hand)
1 tablespoon brandy
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp mace
1/8 tsp clove
4 med-large cooking apples
Oil for frying

In the microwave, warm beer one minute on high. With a fork, whisk together eggs, flour and salt. Add beer and brandy, and mix until blended. Add spices. Set aside in a warm place from 30-60 minutes.

Meanwhile, peel and pair the apples, slicing them into one-inch chunks. Heat oil for frying: you can use lard in a cast iron pan, like the original recipe suggests, or vegetable oil in a FryDaddy, like I did.

Put apple pieces into the batter, mixing them to coat. Drop into hot oil using your fingers or a spoon. Fry until golden brown, turning once. Remove into a colander lined with paper towels, over a plate. Allow to cool slightly, then sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. Toss fritters in the colander to coat, then serve.

fritters3Strown with cinnamon and sugar!

The Results

The results were unexceptional. Technically, the recipe came out well: the apples slices were cooked, the coating thin but crispy. But the fritter batter was almost flavorless, and there was no satisfying contrast between the apples and the coating.  There was nothing interesting going on with the taste or the texture. Perhaps I should have fried them in lard.

I’m disappointed since it seemed like this recipe had a lot of potential.  What do you all think? How can this fritter recipe be improved?

The History Dish: I Made Ambergris Ice Cream!


Ice cream made from whale puke.

I’ve done it! Below you’ll find a reprint of some information from my original post, but then read on for the results!

Food historian Ivan Day has discovered what is believed to be the first recipe for ice cream, written in a manuscript by Lady Anne Fanshawe of England. Dating to c. 1665, she flavors her ice cream with mace, orangeflower water, or ambergris.

Ambergris is an “intestinal slurry,” believed to be a ball of muscus-covered, indigestible squid beaks. This mass is ejected into the oceans by sperm whales, much like a cat disgorging a hairball. A ball of ambergris floats in the sea until it washes ashore and is collected. Throughout the 18th century, it was a prized flavoring for sweets and today it is still valued today as a base for perfumes. Its smell and flavor can range from “earthy to musky to sweet.” At the current Whales: Giants of the Deep exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, you are encourage to sniff a large ball of very valuable whale puke.

I needed to known what ambergris ice cream tasted like.  Ambergris is very, very expensive: it will run you about $25 per gram. There are more affordable, essential oils made from it, but often they are labeled “not for consumption.” I searched far and wide and finally found Dewberry’s Herbal, an Etsy shop stocked with handmade essential oils that even lets you choose which oil base you want. I picked the “True Ambergris (Sperm Whale)” with grapeseed oil, the most neutral of oils!

When I opened the bottle, I would describe the first whiff of scent as “Old Man Body and Breath.” Ambergris is a used in perfumes today not necessarily for its own smell, but because it deepens and intensifies other scents, and makes them last longer. I added 1/2 teaspoon to a quart of homemade custard ice cream base, and let my ice cream maker do its thing.

Once frozen, I tasted it: the first thing I noticed was the unbelievable texture. Custard (egg based) ice cream already have a very rich texture, but this ice cream was the smoothest, creamiest ice cream I have ever tasted.  I attribute it to the extra 1/2 teaspoon of grapeseed oil. Ice cream texture has a lot to do with fat content, and apparently, adding a little extra oil at the end is a technique worth playing around with.

The flavor itself began floral, and finished armpit, with a taste that even now still lingers my tongue.  It wasn’t truly repulsive, but after awhile, it did make my stomach start to turn. But I considered that I might be biased; sometimes, I find, that when I’ve prepared a strong-smelling food, I tend not to like the end result because I can still perceive the original foul smell, even if its barely noticeable. This has happened to me once before, while preparing moose face.

So I took it to a test group. 3/6 people genuinely appreciated its floral and musky qualities; they ate it with pleasure. 2/6 liked it until I explained what ambergris was. 1 said he could understand if someone handed this flavor to him and said it was the next big thing, but didn’t like it himself.

In an era when sweets were packed full of orange flower water and rose water, it makes sense that the complex floral flavors of ambergris would have been appreciated.  However, this is what life was like without vanilla, folks. Support you local vanilla farmer.

The History Dish: Ambergris Ice Cream

Image from, from a 2008 article that postulates ambergris might be the next big flavor.

Food historian Ivan Day has discovered what is believed to be the first recipe for ice cream, written in a manuscript by Lady Anne Fanshawe of England. Dating to c. 1665, she flavors her ice cream with mace, orangeflower water, or ambergris.

Ambergris is an “intestinal slurry,” believed to be a ball of muscus-covered, indigestible squid beaks. This mass is ejected into the oceans by sperm whales, much like a cat disgorging a hairball. A ball of ambergris floats in the sea until it washes ashore and is collected. Throughout the 18th century, it was a prized flavoring for sweets and today it is still valued today as a base for perfumes. Its smell and flavor can range from “earthy to musky to sweet.” At the current Whales: Giants of the Deep exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, you are encourage to sniff a large ball of very valuable whale puke.

I needed to known what ambergris ice cream tasted like.  Ambergris is very, very expensive: it will run you about $25 per gram. There are more affordable, essential oils made from it, but often they are labeled “not for consumption.” I searched far and wide and finally found Dewberry’s Herbal, an Etsy shop stocked with handmade essential oils that even let you choose which oil base you want. I picked the “True Ambergris” with grapeseed oil, the most neutral of oils!

I have been psyched for this experiment for weeks! …And the end of the story is the ambergris got lost in the mail. Or, stolen from the foyer of my apartment building. It is no where to be found–and I’m crushed.

To be continued…when I can work out the insurance claim, or scrape together money to by some more, Ambergris Ice Cream will happen!

Etsy Kitchen Histories: Parmesan Ice Cream

icecream2A dish of parmesan ice cream.

In this month’s Etsy Kitchen History, I explore historic flavors of ice cream (musk!), ice cream molds (roast chicken!), and attempt a fascinating 18th century recipes for Parmesan ice cream.

In the 1780s, King Ferdinand IV of Naples and his wife arrived at the San Gregorio Convent to find “…a table covered, and every appearance of a most plentiful cold repast, consisting of several joints of meat, hams, fowl, fish and various other dishes.” The King and his entourage were bummed, however, because they had just eaten. But not wanting to seem impolite, they sat down, and Queen Maria Carolina “…choose a slice of cold turkey, which, on being cut up, turned out a large piece of lemon ice. All the other dishes were ices of various kinds, disguised under the forms of joints of meat, fish and fowl.” The King and the nuns alike had a hearty laugh at the joke.

Read more on Etsy here! And on Four Pounds Flour this week, I’ll be posting about two more unique historic flavors: ambergris and lapsang souchong.

Events: A Culinary History of New Amsterdam


Before New York Was New York: A Culinary History of New Amsterdam 
Tuesday, February 19th, 7:30 PM
@ The Farm on Adderley, 1108 Cortelyou Rd, Brooklyn
$60 (+ beverages, tax & gratuity)
To sign-up, send an e-mail to

The Farm on Adderley is thrilled to welcome ‘historic gastronomist’ Sarah Lohman to host a meal inspired by what people were eating in New York in the 1600s and the lasting influence of Dutch tastes. The meal will be inspired by a cookbook compiled by the Lefferts family, who had a stronghold on land in the Flatbush (“Vlacke Bos”) area of Brooklyn.


House Made Breads/Butter/Cheese
rye + beer + walnut preserves

Smoked Eel
roasted apples, baby turnips
Kale & Bread Soup “Sop”
yellow eye beans, hominy

Salted Beef
pumpkin, parsnips
Corn “Panne­koeken”
“Koolsla” - cabbage, butter, vinegar
Crullers - cinnamon, apple, raisin
Caraway “koeckjes” w/ quince preserves

To sign-up, send an e-mail to

The History Dish: Pepper Cakes, Aged Six Months

I love eating food that’s been sitting around half a year.

I’ve written before about the preservative power of black pepper–you can read it here.  Pepper’s antimicrobial properties might explain this recipe called “To Make Pepper Cakes That Will Keep Good In Ye House For a Quarter or Halfe a Year” from Martha Washington’s, “A Booke of Cookery,” which was given to her by her husband’s family on the occasion of her first marriage in 1749. It is believed that the text was transcribed in Virginia, sometime in the latter half of the 17th century.

Take treakle 4 pound, fine wheat flowre halfe a peck, beat ginger 2 ounces, corriander seeds 2 ounces, carraway & annyseeds of each an ounce, suckets slyced in small pieces a pritty quantity, powder of orring pills one ounce. worked all these into a paste, and let it ly 2 or 3 hours. after, make it up into what fashions you please in pritty large cakes about an intch and halfe thick at moste, or rather an intch will be thick enough. wash your cakes over with a little oyle and treacle mixt together before you set them into ye oven, then set them in after household bread. & thought they be hard baked, they will give againe, when you have occasion to use it slyce it & serve it up.

Allow me to offer some quick, 18th century translation services: Treakle is molasses and suckets are candied fruits: lemon or orange peels, or citron, another citrus fruit.  Culinary historian Karen Hess points out that this recipe is in fact for gingerbread, and reflects a holdover from the Middle Ages: a time when pepper was used the same as any other spice, in the sweet as well as the savory. Although this recipe doesn’t list pepper in the ingredients, Hess argues it may have been omitted accidentally.

I was curious if these “Pepper Cakes” really did taste better after six months.  This recipe is like a proto-fruitcake or lebkuchen.

I decided to add a quantity of pepper equal to the ginger. When working from historic recipes, it’s always helpful to translate the ingredients, scaling down the proportions to make a smaller recipe. I call this step “Make a plan!”:

1 pound (about 2 cups) Molasses
4 cups Flour
1/2 ounce (3 tablespoons) Pepper
1/2 ounce (3 tablespoons) Ginger
1/2 ounce (3 tablespoons) Coriander
1/4 ounce (1 1/2 tablespoons) Caraway
1/4 ounce (1 1/2 tablespoons) Anise Seed
1/4 ounce (1 1/2 tablespoons) Dried Orange Peel
1 cup candied fruit

To recreate this recipe, I used Hecker’s Unbleached Flour, which has been in production since 1843.  There are stone ground, 18th century flours available on-line, but I decided this was a decent substitute for my purposes.  To four cups of flour, I added my spices, starting with ½ ounce course ground Lampung pepper, the variety I suspect would have been available when this recipe was written.   ½ ounce is a surprisingly large amount of spice–about three tablespoons.  Ginger and coriander went in next, followed by caraway–I used both ground and whole caraway seeds to add texture.  I was unable to find anise seeds, so I substituted the similarly licorice-tasting fennel seeds, which I pounded with the dried orange peel in a makeshift mortar and pestle: a muddler and a measuring cup.

After the dry ingredients, I added the molasses, and stirred the bowl into a deep brown goo.  Only then did I realize I forgot the suckets. “Oh fuck it! The suckets!” I declared, to no one at all.  I had picked up a contained full of “fruit cake” type fruits; the typical holiday blends includes the 18th century favorites lemon peel, orange peel, and citron.  Fruitcake  is probably the only time we use citron in modern cooking; not many people even know it’s in there. Now you do.

I folded in a cup of suckets, realizing that this wasn’t the most accurate historic food recreation I had ever rendered. True culinary historians are probably reading this and gritting their teeth.   I covered the dough with a towel, and set it aside for a few hours, as the original recipe recommends.

When I returned, it had formed into a sticky, solid mass.  Here is where the original recipes gets vague.  The authoress says: “make it up into what fashions you please in pritty large cakes about an intch and halfe thick at moste, or rather an intch will be thick enough.”  Pritty large cakes?  How large is “pritty large”?  And in comparison to what?  Or “pritty” like lovely? Lovely cakes?

I floured a board, and rolled the dough to about an inch thick.  I cut out some preeeeeetty large cakes, about 4 ½ inches in diameter.  That’s preeeeetty large, right?  The cut cookies went on to a parchment lined baking sheet, and I brushed the top of each one with a mixture of a little molasses and almond oil.

The baking instructions read: “set them in after household bread.”  Bread bakes at around 450 degrees; so I preheated my oven to 450, and let the pepper cakes bake for 20 minutes.  Then, in an effort to simulate a wood-burning oven cooling as the fire goes out, I turned the oven off and left the cookies inside.

About an hour later the oven was completely cool, and I pulled the cookies out, glossy from their caramelized molasses top coat.  I nibbled on one, still slightly warm, and the flavor was so strong it was like a punch in the face.  It was, in essence, pure spices held together by a little flour and molasses.  I suspected that like a modern fruitcake (or their closer relation, lebkuchen), these cookies might taste better with age.  So I took the recipe title’s recommendation, and locked the cakes away in a tin, to be tasted in six months.

I first baked this recipe at the end of July, so the time has come.  I had to save the cookies from being thrown away TWICE by well-meaning roommates.  After being entombed for so long, the cookies looked and tasted like the 17th century: dark and spicy.  They weren’t revolting like they were in August, they were revolting in an entirely new way.  Chewy and stale, the candied fruits were unappealing.  The explosive flavors of the spices were interesting, and widely varied as I slowly chewed the cake.  But if this was good eating 300 years ago, I feel sad for the 1700s.

The Whisk and the Witch’s Broom

A witch’s broom re-purposed as a whisk.

I’ve launched a new collaboration with Etsy this week: I’ll be blogging twice a month about making, doing and consuming  in the kitchen.  Look forward to history and adventures, all based on the treasures you can find on Etsy.

My first post was a whisk history–a humble kitchen tool that has changed design over the centuries, striving to make a laborious task, like beating eggs, simple and succinct.  Read The Magic Whisk here here to follow me whisking up meringue by hand.

A birch whisk from Deborah Peterson’s Pantry.

But before wire whisks were introduced in the 19th century,  cooks made whisks from bundles of sticks. You can still buy modern whisks made with birch twigs, but they are fairly expensive: $20-$30.  I was really curious to try one out, and test it against a modern whisk, but I had difficulty convincing myself to drop three tensies on sticks.  Reading this, you probably think I’m nuts:  “Go outside, get some sticks!” you’re thinking.  Well, I live in New York and things aren’t so simple.  In my neighborhood, I can get food from 30 different nationalities;  But sticks we don’t got.

Recently, I had a chance to handle one of these birch whisks in person.  I carefully turned it over in my hands, committing to memory the length and the weight of it, the texture and the stiffness of the straw-like twigs.  Then I went to my local craft store to see if I could find something to replicate it.  I noticed the store already had its “seasonal items” out  and immediately thought “witch’s broom!”  I scored one for $6.  To make my reproduction whisk, I sliced off the tape that held bushy twigs them to the broom handle, rebundled them with kitchen twine, and trimmed the ends to an even length. It looked almost exactly like the authentic $30 whisk, and seemed to be a pretty good recreation of a pre-industrial whisk.

It was time to try out my pre-industrial whisk.  I separated an egg, and set aside the yolk.  I let the white warm to room temperature in a deep mixing bowl, and then I grabbed my twig whisk and went to town.  It  took a surprisingly short amount of time to make a stiff meringue–ten minutes, twelve seconds–although my biceps ached after half a minute.   The twig whisk  had a huge downside: as I whipped the eggs, hundreds of shards of whisk broke off into my meringue.  Big sticks and tiny twigs peppered the egg froth.  It’s possible that after you use the twig whisk several times, it would stop shedding its bits and pieces.  But the first time through, it produced a voluminous, but woody, meringue.

A twig whisk and the woody meringue it produced.

I tested four more whisks and pitted them against my modern mixer; to see the results, head over to Etsy.

Origin of a Dish: Vanilla Ice Cream

Sage and rosewater ice cream.

In the age-old question vanilla vs. chocolate, chocolate is the older ice cream, but vanilla has been the most popular ice cream of the last 200 years.

Ice cream as we know it descended from the European tradition of  dessert custards made with eggs.   The base for a “custard style” ice cream, or one with egg yolks in it, is the same as that for a baked custard.  So after the freezing process was discovered, it was a natural progression to frozen creams.  Some of the more interesting flavors from Medieval Europe include: saffron, honey & citron, sage & rose-water, laurel leaves, tarragon, celery, and crumbled cookies.

Vanilla was very hard to acquire before the mid-19th century.  It was only produced in Mexico, because of the vanilla orchid’s symbiotic relationship with the local bee–the bee pollinated the flowers.  Instead of vanilla, early ice creams were flavored with orange flower water or rosewater, ingredients commonly used in all sorts of desserts.

The first known written recipe for ice cream is from 1665,  handwritten in the recipe book of Lady Anne Fanshawe.  Notice she flavors her “icy cream” with mace, orange flower water, or ambergris (a ball of smelly brown stuff that whales puke up (ew)).  There’s a great article by culinary historian Ivan Day, who made ice cream from this recipe, here.

The first known ice cream recipe.

Vanilla doesn’t appear in ice cream recipes until the 1760s, and then it would have been used very rarely.  But Vanilla had been a favorite ice cream flavor even before the spice was readily available: there are about a dozen recipes in Thomas Jefferson’s papers, and one of them is for vanilla ice cream (see it here).  The earliest ice cream recipes published in American, in The Virginia Housewife in 1824, includes vanilla as well as almond, coconut, citron, and fresh fruit flavors (see it here, buy it here).   By the early 19th century, it was described as one of the most common ice cream flavors–despite the fact that the spice itself was still fairly uncommon.

I made an ice cream inspired by medieval custards from the pre-vanilla days: sage and rosewater.   I used a basic ice cream recipe and added one teaspoon of rosewater, and steeped a small handful of fresh sage leaves in heated milk.  I added one teaspoon of crumbled, dried sage leaves as the ice cream was freezing in the ice cream maker.

I wasn’t crazy about this ice cream, but I wouldn’t call it bad.  Many of the people who tasted it enjoyed it.   The flavors are extremely subtle: if you didn’t know what you were eating, it would be nearly impossible to identify the taste.  It’s vaguely like soap, but pleasant, if that’s possible.

Next: Ice cream of the future!


Research for this post came from:

Of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making by Jeri Quinzio
Lady Ann Fanshawe’s Icy Cream by Ivan Day