Archive for the 'history dish' Category

Living History: Dream of the Rarebit Fiend

Welsh RarebitWelsh rarebit: cheese sauce on toast; all ready for my bedtime snack.

What do you get when you combine a Victorian preoccupation with bad digestion and one illustrator’s imaginative fantasy landscapes? Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, a comic strip created by Winsor McCay that ran from 1904-1912. McCay would later go on to create the better known strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, but his earlier, more grown-up strip was just as fantastic. In every strip, a cheese-on-toast dish known as “welsh rarebit” was consumed before bedtime, and then faulted for a night of  alarming dreams. The illustrated dreamscapes the McCay created would go on to inspire scenes in King KongDumboMary Poppins, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Read the comic here.

After reading a book of McCay’s work, I wanted to know: would the dreaded rarebit give me bad dreams, too?

The History

In the final panel, the dreamer always awakens and curses the cheese.

In the early 20th century and before, we were preoccupied with bad digestion. Eating the wrong foods at the wrong times was blamed for a range of maladies, including troubled dreams. From The Psychology of Dreams, 1920:

“As is well known, dreams may be influenced by physical discomforts. Many individuals can, almost with certainty, bring on distressing dreams by eating at supper or near bedtime, certain combinations of food, as peas and salmon, Welsh rarebit, ice cream and oysters.”

That shit is well known. The general medical consensus was that those prone to bad digestion were prone to nightmares, and heavy foods like a rarebit made you prone to bad digestion. Case closed.

The Recipe


A silent film inspired by McCay’s comics. I enjoy the first few minute of this film; he is really chowing down on a welsh rarebit. Really shoving it in there.

So what is this wicked rarebit? A welsh rarebit is perfect comfort food, which is why nobody wanted to give the damn things up, despite the advice of their doctors. Invented sometime in the 18th century, it can be as simple as a few slices of melted cheese on toast, the preference being for cheddar or Gloucestershire cheese.  By the early 20th century, it was more common to make a sauce of American cheese, milk or cream, egg yolks, butter, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, a dash of red pepper–the recipes varied, and could be more simple or more complicated depending on what you had on hand. You can read a full history of this dish, along with theories about the origin of its name, on the incomparable Food Timeline here.

I made my rarebit with grated cheddar cheese, cream, good mustard, Worcestershire, and cayenne. I melted it slowly on my stove top before pouring it over a slice of whole wheat toast. It was nice and spicy and I immediately wanted another. Then I climbed into bed and got ready for dreamland.

The Results

Although I felt sleepy immediately after eating the rarebit, it took me a lot longer to fall asleep than normal. It was a light sleep, shifting in between consciousness and dreaming. I didn’t have any long, lucid dreams. I had watched the Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown episode about Israel/Palestine before going to bed, so mostly I was dreaming about eating delicious Palestinian food, particularly this one interesting-looking roast watermelon salad. At another point I was at a BBQ pouring hot sauce all over roasted meat. These are the scenarios my brain is pondering constantly, and in my agitated sleep state, I was just dipping in and out of them. If you were wondering what it’s like to peer into my psyche, there you go.

But I don’t think the rarebit was to blame for my dreams. Feeding a rarebit to my husband before bed was one of the greatest mistakes I have ever made. He came home from school late and hungry, so I offered him one; he said he didn’t like it because it tasted “unhealthy.” He spent the night thrashing around in bed, kicking and punching me in his sleep. He actually woke up several times to exclaim “It was the cheese!” Finally, he started crying because he dreamed his undead grandfather shot his brother.

According to the Sleep Disorders Center at the Cleveland Clinic, eating too close to bedtime can lead to “heightened metabolism and temperature,” which in turn “…can lead to more brain activity, prompting more action during rapid eye movement sleep, or REM.” Which means more dreams. It is inadvisable to eat “heavy or spicy foods” two to three hours before bedtime.

However, cheese also contains tryptophan, an amino acid “used by the human body to make serotonin.” It can actually relax us and help us sleep, which may be why it is often served as the last course of meals. Additionally, fat and carbs can make us sleepy, according to Scientific American. So it may be safe to say that everyone reacts differently to a welsh rarebit.

As for Brian’s undead grandpa: unlike Nemo‘s freeing fantasy landscapes, Fiend often dealt with the repressed anxietys of daily adulthood.

The History Dish: Ice Cream with Tomato, Artichoke, and Peas

veg_creamValentine Cream of Vegetables, a recipe by Agnes Marshall.

Jell-O Molds. As beautiful as they are horrifying, we often associated these epic jiggly affairs with the kitsch mid-20th century. But today’s recipe is from the 19th century: The Valentine Cream of Vegetables, a  Neapolitan-style frozen ice cream gelatin mold, uses savory vegetable purees to flavor each one of its colorful layers. It’s a “…a nice dish for a second course or luncheon, or as a vegetable entree, or for a ball supper,” according to Fancy Ices, where the original recipe can be found.

The History

fancyices1

Fancy Ices was penned in 1894 by the brilliant Agnes Marshall. I’ve written about her before; she arguable wrote about the first use of ice cream cones, and suggested the use “liquid air” to freeze ice cream table side. Her earlier ice cream book, The Book of Ices, is available online or for purchase as a reproduction, and offers recipes that range from almond (or orgeat) to souffles of curry a la ripon. Fancy Ices goes to the next level, showcasing recipes ranging from a coffee strawberry ice cream to a cucumber sorbet to complicated trompe d’oeil molds. It’s a masterpiece that’s thrilling to flip through. If you live in the New York area, Fancy Ices is available by off-site request at the New York Public Library’s main reading room at Bryan Park. It’s a special experience, unwrapping a book like this pulled from the archives, and physically flipping through pages and pages of recipes ranging from the inspired to the bizarre.

The Recipe

creamofFull recipe here.

I heard of this recipe in Of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making, and excellent book particularly if you’re looking for inspiration in the way of unique historical flavors. In this recipe, each of the layers is flavored with a different vegetable(s), stock and/or alcohols. You can read the lengthy and complicated original recipe here, but here are the basic ingredients by layer:

Green: Cucumbers, peas, white sauce (flour, butter, pepper), green food coloring, gelatin, chicken gravy, whipped cream.

Red: Tomatoes, shallots, red food coloring, stock, sherry, gelatin, whipped cream.

White: Canned artichoke hearts, chicken gravy, gelatin, white sauce, whipped cream.

The vegetables were boiled with gelatin until soft, and then run through a fine mesh strainer until all that remains is a smooth liquid, which is frozen in a rectangular mold a layer at a time.

veg_cream8Boiling the green vegetables.

 

veg_cream5Creating the puree.

The process was immensely labor intensive and I was fortunate enough to have my Mom in town to help me. When I enlisted her aid, she protested and asked why we couldn’t do the lovely strawberry-lemon ice on the proceeding page of Fancy Ices. But let’s be honest: that’s not what you people want to see. You want to schadenfreude of artichoke-chicken ice cream.

The Results

Lacking a proper Neapolitan mold, we used a loaf pan. We allowed our creation to freeze solid and then carefully submerged to pan in warm water and ran a sharp knife along the side to released the Valentine cream. After some vigorous shaking, it came out PERFECT. Compare ours with the illustration in Fancy Ices:

creamofvegIllustration of Valentine Cream of Vegetables from Fancy Ices.
veg_cream4My finished Valentine Cream of Vegetables.

Success. I feel like we recreated something that looks, smells, and tastes just like Mrs. Marshall intended. It is her vision made real.

But how did it taste?

My mom and I cut a slice and decked it out with the horseradish-mustard-mayonnaise Mrs. Marshall recommends. We ate it without complaint. The stocks, chicken gravies, and sherries made it taste like a cold, jellied soup. Not horrific, but not delicious.

This dish felt subtlety out of style, a particularly taste and texture combination that was just slightly unpalatable. Perhaps no one ever really loved the taste and the dish had always been more about status: time consuming and complicated, it required the full attention of two skilled cooks several hours to complete. Only someone wealthy enough to EMPLOY my mother and I would be serving this at their ball.

Although, Mrs. Marshall’s Valentine Cream of Vegetables isn’t so off trend in 2014. This summer, Haagen-Dazs Japan launched two vegetable flavored ice creams, Carrot-Orange and Tomato-Cherry; and new local ice creamy Odd Fellows has offered Edamame, Butternut Squash and Beet-Pistachio flavors.

What do you think? Have you had a vegetable-based ice cream and do you think they could have a place in the world of frozen treats?

 

The History Dish: Maple Syrup Brittle

maplebrittleA glass-like maple brittle.

The warming weather means the end of maple sugaring season. It’s not a sad thing, it just means it’s time to enjoy the spoils!

I’m experimenting with a recipe for Maple Sugar Brittle for an upcoming family event at the New-York Historical Society. Now through August 2014 they have an exhibit up called Homefront & Battlefield: Quilts & Context in the Civil War. The primary focus is on 19th century quilts, but it looks at larger material culture with items like a pattern for a homemade mitten–with the index finger separated for a trigger finger.

Trigger finger mittens.

Free labor dress: noble, if a little dowdy.

One item I found particularly interesting is the “Free Labor Dress,” a dress made from cloth not produced by slave labor. Before and during the Civil War, advocates in the North were choosing clothing made from wool, silk, linen in an effort to not support slavery. Cotton was only used when it was certified from a free labor source.

There’s a parallel to this idea in food: many people encouraged the use of maple sugar instead of cane sugar. Cane sugar was also produced on plantations using slave labor, while maple sugar was made in the North by “…only the labour of children, for that which it is said renders the slavery of the blacks necessary,” as Thomas Jefferson put it. Yep, it only took underage farm children hours of collecting sap and boiling it down to make maple syrup.

With this idea in mind, I uncovered a recipe for Molasses Candy by Catherine Beecher. Catherine, a famous cookbook writer in the 19th century, was the sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her brother, Henry Ward Beecher, was also an fervent abolitionist. And although not as outspoken on abolition as her siblings, Catherine does suggest the use of maple syrup instead of cane molasses in her candy recipe.

Molasses Candy, from Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt-book, 1871.

I’m working on a fussier interpretation of this recipe, but in the meantime, I stumbled upon a process that’s quite simple and exceedingly delicious.

To make my maple sugar candy, I boiled maple syrup on high heat until it began to darken. While the sugar was boiling, I greased a rimmed baking sheet with spray Mazola oil, and spread roasted, salted nuts in an even layer. Catherine suggests roasted corn–we know it better as “corn nuts“–which I think would make an awesome brittle.

I poured the maple sugar over top of the nuts and then used a fork to press and then gently pull the sugar and nuts into a thin layer. The sugar is very stretchy after just a moment of cooling and gives you plenty of flexibility before it gets too brittle.

After the sugar was cool to the touch, I broke it into pieces with my hands. Done. Super simple, super beautiful, and incredibly delicious.

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: 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?

 

The History Dish: Prehistoric Bread

bread_history1“Baking” prehistoric bread.

Finding a place to build an open fire is next to impossible in New York City, but it’s a must if you want to bake prehistoric bread.

Bread, in all its various forms, is the most widely consumed food in the world.  Recent scholarship suggests that humans started baking bread at least 30,000 years ago.  Prehistoric man had already been making gruel from water and grains, so it was a small jump to cook this mixture into a solid by frying it on stones.  The National Academy of Sciences published a study that paleoanthropologists have found the remains of the starchy roots of cattails and ferns in mortar and pestle-like rocks (read about it here and here.)  The roots would have been peeled and dried before they were ground into flour and mixed with water.  Finally, the paste would be fried on heated rocks.

If you feel inspired to replicate this prehistoric recipe–like I was– I’ll warn you that Bob’s Red Mill does not make a “Cattail/Fern Blend Flour” (yet). Settle for a “10 Grain Breakfast Cereal” full of ancient grains, like millet, coarsely ground.

Then, visit your local home improvement store and poke around the slate tiling.  You may be able to nab a few pieces of broken tile for free. That’s what you should do if you live in a major metropolitan area, like me.  If you live somewhere normal, walk outside and pick up a flat rock.

Now, you need to build a big fire.  That’s another thing that’s difficult to do in New York City.  Fortunately, I have a connection with a historic site in Brooklyn that has an outdoor fireplace and bake oven.  The site is surrounded by a park for tiny toddlers; it’s fun when they watch me cook, but it also makes me feel like I’m in Kitchen Stadium.

Let the flames die down until you have a bed of glowing, hot coals.  Set the slate tiles on top of the coals, and wait about ten minutes.  Combine three cups of grain with about a cup of water and mix into a thick, workable paste.  Make the dough into half-inch thick patties and place them on the stones.  After five minutes, flip them with a piece of bark and you’ll be amazed to see the grain is browning on the heated rock.  They may stick, so if you have any wild boar’s lard–or something similarly appropriate–I recommend greasing your cooking rocks in advance.

 

bread_history2The results!

In about ten minutes, you’ll have a pile of hot, crispy cakes.  The outside is crunchy and tastes like popcorn, the inside is moist and dense.  I fed one to a passing park baby–she described it as “pretty good,” but maybe she was just being nice.

 

***

A portion of this article originally appeared on History.com

 

The History Dish: Galette de Roi

galletteA mediocre Galette des Rois.

I didn’t put this post up yesterday, and I promised I would.  After the cake was consumed, we drank some wine, as is the custom, and things happen.  Namely “strip Apples to Apples,” which it turns out is not a very effective game.

So, a day later, here are the results of my King Cake experiment.  First, the recipe, as printed in The Wilder Shores of Gastronomy--it’s from a 1927 cookbook, but the author claims it is much older, dating from the time of Louis VIX.  My French isn’t good enough to check the primary sources to confirm.

gallette_recipe

I did something really dumb: I didn’t follow the recipe.  A King Cake is supposed to be a lot like a puff paste and I was all like “Oh! I know how to make a puff paste, and this isn’t it.”  So where the recipe says to mix in softened butter, I cut in frozen butter, like a pie dough.  And then I accidentally added too much water.  Then, I didn’t cut the design deep enough (it’s supposed to be three stalks of wheat and FPF).  I baked it too long and burned the bottom, and the sprinkled sugar didn’t melt evenly, and left psoriasis-like patches of glaze.  Kindof a disaster.

galllette2

It’s suppose to be a flaky tower of slightly sweet, buttery crispness.  Mine was this dense burnt thing.  Or maybe historic King Cakes were denser, I don’t know.   But it was consumed in due time, and a king was crowned, and a good time was had by all.  I’d try it again next year.

gallette3

 

By the way, did you know Epiphany is a really big deal in Florida?

The History Dish: Automat Pumpkin Pie

A pumpkin pie with sweetened condensed milk. Can I get a hell yeah?

If you are going to be in NYC anytime in the next month, be sure to stop by the New York Public Library to catch the Lunch Hour NYC exhibit.  It’s free and cute and you’ll learn a lot of fun facts about food.

The coolest part of the exihibit is the installation of  a functional automat.  Automats were the precursors to fast food; meals were made from scratch at commissaries all around the city, then shipped to the automat restaurants.  The food was placed behind little windows, and after dropping a few coins in a slot, you could open the doors and retrieve you treats.  A new automat opened, and closed, on St. Mark’s street a few years ago.

Horn & Hardart, the company that innovated the automat concept, was just as well known for the quality of their food as their unique way of delivering it.  At the Lunch Hour exhibit, you can play with their automat machine, opening the doors and such.  You won’t find any mac and cheese or baked beans inside, however–but they did thoughtfully include recipes of all the restaurant’s most famous dishes.

Horn and Hardart’s automat, from Lunch Hour NYC.

One of the recipes I grabbed when I visited was Hron & Hardart’s recipe for pumpkin pie.  I had a pie pumpkin hanging out in my kitchen; it had been a Halloween decoration, and I decided it was time for it to go to a better place.  Inside me.  I roasted it, which is an easy way to process pumpkin–see how here.  I also made a crust from scratch from this recipe, which is my go to pie crust.

The filling was easy to mix up and the pie doesn’t bake for long.  The recipe tells you “Insert a silver knife into the filling about one inch from the side of the pan.  If the knife comes out clean, the filling is done.”   I’ve never read pumpkin pie instructions so specific–a silver knife?  Using this method, the center comes out underdone and extremely creamy.  I’m not sure if I liked it though, being used to a firmer pie.

But the wildest thing about this pie is I realized I made a HUGE mistake when I baked it that turned out to be wonderful.  I only just now noticed that the recipe calls for evaporated milk NOT sweetened condensed milk, which is what I used.  But holy moly, have you ever made a pumpkin pie with sweetened condensed milk?  It’s astounding.  The caramel-ee flavor of the sweetened condensed milk really comes through in the final product.  Creamy, burnty sugary, pumpkin…awesome.

God pumpkin pie is great.  Why don’t we make it year round?  I guess something about it just doesn’t feel right in the summertime.

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.