Archive for the 'history dish' Category

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!

The History Dish: Rosquetas de Naranja (Orange Doughnuts)

doughnuts7A heaping plate of orange and cinnamon doughnuts.

When I was in Mexico City a few years ago, my favorite morning in the city was spent digging through a local flea market. The first thing that caught my eye when I entered the market was a yellowing composition book. The mexican_coverpages were handwritten, in Spanish, which I don’t speak terribly well. But I could recognize the format: lists of ingredients, followed by directions. It was a recipe book, dated 1945.

“How much?” I asked the vendor in Spanish–I spoke enough to handle flea market haggling. The price was the equivalent of $20 American, a little expensive. The vendor immediately walked away, indicating there would be no discussion. There was no way I was letting this book go. It was fated for me. I dug into my pocket and handed over the money.

There are 19 recipes in the book, ranging from a very traditional Enchiladas Verde (Green Enchiladas) made with pork, Serrano chiles and cilantro; to a recipe for choux paste, the French batter for cream puffs; to Macarrones Endiablados, or Deviled Macaroni, a very mid-20th century sounding concoction of macaroni, tomatoes and deviled ham.

doughnuts1Frying the doughnuts.

The first recipe in the book is Rosquetas de Naranja, doughnuts flavored with orange zest and rolled in cinnamon sugar. This recipe is one of the best things I ever ever made for this blog. I live for reviving historical recipes like this one. They fry up crispy on the outside with a soft, cakey center; the orange flavor is delicate at first, then comes on strong and pairs perfectly with the cinnamon. One recipe makes the just the right amount for a party or brunch with friends; or, if it’s just you, you’ll make yourself sick eating them. It’s impossible to stop. They are best devoured fresh and hot, so it’s like your duty to scarf them right out of the fryer.

This recipe book was my prize souvenir from my journey. There are still a few more dishes I want to try from its pages, but these Rosquetas de Naranja are a true treasure that make me feel connected to an unnamed cook from Mexico’s past.

doughnuts6Rolling the doughnuts in cinnamon sugar.

Rosquetas de Naranja: Orange Donuts
Adapted from a handwritten recipe book, dated 1945. Translation by Danielle Rodriguez.

1 lb Flour (about 4 1/2 cups)
3 teaspoons Baking powder
1 Orange, zested and juiced
3 Large Eggs
1 cup Whole Milk
¾ cup Granulated Sugar
1 stick of Butter, room temperature, cut into cubes.
Vegetable oil
Cinnamon Sugar: 1 cup Sugar and 2 teaspoons Ground Cinnamon

  1. In a large bowl, sift together the flour and baking powder.
  2. In a second bowl, whisk eggs, orange juice, and zest. Whisk in milk; then, stir in sugar until it is dissolved.
  3. Using your hands, mix the butter and flour until it forms small pills.
  4. Form a well in the center of the flour and pour in the wet ingredients. Using your whisk, form into a batter.
  5. Fill a small electric deep fryer, or a saucepan with deep sides, with 2 inches of vegetable oil. The oil is ready when a dollop of dough immediately begins to sizzle.
  6. Deep fry doughnuts until golden brown, flipping them once. Remove from oil with a slotted spoon and set the doughnuts on a plate lined with paper towels to drain. Allow them to cool while you add another batch to the oil, then roll doughnuts into cinnamon sugar. Serve immediately.

If you would like to download a PDF of the original cookbook it’s available here, and Danielle Rodriguez’s translation is here. Just let me know if you try any of the recipes!

The History Dish: Chinese New Year Cookies

IMG_7168Chinese New Year Cookies…there was nothing I could do to them to make them look less like poops.

The Chinese New Year starts tomorrow, so in celebration I thought it would be fun to make a vintage recipe for Chinese New Year Cookies. It’s too bad these cookies look like poop.

The History

This recipe come from the same vintage collection as my Moose Milk recipe, and caught my eye because I had never seen a Chinese New Year-themed confection in an otherwise anglo recipe collection. What makes these cookied Chinese-ish is the inclusion of Chinese noodles: crispy fried rice noodles, like the kind you get with a take-out order of wonton soup. I can’t even begin to answer the question of whether or not these noodles are authentic in any way, fully Americanized, or some combination thereof. It seems that they’re such a niche aspect of Chinese take-out that no one has ever bothered to wonder before. Anyone out there have a clue?

The Recipe

IMG_6969

Chinese New Years Cookies
Written by B. Allen. From a recipes collection dating between the 1960s-1990s.

1 pkg (6oz) Semi sweet chocolate chips
1 pkg (6oz)  Caramels
1 can (3oz) Chinese noodles
1 can or jar (7-8 oz) Peanuts

  1. Melt chocolate and caramel.
  2. Mix in noodles and nuts.
  3. Scoop by teaspoon onto waxed paper. Chill.

Makes 2-4 dozen.

The Results

IMG_7146A hot mess from start to finish.

This entire recipe was a hot mess from start to finish. Something was off about the texture–when the chocolate and caramel melted together, it was so thick. My friend Pat and I got into a long debate about whether or not it was the qaulity of the caramels, or if I had used too many in proportion to the chocolate, but the point is moot because nothing will stop these cookies from looking like tiny piles of poo.

They also taste like tootsie rolls with Chinese noodles jammed up inside them.

Enjoy the New Year, instead, with some of those strawberry candies. Those are great.

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.
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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.

 

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A portion of this article originally appeared on History.com