Archive for the 'holidays' 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.

Gift Guide: Give an Experience

One of the most useful and memorable gifts I’ve gotten in the past couple years was a knife skills class at the Brooklyn Kitchen. Gifting an experience–learning a new skill, seeing a new place, or consuming something unique–is valuable and long lasting. For a one time payment, your giftee’s life has been improved forever.

Added bonus: they’re a thoughtful last minute gift. Most institutions will email gift cards etc., or let you print them.

Here are two New York institutions I’m a huge fan of that offer gift experiences. They’re also great gifts for friends and family visiting the city. And if you live outside the New York area, then I hope this post inspires you to dig around and see what’s available in your own city.

And I would love it if people shared other food-related gift experiences in NYC and beyond–in the comments below. Let’s all get inspired.

The Brooklyn Brainery

It’s no secret I work closely with the Brooklyn Brainery, so I can attest first hand that this place kicks ass. The Brainery provides low-cost, low-commitment education on just about every topic you can imagine. In the field of food, there are Thai cooking workshops, sushi sessions, and kombucha brewing lessons. But there are also talks on poker, presentation skills and pom poms. An ongoing list of classes is here. Their gift certificates are available in denominations from $10-$5,000,000, so they fit any price range–and even $10 can cover the cost of a class. You can print a hard copy of the gift certificate to give, or select a day to have it emailed to the recipient’s inbox.

And they’ve got their own gift guide of products made by Brainery teachers here.

Turnstile Tours


An interview with Ramonita, proprietress of Ramonita’s Restaurant in the Moore Street Market, one of the stops on Turnstile’s Immigrant Foodways tour.

Walking tours are always a fun gift and I can’t recommend the experience at Turnstile Tours enough. For the New Yorker, take them on the Immigrant Foodways tour, which travels through parts of Williamsburg seldom ventured to by the average resident, including inside the largely Hispanic Moore Street Market. For the out of towner, there are the Food Cart tours, in both Midtown and the  financial district, that not only sample some of the finest fare from around the city, but tell the stories of the vendors. Turnstile is incredibly invested in social justice, so these tours always include a deeper conversation: you’ll get history, contemporary issues, and the narratives of the neighborhood. Gift certificates are available in dollar amounts or for specific tours.

Etsy Kitchen Histories: Cookie Swap!

The original American Christmas cookie. Recipe here.

Need to  infuse a little new cookie blood into you holiday baking? Head over to Etsy, where I’ve instigated the Great Cookie Swap, encouraging users to share their favorite Christmas cookie recipes and the stories behind them. The post is infused with some of the best cookie recipes from across Etsy, and a little cookie history, too!

Christmas cookies have a long tradition in the United States. The New Amsterdam Dutch who settled along the Hudson River had an annual tradition of passing out New Year’s“koekje,” which means “little cake.” The first of the year was a time to visit your neighbors and share good tidings, and it would have been unthinkable to leave without taking a caraway and orange-flavored koekje for the road. Their Anglo neighbors repeated the word as “cookie,” and an American treat was born.

Go to Etsy and get inspired here!

Etsy Kitchen Histories: Easy-as-Pie Apple Peeler

apple1Get this for your kitchen.

My latest on Etsy is about the 19th century invention that has innovated my kitchen: the mechanical apple peeler.

I’ve never minded paring apples by hand, but it is time consuming. As opposed to fiddlin’ or courtin’, I usually binge watch TV shows or catch up on NPR while spraying the counter and floor in a sticky snowfall of peels and seeds. But this holiday season, I’ve added a tool to my kitchen arsenal that will make my share of the pie baking so much easier: a mechanical apple peeler-slicer-corer. When I sent my first fruit through the cranks and blades of my cast-iron peeler, it blew my mind.

I use the apple peeler to recreate a 1763 recipe for apple and pumpkin pie, which I think is one of the best recipes I have ever made while writing Four Pounds Flour. It is simple. It is sooo delicious. It is the new/old pie that is going to rock your Thanksgiving table.

pie31763 Apple & Pumpkin Pie – a recipe well worth making.

The finished pie had all kinds of caramelized sugar and molasses qualities as a result, giving it a taste somewhere between sweet potato casserole and apple crisp. It’s an excellent addition to your Thanksgiving feast as is, but there is also room for adventurous bakers to play with texture and flavor.

Make it. Read it. Do it.

Events: Masters of Social Gastronomy Present Your Favorite Thanksgiving Foods

partyImage courtesy of The New York Historical Society.

Masters of Social Gastronomy is my monthly food & science lecture with Jonathan Soma of the Brooklyn Brainery. This month, come on over to The Brooklyn Kitchen on Monday, November 18 for a primer on all things Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is the king of holidays: non-denominational, full of beer and good food, a purely American celebration. But where did did this turkey-centric feast come from?

I’ll school you on Thanksgiving’s history, and the origins of some the holiday’s most iconic foods. From the Pilgrims to pumpkin pie, and from President Lincoln to green bean casserole. We’ll even visit some formerly iconic dishes that time has forgotten–unless someone still keeps a “celery holder” on their Thanksgiving table.

Meanwhile, Soma will explore the havoc modernity has wreaked upon Thanksgiving. We’ll visit the twin terrors of turducken and Tofurkey, and see what deep-fried turkey has brought to this world (besides YouTube videos of out-of-control fires).

And, just in case you need another reason to celebrate, this year is the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln declaring Thanksgiving a national holiday. 

All the details:
Monday, November 18, doors at 6:30pm, talk begins at 6:45.
The Brooklyn Kitchen, 100 Frost Street
Advance tickets recommended
$5, includes 2 craft beers

The Razor Blade in the Apple: A Modern History of Trick or Treating

halloween Pine Crest School student carving a Halloween pumpkin: Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 1966 or 67.

Over on Etsy, I recently investigated the early origins of Halloween traditions, including Trick or Treating.  But my research turned up a 20th century twist that I had never considered: the old “razor blade in the apple,” and the fear associated with Halloween candy.

In my Etsy article, I began with my own memories as a trick-or-treator:

I was a trick-or-treat migrant. My mom would import me from my rural home to the neighborhood where she grew up in, an urban suburb with houses closely packed on postage stamp-sized lawns. These city blocks, not the country ones that stretched for miles, were prime candy-collecting territory…I’ll never forget the feeling of adventure, pressing onward into the night, my pillowcase getting heavier and heavier with my candy treasure.

The neighborhood Mom took me to was old-school, meaning in between the houses that passed out Tootsie Rolls and pennies, there were places where elderly couples passed out King Size Snickers bars–king sized! And I’ll never forget the night when a tiny, teetering old lady came to the door with a sheet of freshly baked cookies, still warm from the oven.

I took the cookie to my Mom, terrified. Every year, teachers and television had beaten into my brain to only accept store-bought, wrapped candy. Even then, the treats had to be inspected for tampering. My mom laughed at my nervousness–”If you don’t want it, I’ll eat it!” And she did. And she said it was delicious.

I’ve never forgotten that little old lady. To this day, I wish I had eaten that cookie.

That cookie was from an earlier era: through the 1950s, a trick-or-treator could receive a bevy of homemade treats, and in many cases, could expect to be invited in (to stranger’s homes!!) for punch, snacks, and games. But that all changed in 1964 when a woman in New York got fed up with kids she thought were “too old” for trick-or-treating and began passing out bags of “dog biscuits, poisonous ant buttons, and steel wool” as a trick (source). No one was injured in the incident, but it gave birth to the legend of dangerous Halloween candy. The news media ran with the story, warning parents to inspect candy for tampering, and throw away any homemade treats like apples–lest they contain a razor blade. The “razor blade” motif began emerging in the late 1960s, when the Times reported on more than 20 cases of apple tampering in New Jersey. The razor blades were found by children eagerly chomping into their apples, who then revealed their discoveries to their parents. Except, stop to ask yourself what child is wildly biting into apples on Halloween, when there is a pile of candy as an alternative? It’s ludicrous–and all the incidents were found to be hoaxes (source).

But the nail in the coffin came in 1982, during the Tylenol tampering scandal. Consumers began to fear commercial goods and homemade treats alike, and the heyday of trick-or-treating began to come to an end.

An early 20th century Halloween prank.

It’s interesting how this scenario turns the trick-or-treating tradition on its head. The practice evolved, sort of tongue in cheek, as a bribe to prevent young pranksters from wreaking a little holiday havoc on your house (common prank: remove gate from hinges and leave in street).  But in the modern situation, the person who would have been the victim is now pranking the pranksters. And it resulted in a culture of fear.

More and more, general warnings about dangerous candy have resulted in parents and community organizations throwing Halloween parties as opposed to trick or treating. These parties are a throwback to the games and treats of early 20th century Halloween celebrations and they’ve also revived many of the old Harvest celebrations like bobbing for apples. I enjoy a good Halloween party–but I still hope I can give my children the thrill of hunting through the darkened streets for the King-Sized Snickers bars.

What do you think: will your family be trick or treating this year, or throwing a party instead?

Etsy Kitchen Histories: A History of Halloween!

Halloween costumes are just not as weird as they used to be.

Over on Etsy, I’ve got a history of Halloween with a focus on eating and treating. It’s a weird holiday when you really begin to think about it, right?

When Irish immigrants came to America in the 17th and 18th centuries, they brought All Hallows Eve traditions, which blended with American “mumming” traditions. Practiced on Thanksgiving and New Year’s, mumming involved parading the streets in rags or cross-dressing, playing music or making noise, and demanding food and drink from homeowners. Additionally, Harvest Festivals were celebrated in farming communities, which brought men and women together to shuck corn and dance. Women paring apples might throw an apple peel over their shoulders; when it hit the floor, it would reveal the initials of the girl’s future husband.

Learn more about Halloween’s origins here.

Halloween party decorations from 1924.

Origin of a Dish: Candy Corn

candy_corn_blogA handmade candy corn.

I was recently charged with the task of coming up with a hands-on food activity for the New York Historical Society’s Halloween bash, so I’ve been thinking a lot on the origins of Halloween candy.  One of the first treats to spring to my mind is also the first candy to be associated with the holiday, the much maligned Candy Corn.

The celebration Halloween became popular right at the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th.  Theme parties were all the rage, so you could expect to head over to a friend’s (with the kids or not) for spooky decorations and refreshments.  The Book of Hallowe’en, published in 1919, gives us a sense of what these parties were like:

For the centerpiece of the table there may be a hollowed pumpkin, filled with apples and nuts and other fruits of harvest, or a pumpkin-chariot drawn by field-mice… Jack-o’-lanterns, with which the room is lighted, are hollowed pumpkins with candles inside… Corn-stalks from the garden stand in clumps about the room. A frieze of witches on broomsticks, with cats, bats, and owls surmounts the fireplace, perhaps…The prevailing colors are yellow and black: a deep yellow is the color of most ripe grain and fruit; black stands for black magic and demoniac influence.

Having marched to the dining-room to the time of a dirge, the guests find before them plain, hearty fare; doughnuts, gingerbread, cider, popcorn, apples, and nuts honored by time. The Hallowe’en cake has held the place of honor since the beginning here in America. A ring, key, thimble, penny, and button baked in it foretell respectively speedy marriage, a journey, spinsterhood, wealth, and bachelorhood.

Along side the bowls of party nuts, you were also likely to find a dish of candy corn. Created around 1880, candy corn was not considered a seasonal sweet.  Better known at the time as “chicken feed,” which I think is a very cute name, it was  manufactured year round and was especially popular for the Fourth of July and in Easter baskets. But with its harvest-festival colors of yellow, orange and red it also seemed a natural fit for fall celebrations, and was slowly integrated into Halloween parties. From The Atlantic:

Candy-making oral tradition credits the invention of candy corn to George Renninger, a candy maker at the Wunderle Candy Company of Philadelphia…At that time, many candy makers were producing “butter cream” candies molded into all kinds of natural or plant-inspired shapes, including chestnuts, turnips, and clover leaves. The real innovation in candy corn was the layering of three colors. This made it taxing to produce (all those colors had to be layered by hand in those days). But the bright, layered colors also made the candy novel and visually exciting.

At the turn of the century, despite the fact there was themed candy for every other holiday (including marzipan cherries for Washington’s birthday), candy companies didn’t see Halloween as a candy-oriented holiday.  Desperate for a way to boost fall candy sales, “Candy Day” was invented, a day where you…buy candy. Later to be known as “Sweetest Day,” it’s the second Saturday of October and still celebrated in some areas, like my hometown of Cleveland.

It seems ridiculous that a candy-consuming holiday was invented when Halloween is RIGHT THERE, but it wasn’t really until after WWII, when sugar rationing was lifted, that candy companies finally caught on to the appeal, and started manufacturing Halloween themed candy in appropriate Jack-o-Lantern shapes, fall colors, and fun sizes. Conversely, Brach’s, established in 1904, is now doing its best to detach candy corn from its Halloween-only image, by producing new flavors like “Milk Maid Caramel Candy Corn” and manufacturing different seasonal colors like red & green.

candy_corn_blog2Slicing up the candy corns with my Velveeta Cheese Slicer. Handy!

I’ve never liked candy corn, but I decided to give them a second chance after I stumbled across Alton Brown’s recipe for “chicken feed” from scratch. It blends butter and powdered milk (I used Bob’s Red Mill Non-Fat Dry Milk Powder; is it weird that I love the way powdered milk tastes?) with boiled sugar. There is a bit of a learning curve with this recipe: the first time I made it, the dough turned out unusable, flaky, and weird. The second time, I was more precise: I measure my ingredients by weight instead of volume and boiled the sugar at a lower temperature. Round two was much better, and although my candy corns (pictured above) turned out looking very handmade, I find them endearing. And they taste waaay better than store-bought: they have a creaminess and tartness, a sweet and saltyness, an overall complexity of flavor that can only come from handmade.

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?

Party Time Reenactor: Epiphany!

Just when you thought the holidays were over..THEY’RE NOT!  You know that song, the Twelve Days of Christmas?  Well the partridge in a pear tree is Christmas Day and those twelve drummers drumming appear on January 5th.  The next day, January 6th, is known as the Feast of Epiphany and is the true end of the holiday season.

Sometimes called “Three Kings Day,” it celebrates the Wise Men visiting baby Jesus   But in reality, it’s just another pagan festival appropriated by Christians.  It’s full of drinking and raucousness and CAKE!

Le Galette de Roi means “King Cake,” and it’s an integral part of the French celebration of Epiphanie.  This is another holiday classic I remember from French class, along with buche de noel.  It’s different than the Mardi Gras king cake, (which is–what? Like a bundt cake?) it’s a flaky cake with a surprise inside: a bean, a porcelain baby Jesus, or, in the galette I got once in Paris, a teeny Asterix. Whoever gets the treasure gets to lord over the party for the rest of the night.

James Bauman, in his charming essay in The Wilder Shores of Gastronomy, describes the King Cake tradition:

The warm galette is brought to the table where its fragrance and beauty is admired briefly before it is cut into the proper number of wedges.  A child, usually the youngest, is sent to hide under the table, there to act as the oracle…As he indicates each portion, the ‘master’ asks, ‘For whom is this piece?’ and the child calls out the first name that pops into his head…until all are served and begin eating in an air of anticipation.  For someone is about to find the Bean in his cake and thereby become King (or Queen) of the festivity.  To cries of ‘Long Live the King!’ he is duly crowned…Whenever he raises his glass all must cheer ‘Le Roi Bois! (The King Drinks!) Vive le Roi!” and drinks to his health. Pranks and general merriment ensue…

The cake itself is flaky, like a puff paste, and sometimes almond filled.  I’ll be baking up a historic recipe tomorrow, hidden bean and all, and serving it to my friends. Recipes, photos and more–tomorrow!