Today, May 17th …
Jane Austen wrote a letter to her sister Cassandra on this day in 1799, from the town of Devizes in Wiltshire.
“Our journey yesterday went off exceedingly well; nothing occurred to alarm or delay us. We found the roads in excellent order, had very good horses all the way, and reached Devizes with ease by four o'clock. I suppose John has told you in what manner we were divided when we left Andover, and no alteration was afterwards made. At Devizes we had comfortable rooms and a good dinner, to which we sat down about five; amongst other things we had asparagus and a lobster, which made me wish for you, and some cheesecakes, on which the children made so delightful a supper as to endear the town of Devizes to them for a long time.”
Cheesecakes for supper sound like a wonderfully indulgent holiday treat for children, but then the nature of cheesecakes is such that they can be varied to suit any occasion. Once upon a long time ago, they were simpler and perhaps more elegant, made from curds and eggs, sweetened to a greater or lesser amount, maybe spiced a little, and perhaps enriched with butter or marrow (the marrow from bones that is, not the vegetable) and baked in a shallow “coffin” to a delicate custard consistency.
There are many recipes for cheesecakes in our earliest surviving cookbooks as they were eminently suitable for the large number of fast days decreed by the Church. A Lenten version was made with almond milk and rice, a crustless version was a ‘pudding pie’, a triangular-shaped one was sometimes called a talemouse, and one with added currants made for an extra-lucky consumer. One thing these early cheesecakes did not contain was cream cheese, as this is a thoroughly modern invention. This and the other modern invention of the refrigerator have allowed the invention of unbaked ‘refrigerator cheesecakes’ which may or may not be an abomination compared to the original thing, but which are certainly less work than the original thing.
Recipes for the original thing frequently begin along the lines of ‘first make your curds’, an instruction which usually assumed you had first milked your cow. Here is the method from The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby, Opened, published in 1669.
To Make Cheesecakes
Take 12 quarts of Milk warm from the Cow, turn it with a good spoonfull of Runnet. Break it well, and put it in a large strainer, in which rowl it up and down, that all the Whey may run out into a little tub; when all that will is run out, wring out more. Then break the curds well; then wring it again, and more whey will come. Thus break and wring till no more come. Then work the Curds exceedingly with your hand in a tray, till they become a short uniform Paste. Then put to it the yolks of eight new laid Eggs, and two whites, and a pound of butter. Work all this long together. In the long working (at the several times) consisteth the making them good. Then season them to your taste with Sugar finely beaten; and put in some Cloves and Mace in subtile powder. Then lay them thick in Coffins of fine Paste and bake them.
Tomorrow’s Story …
Gourmet Eggs and Giant Eggs.
This Day, Last Year …
We were sampling the delights of the siege of Mafeking.
Quotation for the Day …
Animal crackers, and cocoa to drink
That is the finest of suppers, I think
When I'm grown up and can have what I please,
I think I shall always insist upon these.
(Founder of Saturday Review, 1924-1941)