Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Nectar, nectar, nectar.

A while back we considered ambrosia, the mythical Food of the Gods, as interpreted by earthly mortals in a variety of recipes across history. The Gods got thirsty too, of course, and to wash down their ambrosia they had their own sweet beverage called nectar. Naturally, Mere Mortals were not content with mere water, and wanted nectar of their own, but as The Gods did not leave a cookery book behind, mortals had to experiment for themselves - which has led to an awful lot of recipes for nectar, as you can imagine.

I give you a random selection of these ideas - and fine suggestions they are too, for the next time you want to feel immortal and all-powerful, or maybe just want to indulge your sweet tooth.

Welsh Nectar
Two gallons of water being boiled, and allowed to cool; one pound of raisins, two pounds of loaf sugar, the juice of three lemons, and their peel cut thin, are added; after being stirred daily for four days, it is run through a jelly bag and bottled; in ten days, or a fortnight more, it will be fit for use, and will be found excellent in warm weather. The corks should be tied down.
The Practice of Cookery: adapted to the business of everyday life, by Mrs Dalgairns, 1830

To make Nectar.
Put half a pound of loaf sugar into a large porcelain jug; add one pint of cold water; bruise and stir the sugar till it is completely dissolved; pour over it half a bottle of hock and one bottle of madeira. Mix them well together, and grate in half a nutmeg, with a drop or two of the essence of lemon. Set the jug in a bucket of ice for one hour.
Family Receipts: or, Practical Guide for the husbandman and housewife, (1831) by H.L. Barnum

Cream Nectar
Put six pounds of crushed white sugar into a preserving kettle, on it pour two quarts of warm water and add four ounces of tartaric acid; stir well, keeping it in a hot place; when the sugar is dissolved by the heat and water (but do not let it boil) add the whites of four eggs beaten to a stiff froth, stir them well through; then remove the kettle from the fire, and when cool add enough of essence of lemon to give it a pleasant flavor; then bottle and keep in a cool place. When required for use take two table-spoonsful of this syrup and then fill the tumbler two-thirds full of ice water, stir in a teaspoonful of subcarbonate of soda until it effervesces, and it will prove a most refreshing and delicious drink.
Mrs Goodfellow’s Cookery as it should be (1865)

Raspberry Nectar.
Dissolve two cupfuls of sugar in the same amount of cold water; add the grated rind of one orange, taking care to use the yellow part only, as the white rind imparts a bitter taste. Bring to a boil. Strain this syrup and add it to the juice of two lemons and two oranges, and one quart of raspberry juice. Set in a cold place and allow to get ice cold before serving.
Fruits and Their Cookery, (1921) by Harriet Schuyler Nelson.

Quotation for the Day.

NECTAR, n. A drink served at banquets of the Olympian deities. The secret of its preparation is lost, but the modern Kentuckians believe that they come pretty near to a knowledge of its chief ingredient.
Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Cold Coffee

I don’t believe I have given you a recipe for making coffee during the lifetime of this blog. You may even believe that this would be a ridiculously unnecessary waste of blog space, and perhaps it is – although, on thinking about it, I have had more awful cups of coffee in my life than fantastic cups, in coffee-shops in several countries, so perhaps that is an assumption that needs challenging. In tea-addicted England in the 1840’s, however, coffee was somewhat of a mystery in most households. The editor of the Magazine of Domestic Economy saw fit to include a recipe (economical of course) for coffee in 1840.

And as for those of you who think you don’t need a recipe for coffee - I bet you don’t have one making it with cold water in your armamentarium.

The following novel recipe for making excellent coffee has been addressed by Professor Gregory to the Editor of the Kelso Mail.

“Sir, - The present high price of tea, likely as it is to rise still higher, gives a new degree of importance to the use of coffee as an economical substitute for it. Unfortunately, however, the making of coffee is so little understood in this country, that many are deterred from trying it by its notorious badness. It cannot therefore be indifferent to your readers to be put in possession of a simple and cheap method of making the very finest flavoured coffee.
This method is founded on the fact that cold water is capable of extracting all the pleasant and aromatic parts of roasted coffee, and may be described as an economical method of extracting coffee by means of cold water. As the most delicious part of the aroma of coffee is dissipated by boiling, coffee prepared by cold water is decidedly superior in flavour to that made by boiling.
The only apparatus required is a cylinder or percolator and a few quart bottles. The percolator is a cylinder, twenty to twenty four inches long, and two to two one eighth inches wide, terminating below in a funnel, the neck of which enters a bottle placed to receive the coffee. The following is the method of using this simple apparatus:- The throat of the funnel being lightly stopped with a clean bit of cotton wool, half a pound of ground coffee is to be mixed up in any convenient vessel with so much cold water as thoroughly to moisten it and give it the consistence of thin porridge. When this has stood for an hour or so, the mass is introduced into the percolator by means of a wide funnel. It immediately begins to drop into the bottle, and already the drops consist of a very strong infusion, nearly black. When the mass ceases to drop, the coffee is still impregnated with a very strong liquor. To obtain this, pour on gently through the upper end of the percolator as much cold water as fills it to the top. The pressure of this column of water forces out the liquid which is in the pores of the coffee and fresh water takes its place. This, in its turn, becomes charged though less strongly with the soluble parts of the powder and is in its turn displaced by the water above. At last, when the liquor which passes through (the cylinder being filled up from time to time) becomes very pale, the operation may be stopped, as the liquid remaining in the powder is now too weak to repay the trouble of extracting it. The whole of the liquors which have passed through, and to collect which several bottles may have been required, are to be mixed together; and if the directions above given be exactly followed, it will be found that, when made up, if necessary to the bulk of six imperial pints, the resulting liquid is strong and perfectly clear coffee of the most delicate flavour. Should six pints have been passed through, the liquors, when mixed, are ready for use; but if the filtered liquors amount, for example only to four pints, two pints of water are to be added. This sometimes happens, because from a variety of causes, the coffee is sooner exhausted in some experiments than in others.
… I ought not to omit to add that the exhausted coffee yields, when boiled with water, so much soluble matter as to furnish a considerable quantity of very tolerable coffe, not equal, certainly, in flavour to the cold infusion, but far from being disagreeable. When the cold infused coffee is to be used, it must, of course, be heated; but it ought only to be brought to the boiling point, not boiled, as boiling dissipates a great part of the flavour.

Quotation for the Day.

In America you can buy bucket-sized cups of coffee in any flavour you like other than coffee-flavour.
Author Unknown

Friday, November 26, 2010

Casserole or Stew?

Once upon a time, I used to think that a ‘stew’ was a utilitarian family dish that was cooked on the top of the stove, and a casserole was a posher dish suitable to serve to guests that was cooked in the oven. The older I get and the more I learn the less I know, it seems, for today I am unable to distinguish between the two – as exemplified in a previous post in which we had a recipe for 'Baked Irish Stew’.

The origin of both words is interesting however. ‘Casserole’ (a word derived from French or Spanish) originally referred to a ‘kind of stew-pan’. During the eighteenth century in England, it came also to refer to the contents (which ultimately necessitated the changing of the name of the container to casserole dish.) Sometimes ‘casserole’ also means ‘the edging or outer portion of certain dressed dishes.’

‘Stew’ is much older old word with many meanings, as we have discussed previously. To recap: in the fourteenth century it meant ‘a pond or tank in which fish are kept until needed for the table’, ‘a stove, heated room’ and ‘a vessel for boiling’; to make matters more amusing, it also meant a bath house, and as these were often used for ‘immoral purposes’, a ‘stew’ also meant ‘a brothel.’ Think on that next time you make a nice stew for the family. The word came into its modern meaning of ‘a preparation of meat slowly boiled in a stew-pan, generally containing vegetables, rice, etc’ round about the same time as the casserole was adapted to English use – somewhere in the eighteenth century.

Here is a nice early recipe for ‘casserole’, which is eminently doable today.

To Dress Rabbets in Casserole
Divide the rabbits into quarters. You may lard them, or let them alone, just as you please, shake some flour over them and fry them with lard or butter, then put them into an earthen pipkin with a quart of good broth, a glass of white wine, a little pepper and salt, if wanted, a bunch of sweet herbs, and a piece of butter as big as a walnut rolled in flour; cover them close and let them stew half an hour, then dish them up and pour the sauce over them. Garnish with Seville orange, cut into thin slices and notched; the peel that is cut out lay prettily between the slices.
The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747)

And as an example of a ‘casserole’ as an edging for another dish, I give you the following rather tricky recipe from The Practice of Cookery, adapted to the business of everyday life, by Mrs Dalgairns (1830)

Casserole of Rice.
Having cleaned and drained about half a pound of rice, moisten it in a stew-pan, with some fat - that which gathers on the top of liquor in which meat has been boiled; strain some broth or soup, add to it a large quantity of grease, some pieces of fat bacon, and a little salt, and mix it with the rice, to make it swell as much as possible; stir it frequently over a slow fire to keep it from sticking; when it is soft strain it through a cullender, and press it well with a wooden spoon. The mould being selected for the casserole, rinse it with the fat drained from the rice, taking care that every part of the inside of the mould be well greased, then cover it with rice, and place a piece of the crumb of bread in the middle, and cover it with rice also; press it in equally with a spoon, and let it cool. When the rice has become firm, dip the outside of the mould into boiling water; put a covering of paste made with flour and water; flatten it all round with a spoon, and make an opening in the top with a knife, then put it into the oven, which cannot be too hot for a casserole, baste it with the grease, and when it has become of a fine colour, take it out of the oven, remove the crust, and take out the bread carefully, so that the casserole may not be injured ; next remove some of the rice from the inside; taking care to leave enough to resist the weight of whatever may be put inside of it. Fill it with minced meat, ragout, blanquette, fricassee of chickens, macaroni, or scollops of fish, that have been already served at table; return it to the oven, and when nicely browned, serve it.

Quotation for the Day.
This is not that, and that is certainly not this, and at the same time an oyster stew is not stewed, and although they are made of the same things and even cooked almost the same way, an oyster soup should never be called a stew, nor stew soup.
M.F.K. Fisher (1908-1992)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving, Again.

It is a little difficult to avoid giving you a Thanksgiving story today – and why would I want to anyway? Before I give you today’s historical Thanksgiving menu, here are the links to previous Thanksgiving posts, in case you should want to thoroughly revise the topic before we proceed.

Over a dozen historical Thanksgiving menus are included in the following four posts: here, here, here, and  here.

Five posts have covered Thanksgiving pies:
Pumpkin, Pecan, Cranberry, Apple, Mincemeat.

Other Thanksgiving foods featured in the past have been:
Succotash, Sweet Potato,Vegetarian ‘Mock Turkey’,Turkey, Cranberry Sauce, Turkey Dressing,

We have also had fun with:
Thanksgiving breakfast.
Thanksgiving Ideas for the Bride Housewife.

Now, as the military seem to be under-represented in the posts for this special day, here is the
Thanksgiving Day menu for 1945 from U.S.S. PC-1138, in Pearl Harbour, Hawaii.

Celery and Ripe Olives
Cream of Tomato Soup
Vegetable Dressing Giblet Gravy Mashed Potato
Fruit Cocktail
Pie Plum Pudding
Nuts Candy
Cigars and Cigarettes.

For the today’s recipe, I give you a military quantity of Cream of Tomato Soup from the U.S. Navy cook-book (1920). I doubt that the military were doing it much differently a couple of decades later when the men aboard U.S.S. PC-1138 enjoyed their turkey and cigarettes in 1945.

10 gals. stock
20 lbs.tomatoes
3 lbs. onions
5 lbs. flour
3 lbs. milk
1/8 oz baking soda
5 lbs. bread for croutons.
Boil together the tomatoes and onions until they become a pulp, then mash and strain through a fine colander; add to the stock and thicken well with a white roux. Simmer for 30 minutes; then add the soda and then the milk. Season and serve with the croutons. The consistency of this soup should be that of a good thick cream.

Quotation for the Day.

What's a soup kitchen?
Paris Hilton.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Bamboo, Episode 2.

I know I promised some vaguely Thanksgiving-related postings this week, but I seem to have been waylaid by my little grandsons the last couple of days, and the intended story for today needs too much tweaking for the lateness of the hour. Instead, I give you a story I have had up my sleeve for just such an occasion ….

I came across a reference to bread made from bamboo seed some time ago, and it continues to intrigue me greatly because I cannot find any decently detailed information on where and how it is made. The search led me back to one of my own blog posts, in which I quoted the Oxford English Dictionary to the effect that the first mention in English of ‘bamboo shoots’ as a culinary item was in the words of the writer Rudyard Kipling in 1899. This might technically be true, but only in so far as it applies to the phrase ‘bamboo shoots’ – clearly the English experience of the edible parts of the plant go at least a century further back.

The Cyclopaedia of practical receipts and collateral information in the arts, manufactures, professions, and trades, including medicine, pharmacy, and domestic economy, (London, 1879) has, under the heading ‘Bambusa’, the following information:

“There is, perhaps, scarcely any other plant besides the palm which serves for so many purposes usefl to man, as the various species of bamboo. Its grain is used for bread, the young shoots are eaten like asparagus, and are also pickled; the smaller stalks are made int walking canes …………”

Travellers returning from the exotic East brought back descriptions, and no doubt actual jars, of pickled bamboo shoots long before Kipling tasted them in Japan. The proof is in a recipe for mock bamboo, in A collection of above three hundred receipts in cookery ……by Mary Kettilby, published in 1734. Surely a dish can be said to have well and truly ‘arrived’ when it is popular enough to be imitated?

An Admirable Pickle, in Imitation of India Bamboo, exactly as that is done.
Take the largest and youngest Shoots of Elder, which put out in the middle of May, the middle Stalks are most tender and biggest, the small are not worth doing; peel off the outward Peel or Skin, and lay them in a strong Brine of Salt and Water for one Night, and then dry them in a Cloth, Piece by Piece; in the meantime, make your Pickle of half White-wine, and half Beer-Vinegar; to each Quart of Pickle you must put an Ounce of White or Red Pepper, an Ounce of Ginger, sliced, a little Mace, and a few Corns of Jamaica Pepper: when the Spice has boil’d in the Pickle, pour it hot upon the Shoots, stop them close immediately, and set the Jar two hours before the Fire, turning it often; ‘tis as good a way to green this or any other Pickle, as often boiling, though either way is certain, if you keep it scalding hot; always use Stone Jars for any sort of Pickle, if they can be got, the first Charge is inconsiderable, and they do not only last longer than Earth, but keep the Pickle better, because Vinegar will penetrate through all Earthen Vessels, and Glass will not bear the Fire: this is a very crisp pretty-tasting Pickle.

And here is another pre-Kipling version, from A new system of domestic cookery: formed upon principles of economy …(1808) by Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell.

English Bamboo.
Cut the large young shoots of elder, which put out in the middle of May (the middle stalks are most tender); peel off the outward peel, or skin, and lay them in salt and water, very strong, one night. Dry them piece by piece in cloth. Have in readiness a pickle thus made and boiled: to a quart of vinegar put an ounce of white pepper, an ounce of sliced ginger, a little mace and pimento, and pour boiling on the elder-shoots in a stone jar; stop close and set by the fire two hours, turning the jar often to keep it scalding hot. If not green when cold, strain off the liquor and pour boiling hot again; keep it hot as before. Or, if you intend to make India pickle, the above shoots are a great improvement to it; in which case you need only pour boiling vinegar and mustard seed on them; and keep them till your jar of pickles shall be ready to receive them. The cluster of elder-flowers before it opens makes a delicious pickle to eat with boiled mutton. It is prepared by only pouring vinegar over.

Quotation for the Day.

When it comes to foreign food, the less authentic the better.
Gerald Nachman, San Francisco Chronicle.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Hazards of Gravy-Making.

The English may only have two sauces, if the old saw is to be believed - but as one of them is gravy, and the other one is custard, and both of these are infinitely variable - no higher number is needed.

I understand that some of the hopeful ‘cookstove artists’ amongst you are afraid of gravy-making. Today we are blessed with an elegant sufficiency of instant everything and anything for the kitchen, including of course sauces, including gravy, in many forms – powder, cube, jar, or resealable plastic packet. Many of these will be purchased in the ensuing weeks to enhance or disguise the Thanksgiving roasts and Christmas puddings, so in view of my promise yesterday, I thought it might be fun to look back to a time when instant gravy was a novelty. Here are the enthusiastic words of a columnist in the New York Times of May 13, 1941.

Ready-to-Cook Gravy Latest Addition to Quick Aids for Harassed Housewife.

We are in a perpetual state of amazement these days over the endless parade of culinary short-cuts constantly coming into view. If things keep up at this rate much longer, filling the water glasses will be the most taxing part of preparing a full-course feast. Latest addition to the time-saving collection is a base that is said to eliminate the hazards of gravy-making – that Armageddon in which many a hopeful cookstove artist has gone down to a disgraceful defeat. The gravy base is the inspiration of a transplanted California couple who, in the little shop adjoining their Long Island home, have confined their previous experiments to herbs and new uses for them. Now, thanks to them, we can eliminate fussing with a pinch of salt, a tablespoon of flour, a dash of pepper – all these are right in the preparation. Included as well are a variety of herbs and spices that lend a full-bodied flavour to both soups and gravies. The sponsors of this newcomer declare that with very little effort you can produce at will a thin white sauce, a brown gravy, or a cream gravy. The cost of the preparation is 30 cents for a seven-ounce jar.

Gravy for Roast Meat.
Ingredients:- Gravy, salt.
Mode:- Put a common dish with a small quantity of salt in it under the meat, about a quarter of an hour before it is removed from the fire. When the dish is full take it away, baste the meat, and pour the gravy into the dish on which the joint is to be served.
Mrs. Beeton’s Dictionary of Everyday Cookery; Isabella Beeton, 1865

Quotation for the Day.

"....grease is not gravy. How often I have wished, from the depths of a loathing stomach, that certain well-meaning housekeepers - at whose boards I have sat as guest or boarder - who fry beefsteak in lard, and send ham to table swimming in fat; upon the surface of whose soups float spheroids of oil that encase the spoon with blubber, and coat the lips and tongue of the eater with flaky scales-that these dear souls who believe in 'old-fashioned cookery,' understood this simple law of digestive gravity!"
Breakfast, Luncheon and Tea, Marion Harland, (Mary Virginia Terhune) (1875)

Monday, November 22, 2010

Capon Capers.

Christmas is on the horizon, and for those of you in the USA, Thanksgiving is closer still, which means that some grand catering schemes will already be underway in many of your households. I thought this week I would try to find some tricks, treats, or temptations to amuse you as you work.

One of the terrors of catering for family events is that of unexpected guests. Professional chefs have professional-size cold rooms and pantries and professional know-how, so an extra mouth or ten to feed should cause no more than a minor ripple of reorganisation in the kitchen. Not so for the harassed home-cook with an over-stuffed fridge and depleted bank account, for whom finding more food to go around at short notice can be traumatic in the extreme. What if there is only a small piece of pork or a single chicken to roast, and find (through one of those little family communication glitches) that you were not told (or were told and forgot) that half-a-dozen extras had been invited by ‘someone’ in the circle? You could get into a long debate along the lines of ‘I told you’ - ‘No you didn’t’ ‘- Yes I did’ - ‘No you didn’t’, but this will not make the guests fail to appear, and it will also waste valuable time.

Instead of wasting it in a futile conversation, you could use the time to make a ‘sham pig’ - if you had enough potatoes and were a dab hand at modelling (Sensible Rule No. 1: always ensure that you have the raw materials at hand for Fun with Potatoes). Or alternatively, you could make two chickens out of one, if you were a dab hand at skinning a bird neatly. The following fifteenth century recipe could be your guide.

Two capons of one.
To make two capons of one, take a capon and scald him clean and keme off the skin by the back. Then flay off the skin but keep it whole. Then grind figs and fresh pork with powder of ginger and cinnamon and stuff the skin and sew it fast and roast it sokingly and serve it

Quotation for the Day.

Do not be afraid of simplicity. If you have a cold chicken for supper, why cover it with a tasteless white sauce which makes it look like a pretentious dish on the buffet table at some fancy dress ball?
Marcel Boulestin (1878-1943)

Friday, November 19, 2010

To Dress Snayles.

It is strange, what we each consider disgusting in the way of food. Most of us would not consider eating cockroaches, largely because of their perceived dirty scavenging eating habits yet lust after lobsters, which are sometimes called ‘the cockroaches of the sea’ for their similar eating preferences. Snails are another opinion-dividing food – are they a disgusting garden-destroying, slimy, rubbery vermin, or a delicious appetiser?

I make no apologies for using for at least the second time the quotation at the end of the post. I think it is very funny, and it does reinforce the notion that snail-eating is a decidedly French habit. This is not, or was not true, of course. Snails were commonly used in England and many other countries in previous times, both for their perceived medicinal value and as a valuable and nourishing food.

I give you three recipes for snails – one each from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. The sliminess of snails suggested their use for soothing the chest, hence their recommendation in cases of consumption and other lung complaints.

To dresse snayles.
Take your Snayles (they are no way so as in Pottage) and wash them very well in many waters, and when you have done put them in a White Earthen Pan, or very wide Dish, and put as much water to them as will cover them, and then set your Dish or Pan on some coales, that it may heat by little and little, and then the Snayles will come out of the shells and so dye, and being dead, take them out and wash them very well in Water and salt twice or thrice over; then put them in a Pipkin with Water and Salt, and let them boyle a little while in that, so take away the rude slime they have, then take them out againe and put them in a Cullender; then take excellent sallet Oyle and beat it a great while upon the fire in a frying Pan, and when it boyls very fast, slice two or three Onyons in it, and let them fry well, then put the Snayles in the Oyle and Onyons, and let them stew together a little, then put the Oyle, Onyons, and Snayles altogether in an earthen Pipkin of a fit size for your Snayles, and put as much warm water to them as will serve to boyle them and make the Pottage and season them with Salt, and so let them boyle three or foure hours; then mingle Parsley, Pennyroyall, Fennell, Tyme, and such Herbs, and when they are minced put them in a Morter and beat them as you do for Green-sauce, andput in some crums of bread soaked in the Pottage of the Snayles, and then dissolve it all in the Morter with a little Saffron and Cloves well beaten, and put in as much Pottage into the Morter as will make the Spice and bread and Herbs like thickening for a pot, so put them all into the Snayles and let them stew in it, and when you serve them up, you may squeeze into the Pottage a Lemon, and put in a little Vinegar, or if you put in a Clove of Garlick among the Herbs, and beat iti with them in the Morter, it will not tast the worse;serve them up in a Dish with sippets of Bread in the bottom. The Pottage is very nourishing, and they use them that are apt to a Consumption.
The Compleat Cook, Nathaniel Brook, 1658

To Stew Snails.
Scour them, and cleanse them well, put them into a Pipkin with Claret and Wine-vinegar, Salt, Pepper, Mace, grated Bread, Thyme shred, Capers, and the Yolks of a hard Egg or two, minc’d. Stew all these together, then put in a good piece of Butter, and shake them well together, warm a Dish, rub it with a Clove of Garlick, lay Sippets in the Dish, put on the Snails, garnish with Barberries and slices of Lemon.
The Cook’s and Confectioner’s Dictionary (1723) John Nott.

There is no sense in the previous two recipes of needing to be apologetic about the main ingredient. By the nineteenth century, perhaps sensibilities had changed – at least, that is what is suggested by the final recipe, in which the author notes that some repugnance may have to be overcome, and that the taste may be ‘mawkish’.

Snail Broth.
Wash them extremely well, and throw them into very hot water; take them out of the shell, and pass them through several waters; working them well with the hand; slice them, pound the shells, and put all into a saucepan, with as much water as will cover; boil, skim, and let them simmer for several hours; add a little salt, sugar, and a very small quantity of mace, to correct the mawkish taste: a tea-cupful may be taken four times a day, with or without conserve of roses. Should the patient have any repugnance to it in this form, let it be put into some weak veal broth; this is far preferable to slater [woodlouse] wine …
Domestic economy, and cookery, for rich and poor, (1827)

This final recipe is included in the chapter on Medicinal Soups in my new book Soup: a Global History, which is available now. You can read about it at Reaktion Press, and you can even buy it from Amazon or your preferred book supplier.

Quotation for the Day.
The French are not rude. They just happen to hate you. But that is no reason to bypass this beautiful country, whose master chefs have a well-deserved worldwide reputation for trying to trick people into eating snails. Nobody is sure how this got started. Probably a couple of French master chefs were standing around one day, and they found a snail, and one of them said: "I bet that if we called this something like `escargot,' tourists would eat it." Then they had hearty laugh, because ‘escargot’ is the French word for ‘fat crawling bag of phlegm.’
Dave Barry

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Capers, Real and Not.

In yesterday’s post I mooted the idea that radishes must be due to become restaurant-trendy again, and also included brief mention of the use of radish seed pods as a substitute for capers. Now, I am pretty sure that capers themselves are staging a come-back. I feel sure they are sneaking up in restaurant dishes more frequently than they used to. If this is the case, will the mock caper return to the scene too?

The caper bush is a prickly shrub (Capparis spinosa) which thrives in the most unfertile-appearing locations. It grows in poor soil and in the crevices of stone walls and rocky outcrops, in the salty sea air in places where it is hot and dry such as the Mediterranean coastline.

Culinary capers are the immature flower buds of this bush which have been pickled in vinegar or preserved in salt. They have been used in cookery since the time of the Ancient Greeks, and became important to cooks in the cooler areas of Britain and Europe in the eighteenth century for the making of caper sauce, then an essential accompaniment to mutton.

The caper gets its pungency from the same components as are in mustard oil, and it is not to everyone’s taste. My favourite caper-quote is from Nora Ephron and appears at the end of the post, but here is another opinion from Encyclopaedia Americana (1830)

‘To persons unaccustomed to it, the taste of capers is unpleasant; but after a little while the palate becomes perfectly reconciled to it.

If one has become accustomed and thence reconciled to capers to the point where one must have caper sauce to one’s mutton, in the absence of the real thing one can, as we have learned, make a substitute caper. The most popular is made from the buds of the colourful nasturtium flower, but in addition to the radish buds mentioned yesterday, other plants can fake them too. I have found mention of the berberry ( Pepperidge Tree) and the marsh marigold, and in The Cook and Housekeeper’s Complete and Universal Dictionary, (1822) Mary Eaton suggests that ‘An excellent substitute for capers may be made of pickled green peas, nastursions, or gherkins, chopped in similar size, and boiled with melted butter.’ Mrs. Eaton also provides today’s recipe for genuine caper sauce:

Caper Sauce
Add a tablespoonful of capers to twice the quantity of vinegar, mince one third of the capers very fine, and divide the others in half. Put them into a quarter of a pint of melted butter, or good thickened gravy, and stir them the same way as the melted butter, to prevent their oiling.

In the absence of capers, one could presumably use one of the mock alternatives to make one’s ‘caper’ sauce. The other alternative would be to take faking it to a greater level altogether and serve the following:

An excellent substitute for Caper Sauce.
Boil, slowly, some parsley, that may become a bad colour, cut it, but do not chop fine; put it to melted butter, with a dessert-spoonful of vinegar, and a tea-spoonful of salt. Boil, and serve.
A New System of Domestic Cookery (1826), by Maria Rundell.

Quotation for the Day.

Nobody really likes capers no matter what you do with them. Some people pretend to like capers, but the truth is that any dish that tastes good with capers in it, tastes even better with capers not in it.
Nora Ephron.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Things to do with Radishes.

It must soon be the turn of the radish to be trendy again, must it not? I haven’t thought about radishes for – Oh! Ages and Ages, and I don’t remember the last time I was served them in a restaurant salad. My radish thoughts were stimulated by finding that, in the cooler parts of the Northern hemisphere, this month used to be the time for putting by the products of the radish crop so that they could furnish the table during the fresh vegetable dearth-time of winter. Thankfully, we have cool-rooms and refrigerators instead of cellars full of sand barrels nowadays, but the following idea is worth remembering:

A Guide to the Orchard and Kitchen Garden (1831) describes 15 varieties of radish, six of which “will supply the table in succession through the autumn and winter. Those which are intended for winter use should be taken up in dry weather in November, divested of their leaves and fibres, and preserved in sand until they are wanted.”

The radish (Raphanus sativus) belongs to the family Brassicaceae – the mustard and cabbage family that has been an important source of human nutrition for millennia. As with other members of the family, the radish is so ancient and so widespread that its wild origins are lost in the mists of time, but it appears to have been cultivated since the pre-Roman era. The whole plant is edible, although the root is the most familiar and is the main reason for its cultivation. The plant grows and matures very rapidly (‘raphanus’ refers to this characteristic), and there are now many different varieties with slightly different growing requirements so that nowadays they are available most of the year round.

John Gerard in his Herball or General Historie of Plantes, published in 1597, indicated their culinary use (and the always associated health implications) thus:

“Radish are eaten raw with bread instead of other food. .. for the most part, they are used in sauce with meates to procure appetite, and in that sort they ingender blood lesse faulty, than eaten alone or with bread onely...”

By the early nineteenth century, the uses of the radish were summed up in The Practical Gardener, and Modern Horticulturalist (1828)

“The roots are much esteemed as salad, and are the only part of the plant generally used in a raw state. The pods are pickled, and considered a substitute for capers. Sometimes the tender tops are used along with other small salads; and they were anciently boiled, when full grown, and used as greens.”

The oil from radish seeds has been used medicinally since ancient times for a variety of conditions. More recently it has been proposed as a useful bio-fuel. If you add these applications to the culinary uses, you end up with a very useful plant indeed.

Methinks that when we do prepare the radish for our table, we use it in a fairly uninspiring way these days. We don’t make it a feature, do we? We certainly don’t feature the leaves as often as we should – perhaps because to do that we have to grow our own?

The American Salad Book (1899) gives a recipe for radish leaf salad, plus four using the root - including one variation on the classic Waldorf. Sadly, the proof-reader of the cookbook missed the missing radish from the ingredient list - presumably it should be mixed with the apples before adding the mayonnaise. I could not omit the recipe however, as I have previously featured Waldorf salad history and variations (here, and here), and I hate to miss an opportunity to expand a theme.

Radish Leaf Salad.
When the rows of young radishes are being thinned a very good salad can be made from the leaves of those taken out. Serve with French dressing made with a little onion juice, or sprinkled with mixed chives. Excellent in potato salad.

Radish Salad No. 4 Waldorf.
This is served with meat pies or hot meats. Four large tart apples are pared, cut into small pieces and mixed immediately with [the quantity of radishes] a teaspoonful of salt, one of paprika, and two tablespoonfuls of tarragon vinegar. Pour over the whole a large cupful of mayonnaise dressing. Serve on leaves of lettuce.

Quotation for the Day.

The radish is "a vulgar article of the diet" that has a "...remarkable power of causing flatulence and eructation."

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Mode of Cooking the Potato.

Compared with, say, chocolate, the potato was slow to be adopted in the Old World for a number of reasons touched upon in previous blog posts (here, and here.) It started to become established in Europe and Britain in the dying decades of the eighteenth century, but a hundred years later the writers of agricultural tracts and cookery books still felt it necessary to give explicit instructions for the most basic ways of preparing this most useful vegetable.

It may seem quaint, now, this need to inform on such an elementary cooking technique, but before you scoff at the ignorance of our recent ancestors, be aware that studies have shown that a large proportion of our urban youth does not know how to proceed when faced with a dirty, raw potato. To this cohort, their knowledge of cooking the potato extends to the microwaving of frozen products including ‘chips.’

I give you extracts from two nineteenth century sources on simple potato cooking methods, one from America, one from England.

From the American agriculturist, Volume 25 in 1866, an article entitled About Potatoes, and Cooking Them gives an explanation of the starch and water content of the potato in comparison to other foods, and then goes on to advise about the mode of cooking them.

COOKING: The starch in potatoes exists as little grains 10 or 12 of them together, in cells. Heating the potato by boiling, steaming, or baking, causes these cells to burst, and the water unites with the starch grains, swelling them. If all the water contained in the potato thus unites with its starch, the potato cooks dry and mealy. If only part of the water is absorbed by the starch, the potato is watery. The best mode of cooking this esculent is by baking, which drives off all the water that does not unite with the starch. If boiled, cook them rapidly, and when just done, dry them out; then they are improved by mashing fine to free them from indigestible lumps; this, of course, can be done by the teeth of those who prefer their potatoes ‘undressed’. Frying them dries up the starch, leaving it similar to charcoal, and when done brown they are almost as indigestible as so much charcoal or wood.

From the English publication The Gardener's magazine and register of rural &domestic improvement, in 1826, there is support for the beautiful notion of butter with potatoes.

On the Culture of the Early Potatoe as practised in Lancashire, and on the Mode of cooking the Potatoe there.
Perhaps the Lancashire mode of dressing early potatoes may not be unacceptable to some of your readers. Brush off the skins, set them on the fire in cold water; when boiled, pour off the water completely; add a little salt, and dry them well on the fire. An iron pot I conceive is the best vessel for the purpose, and the sooner they are eaten with cold butter the better.
London, February 1826.

Quotation for the Day.

I have made a lot of mistakes falling in love, and regretted most of them, but never the potatoes that went with them.
Nora Ephron, Heartburn.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Mode of Cooking Rations.

It is a while since we had any military food history, so today I want to give you some wisdom and recipes from an American Civil War era manual. It is the Hand-book for Active Service: Containing Practical Instructions in Campaign Duties, for the Use of Volunteers (1861), and it has an entire section on that most important duty – the feeding of the troops.


The history of military campaigns develops no fact more striking than that a very large percentage of the casualties are those of diseases incident to an improper diet. .…

The regular daily ration of food issued to the troops in the United States service, is three fourths of a pound of pork or bacon, or one and a fourth pounds of fresh or salt beef, eighteen ounces of bread or flour, or twelve ounces of hard bread, or one and a fourth pounds of corn meal, and at the rate, to one hundred rations, of eight quarts of peas or beans, or in lieu thereof ten pounds of rice; six pounds of coffee; twelve pounds of sugar; four quarts of vinegar; one and a half pounds of tallow, or one and a fourth pounds of adamantine, or one pound sperm candles; four pounds of soap, and two quarts of salt.
On a campaign or on marches or on board transports the ration of hard bread is one pound.
Fresh beef, when it can be procured, should be furnished at least twice a week; the beef to be procured, if possible, by contract.

The recipes for the use of these rations, each for a mess of 25 men, are, as would be expected, for very minor variations on a theme of soup and stew. I found the recipes for tea and coffee quite interesting however, so here they are.

Tea for 25 men.
Allow 12 quarts of water; put the rations of tea, a large teaspoonful to each, in a cloth tied up very loosely; throw it into the boiler while it is boiling hard for a moment. Then take off the boiler, cover it, and let it stand full ten minutes when it will be ready to use; first add sugar and milk, if to be had at the rate of 3 pints or 2 quarts of milk, and a pound or a pound and a half of sugar.

Coffee for 25 men.
Take 12 quarts of water, when it boils add 20 ounces of coffee, mix it well and leave it on the fire till it commences to boil, then take it off and pour into it a little more than a quart of cold water; let it stand in a warm place full ten minutes; the dregs will settle at the bottom and the coffee be perfectly clear. Pour it then into another vessel, leaving the dregs in the first; add sugar, 4 teaspoonsful to the quart. If you can get milk leave out five quarts of water in the above receipt, and put milk in its place.

Quotation for the Day.

When General Lee took possession of Chambersburg on his way to Gettysburg, we happened to be a member of the Committee representing the town. Among the first things he demanded for his army was twenty-five barrels of Saur-Kraut.
The Guardian (1869)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Curried What?

I dallied rather a long time in the archives of Brisbane’s The Queenslander newspaper while I was tracking down food information for yesterday’s story on Ned Kelly. I cannot resist giving you the opinions on ‘curry’ from the edition of November 4, 1882. I was pleasantly surprised by the article. I expected the usual Anglo-Indian advice based on the ‘one curry powder fits all’ principle – which is how the article seems to start out – but read on, and see what is mentioned further down in the story – lemon-grass and fresh coriander for example. It is a broader view than usual for the era, that is certain, although a degree of kindly tolerance is still requested from my friends from the Indian sub-continent, please!

MOST people, more especially old Anglo- Indians, have a liking for a really good curry; but how very rarely it is to be obtained in England, unless at the house of someone who has passed a good many years in India. The dish miscalled a curry is very frequently set before people, but too often as far as possible removed from the real and appetising plat which a good Indian cook will send to table. The meat is tough, has most likely been boiled instead of gently simmered, the sauce, or thick gravy, is not enough in all conscience, but it tastes only of curry powder of an inferior kind; the rice is a sloppy mess, and the result is a fiery leathery sort of indigestible hash, instead of a sweet-acid highly but agreeably flavoured, perfectly cooked, and digestible dish, fit to set before a prince. The mere cooking of a curry is not the difficult part of it, though that requires to be understood. Any cook, of whatever nationality, who has really mastered the art of stewing properly—that is, very gently and slowly—can cook a curry; the real difficulties lie in procuring good curry powder or curry paste, which in England is by no means easy to do, and in properly flavouring. I read lately an excellent article on curries in the Pioneer Mail, written by "Wyvern," a great authority on Indian cooking generally, and, as the paper in which it appeared is not very constantly met with here, I extract his recipes on curry making and for curry powder, which last was given him by an accomplished chatelaine on the eve of her departure from India as a token of goodwill; he observes that the quantity the recipe makes is rather alarming; but, by keeping the proper proportions, half or a quarter of the amount could be made instead. All curry powders improve very much by being kept thoroughly well corked down in perfectly dry bottles, and if the dozen bottles—of the size of those used for importing tart fruits—which is the amount the recipe in full will make when finally mixed, are too many to be kept in stock, it would be easy to share them with friends by arrangement. Here is the recipe: 10 lb. of turmeric (Hind, huldi), 10 lb of coriander seed (dhunnia), 2 lb. cummin seed (jcera), 2 lb. of poppy seed (khush khush), 1 lb. of fenugreek (raaythi), 1 lb. of dry ginger (sont), 4 lb. of mustard seed (rai), 1 lb. of dried chilies (sooka mirrch), 1 lb. of black pepper corns (kala mirrch). Weigh everything most carefully. The coriander-seed and fenugreek must each be parched very carefully— i.e., roasted like coffee berries, before being pounded. The other ingredients should be cleaned and dried each separately, and, when pounded, well sifted. Weights having then been tested, the whole of the powders should be mixed, half a bottle of salt being sprinkled in by degrees during the process. The bottles thoroughly cleansed and dried in the sun, or before a fire, may then be filled and corked tightly down, the tops being securely waxed over. This is a stock powder, the flavour of which can be varied by the use of certain spices, green leaves, garlic, onions, green ginger, almond, cocoanut, &c, at the time of cooking the curry. The spices, which should be used according to taste and discretion, are these: cloves, mace, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamoms, and allspice. A teaspoonful of one, or at most two, of these aromatic powders, blended, will suffice for a large curry. Dr. Kitchener's precept—that the mixing of spices is a blunder—should never be forgotten. The green leaves that are often useful when judiciously introduced are: fennel, maythi, baiee, lemon grass, bay leaves, " karay pauk," and kotemear leaves (green coriander). Pounded almonds (sweet) can be put into a curry very advantageously; they may be used alone or with the cocoanut; 1 oz. of the latter to twelve almonds is a good proportion. When green ginger is used it should be sliced very fine and pounded to a paste, a dessertspoonful being sufficient for one curry. The necessary suspicion of sweet-acid can be produced most readily by a dessertspoonful of powdered or moist sugar and the juice of a lime, or a spoonful of vinegar. A tablespoonful of sweet chutney and the juice of a lime make a good substitute; but a tablespoonful of red currant jelly, with one of chutney, and a little vinegar or lime juice, form the nicest combination for dark curries. The writer of the above has, of course, India in his mind's eye, and the recipe is intended for that country; but I see no reason why the ingredients could not be obtained in England, with the exception of the fenugreek and the green leaves mentioned. If, however, it is wished to avoid trouble, then get some really good Indian powder. "Wyvern" advocates the use of Barrie's Madras curry powder and paste. With a good stock curry powder, blended with enough fresh paste for the curry, made when the dish is being prepared, and with proper cooking, a really good curry ought to be sent to table without much difficulty. For the fresh paste to mix with the stock powder take " one small onion, one clove of garlic, one dessertspoonful of turmeric, one of freshly roosted coriander seed, one of poppy seed, a teaspoonful of Nepal pepper, one or sugar, one of salt, and one of grated green ginger. Pound all to a paste, also pound twelve almonds (sweet) and 1 oz. of cocoanut, with a little lime juice to assist the operation. Then mix the two pastes, and stir into them a teaspoonful of cinnamon or clove powder. A heaped-up tablespoonful of this powder to one of the stock powder, as given in the above recipe, will produce excellent results. Additional heat can be obtained by those who like very hot curries if red chili powder be added to the above ingredients, according to taste. 

Here is my pick of ‘curry’ recipes from Australian newspapers of the 1880’s.

Curry of Bandicoot.
Cut four onions and two apples in slices and put them in a stewpan with a tablespoonful of butter; place over the fire, stirring occasionally until the onions are slightly browned, then add two tablespoonfuls of curry-powder, mix well, and moisten with a cup of water or stock. Have a nice young bandicoot cut into joints and fried of a nice brown color, put it into the curry, season with a little sauce and lemon juice, and let it stew gently till tender. Arrange prettily upon your dish and serve with rice around it.
The Queenslander, Brisbane, Dec 18, 1880

Cheese Curry.
Grate a teacupful of rich, hard cheese, and add to it a teacupful of milk, a teaspoonful of mixed mustard and one of curry powder. Stir it over the fire till thick and smooth, and spread it over slices of buttered toast. Brown a few minutes in the oven, and serve hot.
The West Australian (Perth, WA) Jan 9, 1880

(This second recipe would, methinks, go nicely in the ‘Welsh Rabbit’ collection, which you can find here, and here.)

Quotation for the Day

“It is ludicrous to read the microwave direction on the boxes of food you buy, as each one will have a disclaimer: "THIS WILL VARY WITH YOUR MICROWAVE." Loosely translated, this means, "You're on your own, Bernice."”
Erma Bombeck.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Ned’s Bread.

The infamous Australian bushranger, Ned Kelly, was hanged for his misdeeds at the Old Melbourne Jail on this day in 1880. His exact burial place was not known until his remains were found by a construction crew working on what is now the R.M.I.T building, in 1929, after which they were removed to H.M. Prison Pentridge.

Details of Ned’s last meal would have made a marvellous blog entry, but if they have been recorded, I have not been able to find them. It is likely, however, that at least part of it would have been provided by the prison that was his last resting place. Pentridge prison had been built in 1850, and it had state-of-the art kitchens that supplied bread to other Victorian jails. Ned’s capture and execution occurred in the same year as the Melbourne International Exhibition, and a reporter from the The Queanbeyan Age who was in Melbourne for the event wrote a report on Pentridge’s kitchens, which was published two days after Ned’s demise. I give you an extract of the report:

The bread, though coarse in quality, is very sweet and nutritious. The ovens in which it is baked are not directly heated by fire, but the necessary degree of heat is conveyed to the ovens by means of flues or pipes. The advantages secured by this method are the moderation and equal distribution of the heat, and the cleanness of the bread from ashes. The officer in charge told me that beyond supplying bread for the 600 or 700 prisoners confined in Pentridge, more than half-a-ton of bread is daily sent out of these ovens for prison and other establishments in Melbourne.

Meanwhile, I wondered, what fine foods were the ‘better sort’ of folk eating at the time? Cookery columns were not a big feature in Australian newspaper of the time, although an exception seemed to be a Brisbane newspaper called The Queenslander. Five weeks after Ned’s execution, the following recipe appeared in the regular feature called ‘The Housekeeper.’

THERE is no cake more easily made than a sponge cake, if you but adhere to the following directions: - The weight of the eggs in sugar, and half their weight in flour. No occasion to use a given number of eggs; you can, if you like, make a cake with only one, provided you add the weight of that egg in white sugar and half its weight in flour. To make a good-sized cake, take eight or nine eggs - eight if all are large, nine if not; they will weigh exactly 1 lb. Separate the yolks from the whites, beat the sugar with the yolks, whisk the whites to a stiff froth (the whole success of your cake depends upon the whites) - they should be beaten until no liquid remains at the bottom of the basin; then add them to the yolks and sugar and stir till all are mixed; throw in the flour, and stir again till everything is blended - there is no occasion to go on beating after that. Pour into a well-buttered cake tin or mould, and bake in a quick oven. If the top gets brown before the cake is cooked wet a piece of brown paper and place over it; twenty minutes ought to bake it if the oven is in order. Many people use baking powder in their sponge cakes; it is quite unnecessary, unless the eggs are stale or you use duck eggs. A sponge cake made with stale eggs, either with or without baking powder, will not be very palatable.
The Queenslander, Brisbane, Dec 18, 1880

Quotation for the Day.

You will never get out of pot or pan anything fundamentally better than what went into it. Cooking is not alchemy; there is no magic in the pot.
Martha McCulloch-Williams, Dishes & Beverages Of The Old South (1913)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Flummery Factoids.

Today I give you, as promised, some fascinating flummery factoids. Flummery is old-fashioned, there is no question about that, and it is probably fair to say that ‘no-one’ makes it anymore. A modern ‘some-one’ wanting to make flummery would first have to decide which historical interpretation they were interested in – which means, in essence, how far back in history they wanted to go.

The original flummery was a kind of oatmeal broth or porridge. In medieval times oats were a staple (especially for the poorer folk) of the cooler northern parts of the British Isles. Flummery was an example of the absolute waste-not, want-not ethic of the time. It could be made thriftily by soaking the ‘skins’ (the ‘flummery hulls’) and dust remaining from the oatmeal seeds, the liquid then being strained off and boiled until it was thick. In some areas this liquid was fermented until it was slightly sour, as in the Scottish dish sowens. Depending on the circumstances it was eaten with milk, or honey, or ale, or wine.

This basic dish was known by many regional names. It seems that it was the Welsh version, called llymru (the double ‘ll’ having a sort of ‘th’ sound, I believe) that eventually gave us the word ‘flummery’. In England it was sometimes called ‘wash-brew’ – no doubt because the greyish thickish liquid resembled dishwater in appearance.

Flummery was from early times considered healthy and strengthening, and the essential blandness and smoothness of the basic recipe contributed to its reputation as a suitable food for invalids right up until the twentieth century. By this time, the idea of flummery was interpreted very widely, so that sometimes the recipes seem more like custard, or jelly, or cornstarch pudding, or blancmange. As the centuries wore on, it was made with basic ingredients other than oatmeal. The congealed or gelatinous texture was sometimes achieved with hartshorn, or isinglass, or gelatine, and the dish could be enriched with cream, eggs, or wine, or fruit could be added. From a simple but sustaining staple, by the twentieth century flummery had become a sweet dessert treat.

I give you a recipe for a delicious, alcohol-heavy, Victorian dessert version of flummery, from Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery (c1877).

Dutch Flummery.
Pare the rind of a lemon very thin, and infuse it in a pint of water with half a pound of sugar. Set it on the fire until the sugar is dissolved, and the syrup well-flavoured with the lemon-rind. Simmer a few minutes, and then add two ounces of isinglass to the syrup, the strained juice of four lemons, a pint of sherry, and the yolks of eight eggs. Strain the mixture, put it into a jug, set the jug in a saucepan of boiling water, and stir until the flummery thickens. Take it out of the water, allow it to cool, and then pour it into moulds. A wine-glass ful of brandy may be added to the syrup, but in that case just so much less water will be required. Sufficient for a quart mould.

Quotation for the Day.

This word flummery, you must know, Sir, means at London, flattery, and compliment.
Lady Luxborough, letter of Nov. 29, 1775.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Eggs and Bacon, Not.

If the illusory bacon and eggs tickled your fancy yesterday, then I have a variation on the theme for you today.

To make Eggs and Bacon in Flummery.
Take a Pint of stiff Flummery, and make Part of it a pretty pink Colour, with the Colouring for the Flummery, dip a Potting-pot in cold Water, and pour in Red Flummery, the thickness of a Crown Piece, then the same of White Flummery, and another of Red, and twice the thickness of White Flummery at the Top; one Layer must be stiff and cold before you pour on another, then take five Tea Cups, and put a large Spoonful of White Flummery into each TeaCup, and let them stand all Night, then turn your Flummery out of your Potting Pots, on the Back of a Plate wet with cold Water, cut your Flummery into thin Slices, and lay them on a China Dish, then turn your Flummery out of the Cups on the Dish, and take a Bit out of the Top of every one, and lay in half of a preserved Apricot; it will confine the Syrup from discolouring the Flummery, and make it like the Yolk of a poached Egg: Garnish with Flowers. It is a pretty Corner Dish for Dinner, or Side for Supper.
The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769), Elizabeth Raffald.

You don’t have to stop at bacon and eggs while you are in flummery-making mode. How about this offering, also from Elizabeth Raffald?

To make Cribbage Cards in Flummery.
Fill five square Tins the Size of a Card, with very stiff Flummery, when you turn them out, have ready a little Cochineal dissolved in Brandy, and strain it through a Muslin Rag, then take a Camel's Hair Pencil, and make Hearts and Diamonds with your Cochineal, then rub a little Chocolate with a little eating Oil upon a Marble Slab, 'till it is very fine and bright, then make Clubs, and Spades; pour a little Lisbon Wine into the Dish, and send it up.

What is flummery, do I hear you ask? Flummery is tomorrow’s topic, that’s what.

Quotation for the Day.

I have never regretted Paradise Lost since I discovered that it contained no eggs-and-bacon.
Dorothy Sayers.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Entertaining with Almonds.

I would have been impossible to put on a feast in medieval times without huge amounts of ‘marchpane’ (marzipan), and it continued to remain supreme at special occasions well into the eighteenth century for the preparation of ‘banquetting stuffe’ (sweetmeats for what we would now call the ‘dessert’ course.) The quantity (and cost) of almonds imported into Europe for the purposes of sweet treats for the wealthy, must have been staggering over these centuries – and the amount of labour to pound them all to powder by hand hardly bears thinking about.

The cooks of the time were kitchen-artists, and marchpane was a wonderful medium for their creative efforts. Marchpane could be shaped and coloured (even gilded) in a myriad ways, and all sorts of ‘subtleties’ and other wonderful items were fashioned - in 1562 Queen Elizabeth received as a New Year gift from her master cook, a chessboard made of ‘faire marchpane.’ A pale legacy of this art is in the boxes of marzipan fruits that appear in the shops in the lead-up to Christmas.

Marchpane was not just used to make ‘toys’ and gifts, it had another role in the kitchens of the wealthy. During the many strict ‘fast’ days of the religious calendar, and especially during Lent, the eating of animal products was forbidden. Almond milk could of course stand-in for real milk, and it was used preferentially much of the time anyway in many recipes – but how to ease the craving for real animal flesh? Provide the illusion of bacon and eggs made with almonds,as I showed you in previous posts, that’s how.

It has occurred to me that in the lifetime of this blog (five years and six days), I have never given you a recipe for marchpane, so here it is.

To make a March-pane.
Take two pounds of almonds being blanched and dryed in a sieve over the fire, beate them in a stone mortar, and when they bee small, mixe them with two pounds of sugar beeing finely beaten, adding two or three spoonefuls of rose-water, and that will keep your almonds from oiling: when your paste is beaten fine, drive it thin with a rowling pin, and so lay it on a bottom of wafers; then raise up a little edge on the side, and so bake it; then yce [ice] it with rose water and sugar, then put it into the oven againe, and when you see your yce is risen up and drie, then take it out of the oven and garnish it with pretie conceipts, as birdes and beasts being cast out of standing-moldes. Sticke long comfits upright into it, cast bisket and carrowaies in it, and so serve it; you may also print of this march-pane paste in your moldes for banqueting dishes. And of this paste our comfit-makers at this day make their letters, knots, armes, escutcheons, beasts, birds, and other fancies.
Delightes for Ladies, 1608

And if you like almonds, and like fun illusion food, but marzipan is not your thing, here is a delightful idea to bring a child-like pleasure to your next party.

Take two pounds of sweet almonds, put them into boiling water, take off the skins, save about four ounces whole, put the rest in a mortar and beat them with a little canary and orange-flower water to keep them from oiling; then beat up the yolks of twelve eggs, the whites of six, put them in and beat them well, put in a pint of cream sweeten with powder-sugar to your palate, then put it into a stew-pan; put in half a pound of fresh butter melted, set it over a stove, and stir it till it is stiff enough to be made into the shape of a hedge-hog, then put it into a dish, and cut the rest of the almonds in long slips, and stick in to represent the bristles of a hedge-hog. Boil a pint of cream, sweeten it with sugar, beat up the yolks of four eggs, the whites of two,, mix them with the cream set it over the fire, and stir it one way till it is thick then pour it round the hedge hog; let it stand till it is cold. Garnish the dish with currant jelly, and serve it up; or put a rich calf's foot jelly made clear and good instead of the cream &;c.
The English Art of Cookery (1788), by Richard Briggs.

Quotation for the Day.
Don’t eat too many almonds, they add weight to the breasts.
Colette (French novelist)

Friday, November 05, 2010

Gunpowder, Treason, and Parkin.

This night, when I was growing up in Yorkshire, was ‘Bonfire Night’ – a night we children looked forward to, and planned for weeks in advance. It was a night of fires, fireworks, burning effigies, and general fun and mayhem. As the night approached we saved our pocket-money for fireworks, and collected rubbish for the bonfires, and scrounged old clothes to dress up our ‘guy’, which would become our glorious burning effigy. The ‘guy’, when finished, would be propped up on our street corner in the hope that friends and neighbours (there were no ‘passers-by’ – we knew everyone) would be inspired to ‘donate’ a few coppers to buy more fireworks - which was needed as we never managed to avoid the temptation to let off our earlier purchases well in advance of the night itself.

Sadly, the fun has fallen victim to fire and safety regulations, political correctness and the fear of strangers willing to give money to children on the street, and I understand that Bonfire Night is now a pale imitation of its former exciting self.

The night, of course, commemorates the failed “Gunpowder Plot’ – the attempt in 1605 by provincial English Catholics to blow up the Houses of Parliament during its opening, when the Protestant King James would be present. One of the chief conspirators was Guy Fawkes, one of the city of York’s most infamous sons, who, in the wake of the failure was tortured, tried, and executed.

In Yorkshire, it is traditional to eat ‘parkin’ on this night. Parkin is a sort of gingerbread made with oatmeal and black treacle (not molasses, please!). It is very much a November treat as it is also eaten on ‘Parkin Sunday’ (the Sunday within the octave of All Saints, which was last Sunday – first Sunday in November). I don’t know why parkin was associated with this particular day in the calendar however!

An article from 1857 describes the eating of parkin on November 5 as already a very old custom at that time:

‘A very old custom, coeval, apparently, with the annual bonfires and fireworks, prevails to this day in the West Riding of Yorkshire, of preparing against the anniversary of Gunpowder Plot, a kind of oatmeal gingerbread, if I may so call it, and religiously partaking of it on the “dreadful” day, and subsequently. The local name of the delicacy is Parkin, and it is usually seen in the form of massive loaves, substantial cakes, or bannocks.’ [Notes and Queries]

I have written briefly about parkin previously, but have done a little more research since then. As I mentioned in the previous post, according to the Oxford English Dictionary the first written mention of parkin is attributed to Dorothy Wordsworth, the sister of the poet William, who wrote in her diary on November 6, 1800, ‘I was baking bread, dinner, and parkins.’ In that post I also noted that the OED is not convincing on the name ‘parkin’, and half-heartedly suggests an association with the name surname Parkin (which is a diminutive of ‘Peter’)

I have since found a couple more theories as to the name. The first suggests an association with ‘bairns’, and therefore a Celtic connection perhaps?

‘Parkin is gingerbread, treacle and oatmeal: it is especially presented to children on the fifth of November. Whatever were its components among our Saxon ancestors, the word is of very difficult solution. If it be of later origin it is still as intricate. Changing p into b we have bar, or barn, - a child, (Gingifer), is ginger. Barnking.’ Nug√¶ literari√¶: prose and verse (1841)

The second theory I like very much. It extends the Irish or Celtic connection by noting the similarity of the sound ‘parkin’ to bairgains, or bairn breacs - ancient unleavened cakes of barley bread, the name of which is still evident in Irish bairn-brack or barm-brack.

The name may still be a puzzle, but the concept of spicing up the daily bread for feast days is very ancient. Oatmeal was the daily grain in the northern parts of the country, and ginger the popular spice– hence an early form of oatmeal gingerbread was probably the traditional feast day treat in the north of Britain since very old times.

The idea of gingerbread cake on Guy Fawkes Night did not spring up in the first few decades after the failed plot, else why would there be no mention until Dorothy Wordsworth’s time?

Gingerbread was almost certainly already associated with the celebration of the end of the harvest, and the pre-winter animal slaughter that took place in November – which was also the time of year associated with bonfires (originally bone-fires ) since pagan times. Happy synchronicity perhaps created the link between these ancient ideas and the idea of exploding Houses of Parliament, and thus parkin ‘history’ was born.

A couple of other developments were necessary before the oatmeal gingerbread took the form we recognise now – the availability of cheap sugar (or treacle), and the development of powder rising agents in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Clearly, from the reference by Dorothy Wordsworth, parkin was already a well- established household bakery item in 1800. The absence of parkin recipes in cookery books before this time is testament to its ordinariness and simplicity – it was so well known that every housewife could make it without thinking, and a written recipe was not considered necessary.

The first published recipe I have found so far is from, of all things, a cookery book from that famous oatmeal-eating race – the Scots (although the author acknowledges it as originating in Leeds.)

Parkin, or Leeds Gingerbread.
Sift four pounds of oatmeal, and mix it with four pounds of treacle, half a pound of brown sugar, the same quantity of melted butter, and three quarters of an ounce of powdered ginger. Work it all well together and let it remain for twenty-four hours, and then make it into cakes.
The Practice of Cookery, (1830) Mrs Dalgairns.

Quotation for the Day.

Once you get a spice in your home, you have it forever. Women never throw out spices. The Egyptians were buried with their spices. I know which one I'm taking with me when I go.
Erma Bombeck.

Thursday, November 04, 2010


I came across a rather odd definition in the venerable Oxford English Dictionary recently, and I am hoping, once again, for your valuable insights. I was browsing the meaning of cheese, when I came across this tiny entry:

cheese-water, a water distilled from cheese.’

The sole reference to the phrase offered by the OED comes from The Boocke of Physicke, a medical text published in 1599, by ‘Oswaldus Gabelhouer. The short extract says ‘Wash yourselfe with the cheese-water mixed with the Camphir [camphor].’

‘Distilled’ immediately suggested a potent alcoholic drink to me, not a medicinal remedy for external use. I became suddenly excited . Is there (or was there ever) a cheese-brandy in the world? A beverage so secret that it has only ever been mentioned once in print?

I was so excited by the prospect of a nip of Parmesan Ratafia or a shot of Camembert Vodka that, clearly, I forgot my elementary physics. To distil, of course, means simply ‘to vaporize a substance by means of heat, and then condense the vapour by exposing it to cold, so as to obtain the substance or one of its constituents in a state of concentration or purity.’ Distillation therefore is a process that can be performed on any liquid, but not of course, to cheese. Equally clearly then, the early copy-editors of the illustrious OED also missed the error. For this they can be forgiven, however, as there does not appear to have been any more reported sightings of the phrase ‘cheese-water’ to cause them to refine the definition.

I went to the full text of the Boocke of Physicke, hoping for greater understanding of cheese-water. Here is the full recipe for the remedy:

For all manner of itchynge of the body whatsoever.
Take Lillywater, Rosewater, and water of Mayflowers, ana a like, distil also Goates cheese, and reserve that water apart, adde thereto a little contundede Camphir. First inugate the itch with good Aqua vitae, then madefye a sponge in the first foure waters, and wash yourself therewith, and at the last wash yourself with the cheese-water mixed with the Camphir. Does this always after fomentatione, or in bathinge. Probatum.

So, it appears that cheese-water is in fact, whey, which is ‘the serum or watery part of milk which remains after the separation of the curd by coagulation, esp. in the manufacture of cheese’. Perhaps the explanation of the use of ‘distil’ in this recipe/formula is merely that it was an incorrect choice of words for a man of science.

Whey has been in and out of fashion as a health-drink for centuries. Samuel Pepys was fond of it as a tonic in the mid-seventeenth century, and I do believe that in some circles it is popular again. I don’t believe I have seen fresh whey for sale anywhere, however. The modern version seems to be as whey-powder to ‘boost up’ other foods, or parts of the body, or something – which is a highly unnatural ‘health industry’ interpretation of the super-sizing concept, if you ask me.

In previous times it was the whey itself that was ‘boosted up’ with the addition of alcohol, to make a ‘medicinal’ drink such as ‘wine-whey’, ‘sack-whey’, or ‘whey-posset’. A non-alcoholic version which sounds delightful was ‘whey-whig’, a ‘beverage made of whey flavoured with herbs [especially] mint, balm, and walnut leaves.’

An important point is that whey was never wasted. It could replace the water when cooking up the breakfast oats to make whey-porridge or whey-brose. It was commonly converted into pork by being fed to the pigs, which is why pork and cheese industries often developed side by side (think of Melton Mowbray pork pies and Stilton cheese, in Englands Midlands region.)

You can even make whey yourself in the comfort of your own home. Here is a version from the inimitable Hannah Glasse.

Orange [or lemon] Whey
Squeeze the juice of a lemon or orange into a quarter of a pint of milk, when the curd is hard, pour the whey clear off, and sweeten it to your palate. You may colour some with the juice of spinach, some with saffron, and some with cochineal, just as you fancy.
The Art of Cookery (1774), Hannah Glasse.

Quotation for the Day.

Think what a better world it would be if we all, the whole world, had cookies and milk about three o’clock every afternoon and then lay down on our blankets for a nap.
Robert Fulghum.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

An Unusual Dinner Venue.

A ‘celebrated ale brewer’ of London gave a dinner to his customers on this day in 1804, in a most unusual venue that would never be used again for such an event. Messrs. Stretton and Smith had just taken delivery of a copper ‘of a most astonishing magnitude’, and the guests – all 769 of them – sat down at tables and benches set ‘amphitheatrical style’ inside the vessel itself.

The bill of fare was:

2 Buttocks of Beef, weighing each 84 lbs.
9 Dozen of roasted and boiled Ducks.
22 Tongues
11 Dozen of roasted and boiled Fowls
17 Hams
5 Dozen fat geese, roasted and boiled
136 Dozen of wine of all sorts.
12 barrels of famous Ale and Porter galore.

In the new mash tub adjoining the copper (and also of large magnitude) 304 draymen were feasted equally sumptuously. The newspaper report noted that

“… after all hands had taken their skinfulls, in the most harmonious and convivial manner, one of the jolly donors rose up, thanked them for their company with a most beautiful panegyric on the efficacy of wholesome ale, and concluded by roaring out like a stentor “Gentlemen, hold up your copper faces.” Since then, we understand that all those who have dined in the copper are dignified with the pleasant appellation of Copper-face.”

Recipe for the Day.

The yeast from ale and beer-making was important to home bakers right up until the mid-nineteenth century as a rising agent for bread and cakes. There is a legacy of this perhaps, in modern recipes for beer batter.

From The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1802), by John Mollard, I give you:

To prepare a Batter for frying the following different articles, being a sufficient quantity for one Dish.
Take four ounces of best flour sifted, a little salt and pepper, three eggs, and a gill of beer; beat them together with a wooden spoon or a whisk for ten minutes. Let it be of a good thickness to adhere to the different articles.

Fried Celery.
Cut celery heads three inchs long; boil them till half done, wipe them dry and add to the batter. Have ready boiling lard, take out the heads singly with a fork, fry them of a light colour, drain them dry, and serve them up with fried parsley under.

Fried Artichoke Bottoms.
Let the chokes be boiled till the leaves can be taken away, then cut the bottoms into halves and fry them in batter as the beforementioned articles; then serve them up with melted butter in a sauceboat with a little ground pepper in it.

Quotation for the Day.

Sometimes when I reflect back on all the beer I drink I feel ashamed. Then I look into the glass and think about the workers in the brewery, and all of their hopes and dreams. If I didn’t drink this beer, they might be out of work and their dreams would be shattered. Then I say to myself “It is better that I drink this beer and let their dreams come true than be selfish and worry about my liver.”
Jack Handy.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Soulmass Bread.

The second of November is a special day of observance in some branches of the Christian Church. It is “The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed” or “The Feast of All Souls” - more commonly known as “All Souls’ Day”, or, in Spanish-speaking countries, the Day of the Dead. Many of the traditions of the day have ancient pre-Christian roots, as do many other church feast days (Christmas being particularly notable.) Naturally, there are some special foods associated with the day.

In some part of England, special breads called Soulmass loaves (Sau’mass or Solmas-Loaves) were made – perhaps to be eaten, but some to be kept, for luck (a similar tradition existed for Easter hot-cross buns). A mid-nineteenth century glossary of Yorkshire words describes them:

Soulmass Loaves, soul mass bread, …eaten on the feast of All Souls, November 2d. They were sets of square farthing cakes with currants in the centre, commonly given by bakers to their customers, and it was usual to keep them in the house for good luck. Dr. Young, in his History of Whitby, mentions a lady as having one above a hundred years old.
(A glossary of Yorkshire Words and Phrases, Francis Kildale Robinson, 1855)

I doubt that the bread was anything other than the baker’s basic everyday dough, and that there were more than a token number of currants in this special bread. So, for today’s recipe I give you a much richer, fruitier version of currant bread, from The New Hydropathic Cook Book (1854) by Russell Thacher Trall.

Currant Bread.
Take three pounds of flour; one pound of currants; one pint and a half of new milk; and one gill of yeast. Warm the milk, and mix it with the flour and yeast; cover with a cloth and set it by the fire. When risen sufficiently, add the fruits and mold it; then put it intoa baking tin or deep dish, rubbed with sweet-oil or dusted with flour; after it has risen for half an hour longer, bake it in a moderately hot oven.

Quotation for the Day.

Where our bread is concerned, it is a material matter. Where our neighbor’s bread is concerned, it is a spiritual matter.
I.D. Douglas

Monday, November 01, 2010

For the love of Ratafia.

I love the word ratafia. I have sampled a lot of liqueurs in my life, but I am still not sure I have had the genuine article. I have to admit that I am not actually sure what qualifies a particular nutty/fruity/herby liqueur specifically as ratafia. I love the word anyway. I aim to correct the deficit in my life, and get me some of the real thing as soon as I have done a little more research. I know I will like the genuine article, because the OED’s description tells me so.

Ratafia is “A liqueur made by steeping nuts, kernels, fruits, or herbs in any sweetened spirit; (b) a sweet aperitif traditional in several regions of France, made by adding brandy to unfermented grape juice and ageing it in a barrel; sometimes flavoured with herbs and other fruits. Almonds and the kernels of cherries, apricots, and peaches are the ingredients most commonly used to flavour ratafia.”

I have found a nice recipe, so we can make our own – and just in time for Christmas too, if we start straight away – if we can afford the cherries, can source the proof spirit, and have some huge flagons – or can do the math to reduce it to a manageable quantity.

Ratafia of Cherries.
Morello cherries eight pounds, black cherries eight pounds, raspberries and red or white currants, of each two pounds, coriander seeds three ounces, cinnamon half an ounce, mace half an ounce, proof spirit one gallon; press out the juice from the fruit, take one half of the stones of the cherries and pound them with the spices, and add two pounds and a half of sugar, steep for a month and filter.

The complete confectioner, pastry-cook, and baker, (Philadelphia, 1844) Eleanor Parkinson.

If you don’t like nutty, herby ratafias, the following one might suit, and it is certainly much less complicated.

Lemon Peel, Ratafia of.
Grate the yellow rind only of seven or eight lemons; infuse it in three quarts of the best brandy for three weeks, at the end which time, add three quarters of a pound of clarified sugar to each quart, let it stand a fortnight longer, then filter and bottle it.
The Cook’s Dictionary and Housekeepers Directory, by Richard Dolby, 1830.

Ratafia Biscuits are another treat that would make a good Christmas gift. Ratafia biscuits are flavoured with almonds, and are made to eat with ratafia or other liqueurs, and to use as the base for trifle.

Ratafia Biscuits.
Blanch two ounces of bitter almonds in cold water, and beat them extremely fine with orange-flower water and rose-water. Put in by degrees the whites of five eggs, first beaten to a light froth. Beat it extremely well; then mix it up with fine sifted sugar to a light paste, and lay the biscuits on tin plates with wafer paper. Make the paste so light you may take it up with a spoon. Lay it in cakes, and bake them in a rather brisk oven. If you make them with sweet almonds only, they are almond puffs or cakes.
The Lady’s Own Cookery Book, and new dinner-table directory, by Lady Charlotte Campbell Bury (1844)

If you should find yourself with a surplus of ratafia biscuits and macaroons, then you could make this variation on a trifle theme.

Biscuit Custard.
Break two dozen macaroons into small pieces, and the same number of small ratafia biscuits, pour over them a hot custard, and stir well until the whole is thoroughly mixed; turn it into a trifle dish, and pour over it the whites of two eggs well whisked for an hour with red currant jelly; grate nutmeg over the top, and serve.
Macaroons, 24; ratafia biscuits, 24; custard, sufficient; eggs, 2 whites, with redcurrant jelly.
The Dictionary of Daily Wants (1861), by Robert Kemp Philp.

Quotation for the Day.
A half-dozen glasses of ratafia made him forget all his woes and his losses.
William Thackeray, in Henry Esmond III (1852).