Friday, December 30, 2011

New Year’s Cookies and Cakes.

There are just a couple of days left to do some New Year baking. You could go the nutritious, historically intriguing, but rather stolid route and make some Ankerstock, but you probably wont.

You could instead make New Year Cakes from the recipe below, provided of course that you have ‘man, or a very strong woman’ to do the kneading for you. I wont make these, I assure you. The dough sounds like a rich, sweet scone dough, and as every good baker knows, the rule for scones is mix as lightly and quickly as possible. Even if it is intended to be like a rich, sweet bread dough, I don’t understand the insistence on such serious kneading. Perhaps one of the serious bread-bakers amongst you could make comment?

The New Year Cookies given below also seem like a cheat - they sound more like sweet crackers than sweet biscuits (cookies, if you insist.) Is there no Christmas fruit cake left?

New-Year's Cake.
Three pounds of flour, sifted.
A pound and a half of powdered white sugar.
A pound of fresh butter.
A pint of milk with a small teaspoonful of pearl-ash melted in it.
Having sifted the flour, spread the sugar on the paste-board, a little at a time, and crush it to powder by rolling it with the rolling-pin. Then mix it with the flour. Cut up in the flour the butter and mix it well by rubbing it in with your bands. Add by degrees the milk. Then knead the dough very hard, till it no longer sticks to your hands. Cover it, set it away for an hour or two, and then knead it again in the same manner. You may repeat the kneading several times. Then cut it into pieces, roll out each piece into a sheet half an inch thick. Cut it into large flat cakes with a tin cutter. You may stamp each cake with a wooden print, by way of ornamenting the surface.
Sprinkle with flour some large flat tin or iron pans, lay the cakes in them and bake them of a pale brown, in an oven of equal heat throughout.
These cakes require more and harder kneading than any others, therefore it is best to have them kneaded by a man, or a very strong woman.
They are greatly improved by the addition of some carraway seeds worked into the dough.
Seventy-five receipts for pastry, cakes and sweetmeats, (1830) by Eliza Leslie

New Year Cookies.
Rub three fourths of a cup of butter into six cups of flour. Pour half a cup of boiling water over one cup and a half of sugar, add a scant half teaspoonful of soda, and when the sugar is melted, stir all into the flour. Roll out thin.
Mrs. Lincoln's Boston Cook Book: What to Do and what Not to Do in Cooking (1883)
Quotation for the Day.
Every country possesses, it seems, the sort of cuisine it deserves, which is to say the sort of cuisine it is appreciative enough to want.
Waverley Lewis Root

Thursday, December 29, 2011

When an Apple is not an Apple.

The study of historical books and documents is full of traps for the unwary, and not the least of these is the language itself. I have always wondered about the biblical apple. The apple comes from temperate climates, and is an unlikely choice for the Middle Eastern writers of the Old Testament, who presumably sited the Garden of Eden in their own territory.

Over the years I have read opinions that the fruit of the biblical Tree of Knowledge was the quince, the banana, the date, the grape, the fig, the peach, the pomegranate – and even the staple cereal, wheat. Presumably a translation error of some type or intent is at the root of the conundrum.  Let us not also forget that those who originally translated the ancient documents which are the basis of the Old Testament into European languages had their own religious agendas too. Conversion of the pagans may have been assisted in a minor way if the tempting fruit was familiar – if the word or meaning in the ancient language was obscure, why not make it a simple apple?

Those who think that a real, actual, physical, specific fruit is intended rather than a symbolic one will no doubt continue to debate the topic for a few more millennia yet, but that is not (you will be relieved to know) our topic for today.

It is not just the translation of ancient ‘dead’ languages which causes the difficulty. An apple may seem like a simple and obvious thing today, but not so long ago an apple was more of a concept than an item. The Oxford English Dictionary explains that the word ‘apple’ came into English via the Old Icelandic epli, which refers to any fruit from a tree. Put into the evolving linguistic mix the Latin pomum for fruit (which became pomme, meaning apple, in French), and the English language ended up with some strange blends indeed. Frequently the word ‘apple’ appeared in conjunction with a qualifying word or in a phrase such as ‘apples call'd pompions’ or ‘the fruit or apples of palm-trees.’ Similarly, in the Latin/French form of the word ‘apple’, the prefix pome- could indicate one of many fruits, such as the pomegranate. Finally, we have arrived at our topic for the day.

The pomegranate is the fruit of the tree Punica granatum. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it thus: a large many-celled berry with a leathery yellow, orange, or red rind, a persistent calyx, and numerous seeds that are each surrounded by an acid-sweet pink or red pulp’. The OED goes on to indicate its figurative use as a symbol of resurrection, fertility, plenty, unity, and chastity, and its association in classical mythology with the goddess Persephone who returned to earth every spring.

The name ‘pomegranate’ is ultimately derived from the concept of a pomum granatum, that is, a pome (or apple) with many seeds or kernels. It was also called the Punic apple, or apple punicus (hence the first part of its botanical name) from the story (as explained by Pliny) that it was brought to Rome from the ancient North African city of Carthage, who citizens were known as the Punici. The intense colour of the fruit indicates one of its popular uses in ancient times – as a source of deep pink/light red dye (called puniceous.) As with many plants in ancient times, the pomegranate was used for medicinal purposes too: one author recommended the cut-up fruit be steeped in rain water for several days, and the resulting infusion be used for those with ‘weak habits.’

The pomegranate had brief mention in a previous post (here) as the source of inspiration for the word grenade (which has a culinary sense too), and the beverage called Grenadine. It may also lie behind the name of the city of Grenada in Spain, which has a pomegranate for its coat of arms. In the seventeenth century French cookery book by La Varenne, pomegranate seeds are suggested as an alternative for raspberries as the garnish for turkey (the recipe is here) – which you would think was a very innovative idea if you saw it on a modern menu. Today I give you a recipe from a French cookery book of the mid-nineteenth century which clearly shows an Arab influence, if you ignore the added bacon..

Ragout of Mutton, With Pomegranate Juice
Put into a stewpan some slices of a tender leg of mutton, upon some chopped fat bacon, small onions, salt, and pepper; add bouillon; when half stewed, add a puree of nuts grilled in the oven, and any spice you like. When the ragout is finished, squeeze in the juice of two to three pomegranates, and serve.
French Domestic Cookery, Louis Eustache Ude, 1846

Quotation for the Day.
Because normally with Western cuisine, you'll serve vegetables separate from the meat, so kids will eat the meat and never touch the vegetables.
Martin Yan

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Observations on Oysters.

I am by no means an oyster afficionado. I don’t know why I always feel slightly defensive about this position, but I do. I don’t refuse to eat them, and occasionally I really enjoy them, (but only if they are accompanied by a superb champagne), but I almost never order them in a restaurant or suffer menu envy if someone else does (unless I get a whiff of the salty sea as they are served.)

I am however, always interested in oysters – in their place in the hierarchy of food for humans, and in the ways that fisherfolk and celebrity chefs actually deal with them. 

Cookbooks on specific foods did not really start being published in any significant volume until the second half of the nineteenth century. Today I want to give you a few short notes from Oysters à la Mode: The oyster and over 100 ways of cooking it (London, 1888), by Harriet De Salis. 

Mrs.De Salis (as she is named in the front matter of the book) happens to answer a few questions I have had about oysters, but was afraid to ask.

What chronological age of oyster is best to eat?

“Real lovers of oysters maintain that no oyster is worth eating until it is quite two years old. Their age is known by the shell, just the same as the age of a tree is known by its bark, or a fish by its scale, and the smaller the oyster the finer the flavour.”

What is the ideal serving size?

“In former days a dinner of any pretension always began with oysters, and many of the guests never stopped until they had swallowed a gross, i.e 144 oysters. The ‘Almanach de Gourmands’(1803) states that beyond five or six dozen, as a mere indispensable prelude to a winter déjeuner, it is proved that oyster eating most certainly ceases to be an enjoyment.’”

What is the best way to open and eat an oyster?

The author gives two methods here. The first is the traditional way with a blade, and the technique is described in detail. Speed is of the essence, and once opened it is vital to  ‘lift quickly to the lips, and eat it before the delicate aroma has dissipated into the atmosphere. There is as much difference between an oyster thus opened and eaten, as between champagne frothing and leaping out of the silver-necked bottle, and the same wine after it has been allowed to stand six hours with the cork removed.

The second method is most interesting. I have not heard of it previously, have you?

 “There is another method of eating oysters, wherein no knife is required, and not the least skill in opening is needed, the only requisite being a bright fire. You pick out a glowing spot in the fire, where there are no flames and no black pieces of coal to dart jets of smoke exactly in the place where they are not wanted. You then insert a row of oysters into the glowing coals, taking care to keep their mouths outward and within an easy grasp of the tongs, and their convexity downwards. Presently a spitting and hissing noise is heard, which gradually increases till the shells begin to open and the juice is seen boiling merrily within, the mollusk itself becoming whiter and more opaque as the operation continues. There is no rule for ascertaining the precise point at which the cooking is completed, for every one has his own taste, and must learn by personal experience. A little practice soon makes perfect, and the expert operator will be able to keep up a continual supply as fast as he can manage to eat them. When they are thoroughly cooked they should be taken from the fire, a second batchinserted, and the still hissing and spluttering mollusks be eaten "scorching hot." No one whohas not eaten oysters dressed in this primitive mode has the least idea of the piquant flavour of which they are capable. Stewed in their own juice, the action of fire only brings out the full flavour, and as
the juice is consumed as well as the oyster, there is no waste and no dissipation of the indescribable
but potent aroma.”

The recipe for the day is, of course, from the book. A nice breakfast dish to break the monotony of bacon and eggs, or bran and low-fat yoghurt, or whatever is your regular start to the day.

Oysters and Bacon (a breakfast dish)
Huitres au Lard.

Fry up some mashed potatoes in bacon fat, and break them in pieces with a fork, and let them brown a little more ; cut some thin rashers of bacon and arrange round the potatoes, which should be piled
up in the middle of the dish. Broil some oysters in their shells with butter and cayenne, turn them
out of their shells and place on the top of the potatoes; garnish with lemon sippets. Ham may be
used instead of bacon.

Quotation for the Day.

The most virtuous thing in nature, according to this new theory, should be the oyster. He is always at home, and always sober. He is not noisy. He gives no trouble to the police. I cannot think of a single one of the Ten Commandments that he ever breaks. He never enjoys himself, and he never, so long as he lives, gives a moments pleasure to any living thing.
Jerome K. Jerome, ‘The Second Thoughts of an Idle Fellow’.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Pickle not Pudding.

It is well and truly time to move away from the Christmas fare which has been my pre-occupation this last few weeks. I am moving as far as I can from both my roots in the north of England, and my home in Australia – to the exotic East and the taste of achar.

‘Achar’ is, to quote the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘In South Asian cookery: a type of pickle or relish made from fruit or vegetables preserved in spiced oil or vinegar.’ The OED gives the first use of the word in English in 1598, in Linschoten’s Discours of  Voyages to ye Easte and West Indies, in reference to achar made from the green fruit of the ‘anacardi’ or cashew nut. The origin of the word is, hardly surprisingly, uncertain. It comes ‘partly via’ the Persian, Portuguese, Dutch, Malay, or Indian vernaculars, or may ultimately be derived from the Latin acetaria (salad, from acetum, vinegar), which is pretty well covering all etymological bases.

The wonderful Hobson-Jobson: the Anglo-Indian Dictionary gives a similar definition, saying that achar is:

 ‘adopted in nearly all the vernaculars of India for acid and salt relishes. By Europeans it is used as the equivalent of ‘pickles’, and is applied to all the stores of Crosse and Blackwell in that kind. We have adopted the word through the Portuguese, but it is not impossible that Western Asiatics got it originally from the Latin acetaria.’

The Hobson-Jobson gives an earlier usage in English, in 1563, in the context: ‘And they prepare a conserve of it (Anarcadium) with salt, and when it is green (and this they call Achar), and this is sold in the market just as olives are with us. Garcia de Orta, f.17.’

The word has multiple spellings in English, which makes searching for the earliest recipe a bit of a challenge. As a start (I feel sure there must be earlier examples), here are a couple of recipes from the wonderful New System of Domestic Cookery, by Maria Rundell (1833)

Half a large Spanish onion, four capsicums, as much salt and lemon juice as may be agreeable to the palate, all pounded together in a mortar.

Fish Acha.
Boil a piece of salt fish, cut an onion and some capsicums in pieces, pound them well together, and add a little vinegar.

Quotation for the Day.
The art of the cuisine, when fully mastered, is the one human capability of which only good things can be said.
Friedrich Durrenmatt

Monday, December 26, 2011

Leftover Plum Pudding?

The good thing about leftover Christmas pudding is that it does not have to be refrigerated, which is an enormous relief on this day when there is no shelf space between the turkey carcass, the pork bone, three-quarters of a leg of ham, and a precarious pile of leftover side dishes still on their original platters.

The very simplest thing to do with leftover plum pudding of course is to put it in the freezer for another day. The second simplest thing is to slice it, butter it, and eat it as if it were fruit bread or cake. If you are not yet tired of cooking however, the following ideas may appeal.

A Monday Pudding.
Butter a mould, and put into it, half-an-inch apart, some slices of a plum pudding cooked the previous day: beat four eggs, add a pint of milk, and fill up the mould. Put a paper on the top, and tie a cloth over it. Boil or steam it an hour; then turn it out, and serve with wine sauce.
It is also very good with the addition of a little bread pudding, put between the slices of plum pudding, and finished as above.
The young cook's assistant, and housekeeper's guide, (1841) by P. Masters.

Pudding, Monday’s.
Ingredients.  The remains of cold plum-pudding, brandy, custard made with 5 eggs to every pint of milk.
Mode. Cut the remains of a good cold plum-pudding into finger-pieces, soak them in a little brandy, and lay them cross-barred in a mould until full. Make a custard with the above proportion of milk and eggs, flavouring it with nutmeg or lemon-rind; fill up the mould with it; tie it down with a cloth, and boil or steam it for an hour. Serve with a little of the custard poured over, to which has been added a tablespoonful of brandy.
Mrs. Beeton’s Dictionary of Every-day Cookery (1865)

A Nice Way of Warming and Serving Cold Plum Pudding.
Cut the pudding into thin slices, and fry them in butter. Fry also, some fritters, and pile them in the centre of the dish, placing the slices of pudding around the outside. Powder all with sugar, and serve with pudding sauce in a tureen.
The Young Wife’s Cook Book, (Philadelphia, 1870) by Hannah Mary Bouvier Peterson

Make-Over Pudding.
Take the remains of the plum pudding and break with a fork into pieces. If they measure half a pint, add two tablespoonfuls molasses, one egg, one cupful milk, one teaspoonful baking powder, and flour to make a drop batter; pour in a buttered bread-pan and bake until firm. Either a hard or egg sauce can be served with this.
The Christian Advocate, Vol 80 (U.S.A., 1905)

Left-Over Plum Pudding.
Slice some left-over plum pudding about ½ of an inch thick. Carefully roll the slices in a beaten egg and in bread crumbs. Fry in hot deep fat to a delicate golden color. Serve with Brandy or Lemon Sauce.
The French Chef in Private American Families (1922), by Xavier Raskin.

Quotation for the Day.

Leftovers make you feel good twice. First, when you put it away, you feel thrifty and intelligent: ‘I’m saving food!’ Then a month later when blue hair is growing out of the ham, and you throw it away, you feel really intelligent: ‘I’m saving my life!
George Carlin.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Dinner at Sandringham.

I usually try to give you a historical Christmas menu as the day approaches, and this year is no exception. It comes to you courtesy of The New York Times of December 13, 1931,which gave details of the English royal family’s Christmas Dinner at Sandringham the previous year. 

Last year the Christmas dinner partaken at Sandringham was as follows:

Clear Soup.
Fried Fillets of Sole
Braised York Ham
Roast Norfolk Turkey, stuffed with chestnuts
Lettuce Salad
Cauliflower Souffle
Plum Pudding
Mince Pies.

The Christmas puddings served at Sandringham are made according to a recipe used in the royal household since the seventeenth century and preserved in an old cookery book at Windsor Castle. Many more Christmas puddings are made in the royal kitchens are made in the royal kitchens than are required for the King’s table, to be sent to the members of the royal family abroad and to a number of old friends. The recipe for the pudding follows:

Small raisins, one pound.
Plums (stoned and cut in halves) one pound
Bread crumbs, one pound.
Demarara sugar, one pound,
Eggs weighed in their shells, one pound.
Sifted flour, one-half pound.
Finely grated suet, one pound.
Citron, cut into slices, four ounces.
Candied peel, ditto, four ounces
Grated nutmeg, one half-teaspoon.
Salt, two tablespoons.
Mixed spice, one teaspoon.
Brandy, one wine glass.

You will have realised (or remembered) by now that Christmas pudding recipes from old sources commonly do not include details of the method, because ‘everyone’ would have known how to mix them.

Quotation for the Day.

In my experience, clever food is not appreciated at Christmas. It makes the little ones cry and the old ones nervous.
Jane Grigson