Monday, April 04, 2016

Historical Food Fortnightly: Pretty as a Picture

The Challenge: If you’re a fan of cooking competition shows (like I am!), you know how the saying goes: we eat first with our eyes. Make a dish that looks just as spectacular as it tastes. Extra points for historically accurate plating - and don’t forget to post pictures!

One of the best lessons I took away from Home Ec classes in high school was that food should be visually appealing; the cook should try to make the plate colorful. It's something I notice and appreciate whenever I go out to eat as well. As I've done a lot of these challenges, however, focusing on The Cook's Oracle (1817), I've noticed a distinct lack of visual appeal. I noted that fact in the roast challenge: brown gravy over browned meat with a brown garnish.

Since The Cook's Oracle isn't illustrated, I briefly considered turning to a more modern cookbook. Then I decided to put on a more historic mindset. After all, most female reenactors are shocked when they see themselves in a center-parted low bun. It takes a long time to think of that hairstyle as "pretty," but to people of the 1860s, it was the height of style. What did someone of 1817 consider to be a pretty dish?

I ran a search for the word "pretty" in The Cook's Oracle to see if I got any hits. Many of the hits referred to a sauce as "pretty thick" or being "pretty sure." One recipe suggested it was pretty to prop up a leg bone in the midst of some marrow bones. Another suggested that soaking parsley in butter in a dutch oven was much prettier than frying it when it came time to garnish the lamb. That sounded like the perfect recipe for a brown garnish to put on one's brown roast. One recipe did say that green beans looked pretty when cut into lozenges, which is pretty much what modern frozen green beans look like.

Finally, I ran across this recipe for a fried egg: 

I mean, it specifically states the dish "will make a very pretty appearance." Perfect for this challenge, I thought.

I know a cooking a fried egg seems like a bit of a cop out, but I actually did learn quite a bit from this challenge. I spent quite a bit of time on the OED looking at the origins of "pretty" but also trying to figure out what it meant to "stoop the stewpan" (probably to lower over the fire, but perhaps to tilt).

Eggs are just about the cheapest protein out there, so I have made zillions of different egg recipes, mostly from the 1910s and 1920s. I'd never seen an egg done exactly like this before.  I love the little footnote that says "They reckon 685 ways of dressing eggs in the French kitchen" before noting that 6 recipes should be "sufficient variety" for the English palate.

I also considered what a great job this recipe does at conserving meat. A dozen small squares of bacon is about 1/3 a slice. Two slices of bacon would be enough to garnish six eggs.

Year/Region: 1817/London

How Did You Make It: I decided to try this with just one egg, since the recipe called for cooking the eggs one at a time anyway.  First, I cut two slices of bacon into small dice. Most modern recipes cook the bacon in strips and then crumble it, but my carbonara recipe from Cook's Illustrated calls for pre-chopping the bacon and I quite like it that way. For some reason, I think it does cook a little differently this way.

Bacon really likes to be cooked low and slow, so I kept it over a low flame for ten minutes until most of the fat had rendered out. The recipe called for "a gentle fire." I then used a slotted spoon to transfer it to a paper-towel.  

Meanwhile, I cracked an egg into an 1830s soft-paste porcelain handleless teacup, since I really, really, really wanted those bonus points for historically accurate plating. The cooked egg is supposed be rounded, and cracking an egg into a cup first really does help the egg hold its shape.

I added extra bacon grease to the pan (because the recipe called for lard by the ladleful and because what the hell), made a little mound of 12 bacon squares, and gently eased the egg on top. I let the egg cook for 1 minute, then set up off heat for another 30 seconds.

Time to Complete: I was so proud of myself for noticing my start time, but I totally forgot to notice my finish time! About 3 minutes of prep, 10 minutes to cook the bacon (low and slow!), 1 1/2 minutes to fry the egg. Then plating. Total: 15 minutes?

Total Cost: pennies, since I just used 1 egg and 2 slices of bacon. Well, scratch that; bacon is ridiculously expensive right now. Still, probably less than $1.00.

How Successful Was It? Incredibly. It really did look pretty. It was a presentation I'd never seen before either. Here it is on some original sprig porcelain. 

How Accurate Was It? Very, I think. I followed the recipe very closely. I did use pre-sliced bacon instead of slicing it off the slab myself. After photographing, I did add salt, pepper, and some hot sauce just because that's how I eat my eggs.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Historical Food Fortnightly: Juicy Fruits

The Challenge: It's fruits! Do something with fruits. It doesn't get more simple than that. Bonus points for the use of heritage crops and ingredients.

I considered a couple of options, but ultimately settled on a recipe for Orange Pudding from The Cook's Oracle, which I've been using for most of these challenges.

The recipe intrigued me because I couldn't quite figure out what kind of pudding it was. Historic puddings are quite dense, like a wet, heavy cake. What we today consider a pudding was called custard historically. There didn't seem to be much flour (from the bun) in it. I also puzzled over how big a twopenny bun would have been in 1817.

Year/Region: 1817/London

How Did You Make It?: For the most part, I followed the recipe to the best I could. I heated about 5 Tablespoons of orange peel, 2 cups of milk, about 1/2 cup of sugar in a saucepan. For the twopenny roll, I tore up a hotdog bun and ran it through a food processor. It was a total guess; it was also all the bread we happened to have in the house. If I felt I needed it, I could have added some panko at the last minute.

I brought the mixture to a boil and then let it cool a bit since I knew I'd be adding it to eggs and didn't want to curdle them.  I really did attempt to strain it, but with no luck. I had suspected it wouldn't
really be possible. The mixture was quite thick and paste-like at this point. I can't imagine a twopenny roll would be smaller than a hotdog bun.

I mixed 4 eggs and 1 1/3 cups of orange juice, then tempered them by adding small amounts of the warm milk mixture. Once I'd tempered the eggs, I poured them into the saucepan and mixed well.

The recipe didn't specify what kind of container to cook it in, nor a temperature, only the amount of time (30 minutes). I opted to grease a pudding mold and baked at 350 degrees. It was still a bit soupy after 30 minutes, so I put it in for another 30, checking every 10 minutes. Perhaps if I'd added more bread crumbs it might have set up more firmly and more quickly. A higher cook temperature--say 400 degrees--would also be an option.

At 60 minutes, the house smelled delicious, a sure sign the pudding was as done as it was going to get. I decided to let it cool for 20 minutes before seeing if it was the kind of pudding that could be unmolded or whether it would have to be served with a spoon.

I was fairly terrified about the unmolding, but the pudding had deflated quite a bit after 20 minutes and did hold together when flipped. It sort of made its own sauce.

Time to Complete: about 2 hours, including cooling time.

Total Cost: Hard to say, as I had all the ingredients. If I'd had to buy it, the costs would have been roughly as follows: orange peel=$3.00, juice=$1.50, milk=50 cents, sugar=pennies, roll=25 cents, 4 eggs=85 cents. Total = about $6.20 or so.

How Successful Was It?: I strongly suspect I should have doubled the amount of bread crumbs. While the smell the intensely orange, the taste was quite subtle. The texture was a bit like a corn pudding, and I wish I could have figured out a way to strain it as the orange peel remained in the pudding in little chewy bits. Perhaps the bread crumbs could have been added after straining. I don't think it would appeal to the modern palate, but it wasn't terrible.

How Accurate Was It?: I did use some modern substitutions--dried orange peel and orange juice from concentrate. And again, I totally guessed on the size of the roll.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Historical Food Fortnightly: Roasts

The Challenge: They’re a staple of the historic table, in many different shapes and forms and types. It’s also a cooking technique. Try a historic recipe for a roast, or a recipe that involves roasting, and tell us how it turned out.

Roasts honestly terrify me. I've been trapped in a vicious cycle of fear. Meat is very expensive and the thought of ruining a large cut of it has always kept me from tackling roasts.  And because I seldom tackle roasts, I don't have much experience that could boost my confidence.

When I looked in The Cooks Oracle, which I've been mostly using for these challenges, the section on roasts was page after page of dense instructions, heavily footnoted! I felt even less confident. The more I read, however, the more I realized that our modern ovens were so dissimilar to a historic hearth, that I wasn't really going to be able to do a true historic roast anyway. 

I took a lot of inspiration from other challengers and decided to forge onward. I often make cornish hens, and ran across this poultry recipe from The Whole Duty of a Woman (1737).

The poultry part was incredibly straightforward and I knew I had all the other ingredients in my cupboard. 

Year/Region: London, 1837

How Did You Make It?:  I'm actually really proud of this dish, so here it is with more detail than I usually give. I made a roux of 1T bacon grease with 1T flour. I cooked the roux for about 1 minute, then slowly added 1/2 c of strong chicken stock (Colonial Williamsburg's Historic Foodways site said that a cullis is a strong stock) to make a gravy. I stirred in 1 T butter until melted and then added 1 T of lemon juice. I then mixed in about 2/3 small tin of anchovies, chopped fine. I spooned it over the roasted bird and topped each half with 2 fillets of anchovies.

Time to Complete: Since I wasn't roasting over a spit in front of a fire, for the game hen, I followed the Cook's Illustrated suggestion to cut out the spine and butterfly it in order to speed up cooking time. Prep was about 5 minutes, cooking time for the bird was 25, with maybe another 5 minutes to plate and garnish. Total time: 35 minutes.

Total Cost: $3.50 for the bird and I had all the other ingredients to hand. If I'd had to buy the anchovies, add approximately another $2.75. 

How Successful Was It?: This dish was amazing. I tasted the sauce before adding the anchovies and it was really delicious. I was afraid the anchovies would ruin it, and LB hates anchovies, but I opted not to mention them and see if he noticed. He wolfed it down. I would have eaten this gravy with a spoon. The anchovies added a nice degree of umami without greatly altering the flavor. Modern sensibilities would probably like a bit of color variation in the dish, from the brown fish, the brown gravy, and the browned skin.

How Accurate Was It?: Hard to say. The hen part was definitely less than accurate, but short of building an actual hearth, I'm not sure how close I could get. I essentially followed this recipe from Cook's Illustrated, It's a fairly classic method of roasting fowl. As far as the sauce, it's also hard to say. I'm pretty sure I interpreted the instructions correctly to the best of my understanding. There are no proportions really listed or how much it is supposed to make, but I was really happy with the balance of flavors, although next time I might use a bit less lemon. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Historical Food Fortnightly: Sweets for the Sweet

The Challenge: It's sugar, and maybe spice, and definitely everything nice. Test out a historic recipe for sweets, sweetmeats and candies--but don't let them spoil your appetite!

I've actually done a lot of research on commercial candy making in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but haven't ventured to make much. It's still relatively easy to purchase historical candies if you know what you're looking for. I chose to make "Chocolate Puffs" from Mrs. Mary Eales's Receipts for Confectionery, which was first published in 1718.

At first glance, the recipe seemed like a straightforward meringue. But as is often the case, key information was missing, namely the number of egg whites, as well as bake time and temperature. I also wasn't quite sure of the consistency for "Chocolate grated, and sifted through an Hair Sieve." I decided cocoa powder would work. Perhaps I should have done this as my "History Detective" entry.

Year/Region: London, 1767 edition

How Did You Make It? First, I decided to halve the recipe, so I got out my digital scale. Eight oz. of sugar came out to exactly 1 cup. The cocoa, 1.5 oz., came to 1/3 cup. I looked at my favorite schaumtortes recipe, which uses 6 eggs, 1.5 cups of sugar, as well as vanilla and cream of tarter. I left the last two out, calculated the ratios and decided I needed about 4 1/2 egg whites. To get that, I used 3 large eggs and 2 medium eggs (our Polish chickens lay eggs that are just above medium in size and I had some grocery store eggs as well for the large ones).

I beat the whites to a foam at high speed in the stand mixer, then slowly added the sugar, one tablespoon at a time until the mixture formed stiff peaks. I then added the cocoa in the same manner, before realizing I really needed to slow down the mixer so the cocoa didn't waft all over the kitchen. 

I spooned the mixture into a pastry bag fitted with a round tip. I normally make meringue stars, but decided to follow the recipe's suggestion of making loaves. I just piped a loaf about 4" long, quickly realizing that the cookies were going to look remarkably like poop.

Following my schaumtortes recipe, I baked at 250 degrees for 75 minutes.

Time to Complete: Prep was about 20 minutes. I honestly didn't pay attention to that bit. The part in the oven felt like it took forever only because I couldn't wait to taste them. One hour and 15 minutes of baking time. A further 5 minutes with the oven door ajar to cool.

Total Cost: I had everything to hand, so I can only estimate cost. I guess the cost for 5 eggs would have been about $1, If cocoa sells for about 40 cents/oz., I would have spent 60 cents. Sugar is about 9 cents/oz, so 72 cents for the sugar. Total cost would be $2.32 for 32 meringues. 

How Successful Was It? OMG so delicious. I snatched four out of the oven while baking, just for "testing" purposes. After the second, I warned LB that if he wanted any, he had better get on it as I planned to eat them all. I've made chocolate meringues before and these were by far the best. They were both crispy and chewy and wonderfully chocolaty. The only problem was that they looked an awful lot like poop.

mmmmmm, poop!
If you make these, maybe pipe into a less scatological form. After all, the recipe says "any Fashion you please."

How Accurate Was It? Very accurate, I think. I'm not quite certain that cocoa is the same as grated chocolate run through a hair sieve. I used some modern recipes to calculate how many egg whites I should use. I used a stand mixer and a modern, commercial convection oven. Instead of baking on papers, I used a silpat.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Historical Food Fortnightly: History Detective

The Challenge: For this challenge, you get to be the detective! Either use clues from multiple recipes to make a composite recipe, or choose a very vague recipe and investigate how it was made.

Like a lot of other participants in this challenge, I no longer have too much difficulty in reading period recipes. What I did for this one was read a lot of different versions of the same recipe, pick one I liked the best, but incorporate some elements from other versions. I opted for Welsh Rarebit. So many of the references I ran across made fun of the name and there were several short stories about tourists who kept expecting a delicious rabbit dish. As a child, I had asked my mother to make "that Jewish dish, Welsh Rabbi," so I could relate to the poor tourists.

Obviously, I've loved Welsh rarebit since childhood, so I was excited when I realized it was a historic recipe. I first realized that cheese toast and Welsh Rarebit were one and the same, by reading The Cook's Oracle (1817), which I've been focusing on for these challenges.

I grew up eating it with crumbled bacon and sometimes a tomato. I've occasionally made the Campbell's Soup version. It's really one of my favorite winter comfort foods. Part of my preparation for this challenge involved looking at some of my vintage cheese books (1955 and 1977) for how Welsh Rarebit gets made today. The 1977 version has 65(!) different rarebit recipes, and I've long been tempted to cook my way through them all.

For my master recipe this challenge, I settled on this entry from The Domestic Dictionary (1842):
WELCH RABBIT. Melted cheese served upon toasted bread. The real name of this dish is rare-bit, which has been corrupted down to rabbit. A foreigner, who, on arriving in England, should see Welch rabbit on the card of a house of public entertainment, and, referring to his dictionary, should find that the French of Welch rabbit is lapin du pays des Galles, would be astonished, if he ordered it by the English name, to see some toasted cheese, instead of a rabbit of rich flavour peculiar to Wales. As there is an art in the roasting of eggs, so there are three arts in making Welch rabbits. The first is to choose good cheese; the single Gloster, when not too old, is one of the best for this purpose; the next is to toast the bread carefully, that it may be crisp; and, lastly, to watch the turn of the cooking, and take care that the toast be hot when the cheese is spread upon it; the crust is usually pared off the bread for toasting, but this is not an improvement. The cheese should be melted in a cheese toaster before the fire, cutting it first into thin slices or shavings, that it may heat quickly and equally; a little butter may be added; some persons add a little ale, and this is not a bad plan. When the cheese is thoroughly melted, and very hot, spread it over the bread rather thickly, and cover well with salt, pepper, and mustard. This seasoning must be laid on boldly, for Welch rabbit is usually eaten as a relish, and to give a zest for the ale or porter which is taken with it. The seasoning is sometimes mixed with the cheese when melting, but this is not an improvement. Welch rabbit is an indigestible article if eaten in excess, but in small quantity it rarely disagrees with the stomach, as the cheese is corrected by the condiments. 
The first challenge was finding the cheese. I went to two fancy cheese stores and then two fancy grocery stores, all in a fruitless quest for Double Gloucester cheese. The recipes I looked at were very clear on the types of cheese suitable for Welsh rarebit, specifying Double G or cheddar as a second choice. Some recipes disparaged Single G, which is a cheese I've never run across, in spite of my obsession with cheeses.  I found Cotswold cheese (double G w/ chives and garlic), which I didn't think would work for this recipe, and Huntsman cheese, in which Double G is layer with Stilton. In despair, I opted to buy some 1833 Cheddar. Later that day, I did manage to find Double G in my regular grocery store of all places.

The next challenge was figuring out how to melt the cheese. Several recipes mentioned a cheese toaster, which is a bit like a double boiler with small compartments for melting individual servings of cheese. I discovered that some inns sold upwards of 200 servings of Welsh Rarebits each evening, so these toasters would have been really useful. You can see a variety of toasters here. I don't have one. Although I do have a raclette grill, I opted to just use a saucepan.

Year/Region: 1842/London (although I found Welsh rarebit recipes going back to 1796)

How Did You Make It? I toasted some sourdough bread and chose to leave the crusts on. I then put 1 Tablespoon of butter and 1/4 cup of ale in a saucepan. I kept adding cheese in hopes that the moisture would blend in, but finally gave up at 3/4 lb. Modern recipes for Welsh Rarebit also use raw egg and flour, which might make for a more homogeneous rarebit. I loved that my master recipe specified to slather on the mustard on top of the cheese. Recipes today invariably blend in all the spices, but I followed this suggestion, using Colman's English Mustard since I knew it to be a historic brand. I also liberally sprinkled kosher salt and pepper on top.

Time to Complete: Less than 15 minutes to slice and toast the bread, shred the cheese, and melt in the saucepan.

Total Cost: The cheese was $8/lb and I used about 3/4 lb. ($6) The butter came to about 13 cents. We were given the loaf of bread and the beer as well. Otherwise, it would have been a pricey dish. As it was, I got a light dinner for two for $6.13. That's actually more than I usually spend on dinner.

How Successful Was It? Moderately. I had trouble getting the cheese to incorporate into the butter and ale. I ended up with a wad of gooey cheese at the bottom of the pot along with quite a bit of liquid. That said, the liquid was amazing tasting, and I soaked some toast in it for awhile. 

How Accurate Was It? Pretty accurate, I'd say. I didn't have a cheese toaster (although that's not the only way rarebits were cooked). Choosing to spread the mustard on top was a great suggestion. I loved the way it didn't quite blend in with the cheese, so I got a blast of really strong mustard with each bite. I'm pretty sure I'll eat it that way from now on.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Historical Food Fortnightly: Culinary Vices

Vice is such a relative term. Today's diets veer between no fats, no carbs, no gluten, no sugar. For many of our ancestors, budget would have been a larger factor than health. Food out of season would have been impossible to get or very expensive to ship. Foods that we consider sinfully decadent like lard or heavy cream would have been relatively inexpensive and easily available.

At the moment, budget is a big factor in my cooking, both historic and modern, but I was able to find a luxurious recipe from The Court and Country Confectioner (1770) that seemed to fit this month's challenge.

Year/Region: 1770/London

How Did You Make It: I halved the recipe, so I juiced 3 oranges to make 1 cup (1/2 pint) and stirred with 2 eggs and an extra yolk. I considered using less sugar, but went with the full half pound of granulated. I stirred it all over a double boiler with 1/4 orange peel until it set up into a thin (very, very, very thin) custard.

Time to Complete: I'm so bad at losing track of time when I cook. Fifteen minutes maybe?

Total Cost: Probably less than a dollar. The oranges were a gift shipped from Florida.

How Successful Was It? Not terribly. The recipe was very good about using actual measurements (1 pint of orange juice vs the juice of X oranges), so I knew I was following the ratios. For my preferences, there simply wasn't enough egg in the juice to make anything thicker than the consistency of eggnog. I had hoped for a firmer custard or something along the lines of a lemon curd. I could have definitely halved the sugar, but stuck with the recipe. LB said "That's weird" and then suggested that "we" make some shortcakes or an unsweet white cake to soak up the custard. I let it set up a bit then added some melted butter in the hopes of giving it more firmness and make it more like a curd.

How Accurate Is It? Middling. The biggest difference is that the recipe called for Seville oranges, and I used a modern hybrid. Sevilles are bitter oranges, the kind for making marmalade. I've no idea where to buy them. I otherwise followed the recipe faithfully although I opted to cook over a double boiler, having always made custards thus. I tasted the results before trying to tweak it a bit into more of something I actually wanted to eat.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Historical Food Fortnightly: Meat & Potatoes


A series of factors led me to chose this recipe from The Cook's Oracle. I'd been called on at the last minute to cook for the Battle of New Orleans reenactment and realized I needed to scroll back the dates of recipes I'd been using. In the bit of last year's challenge I completed, I tended to focus on the Civil War. Finally, I was looking for a recipe that was extremely budget conscious. Extremely.

I was thrilled to find this one. Once I began it, I realized how similar it was to one of my most favorite breakfast recipes, Potato Bacon Scones. Seriously, it's nearly identical. 
 Year/Region: 1817/London

How Did You Make It: I mashed the potatoes with some butter and milk, diced the ham, and added the egg yolks. The resulting mixture was much too soft to form into balls, so I did mix in a bit of flour to stiffen it up a bit before rolling about 2 Tablespoon's worth in flour as called for "in the last receipt."

 I never did make successful balls, as the potato mixture flattened as soon as it hit the hot grease. I fried them until well browned. I was a bit confused by the recipe's call to "brown them in a dutch oven" as the frying process browned them so much. I skipped that step unless the recipe actually meant to do the frying in a dutch oven. 

Time to Complete: I boiled the potatoes for 20 minutes, mashed them and let them cool another 20 minutes. The fry time took maybe a total of 20 minute as I worked in batches. Total time: 1 hour.

Total Cost: I spent $1.38 on two potatoes. The ham had been a great deal before Xmas at 89 cents a lb. and the recipe used 1/4 lb. I used 2 T of butter and splash of milk, so probably another 30 cents. I can't really calculate the cost of a bit of flour. The bacon grease was free. Total: $1.91. 

How Successful Was It?: Moderately successful.  Because I was rushing, I didn't scroll back in the book to see the instructions for how to mash potatoes. 

 Their mashed potatoes use far less butter and milk than we do today, so their mixture would have been firmer. I was unable to shape the mixture into balls. There was no seasoning in the mixture either, so they were a bit bland for the modern palate. I sprinkled them with kosher salt after frying. Those are really picky critiques though; these were delicious. I ate three and LB immediately ate six and later went back for more.

How Accurate Is It?: Very. I used all of the recipe's ingredients as described, all the way down to the "clean drippings."  This is some gorgeous grease:

Writing Forthcoming

Soon! I am having significant connectivity issues at home. In addition, I have been travelling extensively since mid-December. Once I got back home, I was scrambling to catch up in an online course (I finished!) and prep for the new semester (haven't even begun that bit beyond ordering the texts).

I've signed up for the Historical Food Fortnightly and strongly considered dropping out due to the insane demands on my pocketbook and time right now. Still, I managed to meet challenge one with only the purchase of a couple of potatoes, so I'll be back soon with the post.