Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Historical Food Fortnightly, Challenge 10: Let Them Eat Cake (plus bonus grub!)

This semester is kicking my butt, so I've had to let fun stuff slide--fun stuff like eating home-cooked food.  I did actually make three historic dishes for my book club last month, to go with Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood.  I can't really figure out where they would fit into the challenges, so here they are all at once.


Year/Region: 1855; Hartford, CT

How Did You Make It: I had noticed this recipe in The Improved Housewife: Or, Book of Receipts; with Engravings for Marketing and Carving by Mrs. A.L. Webster, a married lady, when I was looking for "foreign" names. The recipe jumped out at me because it's the name of a nearby road.

I followed the recipe faithfully, although if you notice, the recipe doesn't say at what temperature or for how long to cook the cake (which is actually more like a cookie). In fact, it doesn't mention cooking at all. I ended up baking at 350 for about 12-15 minutes. I sprinkled the cakes with powdered sugar both before and after baking.

Time to Complete: Because I had 3 dishes to make, I spent a big chunk of the morning cooking and worked on multiple dishes simultaneously. This one probably took about an hour from start to finish.

Total Cost: I had all the ingredients on hand.

How Successful Was It?: The large number of eggs make for a cake-like, slightly dense crumb. I loved the delicate flavor of the rose-water, but didn't love the texture as much. I have a feeling my book club members were slightly less than enthusiastic about any of these dishes, but they really weren't designed for a modern palate. There were plenty of leftovers, which surprisingly never seemed to go stale. I feel they're kind of a generic cookie/cake.

How Accurate Is It? I used an electric mixer and a convection oven. I also used silpats instead of buttering the cookie sheet. Otherwise, it's an authentic recipe. The eggs were from our birds.


Year/Region: 1855; Hartford, CT

How Did You Make It: I wanted a protein for my book club spread, but didn't want anything too heavy, hot, or messy. I've had this chicken salad before and quite like it. Again, it's from The Improved Housewife.

I decided to double the recipe since I was cooking for a crowd. I boiled some boneless, skinless chicken breasts. It's nearly impossible these days to buy a chicken of that size; roasting chickens today are just massive.  I used cider vinegar and prepared yellow mustard. Instead of essence of celery, I used celery seed, which was suggested as a substitute in another recipe in the same book. I also opted to serve it on a bed of lettuce and tomato for color and put a basket of dinner rolls nearby for anyone who preferred a sandwich.

Essence of celery seems like a fascinating foodstuff we've completely lost:

Time to Complete: Maybe an hour, the bulk of which was waiting for the water to come to a boil.

Total Cost: It's been a few weeks, but I do recall that I winced at the price of chicken. I had everything else on hand.

How Successful Was It?: I've always liked boiling chicken. It's so fast and easy and not messy in the way that frying is. Today, we expect to have mayonnaise-based chicken salad, but this was lovely, if a bit dry. As my DH and I worked away at the leftovers, I tended to mix in a bit of mayo.

How Accurate Is It? Fairly accurate. I used chicken breasts only instead of a whole bird. The eggs were from our chickens. The one substitute I made was a period one.


Year/Region: 1870; Oxford, NC

How Did You Make It:  I wanted a third dish and recalled I had a lot of persimmons on hand that I could put to good use. I cast about and came up with this recipe from Mrs. Elliott's Housewife: Containing Practical Receipts in Cookery by Sarah A. Elliott.

I had harvested local persimmons last fall and was able to raid the freezer. The day we harvested, a friend and I gathered all we could and tried several labor-intensive methods before finally settling on a chinois, those cone-shaped strainers you sometimes see in junk stores. We each ended up with three gallons of pulp and I've been gradually trying different recipes. I opted for the cornmeal option and baked in a pyrex 9x13 baking pan.

Time to Complete: Well, if you count the persimmon bit, for-freaking-evah! Otherwise, I ended up looking up a more modern pudding recipe and baking for about 40 minutes.

Total Cost: I had everything on hand. At this point, if you've done the math, you'll notice that I have used 17 eggs in just these three dishes!

How Successful Was It?: Moderately. I found that I don't really love persimmon and have a feeling the book club members didn't either. It has a distinct taste that lingers. The texture of this is also something modern eaters aren't used to--dense and quite moist. That said, I generally love puddings. It transported and held up well. I took to serving very small pieces at breakfast time. The chickens eventually enjoyed the last of the leftovers.

How Accurate Is It? As far as I can tell, very. I hand-harvested and hand-processed the persimmons, and they were a local variety from a nature reserve nearby. I followed the recipe faithfully.

There you go. Lord knows when I'll get a chance to cook again.

1 comment:

Galina L. said...

America test kitchen gives a very good (as usual)practical suggestion how to cook a chicken breast not be dry. It is not historically accurate because it involves measuring a temperature.
You put chicken breasts into a cold salted water, put the thermometer into the water at the same time, as soon as temperature reaches 170F, take chicken breasts out.
From my low-tech experience - I have been eating boiled chicken more often than fried one, and I noticed that chicken rarely gets dry if left in a broth after cooking. My suggestion would be cook breasts till almost done and leave to cool down in a cooking liquid, then shred for a salad.
In my native country boiled chicken (and fish) was often served in a jellied consomme with a horse reddish sauce of a mustard.