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.

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