Archive | August, 2012

Canadian culture at the CNE

31 Aug

From the sublime (Spadina Museum) to the surreal…… Yesterday night Henry and I headed off to the Canadian National Exhibition (otherwise known as the CNE or the Ex) with Ryan, a friend from Oxford who now teaches at York University.  It was a extraordinary experience from start to finish; a sorted of pumped up, north american version of a county show, complete with 100s of children’s rides and fairground stalls, the ubiquitous military presence (tanks and planes for boys, big and small, to climb in), farm animals, and horticultural competitions but in truly west Atlantic style.  One of the strangest, almost dream like, elements was the At Home Pavilion which was like a live version of the Shopping Channel; I have never seen such a disparate group of products on offer; plasma televisions next to baby grand pianos, roof insulation next to homemade jewellery, while round the corner a hypnotically compelling salesman persuaded people to part with $19.95 for two Sweepa rubber kitchen brushes?


The fairground at CNE – I don’t think that I’ve ever seen so many stalls offering you the chance to win an oversized soft toy banana or giant care bear.
But of all the CNE the prize for bizarre ingenuity had to go to the Food Building where the vendors were clearly vying with each other to produce the craziest dish imaginable.  The building was filled with something like a 100 stalls offering foods from all corners of the world from Russian perogi to Jamaican chicken.  So far so normal, a culinary melting pot with more than its fair share of hot dogs, pizza and waffles.  But looking more closely the truly extraordinary, highly calorific, hybrid savoury sweet dishes began to distinguish themselves from their more mundane neighbours.  Colossal deep fried onions, bacon wrapped deep fried Mars bars, red velvet pancakes with pulled pork drenched in jack Daniels infused syrup, hot dog eclairs, how do people come up with these things?!


The Colossal Onion stall ……


….and the colossal onion itself!


Any ideas I had that Glasgow was the home of the deep fried mars bar are now well and truly dispelled.


Truly bizarre – the hot dog eclair, which I’m relieved to say we didn’t try


Kitchen longevity at splendid Spadina

30 Aug

I’ve arrived in Canada and am now finding my way about Toronto, visiting the local grocery store (which is only about 10 minutes away) and sampling the produce of the local bakery.  More of these in later posts.  On Tuesday I visited Spadina Museum, a late 19th century house which was built by the wealthy Austin family on the then outskirts of Toronto.  The sun was shining, the garden (complete with vegetable garden, orchard and vines) was looking glorious and the house could have stepped straight out of the pages of a Henry James novel.

Spadina Museum – the name of the house comes from a Ojibway word for a hill or rise of land

Visits to the house are by guided tour and I was taken round by the friendly and informative Anne.  The interior of the house is an diverse mix of arts and crafts, art nouveau and orientalism, all mixed together with touches of the Canadian wilds (stuffed wolves greeting you at the front door and moose heads on the stairs).  The house is shown as it would have looked in the 1920s; despite the Austin’s love of modern features like electric lights, radios, automobiles and even a heated shaving cream holder, the eclectic, somewhat outmoded style created in the 1890s by family matriarch Mary Austin, remained during the house’s heyday.

One of my favourite rooms was the kitchen.  Like much of the house it demonstrated a beguiling blend of a fascination with new technology coupled with a thriftiness, suggestive of the family’s humble roots.  The kitchen is a spacious room, with cupboards filled with authentic packages and boxes from the 1920s.  It’s been possible to get these completely accurate since amongst their other traits the Austins were natural archivists, keeping everything from receipts for party purchases to the score cards for childrens’ games and notes on all the seeds purchased for the garden.

An array of 1920s tins, boxes and packets in the kitchen cupboards

In the kitchen stand two stoves.  The solid, cast iron 19th century stove Anne told me was in use well into the 20th century.  It looks like it could quite happily have prepared meals for a houseful of guests, useful, given the number of parties the Austins liked having.  Curiously they had only a handful of staff, certainly less than you’d expect in such a fine residence owned by a member of the Toronto elite.  Apparently when they held parties in would come the caterers who they would attempt to pass off as their own staff, though I suspect that this soon became an unspoken but open ‘secret’.

The 19th century stove, just too heavy to move so it stayed in the kitchen

Next to the solid and immovable (probably the reason it’s still there) 19th century stove stands a 1950s elegant enamelled cream ‘Miss Canada’ gas stove.  It has 6 burners, a general oven, roasting oven and two warming drawers for plates – such a useful stove that it continued to be used by the Austin family right into the 1980s, a fabulous example of longevity.

Miss Canada in all her enamelled glory

Even better Miss Canada still gets regular outings, being used for demonstrations days and tastings by the Culinary Historians of Canada.

Proof that Miss Canada still works!  She’s checked out regularly by the gas board just to make sure thatno accidents occur and it’s rather fitting that a gas stove in the house of a man who made his money supplying Toronto with gas is still hale and hearty.   

In the cold room off the kitchen is an impressively capacious ice box; the tank on top could hold vast amounts of ice and had its own drainage system to draw off the melt water which was then used to water the garden – clever!  During the winter of course there was no need to maintain the ice box because the room got icily cold without any artificial aids; in fact a radiator had to be turned on to make sure that the food didn’t freeze!

The Austin ice box with more than enough room for storing party foods

It wasn’t just all the receipts, score cards and other ephemera kept by the Austins.  Their ability to hold on to, and make use of everything, means that the house is packed with items, large and small, which vividly illustrate the intriguing history of the house and its inhabitants.  Anne opened a drawer to show me the dozens of 1920s cookie cutters, augmented now by a few modern examples, which the Austins had kept and continued to use, well after another family might have thrown them away and bought afresh.  Some lovely shapes which I would be quite happy to add to my own collection.

A drawer of patisserie tins, just a few of the many items small and large left by the Austins, and slowly being catalogued by the Toronto Culture team. 

The kitchen was just one of many treats in the Spadina Museum.  I was lucky to be taken on a effectively a personal tour, since there was no one else in my group.  It would be interesting to see what’s it’s like when you have to go round in a bigger group; I imagine that it would be a little more difficult to see things, with fewer opportunities for asking less spontaneous and quirky questions.  But if Anne and her colleague on the front desk are anything to go by, these are examples of exactly how heritage staff should be; passionate about their subject, welcoming to their property and with a gift for leaving you wanting to find out more.

Spadina’s abundant orchard

There’s a cider Sunday coming up in September when Spadina, in partnership with Not Far From the Tree, will be harvesting the apples from the orchard and turning them into homemade cider and I’m just hoping that I’ll be around to go along.

The great British Victoria Sandwich, 1897 style

23 Aug

You can’t really get a cake more British than a Victoria Sandwich and before I leave these shores for Canada I thought I should bake one last Victoria sponge.  Ever since we opened our exhibition about Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, Jubilee – A view from the crowd, and my colleague at Kensington, Tim Powell, masterminded the wonderful ‘How to … ‘ video with food historian Annie Gray demonstrating how to make a Victoria sponge 19th century style I’ve been meaning to give it a go.

My lack of Victorian equipment, like a copper bowl, means that my cake is something of a hybrid, with the 19th century ingredients and basic method alongside the helping hand of modern conveniences.  Although Victorian utensils clearly helped their cooks acheived the desired results; they’d use a copper bowl for whisking the eggs the copper reacts with the eggs to form a natural raising agent – clever!

The other distinctive feature of the cake is that it uses no fat, apparently common for cakes in the Victorian period and as Annie says, good for the waistline, although the quantity of eggs and 12oz of caster sugar may cancel out the effect somewhat.  The following photos illustrate the process and finished result.


Whisking up the 6 eggs, which took about 6 minutes so that they were really foamy.  The final cake reflected something of this lovely, warm yellow colour.

ImageReady to add the flour to the egg and caster sugar mixture.  Annie suggests giving the cake an authentic touch by adding orange flower water, a popular flavouring in the 19th century.


In it goes; the cake gets about half an hour in the oven.  A nice touch is prepping the tin with sugar as well as butter so that the cake crust has a lovely crunch.


Next step, preparing the cake for sandwiching; Annie suggests cutting the cake into fingers and trying out different flavours for the filling jam so I’m trying apricot and raspberry.

ImageThe finished result!  We might be used to round Victoria sponges but Victorians were far more likely to arrange theirs in stacked fingers.  As you can see my pile (a bit like a Victoria sponge Jenga) was a little bit wobbly so I used some strategically placed cocktail sticks to make sure it stayed in place for the photo.

The texture was much denser than a normal Victoria sponge.  Of the two fillings the raspberry jam is definitely my preferred flavour; more distinctive and not so sweet, which worked well against the orange flower flavouring in the sponge.  I think on balance I’d probably go for modern, lighter Victoria sponge but it was fun trying … now two days before I head off and the Canadian experimentation begins!

Great British Baking Competitions

16 Aug

I’ve just spent an hour of heavenly baking pleasure watching the first in the new series of the Great British Bake Off on i-player.  This is series three and although I’ll catch the 2nd episode next week this is definitely one of the baking delights I shall miss when I move to Canada in little over a week; i-player doesn’t work outside the UK and I don’t know if anyone I know is technically minded enough to get it recorded for me.

Over the last couple of years I’ve enjoyed watching the incredible popularity of the GBBO and by extension the fashion for all things baking.  As many TV critics have noted who would have thought that fiercesome competition around the doilys would have provided such compulsive television viewing?

Of course the GBBO belongs to a long and venerable line of baking competitions in Britain.  I can remember my delight when we were working with the wonderful fashion designers Boudicca for Enchanted Palace and found out that they held an annual bake off competition.  My enjoyment came not only from the unexpected combination of the gentle arts of the oven and the world of high fashion but also from the fact that these were some of the most achingly sophisticated cakes that you might ever care to find; follow the link to see the evidence from the 3rd bake off.

However, the baking competition which will most readily flit across the minds of most people is the time honoured tradition of Women’s Institute baking competitions where each and every Victoria sponge is subjected to brutal scrunity by a committee of deadly serious judges, intent of making fatal deductions for any sponge not perfectly risen or any jam trying to cheekily escape in a drip down the side of the cake.

In trying to find out when the first WI baking competition took place I contacted the WI and received an inconclusive but nevertheless fascinating answer from Anne Stamper who explained that my question was difficult to answer but that it was the local WIs where the baking competitions all began;

‘Here are some of the early ones as listed in the WI’s programme
 Llanfairpwll WI (the first WI formed in GB) July 1917 display of cakes made by members – did  not report if it was competitive.
Henfield WI April 24 1918 held a Competition – wartime cookery
Portslade Jan 3rd 1918   Competition:  the best dinner for a man to take to work – cheapness to be considered in judging.
Not really baking but you get the drift – economy in wartime.
Baking competitions did not take place in national exhibitions because of the difficulty of transport, the national competitions tended to be for jam or bottled fruit. Baking was the preserve of the WI tents at local Agricutural shows, as it still is to this day.’

The WI was founded in Canada in February 1897.  1897 was of course the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.  When I was researching my exhibition about Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee at Kensington Palace, Jubilee – A view from the crowd, I was particularly keen to find out if there were special recipes or dishes created to celebrate the momentous event.  I was more than disheartened to find almost no evidence of a special dish.  Such disappointment left me elated to discover evidence of a specific Diamond Jubilee baking competition.

The Victorian women’s magazine, Home Notes, organised a Diamond Jubilee fruit cake baking competition, with some valuable prizes of money.  Home Notes was produced by Alfred Pearson, who was known for his publications which offered cash prizes for competitions. All the cakes entered were going to a good cause; Pearson’s fresh air fund allowed city children the chance for a holiday in the country.

I particularly love the use of the poster’s use of the phrase ‘monster prizes’- it sounds as if it could have been written to describe some of a 21st century lottery prize – and the fact that all the cakes were to be sent to Isobel.  I doubt that Isobel was a real person (I’m sure that the reason Isobel was chosen was because it was the name of Pearson’s first wife) but I like to think of an Isobel slowly disappearing under a pile of ever arriving fruit cakes!  There is no record of course, that I have come across, of which talented home baker might have been lucky enough to have scooped one of the ‘monster prizes’ but the poster remains one of my favourite items in the exhibition and a fascinating forebear of the GBBO – roll on the next episode!

Caster Sugar and cup cakes

9 Aug


Chocolate and orange cupcakes from The Great British Bake Off – Have to Bake cook book

I’ve been busy over the last few days, preparing for the move to Canada amongst a sea of papers, painters and packing crates.  One of things that I’ve been carefully considering is how my baking will have to change once I reach Toronto; I’m not sure how easy it will be to get ingredients that are standard baking items in England.  One of the ingredients I suspect I shall miss the most is caster sugar.  My initial forays in Toronto have already suggested that this is not a sugar easy to find in north America, though I think it’s called superfine sugar in the US so I’ll have to keep my eyes open for that.

Caster sugar is a beautifully fine sugar, giving cakes, biscuits and other baked goods a light, airy texture.  The wonderful Reader’s Digest Cookery Year comments ‘Granulated sugar is the least expensive white sugar; it can be used in rubbed-in cakes, but as it is coarse it may give a spotted appearance to the cake crust.  Caster sugar, being finer, creams more easily with fats and gives a finer, softer cake.’

There have always been good natured debates in the MacCulloch household about the best way to pronounce ‘caster’; is it a good old northern cas – ter, or posh southern cars – tor?  The good old OED favours ‘castor’ as the correct spelling but it’s more commonly found today spelt ‘caster’.  The OED spelling clearly shows how it’s derived from the name for a small container for various powders with a perforated top, so that they can be sprinkled.  Following the alternative spelling highlights the words connection to the act of casting, or sprinkling, as in casting seeds or sprinkling water.  The OED, in its compounds for ‘castor’ describes ‘castor-sugar’ as a ‘powdered sugar, so called from its suitability for use in a castor’; although castor sugar is clearly a granulated sugar and does not have the absolute fineness of icing sugar this description emphasises the fineness of the grain. One website says that ‘at least 950 g/kg of Castor Sugar shall pass through a sieve having a mesh aperture size of 0.599 mm.’ (

The earliest quotation the OED gives to illustrate the use of castor sugar is one fromEliza Acton’s Modern. Cookery from 1855 and a recipe for Morella cherries which are ‘simmered..with three quarters of a pound of castor-sugar.’  I’ve been trying to find other early examples of castor sugar in recipe books but it’s not easy and probably needs a longer search than writing this post. Looking through a few on Project Gutenberg, and given the etomology of the name I wonder if mentions of powdered sugar in 19th century cook books is what we might know as castor sugar?  Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management mentions a plethora of different sugars (pounded loaf sugar, lump sugar, sifted sugar, moisted sugar, pounded white sugar and just plain sugar ) but no caster sugar.  I’d love to know of any pre 1950s mentions of caster sugar that any one comes across.

Continuing my weekly baking experiments I tried another recipe from the Great British Bake Off – Have to Bake cook book, which this time was the chocolate orange cup cake recipe.  It uses a mix of different sugars; caster sugar in the sponge, to give the cakes a light feel, granulated sugar in for the orange syrup and then icing sugar for the frosting.  The recipe also gave me the chance to practise my icing technique; not perfect yet but definitely improving!

Sugar A Bittersweet History by Elizabeth Arnott, 2010

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9 Aug

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