Archive | November, 2012

Stir-up Tuesday

21 Nov

Industrial quantities of suet imported from England by Mr Kim – well maybe not quite industrial (though there was the year one of my friends thought that I said I’d made 45lbs of mincemeat when I’d actually only made 4-5lbs!) but enough to keep me going for a couple of years.

I know that I should technically be concentrating my Christmas mincemeat preparations on a Sunday but giving the imminent move I’m happy to grab any evening available.  Traditionally Stir-up Sunday is the last Sunday before advent (which is great because it means I’m actually ahead of time!) and is so called not because of mixing up dried fruit in readiness for Christmas puddings but because it was the Sunday on which the following collect was read from the Book of Common Prayer:

Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Not a bad reminder in the run up to advent and a holiday meant to be more about giving than received. Since Christmas pudding fruit needs to soak up alcohol, citrus juices etc for some weeks the day has long since been associated with the making of the Christmas pudding.   Since I don’t make my own Christmas pudding the Kim stirring up centres around the making of my mincemeat and since I’m a big fan of both apricots and almonds I’ve spent the last few years adopting various recipes to include both.

Apricot and almond mincemeat, a lot lighter than traditional mincemeats and delicious combined with frangipane topping.

This year I’ve taken the BBC online mincemeat recipe and tweaked it a bit so that my mincemeat includes:

  • 8oz suet
  • 12oz apricots
  • 4oz candied peel
  • 8oz sultanas
  • 8oz raisins
  • 4 oz flaked almonds
  • 6oz Demerara sugar
  • 1tsp mixed cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg
  • juice and zest of 1 orange plus an extra dash of orange juice
  • 150ml brandy (a considerable increase on the recipe’s suggestion of 60ml but it seemed wrong to stint on this bit!)

Adding the brandy to the mixture – quantities considerably increased from the original recipe

Since I’m still without weighing scales I’ve been relying on the north American cup system and online conversions charts. The mixture’s going to sit in its mixing bowl for a couple of days until the move later this week and then I’ll put it in to preserving jars all ready for December and frangipane mince pies.

After all that stirring up I’ve just spent a happy hour or so enjoying the wonderful historic Christmas cards on the Canadian archives database (I particularly like the frog dancing with a beetle – a perfect example of the sometimes frankly bizarre Christmas themes of 19th century cards) and came across a postcard recipe for an Empire pudding, which lists all the Empire countries from which the ingredients came.  How many housewives across Britain thought about the provenance of their ingredients as they stirred up their pudding I’m not sure, but for countless Britons across the globe the Christmas pudding no doubt formed a very welcome reminder of home at Christmas time.


A range of pretensions

18 Nov

I wonder what your first considerations are when you’re shopping for a new piece of kitchen equipment?   Does function and the capabilities of the equipment win out over its form and aesthetic beauty? Mr Kim and I often have a discussion over the relative merits of the Kitchen Aid and Kenwood mixers, the former being favoured by Mr Kim as the perfect synthesis of form and function and the latter being preferred by me as an example of utter dependability in the kitchen (my mother’s Kenwood mixer survived for decades despite falling on the floor on one occasion).

It was great therefore to come across a Victorian  kitchen combination of form and function when I visited the William Lyon Mackenzie house this afternoon.  Mackenzie was Toronto’s first mayor, a radical journalist and leader of the 1837 Upper Canada rebellion; a general thorn in the side of Canada’s ruling elites.  The house, which stands preserved on Bond Street in down town Toronto, was bought for Mackenzie by loyal friends and supporters, since Mackenzie while being a spirited and principled individual was always short of cash.  Mackenzie only enjoyed a few years in the house which was given to him in the late 1850s (he died in 1861).  His wife and unmarried daughters however, once again due to the generosity of loyal friends, were able to stay in the house after his death.

Mackenzie House in Bond Street, Toronto.  When built it was the middle house in a  row of three.

The house, built in the Greek revival style, became a public museum in 1950 and its historical significance meant that it was spared the fate of its adjoining row house neighbours which were torn down in the 1930s.   It’s been restored to give an impression of life in the 1860s with period wallpaper and furnishings and a handful of items which belonged to the family themselves like an chair with seat and back worked by one of Mackenzie’s daughters and a fine sampler worked by his wife when she was a 13 year old girl living in Dundee, Scotland.

There was plenty to catch my interest – I loved the demonstration of the gas lighting in the kitchen for example, with the three jets of flaming gas spurting out of the brass fitting like the veins of a firey leaf and the hallway arch with its angels’ heads, the last touch of original period moulding in the house.  What particularly caught my eye however was the wonderful range in the kitchen.  It was an especially unusual shape; almost triangular and very low in height; our guide suggested that this was because women were used to cooking at hearth level so wouldn’t have found this so strange.  Across the front was emblazoned OUR FAVORITE NO. 22 in vaguely Gothic script.  The whole upper section had the look of a wooden cabinet, perhaps 16th century in style, with the two doors for the ovens each being cast with a clutch of dead game birds, like a decorative carved panel, and the upper warming over doors being cast with patterns imitating carved wood.  Now I suppose when we purchase a cooker (or more likely these days a hob and oven) we’re unlikely to want it to look like anything else.  But taking a quick look over the internet at other 19th century stoves and ranges it’s remarkable how many of them seem to take on the shape of elegant pieces of furniture and wooden cabinets.  It’s almost as if the form of the piece is more important than it’s technical function.


Our Favorite in the Mackenzie kitchen; it was difficult to photograph because the light coming into the basement kitchen was very low but you can just about make out the way it fits back into the wall and the moulding of dead game on the doors above the stove. 

I don’t know enough about the merits of OUR FAVORITE NO. 22 to know if, as a stove, it was particularly functional and efficient.  But it’s modelling and cast decoration certainly suggests that it was greatly valued for its aesthetics.  It reminded me of the way in which early railway carriages were modelled on stage coaches; without a definitive shape for the new form of transport they simply adapted an existing form for new uses.  Maybe the same was true of 19th century stoves; as they became more and more independent of the fireplace they turned to other pieces of furniture to provide an appropriate model.

The upper half of the stove, with the moulded panels like a 16th century cabinet, with the words OUR FAVORITE                              in Gothic script

In actual fact this stove fits neatly into the space which would once have been occupied by a fireplace.  Our guide explained that although the stove in the house today was brought from another property in Toronto, it fitted almost perfectly into the fireplace void in the Mackenzie kitchen, suggesting, especially because of it’s unusual shape that the family had a stove very similar.

The Grand Windsor Stove, a later American 19th century stove, showing clear references to ornamental furniture.

During our tour there were also a number of mentions of the fact that the Mackenzies, as a lower middle class family, did many things for the sake of ‘keeping up appearances’.  Perhaps one reason why such a stove was valued was its suggestion of elegantly and richly carved decoration, a way of showing off social position and cultural sensibility, even if the family finances belied this outward demonstration of position.

All of this has made me very curious about the evolution of 19th century cast iron stoves in function and form, and in the Mackenzie’s OUR FAVORITE NO. 22 in particular.  I’d love to know if anyone has come across references to 19th century stove design or ever heard of OUR FAVORITE NO. 22 before?  Whether it really was a favourite in the Mackenzie household and to what extent they appreciated its fine decoration we shall sadly never know but its elaborate design is great reminder of the changing technologies of the 19th century kitchen.

A taste of Toronto’s past

16 Nov

Today I headed off to Fort York, the military garrison which marked the first beginnings of Toronto as a modern settlement.  Fort York was built in 1793 by John Graves Simcoe admidst fears of an American invasion, and a town, York, established 2 km east of the fort.  The threat of war came and passed in 1793 but Fort York saw genuine action during the War of 1812 fought between America and its northern neighbours.  As American forces advanced towards Fort York its British commander, Major-General Sir Roger Hale Sheaffe, ordered that the garrison magazine be blown up, an explosion which caused many American injuries and bought the British some time, though the Americans still occupied the town of York for six days, looting, destroying and burning homes.

Toronto old and new – the Officers’ mess of Fort York framed by part of Toronto’s contemporary skyline

After its role in the 1812 war Fort York saw no further direct military action and active troops left for new barracks in 1841.  Nevertheless the fort continued to be used by the military until the 1930s and after their departure the fort was turned into historic site, open to the public .

Originally lying directly on the lake shore subsequent filling in of the lake means that Fort York is now nestled between the two dominant transportation features of this part of town; the Gardiner Expressway and the railway tracks.  While November might be characterised by cold, misty and damp mornings I had warming sunshine and only a threat of black clouds on the horizon for my visit.

I enjoyed my visit round the fort, which is due for something of a makeover in the next couple of years, including a new visitor centre and a reappraisal of the site’s original lake shore position.  It was fun seeing the barracks and imagining life in their cramped but regimented quarters, with up to 100 sharing in each three roomed block.  I especially enjoyed the fact that the fort does sleep overs for children so that they get the chance to experience a glimpse of military life in the early 19th century; I bet they love sleeping in the rough soldiers’ bunk beds!

The new kitchen in the officers’ mess, with the kitchen fireplace and dresser; the line of jars of historic ingredients on the dresser reminded me of all  Susanne Groom’s hard work for the representation of the royal kitchens at Kew Palace, investigating the spices and supplies that had passed under the nose of George III’s kitchen clerk.  

However, the part of my visit which really got me going was the discovery of the working kitchen in the officers’ mess.  A few glowing logs in the kitchen’s fireplace hinted that there was definite historic cooking activity at the site.  As my audio guide pointed out food was of high importance to the officers, dinner being not only an occasion for fine dining but also the social fulcrum of army life.  The kitchen would been the site of fevered activity and almost unbearable heat, ensuring that a fitting meal was served to the waiting officers on the other side of the baize door.  Further exploration of the officer’s mess led me down a set of steep basement steps, to the site of the oldest surviving kitchen in Toronto and the mess’s original kitchen.  A great fireplace dominated the east wall while a drainage channel ran through the floor and wine cellars and a garrison safe for gold and money lay in rooms beyond.


The basement kitchen in the officers’ mess with its brick fireplace and drainage channel beneath the stone floor; turned over to wie keeping duties in 1826 this is Toronto’s oldest surviving kitchen. 

To return to the historic cooking.  I was impressed by the range of facsimile historic cookbooks for sale in the museum shop and particularly excited to see that there was a poster advertising a whole range of historic cooking events and workshops, from trifle making to a marmalade celebration.  My attention was particularly caught by a workshop for historic mince pie making.  Now, I’ve had a go at historic mince pies before since Mr Kim doesn’t really believe in mince pies without meat, but I’d never been entirely satisfied with my results.  Here was the perfect opportunity for me to really find out what they should taste like and all perfectly timed for Christmas into the bargain, the course being run on 2 December.

My enquiries into booking led me into a lovely chat around the subject of historic cooking with the ladies in the museum shop – I enjoyed telling them the story about the survival of the royal kitchen table at Kew which was just too big to move out of the kitchen.  They informed me that not only does the shop sell the real mince pies – which are highly popular – but that the site has a volunteer historic cooking team – would I be interested in joining?  What could be a better way to get to know a site than through the reconstruction of historic food.  I was whisked away to the kitchen of recreation to meet some of the team, headed up by Bridget Wrainch. I was immediately offered some 1830s gingerbread samples, being tested in readiness for the fort’s frost fair, to try.  What a great recruitment strategy – the gingerbread, rich in molasses, was more than enough to win me over but was quickly followed by some chicken curry, in preparation as the potential lunch dish for the Marmalade Day in February.  In amongst the warm waft of spices mingling from the curry and gingerbread trifle biscuits were been prepared and the whole kitchen had an air of bustling efficiency combined with deep passion and enthusiasm for the delights and mystery of historic cooking – a wonderful introduction as I shall definitely be returning to learn more about the food of Fort York from the working side of the kitchen table.

The mystery of Canadian Special K

9 Nov

 Mrs Kim’s morning start

For a number of years now my breakfast cereal of choice has been Special K, with an added sprinkling of dried apricots.  When I worked at Kensington I had to get up far too early to have breakfast at home I usually ate this sitting at my desk and contemplating the day ahead.  When at home I’d add a generous spoonful of Greek yoghurt to the mix (I’ve never ever had my cereal with milk).  What I especially like about Special K is its combination of wheat and rice to give you a cereal that sits comfortably between the oh-so virtuous branflake and the ‘can that really be doing you any good?’ cornflake.  It also is a cereal that works particularly well without milk (the same cannot be said for Weetabix which is a little bit like eating straw)

I assumed on reaching Canada that my routine could continue unbroken which it has, after a fashion, except I’ve been met with something of puzzle.  Canadian Special K is without wheat.  On taking my first bite of Canadian Special K I discovered that something was undoubtedly missing – no wheat.  It was like eating a grown up version of rice krispies which in shape resemble the orecchiette pasta form.  Sure enough, when you look on the side of the box, there is no wheat in this anaemic form of Special K and to my dismay I didn’t think it was going to fulfil the all important energy giving start to the day I needed.

 Wheat gluten but no whole wheat!

I became even more baffled however on visiting the supermarket (I should probably call it grocery store now I’m in north America).  Trying to find a Special K substitute I began to look more closely at the Special K variations; Special K with nuts, Special K blueberry, Special K red berries.  All these versions have wheat in them!  I know this because I’m now on my second box of Special K red berries.  (I never used to buy this because I always found the freeze dried strawberries a bit sharp but they’re infinitely preferable to grown up rice krispies).

spot the difference

Now, I’m more than familiar with the idea that when a product crosses international borders its ingredients and form are more than likely to change.  Look at Nestlé’s Kitkat for example which has, or so it tastes, a different recipe for each country.  And a quick search on the internet suggests that the reason for the rice only Special K in Canadian, according to the Consumer Relations Department of Kellogg’s in Canada, is that this suits Canada’s taste preference.  But this doesn’t explain why the Special K variations in Canada are still the regular rice and wheat flake.

So I’m still on the hunt for the missing wheat.  In the meantime I’ll keep on eating my Special K red berries (I’m actually quite enjoying them now) but if anyone can offer any clues as to the logic behind Special K without wheat I’d love to know.

Belgian biscuits

3 Nov

Biscuit drawers at Philip’s Biscuits in Antwerp

My ICOM Costume Committee conference in Brussels last week presented me with plenty of good opportunities both for proper dining and snacking.  As the city of chocolate and frites it’s hardly surprising that it’s difficult to get round Brussels without sampling any of the tempting treats that greet you at every corner.

As part of a group working on the committee project ‘Clothes tell stories’ I had an additional meeting on the first Sunday morning.  Arriving a little bleary eyed I was reassured to see alongside some welcome coffee, an elegant box of biscuits sitting on the table, filled with a beautiful selection of bite sized biscuits; crisp, sugary and buttery, produced by the Brussels biscuiteers Maison Dandoy, a biscuiterie which has been in business since 1829 and was set up by Jean-Baptiste Dandoy (and is still owned by the same family).  They included miniature palmiers and the spicy speculos, as well as some delicious, almost shortbread-like, rounds.  I enjoyed the packaging almost as much the biscuits themselves, sophisticated oversized gold polka dots on white and a neat little windmill motif.

A welcome box of Maison Dandoy biscuits

Wednesday saw us in Antwerp to visit the magnificent Madame Grés exhibition at the fashion museum MoMu.  But of course it didn’t take me long to discover another beautiful biscuit shop.  This time my attention was caught by Philip’s Biscuits and their distinctive hand biscuits. The shop had a wonderful counter with barrels for each type of biscuit, from langue du chat to kletskoppen (lace biscuits in English).  The hand biscuits had a slight vanilla flavour and were sprinkled with flaked almonds.  But why hands I asked the girl serving me?  She explained that not only is a hand the symbol of Antwerp but the name of the town actually means ‘weapon hand’, stemming from the legend of the slaying of a greedy giant.  The giant lived near the river Scheldt and would demand a toll from anyone crossing the river.  For those who refused to pay he cut off their hands and threw them into the water.  Eventually of course the giant got his comeuppance when a young local hero, Brabo, cut off the giant’s hand and threw it into the river.  All this gory detail is commemorated by a statue in the town square. This grisly detail has been translated by the baker’s art into a golden bite sized remembrance of the town’s history.

hands for sale!

My final biscuit discovery in Belgium was a pleasantly unexpected one.  I spent my final morning at the Musees royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique.  After visiting the brilliant exhibition Jordaens and the Antique I wandered round the permanent collection.  There nestled amongst the Flemish 17th century paintings were two still lives by Antwerp artists including dishes of marchpane, intricate gingerbreads and other sweetmeats.  As elaborate and decadent food, using much costly sugar and specially prepared, such delights seem worthy inclusions in these rich still lives but I don’t think I’ve seen anything comparable before – I’d love to know of other examples.  A fittingly historic end to my biscuit experiences in Brussels.

Still life with Lobster attributed to David Rijckaert II

biscuit detail from the Rijckaert

Still life with oysters by Osias Beert I