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A Young Ladies’ Guide to gingerbread making

21 Apr

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a sample of cakes and biscuits baked from Elizabeth Marshall’s Young Ladies’ Guide; it includes Amy’s beautifully iced rice cake on the far right and Mya’s almond cake on the far left

Over the last few months some of the Toronto historic cooks have been meeting up to sample each others attempts at recreating recipes from various 18th and 19th century cookbooks.  The sessions have been generously hosted and ably organised by Mya, whose dedication to historical accuracy and passion for pratical problem solving in the kitchen is the perfect combination for following in the footsteps of the cookbook writers of the past.  We’ve been concentrating on cake and biscuit recipes and so far we’ve looked at Duncan MacDonald’s The New London Family Cook (1808), Mrs Dalgairn’s The Practice of Cookery (1841) and Richard Briggs’ The English Art of Cookery According to the Present Practice (1798). This month’s text was The Young Ladies’ Guide in the Art of Cookery, Being a Collection of useful Receipts Published for the Convenience of the Ladies Committed to her Care by Elizabeth Marshall in 1777.  As someone who attended a Ladies’ College (worlds apart from Mrs Marshall’s establishment I’m sure) I was particularly pleased to have the chance to look more closely recipes from this book, even more so since Mrs Marshall ran a school near Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a part of the world I know and love.

 

According to her Wikipedia entry Mrs Marshall was born in Northumberland in 1738 and ran a cookery school in Newcastle between about 1770 and 1790.  In her introduction to The Young Ladies’ Guide she explains that she has compiled the cookbook ‘at [the] … urgent and frequently repeated request’ of her students who wanted ‘an assistance of this sort to [their] … memory’.  As such it offers a fascinating compendium not only of 18th century recipes but the sort of recipes that ‘young ladies’ might be expected to know how to make. The cake and biscuit chapter contains staples of the 18th century kitchen like a seed cake, fruit cakes, queen cakes, Shrewsbury cakes and macaroons but also has some less common inclusions.  We were all intrigued by Spaw Biscuits until the Oxford English Dictionary and Dr Johnson solved the riddle; the definition in Johnson’s dictionary reads ‘[from Spaw, place in Germany] a place famous for mineral waters; any mineral water’, ie. a biscuit to help to take away the taste of nasty, sulphurous mineral water, that you might drink in a spa town.  We wondered about the taste of Musk Cakes, using one grain of musk, and on exactly what sort of occasion Corporation Cakes might have been eaten (did towns celebrate their day of coporation?).

 

One spice which Mrs Marshall includes in a number of her recipes (including the one for Spaw Biscuits), is coriander seed and I was curious to know what it would taste like in a gingerbread cake recipe so this is the one I decided to attempt.

 

To make little Gingerbread Cakes

 

‘Take two pounds and a half of flour, a pound and a quarter of treacle, half a pound of butter, half a pound of fine sugar, one ounce of coriander seeds, ditto of beat ginger and carraway seeds; beat your seeds and mix them with your ginger, melt your butter, sugar, and treacle; then make it into a stiff paste, roll them pretty thin, and cut them with a drinking glass bottom: Bake them in a slow oven’.

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my ingredients for little gingerbread cakes

I was particularly interested to find out how the taste combination of ginger, caraway and coriander might work. Mya explained that coriander was a spice more commonly used in the earlier centuries and gradually caraway became more popular so in some ways this recipe marks a transition point, combining the older spice with its newer and more favoured rival.  It was interesting to see too that Mrs Marshall’s pepper cake recipe used the same mix of spices, caraway, coriander and ginger, no pepper as the title might suggest (but then gingerbread recipes with no ginger were common too, the names just suggesting a spiced cake of some sort).

 

While Mrs Marshall might have praised my enthusiasm my actual experimentation was far from the perfection I suspect she might have hoped from her young ladies.  I decided that I would reduce the quantities in half – these 18th century recipes always seem to use such large amounts. This was part one of my downfall.  Still being in a kitchen equipment limbo with some utensils in the UK, some in storage and some in Canada raised other challenges.  I had to improvise my pestle and mortar by quite literally beating my caraway and coriander seeds with a rolling pin in a plastic bag. (well, I admit, I first tried to pulse the caraway seeds in a mug with our hand blender but only succeeded in scattering them to the four corners of the kitchen)  Then I looked at the coriander seeds and wondered if an 18th century cook would have used them with all the chaff left in?  Was I meant to remove it, or was it simply because I hadn’t beaten my coriander seeds for long enough?  (sometimes 18th century instructions have some very long times for beating or stirring things – for example the recipe for the Rice Cake calls for you to beat the ingredients all together for a full hour!) Since I wasn’t sure about the coriander chaff I left it in.

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my beaten coriander and caraway – as you can see beating seems to have little effect on caraway

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melting the butter, sugar and treacle

Now this is the bit of the story where my recipe really begins to deviate.  I had checked my cupboards to make sure I had all the ingredients but clearly not well enough.  My first failure was with the white sugar. Here I was just a tiny bit short so I added a bit of brown sugar, reasoning that as the recipe called for butter, treacle and sugar to be melted it wouldn’t make too much difference. Then I discovered that the treacle which I’d weighed and of which thought I had enough was about an ounce short.  What would the disorganised 18th century housewife have done I wondered?  She wasn’t about to throw away her precious mixture of expensive ingredients.  A quick survey of my cupboards offered up honey and golden syrup.  Since the latter wasn’t an option for the 18th century cook I decided to add some honey to make up for the shortfall.  But it was only when I came to add the mountains of flour that I realised the real issue; I had calculated that I needed 9 ounces of treacle, when of course half of 1 ¼ lb is actually 10 ounces.  That would explain why the mixture was almost impossible to bind together.  Again I was determined not to be entirely defeated and so added a little more of my honey in order to get a mixture which would actually stick together.  By now of course it was probably far removed from the original and the recipe’s instruction to ‘roll pretty thin’ the dough wasn’t easy to follow.

 

The next thing I had to do was to ‘cut them with a drinking glass bottom’.  Now most drinking glass bottoms I’ve looked at are not well designed to use as a biscuit cutter; it’s their top lip that’s far more suited. I decided that perhaps this instruction had to be taken with a practical pinch of salt.  Once you turn the glass upside down to use it, the top is actually the bottom (in the same way descriptions of shoes traditionally discuss the sole first, as this is the way the shoe would be placed on the shoemaker’s bench).

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cutting out with a drinking glass bottom – you’ll notice that my dough does not look at all pliable!

The recipe called for the cakes to be cooked in a slow oven.  Feeling a little unsure about how hot this would be I cooked the first batch at 325 degrees for 15 minutes; I then tried reducing the temperature to 300 degrees as I felt that they might be cooking a bit too quickly.  And in the end all my ‘cakes’ were very hard, a danger to dental work, and quite dark in colour.  The taste however was good.  I don’t know if all this historic cooking is altering my palette but the more caraway I taste the more I enjoy it.  I found it difficult to taste the coriander in the finished biscuit but the combination of spices worked well.  And if the biscuits were to be eaten with a fortified wine then maybe a hard texture wouldn’t have been so bad.  (I’ve now come to the conclusion that if in doubt about when an historic cake or biscuit was meant to be eaten consider the ‘cakes and ale’ principle and indeed so many of these recipes produce something that would work beautifully with something a little stronger than water)

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two versions of the little gingerbread cakes – Rosemary’s are on the left and mine are on the right

Interestingly Rosemary had tried the same recipe as me so we were able to compare our results.  Rosemary’s gingerbread cakes were much thinner and darker (but she of course had not added any interloping honey to her recipe).  They also had a greater aniseed taste which we put down to the fact that she had used ground coriander, giving it a stronger flavour of coriander.  I wonder what Mrs Marshall would have made of our efforts? I imagine her as an 18th century Mary Berry, judging the technical challenge she’d set her girls; mine would definitely be marked down for their untidy, rustic appearance, but might have received a reassuring smile for a pleasing taste and an acknowledgement that a little bit of creative pantry searching was better than wasting all those valuable ingredients.

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Mark’s York Cakes – the recipe contained no sugar

Other recipes which were tried for the evening were the seed cake – oh why did seed cakes go out of fashion, they are so tasty! , an iced rice cake – lovely and light, the delectable queen cakes, heart cakes (this one from MacDonald’s recipes), the pepper cake – a curious, paneforte like rich cake surely to be enjoyed with a good spirit, an almond cake and York cakes.

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Peggy’s seed cake – such a good flavour

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Kathryn’s Pepper Cake; don’t be fooled by it’s chocolately looking colour – that all comes from the spices and treacle

We’re going to be taking a summer break, but I’ll be looking forward to the autumn and the chance to try out more of Mrs Marshall’s Young Ladies’ recipes ……

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Cake shape and Bristol Fashion

27 Mar

Recipe for Bristol Cakes from The New London Family Cook, by Duncan Macdonald, 1808

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‘Mix with the hand, in an earthen pan, six ounces of sifted sugar, six ounces of fresh butter’

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‘four whites and two yolks of eggs’

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‘and nine ounces of flour;’

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‘add three quarters of a pound of picked currants,’

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‘drop the mixture with a spoon on tin plates, rubbed with butter, ‘

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‘and bake it’

Learning your limes

24 Mar

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limes on sale in my local Loblaws grocery store

While we were preparing for the Mad for Marmalade, Crazy for Citrus event at Fort York this February I was struck by the fact that none of the recipes that we were testing included any limes.  As a commonplace citrus fruit into today’s kitchen it seemed like either a surprising or deliberate omission.  Bridget, the Heritage Food Programme Officer at the Fort, confirmed that it was the latter.  ‘Well,’ she said, when I asked her why we weren’t making any biscuits or cakes with lime in, the recipe, ‘it’s because they didn’t use limes for cooking cakes or biscuits in the 18th or early 19th century’.

So when do limes start to become part of the baking artillery?  Today it’s impossible to come across an on-trend cookery book without some sort of recipe for a delicate lime sponge or biscuits iced with a lime infused frosting (see for example the recipe for mini lime-syrup sponges in Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess – p.242).  In fact it often feels as if limes are the 21st century sophisticated version of lemons, adding zest to sparkling water and gin and tonics, packing a punch in Mexican food or adding a sharp contrast to the sweetness of Vietnamese dishes at smart, upscale restaurants.  But I was interested to try and trace something of the lime’s culinary history.

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A gin and tonic with lime – the perfect end to a day

The fruit lime, as the OED defines, is ‘the globular fruit of the tree Citrus Medica, var. acida, smaller than the lemon and of a more acid taste; more explicitly sour lime. Its juice is much used as a beverage. Sweet lime n. Citrus Medica, var. Limetta.’ The OED’s earliest cited mention in English is in 1638 when T. Herbert writes in Some Yeares Trav. ‘The Ile [Mohelia] inricht us with many good things;..Orenges, Lemons, Lymes’.  The lime gets a brief mention in the epic poem The Task, by the 18th century writer William Cowper which talks about ‘The ruddier orange and the paler lime’.  As a cooking ingredient however it seems to get short shrift throughout the 18th and 19th century in England.  The only place where it seems to surface is when the juice is used in a beverage.  For example the London Gazette in 1704 talks about ‘A Parcel of extraordinary good Rum and Lime-juice’.  And in 1774 a P V Fithian records ‘We had after Dinner, Lime Punch and Madaira.’

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lime juice in the age of convenience shopping

Of course lime juice wasn’t only good as a mixer for alcoholic drinks.  The importance of lime juice to the British navy in the 19th century as a method of staving off attacks of scurvy for sailors going for long periods without fresh fruits and vegetables was so great that it earned sailors and by extension all Brits the sobriquet of ‘limeys’.  There’s a fascinating account of the complacency and misunderstanding which surrounded the use of lime juice (and that of other citrus fruits) to control scurvy on naval voyages on the Idle Words blog.
Lime takes time to emerge in other British culinary products.  For example it’s not until the 1930s that the reassuringly British Rose’s lime marmalade appeared. Interestingly the strength of the original Mr Rose’s business was built on supplying the British Navy with lime juice but it seems that it took him a number of years to experiment with it as flavour for marmalade.

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Rose’s lime marmalade, a nursery staple from the 1930s

In fact until relevantly recently the most likely mention of ‘lime’ in British cook books is likely to refer to the calcium oxide product, for use in cleaning and other household tasks.  Not the lovely vibrant green lime at all.  For example in Mrs Beeton’s 1861 Book of Household Management she advises that ‘To preserve bright Grates or Fire-irons from Rust’ one should ‘Make a strong paste of fresh lime and water, and with a fine brush smear it as thickly as possible over all the polished surface requiring preservation. By this simple means, all the grates and fire-irons in an empty house may be kept for months free from harm, without further care or attention.’
So back to the issue of limes in baking.  Perhaps the best known dessert recipe using limes is the iconic Key Lime Pie from Key West, Florida (anyone who watched last year’s Great British Bake Off will remember Ryan’s perfect Key Lime Pie that wowed judges Mary and Paul).  It appears that its it exact lineage has been clouded in the mists of time but most stories contain the following suggestion, that the dish originated with the cook of William Curry, the first millionaire of Key West.  The dessert used the distinctive key limes grown in the area (the 1926 storm wiped out most of the local production) and condensed milk.  The comparative isolation of the islands, without cows, meant that the only source of milk was the sweetened condensed milk, first made available by canned condensed milk in mid 19th century before the advent of modern refrigeration.  As many of the websites I looked at suggested, the smaller key limes are very different from the more familiar vibrant green lime variety and a true Key Lime Pie should be tinged a delicate yellow, not a strong green colour.

The difficulty comes when you try and pin down the first written Key Lime Pie recipe.  I’ve been looking for a number of days now without success.  A number of sources suggested that I wouldn’t have any success pre-1930 and so I began looking at a number of American classics from The Joy of Cooking and Fannie Farmer’s Boston cookbook to James Beard’s American cookery.  None of them contains a recipe for Key Lime Pie.  The very helpful woman in the Cookbook Store, Toronto pointed out to me that it might well be that the recipe first appeared on the back of a condensed milk tin.

In fact finding any recipe using limes for much of the 20th century is tricky.  I felt hopeful when I looked at the promisingly titled Zestful recipes for every meal: Pure Gold and Silver Seal oranges, lemons, grapefruit published in California sometime in the 1930s by the Mutual Orange Distributers.  Alas, no lime recipes. When you do fine pre-1950s lime recipes they tend to be for cocktails or for marinating fish. For example The Modern Cook Book for the Busy Woman, by Mabel Claire, published in 1932 contains a recipe for a lime rickey and a non alcoholic lime cocktail.  Mrs Vaughan Moody’s 1931 Cook Book tells you how to make a lime sherbet with 12 limes and a Hawaiian cocktail to marinate fish with limes.  The Patio Cook Book from 1951 includes Joe Tilden’s Garlic Sauce (created we’re told by one of California’s most famous amateur chefs) which incorporates lime to create a sauce perfect for French bread, fish or jacket potatoes.

By this point I was beginning to feel really despondent – where was I going to find any written proof of the beginning of our love affair with lime as a baking ingredient?  Well, my perusing on a local bookshop shelf of American cookbooks did reveal something slightly more helpful.  A reprint of the first Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book from 1950 contained a range of lime recipes; its Lime Meringue Pie recipe was contributed by a member of staff from Florida (could this be a Key Lime Pie in disguise?) and it was accompanied by a Lime Cake Pudding and a Lime Chiffon Pie.  At last, the lime seems to have made its mark on the baking scene!

There’s plenty of gaps in this culinary account of limes, especially in terms of their use in Mexican, Indian and south East Asian cooking (one of my favourite discoveries in Singapore last year was lime juice, refreshingly sharp, with just a hint of sweetness below, the perfect drink for a bakingly hot day).  I would love to be presented with an earlier recipe using limes in the baking of something sweet.  And please, please do let me know if you come across a recipe for Key Lime Pie pre-1950.  For this amateur historic cook there’s plenty more lime learning to do.

Let them eat gingerbread

14 Feb

gingerbread in box

 

 

One of the many recipes I’ve meaning to try for some time is one sent to me by my secondary school history teacher, Mrs V.  It’s a Dan Lepard from the Guardian newspaper at about the time of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee last year and although it doesn’t give an historical source for the gingerbread recipe its rich, treacly texture and heady mix of spices seem resonant of a past era when such a combination of costly ingredients would have made it a luxurious treat.

Gingerbread, which the OED defines as ‘From the 15th c. onwards: A kind of plain cake, compounded with treacle, and highly flavoured with ginger. Formerly made into shapes of men, animals, letters of the alphabet, etc., which were often gilded’ is a sweetmeat with a long history, appearing in both Chaucer and Shakespeare.  The earliest instance of its use in the OED dates from 1299 when it’s mentioned in the Durham MS. Burs. Roll, ‘In ij Gurdis de Gingebrar’.  And although as its name suggests most gingerbread recipes were flavoured with gingerbread this was not always the case.  Another of the OED quotations dates from 1430 and Two Cookery-bk,s ‘Gyngerbrede. Take a quart of hony..Safroun, pouder Pepir..gratyd Brede’ – no mention of ginger here!

The food historian Ivan Day has an excellent page on his website exploring Lady Barbara Fleming’s recipe for gingerbread from 1673, where the dough is given an intense red colour from sanders, the wood of the sandalwood tree.  Ivan gives a number of different gingerbread recipes and illustrates how it gradually changed from being an almond paste, breadcrumb based recipe to one more commonly made using treacle and flour.  Dan Lepard’s recipe uses both treacle and flour but other ingredients like honey and chopped peel hark back to some of the older, pre-Victorian recipes.

Dr Johnson’s 1755 definition of gingerbread is close to that of the OED ‘A kind of farinaceous sweetmeat made of dough, like that of bread or biscuit, sweetened with treacle, and flavoured with ginger and some other aromatick seeds’.  One of the innovative aspects of Dr Johnson’s dictionary was the vast number of quotations he included, to illustrate how words were used in speech, and as well as quoting from Love’s Labour Lost (‘An’ I had but one penny in the world, thou should’st have it to buy gingerbread’) he also quoted Jonathan Swift, ‘Tis a loss you are not here, to partake of three weeks frost, and eat gingerbread in a booth by a fire upon the Thames’.  Swift’s quotation conjures up a vision of crisp winter air, jangling bells and the raucous shouts and laughter of London enjoying a great frost fair, warmed by tankards of hot ale and firey gingerbread.  In a similar suggestion of conviviality Dan Lepard suggests that his gingerbread is ‘ever so good cut into small diamonds to serve with brandy after dinner.’

The regal and showy qualities of gingerbread have deep roots and it was often gilded which W King in his 1708 Art of Cookery poetically describes as ‘The enticing Gold on Ginger-bread’.  Another long gingerbread tradition is that of shaping forming the dough into shapes, often human figures or alphabet letters, with a knife, cutters or elaborate moulds.  In Cowper’s Table Talk, scorning mere showy possessions, he rhetorically suggests ‘As if the poet, purposing to wed, Should carve himself a wife in ginger~bread’.

It’s highly appropriate that Mrs V should pass on a historically based gingerbread recipe to me since I am the student who tortured her history class with the products of my experimentation with a medieval gingerbread.  I always enjoyed Mrs V’s lessons (earlier in my school career she taught me English) and her engaging and thought provoking teaching strengthened and nurtured my love of history and helped to confirm it’s what I wanted to study at university.  From the Frondes of 17th century France to the enlightened despotism of Joseph II (discuss) the lessons swung their way through early modern European history with regular tangential discussions about Mrs V’s exciting birth (in Coventry during the Blitz) to the depressing frequency of greengrocers’ apostrophes.  All of this helped to install in me a belief in the importance of the seemingly insignificant, especially when it came to history.  I was fascinated by the social minutiae of the lives of peoples past, how they did things, what did it sound, taste, feel like?  Given my love of social history and baking it was perhaps unsurprisingly that I used my classmates and Mrs V as guinea pigs for my attempt at this medieval gingerbread recipe.  I remember that its base mixture of breadcrumbs and honey didn’t look particularly appealing as I made it.  This was then flavoured with spices and divided into two, with one half coloured an alarming red.  The idea was to roll it out, cut into squares, bake it and then arrange it in a chequerboard pattern.  Quite how I presented it, or where exactly I found the recipe, I can’t remember but the look of forced enjoyment on the faces of my history class as they struggled to swallow my strange historic creation I will not forget.

Happily I had far more success with Dan Lepard’s recipe; it was a delight to prepare, with wafts of ginger, mace and cinnamon dancing in the air, and the pleasure gained from watching the ingredients combine into a dark, rich dough.  It was also very straightforward; once the dough was formed it’s just pressed into a baking tin and stuffed with almonds (Dan suggested cutting them in half but I just stuck mine in whole).

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flour, sugar, ginger, cinnamon, mace, nutmeg

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apricots, peel and ginger

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flour and treacle mixture

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gingerbread dough ready to go

Dan explains in the introduction to his gingerbread recipe that you should expect a dense texture, like a paneforte, and as they bake the apricots, candied peel and ginger melt into the honey and molasses.  The resulting gingerbread is intense, chewy and very moreish.  I haven’t any brandy to try it out with yet but I’ve found it difficult to stop myself taking another slice.  In texture and taste it reminds me of the wonderful Grasmere gingerbread from the Lake District.  And while my cutting of the gingerbread was hardly sufficiently well executed to be fit for a queen, a touch of gold dusting powder not only gave it a certain regal air but also offered a contemporary nod to the fabulous tradition of gilded gingerbread

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     the gingerbread out of the oven 

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not quite the diamond shape Dan Lepard suggested but given a bit of extra sparkle with some gold powder

Kensington Palace Recipes 1 – Rebecca’s Lemon Drizzle Cake

13 Jan

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mixing up a lemon drizzle cake

When I left Kensington Palace in the summer before coming to Canada one of the gifts my lovely HRP colleagues gave me was a cookery book where they’d all contributed a recipe.  They all knew how much I enjoyed baking and cooking and I couldn’t think of a more personal and perfect way of remembering my time at Kensington.  I’ve been woefully slow in trying the tempting and intriguing culinary delights which they selected.  Now that we’ve reached the new year I’ve determined to work my way through the book, with at least a recipe a week.

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My book of ‘Historic Royal Recipes’, carefully prepared by Meg

I was going to start with the first in the book, Jo Ewin’s Welsh cakes.  However, I was thwarted by the ready lack of lard in Toronto grocery stores.  So Jo’s recipe is going to have to wait while I locate the lard.  This week instead I’m baking Rebecca Morrison’s Lemon Drizzle Cake.  I’m a big fan of lemon drizzle cake; often I’m so eager to try it as it comes out of the oven doesn’t even get its topping before I’ve begun to sample the freshly baked sponge with its tangy lemon taste.    The MacCulloch family recipe for lemon drizzle cake has been supplemented with Mr Kim’s addition of poppy seeds, so I was keen to try out Rebecca’s recipe and see how it compared.  As I’m writing there’s a delicious lemon scent drifting from the oven.

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The ingredients for the lemon drizzle cake (minus the eggs which were loitering to the side); in comparison to the MacCulloch LDC which uses demerara sugar Rebecca’s recipe uses caster sugar, giving it a much finer texture.  Self-raising flour isn’t as common in Canada but Brodie’s do make a version which you can buy in small packets as shown here. 

I first met Rebecca when she came to volunteer at Kensington and was instantly impressed by her utter unfazability and willingness to take on just about any task. As well as researching royal wedding dresses and elements of the palace’s history for our new presentation of the State Apartments her skills as a costume designer and dressmaker were well used in her creation of a wonderful interpretation of Prince Albert’s wedding outfit.  She also kept us on the straight and narrow when creating 1897 silhouettes for our filming of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee crowd which we used in the exhibition Jubilee – A View from the Crowd.  Now she’s mother to the delightful Dulcie, who came along to lend her own small and perfectly small hand to the task of choosing the right costumes for our 1897 crowd.

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Rebecca putting the finishing touches to her Prince Albert wedding uniform, as shown in the Independent feature about the newly presented Kensington, March 2012.

So now Rebecca’s lemon drizzle cake is out of the oven, looking very fine and covered with its glaze of lemon juice and sugar.   So far I’ve resisted temptation to dig in but I think it’s time to sample it, even though it’s a bit too early for the lemon drizzle to have set.  My loaf tins are still in storage so I had to use a 9” tin to bake my lemon drizzle.  It doesn’t seem to have done the cake any harm; the sponge is lovely and fluffy, and the drizzle forms a great sharp contrast; now I just have to wait and try it when the topping’s gone all crunchy.    Thanks very much for the recipe Rebecca!

 

   IMG_3903 The cake just after it’s been drenched in lemon drizzle, it might take a little bit of time to cool and harden to a crunchy topping but …….

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…… I just couldn’t wait and had to try a slice – delicious!

Do you care for caraway?

9 Jan

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The seed cake, with its fine, close texture

My visit to Fort York today gave me the opportunity to try the seed cake which I made on Sunday.  With a pound of butter and sugar the cake was beautifully sweet, with a fine, dense texture, studded with the distinctive caraway seeds.  The seeds have a strong, almost aniseedy flavour, which felt strange to my modern palate at first but which is fast growing on me.  Mya felt that the cake was too dry but I actually quite liked the texture; the cake sliced very well and was the perfect accompaniment to a cup of tea.

The OED describes caraway as  ‘An umbelliferous plant ( Carum carui): its small fruits, commonly called ‘caraway-seeds’, are aromatic and carminative; they are used in cakes, sweetmeats, etc., and yield a volatile oil’.  Dr Johnson, in his 1755 dictionary, talks about the seeds being used in medicine and confectionary.  It was a popular flavouring in Britain for many classic cakes and biscuits; as well as the seed cake made on Sunday caraway seeds are a key ingredient for the Shrewsbury biscuits we made today.

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Shrewsbury biscuits, again with caraway seeds, although some recipes have currants, and pricked with a fork

As well as the Shrewsbury biscuits we made little fine cakes (Hannah Glasse’s 1747 recipe) for the upcoming Queen Charlotte’s Birthday Ball to be held at Fort York on 19 January, and started some marmalade with bitter Sicilian oranges from Mya’s carefully tended orange tree.

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Little fine cakes – as indeed they are!  There’s no flavouring, just a lovely soft texture punctuated by juicy currants

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some of Mya’s bitter Sicilian oranges

With my own fair hands

7 Jan

Today I spent my birthday making my own cake, which I haven’t even had the chance to try yet!  This however, was no ordinary birthday cake, but Elizabeth Cleland’s 1755 recipe for ‘a seed cake, very rich’ (on p158 of this link)from her cookery book A New and Easy Method of Cookery.  Appropriately since I was born in the Outer Hebrides, Elizabeth Cleland was a Scottish cook and her rich seed cake contains a pound each of butter, flour and sugar, as well as ten egg yolks, six egg whites and a gill (a quarter pint and pronounced ‘jill’) of brandy.  The seeds in the cake are caraway seeds, a popular flavouring for cakes and biscuits (they were the flavour of the cattern cakes made by lacemakers to celebrate their patron saint’s day, St Catherine’s Day on 25 November, for example) On this snowy January morning I was once again at Fort York to join some of its team of historic cooks for a day of historic recipe making and experimentation.

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A snowy Fort York for a twelfth night birthday

With 8 cooks the kitchens, both the officers’ mess early 19th century kitchen and the preparation kitchen, were hives of activity.  Mya, leading the session, explained to me that I’d be preparing the seed cake by hand, quite literally.  The Fort York cooks make sure that anything used in the officers’ mess kitchen is authentic to the time so that when visitors enter the space it’s as close as possible to the way it might have looked in the 19th century (although my outfit of jeans and a jersey top clearly fell well behind these standards of historical authenticity).  So I was going to mix all of the ingredients using my hands, beginning with creaming the butter until it was fluffy and yellowish white.  As people pointed out to me the butter was a great hand moisturiser and I now have a right hand significantly softer than the left (next time I’ll remember to swap them over more efficiently).

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The ingredients for Elizabeth Cleland’s ‘seed cake, very rich’; from top to bottom, a gill of brandy, eggs, butter, sugar, some pound cake for sustenance (not part of ingredients!), caraway seeds

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creaming butter by hand; quite tough on the right forearm, but beautifully soft and strangely satisfying

Once the butter was sufficiently creamed the sugar was added gradually, once again worked in by hand.  Then the eggs were beaten, yolks and whites separately, until they were thick and stiff.  For this we did use a balloon whisk.  I was expecting it to be tough with the whites but it was actually the yolks that took longer, even with considerable help from my fellow cooks.  Gradually however the yolks evolved from a liquid orangey yellow to a soft pale yellow, falling in gentle peaks.  The yolks were added to the butter and sugar mixture, then the flour and brandy alternately, before the caraway seeds and then the whites folded in last of all.

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Mark with the egg yolks which he kindly whisked to perfection; not the lovely buttermilk colour and the ribbon trail it leaves as it pours

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me and the egg whites; I’m practising using my left arm for whisking too, otherwise it will be the right arm that gets all the exercise; note that we’re using a copper bowl for egg whisking

Mya and Catherine had already kindly prepared for me the baking tray which was simple a metal hoop – round baking tins with a base did not arrive until later in the 19th century, with baking paper tied around it and then lined with baking paper.  Mya and Catherine make it look very simple but when I tried helping Brenda with preparing the tin for her gingerbread it seemed much more complicated.

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preparing the hoop for baking; metal hoop wrapped in brown paper, so that the paper forms a base, tied round with string and plenty of extra paper at the top to help stop the cake from burning. 

 With the tin ready the mixture was spooned in, by hand, and then placed in a 350°F oven.  It’s a slow-cooking cake so it stayed in for just shy of two hours.  Since it only came out of the oven at the very end of our session I’m going to have to wait until Tuesday to taste it.

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The finished seed cake, just out of the prep kitchen oven

 While I was busy concentrating on the seed cake a wealth of other recipes were being tested and preparing, from Mya and Elizabeth’s transparent biscuits filled with currants, Brenda’s 1831 gingerbread (dating from a time when the first artificial raising agent, pearlash, had become available), Mark’s Jumbles, which he twisted into shapes following 17th century illustrations, Amy’s Black Bun and Cherie’s Oliver biscuits; a super plain biscuit developed by Dr Oliver in the 18th century for people taking the nasty sulphur water in Bath, to nibble and take away the taste.  One of the elements of the cookery which I think is so impressive at Fort York is the level of experimentation in order to recreate the recipes as authentically as possible.  It means that even if a recipe doesn’t turn out quite as expected it all becomes part of the learning process.  Mark’s jumbles were a good example; the 17th century illustration showed these spiced biscuits in a whole range of interlaced and twisted shapes; clearly depicting how their name developed from ’gemmel’, the name of as double finger ring.  The recipe had called for plenty of butter and then flour to make the dough workable, which it was but it was also incredible delicate and my attempts and the double bow shape were far from elegant.  I then stuck to trying the reef knot shapes which still looked a little rough and ready in comparison with Mark’s beautiful twisted rings, but when the shapes reached the oven the high butter content meant that they lost their shape really quickly.  Definitely a case for more flour next time, both to make the dough easier to work and to help retain the shape.  It was also fascinating seeing how they fared in the three different ovens; the ones cooked in the officers’ mess bake oven retained their shape most successfully, those in the convection oven were the next best and those in the conventional oven were the flattest.  They all tasted delicious though.

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from Peter Brears, Food and Cooking in Seventeenth Century Britain, p11

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My attempts at the reef knot shape; I’m not sure I really improved (I was working left to right in vertical rows) but by the end I did have a better technique for using the right amount of dough. 

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The final jumbles, which do look a bit of a jumble after their time in the oven; you can see how differently they all fared, the smaller ones in the top left were Mark’s twisted rings which were cooked in the bake oven and the ones to the front of the picture his slightly larger twisted rings cooked in the normal modern oven

Meanwhile Catherine was concentrating on our lunch; a white fish roasted by the fire, scalloped potatoes (except we couldn’t find the scallop shells so we made do with shallow tins) and stewed carrots.  The breadcrumbs on the potatoes which were mashed and then sat by the fire in the officers’ mess kitchen, were browned by the use of a salamander, a thick disk of metal on a stick, which was heated in the fire and then used to brown the breadcrumbs.  It was remarkably effective on the first dish of potatoes but lost its heat quite quickly so that the second dish took a little longer to brown.

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Catherine scraping carrots for the carrot stew with the white fish awaiting his fate

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The white fish roasting by the fire

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Mya browning the scalloped potatoes with the salamander, as per 1769   E. Raffald Experienced Eng. Housekeeper (1778) 253   ‘Hold a hot salamander over it till it is very brown’.

I might not have been able to sample the seed cake before I left but there were plenty of other treats that had been cooked over the day to try, from Amy’s black bun, which was very similar to hot cross buns and Brenda’s rich and currant studded gingerbread.  When I go back on Tuesday I’m looking forward to finding out how my hand made birthday cake has turned out.

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Brenda and her gingerbread

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Amy and her black bun

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Cherie’s Oliver Biscuits