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Recipes in war time

25 Oct




Next year will mark 100 years since the start of World War One, or the Great War as it was called by contemporaries, with the vast and devastating effect it was to have in Europe and beyond.  Many museums and cultural institutions are planning events and exhibitions to commemorate this event.


From the Ella Wheeler Wilcox Bibliography

In contrast to the extensive discussion about the effects of war on the civilian population in World War Two, the effects on those at home during the Great War have been far less explored.  While it may be true that civilians in Britain did not suffer to the same extent during the Great War this is still an area ripe for further study, especially in terms of the war’s effect on food.  Rationing was introduced in Britain in January 1918.  Throughout the war a number of recipe books were published which stressed the careful use of ingredients and economical cooking as a way of supporting the war effort.  They included Keep the war foods cooking 1918,  Allied cookery : British, French, Italian, Belgian, Russian / arranged by Grace Clergue Harrison and Gertrude Clergue, to aid the war sufferers in the devastated districts of France; introduction by Hon. Raoul Dandurand ; prefaced by Stephen Leacock and Ella Wheeler Wilcox, 1916 and Food and victory : a war supplement to Text-book of cooking  by Carlotta C. Greer 1918.

The patriotic and confident outlook these books hoped to inspire are well expressed by the simple verse which opens Keep the war foods cooking:

While the war is on and our boys must fight

We are here at home, with all our might

Should cook war dishes all the time

For that’s our work behind the line


I hope that the Great War celebrations which begin next year will create wonderful opportunities to explore food during the First World War. It’s something that Fort York in Toronto has already begun to think about.  During the First World War Fort York was used as a military base so extending the Historic Foodways recipe repertoire from the usual 18th and early 19th century recipes, which reflect the history of many of the Fort buildings and the Officers’ Mess, feels like an appropriate and exciting way to engage with the commemorative heritage plans for 2014-2018.  While Canadians civilians were geographically removed from the theatre of war thousands of Canadian soldiers bravely fought alongside their European counterparts, their cap badges with a crown resting on a maple leaf and ‘Canada’ in capital letters helping to establish the maple leaf as a representation of Canada on the international stage.


There’s also the opportunity for these Great War era recipes to be used for other events in the Fort’s calendar.  This week I experimented with a 1915 recipe for Orange Cake, which Bridget, who leads the team of historic cooks, suggested might work well for the Fort’s annual Mad for Marmalade event.



The recipe for the orange cake came from the Five Roses Flour 1915 cookbook.  Five Roses is one of the major Canadian flour brands, originally produced in 1888 in Keewatin, Ontario by the Lake of the Woods Milling Company. Using Canadian hard wheat Five Roses Flour soon became an established brand.  Its popularity was increased by the publication of a cook book which was first published in 1913 and brought together 600 recipes carefully chosen from the thousands submitted by users of Five Roses Flour.  The cook book itself soon became a Canadian institution; by the time of the 1915 edition 950,000 copies had been sold.  In her introduction to the 21st century reprint of the classic 1915 edition Elizabeth Baird recounts her memories of her grandmother’s copy, hanging by a string in the pantry, an indispensable culinary guide for the Canadian housewife.  It included recipes for breads, pastry, cakes and cookies, biscuits and tarts (including an early recipe for that Canadian classic, the butter tart).



The ingredients for the cake were very straightforward; eggs, sugar, butter, flour, raising agent, milk and an orange.  I was interested that the ingredients were listed in a mixture of pounds, ounces, cups and even a teacup (for the milk).  Other surrounding recipes listed the ingredients in cups, suggesting the recipes’ origins as the contributions of many different women, without a strong editorial hand to try and convert individual approaches to measuring ingredients.



The method for the cake was straight forward enough, except that it forgot to mention when to include the butter.  After some consultation around the kitchen I decided to cream my sugar and butter before added the eggs, whisked, with the orange zest and then the flour and raising agent.  As we had no baking powder I used bicarbonate of soda, something that I would certainly avoid next time.  Finally I added the milk to get the batter to a spoon dropping consistency.


I baked the cake in an 8″ tin and instead of buttering it as the recipe suggested I lined the tin with parchment paper.  As it was from a 1915 cook book the recipe had no precise oven temperature so we decide to interpret a ‘moderate’ oven as 350°F.  I baked the cake for just shy of half an hour and turned it out to cool.


Impatient to try the cake I turned my thoughts to the icing.  The recipe suggested that you could use the juice of the orange to create the icing but did not suggest a particular recipe.  Looking through the cook book I couldn’t see a suitable topping and so made a simple glace icing from icing sugar and the orange juice, taking care that it was stiff enough to cover the top of the cake without sliding off.  Rosemary added some sugared violets as a finishing touch and finally the cake was ready to try.


I was impressed by the texture of the cake; it was much more light and fluffy than I had expected.  However, I could clearly taste the bicarbonate of soda and there was little trace of the orange in either the icing or the cake itself.  Next time the recipe definitely needs to be tried with baking powder and I liked Rosemary and Elizabeth’s suggestion of using an orange curd as a filling.



Of course sampling our edible experiments is an obvious benefit to being part of the team of historic cooks at Fort York.  But another element which I really enjoy is the experimentation that comes with using these historic recipes, trying to get a sense of the way they were translated into food for the family at the time.  While our efforts to reproduce these recipes faithfully will always be tempered by the variations between historic and modern ingredients and our own contemporary lens on to the world of the past, returning to these cook books and attempting to interpret their recipes offers a fascinating and compelling way to understand a little more of the lives of the people who originally used them.







Chocolate Puffs – ‘rough side upwards’

16 Sep


Hannah Glasse’s Chocolate Puffs recipe


It was more chocolate experimentation this week at Fort York.  This time we were working with Hannah Glasse’s 1800 Chocolate Puffs recipe from her book The Complete Confectioner. A puff brings to mind something light, airy, even ethereal.  Among Dr Johnson’s many definitions for the word puff he includes ‘any thing light and porous’.  It was difficult to see how the recipe’s call for a pound of sugar (even if it was double refined) and a half a pound of grated chocolate mixed together with the white of two eggs might ever achieve this status.


18th century recipe books contain  a number of different recipes for puffs.  You can find apricot puff, almond, puffs, lemon puffs, curd puffs and German puffs.  These latter were created from a mixture of milk, flour, egg yolks and sugar, flavoured with rose water, nutmeg and lemon and then fried in boiling lard, to be covered in Sack for a sauce.  I have never seen any before but the recipe’s planted in my mind a vision of a bite sized boozy doughnut.


Other volunteers at Fort York have made the most delicate and light lemon puffs, morsels of sugary heaven.  Our first attempts at chocolate puffs confirmed that we were dealing with a very different type of recipe.  First, The grated chocolate and sugar were mixed together and then the two egg whites were added.  But far from creating a paste which the recipe suggested would emerge we were left with a grainy mixture which resembled wet sand in texture.  How were we to create any sort of shape from this?  And it was clear from the recipe that the mixture was meant to be malleable; it says ‘you may form the paste into any shape’.  We were going to be lucky if we were able to get the mixture from the bowl to the baking tray, let alone have the luxury of choosing what form it would take.  For our first trial we simply heaped the ‘wet sand’ into little mounds (about 2cm across) and baked them at 300ºF for 15 minutes.  After leaving them to cool (not easy to do when you’re curious to try) we sampled the results.  The outside had a pleasingly crunchy and granular texture, a little bit like a chocolate sugar cube.  However, we weren’t convinced that this is what they were meant to be like.


the wet sand mixture of a pound of double refined sugar, half a pound of grated chocolate and two egg whites

The next experiment involved thinking about how we might possibly create a paste from the quantities mentioned in the recipe (no tampering with the proportions or adding extra ingredients!) Since the mixture was clearly very dry we decided to try melting the chocolate.  The sugar was then added to the melted chocolate and with the beaten egg white folded in at the end.  This created a very thick paste, but it was at least a paste and it was possible to use it to create shapes.  We opted for small, simple rounds.  Another part of the recipe which had been bothering us was the instruction to place the shapes ‘rough side upwards’ on the tins strewn with sugar.  This had led me to thinking about trying to create the shapes by using a mould (see the continuation of this thought below) but I suddenly had the idea that this instruction might mean that you were meant to place your puffs on the sugared baking tray and then turn them over ‘rough side upwards’ so both sides were covered with sugar.  This is what we tried and cooked these at 300ºF, leaving some in for 15 minutes and some in for 20 minutes. The results this time were no more light and airy.  They had a hard edge and a slightly chewy centre, with a hint of the granular still in the structure of the biscuit, as well as the sugar on the outside.


Making a paste by melting the chocolate


The rounds from the melted chocolate recipe

The final method we tried involved my thought about creating the puffs in moulds.  I think at this point the trial became a little less than historically accurate but I wanted to see what would happen if the ‘wet sand’ mixture was shaped using a mould.  Since there were no small mould shapes at the Fort I improvised with a measuring teaspoon which was a half sphere and about 3.5cm in diameter.  Since the mixture was like sand this felt a little bit like making very miniature rounded sand castles and my first attempts were far from perfect.  If I didn’t pack the mixture in tightly enough it simply fell apart.  But if I packed it in too tightly I then needed to knock it out too viciously and ran the risk of squashing it as I tried to prise it from the spoon.  Finally I had a whole tray of these dark little mounds to bake and again they went in at 300ºF for 20 minutes.  When they came out of the oven they reminded me of stylised hedgehogs; there were just enough of the granular on the surface to give them a roughened texture and the uniform shape gave them a particularly pleasing appearance.  This final experiment seemed to be the preferred one in terms of edibility too.  Melting the chocolate may have allowed us to create a paste but the resulting puff was not as successful as those made from the more unwieldy mixture.


Miniature sandcastles turn into ….



This got me to thinking about whether the word puff refers not to the texture of these sweetmeats, as in Johnson’s light and porous, but to the shape, or something that was simply a mouthful?  All three of our experiments had a very solid and dense structure, nothing light and airy at all.  The proportions of ingredients in other 18th century chocolate puff recipes suggest something lighter than Hannah Glasse’s version.  For example the version that appears in Elizabeth Raffald’s, 1769 Experienced English Housekeeper, and others:


To make Chocolate Puffs
Beat and sift half a pound of double-refined sugar, scrape into it one ounce of chocolate very fine; mix them together. Beat the white of an egg to a very high froth, then strew in your sugar and chocolate, keep beating it till it is as stiff as a paste. Sugar your papers, and drop them on about the size of a sixpence, and bake them in a very slow oven.

(the British Museum have a modern version of this recipe on their Young Explorers pages – what a great way to get children into cooking)


These would still be much more dense than the floating melt-in-the-mouth lemon puffs in Raffald’s book which use the juice of two lemons, 1 egg white and 3 eggs to a pound of sugar.


So, some success with the chocolate puffs but room for further investigation.  Of course how close our 21st century ingredients are to those used in the 18th century.  And we haven’t even got round to trying to ‘colour it with different colours’ as suggested at the end of the recipe.


Bruising Chocolate

4 Sep


J Bell’s Chocolate Biscuit recipe from The French Family Cook

Today was a rather quiet and calm kitchen at Fort York.  Mya was keen to try a 1793 recipe for chocolate biscuits from J Bell’s The French Family Cook: Being a Complete System of French Cookery.  This recipe involved no butter so it suggested a biscuit in the French manner, like a Naples or Savoy biscuit.  It also called for the ounce and a half of chocolate to be ‘bruised very fine’.  I was intrigued by this instruction not least because I was sceptical that solid chocolate could be easily ‘bruised very fine’.  What exactly did the instruction mean?  Mya and I decided that it probably meant that the chocolate should be beaten using a pestle and mortar.  I began by cutting up the blocks of Baker’s unsweetened baking chocolate    which we were using with a knife.  This chocolate conveniently comes in wrapped ounce blocks which are divided in two so I put one half block in the small brass mortar at a time and began to grind and beat it down.  I was impressed that it did begin to produce something like a powder, fine beads of the dark chocolate.

Having pounded for a good number of minutes I sieved the first round of chocolate to get it as fine as possible.  Back went the larger lumps for another beating.  With each of my three blocks this process was repeated at least three times and I think to create this mere ounce and a half of bruised chocolate took me something like an hour!  Not a technique or recipe I shall contemplate using on a regular basis.


All in an hour’s work – my efforts at bruising chocolate very fine

As I say I found the use of the term ‘to bruise’ fascinating.  It conjures up images things being bodily damaged and battered both in the sense of bruising the human skin and the bruising of fruit.  In general the idea of bruising has a less than positive association.  As I was pounding the chocolate I was reminded of a classic example of the negative connotations of bruising, the King James translation of Genesis 3:15, when God tells the serpent after he has tempted Eve

‘And I will put enmitie betweene thee and the woman, and betweene thy seed and her seed: it shal bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heele.’

I decided to see if Dr Johnson could offer a helpful 18th century perspective on a definition of ‘to bruise’ and sure enough his 1755 dictionary gives the following description for the verb:

‘To crush or mangle with the heavy blow of something not edged or pointed; to crush by any weight; to beat into gross powder; to beat together coarsely.’

What interested me was that this definition wasn’t simply ‘to bruise’ as in the sense of smashing and damaging but also in the sense of creating a powder which suggested perhaps a more productive outcome. The OED didn’t provide any further elaboration on this idea of creating a powder by bruising ingredients and merely noted one definition of ‘to bruise’ as ‘To beat small, pound, crush, bray, grind down‘.  However it did add in brackets after its definition of ‘to bruise’ as breaking something down or into pieces (a use it points out is now obsolete) that in this sense it was apparently French.  Perhaps Bell’s description of the way to prepare the chocolate was more French than English.

In my cursory exploration through some 18th and 19th century cookbooks there were few uses of the term ‘to bruise’ for preparing ingredients and when it did occur it either referred to bruising fruit for jam making (Nutt, 1789) or bruising caraway seeds for a cake (MacDonald 1809).  Neither quite as exotic (or time consuming) as bruising chocolate for biscuits.

After I had finally bruised my way through the ounce and a half of chocolate it was time to combine it with the other ingredients. The fine beads of chocolate gave the resulting mixture an appearance almost like a very delicate Stracciatella ice cream mixture.  It was also a very runny and Mya and I were unsure how it might behave once spooned onto the paper.  We went for fairly small penny sized biscuits and baked them in a 325˚F oven for 15 minutes.  The results of this first batch were not bad but we had forgotten to sprinkle the sugar on top and decided that they would benefit from being more crisp.  To help us achieve this we made the next batch slightly smaller in size and left them in for longer  – 20 minutes this time.  The results were definitely improved.  For the third and final batch we gave them 25 minutes and these were even better.  The chocolate taste was subtle but definite and the crispness of the final batch suggested that they would be the perfect accompaniment for an after dinner coffee.


The finished biscuits; small, crisp and very tasty!

We didn’t try spooning any of the mixture into a buttered paper case as suggested by the recipe.  Ivan Day has written a great blog post about cakes and paper cases but we didn’t have the right materials to trial this approach for the chocolate biscuits. It’s an experiment that will have to wait for another day.  Mya and I have agreed however, that however noble our attempts historic chocolate bruising, next time we might try the recipe with grated chocolate.  I wonder if anyone would notice the difference?

Relaxing in Rio

25 Aug


Rio from my B&B

After two weeks of darting about around the Rio region I was finally – on my last day – able to see a little more of the city. I’d been visiting Rio de Janeiro for the ICOM Triennial conference, an interpretation of (or whatever the correct collective noun might be) international museum professionals gathered together to discuss museum issues from how to engage the next generation to collections management.  As part of the ICOM Costume Committee most of my conference was spent with like minded colleague talking about dress; we heard fascinating papers from Brazilian colleagues which offered a sartorial window into this vibrant and diverse country and those from committee members shared their latest exciting research and exhibition projects.

IMG_9250The ICOM Triennial at the Cidade des Artes, Rio de Janeiro

The conference was held in a vast and striking building, the Cidade des Artes, well able to cope with the some 2,000 museum professionals and the venue for a great performance of Brazilian music and dance on the first night.  But the Cidade des Arts is in Barra da Tijuca, a neighbourhood of Rio to the far south west which meant that getting to the city centre to see actual museums and Rio itself was no easy task.  The Costume Committee is always eager to see dress collections in the country we’re visiting but this time round there was little time during the formal conference for us to really see anything, especially with all the difficulties of distance.  It was my trips out to Petropolis and Vassouras to see the dress collections in their museums which was really rewarding.  Brazilian colleagues greeted me with warm hospitality and generously shared both their collections and experience.  Caring for dress in a climate where those twin museum object enemies, bright sunlight and high humidity, is a challenging experience yet I was treated to beautiful examples of clothing that were sensitively cared for and ingeniously stored.

With one day left in Rio and now staying in a lovely B&B in Santa Teresa, the hilly neighbourhood in the heart of Rio, I wanted to head out to see more of the historic city instead of the high rise apartments and shopping malls that characterise Barra.  After a visit to the beautiful Portuguese Royal Library with its delicately dark carved wood shelves and endless rows of book raising to a dramatic stained glass ceiling I happened upon Confeitaria Colombo, the perfect place for a mid morning break in my explorations.

IMG_9901What a beautiful library in which to work!  The Royal Portugeuse Library


The stained glass ceiling of the Royal Portuguese library

The café lies on the bustling but otherwise unassuming Rua Gonçalves Dias.  The street is so narrow that there’s little of a frontage to see but I fell upon the wide open arches that lead directly to the grand mirrored interior behind.  Showcases lining the arches are filled with treasures from the café’s history illustrating its key role in the pastry culture of the city.  Black and white photographs depicting 1920s diners enthusiastically eating and talking in its art nouveaux hall, businessmen snatching a cup of coffee in the café bar while clinching a deal, original china and silverware and cake tins from the café’s early 20th century hey day.

IMG_9905A little bit of Colombo history.  You can still buy tins of their homemade gaufrette (made to a recipe dating from the 1920s) to take home

It didn’t take loon for my eye to be drawn away from this museu de café to a sumptuous counter of cakes and tarts.  Presented like precious stones in a jeweller’s shop they were meticulously arranged by colour, with the golden yellow of custard rolls and tart au citron carefully nestled under the gleaming brass and glass.  Mounds of chopped walnuts sat atop individual tartlets next to creamy bronzed merginue peaks and eclairs glistening with rich brown chocolate icing.  Round the corner pyramids of airily light biscotti balanced delicately on white cake stands.


IMG_9917Edible delights at Colombo

IMG_9919Biscotti at Colombo

Before coming to Brazil cakes hadn’t really been on my list of local cuisine to try.  I’d been ready to tuck into meat, fruit and seafood and been well treated to all three during my stay.  Yet I soon discovered that Brazil does great cakes.  Whether it was the coffee break accompaniments at the conference or the pick-me-ups we enjoyed when travelling around the cakes had light, moist sponges which were deliciously flavoured with vanilla and cinnamon.  One of my favourites was the piece of apple and cinnamon crumble cake that Paola and I found in the Barra Bakery.  Sitting among the shopping malls and impenetrable flats along the Avenida des Americas this busy and lively eatery had an impressive display of cakes, both small individual pieces and cakes that could be bought by the kilo, like our crumble cake.  It was a classic interpretation of the recipe; a soft cinnamon sponge, topped by thin apple slices and a crunchy sugary crumble topping.  Barra might not have been the most picturesque of Rio suburbs but the Barra Bakery was a definite highlight.  Yet other similar displays of impressive variety could be found across the city, often with the ubiquitious lanches, Brazilian savoury snacks, nestled alongside.


Brazilian bakery offerings including (slightly surprisingly) at the lower left crisps sold by the kilo!

The Confeitaria Colombo, described by the Rio Times as ‘possibly the most famous café and patisserie in Rio’ and enjoyed by Queen Elizabeth II when she visited Rio in 1968, was established in 1894 by Portuguese immigrants Joaquim Borges de Meireles and Manuel José Lebrão.  Its decadent Art Nouveau interior, with jacaranda wood furniture, high ceilings and mirrored walls create an atmosphere of luxurious ease, perfect for sitting and whiling away the hours with talk, tea and cakes.  It was easy to imagine this opulent interior will with wide brimmed, feather trimmed hats, bobbing on heads discussing the latest gossip and news of early 20th century Rio. IMG_9910

 A leisurely lunch or a business deal – Colombo offers the ideal setting for both

I sat down to enjoy a deep, rich espresso with a signature Colombo chocolate and hazelnut tart.  The tart’s pastry was crisp and short, filled with the smoothest blend of chocolate ganache softly flavoured with hazelnut.  Around me others enjoyed more substantial meals with generously proportioned sandwiches, freshly squeezed fruit juices and the ever Brazilian lanches.  The crowd was mixed; Rio ladies out for lunch, a group celebrating a birthday, tourists resting their weary feet and all struggling to make a choice from the diverse and tempting menu.

IMG_9911My mid morning pick-me-up (unfortunately upside down for its moment of glory!)

I finished off my day by slowly climbing the steep street of Ladeira de Santa Teresa back to Santa Teresa and the beautiful and intriguing Parque das Ruinas.  At the heart of the park is the ruined home of Laurinda Santos Lobo, a 1920s/30s Rio social hostess, known as the “Marchioness of Elegance”.  Abandoned and looted after the death of its owner this shell of a house was turned into a cultural centre in the late 1990s with an intervention by the architect Ernani Freire which allows you to climb to the top and get what must be one of the best views of Rio, offering you a panoramic vista of the city.  Nearby lies Museu da Chácara, the elegant and fascinating home of the Brazilian art collector Castro Maya, with its though provoking assembly of European modern art alongside Brazilian topographical works and furniture.  I was lucky enough to catch a temporary exhibition of highlights from the museum’s print collection which included works by Matisse, Picasso and Derain with artists capturing 19th century Rio and Paris.

IMG_9923A place full of atmosphere – the remains of the home of Laurinda Santos Lobo

IMG_9922  IMG_9934The view from the top – a panorama of Rio

Finally it was time to wander back along the streets of Santa Teresa to prepare myself for the flight back home; my last day in Rio had  given me only a glimpse of this teeming, intriguing and nonstop city but it was one where I felt that I’d had more than a sense of what Rio had to offer.

A Young Ladies’ Guide to gingerbread making

21 Apr


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’.


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.


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


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).


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)


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.


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.


Peggy’s seed cake – such a good flavour


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 ……

Cake shape and Bristol Fashion

27 Mar

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


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

‘four whites and two yolks of eggs’


‘and nine ounces of flour;’


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



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


‘and bake it’

The key to good bread

8 Feb


St Peter with his key, watching over his bakery

A cold, wet February morning does nothing to lift the spirits, especially when you’re in Salzburg and have been hoping for a picturesque covering of snow and fine, crisp weather.  What a difference a visit to a bakery can make, especially when the bakery in question has been in existence since 1160 and greets customers with the tempting smell of freshly baked bread well before you’ve stepped inside.

I was in Salzburg as part of an ICOM Costume Committee group working on a project to produce a web based resource for making the most of costume collections in museums.  When you’re going to spend a day deep in discussion and debate over formats and contents an early morning visit to a such bakery provides not only edible sustenance but also a ver welcome psychological boost.  We needed no encouragement from our host Dorothea to take up her suggestion of a pre-meeting visit, especially as she explained to us that often on a cold winter’s morning she would use a loaf of St Peter’s bread as a sort of edible hot water bottle, pressed tightly to her coat as she walked back home.


baked rolls at Stiftsbäckerei

Stiftsbäckerei St. Peter is the monastery bakery, just a little to the west of St Peter’s church in  the heart of Salzburg.  For the past eight hundred years or so it’s been producing bread in its wood fired oven, with the monastery mill powered by a waterwheel, that happily churns and roars at the entrance to the bakery.  The bakery’s current simple interior bears little signs of change since the 1950s; boards of loaves ready for the oven waited on shelves, while the sturdy and dependable looking bread mixer dated from an age before computer technologies.  Bread is baked and sold in the same room, allowing the customer to enjoy not only the aroma of the newly baked bread, but also whole process of bread making from the mixing to baking.


The bakery interior with a range of the different breads and rolls produced and the mixer in the background

The main product of the monastery bakery is a wholemeal sour dough loaf, developed from the bakery’s own sourdough starter and rye flour.  This wholesome and hearty loaf comes in a range of sizes – ½, 1 and 2 kgs and is priced uniformly at 2.95 euros per kg.  Something about its very rustic solidity seems to encapsulate the longevity of bread baking on the site and offers a very edible reminder of the bakery’s history and purpose.  Since I wasn’t in a position to try taking one of these loaves home, however, I went for another of the bakery’s products, a brioche roll, beautifully soft and studded with raisins.


my brioche roll, perfect for elevenses!

St Peter’s Abbey in Salzburg was founded in 696 by Saint Rupert (we were staying in buildings belonging to the monastery, now smart visitor accommodation) and the monks probably had some way of producing their own bread early on in the Abbey’s history but it was in 1160 that the monastery mill was established near the Abbey’s cemetery (the abbey church was established in 1147).  The mill survived in the building until 1967 and the wheel was refurbished in 2006, so that once again the bakery uses water power, and generates enough energy to feed it back into the public grid.  It’s great to think that a bakery first established to provide the monastic community of St Peter’s with good, wholesome bread, today not only offers the wider community of Salzburg the fruits of its rich bread making tradition but also gives back all the surplus power generated by its waterwheel.  A heart warming thought for a cold and grey February morning.


The bakery waterwheel in full flow