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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.


Sugar and Spice ……

21 May


   GetInline-11     IMG_6072 The best Konditorei in town

Sitting in the shadow of Mönchsberg, on the corner of Herbert van Karajan Platz in Salzburg is Niemetz, the most delightful and delicious of the Konditoreien in town.  I was only in Salzburg for a fleeting one and half days, as part of my ICOM Costume Committee project, but I still managed to find time to visit Niemetz twice. Just around the corner is the baroque fancy of the Pferdeschwemme (horse bath) with its rearing horse sculpture and pastel murals on the pedimented wall behind.  Its 18th century theatricality is echoed in the décor of Niemetz, which has an elegant pistachio green and rose pink frontage.  Inside the paintwork is picked out in a profusion of gold, befitting of a Mozart opera or Marie Antoinette boudoir (it conjures up the same delicate feel as the Sofia Coppola film).  At the front of the café a Madonna figure dressed in a pink and ivory brocade offers a sartorial reminder of the importance of the Catholic church to the town, both historically and today (church bells still peal regularly through the day in Salzburg).


IMG_6066Niemetz’s appropriately dressed Madonna


the pink 1920seque packaging


As someone who can overly excited by the mere sight of a great piece of vintage packaging I was particularly charmed by the Niemetz boxes and wrappings, all in the house pink, decorated with an eighteenth century design à la the 1920s (think of the wonderful George Barbier fashion illustrations).


The famous Schwedenbomben


But of course it was the cakes which we had really come for and what a selection.  Strawberry tartlets nestled next to chocolate pyramids and delicately feathered cake slices.  Our first visit to Niemetz was in celebration of our friend Dorothea’s birthday where we joined her colleagues in wishing her many happy returns and in sampling Niemetz’s signature product – Schwedenbomben, edible missiles of light and fluffy marshmallow coated in chocolate.  For our second visit we treated ourselves to a well earned break in our project by studying the diverse cake selection more closely.  It didn’t take me long to make up my mind and plump for the Mozarttorte, which echoed in cake form the ubiquitous Salzburg Mozartkugel, with layers of chocolate encasing a centre of liquor drenched pistachio marzipan. What better way to start an afternoon of hard, serious thinking than with such a slice of chocolate perfection, accompanied by a strong black coffee?

IMG_6070 IMG_6073

Mozarttorte and a cup of coffee – perfect!

The Niemetz konditorei started back in the 1890s, in Linz, and the famous Scwhedenbomben were first created in the 1920s.  There are now three Niemetz locations; as well as the Salzburg café there is the original Linz shop as well as one in Linz Station.  Alas, it appears that not everyone is as appreciative of Niemetz’s charms as my ICOM group and in recent years the company has struggled to remain financially afloat.  Nevertheless a Facebook page set up to encourage people to support Niemetz has had a certain amount of success; earlier this year The Austrian Times reported that the company was having difficulty supplying the demand for Schwedenbomben, such was the interest generated by the Facebook page.

For me, however, what appealed about Niemetz was its old world charm.  From its location on a Salzburg corner it provides a pink and pistachio oasis of friendly service, mouth watering delicacies and the opportunity to forget the care and stress of reality for a few gold tinted moments.  What I hope for Niemetz is that enough people discover its charm to ensure it a long future in Salzburg but never so many that it loses aurora of a konditorei fit for a princess.  If you’re ever in Salzburg be sure to pay Niemetz a visit!


goodies in Niemetz




Learning your limes

24 Mar


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.


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.’


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.


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.

Oranges and Lemons

6 Feb

Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clement’s.
You owe me five farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin’s.


Traditional English nursery rhyme

Cooking at Fort York has taken a decidedly citrus turn over the past few weeks, since we’ve been preparing for the Fort’s long running February event, Mad for Marmalade, Crazy for Citrus.  I’ve long been a lover of citrus fruits – as a child oranges and lemons were basically the only fruits I’d eat – so the idea of celebrating the flavours of sweet oranges and sharp lemon zest is one which appeals to me greatly.


Orange gingerbread squares

It’s a pity I won’t be around for the event itself but at least I get the fun of all the behind the scenes preparations and experimentation.  Rosemary and Joan have been working on orange biscuits, perfecting the consistency which is key to these macaroon like offerings.  Of course in the interests of achieving the best possible biscuit there needs to be a fair amount of testing by eating, a task in which we’re all more than happy to take part.

For at least two weeks in a row Emma has produced the most delectable lemon puffs, pillows of airy fluffiness offering the briefest wisp of tart lemon before melting away.  We’ve been imaging the many permutations for serving lemon puffs, including sandwiching them together with a swirl of lemon curd and cream.

The recipe I’ve been working on, with Krystle, was an orange gingerbread taken from the first known English language cookbook published in Canada, in 1831, The Cook Not Mad.  The author of the cookbook is unknown and before being published in Canada it actually first appeared in America, in Watertown, New York in 1830.   Its title clearly suggests that its author wanted to demonstrate the rationality behind cookery, as opposed to it being any sort of mystic alchemy.

No. 130 Orange Gingerbread
Two pounds and a quarter fine flour, a pound and 3 quarters molasses, 12 ounces of sugar, 3 ounces undried orange peel chopped fine, 1 ounce each of ginger and allspice, melt twelve ounces of butter, mix the whole together, lay it by for twelve hours, roll it out with as little flour as possible, cut it in pieces three inches wide, mark them in the form of checkers with the back of a knife, rub them over with the yelk of an egg, beat with a tea cup of milk, when done wash them again with the egg.

The recipe, No. 130 in the book, is for a classic hard gingerbread with a melting of molasses and butter.  The combination of spices – all spice and ginger – is augmented by the addition of orange peel, which is what makes this a little more unusual than the standard gingerbread recipes of today.  There has been much discussion in the kitchen about they original recipe instruction to add ‘undried peel, chopped fine’ and what it actually means.  Is it simply orange zest or is it a peel in syrup then chopped? While the historic recipes when read carefully give many clues about their methods and ingredients, sometimes even close examination cannot unlock all their meaning and the best approach is to take an educated guess in the service of experimentation.

The melted molasses (fancy molasses, a little more refined that the usual molasses) and butter had to cool to room temperature and we began by simply stirring the mixture.  Elizabeth suggested that a cool bain marie and sure enough a bit of ice and water was much more effective in dropping the temperature.

 IMG_4107  IMG_4110

our molasses and butter mixture before and with the bain marie


Krystle preparing the all important orange zest

The cooled molasses mixture was added to the flour, sugar, spices and orange and then combined to make a soft dough which needed considerable chilling before it could be worked.  Even once chilled it still stuck to the table frequently while being rolled out; no wonder the original recipe suggested chilling it over night.


The dry ingredients – flour, sugar, ginger, all spice – and the orange zest

The recipe also gave very specific instructions about how to shape the gingerbread; it was to be rolled to ¼ “ thick and then marked in a chequerboard pattern of 1” squares, before being cut into squares of 3”.  While undoubtedly producing a biscuit pleasing to the eye this was not so easy to achieve; the dough was difficult to lift up and transport to the trays without suffering more than a little shape shifting.  These were quickly given a little bit of manual coaxing to regain their right angles.

To cut the squares we had a basic square template and we experimented with different methods of scoring the 1” squares; sometimes before cutting into 3” squares, sometimes once they were on the tray.  In the interests of speed I adopted a rather cavalier approach, just running my palette knife through the dough after cutting but before placing on the tray, making sure not to run my knife all the way through the dough.  My accuracy left much to be desired; I definitely wasn’t producing nine perfect 1” squares on each biscuit – I don’t know how precise the author would have expected their readers to be.


all ready for cutting


                                Hardly a model of mathematical precision, but that doesn’t effect the taste, does it?

The finished squares were glazed with a mixture of beaten egg and milk and then left to stand for 30 minutes before being placed in a moderate oven.  After about 15 minutes they came out again and were given a second coating of the glaze before being left to cool and harden.


The resulting biscuits have a pleasing crunch as you break the biscuit, with a hint of chewiness as you enjoy the deep, rich flavour of the marriage of molasses, orange and spices.  It’s difficult to know if we chose the right method of adding the orange peel  but they taste great.  In the cold and bitter weather of February it’s easy to imagine how much they must have been enjoyed by those who first made them, providing a little bit of sweet sustenance.


The squares have two coats of an egg yolk and milk glaze


 Krystle with the finished squares

Worth its weight….

17 Jan

This week at Fort York I was making a pound cake.


Some of the pound cake ingredients; the grated rind of a lemon, just under 1/4 cup of sherry and eight eggs, all combined with a pound of flour, sugar and butter

The OED defines a pound cake as   ‘A large rich cake, originally one in which one pound of each of the principal ingredients is used’ and uses Hannah Glasse’s 1747 Art of Cookery recipe as a demonstration of the principle; ‘Take a pound of butter, beat it in an earthen pan with your hand one way, till it is like a fine thick cream, then have ready twelve eggs, but half the whites; beat them well, and beat them up with the butter, a pound of flour beat in it, a pound of sugar, and a few carraways. Beat it all well together for an hour with your hand, or a great wooden spoon, butter a pan and put it in, and then bake it an hour in a quick oven. For change, you may put in a pound of currants, clean washed and picked.’  The pound cake was a staple of 18th and 19th century cookbook; the one I was making came from the 1753 Lady’s Companion.  An element which has really struck me with these historic recipes is the great flavour the cakes have, even without many of the flavourings, like vanilla, that we consider essential.  The finely pounded sugar gives the cake a lovely light texture and the sherry, just under 1/4 of a cup, gave it just the right level of flavour.



Beating up the eggs. Despite the fact that this cake has no other raising agent the eggs weren’t separated, just beaten together


 The pound cake in a Kugelhopf style tin, often known in the 19th century as a Turk’s cap, because of it’s turban like appearance (cf. the OED 1859 quote F. S. Cooper Ironmongers’ Catal. 178   Jelly and Cake Moulds… Turk’s Cap.)


The cake out of the oven; it was baked at 325  degrees F for almost two hours.


The end result; the cake was being used for an event at the Fort so we couldn’t try it fully but a little piece that fell off the base allowed us to get a glimpse of what it might be like.  

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.


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).


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


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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


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. 


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.


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


The white fish roasting by the fire


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.


Brenda and her gingerbread


Amy and her black bun


Cherie’s Oliver Biscuits

Festive teatime favourite

26 Dec


Christmas baking in glorious technicolour!

Inspired by William Tempest’s photograph on his Facebook page I decided to have a go at his Christmas Battenburg.  As an almond lover Battenburgs are one of my favourite cakes; a light vanilla sponge in bright pink and yellow encased in a cloak of marzipan.  The best history of the Battenburg is given by food historian Ivan Day on his blog, which dispels the myth that the cake was created to celebrate the wedding of Princess Beatrice (youngest daughter of Queen Victoria) to Henry, Prince of Battenburg and has some wonderful images of the most intricate Battenburgs with 25 piece chequerboards from the early 20th century.

Over the past few years there have been a range of variations on the classic Battenburg; Mary Berry’s coffee and walnut Battenburg that was a Great British Bake Off technical challenge and the Union Jack Batternburg produced to celebrate everything from the Royal Wedding of 2011 to this year’s Olympics.

William Tempest’s Christmas version however is unmissable, largely because of its amazing coloured red and green sponge.  Merry Christmas everybody.


The basic vanilla sponge mixture

IMG_3781 Setting up the baking tin to get two colours – the results of frangipani mince pie baking in the background


The baked sponge, ready for assembly


Creating the layers (cinnamon buns in the background).


Rolling out the marzipan; in retrospect I think that I made this a little too thin (see results below).  I went for white marzipan which of course is not as white as fondant icing but definitely more traditional and tastes far better.


The finished cake and its miniature companion created from the off cuts.  I didn’t have a holly cutter so I had to create the leaves by cutting them out with a knife which was particularly easy.  The silver degrees were also difficult to keep in place and all over Christmas I’ve had to endure caustic comments from my mother about the unnatural colouring of the Battenburg sponge but I’m still pleased I gave it a go.