Tag Archives: Fort York

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.

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.  

Do you care for caraway?

9 Jan


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.


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.


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


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.


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

Mincemeat in the Officers’ Mess

3 Dec


peeling applies for the mincemeat; the mess kitchen was lit only by the fire and candles, and as soon as we entered the years seemed to roll away

It’s been a grey, gloomy day all day in Toronto (the top of the CN tower was shrouded in mist) but I’ve been happily employed in the Fort York Officers’ Mess kitchen learning about 18th century mince pies.  In fact it’s been pretty much the perfect day; what better way to get into the Christmas spirit than in a room lit only by the wood fire and candles, with a medley of mace, cloves and nutmeg filling the air and a reading of Hannah Glasse’s 1747 mince pie recipe, which brought the world of the 18th century Christmas kitchen to life?

The workshop was led by Mya Sangster, part of the indefatigable and dedicated Fort York historic cookery team, whose extensive knowledge and research of historic mince pie recipes includes some thirty or more recipes from the mid 16th century to the start of the 19th century.  Mya guided us through the changing content of the mince pie, as its original format of meat with some dried fruits altered so that the fruit and sugar element began to dominate in the 1790s.  She pointed out that many of the stories associated with mince pies (the three spices used in the mixture represented the three kings) may well have been wonderful Victorian inventions of tradition but what was clear is that these finely shredded minced meat pies have always been associated with Christmas.  A fabulous bill of fare for December from The Whole Duty of a Woman (1739 ed.) includes both ‘minc’d pyes’ and ‘a turkey larded’.  But Mya also explained that there were many versions of Lent mince pies, where the meat was replaced by eggs.


our mincemeat with some of Mya’s homemade preserved orange peel; this was cut into fine strips and added to the mincemeat for our small mince pies

Our Hannah Glasse recipe called for many ingredients that would have been familiar to all 18th century makers of mince pies.  The meat element was a ‘neat’s tongue’, boiled over the fire of the mess kitchen until it was ready for me to peel.  Mya had made her own preserved orange and citron peel.  The real beef suet (I didn’t realise that suet was specifically the fat around the kidneys) had been purchased specially from the slaughter house so we had to break it up by hand before finely chopping it.  Hannah’s recipe calls for half a hundred pippins but we were only making half quantities so we only had half this number of apples.  Then there were raisins, currants, sugar (but not a lot, only 4oz for all of this) and a fair quantity of alcohol to bind it all together.

Alex and tongue


peeling and chopping the neat’s tongue

In the dim light of mess kitchen Mya and her wonderful assistants Rosemary, Kathryn and Elizabeth set us to work peeling, chopping and pounding.  We made the mince pies in two formats.  One large mince pie, following Hannah’s instructions for what she described as a ‘little Dish, something bigger then a Soop-plate’ and then some small mince pies, made in what Hannah might have known as ‘little Patties’.  For the large mince pie which was baked in the kitchen’s wood fired bake oven, the contents were layered – meat, citron, mincemeat, orange peel and one layer of meat.  For the smaller patties which were baked in the prep kitchen’s larger ovens, all the filling was mixed together.

IMG_3351 layering the large pie in its dish a little larger than a ‘soop plate’




Kathryn puts the pie in the bake oven


the baked and finished pie

Our work was fuelled by delicious pound cake, made by the historic cookery team, and a fabulous lunch of Mya’s Skeet root vegetable soup (accompanied by Elizabeth’s freshly made rolls and a wonderful selection of cheeses.  Once the large mince pie was cooked we were able to try it with creamy ginger ice cream which Mya had made to a Nott recipe (author of The Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary, Or, The Accomplish’d Housewifes Companion).   The rich, buttery pastry (also a Hannah recipe) was beautifully flaky and the spices and preserved peels really came through in the flavour of the filling.

There were so many elements of the day which really impressed me;

The team’s commitment to researching every element of historic cookery and using only authentic techniques, implements and ingredients.  Of course the 21st century world means there were elements that were more challenging than others but whether it was waiting for Whole Foods to get a fresh supply of citron or only using a three-pronged fork to prick the tops of the pies because 18th century forks were three-pronged, it gave us a real sense of the whole experience of 18th century cooking.  Nor would Mya make any alterations to the recipe, choosing one that it was possible to make with the ingredients available.


pastry for the small ‘patties’

The mess kitchen in which the workshop was held is part of the visitor’s tour at Fort York so and far from being shut off while we working visitors were encouraged to come in and learn more about what we were doing, while munching on a slice of pound cake.  It was a great way of animating the kitchen and providing a natural springboard for interaction and questions.


a chance to sample our work; the large mince pie with Mya’s Nott’s ginger ice cream

The small group size of eight people was perfect.  We could all contribute to the making of the mincemeat, with knives and pestle in hand, while there was more than enough room in the prep kitchen’s ovens for eight trays of mince pies.  It was great to meet a group of fellow historic food lovers who came from diverse backgrounds but were united by their fascination in the food and cooking of the past.


the mince pie filling; the layers of meat, mincemeat and candied fruit can’t easily be seen but could be easily tasted

I came home to our new, ultra modern apartment with the fruits of my 18th century labour for Mr Kim to sample.  While they were still on the sweet side for his savoury palate I think that he was impressed by the use of real tongue and beef suet.  With the tongue to boil up and the citron to locate it’s perhaps not a recipe I’d try regularly (although I’m very keen to make the pastry again) but as I look out over Toronto’s 21st century skyline I’m very pleased to have started off my advent season with the chance to come a little closer to the Christmas of the 18th century and to have been a part of such a great example of historic food interpretation.