Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Betsy Challenge 15: Sacred or Profane

It was sheer luck that caused me to stumble across the recipe for this challenge. I was scratching my head trying to think of any sort of recipe I could do for this, and had nearly settled on devil's food cake, when I stumble across this recipe in A Prairie Kitchen by Rae Katherine Eighmey:

Well that sounded promising! In previous challenges, we discovered the importance of checking one's sources, so I went to the Illinois Digital Newspaper Collection and found the corresponding edition of The Prairie Farmer. There it was!:

The Challenge: Sacred or Profane

The Recipe: Nun's Toast, from The Prairie Farmer

Year/Date and Location: 1883, Midwest

How Did You Make It: Just exactly as directed.The Gentleman Friend helped as I got distracted by a phone call in the midst of it, and then had Issues with the roux.

Time To Complete: Probably half an hour? See aforementioned distraction.

Total Cost: Under $5

How Successful Was It?: Well it's pretty much exactly what you would imagine eggs in a bechamel sauce to be like. I was surprised at how tasty it was! I'm not a huge fan of eggs but I can definitely see the appeal - this is a meal that would stick to your ribs, can be made very cheaply, and would probably be pretty good with some sausage or ham on the side. Gentleman Friend gave it a good review.

How Accurate Is It?: I did not use heirloom ingredients and I cooked it on an electric stove. Beyond that, I followed the directions closely.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Melissa Challenge 14: Fear Factor

Here I am!  Finally back and posting on the blog!  For those of you who do not know, I am finishing my last year of undergraduate studies, and cooking/baking in my apartment during my busy week is near impossible.  Most of the historic cooking I have been doing has been in the hearth kitchen at Historic Locust Grove, which is amazing and fun and awesome, but I barely have any pictures of that and the recipes I make there don't necessarily line up with what the challenges are.  However, I did realize that I was going to be remaking a recipe I made for the recent Christmastide event, which is definitely feared or revered by most...


Specifically, a pound plumb cake from The Housekeeper’s Instructor,  by William Augustus Henderson, 1809

To be honest, I did not hold fast to this recipe.  What I made ended up being an amalgam of a few pound cake recipes I have made.  My tried-and-true recipe follows:

1 pound butter
1 pound sugar
1 pound eggs (about 9 large eggs)
1 whole nutmeg grated, or 1 tbsp ground nutmeg
The zest of 1 lemon
1 gill (4 oz) of brandy or cognac
1 pound flour
1/3 pound currants
1/3 pound candied orange peel
1/3 pound candied lemon peel

Preheat your oven to 350.  Start by creaming your butter and sugar together:

Next, add your eggs.  About 9 large eggs equal one pound, but it's always good to use your handy dandy scale to help measure.

Mix your eggs and butter/sugar until smooth.  Now it's time to add the fun things!  Throw in the nutmeg, brandy, and lemon zest, and mix.  I left out the lemon zest this time because of the inclusion of candied lemon peel.  It's definitely cook's choice.  Also, sometimes you realize that your bowl is too small in the middle of baking.  Introducing great green bowl!

Measure out a pound of flour and mix in.  The batter will stiffen considerably and become more like the cake batter you know and love.

Finish the cake off by stirring in the candied lemon and orange peel and currants.

I find that stirring this in works the best, since the hand mixer can be a little harsh.  I just used a rubber spatula.

Pour the batter into two greased 8-inch cake pans and bake for about an hour, or until a toothpick comes out of the center clean.

Allow to cool on the counter completely, then remove from pans.  If you'd like an extra kick of flavor, I recommend soaking the cakes in brandy for anywhere between a week and a month.  To do this, simply soak a paper towel with brandy and lay them on the cakes within a plastic bag.  Replace the paper towel every couple of days.  The brandy helps to keep the cake moist and to develop the flavors of the fruit, so it is definitely enjoyable.

Delicious finished cakes waiting for a brandy bath!

When I was doing my research for these cakes, I desperately wanted to find evidence of using marzipan as an "icing", but unfortunately I did not find any examples of this.  Most of the icings that I found from this period were actually whipper meringues that were then hardened onto the cake using either a salamander or simply proximity to the fire. Henderson has one example of a recipe here:

The first recipe is the one I took inspiration from, but since meringue is so finicky I decided to use a recipe that I have used for years now.  I now realize that the second recipe in the image would have yielded a similar taste to marzipan, but oh well!  The meringue icing is the perfect touch for this cake.

Meringue icing

2 egg whites
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup white sugar

Preheat oven to 225.  Beat the egg whites until foamy.  Add cream of tartar, salt, and sugar, and beat until stiff peaks form.  Place cakes on parchment paper on baking sheets.  Spread a thin layer on cakes and bake for 1 hour.  Leave cakes to cool in oven with door slightly ajar.

This cake is so delicious that it can't even be classified as fruitcake.  It has none of the flavors that you would typically associate with Granny's fruitcake, and the density of fruit isn't so high that you wonder if there is even cake.  The nutmeg and lemon work perfectly together, and the brandy helps to merge the flavors.  All in all, I would highly, highly recommend it!

The Challenge: #14: Fear Factor

The Recipe: See above!

The Date/Year and Region: Europe/America, early 19th century

How Did You Make It: See above, again

Time to Complete: It takes about 30 minutes to get the batter together, and another hour to bake.  The meringue takes 15 minutes to make an an hour to bake, as well.

Total Cost: The fruit was the most expensive, topping in at $10 per batch of cake.  The other items were mostly lying around.  I would guess that two brandy-soaked meringued cakes cost about $20.

How Successful Was It?: This cake is amazing.  It's the perfect density with the fruit in the heavy pound cake base.  The meringue icing and brandy soak are really awesome additions to an already great cake!

How Accurate Is It?: Somewhat diverged from the original recipes, but in relatively accurate fashions.  Cream of tartar wasn't available in the period, and the currant question (whether fresh currants or dried "currants" [actually raisins] were meant is a conundrum) is always on my mind, though I don't think they would have called for preserved fruits (candied lemon and orange peel) to be mixed with fresh in the same cake.  I would guess that it is about 90% accurate to the period

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Catching Up A Bit....

Well, life got a little busy and a little hairy and I haven't been able to highlight some of our participants in the past few weeks. But that doesn't mean I haven't kept up with what they've been up to! Here are a few highlights:

My Patchwork Katt made a mincemeat coffee cake, for "If They'd Had It" - looks pretty good to me:

Meanwhile, for ethnic foods, Kim of Turnspit and Table made some really beautiful French pommes et poires tapées for the ethnic foodways challenge. Her research anddocumentation is always so meticulous!

When asked to make a food named after someone, Elizabeth of Beth's Bobbin's (also a real-life friend!) made Victoria sandwiches:

...while Maren of Maren's Hus made Andrew's Gingerbread. Both treats look utterly delightful!

And when it came time for Fear Factor, Elizabeth of Elizabeth's Costumes and Crafts faced down a fearsome foe:

Jeanette and Patrcik of Mid-Century Meals earned a great deal of street cred for tackling tongue, along with some lovely stories (and a comparison of their reactions to eating tongue. I'm with you, Patrick. City kids stick together.)

Next up is Sacred and Profane, where we make our nicest and naughtiest dishes! I can't wait to see what you all make!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Betsy Challenge 14: Fear Factor

It may sound silly, but I'm afraid of gelatins.

Okay, it is silly. I come from the Upper Midwest - the land of Jell-O salads. No family dinner is complete without Jell-O, preferably with fruit in it. Pears go in red or green Jell-O, mandarin oranges in orange Jell-O. It's a ritual here.

So, why should I be afraid of historic gelatins? I'm just afraid of them not setting up. It's a chemical process, and chemical processes scare me in general. But I've learned to be fearless, so I decided to make some sort of jelly.

I had plenty of resources and recipes - calves feet jellies, aspics, wine jellies. You'll be relieved to know that I avoided Eliza Leslie (for once) and went with Eliza Acton's Modern Cookery.

Acton goes on to note that this is technically NOT a blanc-mange, since it's not white. It's in the family of cream jellies, more of a Bavarian cream or "un Fromage Baravoise. Either way, this looked like a winner - it already says it's extremely good!

The Challenge: Fear Factor

The Recipe: Extremely Good Strawberry Blanc-Mange from Eliza Acton's Modern Cookery  (found on Google Books)

The Year/Date and Region: 1868, England

How Did You Make It: As always, I halved the recipe. First, I mascerated the strawberries with some sugar and let them sit to get juicy. After a couple hours I came back and mashed them through a sieve. After struggling to find the right tool for this (potato masher? meat tenderizer? wooden spoon?) I used the bottom of a glass jar. Necessity is the mother of invention, right?

Now, I have to come clean. I semi-cheated. The recipe calls for isinglass, and try as I might, I couldn't find any brewing supply store in the area to buy isinglass. I did not want to mess with carrageenan, which was also used in the 1860s to jellify things. The only other period option I was left with was boiling calves' feet to extract the gelatin, and I didn't think my neighbors in my apartment building would appreciate it. So, I went with powdered unflavored gelatin. Despite the fact that it wasn't available in the 1860s, and wasn't called for in the recipe, it's still similar chemically to the gelatin from calves' feet.

Anyway, where was I? Gelatin. Mixing gelatin with milk makes it look pretty gross.

But, mixing it in with the strawberries was SO pretty.

I poured the mixture into some little copper molds and put them in the fridge to set up overnight. When I woke up in the morning, they were all set! VICTORY! I dipped one in hot water and turned it out onto a plate. So very, very pretty. It was very firm (I may have overdone it with the gelatin in my nervousness).

Time to Complete: Less than half an hour, plus overnight to set and the time the berries spent sitting in sugar.

Total Cost: I didn't really keep good track of this. More than $5, less than $10.

How Successful Was It?: VERY. Imagine strawberries and cream, but in gelatin form. I taste-tested it on two people: my boss, who enjoyed it very much, and the Gentleman Friend, who also enjoyed it greatly. It was...dare I say it? Extremely good. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

How Accurate Is It?: We've already talked about the gelatin, and the strawberries were not heirloom. I do want to try this again with isinglass, so I can judge the difference.