Currant Challenges

I’ve written in past posts about the challenges of interpreting period recipes. I know I’m not alone in this. If you have tried making sense of some of the old recipes, you know what I’m taking about. It can be a recipe for frustration.

Let’s start with a spoonful of obscure weights and a bunch of measures about the size of a turkey egg. Then let’s add one each of all of the tools and implements that have long been lost to time and modern conveniences. Next, let’s talk about how our modern versions of the most basic ingredients such as milk, flour, meat, and many vegetables are nothing like what they used to be a few hundred years ago. And of course, we would be amiss to forget the fact that so many recipes relied on the good judgment of the reader to make a dish that was agreeable to their own personal tastes — tastes that were much different than modern preferences that have evolved over generations of sugar and processed foods.

Truly, this is a recipe for frustration.

Some of the challenges we face when interpreting period recipes can be overcome if we are willing to apply enough mental and physical elbow grease, but others cannot. Techniques can be researched and refined, and equipment can be procured or reproduced. Replicating mindsets and matching ingredients, however, can be real problems. All too often we simply have to settle with guesses, approximations, and “close enoughs.”

I suppose I need to remind myself of that reality on occasion. This very moment may be one such occasion as I have spent the better part of three weeks focusing on currants in the context to period cooking. I fear my quest has turned into somewhat of an obsession.

Currant(s)

Red Ribes Currants

Red Ribes Currants

Let’s first define the term currant. Many people swear that the “true currant” is a juicy berry of the Ribes genus, closely related to gooseberry. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of varieties that can be classified into three over-simplified groups: red, white (the albino version of red), and black.

These berries grow in clusters or strings — somewhat like grapes. They can be used fresh, frozen, dried, or preserved in sugar. Dried currants look very much like little raisins. The red and white currants were traditionally preferred by most 18th century diners for their sweet/tart somewhat-raspberry-like flavor. The blackcurrant, however, was still popular in the kitchen, just not nearly as much. Blackcurrants are very tart…somewhat like an unripe blueberry or mulberry…and in the fresh state, present a slight hint of ammonia (according to this palette). Currant jelly, made primarily of red currants, was a very popular condiment in the 18th century. It was used as a complementary sauce on poultry, venison, beef, pork, mutton, and rabbit.

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Ripe Blackcurrants

Blackcurrants were also called squinsyberries (or a dozen other variations on that word). Their extreme tartness triggers saliva production which can help sooth a soar throat. Blackcurrants were used as lozenges or reduced to syrup in the 18th century to treat quinsy, or chronic tonsillitis. What they didn’t know at the time was that they are also high in vitamin C. Six berries contain an equal amount of vitamin C to that found in an entire lemon.

The Impostor?

Ribes Currants (left), Zante Currants (right)

Ribes Currants (left), Zante Currants (right)

Now before any fisticuffs break out among the readers, let me give you another definition: currants are also small seedless raisins. They are called Zante currants in the United States. Zantes belong to the genus Vitis, but for sake of this article, I’ll stick with the name Zante.  They taste like…well…they’re raisins. Yeah, they taste like little raisins. At least that’s what modern Zante currants taste like.

Zantes were wildly popular in the 18th century — even more so than raisins, as period importation and taxation records would suggest. But why? Surely it wasn’t simply the novelty of having cute little raisins. I wondered at first if their popularity had to do with the fact that they were seedless. Can you imagine how tedious it would be to stone pound after sticky pound of raisins?

My second theory for their popularity focused on taste. Maybe they tasted differently than modern Zantes. Perhaps there was a significant enough different in taste from that of normal raisins.

John Payne chronicled how currants were processed in his 1796 travel journal, Geographical extracts, forming a general view of earth and nature. After reading that account, it really made me really wonder about their taste. Grapes of Corinth were first laid out on the dirt to cure in the sun. Then they were carried on the backs of horses and donkeys into the city where they were packed into underground cisterns until they were sold for export. At that point, men with bare feet (courteous enough to at least oil them first) stomped the raisins into kegs. The kegs were loaded onto ships and allowed to “cook” during their journey, often stinking up the entire vessel.

This may give insight into why so many recipes suggested washing the currants well before using them. Throw in a bit of dirt, maybe a pebble or two, some mule sweat, a little toe jam, and whatever stowaway may have hopped aboard those wooden shipping kegs, and sure, 18th century Zantes may have tasted a little different from our sanitized version today.

My theory, though, seems to have little support in period texts. I’ve scoured dozens of books looking for something…anything that would suggest an peculiar flavor other than that of raisins. Nothing. The few descriptions that I managed to find were in the period apothecaries, The Edinburgh New Dispensatory (1801) and Ralph Thicknesse’s A Treatise on Foreign Vegetables (1749). They were described as having “a sweet taste with a pleasant and agreeable acidity.” One of those texts also warned consumers to avoid using raisins that had been sweetened with honey in an attempt to conceal their spoilage. They were obviously meant to be primarily sweet.

The Dilemna

New College Puddings using Blackcurrants (left) and Zante Currants (right). Which is more accurate?

New College Puddings using Blackcurrants (left) and Zante Currants (right). Which is more accurate?

Sooooo…what do we have here? We have two very different fruits with the same name. In one hand, we have Ribes berries in various forms that have a flavor profile ranging from sweet-tart to extremely tart; and in the other hand, we have little raisins that taste like…well…like little raisins. So which do we use in our 18th century foodways interpretations? Ribes or Zante?

Surely there’s an easy answer. Surely there’s a way to figure it all out. Surely there’s historical context to analyze or hints that can be found by reading between the lines. All we have to do is cross reference multiple period cookbooks with dictionaries and travel journals and horticultural encyclopedias and tax-court records. Surely, right???

I am left only with more questions.

My brain has turned into a giant raisin.

O.K., so can I at least figure this out:

Which Came First, the Currant or the Currant?

Grapes of Corinth

Grapes of Corinth

The Zante currant derives its name from the Ionian Island that was once called the same, off the coast of Greece. The word currant, according to the 1390 collection of English recipes, A Forme of Cury, is a phonetic corruption of the word Corinth, the area of origin for the miniature grapes from which these raisins are processed.

Karen Hess, in her commentary to Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery (1981, page 263), claims that Zante Currants were introduced to English cuisine during the Crusades. The O.E.D. cites the first published reference in the 14th century.

Contrary to the claims of berry loyalists, it wasn’t for a couple of hundred years after the Zante currant that Ribes were finally cultivated in English gardens. Historically speaking, Ribes are the impostors, not Zantes.

Now, the popularity of Ribes berries burst across northern Europe and spilled across the ocean, threatening to overshadow Zantes altogether. Some of the earliest settlers in America considered them important enough to include in their cargo for their journey to the New World. According to Penn State’s 2013-2014 Mid-Atlantic Berry Guide, Currants (and gooseberries) were introduced to North America in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629.

Vulgar Confusion

Grape leaf (left) blackcurrant leaf (right)

Grape leaf (left) blackcurrant leaf (right)

Production, both east and west, grew rapidly, as did confusion over the plants. A common misconception was that they were one and the same plant — that the Ribes plant was a horticultural victory — a northern European adaptation of the Corinth grape. It became known as the raisin tree.

Attempts were made to keep the fruits separate. Zante currants eventually became known as currants of the shops or currants of the grocers, while Ribes became known as garden currantsBut these distinctions seemed to do little to stem the pervasive confusion in society, and seldom made their way into cookbooks. This confusion continues among many even to this day.

A Conspicuous Ambiguity

So as I said, I am left with a number of questions. From numerous period texts, it’s obvious that both types of currants were used in 18th century cooking. A few cookbook authors were thoughtful enough to specify, while it’s fairly easy to guess with other recipes. Many other recipes, however, are conspicuously ambiguous regarding which fruit to use.

A boiled plum pudding using raisins and Zante currants

A boiled plum pudding using raisins and Zante currants

Some types of foods are more perplexing than others. Puddings are a prime example. The resulting flavor of a pudding using Ribes berries would have differed greatly from that of a pudding with Zante currants, yet there is very seldom specific instruction given as to which to use.

So which is more appropriate, Ribes of Zantes? The answer may be both…or either.

If you are trying to interpret a period recipe, I have a few suggestions. First, pay close attention to the context of the recipe you’re reading. What recipes surround it? If they are for other types of berries, you’re likely suppose to use Ribes.

Along with that, if your recipe calls for juicing your currants, again, you’ll need Ribes.

Mincemeat recipes typically use Zantes, which, like other raisins, tend to resist spontaneous fermentation.

But for recipes such as puddings…hmmm…ask yourself which would you have had on hand at the time? And don’t hesitate letting your own personal preference be your guide.

So many 18th century recipes were mere suggestions in contrast to our typical modern recipe which is in essence an exacting formula designed to guarantee consistency. There are numerous hints across the spectrum of period cookbooks that suggest readers were expected to refine the recipe, developing their own preferences with practice. Having said that, a caveat would be appropriate at this point: be careful about being too rigid in following period recipes.

A Recipe for Ribes

Nearly every 18th century recipe for a red currant tart is the same:

Preheat your oven. If you are using a modern oven, set the temperature to 375-degrees (F) or 190-degrees (C).  You can also bake your tart in an earthen oven or Dutch oven. I talk about both of those methods in my White Pot post.

Start by coating your tart tin well with lots of butter. Line it with a short crust. (Here’s a hint: as you roll out your pastry crust, be very liberal with your dusting flour. This extra flour will help thicken the excessive amounts of juice in your berries.) If your baking dish is metal, line the entire bottom as you would a modern pie. Period recipes suggest that if your dish is glass or ceramic, line only the sides.

Fill your lined dish with a sufficient amount red (or white) currant berries that have been well washed and picked free of stems. Weigh your berries ahead of time, or pour them out to be weighed, then return them to the lined baking dish. Pour over your berries an equal amount of refined sugar (by weight). One cookbook cautioned against using raw sugar as it will alter the taste of the tart.

You can leave your tart open (without a top crust), or you can cover it with a lattice crust.

Be sure to set your tart on a baking sheet. Lining your sheet with a piece of aluminum foil will save you quite a bit of elbow grease later. Bake your tart for approximately an hour, or until the crust is golden brown. Allow your tart to cool completely before serving.

Where to Buy Ribes Currants

If you live in the United States, currants can be difficult to find. Black currants were discovered in the early 1900′s to be a vector host of the White Pine Blister Rust — a devastating disease that threatened to wipe out the pine industry. Cultivation of black currants was outlawed by the Federal government until the late 1960′s, when jurisdiction was transferred to the state level. A number of states still outlaw black currant cultivation, and some outlaw currant cultivation altogether.

Depending on where you live, you may be able to find currants in your local farmer’s market during the months of June and July. Otherwise, check out these options:

Dried Black Currants:
http://www.nwwildfoods.com/dried-berries-c115/dried-black-currants-p218/?gclid=CMKkicjBz78CFdNxMgodewUAiw
or
http://www.currantc.mybigcommerce.com/dried-black-currants-no-added-sugar/

Red Currant Jelly:
http://www.nuts.com/cookingbaking/spreads/jelly/red-currant.html

Really nice Zante Currants:
http://www.nuts.com/driedfruit/raisins/currants.html

Fresh Frozen Currants (black, white, and red):
http://www.nwwildfoods.com/advanced_search_result.php?keywords=currants&x=-867&y=-1309

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Scotch Eggs

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If you’re trying Scotch eggs for the first time, you’re in for a treat! A popular snack food in the U.K., Scotch eggs can be found there in grocery stores, gas stations, and everywhere in between. I had my first Scotch egg about 10 years ago at a local British-style pub. They are a guilty pleasure of mine, with which considerable discipline must be exercised to eat them in moderation. While Scotch eggs may not share the British prestige of officially protected geographic status like a Buxton blue or a Melton Mowbray pie, they are still clutched close to the heart by many adoring fans…which is where I always kind of envision them resting as I eat them, bypassing the stomach altogether.

 

The first Scotch egg is claimed to have been invented by a London department store in the late 1730′s, however, some believe they may have been adapted from much older Moghul dishes. The version we presented in our video was our take on Maria Rundell’s rather ambiguous recipe that was first published in her 1808 cookbook, A New System of Domestic Cookery.

Forcemeat was typically any type of finely minced and seasoned meat, that was either formed into balls and used as a garnish for other dishes or as an addition to soups, or it was used as a stuffing. It was also prepared as a dish in its own right. The list of possible ingredients in forcemeat is so long, that the term is probably better used to refer to the technique of making it as well as its varied use rather than its specific ingredients. Some 18th century recipes for a forcemeat for poultry, for instance, was nothing more than what we would call a bread dressing or stuffing. So forcemeat didn’t even have to have meat in it to be called forcemeat.

There are few precise forcemeat recipes in the period cookbooks. Usually the authors gave wide berth for individual taste preferences. In an earlier section of her duodecimo, Rundell stated that “Exact rules for the quantity cannot easily be given; but the following observations may be useful, and habit will soon give knowledge in mixing it to the taste.” She then provides a list of ingredients from which to choose (see below). The column on the left contains four necessary ingredient categories: meat, fat, basic seasoning, and a binder.  The column on the right are her suggested additions to really spice it up a notch.

So with our version, we followed her advice by letting ham be the predominate meat. We did not follow her advice, however, on the addition of fat. Some cookbooks indicate that lean meat should be combined with either suet or bacon fat — some recipes suggest in equal proportions. Pulverizing the meat with the fat is frequently recommended. Without the added fat, we found that pulverizing was absolutely necessary. If you attempt to do this with diced ham, it likely won’t adhere to the boiled egg. If you wish to pulverize your ham in a mortar and pestle, more power to you! If you’re making these at home, I suggest you plug in your food processor instead. Use a half pound of ham. [Contrary to what we said in the video, we mistakenly used a full pound. We were eventually forced to add another egg yolk along with a little editing magic.]

We seasoned our ham with about a half teaspoon each of allspice and nutmeg, a quarter teaspoon black pepper, and a dash of salt. In addition, we added 1/4 cup finely grated bread crumb and the yolk of one egg. If your meat doesn’t hold together well or adhere to your boiled egg, add another egg yolk (like we did off-camera).

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Once your meat mixture is mixed well, make a couple of patties, and then place a peeled boiled egg in between the patties. Some people like their eggs soft-boiled, others hard — your choice. For a good article on how to boil the perfect egg, click here. Press the patties together, completely surrounding the egg. You’ll want about 3/8 to 1/2″ of meat surrounding the egg.

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At this point, you can also roll the Scotch egg in additional bread crumb if you wish. Our friend, Michael, chose to pan fry his Scotch eggs on a brazier. The ham was already fully cooked. You can also deep fry Scotch eggs, which is how I have always had them.

Don’t forget the gravy!

Scotch eggs are traditionally served with a gravy. A very basic period-correct version goes as follows: form a ball of butter about the size of a walnut, and roll it in flour to coat it well. Place this in a hot skillet, being careful not to shake off any excess flour. When your butter is melted, but before the flour browns, add a little milk or cream, along with a little chicken stock. Season with salt and pepper, and any other seasonings you may prefer. Stir over medium heat until the gravy thickens.

 

 

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Stinging Nettle Soup

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I have many memories from my formative boyhood years of tromping through the woods, discovering nature, getting dirty, and hunting for anything with more than (or less than) two legs with which I could startle my poor dear mother. Occasionally, the call of the wild would lure me unsuspectingly deep into the lush green forest undergrowth only to set my skin ablaze with stinging nettles. It didn’t take much. A single swipe of a stem was enough to send me skinny dippin’ in the creek to get some relief.

If you’ve spent much time in the woods, you’ve likely seen them, and you may even be familiar with the burn that I’m talking about. Nettles are a vicious plant, breaking off little hypodermic needles into your flesh that pump you full of histamines, leukotrienes, and a whole bunch of other words I can’t pronounce, along with a good dose of serotonin just to make sure your brain is firing on all cylinders and fully aware of the ripping pain. They’re a real delight. What’s worse is, they’re everywhere (except Hawaii): North America, Europe, Asia…if you’re north of the equator, you’re likely at risk of eventually running into stinging nettles.

So here is my advice if you’re unfortunate enough to find yourself in the middle of a stinging nettle patch: pick them and eat them. It will serve them right. Better yet, eat their young tender plants. (No, really, do NOT eat the old plants unless you want to have some uncomfortable urinary tract issues.)

There’s an interesting book called  The Travels of John Heckewelder in Frontier America. It’s a compilation of journals written by Heckewelder as he traveled the western frontier of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and Michigan in the late 18th century. His primary mission was that of a Moravian evangelist to the native peoples with whom he associated himself and lived among for nearly sixty years.

John Heckewelder was familiar with nettles, but his recollections were a bit different than mine. To me, they are a nuisance; to him, they meant survival.

“We lived mostly on nettles; which grew abundantly in the bottoms, and of which we frequently made two meals a day. We also made use of some other vegetables and greens. Besides, we had brought along some tea and chocolate; which we drank as well as we could without milk or sugar” (p. 44).

And later, during one particularly season of deprivation, he complained, “The nettles had become too large and hard; and every vegetable that grew in my garden was stolen by the passing traders” (p. 65).

Ok, so it’s a well-known fact that everything tastes better with chocolate, but I’ll bet the preacher didn’t know just how nutritious stinging nettles were as well! Stinging nettles are high in Vitamins A and C. They are also high in iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium. And did you know they have a very high percentage of protein? When cooked, they taste somewhat like spinach.

So now is the time to cook with nettles! Mushrooms are too hard to find any way.  Gather up a basket-full and I’ll show you one delicious way of preparing them. By the way, unless you’re going to eat them raw (which I highly recommend you don’t) all those nasty injectables break down during the cooking process, so you don’t need to worry about getting stung on your lips and tongue.

 

Stinging Nettle Soup.

Set a pot of about 1-1/2 to 2 quarts of fresh water on your stove or over the fire and bring it to a low boil. While you’re waiting, melt a stick of butter (4 oz.) in a large skillet or spider over medium heat. Once the butter has settled down, add three medium onions, coarsely chopped. Season with a dash of pepper and some salt. Saute your onions until they are golden brown, then add about six cups of chopped nettles that have first been washed and patted dry.

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Toss for about 10 minutes over your heat until your nettles look more like cooked spinach. At this point, sprinkle on about 4 Tablespoons of flour and stir it in well. Now remove your water from the fire and add to it all the ingredients in your skillet.

Adjust your seasoning before returning your pot to the fire. You can also use some mushroom ketchup that you can either make yourself or purchase on our website.

Finally, cut off the crust of a hearty loaf of bread and chop it up fairly well. Add this to your soup and let the whole thing simmer for about 15 minutes.  That’s it.

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So don your gloves and away you go!

 

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A Ragout of French Beans

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I find it serendipitous to stumble upon a familiar term in a centuries-old text — a term I use in my modern conversation, yet, one that has retained its meaning throughout the centuries.

As a young boy, I would go out to the cornfields surrounding my Indiana home, after the thaw and before the crops were put in, to hunt for arrowheads. Excitement would sweep over me like a dusty gust of wind every time I spotted a piece of flint peeking up through the soil. Nothing gave me a greater thrill than to brush away the dirt to unveil a perfect point…a meticulously crafted piece of functional art that until that moment had escaped the gaze of men as well as the plows of time. I recall, over and again, standing there amazed, alone in that cornfield, trying to wrap my young head around the reality that the objects I held in my hand were last held thousands of years ago by the people who crafted it. I felt a deep connection to the designers of these artifacts. Had they experienced the same thrill of the hunt that I experienced at that moment? Those arrowheads were a gift from the ancients to that young blonde-headed boy — a gift that I treasure to this day.

 

Sorry. I’m back from my trip down memory lane.

Yeah, it’s that sort of excitement that I feel (to a lesser, more adult-like degree) when I discover a common term, phrase, slang, or idiom that bridges the vernacular span of time. I enjoy searching the rows of text in A Classic Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, for instance, for sharp little tidbits that connect my vocabulary to the past. I’ve had this etymological curiosity for most of my adult life, but like the hundreds of arrowheads I collected as a boy, the trivial knowledge I’ve gathered through the years has serve little purpose other than to my own satisfaction and to maybe the amazement of my friends during lulls in the conversation. I’ve yet to win millions on a trivia game show, but I feel richer, nonetheless.

So here is the latest phrase to be added to my collection, lifted from the rows of centuries-old text:

“French Beans.”

You can stop laughing at me now. Thank you.

Have you ever wondered why we call beans that are cut length-wise “French-style” beans?

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Now it could be because the marketers of frozen beans thought it might be easier for consumers to call them “French style” rather than “Julienne.” But I find it interesting (and I believe more than coincidental) that 18th century cookbooks routinely called the legume French beans.

From what I have gathered, there were three common classifications of beans in 18th century cooking: the fava bean, the Lima bean, and the kidney bean (also called French bean and occasionally “snap” or “string bean”). Mary Randolph, in her book, The Virginia Housewife, included a succession of recipes for all three types. The fava, Lima, and French bean were all prepared both in the pod when young and tender or as a dried bean after they were allowed to mature. Of course, peas and lentils were also commonly consumed, and some considered them to be beans as well. But for the purposes of this post, I want to stick with what we recognize as beans today. Different strains of beans existed under those broader categories. The Mazagan bean, for instance, an imported bean from Portuguese North Africa, was considered by many as the best fava bean. Kidney beans, likewise, were available in white, red, brown, etc. varieties.

Now there may be some who suggest that 18th century French beans could have actually been “Haricots verts” – a variety of bean different from the common green bean that is still called French bean to this day. I doubt it. 18th century cookbooks and horticultural texts used the phrase to describe the generic category of kidney beans. Furthermore, while it appears the julienne cut was the preferred method of preparation in most 18th century bean recipes, green beans were still called French beans even by the exceptional recipes that instructed cooks to cut the beans cross-wise.

Here’s such a recipe for a ragout of French beans from John Farley’s cookbook, The London Art of Cookery (9th Edition, 1800, originally published in 1783)

 

There are other period recipes that don’t require frying (Randolph’s recipe, for instance), but we found this one interesting.

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This recipe requires mushroom ketchup as an ingredient. We sell mushroom ketchup on our website (shameless plug), or, if you’re adventurous, we show you how to make it in our video on the topic.

Here is our adaptation of the recipe:

 

A Ragout of French Beans
Ingredients:

-  1 to 1-1/2 lb. fresh Green Beans, with ends trimmed and cut into thirds
-  Enough Fat with which to fry (The amount will vary depending on the size of your pan. You’ll want about a half-inch.) Oil, suet, or lard will do. We used lard in our recipe.
-  2 oz. (half stick) Butter, rolled in flour
-  2 T Water
-  1 to 2 T Mushroom Ketchup. (Mushroom ketchup tends to be very salty, therefore we eliminated the extra salt altogether.)
-  2 to 4 T White Wine of Sherry
-  1 medium Onion, peeled and stuck with six whole cloves
-  1/4 t Nutmeg, grated
-  1/8 t Mace, grated
-  1/8 t Black Pepper, ground

Instructions:

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Heat your fat to about 300-degrees (F) and carefully add your beans. we skipped the soak that was prescribed in the original recipe. If you opt to do this, be sure to dry your beans completely before adding them to hot fat. Fry the beans until they begin to turn a light brown. Remove the beans with a slotted spoon and drain them. Set them aside and allow your hot fat to cool before pouring it off your pan.

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Once your frying fat has been poured off, add the butter dredged in flour to your pan and stir until the butter is sizzling. The original recipe suggested adding the water to the pan first, however, we found that this resulted in excessive splattering. Once the butter is melted and the flour has begun to turn to a light brown, add the water, mushroom ketchup, and wine, along with the spices and the onion. Stir until the liquid has reduced to about half its original volume. Remove the onion, return the beans, and stir them for a minute or two to reheat. Dish the beans and serve them up!

By the way, Mr. Farley offers no instructions on what to do with the onion other than to remove it before serving. This was a fairly common method of seasoning in that day. Use it as a garnish, if you wish, or serve it up along side the beans. You’re on your own with that one.

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Chocolate: “A Light and Wholesome Breakfast”

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Chocolate is probably the most celebrated food in western civilization…okay, you’re right; there is bacon, but besides that…

Many of our most decadent desserts are made with it. We flavor our coffee with it and brew our beer to taste like it. It is our sinful indulgence. We dream of it. We die by it. There are entire corporate empires founded upon it. It is available at every check-out counter. It’s dark. It’s white. It’s milky and silky.

I recently bought a chocolate bar that had bacon in it.

And if you could top off the wonders of chocolate with something even more delightful, it may be with the news reports that certain forms of chocolate are said to be good for you. Numerous studies have been conducted pronouncing the health benefits of chocolate…as if we need that information to ease our guilty consciences or at at least justify our indulgences. It is said by some that chocolate is good for your blood — improving heart health, reducing the risk of stroke, and increasing blood circulation to the brain. With more oxygen to the brain, chocolate may even make your smarter. Chocolate is believed by others to curb appetites, reduce the risk of diabetes, protect your skin from harmful UV rays, quiet nagging coughs, and improve your vision. And of course any chocolate lover knows that chocolate is a mood enhancer and an aphrodisiac.

As remarkably healthful as modern opinions make chocolate out to be, historically, it considered by most to have little medicinal benefit of its own. D. de Quelus, author of the 1730 book, The Natural History of Chocolate, suggested that its greatest virtue in medicine may be as a flavoring for such other more powerful pharmacological ingredients as the “Powders of Millepedes, Vipers, Earthworms, [and] the Livers and Galls of Eels.” Chocolate was one way to “take away the distasteful ideas that the sick entertain against these remedies.”

Chocolate, however, was considered a wholesome, nutritious,  and well-balanced food. Elsewhere in his book, de Quelus promoted the consumption of chocolate because of its general wholesomeness and relative economy. “[It is] a dish so cheap, as not to come to above a penny. If tradesmen and artizans were once aware of it, there are few who would not take the advantage of so easy a method of breakfasting so agreeably, at so small a charge, and to be well supported till dinner-time, without taking any other sustenance, solid or liquid.”

John Perkins, in his 1796 book, Every Woman her own Housekeeper, suggested that based on its wholesomeness, those who made chocolate a part of their regular diet may be less subject to “any particular distempers.” He further explained that “the general breakfast of people from the highest to the lowest is tea, coffee, or chocolate,” often supplemented by some bread, butter, and sugar — an interesting insight into chocolate’s waxing acceptance and availability across the spectrum of English societies.

Maria Rundell, in her 1814 cookbook, A New System of Domestic Cookery, called cocoa “a light and wholesome breakfast.” She offered a recipe for a convenient chocolate syrup that could be prepared in advance, stored for a week or so, and simply added to hot milk when one was ready to consume it.

Here’s a little video in which Jon and Ivy demonstrate Mrs. Rundell’s recipe. The chocolate we use is available here on our website.

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A Chocolate Tart Another Way

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While most chocolate in the 18th century was consumed as a drink (and most often for breakfast), it began to show up in a few period dessert recipes as well. Chocolate’s introduction to the dessert table was fairly subtle. It wasn’t until after the Industrial Revolution of the mid 19th century, when the chocolate manufacturing process was mechanized, that chocolate would eventually take the final course by storm.

One early 18th century chocolate dessert recipe can be found in the 1737 book, The Whole Duty of a Woman.

This recipe likely served as inspiration for later versions, including the one found in Hannah Glasse’s 1800 cookbook, The Complete Confectioner,  (edited by Maria Wilson):

A few other old chocolate tart recipes exist. Some use wheat flour instead of rice flour. I believe rice flour was used in these particular recipes, not for structure necessarily as it would in bread, but rather as a thickening agent. While the chocolate tart pictured above looks very much like a modern brownie, its internal texture was quite different. Unlike the “bready” or gooey structure of a brownie, this tart is firm yet silky smooth.

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Rice flour was used in many 18th century recipes. If you don’t have any in your cupboard, you may be able to find it in your local grocery store under the brand label “Bob’s Red Mill” or you can order it online here.

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Recently, the Mars corporation introduced a line of authentic 18th century chocolate products. These products are available on our website. The folks at Mars adjusted Glasse’s recipe for the modern kitchen. We made a video.

A Chocolate Tart

Ingredients:
1 T Rice Flour
3T sugar
5 med egg yolks or 4 large
1T whole milk
1 pint heavy cream
5 oz chocolate, grated
1 prepared pastry shell
pinch of salt

Directions:
Combine the salt, egg yolks, rice flour, and milk in a bowl and set aside.

Combine the cream and chocolate in a pan and gently bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Add the sugar until both the sugar and the chocolate are completely melted.

Take ¼ c of the warm mixture and add to the egg yolks, stirring continuously to prevent scrambling.

Stir the warmed egg mixture into the saucepan and bring all the ingredients to a boil for about a minute. Set aside and allow it to cool to room temperature.

Preheat your oven to 350-degrees (F). Pour mixture into a pie shell and bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until set. Refrigerate 3-4 hours or overnight (it is absolutely best if you allow it to set overnight).

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To finish this recipe in an authentic 18th century fashion, sprinkle the top of the tart with sugar and toast it carefully with a hot iron salamander or ember shovel. If you don’t have a salamander, you can use the overhead broiler in your oven — just be very careful to avoid burning the tart. A kitchen torch, like one used for Crème brûlée, will work as well.

This recipe happens to work perfectly with our handmade 8″ tart tin.

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Chocolate Biscuits

Image11Where would we be without chocolate? The thought runs shivers up my spine.

In the scheme of culinary history, however, that creamy smooth chocolate that graces our palates with childhood delight and for just a moment melts away the adult stresses of modern living…yeah…THAT chocolate…is a fairly new addiction.

Oh sure, archaeology suggests that the Mayans and Aztecs had a monopoly on this food of the gods for centuries, if not millennia, before it crossed the ocean and the lips of any privileged European; but their meso-version wasn’t the familiar mmmelting mmmorsel of mmmellowness, but rather a brash and bitter liquid concoction, often fermented, and drunk for the vigor and virility it promised. I’m guessing it wasn’t savored. It has been said that when Cortés finally laid hands on the magical bean, Montezuma was slammin’ back 50 cups a day — a true original chocoholic. But it was the Europeans who paved the way for chocolate as we know it today.

Chocolate is a curious thing. The heart of the cacao bean, called the nib, has a fat content of over 50%. The Europeans, in their virile enthusiasm, learned that if some of that fat is extracted, chocolate can be pressed into blocks. This process was refined over time. Sugar and other seasonings, such as cinnamon and vanilla, were also added to counterbalance chocolate’s natural bitterness.

By the end of 18th century, chocolate was well-known throughout Europe and Colonial America, but it remained reserved primarily as a court delicacy, often enjoyed as a drink, but also finding its way into a few tarts, cookies, and other fine desserts.

The Industrial Revolution of the early 19th century, however, changed EVERYTHING. More chocolate discoveries were made, and manufacturing processes were improved.  By the 1840′s, chocolate had melted its way into the mouths and hearts of virtually every strata of western society. 

The recipe I’m including in this post is a fairly early one for chocolate biscuits. It comes from Mr. Borella’s 1770 cookbook, The Court and Country Confectioner.

Here is my take on this recipe:

Mr. Borella’s Chocolate Biscuits

Ingredients:
1/2-lb. Almonds*
2-oz. Chocolate**
2 Egg Whites
3 to 4 T. Sugar (or to taste)

Directions:
If you wish to do this strictly by Mr. Borella’s book, start working out those biceps right now. Making almond paste by hand with a mortar and pestle is hard work. Because of this, I’m offering three alternative methods:

1. The Die-Hard Historically Correct Method:
Start by blanching your almonds in boiling water for about a minute. You will notice the skins will begin to loosen. Drain them in a colander, rinse them in cold water to stop the blanching process, and allow them to cool. Now call the kids into the kitchen to help you remove the skins. It’s actually kind of fun. Pinch the almond between your thumb and forefinger, and the blanched almond meat will squirt out, leaving the brown skin behind. Spread the almonds out on a cloth and allow them to dry completely.

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Next, using a large heavy mortar, and working in smaller batches (as opposed to the entire 1/2-pound batch all at once like we did in the video), combine your blanched almonds with a total of about 1/2 a medium egg white. By the way, if you watch the video, don’t believe the suggestion about using a heavy bowl and spoon. Nope, it ain’t gonna happen. It’s not Jon’s fault, I wrote the script. If you want to make almond paste using this method, but you don’t have a mortar and pestle, borrow one from your neighbor. If your neighbor doesn’t have one, skip to method 2., below.

With your mortar and pestle, start grinding and pulverizing the almonds…and while you do that, I’ll go find something fun to do. See you in an hour or so. Be sure to have your almond paste in a large mixing bowl by the time I get back.

2. The Wholesomely Homemade Modern Method:
Blanch your almonds and squirt them as above. You can also start with blanched almonds purchased from the store. Mix them in your sturdy food processor fitted with a steel blade along with half an egg white. Pulse the mixture for about 5 to 10 minutes, stopping periodically to scrape the sides clean. Only the highest powered industrial processors will accomplish a really smooth paste. Unless you have an industrial processor, try to avoid overdoing it. The oil in your almonds will begin to separate and you’ll end up with almond butter instead.

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Your almond paste should have a fine, fairly consistent texture, and it will take every minute of pulsing it to get it there. With only the slightest tinge of guilt, turn out your fresh homemade almond paste into a large mixing bowl and proceed in your historically correct fashion.

3. The Cheater’s Method:
Secretly reach into your utensil drawer and pull out a can opener. Can you tell where I’m going with this? Most modern store-bought almond pastes are processed with sugar. Sugar is added for the same reason the egg whites are in our recipe: to retard the oil extraction as the almonds are processed. If you use store-purchased almond paste, you may wish to cut back on the sugar you add in subsequent steps. Scoop a half-pound of almond paste out of the can and into a large mixing bowl.

Next, preheat your oven to 350-degrees.

**Next, melt your chocolate. Now here is where it gets a little tricky.

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The Mars Corporation has introduced a great product called American Heritage Chocolate. I doubt, however, that you will find it in your local grocery store — that is, unless you live in Williamsburg or the like. Check out Mars’s website for more information on this product. You can purchase it from Jas. Townsend & Son as well if you wish. Mars claims that it’s made using an authentic 18th century recipe. It’s a very nice semi-sweet hard chocolate that has a hint of cinnamon and other spices. It comes in three forms: a 6-oz. block, a 12.72-oz. canister (pre-grated), and individually wrapped snack nips (a great reward for the kiddies for helping you squirt the almonds).

If this chocolate is just a bit too pricey, Jas Townsend & Son also offers a cinnamon-and-almond-laced chocolate called El Popular. This is a hard-block Mexican chocolate similar in ways to that one would have found in the period. It has a lower fat content and higher sugar content than that found in the American Heritage Chocolate, therefore, it will require that you add about a Tablespoon of water to the 2-oz. of grated chocolate before it will melt.

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Whether you use either of the chocolates I’ve mentioned, or you use your own chocolate, be gentle with how you melt it. It helps to grate it first. Many modern recipes would insist on a double boiler. I’ve always found that very low heat and constant stirring works fine. Just take your time and keep an eye on it so that it doesn’t scorch.  Once it’s melted, add it to your almond paste along with the sugar (if it’s still necessary, you cheater), and the egg white. Mix it all together and then roll it out into a neat log, about 2″ in diameter.

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Next, cut the log into thin wafers, about 1/4″ thick. You can do this very effectively by crossing the blades of two sharp knives like a pair of scissors and giving them a quick zip through the log. Be sure to wipe your blades clean after every couple of zips.

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You can place these pretty closely together on a baking sheet. I suggest lining the sheet with parchment or even a decent writing paper. The baking time can vary pretty dramatically. If you want them to be a little soft, bake them for 15 minutes. If you want to them to be hard and crispy, which is likely how they were stored and served, you can turn the heat down a bit and bake them for a half hour or so.

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The sugar in the dough will cause these biscuits to stick to the paper. Once the cookies are cooled, however, they should peel right off. If you find that they are sticking too badly, other period recipes tell us that you can dampen the back of the paper and then peel it off.

These definitely are not as decadent as the death-by-triple-chocolate creations made famous by such fine eating establishments such as Sweetwater’s or Voodoo donut shops. They are, instead, a bit more…reserved…frugal, if you like. After all, chocolate was a precious thing in the 18th century. If you like the combination of almonds and chocolate, you should find these to be quite delightful and very appropriate for your next court engagement.

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