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!

 

Posted in 1700's, 18th century, Baking, Bread, historic cooking, Ingredients, Recipe, Uncategorized, Video | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in 1700's, 18th century, Baking, historic cooking, Recipe | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Yellow Flummery

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Have you ever pursued an endeavor full-tilt and headlong, only to discover the brick wall AFTER you’ve regain consciousness?

I hit a brick wall.

In my recent quest to understand the breadth of lineages in the pudding family tree, I decided to swivel to the lighter side of the table and make a flummery. Flummery was a custard-like “jelly” dessert. It, along with its sweet but often nutty sibling, blancmange, were likely ancestors to our American gelatin and pudding desserts. As use of the word “pudding” broadened to include many sweet desserts, flummery became a part of the family through association…kind of like what’s-his-face, you know, that boy who keeps showing up with your teenage daughter.

There were basically two methods of producing this jostling delight. Recipes required a stiff gelatin made from either boiled cow’s feet or isinglass.

[conspicuous pause] O.K., please read on.

I have noticed that I can get calf’s feet at my local Hispanic food market, but honestly? The thought of boiling the tar out of a couple of hooves makes me want to…well…”how ’bout if we go out for dinner tonight, Honey?”

I was amused recently when I read a recipe by Hannah Glasse in her book, The Complete Confectioner — originally published in 1760. This recipe was called “Jelly for Moulds.” Here’s the first half of the recipe (the entire recipe is quite lengthy): 

Hmm. I’m not sure why one would be repulsed by a neat’s (ox’s) foot and not by a couple of calf’s feet as well. But thank goodness, I have the option of using two ounces of isinglass instead. So what is isinglass, anyway?

Oh, great. Fish swim bladders.

You see, many if not most fish have swim bladders. A swim bladder is an air-filled internal organ that the fish somehow adjusts to regulate its buoyancy in order to control the depth at which it swims. These sacks are one of the purest forms of collagen found in nature. It was commonly believed in the 18th century that the highest quality and most effectual isinglass came from sturgeons. By the end of the 18th century, Cod had also joined the ranks of donors. Much of the isinglass today is made from the bladders of tropical fish.

But wait, let’s take one step backward: collagen is a protein that makes Jello giggle. It has an amazing ability to bond at a molecular level with disproportionate amounts of water, giving real gelatinous substance to the liquid.

So I have this recipe for Yellow Flummery. It’s from John Perkins’s 1796 cookbook, Every Woman Her own House Keeper (London, 1796) p.397. Here it is:

 

It’s pretty typical for recipes to call for a ratio of 1-2 ounces of isinglass per quart of liquid. This recipe, regardless of the fish guts, sounded quite delicious. I thought I would give it a try.

Being a casual homebrewer, I knew that isinglass is used today to clarify beer (as is Carrageen or Irish Moss and sometimes even gelatin). So I ordered four or five ounces. I decided to do half batches, and figured I’d need to make this recipe more than once. I realized when it arrived that I had ordered liquid form: way too diluted to make flummery. So I did some more research and found a supplier for powdered form. I ordered the same four or five ounces. Suddenly I’m $30 in the hole with shipping to boot. But hey, I’m excited. I get to try another 18th century recipe, and this once looks good.

I followed Mr Perkins’s directions to the tee. I even purchased an old blancmange mould off ebay. I was now $60 in. I poured the final mixture of goodness into the mould. I could smell fresh lemon. I thought to myself, “this is going to be good.” I covered the mould with plastic wrap and carefully slid it into my refrigerator. By then it was midnight, so I cleaned up my mess and went to bed.

The next morning, I made a bee-line for the refrigerator. It was still a thick liquid. Disappointed, I put the mould back in the refrigerator, got ready, and left for work. Maybe I hadn’t given it enough time to set.

That evening, I went straight for the mould again. Liquid still. I decided that maybe I had misread the instructions, so I decided to throw this batch out and do it again — this time more carefully.

Same results.

Something was wrong. I decided to take one of my remaining ounces of isinglass and try it with a mere cup of water. What I got was quite different from what I anticipated. I expected a semi-clear gel that I could pull out of my mould, kind of like “Knox Blocks” or “Jello shots” with a slight hint of fish flavor. What I got looked like Elmer’s glue instead — thick, but liquidy, and very opaque white. I was confused.

I’ve been told I’m somewhat of a rare breed. If I get lost, I stop to ask for directions. If I can’t find something at the store, I’ll look for a name tag. I once made the mistake of asking an employee at Walmart where I could find squeezable ketchup bottles. I soon realized I was speaking to a nurse in royal blue scrubs who was simply looking for a new frying pan. It was the name tag that threw me off.

Any way, because I was so confused about my isinglass results, I decided to contact the company that distributed it. I was able to reach a really nice guy named Sam who was considerate enough to listen to me. He was genuinely concerned and said they had never before received complaints about their isinglass. I was quick to clarify that I wasn’t being critical of their product. I admitted I was using it in a fashion for which it was not intended. A Stradivarius, after all, makes a lousy hammer. He shared with me that for brewing purposes, all of the powdered isinglass with which he was familiar, both from his company as well as from his primary competitor (and between the two of these companies, you’ve pretty much got the homebrew market locked up) was cut with citric acid, potassium or sodium metabisulfite (an antioxidant), and silica dioxide (diatomaceous earth).

Now it was making sense.

He also happened to mention that they sold a nearly pure isinglass product (although it was still cut with citric acid), but that it only came in 1-kilo blocks, and that his supply appeared to be running dry. I commented about how our conversation would likely land us both on some secret D.E.A. watch list, and I thanked him for his time and for the information.

So I’ve reached this conclusion: If you want to make flummery, unless you have an uncle who lives in Russia or who fishes the North Atlantic, and who would be willing to send you some sturgeon or cod bladders, the chances of finding pure isinglass to complete the recipe is pretty slim. That means that the only option remaining is…yeah, another recipe that uses calf’s feet jelly. Yum.

So having said all that, may I make one little suggestion? How about if we use unflavored gelatin and keep that little secret to ourselves?

[GASP!]

I know, I know! I’m aware that dehydrolized gelatin was a 19th century invention and is completely wrong for 18th century cooking. But the alternative for most people, with the exception to the few true die-hards who are willing to boil Bessie boots beyond oblivion (and my hat is off to them for doing it), is to let this delicious dish slip silently into eternal extinction. And that would be a shame.

SO! Here is my 2013 take on a 1796 recipe for Yellow (Lemon) Flummery:

Lemon Flummery (2013)
Adapted from John Perkins’s 1796 recipe.

In a large bowl, sprinkle 2 packets of unflavored gelatin over the surface of 2 cups white wine. Set aside for 5 to 10 minutes.

In the meantime, combine in a medium saucepan: 2 cups water, the juice of 2 lemons, 1/4 — 1/2 cup sugar, and 4 egg yolks (well beaten). Use a vegetable peeler to thinly pare the rind of 1 lemon; add this rind to the other ingredients as well. Heat this mixture, stirring all the while, over medium heat until it just begins to boil. Remove it from the heat, and strain it to remove the lemon rind , any pulp from the lemon juice, and any chalazae from the egg yolks.

Combine the lemon/egg water to the wine and stir until the gelatin is completely dissolved. You can tell if the gelatin is completely dissolved by dipping a clean spoon into the mixture. If you see any granules clinging to the spoon, keep stirring.

Pour the flummery liquid into a clean mold, and set in a cool place for 8 to 24 hours. (Jas. Townsend & Son sells a Turk’s Hat Mold that is perfect for this.)

To un-mold, set the mold in a bowl of hot water for just a few seconds. This melts a thin layer of the gelatin and loosen the flummery from the mold. Place serving plate upside-down on top of the mold, and in one quick motion, holding the plate and mold together, turn assembly over. Remove the mold.

Garnish with thin slices of orange.

An interesting variation on this recipe is to use 1 cup ver jus and 1 cup water in place of the 2 cups white wine.

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Please Bring Back the Puddings!

pudding2
I recently ran across online portions of an interesting book, edited by Harlan Walker, titled Disappearing Foods: Studies in Foods and Dishes at Risk (Prospect Books, 1995). The book includes an article written by Mary Wallace Kelsey called “The Pudding Club and Traditional British Puddings.” It celebrates a resurgence of the quintessential British boiled pudding.

Where did we go wrong?

Ms. Kelsey’s article prompted me to ask a couple of question: where did we Americans go astray in our understanding of what a pudding is? Pose the question, “what is pudding?” to any American you know, and you’re likely to get a raised eyebrow and a sideways glance as if you’re from a different planet. Anticipated answers will likely include the words chocolate or vanilla, or maybe lemon, pistachio, or butterscotch. You’ll likely be told that it can be found in your local grocery next to the gelatin desserts (usually going by the same brand name). And someone may even tell you that it’s a dessert commonly served at hospitals and all-you-can-eat dinner buffets.

So my curiosity got the best of me and I started to research the topic. I wanted to know if there was some remote historic connection between the virtually extinct boiled pudding and the plastic cups of pre-made stuff Bill Cosby used to hustle to our children.

I’ve concluded there is a connection. Maybe we wren’t wrong after all.

A Brief Pudding History

If one looks at the old recipes for pudding, it rapidly becomes obvious (and many historians and etymologists agree) that the meaning of the term is difficult to pin down. The word appears to find its origin in an old French term describing a blood-sausage stuffed into animal intestines and stomachs (and…um…other…parts) that the Normans brought with them as they invaded the British Isles in the 12th century. A modern direct descendant of these original puddings are the black and white puddings of the United Kingdom and Ireland — boiled, sliced, and often fried up for breakfast.

Puddings really exploded onto the culinary scene around the 14th century when someone discovered that a piece of cloth was a viable substitute for natural casings. Woohoo! No longer did diners have to wait for the next autumn slaughter! Puddings could be made year-round! The pudding bag was here to stay! …At least for the lion’s share of the next five or six centuries.

Puddings were often boiled alongside the meat. They were likewise often served prior to or along with the meat course so that less meat would be required to satisfy hungry appetites.

But as sugar became more widely available, it began to alter the palates of English societies. Even savory dishes, including puddings, were often seasoned with sugar. Eventually, the definition of pudding began to apply to a broader collection of foods that weighed heavily on the dessert end of the table.

A White Pot, with sugar being browned on top with a period salamander

A White Pot with a topping of sugar being browned with a period salamander

There were dozens, if not hundreds of different kinds of puddings: boiled puddings, dripping puddings (e.g., Yorkshire), plumb, marrow, and pastry puddings. There were regional and local puddings. There were bread puddings that used bread crumbs and bread-and-butter puddings that actually used slices of bread (e.g., a white pot). There were apple puddings that we would now call apple dumplings. There were also quaking and custard puddings (e.g., “Flummery”), made primarily of egg and milk with only a fraction of the flour seemingly necessary to hold it together.

Another pudding type was called Blancmange. Different from custard (which is thickened with egg), blancmange is a dairy dessert thickened originally with either isinglass or calve’s feet jelly, and by the turn of the 20th century, with corn starch. There were different kinds of manges, depending on how they were flavored and/or colored. Blancmange colored with cochineal, for instance, was called rougemange, and that colored with spinach was verdemange. It was only a matter of time for some heroic cook to slip chocolate into the equation.

An End to Finger Pointing

Suddenly the debate over which dish has rightful claim to the name falls silent. (O.K., I haven’t heard anyone actually debate this besides myself in my own head.)

It’s a fairly short journey through early 20th century cookbooks to link custards and blancmanges to Bill Cosby. A boiled plum pudding and a dish of instant chocolate pudding are actually both members of the same food-family tree. Think of them as distant cousins, having descended down different evolutionary branches of this broad food category called pudding.

My assumption that we Americans had gone astray in our perceptions was incorrect. Both of these very divergent pudding styles seem to have legitimate claims to the throne. And as far as that goes, there are other modern foods that could chime in as well if they wanted to. Take, for instance, our Thanksgiving turkey stuffing and pumpkin pie. They both started as puddings. And the black sheep of the family — the Christmas fruitcake? You guessed it.

So Where DID They Go?

So going back to Kelsey’s article, my next question is, Why did boiled puddings disappear? Kelsey spoke of their disappearance from British tables, but they were once also very popular in America. Most English cookbooks used in early America were British (or heavily influenced by British cooking). So it’s no surprise to find a plethora of boiled pudding recipes even in those earliest “American” works published in Philadelphia and Boston. It’s interesting to realize, however, that even as American cookbooks began to reflect a distinctively American cuisine through the 19th century, British pudding recipes continued to hold on. It was only in the 20th century that they were finally nudged out of print by various custard and mange-type recipes going by the same name.

I managed to find a remnant bag pudding recipe from as late as 1937 in the Pennsylvania-Dutch Cook Book by J. George Frederick . Frederick reflects public sentiment by calling such dishes “poverty puddings, out of the thrifty colonial past.”

I believe there are several reasons why boiled puddings disappeared off the American culinary landscape. It was a slow death that may have started even at the height of its popularity. First, American colonists relied heavily on corn, as most of the wheat crop grown in North America was exported to Britain. Maize was considered by the British as suitable fare for Yankees. Beyond that, it was animal fodder. (see more on this topic in an earlier video we produced on Early Corn Bread.) The exportation of much of the wheat crop would have naturally limited the primary ingredients for pudding: flour and bread. Some of the earliest distinctions in American cookbooks were made by the additions of Indian Pudding recipes made with corn flour instead of wheat flour.

Another early contributor to the boiled pudding’s demise was likely the development of pearl ash, saleratus, and finally baking powder. These chemical leavening agents appear to have steered preferences away from heavier foods to lighter fare. Frederick mentioned this preference in the opening remarks in his chapter, “Dutch Puddings and Desserts.”

Another contributing factor was advances in kitchen technology. With the continued development of kitchen ovens, it became easier and more reliable (as well as more efficient) to bake than it was to boil. Consequently, as pudding recipes developed in the 19th century, more recipes called for the puddings to be baked or steamed with a water bath rather than boiled.

Another likely factor was simply the amount time required to make a boiled pudding. Full-sized bag puddings typically required boiling times between four and six hours. During that time, cooks had to keep a watchful eye on the pot to make sure it didn’t boil dry, and when additional water was needed to be added, it had to be boiling water so that the cooking time wasn’t extended any longer than it already was. Frustration over lengthy cook times can be felt even in early 18th century cookbooks. The answer to this was hasty puddings.

Hasty puddings were actually a category of puddings. Any pudding that required less time to cook, for whatever reason, can be considered a hasty pudding. For American colonists, corn mush was a common form of hasty pudding. It didn’t take long at all for the corn meal, boiled with disproportionate amounts of water, to thicken up. Other hasty puddings could be made from larger pudding recipes simply by divvying the dough or batter into smaller portions. For instance, the earliest known bag pudding (the “College” or “Cambridge” pudding) soon became the “New College” pudding. These recipes were in essence the same, but the mix of ingredients in the New College recipe was divided into smaller dumpling-size portions and either fried or boiled. The bag was dropped altogether.

And finally, the last nail in the boiled pudding’s coffin was likely the changing public perceptions regarding a key ingredient in most puddings: suet. It fell out of general favor with a society that was increasingly becoming more health conscious. Suet has since been relegated to bird food. Jennifer McLagan has much to say on this matter in her 2008 cookbook title Fat: An Appreciation for a Misunderstood Ingredient.

There were possibly other reasons for the boiled pudding’s disappearance from American Cuisine, e.g. regional and ethnic influences. But these that I’ve mentioned are the most significant.

But Wait! May I Please Have Seconds?

Here is a recipe that might justify a unified grassroots effort to resurrect the boiled pudding back from the culinary grave. It’s called “Puddings in Haste” from Maria Rundell’s 1814 cookbook “A New System of Domestic Cookery”  (originally publishes in 1807). Be sure to watch the video below as Jon prepares this dish.

Puddings to Haste

Rundell conspicuously omits the measure of ingredients. Comparing it to a number of other period recipes, here are our recommendations:

Ingredients:

1 cup dried bread crumbs
1 cup grated suet* 
1/2 cup raisins, chopped, or Zante currants**
grated zest of 1/2 to 1 whole lemon
1/2 teaspoon dried ginger powder (double that if you’re using fresh ginger)
2 eggs plus 2 egg yolks

a little flour for dredging

Directions:

Bring a good size pot of water to a roiling boil.

In a large mixing bowl, mix the first four ingredients together until they are well incorporated.

Use kidney fat, not muscle fat. It makes a HUGE difference!

Use kidney fat, not muscle fat. It makes a HUGE difference!

*DO NOT use hard muscle fat for this! Use true suet (kidney fat). Be sure to read my earlier post on Suet for more information. If you can’t find true suet, you’re better off using very cold diced butter or frozen vegetable shortening than you are using hard muscle fat. If you opt for either of these substitutions, you’ll have to work fast. 

** If you don’t like raisins, try some other dried fruit, chopped fairly small.

Whisk together the eggs along with the ginger. Mix the dry ingredients and wet ingredients together. Divide the stiff dough into equal portions, and form into balls or dumplings about the size of a small chicken egg. Roll each dumpling in flour and lower them into your boiling water.

Boil them for 15 minutes, stirring them on occasion to prevent them from sticking.

After 15 minutes, these little puddings will look soggy and somewhat gray. They can be eaten right away, or you can allow them to sit for a little while and they stiffen up and improve in appearance.

These puddings can be served hot or cold. Finish them up with a sprinkle of sugar, a little honey, maple syrup, or a delicious “pudding sauce” made of equal parts melted butter, sugar, and sack (sherry wine).

There are a number of 18th century recipes that I consider really good…for 18th century food, that is. THIS dish, however, will likely be served at the next party I attend!

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