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

flummery

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!

Posted in 18th century, historic cooking, Recipe, Video | Tagged , , | 11 Comments

Preserved Walnuts

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In preparation for our upcoming wedding, my fiancée, Kelly, and I visited a wonderful cheese shop in Kalamazoo, Michigan this weekend, hoping to explore different cheese options for our reception. The tiny shop was packed with wide-eyed shoppers, and the busy shopkeepers raced back and forth between the cooler and counter with armfuls of carefully double-wrapped cheeses. Samples were generously supplied.

As we savored a delightfully salty aged Gouda from the Netherlands, a creamy Irish white cheddar made with morning milk, and one of my favorites — a smooth and buttery Manchego from Spain, I overheard one patron after another succumb to the will of the expert cheesemongers. “Oooo, I’ll take a pound of that too, please.”

This little store was stocked with everything one could possibly need for the finest cours de fromage.  To customers’ backs was an entire wall of chutneys, crackers, preserves, and dried fruits. It was on this wall that I made a wonderful discovery: preserved young walnuts produced by Harvest Song.

I called Kelly over. I was eager to explain how I have for some time now wanted to preserve my own young walnuts according to the old recipes from Hannah Glasse and John Farley. Before she could make her way against the lines of people, two samples awaited our approval at the counter.

Walnuts, in the 18th century, were often pickled with vinegar, preserved in sugar syrup, or processed into walnut catsup. Generally, young walnuts were used before their shells had the chance to harden. Recipes instruct that the nuts are to be harvested while a pin can still be pushed through them. Most of, if not all of the walnut was preserved — meat, shell, and husk alike, depending on whether they were to be preserved white, black, or green.

These recipes have always captured my curiosity, but in the busyness of modern life, it seems I have routinely either missed the harvest window, or have lacked the week and a half to dedicate to the process. So I was thrilled to find these preserved walnuts on the shelf and was willing to pay the $10.00 price for an 18.9-ounce jar. No preservatives — only young walnuts, cane sugar, and lemon juice. I suppose I could throw in a few whole cloves and let them sit in my refrigerator. That’s about all they’re missing.

Kelly and I squeezed in between the lines to get to our samples. The sweetness was the first thing we noticed…almost cloyingly sweet…but they were a bit earthy too. These walnuts remind me of the flavor of dates…sending my thoughts longingly back to that first bite of aged Gouda. This would be a perfect compliment.

But beyond the flavor, probably the more memorable experience was the texture. How can I describe it without diminishing the surprise? The snap of an excellent refrigerator pickle…the crunch of a freshly roasted jumbo cashew…the pop in my back when my chiropractor finally gives me relief…yeah, that visceral…my attempts seem absurd.

The shop manager noticed our surprise and was delighted in our willingness to try them. I explained my fondness for historical foods. Out of curiosity, I asked if he was familiar with a French cheese that was very popular in the 18th century. I couldn’t remember its name…it started with an “M.” The most peculiar thing about this cheese is how it gains its flavor through the secretions of cheese mites that infest the block.

“Mimolette!” he interrupted.

“Yes! That’s it! Do you happen to have any?”

“No, I’m sorry, sir. You see the FDA has banned Mimolette in the U.S. They won’t allow it through customs. It seems that customs officials don’t like how it comes all covered with bugs! What a shame!”

“Yes, isn’t it…what a shame.”

So to my disappointment (but not necessarily to Kelly’s), there will be no Mimolette at the wedding reception, but I’m thinking a bowl of sliced preserved walnuts will be in order.

While we don’t offer the walnuts here at Jas. Townsend & Son, you can find them in my new favorite cheese shop in Kalamazoo, or you can order them on line. I will shamelessly say that the bowl and knife in the picture above are sold on our website.

If you prefer to try your hand at making your own preserved walnuts, I wish you success in your endeavors. I would love to hear of the outcome. Here’s a recipe from John Farley’s 1800 edition of The London Art of Cookery.

 

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Ship’s Biscuit Recipes

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Many recipes in the 18th century use biscuits as an ingredient in other foods.

Now I’m a biscuit fan. I’ll take mine hot with a dab of butter and a little honey. It just so happens that my bucket list includes the goal of producing lightest, flakiest biscuit I’ve ever eaten…and it’s likely that the more I attempt to accomplish this so I can check it off my list, the more urgent the matter becomes.

cutting round shapes in the bisket doughBut that’s truly beside the point. The old English recipes aren’t referring to the Ol’ Southern variety that utilize chemical leavening agents, i.e., baking powder and baking soda, in order to reach new heights. 18th century biscuits were most often flat and crisp — more like a cookie or cracker.

There were different kinds of biscuits, each with their own texture and method for making. Some recipes called for the dough to be violently beaten with a rolling pin or paddle. This softened the dough and made the finished product lighter. Other recipes required whipping eggs for a long time and then gently folding in the flour. This was actually a early form of leavening. It resulted in a light and spongy texture. Most biscuits, like the simple biscuit, were sweetened with sugar, some, like the ship’s biscuit, were not.

While biscuit recipes differed in ingredients and techniques, the one element that seemed to be common across the board was that they were either twice-baked or baked for a longer period of time at lower temperatures. This ensured their crispiness and also allowed them to be stored for long periods of time. The word “biscuit” is believed to come from the Old French that means twice-baked.

The biscuit I’m focusing on today is the ship’s biscuit — the plainest of them all. The ship’s biscuit usually consisted of just flour and water. They were favored by quartermasters and ship’s captains for their ability to last. They were baked at least twice, sometimes four or five times to drive as much moisture from the crumb as possible. What was left behind was a hard, barely edible puck, that usually required soaking in beer, coffee, milk, water, broth, or wine to make more palatable.

Here are some recipes that utilize the biscuit as an ingredient from Charles Carter’s 1749 cookbook, “The London and Country Cook.”

It could be debated that Carter was referring to a sweetened simple biscuit in this recipe. It’s unclear, however. The addition of sugar to the mix would suggest that ship’s biscuit could be used.

Also, here’s a remedy for the dropsy from the same work:

Another common and apparently popular dish among sailors, depending on the skill of those who prepared it, was lobscouse (a.k.a. Lobscourse, scouse, lap’s course, or lobskous) — a thick and hearty stew of beef or pork, often with root vegetables, that was thickened with crushed ship’s biscuit. Be sure to check out our previous post on how to make lobscouse, and don’t miss the video on lobscouse on our Youtube channel.

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18th Century Pasties: Addendum.

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Here’s an interesting passage from William Ellis’s 1750 book, “The Country Housewife’s Family Companion” (page 65). Ellis speaks of the virtuous timing of slaughtering a “porker” prior to harvest. The scrap pieces of meat could be used in making portable meat pies or pasties for the harvest workers.

“…our Housewife takes [the pieces of meat], and chops them into Bits, about the Bigness of a Pidgeon’s Egg; then peppers and salts them pretty high, for at this Time of Year this is more than ordinarily necessary to be done, because these Pyes or Pasties are to be kept for some Days for being eaten cold. This done, make a regular Mixture of the fat and lean Pieces, if there be not fat Pieces enough, the Pye will eat dry, and if there be too much Fat, it will be apt to make the Harvest-men sick. Now with these fleshy and bony Bits of Meat, several large Pyes may be made, and baked, either in raised Paste, in earthen Pans, or in pewter Dishes, or in the Shape of turnover two-corner’d Pasties, and thus they become a most necessary and convenient Food at this Time of Year, for Farmers Families in particular, because the cold Pyes and Pasties are a portable, wholesome, and satiating Victuals for Breakfast or Dinner.”

For a nice pork pie recipe check out the recipe in our earlier post “A Pork Pie with a Standing Crust.”

 

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18th Century Pasties, Part Two

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As I began my quest to understand the 18th century pasty, I figured the first thing I needed to do was to leave behind all of my modern notions of what they were. I needed to travel light, leaving plenty of room for the period recipes and definitions and between-the-lines clues that I would gather as I combed through my resources. I visited many of the old cookbooks, dictionaries, journals, and magazines, looking for signs leading to a uniform definition, so that I could recommend the historically accurate method of making pasties. Whenever I hit a dead end,  I’d consult the secondary sources for hints that I may have overlooked.

After studying all the souvenirs I collected along the way, I decided to return home, leaving the path for others to explore. I did so not with some sense of defeat, but rather with the somewhat enigmatic conclusion that there simply is no definitive answer…no single historically accurate method of making an 18th century pasty.

pourThe Oxford English Dictionary claims pasties were pies made without a dish. This same definition can be traced back to 18th century dictionaries. Yet, the most commonly published recipes in 18th century cookbooks utilized baking dishes.

The Oxford Companion to Food attempts to delineate between pies and pasties by claiming either a multiplicity or singularity of  ingredients used in each dish. Yet you look across the terrain of period recipes and you’ll find the two terms, pie and pasty, are often used interchangeably (The Country Housewife Family Companion, for example, by William Ellis).

Hannah Glasse recommended the use of a baking dish. William Rabisha, in his 1682 cookbook, “The Whole Body of Cookery Dissected” suggested crimping together two pieces of pastry. Other authors recommended a tin patty pan.

Some pasties were baked. Others were fried (e.g., Charles Carter’s recipe, below, from his 1749 cookbook “The London and Country Cook“).

Pasty crusts were often highly decorated — one of many showpieces that might adorn a multi-course meal. Pasties were also made in a free-form crust to be taken into the field or on a journey to be eaten cold, out of hand. Ellis copies the following pasty recipe from Rabisha:

Rabisha’s Way to bake Brawn to be eaten cold.–Take (says he) your raw lean brawn, that is not useful to collar, and as much fat bacon, mince them small together, and beat them in a mortar; beat a good handful of sage with them; season them with some pepper, salt, and beaten ginger; pour in a little vinegar, and break in a couple of eggs; you may make a cold butter paste in a sheet form, and lay this your prepared meat on it; put in butter, and a few bay-leaves on the top, and so close up your pasty for baking.

(Brawn is any meat suitable for roasting, but often is the breast and/or leg of fowl.)

John Mollard, in his 1836 cookbook, “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy,” includes a recipe for a “Puff for a Journey.”

Given all the variations here, I suppose the Pork Pie I wrote about in an earlier post and that was featured in one of our earlier videos could technically be called a pasty as well.

So which style of pasty is most historically accurate? They all are. It seems the common denominator between all pasties is simply two things: a crust and a meat filling….oops, then again, there were fruit pasties. Ok, it seems there is ONE common denominator: crust.  And that takes us back to the O.E.D. which explains that the word “pasty” can be traced back through the Old French language to words from the ancient Latin dialect meaning, “something made of paste.”

I feel as though I’m walking in circles.

Why all the variations? It could be due to possible regional differences; possibly socio-economic differences as well. I mentioned in my last post that the beloved modern pasties that exist in similar form in insular regions throughout the United States, Latin America, Australia, and South Africa, are culinary descendants of the Cornish pasty of the Cornwall region of England. While the folded-over meat pastry may be the most common form of the pasty today, it appears it was only one of many forms in the 18th century.

Here’s our take on a recipe for a delicious meat pasty from an earlier version of Mollard’s cookbook:

Puffs with Forcemeat of Vegetables

Ingredients:

About 1 pound of veal, coarsely chopped (Beef will also do)
2 ounces Fat Bacon (modern-day salt pork or jowl bacon), coarsely chopped
1 cup each, green beans, asparagus, mushrooms, onion, parsley (all fresh), coarsely chopped
Salt and Pepper
1 cup Bread Crumbs
1 Egg Yolk
1/2 cup Cream

Puff Pastry Dough (see our previous blog post and video on making a puff paste)

Egg Wash

Lard, a sufficient amount for deep frying.

Directions:

Combine the veal and the vegetables in a large bowl, and season with salt and pepper.

fry1Preheat a large skillet or spider and fry the fat bacon for 2 or 3 minutes until much of the fat is rendered. Add the meat and vegetable mix and fry for about 5 minutes. Return the mix to the bowl, add the bread crumbs, and allow to cool for 10 to 15 minutes.

In a separate bowl, mix the egg yolk and cream together. Add this mixture to the meat and vegetable mix, and stir it until it is well incorporated.

spoon1Roll out your puff pastry dough until it’s about 1/8″ thick, keeping it as square as possible. Then cut it into about 6″ squares. Once the meat and vegetable mix has cooled, spoon a portion of it onto the middle of each pastry square.

pinchedge1Brush two of the edges of each pastry square with egg wash, fold the square over the meat mixture so that it forms a triangle, and crimp the edges closed.

deepfry1In a cooking pot or kettle, preheat the lard to about 350-degrees (F). carefully add the pasties, 3 or 4 at a time, and fry for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown. You’ll want to keep the lard around 350-degrees. Any lower, and the pasties will be greasy. Any higher, and the crust may become golden brown on the outside, but remain doughy on the inside.  Drain on sheets of paper or on a cloth.

done1

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