I’ve always been a fan of old-fashioned chocolate cake, but when I went searching for early American chocolate cake recipes in 19th century cookbooks, I found very few of them. It turns out that chocolate cake really only got its start toward the end of that century.
The first “chocolate” cakes, made in the early 19th century, were actually not chocolate cakes at all, but white or yellow cakes served with hot chocolate (sort of like “coffee cake” with coffee). Hot chocolate, made from ground cacao beans, was a common beverage in colonial times, but chocolate desserts were rare. Dutch chemist Coenraad Van Houten’s invention of the cocoa press, in 1828, launched the age of chocolate by improving the taste of chocolate and making it cheaper to produce. Other improvements in chocolate manufacturing followed, and by the 1890s, chocolate desserts were common.
I don’t have a lot of experience with yeast breads, but I couldn’t resist making graham bread after reading about Sylvester Graham, a 19th-century Presbyterian minister who devoted himself to dietary reform and developed the flour that bears his name. Some of his beliefs were pretty eccentric, but in his enthusiasm for whole grain bread, he was a visionary.
When I started researching historic rhubarb recipes, I was surprised not to find any in 18th-century cookbooks. It turns out that rhubarb cultivation for food had just begun in Europe then, and it was nonexistent in North America. The root of this tart plant had been used medicinally in China for thousands of years, to treat indigestion and other problems. Rhubarb was eventually grown in Europe for medicinal use, but the stalks weren’t eaten until the mid-18th century, and rhubarb wasn’t a common food until the 19th century. Continue reading →
After spending nearly two years writing mostly about 18th-century food, I’ve decided to expand my blog’s scope to include recipes from the 19th and early 20th centuries as well. I’ve strayed into the 19th century before, and the lure of this period has become irresistible. I’m also going to focus exclusively on baking and desserts.
Long before bitcoins, the new digital currency that completely mystifies me, a coin called the pine tree shilling caused a big stir in colonial America. In the mid-17th century, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was flourishing but had a shortage of actual money. England did not want to send its coins to the colonies, since they were in short supply. So two settlers, John Hull and Robert Sanderson, starting minting their own money. These silver coins were known as pine tree shillings because one side was stamped with the image of a tree, usually a pine. (Pine trees, used for ships’ masts, were one of the Bay Colony’s main exports.)
Eventually someone had the bright idea to press one of these shillings into a cookie before baking, creating a tree design. Continue reading →
It’s a coincidence that I made soup meagre during Lent, but my timing was good, since in the 18th century this meatless soup was traditionally made in the latter part of Lent, when springtime greens were just becoming available.
Soup meagre is a very simple dish, thus the name. I assumed “meagre” was a French word, but it’s the British spelling of “meager,” from the Old French maigre. In the oldest recipe I could find (in the Ashfield Recipe Book, 1723*), sorrel, parsley, cabbage, and onions were boiled in water, after which dried bread, cloves, salt, and pepper were added. Then, because this is colonial cooking, half a pound of butter was added. The soup was then boiled for two hours. When the soup was made late enough in spring, peas were included as well. Continue reading →
John Campbell Loudoun’s apple pudding recipe first caught my eye because it was written in verse. A rarity today, rhyming recipes were common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when they were supposedly used by housewives to help them remember recipes. Loudoun’s poem, attributed to him by Kristie Lynn and Robert Pelton, authors of The Early American Cookbook, is much older, dating back to the 18th century:
If you would have a good pudding, observe what you’re taught: –
Take two pennyworth (six) of eggs, when twelve for the groat (fourpence):
And of the same fruit that Eve had once chosen,
Well pared and well chopped, at least half-a-dozen;
Six ounces of bread, let your maid eat the crust,
The crumbs must be grated as small as the dust;
Six ounces of currants from the stones you must sort,
Lest they brake out your teeth, and spoil all your sport;
Five ounces of sugar won’t make it too sweet;
Some salt and some nutmeg will make it compleat,
Three hours let it boyle, without hurry or flutter,
And then serve it up without sugar or butter.
Back in college, I had a roommate who was a great baker, and one of her specialties was Joe Froggers. I didn’t realize at the time that these wonderfully soft, thick gingerbread-like cookies had a colonial origin, and a good story behind them. They are named for Joseph Brown, or “Black Joe,” a freed slave whose mother was black and whose father was Native American. Black Joe fought in the Revolutionary War and in the 1790s opened a tavern in Marblehead, Massachusetts, north of Boston, where he had lived before the war. Continue reading →