Milk Punch

milk punch“Punch! ’Tis my Morning’s Draught, my Table-drink, my Treat, my Regalia, my every thing.” So speaks the title character in 17th century English dramatist Aphra Behn’s play The Widow Ranter, and apparently Behn was a big fan herself. After trying her beloved milk punch, I get what all the fuss is about. This blog has been focused on desserts for the last few years, but I’m going to make an exception for this drink, which is practically a liquid dessert anyway.

There are two kinds of milk punch. Better known today is the New Orleans version, in which you mix cold milk or cream with bourbon or brandy, and sugar or simple syrup, then serve the drink over ice. The result is creamy, sort of like eggnog.

That drink is good, but I feel it’s no match for the Widow Ranter’s “Table-drink,” which is now called clarified milk punch, or English milk punch. For this beverage, liquor, lemon, and sugar are mixed with very hot milk, which curdles as a result. The mixture is then filtered to remove the curds but allow the milk whey to remain. This may not sound appealing, and when you see the pictures below, you may have serious doubts. But this punch is amazing. It’s smooth, silky, and pleasantly sweet, with citrus and spice flavorings — served cold over ice, it’s perfect on a hot summer day.

Continue reading

Rusks and Zwieback

zwieback with cinnamon sugarI wrote about rusk several years ago, after making it in an open-hearth cooking class. But that was soft rusk, which is really a misnomer because true rusk is a hard, twice-baked bread that is sliced before its second baking. Most Americans know it by its German name Zwieback, meaning “twice baked.”

Many of us ate Nabisco Zwieback when we were little — you may remember the striped yellow box with a smiling boy on it. I was sorry to learn that Nabisco no longer makes this bread. It seems to have gone out of favor in the United States, although you can still buy zwieback imported from Germany. Continue reading

Baked Alaska

Baked Alaska 2“My brain can’t decide whether to freeze or melt,” said my daughter while eating Baked Alaska the other night. Her words echoed a stodgier observation by 19th-century British journalist George Sala: “The transition from the hot outside envelope to the frozen inside is painfully sudden, and not likely to be attended with beneficial effect.”

Unlike Sala, my child liked this warm-cold sensation, and she loves Baked Alaska, a sponge cake topped with ice cream and encased in meringue, which is then baked quickly at a high temperature. The ice cream does not melt because the air-filled meringue is a poor conductor of heat and so acts as insulation. So does the cake, to a lesser extent. Continue reading

Spoon Bread

spoon bread

“The apotheosis of corn bread, the ultimate, glorified ideal,” wrote journalist John Egerton about spoon bread in his book Southern Food (1987). I would agree with that. My family jokes about how besotted I’ve been with this dish ever since we ate it at the Christiana Campbell Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg.

Spoon bread at its best is like a soufflé version of cornbread, slightly crusty and chewy on top and soft and airy inside. The dish evolved from Southern cornbreads during the 19th century, and although it is still made in the South, it’s unfortunately not as common as it used to be.

Oddly, the term spoon bread didn’t appear in print until about 1904. The name may derive from suppone or suppawn, a Native American word for mush made from cornmeal mixed with boiling water. Spoon bread evolved much later, however, so it seems more likely that the dish is called spoon bread because it’s so soft that you need to eat it with a spoon.  Continue reading

Eliza Leslie’s Bread and Butter Pudding

Eliza Leslie's bread and butter pudding

I’ve been craving comfort food lately, what with all the bad news these days, so I delved into Miss Leslie’s Directions for Cookery (1837) in search of a nice old pudding. As I’ve written before, Eliza Leslie was such an elegant writer, her cookbooks are worth reading for her fine prose as well as her recipes.

I was drawn to “A Bread and Butter Pudding,” a simple dish that calls for layers of buttered slices of bread topped with currants and brown sugar, with an egg and milk sauce poured on top. This pudding is British in origin, with published recipes dating to the early 18th century. It seems most closely related to an older pudding from Devon, England, called “white-pot,” which contained dates as well as raisins.

Continue reading

Weary Willie Cake

Weary Willie cake

Weary Willie cake is named after a type of hobo who used to wander the American countryside. Weary Willies would more accurately be called tramps, because unlike hoboes, who prided themselves on their work ethic, the Willies were known for slacking off and looking for handouts.

The term was originally used for worn-out Civil War veterans, some of them deserters, who became drifters. (I learned this from a 1970 episode of “Bonanza,” of all things, starring Richard Thomas as one of a group of Willies who turn up at the Ponderosa Ranch!) The name Weary Willie was later used for a comic-strip tramp in the early 1900s, and decades after that by circus performer Emmett Kelly for his sad-clown character. Continue reading

Pineapple Upside-Down Cake

pineapple upside-down cake George Washington wrote that of all fruits, “none pleases my taste as do’s the pine.” He had acquired a taste for pineapple in Barbados, and later bought it whenever possible, asking sea captains who traded his goods to bring pineapples back from the West Indies. But he was one of the lucky few to enjoy this fruit. It was so costly at the time, some hostesses would actually rent the fruit from bakers to display as a centerpiece, then return it uneaten. The pineapple would be rented out again and again, sometimes until it rotted!

There were occasional recipes for pineapple in 18th- and 19th-century British and American cookbooks. But most were just instructions for cutting and serving the fruit raw, or preserving it. As the 19th century progressed, pineapples were imported in larger numbers from Florida, the Caribbean, and Central America, and recipes for using them increased. Most of these were for preserves, compotes, and cold dishes like pineapple salad, ice cream, and Bavarian cream.

Continue reading

Brownies

Fannie Farmer's 1906 brownies

Fannie Farmer’s 1906 brownies

The origins of the brownie are somewhat mysterious and controversial. Chicago’s Palmer House Hotel, cookbook author Fannie Farmer, and an unknown housewife in Bangor, Maine, all have some claim on its creation.

I’ll start with the Palmer House story, which is that its kitchen invented little chocolate cake bars glazed with apricot preserves and decorated with nuts for the 1893 Columbian exposition, and named these treats brownies. They were made to put in boxed lunches for ladies attending the exposition. According to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, this legend may be true, and the hotel served brownies like these later on — and still does — but there is unfortunately no documentation for the 1893 date.

Fannie Farmer was the first to actually publish a recipe for brownies, in 1896. Her creation was different from the modern brownie (and Palmer House’s), as it had no chocolate and wasn’t cut into bars. But the texture was brownie-like, and she followed it up a decade later with a recipe more like the brownie as we know it today.

Continue reading