I’m intrigued by the variety of colonial recipes for stuffed foods, some of them with elaborate “forcing” instructions, as the method was called. Forced cucumber, for example, was stuffed with a mixture of ground beef, suet, and spices, then sewn up with a needle and thread and stewed. Odd but true!
Another approach was to stick foods into (rather than inside) other foods. You see this in desserts like quaking pudding, which has almond slices sticking out of it like a porcupine’s quills. (A picture of this can be seen on the home page of Ivan Day’s website Historic Food.) Another example of this spiking technique is asparagus forced in rolls, which I decided to make since asparagus is so plentiful right now.
Here is Hannah Glasse’s recipe for this dish, from The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747):
Take three French Rolls, take out all the crumb, by first cutting a piece of the top-crust off; be careful that the crust fits again the same place. Fry the rolls brown in fresh butter; then take a pint of cream, the yolks of six eggs beat fine, a little salt and nutmeg, stir them well together over a slow fire till it begins to be thick. Have ready a hundred of small grass boiled; then save tops enough to stick the rolls with, the rest cut small and put into the cream, fill the loaves with them. Before you fry the rolls, make holes thick in the top crust, to stick the grass in; then lay on the piece of crust, and stick the grass in, that it may look as if it were growing. It makes a pretty side dish at a second course.
A quick Web search showed me that very few people are still forcing asparagus into rolls. What’s the world coming to? But History is Served, the blog run by Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Foodways staff, has done it, and updated the recipe to make it smaller. Glasse must have used gigantic rolls to fit 100 asparagus stalks on three of them. (The “grass” she refers to was a nickname for asparagus.) I used three kaiser rolls with just five stalks in each, as suggested in the modernized recipe.
The History Is Served blog notes that in the 18th century, individual dishes were known as “entertainments” and were often seen as such. Writes the author, “The visual appeal of asparagus spears ‘growing’ out of the dinner roll might have been the catalyst for a lighthearted conversation that further enhanced the dining experience.”
Whether this dish will inspire “lighthearted conversation” among your guests or make them question your sanity is hard to predict. The conversation at our dinner table when I served it: “I am not eating that!” said my daughter. “Very peculiar,” said my husband. I thought Asparagus Forced in Rolls was good, though perhaps not good enough to justify eating so much cream. In any case, it was really fun to resurrect a virtually extinct recipe.
Asparagus Forced in Rolls
Adapted slightly from History is Served
3 French or Kaiser rolls, about 4 inches in diameter and 3 inches high
1 cup heavy cream
3 egg yolks
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
15 medium-thick stalks of asparagus
butter for brushing
1. Slice the rolls in half about an inch from their tops. With a small knife, carve out a cavity in the base of the roll, leaving about 3/4 inch thickness of bread on the sides and bottom.
2. Carve five small holes in the lid of each roll. Brush both halves of the rolls with butter, and pan-fry the pieces for a few minutes over moderate heat, until crisp and lightly browned.
3. Trim the ends of the asparagus. Boil in water for 3-4 minutes — they should still be firm. Remove from water and let cool, then cut off the top three inches of the asparagus spears and set aside. Dice the remaining stalks into fairly small pieces.
4. Whip egg yolks with the salt and nutmeg. Place cream in medium-size saucepan, add yolk mixture, and blend. Cook cream mixture over medium-low heat, stirring often, until it thickens. Be careful not to let it curdle. Add chopped stalks to the cream mixture and cook for 30 seconds, then set aside.
5. Fill the base of the rolls with the sauce mixture. Take the asparagus tops and gently stick them into the holes of the lids so that they look like they are growing from mounds of earth. Place the tops on the bases and serve.