This post was originally going to be called “Martha Washington’s Potato Rolls.” I had found recipes by that name in several cookbooks, and thought this would be a straightforward historical re-creation. Well food history is rarely straightforward — haven’t I learned that by now? The recipes turned out to be completely different, and I couldn’t tell which was really Martha’s.
I thought oatmeal cookies had been around for centuries — they just seem so old-fashioned. But it turns out that this cookie was essentially a 20th-century creation, one that became hugely popular in just a decade or two.
Until recently, not many people ate oats, let alone oatmeal cookies. The grain was considered animal fodder, except in parts of northern Europe and the British Isles — particularly Scotland, where oat porridge and oat cakes were staples for many centuries. Continue reading
A 19th century recipe for peach pie caught my attention the other day, not just because I love peaches but because it called for whole unpitted peaches. My first thought was that this pie was a gift to the lazy cook — no peeling, no pitting! My second was that I might break a tooth eating it, but that was a risk I was willing to take.
Here is the recipe, from Maria Parloa’s The Appledore Cookbook (1872):
Line the plate with plain paste, and lay in the plate five peaches, which just press between the fingers, but do not take out the stones, as they flavor the pie; now fill the plate with peaches which have been cut in two and the stones taken out. Sift over this a small cup of sugar, and then add two spoonfuls of water. Cover and bake in a moderate oven one hour. Do not peel the peaches; they are very much better not to be.
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.
One appeal of 19th-century recipes is that they are usually easier to follow than colonial ones. We have Eliza Leslie partly to thank for this change. I’ve written about Leslie before (in a post on Indian Pound Cake). Her cookbook Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats (1828) was the first of several bestsellers.
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