Election Cake

Election CakeElection Day used to be a lot more fun. In late 18th and early 19th century America, it was a festive holiday, featuring parades, dancing, and lots of food and drink. The culinary highlight was a sweetened, fruit-filled yeast bread called election cake.

This cake seems to have originated in Hartford, Connecticut, although it is really a descendant of the English “great cakes” made for grand occasions. It was a bread-like cake made from a dough sponge, which was usually left to rise overnight and mixed with butter, molasses or sugar, eggs, raisins, spices, and brandy.  Continue reading

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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

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

Monticello English Muffins

Monticello English muffinsMuch is made of Thomas Jefferson’s love for haute cuisine, but when he moved to Washington as president in 1801, he missed the simple muffins made by his cook Peter Hemings back home at Monticello. Well, not that simple — Jefferson’s French chef in Washington could not master them. The president wrote to his daughter Martha, “Pray enable yourself to direct us here how to make muffins in Peter’s method. My cook here cannot succeed at all in them, and they are a great luxury to me.”

Peter Hemings was a slave who became head cook at Monticello in 1796, after Jefferson freed his brother James, the previous chef. (They and their sister Sally were probably the children of Jefferson’s late wife’s father.) James had trained in Paris and taught his brother French cooking techniques, but there was a strong tradition of Anglo-American food at Monticello as well. The muffins that Jefferson loved so much were yeast raised and cooked on the griddle — what we now call English muffins. Continue reading

Potato Rolls

potato rolls

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.

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Graham Bread

graham breadI 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.

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Open Hearth Cooking

hearth cookingI had seen open hearth cooking at several historic sites but never tried it, so I was really excited about Sarah Lohman’s hearth cooking class at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn last weekend, despite the 90-degree temperature. Sarah, a “historic gastronomist” and author of the fantastic blog Four Pounds Flour, taught a small group of us how to cook an 18th-century meal over an open fire and learn, as she put it, “primal cooking skills.”

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Boston Brown Bread

Boston brown breadI got the idea for making Boston brown bread when I saw several big cans of B&M Brown Bread in my mother’s kitchen cupboard the other day. Bread in a can — how weird is that? It’s surprisingly edible, and might be just the thing to stock for the next hurricane. But if you live outside of New England, good luck finding it. “I know what you’re talking about, we don’t have it, and you’re the first person who’s ever asked for it!” said my local grocer.

I wanted to make this bread from scratch anyway, since it dates back to colonial times, or nearly so. Wheat flour was scarce in the American colonies, so “make-do” breads were made from other flours, or a combination of wheat and other flours. Boston brown bread — called just brown bread in New England — contained rye flour, wheat flour, and cornmeal. These were mixed with molasses and buttermilk, and the bread was steamed in a kettle over a fire.

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