Queen Cakes

I recently spent a fun evening helping out with a historic cooking workshop at the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum, where we made queen cakes, little currant-filled treats that were popular in England and America in the 18th and 19th centuries. These cakes may have been named for Queen Mary, who reigned in Great Britain from 1689 to 1694, or her sister Anne (1702–1714). The earliest known recipe for them was in a book called Court Cookery (1725) by Robert Smith:

Take a Pound of dry’d Flower, a Pound of refin’d Sugar sifted, and a Pound of Currans wash’d, pick’d, and rubb’d clean, and a Pound of Butter wash’d very well, and rub it into the Flower and Sugar, with a little beaten Mace, and a little Orange-Flower Water; beat ten Eggs, but half the Whites, work it all well together with your Hands, and put in the Currans; sift over it double-refin’d Sugar, and put them immediately into a gentle Oven to bake.

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Banana Pudding

banana pudding with vanilla wafersMy apologies for writing about bananas at a time when we clearly have more pressing things to talk about. But the White House isn’t taking my calls (“the comment line is currently closed”), and I’ve neglected this blog too long. I also think a lot of people might be in need of comfort food, thus the choice of pudding.

It’s hard to imagine now, when bananas are so plentiful and cheap, that they were an exotic fruit a few hundred years ago. James Fenimore Cooper mentioned finding bananas in markets in the 1820s, but they were a rarity until well after the Civil War, sold only in port cities like New York and Charleston. Cookbook author Eleanor Parkinson seemed to assume most readers were unfamiliar with the banana when she wrote in 1846, “This fruit is about four or five inches long, of the shape of a cucumber, and of a highly grateful flavor…. When ripe it is a very pleasant food, either undressed, or fried in slices like fritters.” 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

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.

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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

Cottage Pudding

cottage pudding

I became interested in cottage pudding largely because of its name. Why was it called a pudding, since it seemed to be a cake, and why a cottage pudding?

“Pudding” was once a general term for dessert (and still is in Great Britain), but there were plenty of recipes in old cookbooks for “cake,” so why wasn’t this one of them? The answer seems to be that although it was a cake, this dish was served with a sauce that was poured over the top, resulting in a slightly mushy, pudding-like dessert. The cake itself was also very moist.

As for the term “cottage,” it probably identified this dish as simple and affordable — suitable for farmers or laborers who lived in modest cottages. (It is similar in that sense to cottage pie, an early name for shepherd’s pie.) 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