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.
“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.
I 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 →
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.
Much 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 →
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.
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.
This post was originally going to be about posset, an 18th-century tonic made with alcohol, hot spiced milk, and eggs. It sounded like therapeutic eggnog, just the thing for those of us already worn down by the holidays — and the cold weather in New York right now.
Well, I made two posset recipes, and neither turned out too well. I won’t go into the gory details about that (curdling and so on), but fortunately, while researching possets, I came across a recipe for mulled wine made with eggs. I was intrigued and decided to give it a try, and I’m so glad I did! Continue reading →