Baked Alaska

Baked Alaska 2“My brain can’t decide whether to freeze or melt,” said my daughter while eating Baked Alaska the other night. Her words echoed a stodgier observation by 19th-century British journalist George Sala: “The transition from the hot outside envelope to the frozen inside is painfully sudden, and not likely to be attended with beneficial effect.”

Unlike Sala, my child liked this warm-cold sensation, and she loves Baked Alaska, a sponge cake topped with ice cream and encased in meringue, which is then baked quickly at a high temperature. The ice cream does not melt because the air-filled meringue is a poor conductor of heat and so acts as insulation. So does the cake, to a lesser extent. Continue reading

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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

Macaroni and Cheese

mac and cheese, Jefferson styleAs my daughter scarfed down yet another meal of mac and cheese the other day, I told her that she had Thomas Jefferson at least partly to thank for that dish, although I can’t imagine what he would have made of our modern-day macaroni boxes with powdered cheese packets.

Jefferson fell for pasta in a big way when he lived in France and traveled through Europe in the 1780s. He took notes on “maccaroni” (then a generic term for pasta) while in Italy, and drew a diagram for a pasta machine. He also brought home a recipe for hand-made noodles (to be used in vermicelli soup) and had a pasta press shipped home — which, like most of us, he didn’t really use. Continue reading

Blancmange

blandmangeI meant to make blancmange earlier this summer, but got that unfortunate cholesterol reading and so put it off, since the dish is made with lots of cream. Then I was reminded of it while watching Wimbledon, with all the references to Andy Murray defeating the blancmange. For those not up on their Monty Python, and I wasn’t, in the relevant sketch an alien race of blancmange try to win Wimbledon by turning all the Englishmen into Scots, who are supposedly bad at tennis. (“And it’s blancmange to serve,” and so on. If you’re curious, watch the “Science Fiction Sketch” on YouTube.)

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Colonial Tea Party

the tea party beginsAs my daughter’s spring break approached recently, I wondered whether I would get any blogging done, when inspiration struck: We would have an 18th-century tea party for her dolls, one of which is Felicity, American Girl’s so-called “spunky colonial girl.”  We even had doll-size blue willow china, a nice gift from friends.

Katie is not a girly girl — she’s more likely to make her dolls challenge each other to a duel than have tea — but she liked my idea well enough and got Felicity and Ivy suitably attired in colonial clothing. (Ivy is a Chinese-American girl from the 1970s, but let’s not quibble.) Continue reading

Colonial Tofu?

City Tavern, PhiladelphiaMy family visited Philadelphia over President’s Day weekend, and although it was too chilly  for much sightseeing in the Old City historic district, we did eat at City Tavern. Owned and run by Chef Walter Staib (host of the TV series A Taste of History), this fun restaurant is a reconstruction of an 18th century tavern where George Washington and other Founding Fathers dined during the First Continental Congress in 1774, and for decades afterward. Continue reading

Sickbed Custard

sick bed custardI’ve been battling a cold for the last week, so I decided to try a colonial cure, Amelia Simmons’s “sickbed custard”:

“Scald a quart milk, sweeten and salt a little, whip 3 eggs and stir in, bake on coals in a pewter vessel.”

In the 18th century, many medicinal vessels were made from pewter. It was sturdy and relatively affordable. Lower-quality pewter also usually contained toxic lead, so I hope Simmons was using the good stuff or she may have been sickening people with her sickbed custard.

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Sweet Potato Biscuits

sweet potato biscuits served

If Thomas Jefferson were alive today, he might have his own cooking and gardening show on cable, or at least a blog. He was passionate about food and grew hundreds of varieties of fruits and vegetables in his gardens at Monticello. Jefferson also wrote many recipes himself, including one for sweet potato biscuits. Continue reading