Archive for April 2008

Baking in the middle of the night

April 22, 2008

In delving more into historic recipes over the last couple of months, and by delving, I mean actually making, I have been struck by the fact that many of the older recipes require a lot more time in the kitchen, or at least are not nearly as instantaneously ready as most of those that we are used to today. This is in part because of the central focus of food in the lives of people in times when it was not readily available in restaurants, take-out joints, all-nite mini marts, and basically around every corner. When you have to plan ahead, and sometimes months ahead for your meals, then the fact that preparation of a particular dish might take you several hours or days, seems like small beans, as long as you have food on the table at the end of the day.

The first time this fact became obvious to me was when I recently made a plum pudding using a recipe from Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747). The recipe had been translated by a group of culinary historians (the Past Masters) into modern-day measurements and directions, though still meant to be prepared in a pot of boiling water that was placed over the fire in a large fireplace. The batter is placed in a “pudding cloth” (a piece of linen, which I didn’t have, so used a cloth napkin that I didn’t feel much attachment to) and is simmered in the boiling water for 5 hours.

Being someone who doesn’t spend a great deal of time in my apartment, what with school and extra curriculars and spending time with friends, etc., I don’t often have 5+ hours in which I’m home at a stretch, except, of course, when I’m sleeping. Thus began a growing trend where I start multiple-step or time-consuming recipes that require getting up in the middle of the night to do the next step or monitor the progress in one way or another. I can’t say that this is the best way to get a good night’s sleep, obviously, but it can be fairly entertaining to wake up at 2:30 in the morning and pull a cake out of your oven.

My latest adventure in this vein was the making of a baba au rhum or rum cake. For whatever reason, in this day and age where you can so easily be overwhelmed by the sheer number of recipes that fit your criteria once you decide what you plan to make, I find myself making decisions about which recipe I’m going to use without even having read through the entire set of directions. That’s how I ended up setting my alarm multiple times last night to get up and do various different steps in this cake recipe. I made the mistake of trusting that it would take roughly the amount of time that the recipe claimed it would, which we all know is total bollocks, I usually multiply it by 1.5 to get actual estimates. But the recipe promised a finished product in 2 hours and I started at 10pm, so I figured I’d be done a little after midnight at the worst. HA! That’s where I got the 2:30am cake comment earlier in this post, cause that’s when I pulled the baby out of the oven, and it wasn’t even done then, ‘cause you have to wait for it to cool and then pour rum syrup into it, which takes another 20 minutes. So you can see how accurate of an estimate that turned out to be. I suppose I should have been suspicious from the get go because of the fact that there was yeast in the recipe, hence rising time (this being one of the main reasons that I hardly ever make recipes which involve yeast), but, like I said, I made a snap decision on the recipe because it was recommended and I had the ingredients and it sounded good.

So at the time I wrote the above I couldn’t actually comment on how said rum cake turned out since I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to taste the fruits of my night of interrupted sleep’s labor, but I will do so now… There are definitely no complaints on the eating end about the amount of rum in this cake! It is soaked to the brim and then some, leaving excess pooling on the plate at the bottom. This recipe is definitely different than what you might think of for your typical rum cake because of the yeast bread, which I actually really liked. I have to say that the top part was a little bit more cooked than I would have liked ideally, but I was asleep and I’d set the timer for 10 minutes shy of what the recipe said, because I was using a different pan (a loaf pan), but next time I’ll know it needs even a little less time. I am a big sucker for anything gooey or mushy and this recipe absolutely has some of those qualities because of the added liquor in the bread. Above all it’s just a fun / funny experience to be baking and sleeping simultaneously. Not that I’m suggesting this as another area of our lives where we should start to multitask, well maybe every once in a while.


Choosing your dinner guests wisely…

April 9, 2008

In this day and age we, as people who like to entertain and serve good food to our friends, may feel that it is a daunting task to cater to all of the varying dietary requirements and preferences of our dinner guests. It can be difficult to ensure that everyone is satisfied by the end of the meal, but also that you do not feel stifled as the cook. I don’t entertain nearly as much as I would like to, but this is a conundrum that I know plagues a lot of families and dinner parties (particularly when there’s a mix of vegetarians and omnivores). Vegetarianism is certainly a lifestyle that we think of as relatively modern, but you might be surprised to learn that it has been around for a very long time indeed, that even Benjamin Franklin himself took a stab at going meat free for several years of his life. So you can see that these sorts of personal preferences likely have always played an important role at the dining table, whether it boils down to meat or no meat or other issues like a preference for the taste of garlic or not.

To illustrate this, I wanted to share a passage from a book I’m reading published in 1867 by Thomas De Voe, a butcher by trade in New York City, called The Market Assistant. He clearly shows that these considerations have been frustrating hosts and guests alike for years!

“An amusing article on diet, written above one hundred years ago, is found in a London paper called St. James’ Chronicle, dated November 6, 1762, and thus reads: – ‘There is no affectation more ridiculous than the antipathies which many whimsical people entertain with respect to diet. One will swoon at a Breast of Veal; another can’t bear the sight of a Suckling-pig; and another owes as great a grudge to a Shoulder of Mutton as Petruchio, in the farce. How often does it happen in company that we are debarred of a necessary ingredient in a salad because somebody, forsooth, cannot touch oil! And what a rout is made, whisking away the cheese off the table, without our being suffered to have a morsel of this grand digester, if any one should happen to declare his dislike of it! There are others of an equally fantastic disposition, who, as we may say, choose to quarrel with their bread and butter. These are eternally suspicious that their food is not sweet. They bring their plates up to their noses, or their noses down to their plates, at every thing that is put upon them. Their stomachs are so delicately nice that they descry a fault in all they eat. The fish is stale, the mutton is rank, or the suet in the pudding is musty.’”

America Eats! – Part I

April 4, 2008

This is going to be a two-part post because I want to just get a few thoughts out there for the moment and then, in the later post, provide you all with useful links and more factual information. I have been intrigued and excited by the America Eats! project ever since I first read about it probably four years ago when I first started getting into food research and culinary history. America Eats! was a WPA sponsored project organized by Katharine Kellock just prior to the second world war. The goal was to send writers around the country to record group meals and food-related public events in “images of a resilient people working to common and joyful purpose in the teeth of the Great Depression.” Most of the writing generated by this project was never published because it was not compiled and edited before the start of WWII, it got lost in the ensuing shuffle, as it were. A few culinary historians and other researchers have used bits and pieces of the writings from the project for research since that time, but it is not even known where all the materials are because many are still housed in local community libraries and archives, though there is also a good deal in the Library of Congress. Over the last several years interested scholars have banded together to try to encourage a return to this work, to try to relocate all of the writing and to utilize this unbelievable resource as a window into the American culinary past. I can tell you that I would love, love, love to be able to do just that.


(An image from the original America Eats! project archives – removing the barbecue beef from the pits at the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Barbecue.)

What I wanted to react to in this post was an article that appeared in a culinary history newsletter that I get called Food History News written by Patricia Willard, a woman who has gone back and looked at a great deal of the America Eats! papers and then followed up by revisiting the sites that these writers recorded their community events at in the 1930s to see whether these sorts of traditions continue today. She has some extremely insightful comments about American food which I hope to be able to explore in more detail in the later post as well, but I want to latch on to one particular point that she made in this short introduction. She writes “Somewhere in my travels, though, I came to realize how accurately Kellock had gauged our cooking. By talking about our food within the context of social engagements, the Federal Writers were able to uncover something very important about our cuisine: it’s not actually the taste of our food, but the use of it that’s been important in our cooking’s development. Even at the most food-centric gatherings, emphasis was less on the dishes than in how they supported the reason for people to meet.”

This statement reminded me of something I know all to well, and I’m sure you do too, that a meal is not special unless it has meaning, and it often gains meaning because of the people that we eat that meal with. Now that doesn’t suggest that every meal will be special if it is consumed with others (afterall America Eats! focused on community-wide social events, not an everyday occurrence, though certainly more frequent in the 1930s than today), but that perhaps we need to think a little bit less about the food itself, to take a step back from analyzing in minute detail the flavors and textures and visual appeal of the foods which are placed in front of us, and to just appreciate the event for what it is, an opportunity to form or reassert relationships with people. Certainly the analysis of food for food’s sake has its place and I do a lot of it myself, it can be a communal activity that draws people together in and of itself, but at its heart I think we should keep in mind that food is mearly the vehicle or the excuse for a gathering, that is the shared experience which is what we all benefit most from in the end, which will last us longer than the last bite of dessert or the last sip of coffee. Even as you embrace your foodie side, focusing more on the ingredients and becoming increasingly interested in new and varied cuisines, presentations, etc., never forget that there is a whole lot more going on beyond the edges of your plate, that though the flavors may take you to distant lands and far away places, the people sitting right next to and across from you are the ones with whom you are sharing the experience of that meal and that is, I would argue, more important than what you’re putting in your mouth.