Monday, January 26, 2015

Wrapping up 14, 15 and 16, and an announcement!

As we leap forward into a new year, we have plenty of folks working on challenges! As mentioned earlier, I've been down with some sinusy crud, so I haven't been quite as productive as I'd like to be, but it's fun to see what everyone else has been working on!

By way of mentioning some of our participants, Elizabeth celebrated the "Sacred or Profane" challenge with Nun's Farts. Yes, Nun's Farts. Go ahead and giggle, I did too. Joyce of A Taste of History took the Revolutionary challenge and taught us all a little bit about the potato in the French revolution! Who would have known? The potato cakes will probably get a try here - I'm in love with anything having to do with potatoes. Isabella subverted the same theme and boiled a potato. I like your style, Isabella.

In a really sweet, poignant post, Stephanie of The World Turn'd Upside Down made cookies from a recipe that survived from prisoners in a concentration camp. I know I wasn't the only one who was moved to misty eyes when I read that post.

So we've had some very silly contributions, some very educational contributions, and some very meaningful contributions, which is what I think sums up the Historical Food Fortnightly - lots of learning, and lots of fun! We've been having such a great time together, that I'm very excited to announce that the Historical Food Fortnightly will continue for another year! Melissa and I will both be leading this crazy train of foodie fun into 2015 and 2016. We'll be featuring new challenges, and possibly further surprises!

Thanks for all the fun, and we can't wait to keep the party going with all of you!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Betsy Challenge 17: Revolutionary Foods

I've been a bit absent lately, due to being under the weather. That all culminated in a diagnosis of a sinus infection this week (ew). But, I had plans for the Historical Food Fortnightly, and I was going to follow through on them!

For this fortnight's challenge, I planned on doing Washington Cake, from Elizabeth Hall's Practical American  Cookery. There was no explanation about the connection between Washington and the cake, but George Washington was the hero of the American Revolution so it hit the challenge nicely. It also called for saleratus, which is the mid-19th century name for potassium bicarbonate, a leavening agent that was new to cooks in the 1850s. It was quickly supplanted by its more effective, less disgusting-tasting cousin, sodium bicarbonate, which we know as baking soda, and I planned to use that as a revolutionary leavener.

Here's the recipe:

If you're like me, you may read it a couple times before realizing something. There's no flour in this cake. Not even a little bit. That should have given me some pause, but I was flying high on recent successes and feeling really confident about following the recipe with a wing a prayer.

Spoiler alert: I failed utterly.

The Challenge: Revolutionary Foods

The Recipe: Washington Cake, from Practical American Cookery and Domestic Economy by Elizabeth M. Hall.

The Date/Year and Region: 1860, United States

How Did You Make It?: First, I followed the directions to the letter (after making a couple small adjustments by cutting the recipe in half and using two eggs instead of three). I beat the eggs until they were very light, added the other ingredients, and wound up with a bowl of goop. It was half congealed butter, half gross liquid. I could tell immediately that it wasn't going to happen.

So I mixed it again. This time, I creamed the sugar and butter together, before adding the liquids, and then folding in the eggs. It was slightly more successful, but still not great, and even before adding the baking soda I was dubious. Still and all, I thought I'd give it a go. I put some of the goop into muffin tins and put it in the oven.

After ten minutes, I had bubbling goup that wasn't getting cooked anywhere fast. It reminded me a great deal of the German puffs - buttery eggy grossness. I didn't even take any pictures. It wasn't worth the effort.

Time To Complete: Half an hour

Total Cost: Too much, for failure. The eggs and butter both weren't super cheap.

How Successful Was It?: Ha. Hahahaha. Hahahahahahahahahahaha.

Seriously though, this may indeed be a case of no one having ever tested the recipe. Somewhere out there, there may be some errata from Elizabeth Hall saying "Whoops, there should be some flour in there." With flour, it's very close to a sponge cake - so it may be worth messing with.

How Accurate Is It?: Modern ingredients, modern stove, modern tools (include an electric mixer for beating the eggs), and I switched out the postassium bicarbonate for sodium bicarbonate.

For all that it failed, I'm still pleased. I've learned so much from doing these challenges, and become so much braver and more willing to try new things - it's just another learning moment!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Betsy Challenge 16: A New Year's Plum Pudding

When I pondered celebratory foods, and thought of this time of year, one thing came to mind: plum pudding. Plum pudding is the traditional steamed pudding served at Christmastime in England and parts of the United States. Sometime in the mid-19th century the name "Christmas pudding" was applied to them, clearly the result of the fact that they were popular to serve at Christmas time.

I also immediately knew when I would want to serve this. Twice a year I spend a weekend with college friends - we call it "Crafting Weekend", but the amount of crafting that gets done is variable. It's a gathering of 8 girls who are all fun, adventurous, and clever, and they all indulge my love of the 19th century. I knew they would be up for trying this out with me at our get-together the weekend after the new year. And I knew they would let me light it on fire.

But more on that later.

One of the key components in a plum pudding is suet. Real suet is very hard to find in the US and I mentioned this to the Gentleman Friend. Lo and behold, he knew of a meat market where real, actual-factual suet could be found. And then he acquired it for me. Be still, my heart.

The final piece that came together: my parents gave me a pudding mold for Christmas! Any bowl that can withstand the steam bath can be used for steaming the pudding, but having a mold with a lid was really, really handy.

So now, I just had to make it. And light in on fire.

The Challenge: Celebratory Foods

The Recipe: "Plum Pudding" from Every Woman Her Own Housekeeper

The Date/Year and Region: 1796, London.

How Did You Make It?: First, I rendered the suet. It wasn't specified in the recipe, but I wanted better control over the product and was worried about not knowing how much processing had happened at the meat processors. I melted it on low heat on the stove, strained out the solids, poured it into a loaf pan lined with parchment paper, and let it cool. Once it was hard, I cut it into pieces, weighed it, and divided it into half-pounds for storing.

Mmmmm fat.
 When it came time to make the pudding, I shredded the blocks of suet with a sharp knife. It was by far the most time-consuming bit, but it wasn't difficult. Sort of like chopping up frozen butter or cheese.

I made the pudding exactly as described in the recipe - mixed up the flour, eggs fat, fruit and spices with enough milk to make it goopy but not liquid. I then put it in the buttered mold, and placed the mold in a stockpot with enough water to come halfway up the sides of the mold. Then I boiled it forever for five hours. I occasionally monkeyed with the heat or added more water, but otherwise it was hands off. It came out looking and smelling fantastic, moist but completely cooked all the way through, as judged by a knife inserted into the thickest part. So I turned it out onto a plate and it looked awesome.

Then it was time to light it up.

Firing the pudding is a British tradition that was described in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, during the Cratchit family's Christmas dinner:

"Mrs Cratchit left the room alone – too nervous to bear witnesses – to take the pudding up and bring it in... Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper which smells like a washing-day. That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook's next door to each other, with a laundress's next door to that. That was the pudding. In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered – flushed, but smiling proudly – with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quarter of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top."
To fire the brandy, we heated up some brandy to get it fuming, which makes it easier to ignite. Once the brandy is lit on fire, it is poured over the pudding. It's traditional to have a sprig of holly stuck into the top of the pudding, but I could not find food-safe holly and decided to skip it. The alcohol burns off, and the pudding can then be sliced up and eaten with hard sauce or brandy butter. We used a simple hard sauce recipe provided by a friend's grandmother

Time to Complete: Six hours, not including rendering the suet.

Total Cost: About $6. The biggest expense was the raisins and currants - the suet was pretty cheap.

How Successful Was It?: The firing was pretty fantastic! I owe large debt of gratitude to my friend/our hostess, Jenny, for standing by with a fire extinguisher and allowing us to light things on fire in her house. The pudding itself was really, really good. It had no added sugar, just the sweetness from the dried fruits, and I was impressed with the flavors. It was moist and chewy, and the suet gave it a very silky mouthfeel, more like butter than lard or shortening. In the future, I might adjust the amount of suet - by the time I was done with my little bit, I felt like my mouth was coated. I can definitely understand why this would be a winter treat - it's very decadent and rich!

The reactions from the assembled were mixed. The general consensus was that the pudding itself was good, but that some people were not fond of puddings in general. There were a lot of currants and raisins as well, and for those not fond of raisins/dried fruits, it was a lot.

How Accurate Was It?: Modern stove, non-heritage ingredients, and I added the step of rendering the lard, otherwise I followed the recipe to the letter.