Today I demonstrated hearth cooking at a local museum for a group of senior citizens. I talked to them about the log cabin I was cooking in, and the types of cooking that happens at the museum. Samples of scones were handed out, and I was honored to hear some of the stories the guests shared about their memories of food and cooking elicited by the smell and taste of the scones. We also had guests from different cultures who said that people still do a fair share of cooking over open fires in their countries of origin. We talked about the similarities between scones, bannock, roti, and naan and commented on how universal breads are to people across the ages.
I was recently invited to party in honor of a fellow Regency Girl’s Birthday. The party was touted as a Regency Gambling Party and instructed that costumes were required. The invitation was issued through the events feature on Facebook, which got me thinking about how this wonderful little world of 19th century reenactors are embracing modern technology to help promote and support the events that they adore so much.
I was looking forward to this party because it provided me the opportunity to wear a hat I made several years ago, but never had the right place to wear it. Most Regency era events I attend are either evening balls where headwear leans towards turbans, ribbons and feathers, or outdoor day functions such as picnics, where a bonnet is called for. I thought that sitting around card tables would be perfect for my little lace cap complete with lappets, and so it finally made its official debut. While on the topic of hats, I was gifted one at the party by a fantastic lady who I had done a small favor for. She made me wonderful straw bonnet as a thank you gesture, and I was thrilled with it.
While driving over to the party I had another clash of eras. Me, dressed in a regency dress and spencer with my little lace cap pinned on my head, car windows rolled down, lappets blowing in the breeze while singing along to XTC’s “Generals and Majors” on the radio. I may have been in my own little world, but the entire spectacle was quite visible to other motorists, which I noticed giving me strange looks about half way to my destination while stopped at a red light. All I could do is laugh, and continue on to the party.
When I arrived I was pleasantly surprised to find that almost all of the guests were in regency finery. For some of the guests, this was their first exposure to a reenactment event, but almost everyone made an effort to dress the part, and the atmosphere was all the better for it. Some of the ladies borrowed dresses from the gracious hostess, one lady sewed herself a dress by looking at pictures of gowns from Jane Austen films on Pinterest, and one of the fellows in attendance shaved off his beard to craft himself a fine set of mutton chops. Each and every gentleman in attendance was fitted with a cravat, and a good deal of the evening was spent discussing how wonderful we all looked.
The food was one of the finest regency spreads I have ever seen. The table was dominated by two Croquembouche, towers of small cream puffs held together by caramelized sugar. Around 9pm the food was set out. Platters of roast duck, salmon, and ham. Chicken in aspic, welsh rarebit, devilled eggs, nuts and sweetmeats. As a cook, I fully understood the cost and the time a table like this took to prepare, and I was beyond impressed.
There was even a pot of 18th century warm spiced wine called Negus on offer, and I admit I had more than a few servings of it, so delicious, and the perfect lubricant for conversation. There were literary and pop culture quotes flying fast and furious over the course of the evening, from Austen and Bronte to Harry Potter and Star Trek, brought on by the Negus, as opposed to ‘The Negas’, leader of the Ferengi Alliance. Again I noted that folks were standing around in 19th century attire, sipping an 18th century beverage and discussing Star Trek. In my mind it doesn’t get any better than that.
I spent most of the evening in the parlour chatting with friends, and never did make it to the card tables where games of Whist and Faro were being played. The hostess handmade the gambling chips for the Faro table, which added to the overall ambiance of the event. I am not sure if any fortunes were made or lost at the tables, but I saw no tears so assume all went well.
At one point during the evening, I was sitting in the parlour with a cup of Negus, taking in everybody’s costumes and I found myself thinking of a line from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice where Elizabeth observes “Perhaps by and bye I may observe that private balls are much pleasanter than public ones”. I shared the thought with the person I was sitting beside and we discussed it. There were differences between this private function in comparison to public events. The intimacy, the attention to detail, being surrounded by familiar faces, having some quiet spaces to sit and catch up with what was happening with people. I hope to see more of these smaller, private functions in the future, and am appreciative that I was a part of this one.
It has been a busy summer. For the past month I have turned my attention from the wood cook stoves to the open hearth. Through research into the types of food 19th century Upper Canadians would have cooked, I have prepared a selection of main courses and desserts.
Last weekend I made a Cottage Pie (similar to Shepherds Pie but made with beef instead of mutton). What I liked about this recipe was that it allowed me to use several types of cooking techniques, boiling, frying, and baking. The end result was a dish full of delicious comfort food. I also had the opportunity to use a product called Mushroom Ketchup in the preparation of this dish. It used to be popular condiment, and I was surprised by the deep earthy mushroom flavor it gave to the dish.
Today I played around with some bannock recipes and think I found a winner. The bannock griddled up golden brown and easily cooked all the way through, something some bannock recipes don’t do very well.
Finally, I turned my attention to my sweet tooth and made a boiled plumb pudding. The pudding cooked for 3 hours, and came out great, made even more perfect with the addition of a rum hard sauce. For this recipe I tried using a pudding bag with a draw string, and found it very difficult to remove the cooked pudding from the bag. In the future I will go back to using a large square of cloth that can be tied with string and easily opened once the pudding is cooked.
I am going to be co-teaching a hearth cooking workshop in Pickering Ontario in October, and some of these recipes are going to be featured in the program. It will be wonderful sharing this form of cooking with folks who are eager to learn about it and I anticipate that it is going to be a great time. Until then, I will continue to research and test recipes. More to come….
Lyed corn that is!
This product is made by soaking corn in a weak lye bath that removes the outer hull from the kernel. It can be made from white or yellow corn, and is sold in whole or cracked kernel varieties. It originates from the aboriginal peoples of North and South America, who discovered this technique of drying corn so that it was more palatable, and could be stored for later use.
My adventure with lyed corn started forty years ago when my father, a member of the Cayuga Nation, took me for a visit to the reservation where I was fed a bowl of corn soup. I remember it tasting delicious. Chewy, and salty, and smoky, with big chunks of fry bread to soak up all the broth at the bottom of the bowl. That soup has haunted me for years.
Fast forward 40 years later. I was researching 18th and 19th century upper Canadian recipes for a course on hearth cooking that I am going to be co-teaching in October. What do I stumble across but an 18th century recipe for corn soup. As I read through the ingredients, my mind rushed back to the corn soup of my childhood.
Corn soup in the Haudenosaunee culture is based on some basic ingredients – lyed corn, beans, salt pork and water. The soup I made did not have beans, used chicken stock as a base, and had some cream and butter stirred in just before serving, but the star of the show was the lyed corn.
The dry corn is soaked in water overnight, and boiled for 3-4 hours until the corn kernels soften and burst open, sometimes referred to as popping. The result is a fairly bland tasting corn with a chewy texture that works beautifully in soups.
I made the soup in a cast iron pot over an open hearth fire, which added an extra smokiness to the finished product which I would categorize as comfort food, plain and simple…no lie.
Note – The Haudenosaunee confederacy is made up of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca nations.
I participated in a “Blue Ribbon Cooking” competition today at a pioneer village. Each historic house or building on the property had a team of cooks making sweets, and guests were invited to taste the various offerings and vote for the treat that they liked best. I was working out of a c 1850 Inn and our team made sugar cookies rolled in nutmeg and sugar and baked in a wood burning cook stove.
Some visiting craftspeople were located throughout the village adding ambiance by spinning, weaving, making rope, and playing various musical instruments. One of the highlights of the day was going for a promenade through the village to visit the other cooks and sample the foods they were making. I can say that my personal favorite was the vanilla ice cream, a little cup of ice cold bliss, and I am sure sitting beside a red hot wood stove all day had no influence on my choice. As in times gone by, members of the current historic cooking community become known for certain things. “Have you tried Julie’s lemon bars?” “Sue makes the best pound cake”. As of yet I have not landed on a speciality. I think that it is something that just happens as you play around with different recipes and techniques. I have no idea who actually won todays competition, and I have a feeling that it does not really matter because for the team of cooks, craftspeople and volunteers, everyone came out a winner and a little sugar buzzed.
Rumor has it that toasted cheese was a favorite dish of Jane Austen as evidenced by the author’s own hand…
“We were greatly surprised by Edward Bridges company… It is impossible to do justice to the hospitality of his attentions towards me; he made a point of ordering toasted cheese for supper, entirely on my account.”
~Jane Austen, 27 August, 1805
Also referred to as rarebit, I could think of no better dish to prepare during my final wood stove cooking examination.
The recipe I selected was originally published in “Domestic Cookery (1829)
Grate three ounces of fat cheese, mix it with the yolk of two eggs, four ounces of grated bread and three ounces of butter; beat the whole well in a mortar, with a dessert spoonful of mustard and a little salt and pepper. Toast some bread, cut it in to proper pieces; lay the paste, as above, thick upon them, put them into a Dutch oven covered with a dish, till hot through, remove the dish, and let the cheese brown a little. Serve as hot as possible.
The modern adaptation:
1¼ cups cheddar or other hard cheese
2 hard-boiled egg yolks mashed
2-3 cups soft bread crumbs
4 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon mustard
Dash of salt and pepper
8 slices lightly toasted bread
1. Blend cheese, mashed egg yolks, bread crumbs, butter, mustard, salt, and pepper.
2. Spread paste on toast. Bake in 350º oven covered for 15 minutes. Remove cover for last 5 minutes to brown the cheese.
I used a dry mustard powder instead of wet mustard, and regular ground black pepper. A very light rye bread was used as the base and in the topping. A medium orange cheddar was provided for me to use, in the future I will use an old white cheddar to give the dish a little more bite and less of an orange hue. It took about 30 minutes to bake in a slow/medium wood stove oven. I was not able to get the top to brown up as I did not have a salamander on hand, but the result was still delicious.
Note: a salamander is an iron disc that is heated in the fire and used to brown the tops of food.
The stove was the ENSIGN model made by the United Nail & Foundry Co. in St. John’s Newfoundland. It has a very small fire box and burns through wood extremely fast. Although I had heard the oven runs hot, I had a difficult time getting it to reach a medium heat. Perhaps the cool, damp weather was having an influence on the temperature. No complaint mind you, cool weather is appreciated when wood stove cooking.
Here is the star of the show, toasted cheese. This dish was a great choice for my examination, I passed with flying colors. I will certainly be making this in the future, it was buttery,savory and crunchy and hit all the right comfort food buttons. I can see why our Jane liked it so well.
Today was part two of the wood stove cooking course. In teams of two we had to light and heat the stove and prepare three types of dishes, one fried, one cooked in a pot on the cook top, and one baked in the oven. The dishes prepared were shortbreads (oven), apple fritters (fried), and the now famous (in my mind) lemon curd. Happily all the dishes turned out great. The lemon curd took almost twice as long to cook on the wood stove as it did on a modern stove, and I think that whipping up a batch last week in a modern kitchen saved me because I knew exactly what consistency the curd had to be before removing it from the heat. I got through the day without burning myself, burning the food, or burning down the house.