Monday, October 1, 2012

Fancy Biscuits

In the summer, when I was first searching the Watkinson catalogue for cookbooks to use, I came across one that gave my roommate and I quite a few laughs. Especially when read aloud. The title of the book, in verbose 19th-century style, was The Complete confectioner, pastry-cook, and baker : plain and practical directions for making confectionary [sic] and pastry, and for baking : with upwards of five hundred receipts consisting of directions for making all sorts of preserves, sugar-boiling, comfits, lozenges, ornamental cakes, ices, liqueurs, waters, gum-paste ornaments, syrups, jellies, marmalades, compotes : bread-baking, artificial yeasts, fancy biscuits, cakes, rolls, muffins, tarts, pies, &c. &c. / with additions and alterations by Parkinson, practical confectioner, Chestnut Street. For whatever reason, what we found the most humorous about the title was the term “fancy biscuits.” That night, I made a promise to my friend that fancy biscuits were one thing I would definitely make. Thus, one recipe for week two is decided.

The Complete Confectioner was published in Philadelphia in 1844, but is on the border when it comes to my rule of sticking to cookbooks written and published in America. The introduction explains, “The basis for our little work is to be found in Read’s Confectioner, a late London publication.” However, the American adapters continue, “We have been able to make from our own experience many important modifications and to introduce many additional receipts, particularly in relation to the various articles of luxury which the bounty of our soil and climate.” Despite the debt it owes to British writers, this is another fiercely proud American cookbook. As such, I’ll be trying out the recipe for American fancy biscuits.

Sticking to cookbooks from the 19th century, leading up to the Civil War, the other book I’ll be using this week is Catherine Beecher’s 1856 Domestic Receipt Book. Beecher’s Receipt Book was, “Designed as a Supplement to her Treatise on Domestic Economy.” Catherine Beecher, though never married, was famous for her domestic advice and belief in separate spheres. She argued that, though men and women should stick to unique types of work, these areas should be equally respected. She therefore strove to make housework more scientific and more able to gain respect in a traditional sense. This is reflected in the cookbook, which includes many diagrams of kitchen tools and wordy chapters on kitchen theory.
Looking through the table of contents in the Domestic Receipt Book, I lighted on Beecher’s Old Hartford Election Cake, which she describes as being 100 years old. Beecher was a Hartford resident, so it is no wonder she would include a recipe from our fair city. According to Washington Post Blogger Kim O’Donnell, in early America, “Election Day was an important holiday. Voters would take the day off from work and travel to Hartford, cast votes and then party into the night.” Election Day cake, with its basis in European fruitcakes, was an important part of the Election Day tradition. Given the location and time of year, this seemed like a recipe I had to try.

I’ll be baking this Friday morning from nine to around noon in the Interfaith House. Feel free to stop by!

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