Monday, October 8, 2012


Amazingly, I’ve had another successful cooking day. Things did not start off particularly well. I bought my ingredients, then returned to find that the yeast, which came in those tiny flat packets, had disappeared somewhere between the grocery store scanner and my room. Therefore, the night before I started cooking, I decided my election cake would not include yeast. Yet again, I find that adapting nineteenth-century recipes requires flexibility.

I arrived at the Interfaith House and whipped up the dough for the American Fancy Biscuits. Despite the name, these biscuits are anything but fancy. With flour, butter and milk, my biscuits were essentially little pats of piecrust. Part of the reason for the confusion over what makes a biscuit comes from the etymology of biscuit versus the etymology of cookie. The Oxford English Dictionary explains that, in early America, the English term “biscuit” and the Dutch word koekje (from which we get “cookie”) were used interchangeably. In nineteenth-century America, these terms were still in flux, sometimes meaning the sweet dessert treats and sometimes the flakey dinner rolls. This American Fancy Biscuit, true to its name, is closer to the modern American biscuit than the modern British sweet biscuit. However, some of the other recipes for biscuits in the same section of Complete Confectioner vary in type.

The Election Cake was more complex, but leaving out the yeast helped ease the process. I also left out the wine, deciding it would simplify the shopping process. As for the generic fruit called for in the recipe, I chose dried currants and cranberries. Currants certainly would have grown in Connecticut in this era and cranberries fairly nearby in bogs. I am unsure whether the average Hartford family would have easy access to cranberries in 1856, but The Cape Cod Cranberry Grower’s Association notes that cranberries were first sent to Europe for sale in the 1820s. Based on the huge quantities of ingredients required by the recipe, I decided to cut it by a quarter. A theme I’m noticing emerge is that nineteenth-century cooking seems to have been done on a much larger scale than cooking today. Perhaps this is due to the effort required of baking in the era; might as well make a lasting amount if you’re putting the work into firing up the bake oven.

As for the finished products, the biscuits, though a little bland on their own, would go great with tea, butter, or jam. One of my tasters also mentioned that the biscuits would be good for someone with an upset stomach. Not the highest compliment, but at least they’re useful. The Election Cake got favorable reviews as something intriguing and different, with a complex flavor. People seemed to especially appreciate the inclusion of fruits not often found in modern cakes. The cake was, however, very dense and heavy, qualities I think the yeast would have helped negate. Next time a recipe calls for yeast, I’ll try to be sure it gets home with me. But, overall, flexibility and experimentation again led to finished products that were edible and interesting.

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