Sunday, November 25, 2012

Chocolate Jumbles- Thanksgiving Edition

As previously mentioned, my mother asked me to bake one of my historic recipes for dessert this Thanksgiving. I chose one of my personal favorites, the Chocolate Jumbles from the 1886 Cocoa and Chocolate. This time, however, I had my mother as helper, and learned just how important it is to learn cooking from someone else. Of course my mom had never made Jumbles before, but as a more experienced cook than I, she had some tips and insight that made the experience different than the first.
My first attempt at Jumbles...

I told my mom about people’s responses to the first Jumbles- that many people found the cocoa flavor to be just too much. She suggested something obvious that I never would have thought of on my own- reducing the amount of chocolate. Thus the process of experimentation and revision, that makes a recipe something difficult to keep a permanent record of, began.

My mother’s next insight came as I was adding “flour sufficient” to turn the consistency of the dough into something like piecrust. The last time, after adding seemingly endless cups of flour, my friends and I gave up and just worked with sticky dough. My mother, of infinite patience, kept adding flour, trusting that, if the recipe said it should get to a piecrust point, it would get to a piecrust point. And she was right! After adding a whole heckuva lot of flour, the dough reached a point where it could be rolled out and cut into strips. As a result, the cookies looked and tasted a lot smoother than those from my previous attempt.
...compared with my Thanksgiving Jumbles.

I brought the Jumbles to Thanksgiving. They were a great talking point for our family friends, and were seemingly enjoyed by all. So what did I learn? Don’t be afraid to alter recipes to accommodate others' tastes. Have patience when cooking. Always listen to your mother. And most relevant to this project, that we can never really know what these recipes were like originally. Everyone has a different interpretation of how to follow a recipe. The chocolate jumbles people made in 1886 likely varied from house to house, just as my chocolate jumbles differed from those I made with my mom. Food history, like history overall, is incredibly complex. It comes to us in terms that require substantial individual interpretation, and we must be careful to remember that this is our interpretation only, not how things actually were.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


I started this cooking session with Cakes the Children Cry For, as they required the most ingredients and seemed the more complex. As I mentioned in my last post, Cooking for the Professor included surprisingly few directions, and this posed somewhat significant challenges with this recipe. I was unsure at which points to stir and mix. By the end, I was wary about adding the full four cups of flour for which the recipe called; the batter was getting to the point where I almost bent the spoon, but I persevered. And once again, I got the sense of changing definitions of culinary vocabulary, as I found that the single instruction included: “Drop with spoon on lightly buttered paper and bake,” created what we today might consider a number of large cookies.

As I prepared to make Maple Creams, I remembered the last time I had used the pot on the stove- Sago Jelly. I hoped this experience would be more favorable, although I still was not sure what consistency or form my final product would take. Following the instructions, I added maple and cream and turned on the heat. As it boiled up, the lovely aroma of a New England sugarhouse filled the room. I was waiting until the mixture in the pot, as the recipe instructed was “on the point of spinning a thread.” I stirred and waited to see if I could find this point, when the steam suddenly turned to smoke, spreading a pungent burning smell throughout the kitchen. I immediately removed it from heat, knowing I had missed the sweet spot. I suddenly had an appreciation for the era of candy thermometers, when you boil something to a particular temperature given to you rather than using guess work to find a point that is more or less subjective. Next, I poured the sticky mixture into a buttered pan. It did not fill the whole space, nor spread very thickly. I was again wondering what the final product would be like. As it cooled, it hardened, and I used a buttered knife to cut it into small pieces before it fully solidified. The end product was extremely brittle, pretty much a hard candy. In a moment of panic, I thought the cooled candy would never come out of the pan it was boiled in. But thankfully, warm soapy water did the trick.

As for taste, the Cakes the Children Cry For had an extreme molasses flavor. Not really the kind of thing a child would go crazy for in an era of Pixie Stix and Coco Puffs. But at the turn of the century, perhaps the cakes would have been a real treat for kids. Generally, adults liked them and I found a surprising amount of people who were excited about the molasses flavor. As with my other baked goods, the little cakes were extremely thick and hardy. Though I was unsure about the recipe at first, the Cakes came together decently. The maple candies, despite my misadventure with burning, still turned out to be quite tasty- the burning gave them a complex smoky flavor that could be enjoyed while it melted in one's mouth. In my experience you're either a total maple-lover or aloof. In the eyes of maple lovers, nothing with maple flavor can be less than excellent- that was the case with these candies, which won great acclaim from my maple-loving friends. If I were to do this recipe again, I would do some research into hard candy making, temperature, and cooking thermometers.

At the same time that I am getting used to cooking with few instructions, it still catches me off-guard sometimes. I expected recipes to get more and more detailed and user-friendly as I moved forward through time. The recipes this week were two of the most challenging I've produced this far, partly due to lack of directions and partly due to lack of modern cooking tools. One possible explanation for the increased difficulty is intended audience for the cookbooks. I worked with two specialty cookbooks this week- one geared towards Yale housewives and one towards women in Salem, Massachusetts interested in domestic history. Members of both those populations likely had a solid basis in domestic science. All I know for certain is that, though I've moved into the twentieth century, the recipes haven't gotten any easier.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Heritage of Heritage

I was excited to examine this week’s cookbooks, 1900’s Feeding the Professor by the Yale Faculty Wives Guild, and 1910’s What Salem Dames Cooked by the Esther C. Mack Industrial School. Both book topics seemed hyper-specialized and rather bizarre. I have to admit, I was a little disappointed at the lack of theme carried through in these books. I expected detailed descriptions of why this recipe was more suited for academics, and why witches favored that recipe. What I got was serious-minded collections, with content not all that different from your average Joy of Cooking.

Feeding the Professor- what a classic title! Showcasing the era when academia was limited to men, and their wives stayed home and cooked. It also calls out professors as an entirely different breed, one that must be “fed” differently than your average fellow. Unfortunately, the book itself offers little insight to its intent, the choice of title, or why these recipes are particularly appropriate for professors. The only explanation given is, “Some of the housekeepers of New Haven have given up secret recipes held for generations.” In looking through the recipes, I did notice a pattern of internationally focused foods- Dutch Pie Cake, Hungarian Horns, Coffee Bavarian Cream. Perhaps in marketing this as an academic’s cookbook, the wives were catering to a crowd that wanted to be elite and worldly. Interestingly enough, in contrast to the pattern I’ve seen of recipes becoming more and more detailed over time, these recipes have less specific instructions. Maybe these faculty wives were so accomplished and had so little to do that they had absolutely mastered the basics of proper cooking, and assumed others had too. I’ll be attempting the recipe with the intriguing, though somewhat disturbing title, Cakes the Children Cry For.

The title What Salem Dames Cooked left me looking for the kind of witch-focused kitsch associated with Salem today. I hoped the book would show me the origins of that tourist-trapping fictionalization of the most infamous events of Salem’s history. I was a little sad when I found that the cookbook was written as straight, serious history. Though I found no recipes calling for eye of newt, I did find a direct predecessor of this very project! The book includes recipes from three historic cookbooks, The Compleat Cook’s Guide from 1683, The Frugal Housewife or Complete Woman Cook from 1730, and Old Grandmother’s Cookbook from 1800. There is also a section of recipes from women in Salem at the time the book was published. People in turn-of-the-century Salem were evidently interested in seeing how people used to cook, making sure that was not lost. The people of Salem in 1910, were apparently intrigued by trying out historic recipes, just as I am. From this book, I’ll be attempting Maple Creams from the 1900 section of the book.

Both these books, though lacking prefaces that would explain the ideological basis of the themes, show a shifting view of the importance of heritage. The Yale Faculty Wives Guild is interested in creating something that preserves recipes that have been “held for generations,” and the Salem cookbook does the same. And here I am, adding another layer to the already complex history of the culinary landscape. It's exciting to see my predecessors in these books, those who were interested in culinary history and preservation of that heritage long before me.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


This week was, to put it simply, delicious. Especially after last week. Civil War hospital jelly cannot hold a candle to chocolate jumbles and gingerbread. I began with the jumbles. Luckily, I spotted a fatal typo in the directions before it could ruin the recipe. It instructed me to add the eggs twice, when the first time, it really wanted the sugar. The hardest part of the recipe? Grating the chocolate. It took a substantial amount of time and effort to grate the four Baker's squares down to size. Thanks to the three friends who helped, and made it so each of us only had to grate one square. The efforts were certainly worth it though, as the batter (pictured on the left, in all its glory) smelled heavenly. It also proved a challenge to add the “flour sufficient” to the batter. The "flour sufficient" would theoretically turn the dough to a consistency that could be rolled out like piecrust. It never reached that point, but did get to a state where I could flatten and cut it into strips. This recipe, like many I've done for this project, required a good deal of interpretation and guess work.

The gingerbread was probably the most straightforward and modern recipe I’ve worked with thus far. I had no problems following the instructions and there were no challenges with ambiguous steps or processes simply not done in modern kitchens. But unfortunately, no problems also means no real stories to put in the blog. I feel like the Boston cooking textbook really represents a leap into modern cooking in a way that will make my experimentation a little less exciting.

As for end products, I was surprised by people’s reactions to the chocolate jumbles. To me, the cookies were chock full of fudgey goodness. They looked like little donuts, as the powdered sugar topping them had melted into a glaze in the oven. But only about half the people who tried them really loved them. The other half said they were just okay, often noting that the chocolate flavor was different than they were used to. I think the consensus was that the chocolate was a little bitter. No offense to those folks, but I think one has to be a chocolate connoisseur to appreciate the recipe. You have to enjoy a rich cocoa flavor for its own sake, and not for the sugar added. As for me, these jumbles are certainly going into my repertoire for the future.

The gingerbread, on the other hand, was a universal success. Again, I think it relates to familiarity and modernity of the recipe. It reminded many people of grandparents and holidays and all such wonderful things. Some people did comment that it was some of the densest gingerbread they had ever tasted, but didn’t seem to mind. This is consistent with my experiences of 19th century recipes being extremely dense. Though I may be moving into more modern recipes, they still produce foods that are extremely hardy and filling, able to prepare people for a day of physical labor.

Overall, I think both recipes had great results and both will stay in my personal cookbook for future occasions. I’ve already had a request from home to make a historic dessert for Thanksgiving.