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.

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