Lumpy Tums: 1857

I love cereal. I wanted a cereal bar at my wedding rather than an actual meal, but reactions ranged from laughter followed by “oh, you’re not joking?” to “I will literally take my gift back if you do that.”

I’m not talking any old cereal, though. Offer me a bowl of muesli and I will end our friendship right there on the spot. Same goes for plain Shredded Wheat, Special K or Fruit and Fibre (actually, anything with ‘fruit’ in the title.) No, good cereal has to be so sweet it could melt my face and it has to come in small pieces (piss off, Weetabix). There are many lists online ranking the top cereal choices but I have yet to find one that is truly accurate and so I present a world wide exclusive: the first correct ranking of the top five UK cereals.

The top 5 UK cereals…

  1. Cocopops. It’s a surprise to no one; this cheeky little contender has been top of my list since I could eat. I have never met a person who doesn’t like Cocopops – and I don’t want to. Cocopops are so small you can eat a half a family sized box in one go without feeling too bad, they transform your milk into chocolate milkshake and if you drizzle a spoon of double cream over the top of them they clump together and you get a mouthful of delicious chocolatey, creamy goodness.
  2. Frosties. I’m happy with branded or unbranded to be honest. These are my go to when I crave a sugar hit. I eat them straight out of the bag, standing over the sink like a first year undergrad student and not like the 28 year old married mother I am.
  3. Crunchy Nut Clusters. Here’s the thing – no one knows what these are. No one knows what makes the clusters taste like that. On the packet it just says ‘wheat and rice flakes’, but I’ve been eating wheat and rice for a long time now and I’ve never known them to taste as good as whatever these are. They could be little balls of crack cocaine for all I know. They probably are little balls of crack cocaine given how addictive they are.
  4. Bran Flakes with sugar and sprinkles. A controversial choice but hear me out. People love rebelling, right? Me too. But I don’t love actually getting into trouble. The most rebellious thing I’ve ever done is press the bell on a bus and then not get off when it stopped (and that was an accident anyway.) So here’s what you do: take the most boring, grown up cereal available – nothing more than dehydrated cardboard, really – and you slather it in full fat milk. Now it’s marginally more edible. Then you get a bag of really cheap uber refined white sugar and a ladle and you go to town on it. Once the Bran Flakes have mostly been covered, dig out some cake decorations: hundreds and thousands, silver balls, jelly diamonds – whatever you like. Decorate and serve. This one WILL get you in trouble with your dentist but you only have to see them twice a year anyway.
  5. Frosted shreddies. Not as good as their bog standard Frosties cousins, because once the sugariness has melted into the milk you are essentially just left with a bowl of pap, but still good in a pinch.

Runners up include Cinnamon Grahams (I will not call them Curiously Cinnamon – not now, not ever), mini chocolate Weetabix and Cookie Crisp (when eaten dry – as soon as you add milk to them they’re ruined.)

The king of cereal. Credit here.

…The worst UK cereals.

For balance I have also included the top 5 worst cereals.

  1. Muesli. There isn’t one adult alive who disagrees, no matter how zen and clean eating they are.
  2. Bircher muesli. See above.
  3. Literally anything with dried fruit. Dried fruit is really sugar dense, so why do these cereals try and market themselves as a healthy option? If you’re getting your sugary kicks from freeze dried strawberries or teeny tiny raisins then please stop, have a look at yourself, and get hold of some Frosties instead.
  4. Sugar Puffs. You’d think I’d be all about these, right? Nope. They taste burned, they’re too chewy and the monster on the front looks like a perv.
  5. Golden Nuggets. Just thinking about how soft and melty they go round the edges makes me feel a bit sick. It’s like eating foam.

What’s the point of this?

Just doing my job as an educator.

Sadly for them, the people of 19th century Britain didn’t have access to Cocopops or Frosties. They were lucky if they could get hold of some muesli. Imagine! Lucky!

The first ready to eat breakfast cereal was an American creation called Granula, in 1863. In Britain, ready to eat cereal didn’t appear until 1902 when Force brought Wheat Flakes over to the country from America. But that didn’t mean that the idea of eating something wholesome in milk in the morning was non existent until this point; evidence of porridge like meals have been found in Britain dating from 2500 years ago.

The secret to his sunniness is gin instead of milk. Credit here.

This is where Lumpy Tums comes in, with possibly the cutest name ever. The first reference to it is in Thomas Wright’s Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English: Containing Words from the English Writers, where it is called Lumpy-Jumms. In 1881 it crops up again in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette Daily, being described as “the porridge of our forefathers”. Both references imply it is an incredibly simple but wholesome dish.

Lumpy Tums, still eaten in some parts of the UK, are made of oatmeal which is sprinkled with water, squeezed into firm balls and then boiled before being served in pools of hot milk. They were originally from the Peak District, where oats grew particularly well, but filtered down to the Midlands over time – anywhere where farming communities needed sustenance on a budget. The beauty of Lumpy Tums was that they were adaptable depending on individual circumstances; you could eat them with honey, butter, treacle or plain, but the core ingredients always stayed the same: oats and water.

I wonder what the collective noun for Lumpy Tums is. A lumpening? An oatery?

I have to admit that a bowl of boiled oat balls without anything added to it sounded like it belonged on my worst UK cereals list. As I read more of the Gazette’s opinion on Lumpy Tums, my concern grew: “It is not too much to say that we should not have subdued India, or peopled the Colonies, or destroyed the Armada, or won Gibraltar, or conquered Napoleon, charged at Balaclava, or stormed the gates of Delhi, but for porridge!” I didn’t have the desire to do any of this, but I appreciated the flex it took to attribute some of the brutalities of the British Empire to a hearty breakfast and not, say, pathologically racist ideologies of the time.

Anyway. I began tentatively (lest I became overwhelmed with an urge to invade South Asia or declare war on France) by weighing out 100g of Scottish oatmeal and adding 3 tablespoons of water. The mixture took some squidging, but eventually I was able to form small balls the “size of a nut”, as suggested. I had already heated a pan of water to boil so I cooked these in batches of five for about four or five minutes. Trying to remain positive about how simple and tasteless these seemed, I considered that they had already met one of my criteria for Good Cereal – small pieces.

I heated a bowl of milk to just below boiling and plopped the boiled Tums into it. They sat, a little underwhelming, in the pool of steaming milk. I deliberately chose full fat milk as this was closest to the type people would have had in the mid 19th century and I hoped adding a little creaminess would help improve the blandness.

The verdict.

An interesting way to eat porridge.

There’s not a lot to say about the taste; it was like eating balls of plain porridge. Inoffensive and warming, but not exciting. The texture was more interesting than the taste. I’d expected these to disintegrate in the boiling water but they held their shape well and could even be sliced clean in half. They were far chewier than regular porridge, which I quite liked. Eating them with hot milk was far better than eating them with cold milk – it just felt more right, somehow. Perhaps it was because the heat added another element to an otherwise fairly boring meal.

Fortunately for me, Lumpy Tums could also be enjoyed in ways other than plain. I experimented with honey and treacle, finding a good drizzle of honey improved the taste significantly, and eventually ended up on Paul Couchman – The Regency Cook‘s excellent Twitter account, which had fortuitously posted an excerpt of Hannah Glasse’s 1747 recipe for Hasty Pudding, another oatmeal and water concoction.

At the bottom of the excerpt, Glasse recommended eating Hasty Pudding with sugar and wine. I quickly spooned a liberal helping of sugar onto the Lumpy Tums (abstaining from wine as it was still fairly early and I was unsure whether a glass of wine mixed into a bowl of milk would work well or not) and finished them up.

As interesting a way to eat porridge as these were, I think at the end of the day (or the start of the day?) I’d still rather have a bowl of Cocopops.

E x

Lumpy Tums

100g oatmeal
3 tablespoons of water
A cereal bowl of milk
Sugar, honey or any other alternatives you prefer

  1. Bring a pan of water to the boil.
  2. Pour 3 tablespoons of cold water into the oatmeal and mix until it is combined and you can form solid round lumps by squeezing it in your hand.
  3. Roll the oatmeal into balls and gently place into a pan of boiling water.
  4. Cook each ball for four to five minutes and then remove with a slotted spoon. Leave to drain for a minute or two on a plate.
  5. Heat the milk to just below boiling and add it to a bowl.
  6. Place the Lumpy Tums into the boiling milk and add whatever toppings you like. Eat.
  7. Declare war on France.

Apricot Ice-Cream: 1747

In under two weeks September will be here and autumn will be just around the corner. It seems strange to think that summer will be over in a month when it feels like it never really got going: No festivals, no big getaways abroad, school holidays that seemed to be welcomed mostly by worn out parents exhausted from pretending they knew their 12 times tables off by heart or what a fronted adverbial was.

I’m looking forward to autumn in a month, but I’m not ready for summer to end yet. For that reason I wanted to make something sunny and bright and quintessentially summery while I still could: ice cream.

Actually, I don’t like ice cream that much. It’s not that I won’t eat it – I’m not a total weirdo – but it’s not my go-to treat food. If I’m having ice cream it’s usually because other people are having it and I’ve bowed to a peculiar form of creamy peer pressure. I thought my aloof detachment would help me be objective, then, when reviewing the end result of today’s experiment. My husband just hoped it meant there’d be more for him.

The recipe I’m using today comes from Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery (more about the background here). I almost missed it as I flicked through the book because it was sandwiched between a recipe for Mock Turtle Soup and Jellied Turkey – I don’t know why.

Hannah’s signature is at the top. Credit here.

Pare and stone twelve ripe apricots, and scald them, beat them fine…add to them six ounces of double-refined sugar, and a pint of cream…

The Art of Cookery, Hannah Glasse

It seemed delightfully simple. Almost like cheating. I decided to follow Hannah’s method word for word in order to allay my feelings of fraud; there would be no electronically aided blending, no fridge-freezing, no automatic churning here. Instead, I would endeavor to copy out both her ingredients and method as closely as possible.

The first step was to peel the apricots. I had never tried to do this before and the knife kept slipping as juice ran over my fingers.

“Hey, Google,” I said out loud to my ever present master. “How do you peel an apricot?”

“The perk of using an apricot is that most recipes don’t require the smooth skin of the apricot to be peeled,” Google recited back to me.

Wanting to bank some brownie points in preparation for the day technology rises up and overthrows us, I quietly thanked Google for its time and research instead of doing what I wanted to do which was hold the device under water in frustration.

It turns out that if you scald apricots in hot water and then transfer them to ice water, the skin becomes marginally easier to peel off. It still took ages and I still ended up slicing my finger with a knife, but I actually think that lent a pleasant pink colour to the ice cream…(joking.)

I mashed the hot apricots in a mortar until they were pulpy and added a pint of just boiling double cream and six ounces of sugar. Then I strained the whole lot through a sieve into a tupperware box with a lid.

Tupperware wasn’t invented until 1946.

I checked the instructions again.

Put it in a tin with a close cover, and set it in a tub of ice broke small, with four handfuls of salt mixed among the ice. When you see your cream grow thick round the edges of your tin, stir it well, and put it in again till it is quite thick…

The Art of Cookery, Hannah Glasse

It implied the use of a metal tin, which would also help to lower the temperature too once surrounded by ice and help with the freezing process. I tore the kitchen apart looking for something metal with a lid and found a tin with an icing bag set in it I’d been given as a gift. Having tipped the nozzles and bag out of the tin to meet their fate as ‘detritus on the bottom of the baking equipment drawer’ I carefully poured the mixture from the tupperware to the tin.

With the tin filled, I piled a large salad bowl (I know, I was amazed I owned one too) full of ice which I then sprinkled with coarse salt and placed the tin in. This was a common way of making ice cream before the invention of freezers and the principle behind it was based on the fact that salt lowers the freezing temperature of water, which aids the production of ice cream. I dropped all science subjects as soon as I could in school, so here’s a little more about the physics (or is it chemistry?) behind that for boffins people who like that sort of thing.

Ice cream on ice.

I left the the tin of cream, nestled in ice and salt, for twenty minutes to thicken. After that time, I returned, stirred the mixture and recovered with more ice and salt. Hannah Glasse stated that if I liked I could pour the ice cream into a mould at this point, to create fancy displays, but since I’d had to search high and low for something as simple as a metal tin, the chances of finding a fancy ice cream mould were slim. I made the decision that my ice cream would be served straight out of its tub.

In 1885 Agnes Marshall – the Queen of Ices – patented one of the first British ice cream makers. This was a wooden device with a metal bowl in the middle that cream was poured into. Crushed ice and salt were added to the wooden bowl and a handle was turned to churn the cream round. It dramatically reduced the wait time for home made ice cream and was a pioneering invention at the time. Unfortunately, Mrs Marshall’s invention came over 100 years too late for me, and I was forced to wait for four hours before my ice cream was anywhere near done.

After what felt like an age I was able to spoon it into bowls.

It was the consistency of a Mr Whippy, if Mr Whippy served ice cream from the pits of volcanoes. I had succeeded in making a very thick, very creamy soup, but it definitely wasn’t cone worthy. You could drink it through a straw, for God’s sake. How on earth this was ever meant to have held its shape in a fancy mould was beyond me. Perhaps somewhat tellingly, Hannah Glasse had added an instruction to “never turn it out [of the mould] till the moment you want it…”

Clearly, I had gone wrong somewhere and closer inspection showed me that the likely culprit was melted ice, which had leaked through the tin lid over time. I was crushed, as earlier inspections had been so promising. Nonetheless, I dutifully tried the liquid concoction anyway. Cream was the main flavour, with a subtly fruity aftertaste. Though it clearly contained fruit, it was a delicate flavour and not immediately recognisable as apricot – guesses ranged from greengage to peach. It was also not too sweet, which was at least a refreshing and welcome take on Mr Whippy.

Despite the somewhat disappointing structure, it was delicious. How could it not be when all it contained was fruit, cream and sugar? My husband polished off two bowl in one sitting, arguing that since it didn’t look like “proper ice cream” it couldn’t be as unhealthy.

Overall, though I am grateful to Hannah Glasse for showing me an ice cream alternative to the saccharine sweet offerings in my local Sainsburys, I have to admit that it looked far better after a few hours in the freezer, when I could actually scoop great lumps of it out of the tin. However, if anyone was after a very labour intensive milkshake, then this is the recipe for them.

Hannah Glasse would be turning in her grave if she could see this…

E x

Apricot Ice-Cream

12 apricots
1 pint of double cream
170g sugar
Rock salt
3kg ice

  1. Peel and stone the apricots
  2. Plunge the apricots into boiling water for 30 seconds, then remove.
  3. Pound the apricots in a mortar and pestle until they form a pulp.
  4. Add cream and sugar to the apricots.
  5. Push the mixture through a sieve into a metal tin with a tight fitting lid.
  6. Place 2kg of ice and 4 big handfuls of salt in a large bowl. Place the tin among the ice, trying to cover the sides and top.
  7. After 20 minutes, stir the ice cream. Replace the ice.
  8. Replace the ice with the remaining kg as it melts.
  9. After no less than 4 hours, check on the ice cream. It should be thick and able to be scooped. Eat it immediately, as it it will melt fast.

Domino Cake: 1898

What’s pink, plump and smells faintly of booze?

Hopefully you’ve given the correct answer – Domino cake – and not the answer that my soon to be ex-husband gave when I asked him: “you”.

What I’m trying to recreate today is probably better known under its modern day name “Battenberg cake”. Or rather, it’s a close variation of it. Or rather rather, it’s the cake that Battenberg cake is based on.

The origins of Battenberg cake are hazy to say the least. An oft-repeated story goes that Battenberg cake was created in 1884 to celebrate the marriage of Prince Louis of Battenberg to the Queen’s granddaughter, Princess Victoria. The novelty cake was supposedly presented to the happy couple with the alternating coloured panes representing the bond and unity between the groom, Prince Louis, and…his other Battenberg brothers. We don’t have a record of Princess Victoria’s reaction to being given a cake celebrating her husband and his family – but not her! – on her own wedding day, but the gift serves as an important reminder that, when it came to royal weddings from the past, the bride wasn’t necessarily the most – or even second most – important person there.

Princesses Irene, Victoria, Elisabeth and Alix: where was their bloody cake?!

Deep seated though this origin story is, there’s actually very little contemporary evidence to support it. Even the eminent food historian Ivan Day (who has written not one but three excellent blog posts about the history of Battenberg cake) could find little in the way of conclusive proof of the provenance of this cake.

Day points out that recipes for cakes with coloured sections wrapped in marzipan were published in England towards the end of the 19th century, but that the earliest cakes going under the name “Battenburg cakes” (with a ‘u’, not an ‘e’), originally had nine panes, which casts the whole four-Battenberg-brothers tale into doubt. Perhaps there were five extra secret brothers history is unaware of – in which case the cake maker should have been recognised as the most important wedding guest (have you ever tried to make an original nine panelled royal wedding cake?!) – but it seems unlikely.

In another blow to fans of the wedding cake theory, these nine sectioned “Battenburg” cakes didn’t appear until 1898 – a full fourteen years after the royal wedding took place. Queen Victoria – grandmother to the newly wedded bride – was considered something of a trend setter in her day. It seems unlikely that a brand new cake, created to honour the marriage between a member of the British royal family and a German prince (and his eight siblings?!) wouldn’t, therefore, have been copied in high society.

Whatever the truth is, the scaled-down four paned Battenberg cakes we’re familiar with today don’t appear to have been produced until the early 20th century when Lyons & Co. began to mass produce them. Again, the oracle Day suggests that the switch from nine panels to four may have been a decision based on what was easier to mass produce.

A four paned cake was going to be tricky enough to recreate in one morning, but nine panes was going to be a challenge. Furthermore, Domino cake wasn’t just content to up the cake content, but included additional ingredients like alcohol – making it a sort of grown-up version of Battenberg.

Domino Cake

The original recipe can be found in the Victorian magazine The Table, which was edited by Mrs Agnes Marshall: “Queen of Ices” and author of four highly successful books dedicated to the production of ice cream (which sort of makes it a shame she didn’t pick the better nickname “Ice Queen” instead.) As well as publishing cookbooks, Mrs Marshall was an successful entrepreneur and inventor, patenting a design for a machine which could freeze cream in five minutes and starting a business with her husband selling cookery products. Food historian Emma Kay called Marshall “one of the fiercest, most ambitious and successful women of her generation” and Robin Weir placed her on a par with other celebrity chefs of her time.

Despite her moniker, public knowledge of Mrs Marshall’s works is slim. This is partly because when she died in 1905 the rights to her works were bought by Ward Lock, the company that published Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. This publishing house was, unsurprisingly, not interested in publishing another Victorian cookbook and jeopardizing the lucrative market they’d cornered by promoting Mrs B’s relatively bland offerings at the expense of other 19th century cooks, so they let the collective works of Mrs Marshall fall into obscurity. The final nail in the coffin for Mrs Marshall’s reputation came in the 1950s, when a fire destroyed the archival collection of her works.

In the July 1898 edition of The Table, the recipe for Domino cake is under the fancy French name “Gateau à la Domino” and it appears to be an original Marshall creation, long before the time of mass produced cakes from Lyons & Co.

Mrs Marshall’s cake featured the classic nine paned pattern wrapped in marzipan, but it was decidedly more upmarket than similar “Battenburgs” of the time. For one thing, the marzipan contained maraschino and vanilla essence. The quantity and quality of ingredients were also greater than the average Battenberg, with lemon peel and almond essence being incorporated into the genoese sponge and an extra sweet apricot glace (rather than bog standard apricot jam) being used to hold the cake sections together.

I began by making the sponges, which Mrs Marshall called Genoise Paste. First, I mixed butter and lemon peel together then hand beat the mixture with sugar for ten minutes, or until my arm fell off. I added five eggs, baking powder, almond essence and 8oz of plain flour to the batter before dividing it into half and colouring one half red. Mrs Marshall called for “carmine” to be used to colour the mix red, which during her time would have been from the cochineal beetle. Despite my most lacklustre efforts, I couldn’t find enough beetles to squeeze a really good measure of liquid from and a promisingly juicy worm turned out to be an old pink shoelace. I had to use “Red Red” food colouring instead which was, in fairness, more red than any beetle could have produced anyway. And less…crunchy.

Once the batter was baking in the oven I started work on the marzipan – or almond paste, as Mrs Marshall referred to it. This was pretty straightforward but after ten minutes of vigorous butter-beating my arm was tingling in a peculiar way and I could hear my wrist click with every gesture, so I snorted at Mrs M’s suggestion to hand knead ground almonds (as a true entrepreneur, she advised using her own brand of ground almonds), icing sugar, maraschino and egg white into a stiff paste, and bunged it all into the blender.

When the cakes were cool, I cut them into 6×1 inch rectangles: four pink and five white. This meant we had a bit of spare cake left over, but I’m not sure anyone in my household saw that as a problem. At least, not one that wasn’t easily overcome.

The moment you need a tape measure to make a cake is the moment you have gone too far.

With the cake rectangles arranged in a checkerboard pattern on top of the rolled out marzipan, I heated half a jar of apricot jam with 2oz of caster sugar and a little water until all the sugar had dissolved and pushed the mixture through a sieve. This was the apricot glace which would stick the cake bits together.

Once each cake piece had been given a coating of glace, the marzipan was gently rolled up the sides of the cake and smoothed down. The edges were trimmed off – Mrs M was very insistent that the ends of the cake should not be covered – and the whole thing was given a light dusting of icing sugar.

Actually, not a bad wedding gift after all.

I stepped back. It actually looked like something resembling a Battenberg cake! In fact, it looked better than a Battenberg cake because of the extra five panes and for a mad minute I thought about applying to Bake Off; after all, hadn’t they used Battenberg as a technical challenge before? And here I was more than doubling the amount of squares like it was no big deal.

“Yeah, but that was a celebrity Bake Off,” my husband informed me. “It’s like the pre-school version of Bake Off where you get marks just for knowing how to use a spatula.”

Celeb Bake Off or not, I reckon Paul would have given me a handshake for this one; it had nine identifiable and pretty much identical squares, the marzipan was of an even thickness and, most importantly, there was no trace of a soggy bottom.

Though it looked very much like a pimped up Battenberg, the taste and texture was a little different. Despite containing sugar, icing sugar and sweetened jam it was still far less sweet than I was used to which I suppose just goes to show how sugar laden mass produced cakes can be. I was a bit worried the cake would be dry, but the apricot glace helped prevent that and the sweet apricot flavour went well with the other fruit and nut flavours.

What I was most surprised by was the marzipan, which was far less almondy than I expected. Instead, the primary flavour was a sort of bitter cherry thanks to the maraschino – not at all unpleasant, but not what I was used to. I found myself picking off the marzipan coating and eating it without the cake to try and pinpoint the exact flavours.

Overall, for a cake that required the use of a measuring tape, this wasn’t as complicated to make as I thought it would be. It was also really interesting to make something that looked so similar to a modern day favourite, but with just enough differences to make it slightly unfamiliar – it was like looking at another piece of a puzzle you thought you’d already completed.

In the end I have to take back my earlier, snarky comments about this being a wedding present. I don’t know how Princess Victoria might have felt upon receiving a cake celebrating her husband and his eight brothers on her wedding day, but if it had been me I wouldn’t have cared at all – as long as I didn’t have to share it with them.

Domino Cake

225g butter
225g plain flour
225g caster sugar
5 eggs
Lemon peel
Almond essence
Baking powder
Red food colouring

For the marzipan:
1 egg white
280g icing sugar
140g ground almonds
Vanilla essence
Dessert spoon of maraschino

For the apricot glace:
150g apricot jam
50g sugar
Dessert spoon of water

  1. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C.
  2. In a bowl, mix butter and lemon peel until smooth and white.
  3. Add the sugar and beat well.
  4. Add the eggs, baking powder and flour, a little at a time, and incorporate.
  5. Add 8 drops of almond essence and mix.
  6. Divide the batter into two halves. Leave one half plain and colour the other half red with a few drops of food colouring.
  7. Portion the batter into two small baking trays (I used 25x17cm) and bake for 15-20 minutes.
  8. Place the ingredients for the marzipan into a blender and blend until they form a stiff paste.
  9. Place the marzipan into the fridge to firm up.
  10. Once the cakes are baked, allow them to cool and the slice them into rectangles 6x1inch. You need 5 white and 4 red.
  11. Heat the apricot jam with the sugar and water and when it is dissolved, push the mixture through a sieve.
  12. Roll the marzipan out into a sheet about 1cm thick and brush a little apricot glace onto the centre of it.
  13. Arrange the first layer of cake on top of the apricot glazed marzipan: white, red, white.
  14. Brush the sides and top of the cake layer with apricot glace and arrange the second layer: red, white, red.
  15. Brush the sides and top of the cake layer with apricot glace and arrange the second layer: white, red, white.
  16. Brush the sides and top and then roll the marzipan up over the cake layers, smoothing it down at the sides until it covers the cake.
  17. Flip the cake over so that the marzipan join is hidden along the bottom and trim off the excess marzipan.
  18. Dust with icing sugar and serve with a cup of tea.

Chocolate Soufflé: 1861

It was world chocolate day yesterday, apparently. Normally these celebrations pass me by a bit – there’s a world meatball day, a coffee day, a hamburger day and a porridge day. Obviously I’m looking forward to 24th October – world tripe day – but mostly I’m a bit cynical and imagine that behind the merriment and random recipes there’s a big fat corporation greedily counting its money.

But it didn’t escape my attention that 7th July was designated world chocolate day. Call me boring, call me clichéd but that’s one food day I can get behind and you’ll be happy to know that I made sure to celebrate by eating as much of it as I could – chocolate biscuits, chocolate bars, chocolate cake, hot chocolate. All enjoyed with appropriate solemnity for the occasion, of course, and not at all gorged with reckless abandon as I attempted to prove the “share” part of a family sized bag of Buttons was more a guideline than a rule.

I’ve not done too many chocolate recipes, mostly because the glorious stuff wasn’t known about in Europe until the 16th century and so recipes containing it (in a modern format) are fairly limited. Its history is fascinating, though.

Who are these people that get paid to take photos of chocolate and how can I get that job?
Photo by Pixabay on

There’s a lot of terminology around chocolate but modern experts tend to refer to cacao as the unprocessed plant or bean while chocolate is the word for anything made from the processed beans. Whatever you call it, chocolate in all its forms was a highly prized item. In pre-colonial Mesoamerica, where it originated, cacao was used as a symbol of wealth; when Cortés arrived to plunder Tenochitlan in 1519, he and his men witnessed a ceremony where Montezuma II was served over 50 jars of chocolate to drink. Cortés and his men might not have fully grasped the awesome display of wealth they were seeing, but to other Mesoamericans the excessive amount of chocolate drink would have signified Montezuma’s extreme power because of the number of beans needed to make so many drinks. Similary, a 16th century document tells us that cacao was valuable enough to the Aztecs to use as currency – in 1543 40 cacao beans were paid daily to workers in maguey fields.

The Spaniards didn’t think much of chocolate at first, describing it as “a bitter drink for pigs“, but brought it back to Spain nonetheless where it continued to be largely disregarded until someone realised that if you added cane sugar or honey to it, it suddenly became an indulgent sweet drink. By the 17th century sweetened chocolate drinks were being enjoyed by the rich all over Europe for its taste but also for its supposed medicinal and aphrodisiac properties (Casanova was apparently a great fan.)

It wasn’t until 1828 that Coenraad van Houten invented the cocoa press, which separated out the cocoa fats from the bean and left a powder which could be added to milk, much like a modern day hot chocolate. This process also meant that chocolate could be mass produced, making it cheaper and more available to the wider public. In 1847 J. S. Fry and Sons realised that combining the fat and liqour from pressed cocoa and adding sugar could create a mouldable solid and voila! the chocolate bar was born.

These early bars were dark and were enjoyed in small quantities as the taste was still fairly strong and bitter. Cadbury’s had some initial success in 1861 with boxes of luxury chocolates, branded ‘Fancy Boxes’. The small chocolates in these boxes were branded as indulgent gifts and were designed to be enjoyed in small dainty mouthfuls (a scientific impossibility as experts* on chocolate consumption have since discovered.)

Eventually, in 1875, the Swiss chocolatier Daniel Peter had the novel idea of adding milk powder (after trying and failing with liquid milk, which caused the chocolate to seize) and created milk chocolate, which was an instant hit. Rival chocolate firms scrabbled around to imitate the creamy taste and in 1905 Cadbury’s released the first Dairy Milk bar, which boasted a higher percentage of milk than any other competitor brand.

Is all this background info just your excuse to try different types of chocolate?

No, actually.

I don’t like dark chocolate. It’s high up on the list of sophisticated tastes that adult palates are supposed to enjoy that I don’t, along with red wine and liquor, blue cheese; strong coffee. In theory I should be a beacon of health, right? In reality I’ve overcompensated for not liking these foods by developing a palate as fond of sugar and fizz as that of a child – frosted cereal, milkshakes, entire jars of Nutella on one slice of toast. Okay, fine – it’s the palate of a child with irresponsible parents. So what? I had a great childhood and my fillings light up a room when I smile.

Because of this I was only sort of excited to try Mrs Beeton’s recipe for chocolate soufflé, given that it was published in 1861 – a full 14 years before anyone had successfully manufactured milk chocolate. My husband, who’s a certified signed up Adult(TM), was, however, delighted by the idea of this experiment (even though I made it for breakfast in rebellious solidarity with my inner child.)

First I separated four eggs and added a few teaspoons of sugar and flour to the yolks. Mrs Beeton then told me to add 85g of “best chocolate”, which unfortunately meant dark chocolate. I used Bournville because even though it wasn’t sold until 1908 – and it definitely isn’t the best quality – it was what was most readily available at 8:00am when I decided to make soufflé. I just had to hope that the average bar of 2020 Bournville chocolate was as good as a very good bar of 1861 chocolate. It took forever to grate, but eventually I had a small pile of very finely grated chocolate, which I mixed into the egg yolks.

My next deviation from the original recipe was to use an electric whisk to whip the egg whites into stiff peaks. Stiff peaks formed, I folded the egg whites into the yolk and chocolate mixture trying not to beat all of the air out of it. The soufflé was then portioned out into buttered ramekins and baked for 20 minutes.

Little fluffy clouds in a pool of sewage.

Once they were in the oven I found I was filled with dread that they wouldn’t rise and I’d be left with two deflated eggy messes. I started to do initially nonchalant but increasingly neurotic soufflé inspections: I began by wandering into the kitchen every couple of minutes to check on the oven, pretending that I’d left the milk out or the hob on. Then there were a couple of innocent peeks through the door to check that they were rising properly and before I knew it I was kneeling on the floor, face pressed against the hot glass, hissing “rise my beauties, rise!”

And rise they did. The second wave of dread washed over me as I read “the proper appearance of this dish depends entirely on the expedition with which it is served…if allowed to stand after it comes from the oven, it will be entirely spoiled, as it falls almost immediately.”

Entirely. Spoiled.

Has a more terrifying phrase ever been written? And what was worse is that it seemed totally unavoidable – I could have absolutely nailed the recipe, even use the very best of best chocolate – and it would all be for nothing if I shuffled instead of sprinted to the table when serving it.

I prepped myself for the worst, took a deep breath and whisked the soufflé’s from the oven so fast I was at risk of breaking the sound barrier.

“Stand back!” I roared at my husband as I ran to the table to photo them before they deflated.

In the end Mrs Beeton had maybe exaggerated the delicate nature of soufflé; yes, they sunk slightly within a minute or so of being out of the oven, but they were hardly “spoiled.” At least, not spoiled enough to render them inedible for breakfast.

Totally forgot to add powdered sugar when they came out of the oven which entirely spoiled them.

Not only did they look like chocolate soufflés, but they damn well tasted like them too; rich and dark without being too sweet. My husband particularly enjoyed this aspect to them because he said it made them feel “healthier”. Inside they were light and airy, but as they deflated they got a bit gooier and more unguent.

I didn’t finish all of mine because, well, dark chocolate. But my husband, buoyed by the seemingly wholesome nature of these, managed to finish off his own and the rest of my ramekin. Dark chocolate soufflé for breakfast: approved by Real Adults.

World chocolate day might be over, but I’m already counting down the days to next year when I can make a (milk chocolate) version of these again. Also, if someone could tell me the shortcut for the acute accent so that I don’t have to keep copy and pasting the “é” every time I write “soufflé” in the future, I would be forever indebted to you.

E x

* It’s me; I’m the expert on chocolate consumption.

Chocolate Soufflé

85g dark chocolate, finely grated.
1 teaspoon plain flour
3 teaspoons caster sugar
4 eggs

  1. Preheat an oven to 160 degrees C.
  2. Separate the egg whites from the yolks.
  3. Whisk the egg yolks and add the grated chocolate. Mix.
  4. Add the flour and sugar to the chocolate and egg yolk and whisk together until fully incorporated.
  5. Whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks.
  6. Fold the egg white into the egg yolk. Make sure not to over-fold to prevent the air escaping.
  7. Butter two large ramekins and divide the soufflé mixture between them.
  8. Place the soufflés into the oven and cook for 20 minutes. Do not open the oven door during cooking.
  9. Remove the soufflés and dust with icing sugar. Serve immediately.

Modern Chicken Pie: 1864

When planning today’s experiment I suddenly realised I hadn’t done a savoury Victorian recipe in quite a while. In my defense, Victorian food (barring cakes and puddings) doesn’t have the greatest reputation so it was hard to get excited about it. As Talia Schaffer points out, certain Victorian cooks like A. B. Marshall advised boiling food until it no longer resembled its original form and tasted of nothing. This was to avoid scandal befalling the diners; in a society obsessed with morality, strong flavours were believed to ignite sexual arousal – something that was largely condemned in polite Victorian society.

Or was it? Though the Victorian era tends to conjure up images of stuffy and repressed men and women glancing furtively at one another across candlelit parlours (as though making eye contact over a plate of macaroons was a particularly deviant crime), that’s not quite the full story. Of course certain groups fell into this category, but there’s also a lot of evidence to suggest that Victorian sexuality wasn’t all repressed and buttoned up; there are many accounts of couples enjoying all elements of their relationship and of same-sex relationships which were ‘allowed’ to flourish in relative privacy (up until 1885, at least, after which any homosexual act – private or public – became illegal.)

The trouble was that many Victorians had never been very good at speaking publically and openly about sex, and so any sexually liberated voices were trampled on by the overpowering moralism of the abstinence crowd. As the century wore on these various groups became louder and more opposed to what they saw as the degeneration of society; social moralists who believed sex caused “enfeeblement” in men even went so far as to promote the wearing of male anti-masturbation devices to ensure that men were not regularly depleting themselves of energy and brainpower by… well, you know.

Though the final few years of the 19th century saw a radical clash of ideas around sexuality, it was the prim and proper (and largely upper class) image of Victorian Britain that won out in popular culture and in the culture of the kitchen. Victorian food became immortalised in images of milk jelly or gristly lumps of unseasoned meat and as it did, so too did society’s belief that Victorian Britain was full of sexually frustrated aristocrats with no outlet other than long-winded poetry and endless walks in the countryside.

This post has not begun the way I thought it would…

Yeah, me neither.

Back to pies?

The ‘Victorians-hated-flavour-because-they-hated-sex’ myth can also be busted by looking at a range of recipes. Sure, a quick flip through the pages of the quintessential Victorian Mrs Beeton’s Household Management shows us that pretty bland recipes for the likes of tapioca and kale broth existed, but as well as being recommended for invalids (who were supposed to eat plain things to aid recovery) these recipes are interspersed with more exciting ones for things like chocolate cream and cake so laden with booze it was literally called “Tipsy cake”.

Powerhouse of the Victorian culinary scene though she was, Mrs Beeton wasn’t the only celebrity chef and today’s experiment is from another well-known 19th century cook: Eliza Acton.

Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families was originally published in 1845 but became so successful that it had been reprinted 13 times by 1853. Even modern day cooks praise Acton for her writing and recipes; Delia Smith commented that Acton was “the best writer of recipes in the English language” and food writer Bee Wilson referred to her as “my heroine” in 2011.

It seemed as though I was looking in the right place if I wanted to challenge the idea of Victorian food as being dull and bland. I flipped through the pages searching for something that would be a tasty thing to eat for dinner without tipping me into the abyss of moral corruption. Then I found it: chicken pie. Not just any chicken pie either: modern chicken pie. Acton didn’t explain what made this pie modern but it may have been the ingredients used; modern chicken pie contained a heady mixture of spiced chicken and sausage meat whereas an alternative recipe for “common chicken pie” didn’t have any sausage meat at all – not even a little bit – which must have appealed to the anti-sex members of Victorian society.

Don’t you dare do a ‘sausage meat’ joke. Your mother reads this blog.

Although Acton’s modern chicken pie recipe looked pretty tasty on its own, I still wanted more ‘wow’ factor to really put an end to the bland food myth. Over the next couple of pages I found instructions to make a raised pie – a type of pie that was generally taller and more ornate than standard pies and wasn’t baked in a tin or dish. Raised pies were the showstopper challenge on the Great British Bake Off 2017 pastry week episode, so it seemed a fitting choice. Acton also recommended that any of her pie recipes could be used for raised pies but cautioned that for an inexperienced pie baker (such as me) it was best to start by making a small one first, as the technique of hand moulding the case might take practice.

Following Acton’s method, I began on the pie crust. After making a dough of flour, melted butter and hot water I began to shape my pastry case by rolling it into a large mound and then pushing down to hollow out the centre so that it resembled a clay pot on a pottery wheel. One technique that’s sometimes used today is to shape the dough around a cake tin or pie dolly to ensure smooth edges and lines, allowing it to firm up and then removing it from the tin or dolly before baking. Acton also mentioned that it was difficult to achieve good results by “using the fingers only” and that usually only French cooks excelled at a totally free-hand form of pie making, which to me suggested that inexperienced cooks sometimes relied on props. Anyway, I counted myself as an inexperienced cook and shaped my dough round a small spring-form cake tin and popped it into the fridge to firm up for 20 minutes while I worked on the filling.

I could say I spent time making my own sausage meat but that would be a lie. I don’t feel too bad though as Acton’s recipe for sausage meat was lean pork, fat, sage, salt and pepper and these were the only ingredients listed in the sausage meat I bought. I also don’t have a meat grinder so any sausage meat I made was liable to be quite coarse, which Acton expressly mentioned as being a problem and something cooks should take great care to avoid.

Once I’d carefully unwrapped the parcel of sausage meat, I chopped two chicken breasts up into small chunks and seasoned them with cayenne pepper, salt, pounded mace and nutmeg. Things were definitely not looking bland! In fact, I was pretty impressed with how well the pie was holding its shape and how colourful the cayenne stained chicken was. It was then time to fill the pie with alternating layers of sausage meat and chicken before topping it and brushing with egg wash.

After one and a half hours it was done. It smelled delicious and, amazingly, it had held its shape and looked pretty impressive – if I do say so myself.

I desperately wanted to cut into it to see if I’d be greeted with neat layers or (as I half expected) pools of grey water and amorphous meaty mush, but I waited until it had cooled a little to give everything time to settle.

After five minutes I cut into the pastry which gave a heartening crack as it split open to reveal… distinct layers of sausage meat and chicken, still moist and steaming, yes! It was definitely time to taste it.

Stick an 18+ certificate on that and you’ve got some Victorian smut right there.

The next time someone comments that Victorian food was all overcooked meat and milky mush I’m going to send them a copy of this recipe. I’m going to print out and frame this recipe – one copy for each room in my house. Hell, I’m going to tattoo this recipe onto me so I never forget it. This. Was. Excellent.

Okay, so the pastry was a little thicker than perhaps Acton had intended, but it didn’t matter because it was surprisingly rich considering it was just three ingredients. However, it was the filling that really stood out. Chicken and pork work really well together anyway, but encasing them in pastry and allowed them to steam in their own juices for a couple of hours was a revelation. Each bite was tender and not at all dry, as pies without gravy can sometimes be. The sausage meat was subtle and slightly peppery, but the chicken was the stand out star. Faintly spicy with a slightly sharp aromatic after taste from the mace, this was not your usual meat pie. It was, in all honesty, one of the best pies I’ve ever eaten. In an instant I understood why some people could consider food a gateway to degeneracy because there was nothing dignified about the way I shovelled it into my mouth.

It was also incredibly filling – I cut two ordinary slices for both me and my husband but because the pie had a bit more height than normal we could only manage about 3/4 of a slice each. Luckily, Acton recommended that the pie could be enjoyed hot or cold so though it’s unorthodox, we’ll be having more of it for breakfast tomorrow.

Unfortunately for Acton her fame, reputation and glorious pies were eclipsed by Mrs Beeton when Household Management was published in 1861. Fans of Acton might take a little morbid comfort in the knowledge that Eliza had been dead for two years by this point, though, so didn’t live to see her fame dwindle in comparison to Beeton’s rising star. Slightly meaner fans who enjoy seeing Mrs B’s recipes lambasted (or who just enjoy it when I cook something that ends up inedible) might want to click here for an example of stereotypical bland Victorian fare.

Comparative fame or not, it’s clear that Acton’s chicken pie wins hands down out of the Victorian recipes I’ve tried so far. Myth-busting and delicious, this is one dish I’ll definitely make again and would really encourage anyone who likes pie to give it a go – raised or not.

E x

Modern Chicken Pie

2 large chicken breasts
300g sausage meat
500g plain flour
250g butter
Teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground mace
A good grating of nutmeg
A good pinch of salt

  1. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C.
  2. Melt the butter in hot water and gradually add it to the flour until it forms a dough. Set aside about 150g worth for the lid.
  3. Knead the rest of the dough into a lump and then, as if pushing down on clay on a pottery wheel, hollow out the centre to form a rough shaped case. Don’t push all the way through the dough as you want to ensure the filling doesn’t leak out of the sides or bottom.
  4. Continue shaping the pastry case by pushing the dough down and kneading up the sides until it is about 5 inches in diameter and 4 or 5 inches tall. You may want to use a bowl or small cake tin to help give it a neat form.
  5. When the pastry is the required size and shape, pop it into the fridge to firm up for about 20 minutes.
  6. Chop the chicken into small lumps and place in a large bowl.
  7. Add the salt, mace, nutmeg and cayenne to the chicken and make sure each piece is coated.
  8. Remove the pastry case from the fridge and push a layer of sausage meat into the base. Sprinkle with water and then add a layer of chicken. Repeat each step until the case is filled (I managed two layers of chicken and three of sausage meat.)
  9. Roll out the dough set aside at the start to a small disk and place on top of the pie. Make sure the edges are sealed by crimping them or pinching them to the edge.
  10. Make a slit in the top of the pie to allow steam out of the pie when cooking and brush the pastry all over with egg yolk wash. You can add some pastry decorations at this point if you want to.
  11. Bake. After an hour, check that the pie crust isn’t turning too brown and if it is, cover it with foil. Turn the oven to 180 degrees C and continue baking for another hour after which time the pie should be cooked.

Crispe Pancakes: 19th century

I didn’t go to uni in Wales.

It’s an odd statement to begin with, sure, but it’s something that has brought endless shame and disappointment to my parents who both went to Aberystwth Abersythwith Aberystwyth university.

I remember one summer they took me and my sister on a long and winding car trip to their old stomping ground which basically consisted of us standing in drizzle while they oohed and ahhed over university buildings saying things like “oh look darling, didn’t this used to be maths?” and “gosh I can’t believe that’s still standing!” The whole trip culminated in a maddening journey where we walked, shivering, along the seafront to kick an old post – sorry, bar – for no reason whatsoever. As an eleven year old whose friends were all sending me postcards of their fortnights in Mallorca and Tenerife it was not the highlight of my summer holiday.

Ten years later my sister proudly made her way to Aberysy…Aberysywt… the same uni too, where she met her boyfriend who also had two brothers who had studied there. Cue more dizzying car trips to visit her and engage in more nonsensical violence against public railings once we got there. But now I was outnumbered – when my sister suggested we walk up something very high and steep called Constitution Hill (because, speaking from experience, you need an iron constitution to survive it) everyone got very excited instead of quite rightly asking if she’d gone mad. Later that very same day she offered to show us round the uni. The catch? To get there we had to walk up another seemingly never ending hill. Cue more gleeful hand clapping as I stood there, still dripping in sweat, wondering when we’d get to come down from all these hills (the answer was never – to this day I’m convinced that Aber operates like some sort of Penrose staircase; always going up, up, forever and exhaustingly up.) Those Aberystwyth sunsets though? Phew.

Did…did my sister go to uni at Hogwarts?!
Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Credit here.

Needless to say I was very interested when I was contacted a month or so ago by an archivist at the Ceredigion Archives who introduced me to their records of life in Wales (including lots of Aber life) and most notably a 19th century recipe book from the Webley-Parry papers. Finally, here was my chance to earn my family’s respect!

The Webley-Parry family were landed gentry from Cardiganshire, and the Ceredigion Archives houses many papers relating to various members of the family through the 18th and 19th centuries. The recipe book from today’s experiment contains handwritten everyday tips, hints and recipes for the Webley-Parry family written by different authors from different times, most likely the cooks of rich households who shared recipes with each other. There are loads of interesting recipes in the archives that have been digitally uploaded – for roasts, tea biscuits (which one archivist has already made), wines and something called ‘Shrub’. Today I chose pancakes because it was Sunday – a day made for ‘fancy breakfast’ (read: cereal out of a bowl rather than stood over the sink gobbling dry fistfuls of it).

Interestingly, this was the first recipe I’ve recreated from an original source. I had to spend a while deciphering the handwriting but I think I managed to follow most of the instructions accurately with the right ingredients. If you think I’ve made a mistake please let me know by writing me a letter and popping it straight into the recycling bin.

I’ve written about making pancakes before, and the recipe here struck me as being similar to medieval ‘Crespes’, so I was interested to see what the differences were.

Before we start I will admit to one tiny mistake; the last instruction said to fry the pancakes in lard “as you do fritters”. This was what made them so crispy, I assume. I misread the handwriting and thought it said fry in lard “as you do kittens.” I was alarmed; I had never fried a kitten in lard (or any other cooking oil) and wasn’t sure of the best way, so carried on cooking them in in ordinary amounts of butter. By the time I’d worked out what it meant most of the batter had been used up so I was only able to fry two as if they were fritters.

First I took a pint of flour and added six egg yolks and two egg whites to it. A ridiculous amount of eggs, I agree, but at least now I have an excuse to make meringue. To make it into a batter I added warm water, sherry and mixed together before adding a little salt and mixed spice.

The recipe then said to add the mixture to a small pan and “bake them, but not too much” (helpful) before frying them in lard (like fritters, not kittens.) Because, as discussed, I wasn’t entirely sure of the handwritten instructions, I ended up cooking most of them like conventional crepes (in a little bit of butter until cooked on each side) – which resulted in very tasty but much floppier pancakes than what was intended.

Tasty but, unfortunately, not accurate. Try again.

The last two, however, I was able to recreate more closely to the original. The “bake them, but not too much” instruction confused me – if I baked what was left one at a time in a pan in the oven I’d be there all day baking and frying, waiting for the pan to cool before discarding butter and baking and frying all over again. If I just poured the batter out into pancake size blobs onto a baking tray and baked them surely it would all pool into one big pancake which I’d then not be able to fry? I ended up ‘baking’ them in a dry pan over a low flame until the wetness of the batter had disappeared but there were no dark spots.

Then it was time to fry them properly. I removed my barely baked pancakes and dolloped about half a packet of butter into the hot pan. After I’d opened a window, gulped down a few lungfuls of fresh air and blinked the smoke out of my eyes I tried again with the remaining butter (that’s right – I wasted a whole packet for this) in a cold pan heated slowly over time. Once the butter was hot, but not so hot it sent the town’s fire brigade to my front door, I cautiously placed one of the pancakes into the pool. It puffed up a little bit like a chapati, but not all the way round, and after about 30 seconds I flipped it over to cook on the other side.

Sunburned pancakes…mmmm.

So, what were these pancakes like? Well, the first lot which I hadn’t cooked in a whole packet of butter were absolutely delicious. Rich and quite eggy without being cloying and with a definite hit of sherry – they were like a very fancy modern pancake. The mixed spice added a lovely warming hit which meant that (and I never thought I’d say this) they had enough flavour that I found myself wondering if I’d even need sugar and lemon to complete the dish at all. As somewhat of a pancake purist, to put it mildly, the idea of serving a crepe pancake without lemon and sugar was anathema to me – yet here I was quite happily forking this delicately spiced, slightly alcoholic pancake into my mouth while the expectant lemon sat un-squeezed and un-needed.

The properly fried ones were something slightly different, however. As my husband put it, they were like “concentrated pancake.” The taste was a lot more overpowering – the sherry was gone, replaced with a butteriness that seeped into every taste bud. The spice was still there, but it was fighting more to be heard and with the fried ones I found myself wanting the citric tartness of a lemon to cut through the grease. Were they crispy, though, as the recipe promised they would be? Well, not really. They were certainly crispier than the other ones, but once you bit through an initial crust-like layer, they were still soft inside. I also think they needed to be eaten immediately to enjoy maximum crispiness – again, much like a chapati, they began to deflate quickly once off the heat.

While I’m still not 100% sold on the fried ones, the first batch I made were truly delicious and I have to thank Ceredigion Archives for bringing the recipe book to my attention – these just might become my new Sunday ‘fancy breakfast’, they were lovely and I will definitely be making them again.

So am I sad I missed out on the chance to study at Aber? I mean, sure. It’s true I’ll never be an authentic Aberystwythian(?), not least because I lack the levels of fitness required to live anywhere that’s not dead on sea level. But in making these pancakes and delving into the Ceredigion Archives I sort of feel like I got a little glimpse into a small sliver of the history of Wales and Aberystwyth (spelled it right first time round – get in!)

Unlike my parents and sister I may not have studied or lived in Wales – but if it’s as good as these pancakes I get why my family was, and is, so charmed by the country.

Ond nid af i fyny’r bryn hwnnw eilwers.*

E x

*I don’t speak Welsh so this is the work of Google translate. I know what I was trying to say but please forgive me if it’s been translated as “hurry spatula fourteen eels” or some other nonsensical slogan – you know what Google translate can be like.

Crispe Pancakes

1 pint of plain flour
6 egg yolks
2 egg whites
A sherry glass of sherry
A pinch of mixed spice
Warm water
Lardto fry

  1. Combine flour, eggs, sherry and spice together to form a dough.
  2. Add warm water to create a consistency of double cream.
  3. Cook the pancakes until just cooked through but not browned in a pan.
  4. In another pan, melt a good spoonful of butter – you want to be able to cover the pancake in it.
  5. Place the pancake into the melted hot butter and fry until it puffs up. Flip over and fry again.
  6. Repeat for the remaining pancakes.

Poor Knight’s Pudding: 1859

A friend of mine was visiting New Zealand at the end of February. All was going well – she’d been welcomed by her daughter and son-in-law, was enjoying immersing herself in the local customs (read: doing the park run every weekend) and had eschewed traditional tourist sites in favour of public toilets so splendid and magnificent they had their own tourist marker on the map and 4/5 stars on Tripadvisor.

And then: lockdown. Months have passed and she remains, in her own words, stuck passing the time on the phone to the airport trying to book various flights home, only for them to be pushed back indefinitely or cancelled. It gives her something to do now the toilets have stopped taking visitors, apparently.

One thing she did manage to do before we were all plunged into quarantine was visit Poor Knights Islands, whose English name possibly comes from the islands’ resemblance to an English dish called Poor Knight’s Pudding – a sort of Anglo version of French toast. Poor Knight’s Pudding was a popular dish at the time of Captain Cook; the man who ‘discovered’ the islands, much to the surprise of the Ngatiwai people who already lived there, in 1769. The islands are also famed for their red flowering summer pohutukawa blossoms which mimic jam on Poor Knight’s Pudding. Maybe I could do some research on the dish, she wondered, and possibly recreate it?

Jammy French toast? Count me in.

The earliest records of Poor Knight’s Pudding comes from ‘W.M.’s 1658 work The Compleat Cook (“To make poore knights”) where bread is dipped in cream and eggs, fried in butter and drizzled with rosewater, but this recipe doesn’t shed much light on why it was called Poor Knight’s Pudding. Foods Of England reveals that there are similar European dishes with equivalent names (a German recipe called arme rittera and a Finnish one called köyhät ritarit), but that none of these alternatives gives any indication as to the dish’s name either. To add some more confusion to the mix, Regula Ysewijn points out that after 1791 the English version of the dish seems to have changed name to Poor Knights of Windsor and the cream was replaced with white wine and sugar before being fried and served with cinnamon.

The original Poor Knights of Windsor were a group of knights who became financially ruined during the Battle of Crécy in 1346 by having to ransom themselves after being captured by the French; probably the most awkward and expensive realization of one’s own unpopularity that ever existed. Though Edward III clearly didn’t think enough of them/have enough money to pay their ransom personally, he did set up The Alms Knights of St. George’s Chapel which provided shelter and a pension to twenty-six ‘Poor Knights’ in exchange for them attending four Church services a day and praying for the king. As time went on, the Alms Knights for retired impoverished military personnel continued to lodge ‘Poor Knights’ at Windsor Castle with subsequent kings and queens decreasing and increasing the number of ‘Poor Knights’ on roll as they saw fit, until William IV renamed them the Military Knights of Windsor in 1833.

Whether or not this dish was named after them, one thing was becoming clear: there was a distinct and disappointing lack of jam in all of the early recipes. Now, it’s very probable that jam or stewed fruit was served alongside traditional Poor Knight’s Pudding so maybe Captain Cook wasn’t totally delusional when he looked at flowery rocky islands and saw a bread and jam based pudding, but as jam is absent from all the recipes I looked at I didn’t include it in today’s experiment.

The recipe used today is a Victorian incarnation from J.H. Walsh’s 1859 The English Cookery Book, chosen for one thing alone: its accompanying side dish.

First I took a stale white bread roll and sliced it thinly into five slices. The slices were then dipped into a mixture of whole milk, one egg, one tablespoon of sugar and nutmeg and left to absorb it for an hour. After an hour the soggy, swollen slices were lifted and drained on a wire rack over a bowl for another hour.

Poor, flabby, blob knight’s pudding.

Once the dunking and draining had been completed it was time to transform the bread from globby blobs to golden brown toast. I fried each slice in a pan of butter for a few minutes on each side and then turned to the reason I’d chosen this version of the dish – the wine sauce.

Walsh insisted the way to serve Poor Knight’s Pudding was with wine sauce, which it turned out was melted butter and sugar mixed with sherry and brandy. Who was I to argue?

For some reason (probably because we are both in our 20’s and neither of us is landed gentry) we didn’t have any brandy in. We did have sherry though, left over from Christmas and – inexplicably – cherry brandy. God knows why, maybe we won it in a raffle?

It wasn’t quite what Walsh recommended, but it would have to do. Almost as soon as I added the sherry and cherry brandy to the melted butter I knew I was onto a winner. The liquid turned a deep amber and the smell became intense and fragrant. I added lemon rind and nutmeg and took it off the heat. There might have been a chronic lack of jam, but I felt confident that the wine sauce would make up for it.

Everything looked great, and I was looking forward to eating this alone. I’d timed it all to perfection; the fried bread was still steaming, the wine sauce was warmed through and, best of all, my daughter was napping upstairs only able to dream of stealing my food rather than attempt it for real. And then. And then.

“That looks good. What is it?”

A shadow in the doorway loomed larger and my husband came into the room.

“I’ve just been outside fixing the trellis, like you asked” he said to my plate of food. “I’m starving.”


“Yeah. Really hungry.” Eyes still on the plate.

There was a pause almost as awkward as a knight realising he was going to have to pay his own damn ransom.

Long story short: I did 100% of the research for these myself, I made 100% of these myself, I ate 40% of them. Ladies, add Poor Knight’s Pudding to things that are victims of a gender-gap.

I didn’t even get the bigger slices. Outrageous.

They were bloody brilliant, though. Which kind of made the fact I semi-voluntarily gave three of the five slices up even more bitter. The fried bread was much softer and richer and less ‘toast-y’ than normal French toast because it had been soaking for so long. It had a slight spiciness to it thanks to the nutmeg and a sweetness thanks to the sugar.

But the real star was the wine sauce. Buttery and boozy, it was almost too indulgent. Even once the fried bread had been eaten we sipped at the leftover sauce with spoons. As time went on the butter separated from the alcohol which created a pretty two-tone element to the sauce; gold overlaying amber.

French toast, eggy bread, Poor Knight’s Pudding – call it what you want. As long as you’ve got wine sauce (or jam if you prefer a modern version) I can think of no better way to use up a stale bun.

E x

Poor Knight’s Pudding with Wine Sauce

For the fried bread:
1 white roll
1 egg
1/2 pint whole milk
Sugar to your taste (I added 1 tablespoon)
Grated nutmeg

For the wine sauce:
50g butter
2 tablespoons sugar
1 sherry glass of sherry
1/2 sherry glass of brandy
Rind of 1/2 lemon
Grated nutmeg

  1. Slice the bread roll into slices approximately 2cm thickness.
  2. Add egg, milk, sugar and nutmeg to a large bowl and mix together well.
  3. Place the bread slices into the mixture and coat each slice. Then leave the slices in the mixture for 1 hour.
  4. After an hour, pour off the mixture and drain the bread on a wire rack for 1 hour.
  5. Fry the slices of bread in a frying pan with a knob of butter. Fry each side for 2-3 minutes or until golden brown. Transfer to a warm plate.
  6. In a pan heat the butter for the wine sauce. When melted, add the sugar and dissolve over low heat.
  7. Add the sherry and brandy and swirl into the butter and sugar.
  8. Add the lemon rind and nutmeg and heat on a low heat for a couple of minutes to give time for the flavours to infuse.
  9. Remove wine sauce from heat and drizzle over the fried bread. Eat immediately before your husband can see.

Shrewsbury Simnel Cake: 1879

Happy Easter!

In honour of Jesus’ disciples (NOT YOU, JUDAS) and as a virtual homage to modern simnel, there are eleven hidden* Easter eggs of the nerdy variety in this post – find them all, win a prize.** In the Easter spirit of goodwill and peace I feel I must tell you that there are also a good few egg-related puns thrown in to keep hardcore egg fans (you know who you are) sunny side up. I make no apologies for these, although I’m aware we’ll all be feeling eggstremely awkward by the end. Feel free to log off now (I would.)

Hopefully by the time the day’s done you’ll have argued with loved ones over how large your Easter hunt haul is, vomited up an unholy (ha) amount of chocolate and had at least one Zoom call that went: “We can see you! We can see you! Can you see us? Oh wait…it’s frozen. Darling, do you know how to get it to unfreeze? It’s just showing me a picture of their dog’s crotch at the moment. Hang on… yes! HAPPY EASTER! How are you? Oh no it’s frozen again. Gosh, she’s got quite the nose on her hasn’t she? I’ve never really noticed it before – oh! You can still hear us? Ah.”

Easter will be a weird one for lots of us this year, what with the Easter bunny not being allowed out apart for non-eggsential travel, but that’s no reason to negglect history. I know, I know. You thought you could use these unprecedented times as an excuse; that I’d take pity on you and give you a break. But really – do you think that Jesus arose on the third day to make an Easter bonnet out of pipecleaners and mini chick toys so that you could “have a break” from my ego?

Get over yourselves.

Gone are the days of meaningless night-before trips to the supermarket to load up on Cadbury’s 3 for 2 to dole out to our nearest and dearest. This year I’ve been surprised at how touched I’ve been by the gifts left by family members on our doorstep for my daughter – a bunch of flowers, a chocolate rabbit, an Easter card. They feel extra poignant and though it’s true I ate that bunny within 30 seconds of it being inside the house and before she knew it existed, it’s nice to think that despite our troubles this year still can still feel special.

It’s family that’s the focus for today’s cake, actually. There’s a million and one posts about the history of Easter, why we celebrate Easter bunnies and the hot cross bun and they’re all much better than anything I could write, but there’s only a million about the history of simnel cake so plenty of space for me to crack on and throw my take on it into the ring.

I don’t know the reason, but this guy’s Easter has taken quite the turn.

Why’s it called Simnel?

Eggsellent question (I know you were waiting for that one.)

Modern day Simnel is a light fruit cake with a marzipan top and 11 marzipan balls circling the edge to represent Jesus’ disciples. Yes it’s true there were 12 disciples, but in order to show how cross they were with Judas for betraying Jesus, bakers denied him his own little marzipan ball. It’s the baking equivalent of cropping someone out of a picture – which is what da Vinci should have done. It’s a cake that lots of people feel they should make at Easter, but don’t really want to on account of the abundance of much more convenient and “treaty” food after 40 days of Lent (I mean, who would pick fruit cake over chocolate? Lunatics, that’s who.)

Having said that, Simnel Cake wasn’t originally a cake for Easter. In fact it wasn’t even a cake, and the marzipan balls that are so synonymous with simnel are actually a relatively modern concept. True simnel contained no marzipan whatsoever.

An almost certainly untrue story told in Chamber’s Book of Days of 1879 says that a couple a long time ago called Simon and Nelly found some spare dough one Easter and had a fight over what to do with it. Simon, the bloody weirdo, wanted to boil it but Nelly, who was clearly carrying over 50% of the brains of the couple, said they should bake it instead. In the end they came to a pointless compromise and boiled it for a bit before baking it afterwards so that “this new and remarkable production in the art of confectionery became known as the cake of Simon and Nelly…Sim-Nel, or Simnel!” An earlier 1838 poem in the Wiltshire Independent switches the madness round and has Nelly insisting on boiling the dough and Simon as the voice of reason, but the general absurdity of the tale is still the same. In reality simnel has been around for a lot longer than either Simon or Nelly.

Simnel is referred to as early as the 13th century, though it probably pre-dates this, but there are no surviving recipes for it. This is partly because the word simnel wasn’t necessarily describing a specific recipe; possibly a scrambled form of the Latin ‘simila conspera’, meaning ‘fine flour’, medieval simnel refers to a type of leavened bread that was prepared for spring. This bread was high quality indeed: the Chronicle of Battle Abbey tells us that William the Conqueror granted the monks there 36 oz. of “bread fit for the table of a king, which is commonly called simenel.”

As the 13th century progressed, however, simnel began to take on another meaning, much more similar to our concept of a cake. In 1225, John of Garland wrote in his Dictionarius that simineus was a French word for the Latin for cake, placenta, possibly highlighting that simnel was moving away from a description of flour into something more like a cake we would recognise.

Skipping past the story of the 15th century pretender Lambert Simnel (who’s nothing more than an eggregious red-herring in the history of the simnel), by the 17th century the simnel cake had eggceeded simnel bread in popularity. It seems to have been particularly popular in Shrewsbury, Bury and Devizes with all three locations claiming slightly different variations of the simnel cakes as their own.

At the same time, the symbolism of the simnel was forming. Since the Middle Ages people had followed the tradition of returning to their ‘mother’ church and bringing presents to their mothers on the fourth Sunday of Lent: Mothering Sunday. As the centuries progressed Mothering Sunday became more of a bank holiday with domestic servants, girls in particular, given the day off to return home to visit family and the church of their baptism. Naturally, as good daughters, they brought their mothers homemade gifts and it’s in this context that the simnel cake came into its own.

A servant might have to poach some ingredients from her mistress to make the cake or, if she was well thought of, the mistress would donate the ingredients to her. The better quality the ingredients, the higher regard the mistress had for the servant – meaning that a girl had to adopt a souffle souffle approach with her mistress in the weeks preceding Mothering Sunday to ensure she was given the best ingredients. The mother would be given the simnel by her daughter but wouldn’t usually eat it until Easter Sunday, when she would cut into it and, in an act of motherly love, intensely scrutinize the efforts of the daughter to see whether the cake was still moist or whether she’d raised a disappointment.

The best simnels are gluten-free, dairy-free and Judas-free.
Image credit here.

Shrewsbury simnel

Since I’d missed Mothers’ Day by a good three weeks I wasn’t off to the best start. In addition to this, the Take That Greatest Hits albumen I’d bought for my mum hadn’t gone down well, least of all because my mum can’t stand Take That so there was a lot resting on this cake.

Traditional Shrewsbury simnel cake was nothing like I was expecting. Slightly disconcertingly, I had to start by making a dough out of flour, water and saffron until it was a very stiff, which I had to shape into a pastry case that would hold its shape, without baking it.

Luckily for me my temperamental kitchen gets very hot at the slightest hint of sun and I had chosen to make this on the first day of the mini heat wave. I wailed as my pastry case wilted under my clumsy hands. When I’d had en-oeuf of failing, I cheated and shaped the dough in a saucepan lid and stuck it in the fridge to firm up while I got on with the actual cake.

The recipe for simnel in Book of Days is succinct and unhelpful: “a very rich plum cake with plenty of candied lemon and other good things.” I can’t stand fruit cake myself, so wasn’t sure how to just whip one up. I consulted Chambers’ English contemporary, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management for what constituted “rich plum cake” and “good things”.

Mrs Beeton had three distinct recipes for plum cake, of varying quality. The best one, which she enticingly called “an unrivalled plum pudding” used a cholesterol-boosting 16 eggs. Since my hypothetical mistress had granted me 2 because that was all we had in before the next shop, I worked my way onto the second best recipe, which called itself “an excellent plum pudding made without eggs”. This one looked good eggcept it contained mashed carrot and mashed potatoes. These ingredients might seem bizarre today, but they would have helped keep the cake moist for the weeks leading up to its consumption. Unfortunately we didn’t have carrots or potatoes in either. With a heavy heart, already seeing the disappointment in my mother’s eyes, I turned to her most basic of recipes which she had tartly entitled “a baked plum pudding.” No eulogising here – just a straightforward cake with currants, sultanas, suet (we actually did have some of that in, don’t ask me why), flour, eggs and lemon peel. No sugar, I noticed. Also, Mrs B wanted to me to add milk to this, (or water for a “very plain pudding”, which really highlighted how far I’d strayed from my quest for Chambers’ rich plum pudding), but I added brandy instead, which she’d used in her unrivalled plum pudding.

The mixture was very wet because it used a higher ratio of egg to flour than I was used to working with. I realised later that I’d messed up my calculations when converting Mrs B’s lbs to grams so I ended up adding a bit more flour and suet to firm it up a bit. I then spooned it into the chilled pastry case it went, which promptly began sagging at the sides, all my careful chilling undone.

The next stage involved boiling the pastry encased pudding for several hours. I had added a pastry lid and by this point the whole thing resembled a sort of deflated pastry ball. In my mind I saw my mother’s eyes fill with angry tears. Panicked, I tied it in a muslin cloth and forced it back into the saucepan lid for structure and as I crossed my fingers I poured boiling water over it. After half an hour I pulled it out of the saucepan lid, confident that 30 minutes boiling would have helped set the pastry, and replaced it, lidless, back into the water.

I did feel eggceptionally Victorian during this bit, it has to be said.

After two and half hours I lost patience. I was already pretty sure this wasn’t going to redeem me from the Take That CD and wanted to get it over and done with. Tentatively, I pulled the dense mass from the seething pot, peeled off the muslin and looked upon my deformed doughy creation. My husband chose that moment to wander in.

“What’s that?” he asked fearfully.

“It’s a simnel cake.”

He paused. “Oh, for Easter?” Then, completely oblivious to the irony: “It looks like a cake for Satan.”

Once I’d chased him out of the kitchen I dotted some pastry blobs on, because I’d seen them on a drawing of a simnel in Book of Days (though Chambers made no reference to them being the disciples), glazed the Satan cake with egg wash and baked it for an hour. It was then that I read that truly authentic simnels should be so hard that they felt “like wood” and that Chambers could recall a lady who had never seen one before mistaking a large one “for a foot stall.” Because nothing says Happy Belated Mother’s Day/Easter like a cake that could double up as furniture.

After an hour it was ready. I took a photo of it and texted it to my mum.

“Happy Easter! It’s a simnel cake!”

I saw she’d seen it. Three little dots appeared as she formed a response. Then they went away. They came back for a minute and then disappeared again. She was either really, really delighted or cutting me from her will. Finally:

“Is it though?”


Despite her lukewarm response, it was instantly obvious why this would have been a good cake to take back home to keep for the weeks before Easter – with its thick impenetrable pastry case there was no way this cake could go off. Even before I cut into I knew that if I left it for 1000 years it would survive.

Taste-wise, this was not as good as a modern day simnel. It was incredibly eggy, because I had messed up the ratios, although it wasn’t completely inedible because the amount of currants and sultanas provided a little natural sweetness. I could definitely taste the brandy, and was glad I’d not just used milk because it made the whole thing slightly richer. Without it it would have been quite bland, which is why I see why Chambers called for a “very good” plum pudding because what I’d made was essentially a weak fruity flan.

The pastry was weirdly pleasant, though. It tasted of saffron, because there were no other flavourings in it and eating it felt like a bagel. The outside crust was very hard and I reckon if I’d wanted to I absolutely could have used it for a little foot stall. Once I got through it, though, it was softer and chewy. I know it looks a bit underdone in the picture, but it wasn’t – again, it had the dense chewiness of a pretzel.

All in all though, it was probably a good thing I wasn’t able to give this to my mum. Even though I hope I’ve shown the modern day simnel isn’t technically traditional, she counts herself as a simnel purist and the lack of marzipan balls and over abundance of pastry in this version wouldn’t have impressed her one bit.

Hopefully you’ve had a great, if weird, Easter with at least one chocolatey treat in it somewhere. I also hope you managed to catch up with family or friends without Skype freezing on a picture of the dog’s marzipan balls, that you were able to enjoy the sunshine and that wherever you are you remain healthy and safe. This will end, one day, and when it does? Well, let’s just say there’s a boiled simnel cake encased in pretzel pastry waiting for you. Aren’t you eggstatic?

Happy Easter.

E x

*Loosest use of the word hidden
**Prize does not eggist.

Shrewsbury Simnel Cake

160g plain flour
80g currants
80g sultanas
80g suet
2 eggs
1/4 pint of brandy
Candied peel or lemon rind

(For the pastry)
250g plain flour
Water to mix

  1. Mix the ingredients for the pastry together and knead until it forms a very stiff dough.
  2. Shape the dough around a pan so that it forms a pastry case. Keep some dough back for a lid. Place in the fridge to chill and set.
  3. Begin on the cake. Mix flour, suet, currants, sultanas and lemon peel in a bowl.
  4. Add the eggs and brandy and mix well.
  5. Spoon the cake batter into the pastry case. Add the pastry lid onto the case and pinch the edges tightly to stop cake batter escaping during cooking.
  6. Wrap the pastry case with cake in it up in a muslin cloth and place in a pan of boiling water. Boil for at least 2 hours.
  7. Remove pastry case with cake in it and unwrap. Glaze with egg wash.
  8. Place it on a baking tray and bake in an oven at 190 degrees for 1 hour.

Apple Pandowdy: 1869

It’s very hard to sum up America in the 19th century. Every day I lament to myself: why, oh why, can’t America in the 19th century be summed up more easily? But that’s just the way it is.

Where were its skyscrapers, malls and subways? Its millions of tourists flocking to see shows on Broadway and the sights of the Grand Canyon? Where were its property tycoons rigging up chains of luxury hotels before inexplicably becoming president? And, for the love of God, just what was going on with the flag?! (There were over 20 incarnations of it during the 19th century alone as more and more states were admitted to the Union.)

From the 1810 census we are told there were just over 7 million people living in America, with most of them listed as living in the Northern and Southern Eastern states such as New York and South Carolina. However, it’s best not to take everything the 1810 census says at face value; until 1830 there was no standardised method of acquiring and presenting information, some states’ census returns got lost or altered over the years and, pretty crucially, it didn’t take into account the hundreds of thousands of Native Americans who lived in the Great Plains to the West. It’s also pretty inaccurate in that it categorises the free white settlers into groups (males under the age of ten, females aged 26-44 etc), but then allowed slave owners to record a single lump sum for the number of slaves they owned, so detailed records of the demographics of an entire 1.5 million people are absent.

Flawed as it was, the 1810 census did provide some context to how much America changed in the 100 years of the 19th century to become more like the America we know today. As the 1890 census attests, the population (including Native Americans this time) had increased to just under 63 million and because slavery had been abolished in 1865, no slaves are listed either. That didn’t mean the problems of slavery had vanished; the reconstruction of the south following the American Civil War (1861-1865) had been messy and many ex-slaves found their lives had changed not a jot and in some cases worsened as they were left to fend for themselves in communities that made it clear they were still slaves in all but name, despite the then President Ulysses S. Grant’s attempts at promoting civil rights.

Ulysses S Grant, American president 1869 – 1877. Also half alien, apparently.

Who were the Americans?

As well as political changes, the people of America were changing their perceptions of what it meant to be American. Was it that you had to have been born in the country, or was ‘American’ a state of mind? This was the century to find out.

In the first half of the 19th century there were some very dull land exchanges which men with big beards sitting in wood panelled rooms tend to get very excited about, but your average 15 year old always switches off for when it comes round to that part of the GCSE course. Essentially, in 1803, the Americans experienced their first major foray into capitalism when they bought 827,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River off the French for $15 million. The Louisiana Purchase practically doubled the size of America but the problem was the Americans didn’t quite know what to do with all this land. In 1819, one particularly excited beardy man called Major Stephen Long was sent on a mission to explore the lands west of the Mississippi River and came back to tell the government that, in a spectacular example of ‘Buyer Beware’, the lands the government had paid so much for were:

“…wholly unfit for cultivation and farmers cannot hope to live on this land. Occasionally there are large areas of fertile land but the shortage of wood and water will mean settling in the country is impossible.”

Major Long, 1819

Yikes. So inhospitable and barren did the American people believe the West to be that they called the Great Plains the ‘Great American Desert’ (thereby proving that the American talent for self promotion has grown over time, or at the very least that PR and advertising has changed dramatically.)

The government tried to promote the idea of moving westwards for expansion as much as it could until in 1845 John L O’Sullivan, founder of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review coined the term ‘Manifest Destiny’. He argued that since God had given Americans all this land, they had a duty – nay, a destiny – to take it, cultivate it and control it. Never mind that there were already people living on the Great Plains, the government said. Were they white? No? Christian? No? They didn’t count. This slant was very popular, (and helped by the discovery of gold in 1849), and from the 1840’s onwards America’s population boomed as migrants from the East and immigrants from other countries flocked West to take their share of the land and its resources.

Conflict and tension between settlers and the Native Americans of the Great Plains increased sharply in the 1860’s as more and more Native Americans fought against the settlers for the land they had lived on for generations. Stories of brutality were common on both sides, although it’s worth remembering that one of those sides was made up of people with non mechanical weapons and the other side was made up of organised armies backed up with guns and profoundly racist passions: “…It is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians. … Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.” John Chivington, a pastor-turned-colonel (yes, really), said in 1864 before the Sand Creek Massacre.

Ironically, there was now a sense that the land, which had seemed too enormous and unending only a few decades ago, was suddenly at risk of overcrowding and of natural resources drying up. As settlers fought to take over the land and Native Americans fought to stop them, it might seem to some that this was a fight about more than just space; this was a fight about national identity and ideals. By the 1890’s it seemed that being a true American meant having a fighting spirit, a devotion to God and a belief that the right thing to do was to make use of all the resources available in order to better oneself, whatever the cost. That doesn’t mean that all people of the 1890’s were heartless, not at all. Just that they mostly operated, as with everyone else, within the parameters of their time and society.

Are you going to talk about food soon?

That’s a pretty long and surprisingly impassioned preamble to what is essentially a recipe for dry apple crumble, sorry. I’m struggling not having a class in front of me so you, poor reader, have become a bit of a stand in – I hope you were taking notes, there will be a test.

The reason for that not very relevant history is that for 19th century America, a recipe wasn’t just a chance to show off wealth or skill. It was often a mark of who you were – what your brand was. At a time when people were making the most of the new opportunities available to them and fighting for a sense of identity and belonging, no one published anything, not even cookbooks, without wanting to say something bigger about themselves than just ‘I make a good pound cake.’

The recipe for Apple Pandowdy comes from Mrs. Winslow’s Domestic Recipt Book for 1869 and although the origin of the word ‘pandowdy’ isn’t clear, some historians believe it came about because of the dish’s appearance as being a bit boring, or ‘dowdy’, and having been baked in a pan.

For Charlotte Winslow, the 1800’s were the perfect opportunity to make her fame and fortune. A paedriatric nurse, she rose to prominence in the 1840’s as the face of Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup – a cure all for ‘fussy babies’ that was manufactured by her son in law and his partner for sale in America and Britain. Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was sold as a remedy for babies who were teething or had dysentery, because obviously those two things are very similar. It was hugely popular and in 1868, more than 1.5 million bottles were sold. The secret? Morphine.

“Would baby like his syrup inhaled or injected?”

One teaspoon had enough morphine in it to kill the average child. Just to make sure that non-average, already morphine-addicted children didn’t miss out, it also contained alcohol. Unsurprisingly, parents began to notice the adverse affects (to put it mildly) of giving the syrup to their children and the medicine quickly gained the nickname ‘Baby Killer.’ Despite this sales continued to do well and it wasn’t until 1906 that morphine was removed from the ingredient list (although the alcohol remained) and 1930 when it was finally removed from the market completely.

Domestic Recipt Book for 1869 proudly advertised itself as a book, or pamphlet, which could help women cook meals for their families as well as cure them with home made treatments. If the remedies inside the pages couldn’t help, then the adverts on the front of the book for Mrs. Winslow’s ready-made cough and cold remedies could be purchased at nearby pharmacies (or maybe street corners, given the contents of such treatments.)

What better recipe book to cook a meal for my family – including a young child – than from the manufacturer of the ‘Baby Killer’ herself?

It was a surprisingly easy recipe to follow and only used five basic ingredients. (Un?)Fortunately none of them was morphine.

First, I sliced three apples and laid a layer of them in a buttered dish. On top of this I scattered a tablespoon of brown sugar and a couple of tablespoons of breadcrumbs, sprinkled on a pinch of lemon zest and dotted some blobs of cold butter on top. I then repeated the process another two times until I had almost reached the top of the dish and the whole thing looked very ‘dowdy’ indeedy.

Mrs. Winslow added to the bottom of her recipe a note stating that “a little cider improves this very much” which was unnerving because a) she was basically telling me that this wasn’t worth eating without alcohol and b) given the proliferation of alcohol in her medicines I wasn’t sure what counted as ‘a little’ by her measurements. Also c) we didn’t have any in. We did have boring old apple juice, though, so I tipped 1/2 a cup full in. No baby killers here, thank you very much.

It baked for just over 30 minutes until the apple slices were soft enough to pierce with a fork and then I served it with some ice cream (which actually wasn’t anachronistic at all given that the first hand cranked ice cream freezers were introduced to America in the 1840’s.)

I don’t think I need to tell you that it was pretty dry. Perhaps my cup was too small, but it seemed as though I’d not added any liquid at all. I was thankful for the ice cream, which when melted into the dowdy made it much more like an apple crumble and less like slices of dehydrated apple under bits of toast. I also think that in my lockdown induced panic to make food last I’d been a bit stingy with my butter blobs, so that probably contributed to the dryness a bit too.

It smelled lovely, though, like sweet bread and other than the fact it sucked all the moisture out of my head it tasted pretty good too – faintly citrusy and not overly sweet. For an 1860’s family trying to save all the money they had in order to pay for the long journey westwards, it did a good job of acting like a sweet treat. Plus, it was handy for using up bread that had gone a bit stale and also didn’t need to use any eggs, like other recipes for stale bread did.

A recipe that used simple ingredients, was quick and easy to make and – bonus – didn’t kill any children: I think that’s as close to the American Dream as I could hope to achieve.

E x

Apple Pandowdy

3 large cooking apples
4 or 5 tablespoons of breadcrumbs
4 or 5 tablespoons of brown sugar
Grated lemon rind
150ml of apple juice or cider (or more if you want a bit of a sauce.)

  1. Peel and slice the applies thinly. Spread a layer of them into a buttered dish.
  2. Sprinkle some grated lemon rind onto the apples.
  3. Sprinkle over the apples a tablespoon and a half of brown sugar and a table spoon and a half of breadcrumbs.
  4. Dot five or six chunks of cold butter onto the breadcrumb and sugar.
  5. Repeat the whole process twice more.
  6. Bake in the oven at 190 degrees for 30 minutes or until the apples are soft.

Potted Shrimp (or prawns): 1861

I’d hate to run a food blog right now. Especially a niche food blog with form for advocating the frivolous purchase of numerous ingredients to turn into unspeakable mush before declaring it all “inedible!” and washing it down the sink. Insensitive bastards.

I’m sure that eventually the shops will be able to restock without needing protective riot shields but that time isn’t quite yet. Be kind to store assistants, people, they’ll be carrying tasers soon (but also be kind to them anyway because they all seem so tired and fed up of repeating that no, Sandra, there isn’t more bread “out the back.”)

The kids at school appear to coping with things admirably. As I write this, it’s unclear whether or not schools will close at the end of the week, and even though it’s clear the students all desperately want them to (“Miss, I’ll pay you to say we can go home now!” “What if we promise we’ll only go on the X-Box after we’ve done all the work though?”) overall they’re doing a pretty good job of getting on with things as normally as possible. The only time I’ve seen a break in resolve is when one year 7 sadly told me that she had to have another apple in her lunch box instead of her usual chocolate muffin for pudding because her mum hadn’t got to the bakery aisle in time before everything was bought up.

At least panic buying has shown quinoa for the unwanted fad food it truly is. Actually, a late night wander round Sainsbury’s reveals in stark relief what the true essentials of British life seem to be; good luck getting a packet of mini rolls in South Leicestershire at 8:00pm is all I’ll say.

As the government releases new information by the hour and shops have today announced restrictions on buyer’s baskets, I began to think how people in the past coped with similar issues. Now, I know the food shortages that will be seen in supermarkets in the coming weeks are the result of numerous issues: problems in supply chains, closed borders and a nation that is newly out and proud about its compulsive fetish for toilet paper, whereas food supply issues of 500 years ago were usually to do with crop failures or wars, but I was still curious.

If you can hide a shelf’s worth of UHT milk under your loo roll, you’ve bought too much.

Unfortunately, it turns out that there were two main ways of coping with food shortages in the past: you had either managed to preserve enough food to eke out through the long hungry months, or you starved. There wasn’t a welfare state in medieval England. If you were a subsistence farmer who had been unable to grow enough grain to set some aside there wasn’t much hope for you, as the Great Famine of 1315-17 showed when approximately 5% of the population perished.

I know that’s no comfort to families who are currently struggling to find baby formula, or vulnerable groups who struggle to get to the shops in the first place only to find that every loaf of bread has gone. If people had realised that there was plenty for everyone if people had shopped normally then we wouldn’t even have a food shortage issue right now. I am exceptionally fortunate that for my family, the worst this food shortage is likely to get is that we’ll start eating more tinned food and my husband will have to self isolate within our own home to protect me and our daughter from the smells caused by his baked bean heavy diet.

So, I’m trying to do a little bit of my civic duty and avoid emptying the shops of things for this blog that others might need for their actual, real lives. It means more space to talk about history, and also involves a switch in how I usually research historical recipes. Instead of Googling “weird recipes from history – no mushrooms” (a standard research starting point, I’m sure historians everywhere will agree), I’m now going to have to look in the fridge or freezer for what we have in and search for things like “chicken nugget recipes from history – no mushrooms” instead.

Which brings me to the focus of today’s food – preserving. We have a freezer. Just the one, unlike some who, in the grip of panic buying mania, have reportedly taken to panic buying extra freezers – presumably to store all their toilet paper in. I can pack it full of frozen margaritas, ice cream, chips and burgers healthy and nutritious meals which won’t go off and means I don’t need to worry about other methods of preserving food for my family.

The history of the fridge (yes, we’re really doing this – I have more space to fill and less content to fill it with now, so buckle up) starts a lot earlier than I’d realised. In 1748, an Edinburgh professor called William Cullen developed the ‘vapour compression system’ and demonstrated its cooling power to other scientists, who were impressed in a science-y kind of way, but failed to see how it might be used commercially. 100 years later in 1834, American inventor Jacob Perkins showed off his wacky idea of a wooden box that could “cool fluids and produce ice” to some easily impressed Londoners on Fleet Street but, in a surprising turn of events for a city where £11.50 is now a reasonable price to pay for poached egg on toast, the people of London said the cost of the machine was too high and sales failed to take off.

In around 1890, refrigeration experts tried to improve the cooling process by adding methyl chloride gas as a refrigerant. Unfortunately, methyl chloride attacks the central nervous system and causes death if people are exposed to high enough doses of it for too long, which is what happened to several factory workers in Chicago when a faulty refrigeration unit began leaking at their workplace. An alternative was quickly sought and the compound Freon was created – great news for fridge businesses, terrible news for the environment.

In Britain up to the 1950’s, most housewives still preferred a cold marble slab in the kitchen to keep things chilled and people bought groceries to use every day, rather than every week, to ensure food wasn’t kept lying around the house for too long. In 1959, however, Britain experienced one of the hottest summers on record and lots of food struggled to last longer than a day or two. Meat bought in the morning wasn’t necessarily safe to consume by the evening and so Brits began turning to American fridge company Electrolux to store their food for them.

There were, of course, other methods of preserving food. Most people know that we have been making food last longer for millennia through the use of salting or sugaring and drying or smoking. As a deliberately jarring example of preservation, the ancient Egyptians used to pack corpses in natron salt for 40 days to dry the body out before mummifying it. In a similar vein, Herodotus – that most dubious of historians – indicates that the Assyrians used to embalm their dead with honey and after his death in 323BC, Alexander the Great was reportedly laid to rest in a sarcophagus filled with honey. Centuries later, in Victorian slums, racks of herring were sometimes hung up in the communal lavatory (think a wooden bench over a big hole inside a garden shed and you’ve pretty much thought of a slum loo), and smoked to turn them into kippers. The favourable effects of this would be threefold: firstly, the fish would last much longer after being smoked which allowed shopkeepers to put them on sale for longer, secondly the smell of smoked fish would go some way to disguising the smell of a rapidly filling cesspit, and thirdly the acrid smoke would cause people to cough and their eyes to water which would mean people wouldn’t take too long on the toilet – perfect if there’s a queue of 15 slum dwellers all waiting for their turn.

‘Alexander the Great on his way to Panic Buy Honey’ Unknown artist, c. 325BC.

There’s one type of food preservation that’s used less commonly today, and when it is used it’s usually for taste reasons rather than preservation ones: potting.

In the 16th century, cooks discovered that if you placed cooked meat in a pot, covered it with melted butter and let it set, it would last much longer than if it was left out. Sir Hugh Plat advised that potted meat would keep “sweet and sound” for at least three weeks, even in summer and thus a craze was born. Potting was quicker than salting or smoking, which took days to do properly, and it took up less space in a busy (or tiny) kitchen too. Plus, if you only had to worry about preserving enough food for your own family, there was less chance of getting faeces splashed onto the food than there was from the cesspit kippers. Odd as it may sound, not having human excrement smeared onto food has been a universal goal for all cooks, in all time periods, in all cultures.

It wasn’t necessarily cheaper, though. You couldn’t be stingy with the butter or else it wouldn’t work and you’d just be left 3 weeks later with bowls of rotting and particularly greasy meat. In very hot weather the butter could melt or turn rancid, which would cause the meat to spoil anyway and another downside was that it only tended to be useful if scraps of leftover meat were used, rather than an entire carcass, because you had to have enough pots (and therefore butter) in the first place.

The recipe I used for my potted shrimp comes from Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management which I’ve talked more about here. Mrs Beeton advises this recipe would set a household back 1 shilling 3 pence, equivalent to £3.70 today, so wouldn’t have been a recipe for those looking to preserve entire meals out of extreme poverty.

The only thing that I’ve changed in this recipe is substituting shrimp for small prawns. A few weeks ago, I was being forced to drone on to my form about the NHS Eat Well Guide as part of PSHE and we all had a horrible moment of realisation when it became apparent that microwave pizzas did not count as part of the Eat Well advice. That evening I vowed, as I had so many times in the past, to do better both for myself and as an example to my daughter. The next day I bought some frozen prawns that were on special offer to fling into healthy stir fries and curries. It will come as no surprise to any of you that I’ve made approximately 0 healthy stir fries or curries since that week, and if anything my consumption of microwave pizza has gone up. But the point is I had prawns in, not shrimp, and in the spirit of not doing any needless shopping, Mrs Beeton was going to have to deal with it.

I defrosted 1 pint of pre-cooked prawns, trying to ignore the whine of cognitive dissonance of un-preserving something in order to preserve it for a shorter amount of time in a riskier way, and placed them in a saucepan, to which I’d added 1/4 pound of butter, and a pinch of mace, cayenne pepper and nutmeg. This all cooked together for about 5 minutes and then the prawns were scooped out and placed in two ramekins.

After they’d cooled a little I poured the melted butter over the prawns (I had to melt a little more to cover both pots). I stuck some earplugs in to drown out the now siren-like wail of dissonance as I placed the ramekins in the fridge to speed up the preserving and setting process of the butter, and waited.

It took several hours until the butter was solidified, which meant these were ready just in time for a late lunch. Again, totally defeating the point of potting since we were eating them on the same day, but we’re in a time of National Crisis; people aren’t thinking straight and pyjamas now count as work attire – so what if a few potted prawns get eaten two days too early!

At this point my husband took this opportunity to tell me he didn’t actually like prawns at all and asked if potted baked beans were a thing?

A bit of prawn mashed up with butter, slowly melting on toast made a very pleasant lunch. Faintly warming because of the cayenne and nutmeg, and because it wasn’t something we would normally eat, it felt like a bit of a treat. It wasn’t better than a microwave pizza, but it wasn’t worse.

Hopefully you’re all safe and sound and have enough food, loo rolls and soap to last you just as long as you need without depriving others, especially innocent year 7’s who are being forced to suffer the indignities of eating fruit instead of muffins, for God’s sake! If you can, it’s worth checking that your neighbours are all set too and, if you can manage it, offer to help out with shopping or collections or dog walking etc for those who can’t leave their homes for a bit. Sometimes even just swapping numbers and having a phone conversation every couple of days with an isolated person is all that’s necessary.

Oh, and remember to wash your hands. Especially if you’ve been smoking herring in the public loos, you dirty beast.

E x

Potted Shrimp

250g prawns
120g butter (possibly more to cover)
Pinch of mace
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Pinch of nutmeg

  1. Cook butter, prawns and spices together in a pan until heated thoroughly and prawns are pink and cooked through.
  2. Using a slotted spoon, divide prawns between two ramekins.
  3. Pour over melted butter until it completely covers the prawns.
  4. Leave to set.