The sound of horses’ hooves clattered on the cobblestone streets and the golden light of the setting sun cast shadows over the faces of the people pawing through the piles of sweetgrass baskets in the City Market. I could close my eyes and think I’d gone back in time, the smell of horse manure ripe in my nose, lulled by the cries of the vendors, their sing-song Gullah- accented tones bringing back a sense of the West Africa I once knew. I turned and started down Church Street, passing Broad Street after several blocks, ending up on the waterfront, passing house after house with decorative pineapples adorning the gateways, mailboxes, and doors of immense mansions, a sense of the past emanating from every window, every staircase, every porch. Continue reading
What to make of the lavish feasts that come after a funeral?
When I attended my first funeral, at age 27, I cried a lot, even though I didn’t know the deceased, my sister-in-law’s father. My grandparents all died before I turned 20 and lived 1250 miles away. Living as my family did on a poor college professor’s salary, attending funerals wasn’t going to happen. Add to that my mother’s extreme reluctance to even speak of her own mortality and you have a partial explanation for my absence at prior funerals.
Since death is not something that modern Americans handle well in spite of its prevalence in the media and films – all you need to do is read the classic The American Way of Death Revisited (2000) by Jessica Mitford for proof of that – so you can imagine my shock when we traipsed down to the basement of the church, where long folding tables bowed under the weight of the food brought in by the Church Ladies and others.
People stood around the tables lined up on threadbare gray carpeting, laughing, talking, whispering condolences to the family. Eating potato salads, baked beans, sweet Jell-o salads stuffed with nuts and marshmallows, sliced sweet ham, gooey cakes of every size and shape, and lots of buns, as my mother-in-law called dinner rolls. Southern funerals add such dishes as macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, and pimento cheese sandwiches.
It was not until I had several more funerals under my belt that I finally could see the importance of these affairs. In the not-so-distant past, the feasts symbolized hope for the future, a time for the heir to be presented formally to the community, calculating the effects of passing the torch, so to speak, the relentless flow of time, the cycle of life starting over again.
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
~ Lt. Colonel John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields”
Funeral feasts reinforce the community’s sense of tribe, too. Like births, deaths remind people of their ties to each other. A lot of the success of archaeology centers around the presence of grave offerings. Early humans buried numerous things with their dead, including food. For example, The Vikings* and Egyptians left tremendous numbers of items in the graves of their loved ones and of their rulers, allowing archaeologists and historians valuable insights into cultural practices on many different levels. With the coming of Christianity, this practice came to an end, grave goods becoming more external in the form of grave stones and markers. And the food was for the living, not the dead.
The food, it seems, brings about a transition for the mourners.
Eating celebrates life. There’s a certain relief, is there not, that you can still eat, that you’ve gone to Samarra and Death did not find you there after all, although in your heart you know that one day people will gather because of you.
Breaking bread in celebration. Of lives well lived.
When for the last time
You close your mouth,
Your words and soul
Will belong to the world of
No place, no time.
~Rumi, ghazal number 911, translated by Nader Khalili
Note: I wrote this post in memory of my dear brother-in-law, Barry Bertelsen, who passed away on March 7, 2013, of virulent small-cell lung cancer. Barry dedicated his life to helping the people of his community and will be desperately missed by his close-knit family. He lived the last year of his life knowing that each day was a gift, even if it was not a particularly great day. By his example, he taught all of us what it is to live life as if each day were the last. And he showed us how to die with dignity and full awareness of our mortality. Go in peace, Barry, we will miss you terribly.
More to Think About
Although these books seem irreverent, it seems to be a human trait to thumb one’s nose at Death and mock it:
Junod, Tom. ”Funeral Food,” Esquire magazine
Metcalfe, Gayden and Hays, Charlotte. Being Dead is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral. New York: Miramax Books, 2005.
Rogak, Lisa. Death Warmed Over: Funeral Food, Rituals, and Customs from Around the World. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2004.
Ward, Jessica Bemis. Food to Die For: A Book of Funeral Food, Tips and Tales. Southern Memorial Association: Lynchburg, VA, 2004.
There’s even a Pinterest page devoted to American funeral foods.
*Magoun, Francis Peabody; Bessinger, Jess B.; Creed, Robert P. Ibn Fadlan’s Account of the Rus with Some Commentary and Some Allusions to Beowulf (أحمد بن فضلان بن العباس بن راشد بن حماد). In: H. M. Smyser. Franciplegius: Medieval and Linguistic Studies in Honor of Francis Peabody Magoun. New York, New York: New York University Press, 1965, pp. 92-119. (Includes an eyewitness account of a tenth-century Viking funeral, probably in Sweden.)
© 2013 C. Bertelsen
Macarons. Truly an example of “Don’t try this at home.”
But how I longed to recreate the taste and the crunch of the macarons I greedily ate as often as I could, when I passed that fairy-tale bakery on the Rue de Rivoli, close to the Hotel de Ville metro stop: Maison Georges Larnicol.
Although they’re kissing cousins of a sorts, modern French macarons don’t much resemble American macaroons. The extra “O” has nothing to do with it.
Macarons likely originated in Italy during the Renaissance. The word “macaron” stems from the Italian macherone and Venetian macarone, meaning “paste.” Macaroni also comes from the same root word, but that’s another story altogether. The Larousse Gastronomique suggests that, au contraire, monks near Cormery in the Loire region of France made these delicate tidbits as early as 491.
No matter their origins, meringue forms the basis for these small cookie-like confections. Superior macarons require crisp exteriors, resulting in a satisfying crunch when bitten, leading to the softer centers snuggling up to creamy, flavorful fillings.
The best-known macarons come from Paris, where they took off in popularity under Pierre Desfontaines at his famous Parisian patisserie, Ladurée. Next in line are macarons from Nancy in eastern France, where 17th-century Carmelites, Les Soeurs Macarons (the Macaron Sisters), fabricated them. But then, around 2001, Pierre Hermé’s seductive macaron of hazelnut and white truffle kicked off a flavor-quest frenzy among macaron makers. Tradition gave way to amazing innovations.
Previously published in France in 2009, Bérengère Abraham’s small book, Macarons, proves the truth of the old adage: a picture is worth a thousand words. The skillful photographic lens of Marie-José Jarry performs miracles here. Only 64 pages long, the book bursts with such delectable photographs that you might have a hard time accepting the fact that you cannot actually eat what you see.
Anyone who’s recently walked into an upscale bakery anywhere in the world knows that macarons now come in about a zillion different flavors, or parfums, as the French say. Abraham provides 28 scintillating recipes, with many traditional flavors—vanilla, chocolate, coffee, and raspberry. But it’s her innovative flavors—Carrot and Walnut, Kiwi and Banana, Pineapple and Szechuan Pepper, and Rhubarb and Red Currant—that make this book a stand out among the macaron books crowding publishers’ catalogs.
Ms. Abraham promotes the French meringue technique, egg whites simply beaten with sugar. The resulting meringue is not as stable as Italian meringue, where the cook pours a stream of sugar syrup over beaten egg whites and continues beating until the whites shine like unsullied snow. A series of small photographs at the beginning of the book illustrates the basic mixing method for all of the 28 recipes. The author recommends “ageing,” or separating the egg whites from the yolks and refrigerating the whites for 24 hours prior to starting any of the recipes. She says, “With a little care and attention you too can make your favorites at home.”
What she doesn’t say is this: Trying to make macarons is a humbling experience. Even famed pastry chef David Lebovitz needed seven tries before he got his chocolate macaron recipe down pat. And Hisako Ogita, in her I ♥Macarons (2006), states frankly, “When you start making macarons, you might fail several times, but don’t give up!” The major stumbling block to successful macarons is the tant-pour-tant (almond and powdered sugar mixture) and its proper incorporation into the meringue (macronnage).
The recipe for “Rose Macaroon” worked reasonably well, especially the white chocolate ganache filling perfumed with rosewater. You might have a hard time keeping your fingers from sneaking tiny tastes, though.
One big problem with the book is the “macaroon” typo that looms throughout the book, even though the title is Macarons. A macaron is not a macaroon. Although no index finishes up the book, the Table of Contents lists all the recipes, making it fairly easy for you to find a specific recipe. The only other thing that might throw you into a hair-pulling fit lies with the lack of specification about the size of the pastry tube for piping the mixture onto parchment-lined baking sheets. (It should measure 3/8–½ inch across.)
As with much in cuisine, practice makes perfect when it comes to macarons. Bérengère Abraham’s Macarons provides the guidance; you supply the patience and elbow grease.
Fairy tale food, yes.
© 2012 C. Bertelsen
Thomas Jefferson. President. Scientist. Writer. Man of many passions, some hidden, some not.
In his writings and in his actions, food clearly revealed itself as one of those passions.
Above all, Jefferson was a Francophile.
From the design of his dining room in his house, Monticello, to the gardens surrounding him in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, from Paris to the White House — Jefferson’s obsession with food and its preparation inspired him to train his African slaves, particularly James Hemings, in the art of French cooking, while he kept detailed ledgers concerning vegetable prices in Washington, D.C.’s street markets. He dreamed of Virginia becoming a wine-producing state, along the same lines as Burgundy or Bordeaux.
Jefferson bequeathed so much to the fledgling new country he helped form with his pen, the phrase “We the People … ,” books at the Library of Congress, the University of Virginia, his home Monticello.
Library shelves sag with the weight of the books written by and about Jefferson, proclaiming his far-reaching influence on government, education, and wine.
Jefferson’s gardens at Monticello, tended in his lifetime by African slaves, still inspire lovers of local foods.
He spent $500 of his own money on food at the White House each month, the purchases duly recorded by his maitre d’, Etienne Lemaire, whose Day Book (1806-1806) is one of the few records of what went on Jefferson’s plate. Written in a fascinating French-English patois, Lemaire’s lists included the following:
du omene (hominy)
laitue de Fairfax (Fairfax County lettuce)
arecost blanc (white beans)
pomes deter (potato)
baril de cornichons (barrel of gherkins)
barill de craker (barrell of crackers)
plus ‘trois peck de sweet patates’
But, ironically, given his passion for food and cooking, a full analysis of his impact on American cuisine has yet to be written. Food historian Karen Hess intended to write a definitive history, but died before she could complete the work.
Hess’s chapter in Dining at Monticello: In Good Taste and Abundance (edited by Damon Lee Fowler), “Thomas Jefferson’s Table: Evidence and Influence,” exposes the bare bones of the subject.
Hess reminds us, or rather exhorts us, that “The French were here long before Jefferson’s time, even in Virginia, and they are responsible for strong French traces in traditional Virginia cookery, a fact not always taken into account by either food historians or Patrick Henry.” (Patrick Henry railed against Jefferson, saying that he “abjured his native vittles in favor of French cuisine.”)
True, but a glance at the English cookbooks of the period, no doubt used by the early presidents, shows that French cuisine infiltrated English kitchens. And influenced cookbook authors like Eliza Smith, Hannah Glasse, and Maria Eliza Rundell.
Interestingly, Jefferson’s kinswoman Mary Randolph’s The Virginia House-wife (1824) mentions a recipe for “Bell Fritters,” which according to Hess, is identical to one recorded by Jefferson’s French maitre d’hôtel Lemaire at the White House. Similar to beignets, these fritters look like small bells and behave just as cream puff dough does.
Très français. Very French.
From The Virginia House-wife
Put a piece of butter the size of an egg into a pint of water, let it boil a few minutes, thicken it very smoothly with a pint of flour, let it remain a short time on the fire, stir it all the time that it may not stick to the pan, pour it into a wooden bowl, add five or six eggs, breaking one and beating it in, then another, and so on until they are all in and the dough quite light, put a pint of lard in a pan, let it boil, make the fritters small, and fry them of a fine amber colour.
For more on Jefferson and food:
The Potager of Thomas Jefferson: A Kitchen Garden in Photos, blog post by Cynthia Bertelsen (2010)
Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine, by Prscilla Parkhurst Ferguson (2006)
‘The Cultivated Life: Thomas Jefferson and Wine‘ (film, 2005)
The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson, by Sarah N. Randolph (2010)
The Founding Foodies: How Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin Revolutionized American Cuisine, by Dave Dewitt (2010)
The Gardens of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, by Peter J. Hatch (1998)
The Paris Years of Thomas Jefferson, by William Howard Adams (2000)
Passions : The Wines and Travels of Thomas Jefferson, by James M. Gabler (1995)
Thomas Jefferson on Wine, by John R. Hailman (2009)
Thomas Jefferson’s Cook Book, by Marie Kimball (2004)
Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book, edited by Edwin M. Betts (2001)
Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book, edited by Edwin Morris Betts and Peter J. Hatch (2001)
© 2011 C. Bertelsen
Fried dough, a universal love. Grease, sugar, what more could you dream of?
In the south of France, when you want fried dough, you’ll get oreillettes.
As with any traditional holiday dish, each cook has his or her version. The signature taste with these oreillettes is the orange flower water. In New Orleans, oreillettes come with a splash of rum, possibly because it was available and because orange flower water wasn’t.
Oreillettes (English version)
2 T. orange flower water
2 T. milk
4-1/2 T. unsalted butter, melted and cooled
Pinch of salt
Grated zest of 1/2 orange
3-4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out the oreillettes
Peanut or other light vegetable oil, for frying (usually 2-3 quarts)
Granulated sugar, for dusting
Mix the eggs, orange flower water, milk, salt, and zest together in a large bowl. Add the flour little by little until you have a somewhat flexible but not sticky dough. Knead for a few minutes on a floured board and then put in a greased bowl and let set for 2 hours.
Heat the oil to 370 F and roll out bits of dough paper thin. Fry oreillettes about 30 seconds, then flip with tongs. Drain on paper towels and sprinkle with powdered sugar when cooled.
Be sure to read my other posts on Provence’s Thirteen Desserts:
No Partridges, Just Thirteen Desserts HERE
Lillet by Another Means: Vin d’Orange, or, French Christmas Spirit HERE
Citron* (Cédrat), Jewel-Like Morsel of Provence’s Thirteen Christmas Desserts HERE
One of the Thirteen, the Tangerine HERE
Panis focacius, la Gibacié, and la Pompe à l’huîle, Kin Under the Crust, One of the Thirteen HERE
Begging the Question: Les Quatre Mendiants and Provence’s Thirteen Christmas Desserts HERE
Les Quatre Mendiants au Chocolat, A Candy Offshoot of Provence’s Thirteen Christmas Desserts HERE
Nougat Noir, or Black Nougat, Another of the Thirteen Desserts HERE
The Provençal Thirteen: Fennel- and Cumin-Scented Sablés HERE
© 2010 C. Bertelsen
M. F. K. Fisher inspired, and continues to inspire, countless American food writers.
But still, not one quite surpasses her. Yet.
Anyone who reveres food and eats oysters, who yearns for security and longs for love, and who seeks out experiences and thinks much must discover M. F. K. Fisher. Just who was M. F. K. Fisher and why did James Beard, that gentle giant of the food world, call her a national treasure? And why did John Updike refer to her as ”the poet of the appetites”?
Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher was an American food writer, but what a food writer! Believing that our three most basic needs—for food, security, and love—so entwine that we cannot straightly think of one without the others, M. F. K. Fisher wrote prose that melts in the brain like butter mints melt on a warm tongue. She paints scenery with words, not oil paints. Caught up in the startling and sensuous observations of this gifted observer of Life, the reader floats calmly along the stream of M. F. K.’s words, buoyed by the lyrical phrases, by the images of far away and exotic places, by nearly indescribable tastes and odors. Such richness!
Discovering the wealth of M. F. K. Fisher’s writing might begin with any of the dozen or so volumes she produced since 1937.* Ironically, for a writer who has never made any money on her books, most of her books are still in print. Perhaps the best of M. F. K.’s books is The Art of Eating, a compendium of five small and slender volumes. Any oyster-loving fisherman will not want to miss Fisher’s treatise on the oyster, appropriately entitled Consider the Oyster and included in The Art of Eating. Be sure to read the ending pages, where the shipwrecked little boys dive and dive for oysters…
How can you fail to respond to a fabulous storyteller who seems to invite you to pull up a stool and swap yarns with her? Did you hear the one about the young woman who, while eating something extraordinarily delicious lamented, “Ah…what a pity that I do not have little taste buds clear to the bottom of my stomach!”? And what about the mad waitress who kept bringing a stranded M. F. K. food cooked by a seemingly invisible French chef in a café miles from anywhere? When reading Fisher’s work, you keep wanting to pull up your stool closer and closer, to make sure that you don’t miss anything.
Not only does Fisher tell a good yarn; she offers up many interesting recipes gleaned from French fishermen, California wine-growers, Long Island Sound potato farmers, Italian housewives, and a grandmother nicknamed “The Nervous Stomach.” With Bold Knife and Fork is the closest thing to a true cookbook that she ever wrote, but many of her other books contain recipes, cooking suggestions, and food philosophy dished out here and there.
Just before her death in 1992, Fisher still cooked occasionally for a few close friends. Lunch might have been a beef ragout (or stew), perhaps, and a clafouti and maybe a small salad of baby lettuce. And, of course, a fine California wine, from vineyards near Jack London’s ill-fated Valley of the Moon ranch (and that is another story worth telling some day).
Oh, to be one of Fisher’s lucky friends, eating her food and drinking in her wine and stories! Lacking all that, the next best thing would be to cook her recipes and read her books, one propped up on the counter, spooning up beef stew à la provençal, green salad, and an apple clafouti.
As she would have said, “It is a great way to live!”
Beef Stew à la Provençal
3 lbs. beef stew meat, cut into 1 ½ -inch chunks
2 onions, coarsely chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled and mashed
2 carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch slices
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 T. olive oil
3 cups good quality red wine (Cabernet or Merlot work best)
Fresh thyme leaves (3 sprigs, tied together with kitchen string) or 1 t. dried thyme
3 bay leaves
2-inch piece of orange peel (be sure to omit white part underneath as it is bitter)
1. Marinate the meat in all the ingredients overnight. use a stainless steel or glass container. Refrigerate and cover.
2. The next day, simmer the stew covered over low heat for about four hours or until the meat is tender to the fork. Let stew cool, skim off fat, and reheat gently until warmed through.
3. Serve garnished with small whole cooked peeled potatoes, lots of thickly sliced French bread, and a green salad.
Green Salad with Vinaigrette Dressing
2 heads Boston or Bibb lettuce, washed and dried
2 T. fresh lemon juice or red wine vinegar
6 T. extra-virgin olive oil
salt and black pepper to taste
1 garlic clove, peeled and mashed
1-2 t. Dijon mustard
Mix dressing ingredients in a jar and shake well. Serve lettuce on individual plates and pass the vinaigrette.
2 lbs. apples, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced
2 cups milk
½ cup sugar
4 T. butter, softened
pinch of salt
1 ½ cups flour
¼ t. pure vanilla extract
Vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, or powdered sugar for topping (optional)
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-inch X 13-inch pan.
2. In a large bowl, mix the remaining ingredients together and spread over the bottom of the pan. Layer the apple slices over the batter.
3. Bake approximately 30 minutes. Serve warm, topped if you wish with one of the suggested toppings.
*Fisher’s books include: The Art of Eating (containing How to Cook a Wolf, Consider the Oyster, Serve it Forth, The Gastronomical Me, An Alphabet for Gourmets); With Bold Knife and Fork; A Considerable Town; Map of Another Town; Sister Age; As They Were; Dubious Honors; A Cordiall Water; Here Let Us Feast: A Book Of Banquets; Among Friends; Long-Ago in France; Last House: Reflections, Dreams, and Observations 1943-1991; To Begin Again: Stories and Memories; Stay with Me, Oh Comfort Me: Journals and Stories, 1933-1941; A Stew or a Story: An Assortment of Short Works by M. F. K. Fisher (gathered and introduced by Joan Reardon); Conversations with M. F. K. Fisher; M. F. K. Fisher: A Life in Letters; From the Journals of M. F. K. Fisher; and The Measure of Her Powers: An M. F. K. Fisher Reader (edited by Dominique Gioia).
Books about M. F. K. Fisher: M. F. K. Fisher Among the Pots and Pans: Celebrating Her Kitchens and Poet of the Appetites: The Lives and Loves of M. F. K. Fisher (both by Joan Reardon), A Welcoming Life: The M. F. K. Fisher Scrapbook (compiled and annotated by Dominique Gioia), and Between Friends: M. F. K. Fisher and Me (By Jeanette Ferrary).
© 2008, 2010 C. Bertelsen
Omnia explorate; meliora retinete (Explore everything; keep the best.)
~~ Evelyn family motto
Somehow, and how I wish it were so, it would be nice to time-travel, to sit at table with the people I’m meeting through their words, written by long-dead hands with quill pens and India ink.
One of my new “acquaintances,” if such a word be the correct way of putting things, went (goes?) by the name of John Evelyn.
Seventeenth-century English author John Evelyn chronicled upper-class life in his Diary, which eventually ran to 6 volumes when published. Like Samuel Pepys and James Boswell, he’s known primarily for prolific diarying, but his apparent hypergraphia led him to produce a number of other writings, including a cookery manuscript, published by Prospect Press as John Evelyn, Cook: The Manuscript Receipt Book of John Evelyn, edited by Christopher Driver, 1997; a hymn to salads called Acetaria; and a tome about trees and forests — Sylva, or, A Discourse of Forest Trees.
You might say, “Why should I care about a guy who died way back in 1706?” After all he’s a writer whose books ooze with a rather “hobbledehoy prose”* and, in one of his portraits, he resembles the archetypal noble fop, posed with his hand caressing a human skull.
The old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” applies here. Born in our times, Evelyn, one of the founders of the Royal Society, would be one of today’s biggest advocates for the Earth. A staunch supporter of afforestation, Evelyn also worked to curtail air pollution in the London of his day. Cooks who love gardening will find a kindred soul in John Evelyn. Of vegetarians, he said they are “more acute, subtil, and of deeper penetration” than those who relish meat. And he considered a meal with meat sorely lacking if no salad rested near his fork at the same time.
Evelyn’s cookery manuscript contains 353 receipts, ranging from Wormwood Ale to French Bread.
For me, a person for whom cheesecake beats out all other desserts (except for chocolate, of course),** John Evelyn’s recipe for cheesecake cinches it for me: cheesecake and chess pie really share a common ancestry. After perusing Evelyn’s recipe and delving into the messiness of rennet-making, I think I see a strong kinship between the cheesecakes and lemon chess pies I love so much.
First of all, let’s look at Evelyn’s recipe for cheesecake. (I wonder who the “wee” is that he refers to? Him? His wife? His cook or cooks? All of them, merrily stirring the pot while the fire belches choking smoke?)
154. An Excellent receipt for Cheesecakes, which wee make
Take 3 quarts of New Milk ren it pretty cold and when it is tender come drayn it from the whay in a strainer then hang it up till all the whay be drained from it, then change it into dry cloaths till it wett the Cloth no longer then straine it through a course haire sive, mingle it with 3 qrs of a pound of fresh Butter, with yr hands, take halfe a pound of Almonds beaten with rose water as fine as Curd, then mingle them with the yolks of tenne Eggs and neere a Pint of creame. A nutmeg grated sugar and a little salt when yr Coffins [pie crusts] are ready and going to sett into the Oven, then mingle them together, the Oven must be as hot for a pigeon pye lett the scorching be over halfe an houre will be them well, the Coffins must be hardned by setting into oven full of branne, prick them with a bodkin [sharp instrument], which brush out with a wing, then put in the cheesecake stuff, you may leave 2 whites in the eggs if you like it best so.
The word “ren” combined with “it” probably refers to “rennet,” which cookbook author John Nott (Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary, 1726, facsimile edited by Elizabeth David, 1980) emphatically mentions in his recipe for cheesecake and Robert May (The Accomplisht Cook, 1660, glossary by Alan Davidson, reprint 1994) writes in a similar passage as “run it pretty cold.” In The Compleat Housewife (1758), Eliza Smith included specific details for extracting rennet:
“Making a Runnet-Bag”
Let the calf suck as much as he will just before he is kill’d, then take the bag out of the calf, and let it lie twelve hours covered over in stinging nettles till it is very red; then take out your curd, wash your bag clean; salt it within-side and without; let it lie sprinkled with salt twenty-four hours; then wash your curd in warm new milk, pick it, and put away all that is yellow and hollow, keep what is white and close; then wash it well, and sprinkle it with salt; when the bag has lain twenty-four hours, put it into the bag again, and put to it three spoonsful of the stroaking of a cow, beat up with the yolk of an egg or two, twelve cloves, and two blades of mace; put a skewer thro’ it, and hang it in a pot; then make the rennet water thus:
Take half a pint of fair water, a little salt, and fix tops of the red buds of black-thorn, as many sprigs of burnet, and two of sweet-marjoram; boil these in the water, and strain it out; when it is cold put one half in the bad, and let the bag lie in the other half, taking it out as you use it, make more runnet, which you may do six or seven times; three spoonsful of this runnet will make a large Cheshire or cheddar-cheese, and half as much to a common cheese.***
The eggs, the milk, and the tartness of the cheese carried over into some of the earliest recipes for pies that traveled to the New World with the British settlers.
John Evelyn’s epitaph:
Here lies the Body of JOHN EVELYN Esq of this place, second son of RICHARD EVELYN Esq who having served the Publick in several employments of which that Commissioner of the Privy Seal in the reign of King James the 2nd was most Honourable: and perpetuated his fame by far more lasting Monuments than those of Stone, or Brass: his Learned and useful works, fell asleep the 27th day of February 1705/6 being the 86th Year of his age in full hope of a glorious resurrection thro faith in Jesus Christ. Living in an age of extraordinary events, and revolutions he learnt (as himself asserted) this truth which pursuant to his intention is here declared. That all is vanity which is not honest and that there’s no solid Wisdom but in real piety. Of five Sons and three Daughters borne to him from his most vertuous and excellent Wife MARY sole daughter, and heiress of Sir RICHARD BROWNE of Sayes Court near Deptford in Kent onely one Daughter SUSANNA married to WILLIAM DRAPER Esq of Adscomb in this County survived him the two others dying in the flower of their age, and all the sons very young except one nam’d John who deceased 24 March 1698/9 in the 45th year of his age, leaving one son JOHN and one daughter ELIZABETH.
John Evelyn spoke frankly, honestly, and rued those who paraded their food expertise a tad bit untruthfully. Take Receipt #146: A very good cake. (The original annotation.) Then, this, added later, according to the editor: “Mrs. Black[wood?], if it had bin given right which upon triall does not answer.” One senses the sharp tip of the quill pen grinding into paper smudged with a yellow smear (egg yolk?) and the glassy look of a grease stain (butter?) .
Sometimes, frankly, there is nothing new under the sun. Honestly.
* Times Literary Supplement review, 1997, by Helen Simpson.
**Cheesecake literally became mother’s milk when my son was born, as I downed many Sara Lee cheesecakes when 3 a.m. hunger pangs woke both of us up.
***According to Rachel Feild, “ …sorrel, bedstraw, nettles, and many other hedgerow herbs were used to make cheese at almost any time of the year, without the sacrifice of calf, lamb, or piglet.” (Irons in the Fire: A History of Cooking Equipment. Ramsbury, Marlborough, Wiltshire: CrowoodPress, 1984.) And acids like vinegar and lemon juice curdled milk, too, in a pinch. Acid + Milk = curds, thanks to casein.
For more by and about John Evelyn:
John Evelyn, A Study in Bibliophily with a Bibliography of His Writings, by Sir Geoffery Keynes, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968. (A bio-bibliography putting Evelyn in the context of his times.)
The Diary of John Evelyn (selected text).
The Rusticall and Economical Works of John Evelyn: Acetaria, a Discourse of Sallets, edited by Christopher Driver, with an introduction by Tom Jaine, 1996.
© 2010 C. Bertelsen
As an infant, Zeus, the Greek god of gods, fed on milk and honey, or so the story goes.
And in Exodus 3:8 (KJV), Moses states, “And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey … “
By these ancient words, we know that honey served as an important food for humans and not just as something to ferment and drink to the point of intoxication, sacred or otherwise.
Cookbooks, those barometers of taste — whether real or ideal — chronicle the journey of honey beyond the honeypot and brewer’s barrel. A few examples illustrate this truth:
- In Apicius’s cookbook, a first-century A.D. Roman affair, honey graced a number of recipes far from the comfort of milk and honey. Like many chefs today combining seemingly incompatible exotic ingredients, Apicius poured honey into dishes redolent with dormouse, crane, ostrich, and fish.
“Bottle bread,” moistened with milk and honey, appeared in Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq’s tenth-century Baghdadi Cookbook, while sweet-and-sour meat concoctions like Sikbāj utilized honey, too.
- A chef to at least one Renaissance pope, Bartolomeo Scappi wrote a cookbook published in 1570, commonly called Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi. He included recipes for sweet tourtes with honey and expounded on how to tell if honey is good:
To be good, honey should be fine-grained, firm, heavy, of a good smell, and with a golden colour. Above all, it should be clean. It is stored in wooden or earthenware vessels.
But Scappi’s fish jelly seasoned with honey? I think I’d pass on that one if I were a guest at his table!
Jumping ahead a few years to colonial America, where sweetness usually took the form of sugar — and had done so in Europe since approximately the sixteenth century, when honey’s popularity began to wane, actually around Scappi’s time.* Here, let’s take a look at a couple of cookbooks likely in use in pre-revolutionary American households. The scrutiny reveals some interesting tidbits.
The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747), by Hannah Glasse, and The Compleat Housewife (1727), by Eliza Smith, the two top contenders for “The Joy of Cooking” of the times, both English, preceded the publication of the first American cookbooks like Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery (1796) and Mary Randolph’s The Virginia House-Wife (1824). Honey — seen in Glasse’s recipes for two kinds of mead, an opiate for sore teeth, and various toiletries; and in Smith’s guidelines for making mead — obviously was not a hot item, reflecting the trend of sugar becoming more widely available and copiously used by the wealthier classes.
Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery touted a few recipes for gingerbread, including one with honey that for all practical purposes dates back to the earliest written renditions, namely Harleian MS. 279 (from 1430). And in The Virginia House-Wife, Mary Randolph wrote up a recipe for Honey Vinegar (To Make). Her gingerbread recipes called for sugar or molasses, a commonly used sweetener (and a by-product of sugar production). No honey.
Getting back to milk and honey, a cheesecake made with honey epitomizes the divine in honey. With antecedents in Sicily (and Greece, where honey-slathered cheese evokes rapture), the following cheesecake represents, in my mind, the reason why the ancients designated milk and honey as “food of the gods.” By Zeus!
(in the Style of New York)**
2 cups graham cracker crumbs
½ cup butter, melted
4 8-oz. (2 lbs.) packages cream cheese (DO NOT substitute light or non-fat)
¾ cup honey, preferably one with a flavor, like orange blossom, etc.
¼ cup flour
1/3 cup heavy cream
1 T. grated lemon zest
1 t. pure vanilla extract
Note: I often use a pastry crust instead of the graham cracker crust.
To make graham cracker crust, mix crumbs and butter until well blended. Press evenly on the bottom and sides of a greased 9-inch springform pan; set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Combine cream cheese, honey, and flour in a mixing bowl. Beat until smooth with an electric mixer. One at a time, add eggs. Beat well after each addition. Beat in cream, salt, lemon zest, and vanilla. Pour the filling mixture over the prepared crust and bake cheesecake for 15 minutes at 350 degrees F. After 15 minutes, lower the oven temperature to 200 degrees F and bake for 1 ½ hours or until center is no longer shiny or wet. Turn off the heat. Let cheesecake cool in oven for about 1 hour with door slightly open. Then remove cheesecake and place on a rack to cool completely. Cover and refrigerate cheesecake for at least 4 hours before serving. [Tip: To keep the top of the cheesecake from cracking, run a knife around the edge of the pan so that the cake can pull away freely as it contracts during cooling.]
*For a beginning foray into this subject, see Sidney W. Mintz on the question of honey versus sucrose, “The Conquest of Honey by Sucrose: A Psychotechnical Achievement,” in his Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Power, and the Past (1996).
** Adapted from a recipe from the National Honey Board.
© 2009 C. Bertelsen
Fritters and Carnevale, lumped together like ham and eggs, mashed potatoes and gravy, risi e bisi, rice and beans.
Ricotta fritters, to be exact.
True, most people associate ricotta fritters more with St. Joseph’s Day, March 19 in Italy. But those fritters lean toward the filled variety, sweetened, creamy ricotta delivering a tantalizing surprise with every bite.
No, these particular fritters include ricotta in the batter and puff up like popcorn, spitting and swirling in the oil like little balloons slowly losing air.
First, the homemade ricotta, utterly necessary for the recipe.
Ricotta’s not really a cheese, but rather a whey product with ancient origins made from byproducts of cheesemaking, especially sheep’s milk pecorino. Etymologically, the name comes from Latin recoctus, signifying re-cooked whey. Several types of ricotta exist: Ricotta salata (like feta), ricotta infornata (baked), Ricotta affumicata (smoked), and Ricotta romana, a creamy type.
A food with a past, in other words:
The first depiction of the making of ricotta is an illustration in the medical treatise known as the Tacuinum sanitatis (medieval health handbook), the Latin translation of the Arab physician Ibn Butlan’s eleventh century Taqwim al-sihha. (Wright, A Mediterranean Feast, p. 467)
Making one’s own ricotta takes some verve, nerve, reserve, yes.
AND the right equipment.
A little rennet, ricotta moulds, an instant read thermometer, plenty of uninterrupted time, and a decent recipe, just for a guideline. After all, nonna might not be around to tell you what to do or not do, how to keep the cooking time under control by saying X numbers of Hail Marys or Our Fathers.
Once you make this, even if you have to use supermarket milk, you won’t believe the difference in the taste from supermarket ricotta.
The recipe from Saveur Magazine works well. A few caveats: 1. Be sure to watch the temperature carefully when cooling down the milk. 2. Do not stir the curds after making the X — and let the milk sit about 10 more minutes for the curd to form well. 3. Try to avoid using ultra-pasteurized milk — probably impossible, but worth a try. 4. Be prepared for draining to last longer than the recipe says, even after you refrigerate the ricotta. 5. The rennet called for is animal-based.
Rennet added to heated milk, curds forming.
Draining the Ricotta.
The Finished Product.
Here’s a version of Ricotta Fritters, adapted from Cliff Wright’s recipe in Little Foods of the Mediterranean, followed by eye candy:
1 cup fresh, homemade ricotta cheese
¾ cup all-purpose unbleached flour
½ t. salt
1 large egg
1 T. dry Marsala wine or rum
6 cups olive oil, olive pomace oil, or canola oil for deep-frying
In a medium size bowl, mix all the ingredients (EXCEPT THE OIL) well with a whisk. Cover bowl with plastic wrap or foil and chill in the refrigerator for a half-hour.
Preheat the oil in a Fry Daddy or other deep-fryer. You may use an 8-inch saucepan fitted with a basket insert to 375 degrees F, too. Deep-fry 4 -5 small spoonfuls of the dough, about the size of unshelled walnuts. Do not crowd the fryer. Cook until fritters turn dark golden brown and bob around spitting out air, about 5-8 minutes, turning if necessary. The fritters will split slitting, like a grape being peeled. They must cook a few minutes longer so that they do not taste damp and wet on the inside. Drain on a baking sheet covered with several layers of paper towels. Cool the oil cool, strain it, and save for another use.
Although Wright says these can be served with drinks, I rolled some of them in a sugar/cinnamon mixture and they tasted like doughnuts.
Spoonful of Batter.
Frying the fritters.
The Final Product.
Ricotta likely originated in Sicily. But, you know, the making of ricotta sounds a bit like the making of yogurt and other similar milk products. In Morocco, women inflated goatskins and made butter or leben (a type of thick yogurt) by batting the bloated skins back and forth. I see the beginnings of ricotta this way: milk poured into the stomach(s) of a calf, tied off, and left to ferment. An accident? Who knows?
For more information on soured and coagulated milk products:
© 2009 C. Bertelsen