I’d been hoping for opportunity and ability to come together so I could try this one out for a while. It’s an 18th Century recipe for gingerbread cookies (or biscuits…American culture hadn’t diverged far enough from that of Britain for those terms to carry the different meanings they do today) from the cookbook of one Polly Burling, a Quaker resident of Burlington County New Jersey in 1770 whose little book of recipes has been thoughtfully annotated and interpreted by Sue Huesken and Mercy Ingraham under the auspices of the Burlington County Historical Society. I picked the book up at a re-enactment at the Hancock House in the Spring – after all, Polly was using these recipes as Washington and Howe fought their “War of Posts” up and down New Jersey.

Polly’s recipes make a spare little book, with recipes for various dessert items, plus a couple of medicinal cures neither the Historical Society or I was very eager to experiment with. Despite that, it’s an interesting read, and the authors have loaded it with a lot of useful contextual information about what was available in 18th Century New Jersey. 

I’ve been a gingerbread fan since I was a kid, so I naturally gravitated to this recipe, originally set down this way in 1770:

To Make Gingerbread: Nuts: Take 2 pounds of flour 1/2 Pound of Butter 1/2 Pound of Sugar a little Ginger a few seeds Orange or Lemon Peel, and wet it with Molasses

Gingerbread Nuts (from Colonial Burlington Cookery: A Book of Reciepts April 1770, Polly Burling)

  • 4 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tbs ground ginger
  • 1 tbs caraway seeds, crushed
  • 1 tbs dried lemon or orange peel, minced
  • 1 and 1/2 cup molasses (or dark English treacle if you can find it)
  • 1/4 lb melted butter (one stick)

Mix flour, sugar, and spices. Combine molasses and melted butter. Add dry mixture to wet until you get a clay-like dough. Knead for several minutes. Roll balls of dough about 1 inch in diameter, and place on greased baking sheet. Bake at 300 degrees for 20-25 minutes, checking for doneness when baking smell first begins – err on the side of underdone.

The most notable diversion from modern gingerbread recipes is the inclusion of caraway, which was known as “cake seed” in the 18th Century and was apparently the characteristic “dessert spice” in much the same way that nutmeg was the characteristic spice for everything else. This recipe convinced me that I’m not much of a fan, but everyone else I’ve given these cookies to (the recipe makes around 80-90 depending on how big you roll them so I was able to test them on a lot of people) really liked the flavor, so it might just be a personal preference issue. If I made them again for myself, I’d probably add a little less caraway and maybe even put a little period-incorrect frosting on top to bump up the sweetness.

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The toasted cheese sandwich is a staple long beloved by moms everywhere: quick and cheap to make, tasty, and generally acceptable to even the pickiest kid. Back in the halcyon ’80s, my grandma used to make me a toasted cheese and a cup of Mrs. Grass chicken soup and then send me outside to play with my GI Joes.

The tastiness and utility of toasted cheese did not pass unnoticed in the 18th Century, though back then the sandwich was open-faced. It still survives in the modern era under its 18th century name: Welsh Rabbit, the origin of which is uncertain. It’s possible that it might have come from “rare-bit”, since only an extremely imaginative Welshman would mistake the flavor for that of a rabbit. 

Like roast beef and plum pudding, the Rabbit was also something of a British cultural feature as well as a tasty meal. Regional variations existed for each of the three kingdoms of Great Britain (England, Scotland, and Wales). I decided to try all three and see which would prove supreme. Hannah Glasse’s 1745 recipes don’t need much modification; all you need to do is use your broiler or toaster instead of an open hearth.

You’ll need:

  • Crusty bread, sliced. Whole wheat is both more accurate and better for you.
  • Good firm English cheese, such as Cheddar, Stilton, or Lincolnshire Poacher. Parmesan, while not English, is also acceptable; it traveled and kept well, and sometimes even showed up in military stores.
  • unsalted butter
  • English mustard (the powdered kind)
  • Red wine
  • White wine 

To Make a Welch Rabbit: Toast the bread on both sides, then toast the cheese on one side, lay it on the toast, and with a hot iron brown the other side. You may rub it over with mustard.

Easier modern version: toast your slice of bread, top with cheese and sprinkle with mustard. Pass under broiler till cheese is browned and bubbly.

Verdict:The toasted cheese baseline. The main attraction of the Welch Rabbit is the sharpness of the mustard. Good if you like strong flavors.

To Make a Scotch Rabbit: Toast a piece of bread very nicely on both sides, butter it, cut a slice of cheese about as big as the bread, toast it on both sides, and lay it on the bread.

Easier Modern Version: As per Welch Rabbit, but butter your bread prior to adding the cheese for the final toast and omit the mustard.

Verdict: Even in the 18th Century, “Scotch” is synonymous with “Lots of Cooking Fat”. This one tastes the most like the toasted cheese I remember from my childhood.

To Make an English Rabbit: Toast a slice of bread on both sides, then lay it on a plate before the fire, pour a glass of red wine over it, and let it soak the wine up; then cut some cheese very thin, and lay it thick over the bread, and put it in a tin oven before the fire, and it will be toasted and browned presently. Serve it away hot.      

Easier Modern Version:As Welch Rabbit, but soak the bread in 1/4 cup red wine before toasting the final time.

Verdict: Man, this one is good. The wine gives the bread a nice chewy texture, and the flavors are a natural match. If you want a simple but period recipe to impress people with, this is the one.

Or, do it thus: Toast the bread and soak it in wine, set it before the fire, cut your cheese in very thin slices, rub butter over the bottom of a plate, lay the cheese on, pour in two or three spoonfuls of white wine, cover it with another plate, set it over a chafing-dish of hot coals for two or three minutes; then stir till it is well done and well mixed: you may stir in a little mustard; when it is enough, lay it on the bread, just brown it with a hot shovel. Serve it away hot.

Easier Modern Version: Toast your bread as per Welch Rabbit. Melt your cheese in a double boiler with about 1 tbs butter and 2 tbs white wine per 8 oz of cheese. Add mustard to taste. Pour over bread and then toast until just browned.

Verdict: The most work for the best taste. Don’t try this one without a double-boiler or you’ll be scraping burned cheese off your pot for a long time.

One nice thing about this recipe is that we have an existing modern version to demonstrate how tastes have changed or stayed the same:

Welsh Rarebit With Beer (courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Tavern Cookbook)

  • 1 tbs unsalted butter
  • 1 lb grated sharp Cheddar cheese
  • 3/4 cup beer, divided
  • dash Tabasco
  • 1 tsp dry mustard
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 tsp cornstarch
  • Toast

Melt butter in double boiler over hot, but not boiling, water. Stir in cheese and all but 1 tbs beer. Stir until cheese melts. Add remaining beer, mustard, salt, Tabasco, and Worcestershire sauce.

Beat egg in small bowl with cornstarch and stir into cheese mixture. Cook, stirring often, till thickened, about 3-5 minutes. Serve immediately over toast. 

Rabbit at its Welch-est. 

English food culture has been beef-based for a long time; at least as long as horses were able to replace oxen as draft animals. When English people came to America as colonists, they brought with them several culinary expectations, one of which was that beef would continue to be the center of their dietary experience.

Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out that way. The cattle the settlers brought over with them had a lot of trouble adapting to the new climate and new sources of food (cows can be pickier than people when it comes to that kind of thing), and maintaining a stable cow population was rough going for a while. Instead, the settlers turned to a heretofore undervalued resource: the pig. Unlike cows, pigs really don’t care what they eat, breed quickly, and are smart and clean enough not to require a whole lot of attention. Pigs took to the New World so well, in fact, that they became something of a local nuisance with half-feral  hogs breaking down fences, digging up crops, and attacking people in the street (needless to say, early Colonial promotional literature stays diplomatically silent on the subject of vicious gangs of rogue pigs, though court documents paint a horrifying picture of the porcine criminal class).

Wether because of their reputation as violent walking garbage disposals, or simple Anglo-Norman culinary preference (food snobbery is a universal human trait, but it’s worth noting that hog is one of only eight wholly Celtic words remaining in the modern English language), Pigs were traditionally a “lower class” meat source in Britain. Fortunately, self-preservation is also a universal human trait, and pork became a staple source of meat and fat for all classes in America until beef could reliably be acquired. By the 18th Century, Americans and American foodways were undergoing a very conscious process of Anglicization as colonists tried to demonstrate their cultural solidarity with the Mother Country by buying and eating British (and as Chris Onstad says, there’s nothing more British than a man sick on beef), but pork remained a staple element of the American diet to a degree that set it apart, especially in the Chesapeake and Deep South.

As to what you’d actually be eating if you stopped for a bite back then, Hannah Glasse suggests this method of roasting:

Pork must be well done, or it is apt to surfeit. To every pound allow a quarter of an hour…When you roast a loin, take a sharp pen-knife and cut the skin across, to make the crackling eat the better…. Roast a leg of pork thus: take a knife, as above, and score it; stuff the knuckle part with sage and onion, chopped fine with pepper and salt: or cut a hole under the twist and put the sage &c. there and skewer it up with a skewer. Roast it crisp, because most people like the rind crisp, which they call crackling.

For modern purposes this version of Hannah Glasse’s original, from Lobscouse and Spotted Dog, is excellent:

Roast Pork

  • 1 half leg of pork with skin, about 8 lbs
  • 1 tbs fresh sage
  • 1 recipe Sage and Onion Stuffing
  • Flour for dredging

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Bone the pork (if necessary) and sew or skewer one end together to make a pocket for the stuffing. Spoon stuffing into the cavity and sew or skewer opening. Using twine or string, tie roast into a an oblong package. Dredge with flour and place in oven. Immediately reduce heat to 350 degrees and roast for about an hour.

Remove roast from oven and carefully score skin in one-inch squares. Tear sage into small pieces and stuff into cuts. Return to oven and roast for two more hours, or until it reaches an inside temperature of 160 degrees. Let rest at least 15 minutes before carving.

Sage and Onion Stuffing

  • 1 large onion, peeled
  • small handful fresh sage
  • 1/4 lb stale French bread, crumbled
  • 1 tsp dry mustard
  • 1 egg
  • salt and pepper

Blanch onion in boiling water for five minutes. Add sage and cook 30 seconds more. Strain and chop coarsely. Add bread, mustard, egg, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix well. Makes enough for an 8 lb roast.

The roast...complete!

The mustard adds a definite bite to this one. For authentic tavern fare, serve it with some applesauce or brown onion sauce, and perhaps some Carolina rice. Or cheat and use wild rice.

Pork with wild rice

I would venture to say that the single greatest British contribution to the world’s cuisine apart from Chicken Tikka Masala is the suet pudding. The traditional pudding uses beef kidney suet in place of shortening or baking powder (neither of which had been invented yet) as leavening. This works because the chopped suet melts at a relatively low temperature, leaving little holes where it had been and simultaneously enriching the final product. Puddings were usually boiled rather than baked because most 18th Century houses lacked ovens, which needed both space and skill to erect and maintain.

Puddings were and still are a major feature of British cuisine (they don’t call dessert over there “pudding” for nothing), so it was a pretty obvious choice for the sweet remove. I went with an apple-and-currant pudding, which seems to have been a pretty popular choice given that I found a version of it in almost all of my sources, several with celebrity connections.

The highest “Star Factor” appears to be that of William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, whom several sources (Hannah Glasse, John Farley, and an unknown recipe collector of 1818 whose version appears in Michael Barry’s Old English Recipes) appear to have named this pudding in honor of. The Duke was a major fixture in the British military for quite a while despite a notable failure at Fontenoy against the French in 1745. This is probably because his next big performance was against the Jacobites at Culloden the following year, where he ended real hopes of a Stuart restoration forever and ensured that kings named George would be around for two more generations.

Perhaps more recognizably for Americans, Robert W. Pelton’s Early American Cookbook attributes this pudding to John Campbell, 4th Earl of Loudoun. Loudoun is also a fixture in Scottish Jacobite lore as the luckless commander whose Hanoverian loyalist regiment was thrown into total panic by a local blacksmith and four other guys firing off muskets randomly in the night: the famous (if not exactly illustrious) Rout of Moy. Due in part to the Duke of Cumberland’s influence. he went on to become commander-in-chief of British forces in America from 1756 until his famously poor people skills forced his recall in late 1757. A mediocre commander, at best, but a fine judge of a tasty pudding.

I normally have issues with Pelton’s recipe interpretations (too many tomatoes, too much baking powder), but the original recipe he uses is in nifty poetical form; presumably Loudoun was filling some spare minutes between arguing with locals over housing for the troops and denying George Washington a commission in the British Army.    

If you would have a good pudding, observe what you’re taught:

Six pennyworth of eggs, when twelve for the groat

And of the same fruit that Eve had once chosen,

Well pared and chopp’d at least half a dozen;

Six ounces of bread, let your maid eat the crust,

The crumbs must be grated as small as the dust;

Six ounces of currants from stones you must sort,

Lest they brake your teeth, and spoil all your sport;

Five ounces of sugar won’t make it too sweet;

Some salt and some nutmegg will make it compleat,

Three hours let it boyle, without hurry or flutter,

And then serve it up without sugar or butter.

Apple pudding just out of the basin

This makes a really good and rich pudding with a nice apple flavor. If I made it again, I’d probably use Farley’s version, in which the apples are grated rather than chopped.

Taken as a whole, my 18th Century Valentine’s Day meal was a great success. I probably would not do an entire four removes again without some other guests, but I really wanted to go all out for our first V-day meal together. The guy from Crazy Town wrote “Butterfly” and purchased cocaine to pay tribute to the one most important to him. I cooked.

And fish, by the way, worked exactly the way Brillat-Savarin says it’s supposed to. 

The End

The second Remove generally incorporated lighter dishes to refresh the stomach after the heavy-duty gourmet action of the first Remove. It also tended to sit around for a while before it got to the table, so this remove often incorporated foods that weren’t too damaged by a little waiting, such as tarts, pies, and roasted or broiled foods.

I went with roast quail, in part because I had some sitting in my freezer (I was going to make Chinese Longevity Quail with them but never got around to it), and in part because after the fried fish a tiny roasted bird would be suitably light. My guide here was John Farley, who advised in The London Art of Cookery’s chapter on Roasting:

Quail: Truss the quails and make a stuffing for them with beef suet and sweet herbs chopped very small, seasoned with a little spice. Put them upon a small spit, and when they grow warm baste them with water and salt and then dredge them and baste them with butter. For sauce, dissolve an anchovy in good gravy, with two or three eschalots cut very fine, and the juice of a seville orange.

quail

The potato pancakes were an experiment I’ve been wanting to try ever since I did fried potatoes a while back. They’re a little more involved:

To make Potatoe Cakes: Take potatoes, boil them, peel them, beat in a mortar, mix them with the yolks of eggs, a little sack, sugar, a little beaten mace, a little nutmeg, a little cream or melted butter, work it up into a paste; then make it into cakes, or just what you please with moulds, fry them brown in fresh butter, lay them in plates or dishes, melt butter with sack or sugar and pour over them.

My modern “hack” of this recipe produced tasty, but slightly crumbly cakes. Feel free to experiment further:

Potato Cakes

  • 2 potatoes
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 1/2 tbs cream
  • 2 tbs sack or dry sherry
  • pinch each nutmeg and mace or to taste
  • 1 tbs sugar

Boil the potatoes as for mashed potatoes, peel, and mash. Mix in all the other ingredients and work into a paste. Shape into cakes and fry in a little butter or olive oil. Serve with wine sauce.

It should be noted that potatoes were still making the transition from “good for animals” to “good for humans too” in England during this period (maize, which we Jonathans are talking about when we say “corn”, was undergoing a similar process), and weren’t terribly common on 18th Century British tables except in the North and in Ireland, where colder weather and general poverty hastened their adoption as a staple starch.

The first remove was where the culinary big guns came out on the 18th Century British table. The biggest, the richest, the most expensive…it was all going to be here. Generally, a roast of some kind took pride of place, as well as a fish dish. Surrounding it were other various dainties such as vegetables in the ubiquitous butter sauce, smaller fricassees, roasts, or other made dishes involving game, and oysters or other shellfish which in those days were so common that the 18th Century equivalent of the modern New Orleans po’ boy  was a common tradesman’s lunch.

The tradition of fish in the first Remove has survived in the modern convention of serving fish before meat, so my mini-dinner had a fish course to represent it. The fish dish I chose had considerable celebrity power behind it, because it came from the recipe collection of Mrs Henrietta Wolfe of Westerham, whose son James became famous as victor of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and conqueror of Quebec.* Mrs. Wolfe was renowned for her beauty, and was also apparently a dab hand with fish since all of the recipes I’ve tried which came from her cookery book were excellent. This one was originally a Fricassee of Turbot, but I had to substitute halibut, a similarly firm and not “fishy” fish, instead since you pretty much have to jump the Pond to get an actual turbot. Again, you can find the modern version of the following in Michael Barry’s Old English Recipes:

To fricassee turbut: Take a turbut, cut in short slices without ye skin. Make a little batter to dip it in, of Eggs cream a little flower a little mace and nutmeg. Then fry it a dine Brown, make a few forst meat balls & some good fish sauce to serve it up in, with fried oysters mushrooms etc. around it.

Fricasseed Halibut

This is more complicated than it sounds, in that you have to fry the fish, make and fry the forcemeat balls (which here are bread-based 18th century ancestors of hush puppies and serve the same purpose, ie to make an expensive dish feed more people), and then make the fish sauce to serve with it:

 Fish:

  • 1 and 1/2 lbs turbot, halibut, or haddock
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup whole milk or half-and-half
  • 2 tbs flour
  • 1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
  • Cooking fat. Lard, butter, and olive oil (my choice) are all period.

Cut fish into one-inch slices. Beat egg into milk and add flour and nutmeg to make a thin batter. Dip fish slices into batter and fry in oil, about 3 minutes per side.

Forcemeat Balls:

  • 3/8 cup breadcrumbs
  • 2 tbs chopped parsley
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tbs butter, suet, or if you’re desperate, shortening
  • Salt and pepper

Mix ingredients together and knead until combined. Divide and roll into about 12 small balls. Fry with fish until light brown, about 3 minutes.

Fish Sauce:

  • Fish trimmings, skin, bones, etc
  • Grated rind and juice of 1/2 a lemon
  • 3 cups water 
  • 4 tbs cream
  • 1 small spoonful starch (cornstarch, arrowroot) mixed with the same amount of water
  • 1 small spoonful butter

Add fishy bits and lemon rind and juice to water. Boil for 10 minutes and strain. Return liquor to pot and add cream and starch. Add butter and simmer gently until thickened.

To Serve: Lay out the fish and surround it with the forcemeat balls. You can also fry up some mushrooms and oysters and use them in the ring for additional effect. Serve the sauce alongside.

It’s worth the effort. The fish has a light but crispy batter, the forcemeat balls are a nice accompaniment, and the fish sauce has a mild lemon flavor. The only thing I had to leave out was the oysters, since Cat is extremely allergic and the bed I was hoping to end up with her in at the end of the evening was not a hospital one. 

Brillat-Savarin, by the way, in his Physiology of Taste, theorized that all fish had aphrodisiac qualities, so I had late 18th and early 19th Century food science firmly on my side in this aspect of my project.

*It should be noted that the British Army’s Paymaster General was already so eager to recoup the ruinous expenses of the Seven Years War (an issue that would later help spark our own Revolution), that Mrs Wolfe was in her 80s before she saw any portion of her dead son’s pension, despite the fact that monuments and paintings to him were wallpapering two continents. Fun fact from Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War

Soup was a relatively new and trendy addition to the menu in the 18th Century. Prior to its invention in France during the latter half of the previous century, people generally ate pottage, a thick, stewlike mixture of meats, vegetables, and grains that came in many different regional forms. Soup very quickly overtook pottage amongst fashionable eating circles in Europe, and by the time our period begins (approximately 1730-1820), pottage was considered to be distinctly “lower-class” and every meal began with a soup course of some kind.

For my own 18th Century mini-meal, I went with a simple cream soup called Soupe a la Reine (as befits a French innovation, most of the popular 18th Century soups had dandified French names). It appears in cookbooks  all through the period, gaining and losing ingredients depending on the author, but it’s essentially a chicken and rice soup with cream. My version comes from Michael Barry’s Old English Recipes, and it’s based on a recipe written down by the Champneys family of Lynse, England:

White Soup or Soupe a la Reine: To some good strong broth add as much Rice as will make it tolerably thick, with the white meat of a chicken pounded so fine that it may be rubbed thro’ a Strainer along with the Rice – then add half a Pint of good Cream, and after the cream is added the whole is to be put into a Vessel of boiling Water & there kept until it is wanted to be sent up. It must not on any account to be boiled over the Fire after the Cream is added to the Soup. The Rice must be well washed and blanched before it is put to the Broth.

Soupe a la Reine and smoked salmon

Along with the soup, we had some good smoked Atlantic salmon. Even in the 18th Century, the Scots (or North Britons, as the patriotic referred to them) were renowned for their prowess in smoking fish, and with new roads connecting England and Scotland and plenty of Scots moving south to seek their fortune, Scottish smoked salmon began to show up on fashionable tables with increasing frequency. Sadly, real Scottish smoked salmon might as well be plated in gold regarding its availablility here, but a little Nova salmon made a decent compromise.

I think this was the most successful part of the meal. The soup has a light creamy texture, and the flavor’s complimented very well by the salmon. I’d be more than willing to make an entire meal of the two.

Soupe a la Reine:

  • 1 chicken carcass, cleaned
  • 1 additional chicken breast, cut into 4 pieces
  • 1 leek, cleaned
  • 1 carrot, peeled
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 sprig each thyme, celery, and parsley
  • 2 pts water
  • 3 oz (about 3/8 cup) long grain rice (brown is more hardcore)
  • 1/2 pt cream
  • Parsley or celery for garnish
  • Salt and white pepper as needed

Put chicken carcass and vegetables in a pot with 2pts water. Bring to a boil and let simmer for about an hour. Strain the resulting broth. Add rice and quartered chicken breast to the broth and return to a boil. Simmer, covered, for 20 minutes or until rice is tender and chicken cooked. Put the whole soup into a food processor or similar instrument and blend it till smooth. If you want to be hardcore, you can force it through a sieve (I was not). Return to a pot, season with salt and white pepper to taste, and stir in the cream. Don’t let the soup boil once the cream is in there.