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Posts Tagged ‘The Williamsburg Cookbook’

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I’ve spent the past five days in the house with a skin infection, slipping out when the sun goes down to breathe fresh air and wander under cover of darkness. It sounds more superhero cool than it actually is.

Still…I’ve been worn out from the inside out for a long while, and needed some down time. It’s probably good that I was forced to stop. And there have been some happy by-products: I revisited some of my vintage cookbooks and baked new stuff.

With the contents of my larder reducing each day, especially fruits and vegetables, I opened up the last of the mulberry-Petit Syrah compote that I made last June. Then I pulled out The Food Treasury of Favorite Recipes from Famous Eating Places, clearly titled by someone paid by the word, and looked for a muffin recipe I could use with the mulberries.

I found one from The Crescent Hotel in Arkansas, which is still in operation (and apparently is haunted. Someday I am going out there to eat their ghost cookies and to go on their ghost tour.). Their huckleberry muffins looked easy. I followed the recipe to the letter, except I used butter for the fat instead of shortening; and I live in New Jersey, and hence don’t have any huckleberries lying around. I love that it says to bake the muffins in ‘a moderate oven’ (350 F), plus this mid-century charm: ‘Pop a batch into the oven for a Sunday morning breakfast surprise.’

Verdict: They could have used another egg or two; the recipe called for just one. As pretty as they are (see above), they’re so heavy that when I put them on a plate you could actually hear them land. I probably chipped half my counter. Hope I didn’t lose my security deposit.

Oddly, and also, the recipe also didn’t call for sugar. (Maybe huckleberries are very sweet?) But this I didn’t mind; my compote was made with brown sugar and wine, which came through like little troupers. Unless something I make is completely burned*, I can always salvage it. Treated the muffins the same way as I did my mattress-like chocolate sponge cake in April: I cut a couple of muffins into pieces, tossed them in a bowl, chipped the other half of the counter, and doused them with plain yogurt. It was a great, if chewy, breakfast.

Today I climbed down from the walls long enough to leaf through The Williamsburg Cookbook (1975) that I dug out from under a folding table at the Ocean Grove Ladies’ Auxiliary book sale a few years ago, and made a loaf of something called manchet bread. It dates back to 14th-century England, so they say, because it calls for unbleached flour. Back in 1975 that wasn’t very easy to come by, is my bet. Today, thank goodness, it’s fairly commonplace. I used a mixture of unbleached all-purpose and whole-wheat pastry flour. This recipe maker also had the sense to use butter. No salt, though.

Verdict: It mixed up easily; and baked, has a crusty crust and nubbly, tender insides. Despite the sunken center. And it needed salt. So I buttered some slices and sprinkled on some dukka, an Egyptian spice mix I made of cumin seeds, black peppercorns, coriander seeds, hazelnuts, sesame seeds, cinnamon, and salt, all toasted and ground up with a mortar and pestle. On the bread, it was freaking glorious.

So here’s what I learned this week: 1) Resourcefulness is key, even when you’re tired and worn out and moderately itchy 2) There are times when the present becomes just too darned much, and the past offers a sweet refuge. Even if your muffins end up like Timberlands and your bread shows signs of economic collapse, it’s kind of heartening.

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*If you burn a slice of toast, grab a butter knife. Hold the toast over the garbage bin and use the knife to scrape off the top burnt layer. It’s golden underneath. Little trick I learned from reading Louise Fitzhugh’s 1970s comic jewel, Sport. Go Young Adult lit!

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I have two vices: really good-quality dark chocolate and old books. used book stores, book sales, kneeling on the lawn at a yard sale and looking through cardboard boxes, kicking up the smell of basement and attic.

today was the ocean grove (NJ) ladies’ auxiliary book sale. it’s held every july in front of the century-old great auditorium, under the shade of the equally-old pavilion. books, videos and magazines, 3 for a dollar. smiling snowy-haired ladies in bright polos and white slacks sell pork roll sandwiches, hot dogs and peanut m&ms to bring in a little extra money. other ladies sit at a folding table with a battered cash box and ask if you need a bag.

it takes a whole morning to look through fiction, non-fiction, hobbies and travel. a sub-category of my old-book vice is cookbooks, usually out-of-print ones, so that’s where I head first. I love the old promotional booklets that brer rabbit molasses and all-bran cereal sold to housewives for pennies in the 1940s, with their charming words of advice and homey recipes. a chicken pot pie recipe suggests using an old hen, saying it will have the best flavor. others encourage women who learned to cook at their mother’s knee to take up fannie farmer’s newfangled system of standard measurements. some booklets seem to be easing women into what must have been an uncomfortable practice, asking for 3/4 cup flour here, a butter lump the size of an egg there. we take standard measurements for granted today, but the notion must have been felt blasphemous for our grandmothers and great-grandmothers; from the beginning of time cooking had been accomplished by practice, by eye, by feel, and by intuition.

most of the treasures in my cookbook collection were found at this annual book sale. I’ve learned that one of the best ways to get under the skin of a country is to eat its food, and the cooking of the british isles (adrian bailey, 1969), part of a time-life book series, is a great example. an anglophile, I cheer when bailey defends his nation’s cuisine, insisting that those who dislike it must indulge in authentic regional british home cooking, especially the ritual of tea. scotch woodcock sounded intriguing to me, so recently I made it. toast and lavishly butter a slice of white bread, and on it spread a layer of anchovy paste. top that with very, very gently-cooked scrambled eggs. it was so delicious, so indulgent, that I laughed out loud. everything worked together brilliantly: crisp and soft textures, saltiness, richness.

the organic living book (bernice kohn, 1972), was written during the back-to-earth movement and is a calm, but earnest, read. in it must have been one of the first definitions of what it meant to eat organically, along with pleas for a national recycling program. how to compost, how to bake bread and make yogurt (the latter of which was considered distasteful at the time) from scratch, and how to read food labels are included. sometime I’m going to try kohn’s american indian recipe for tea made by steeping young sassafras roots. maybe this fall.

it was two summers ago that I found a book written by laurie colwin, whom gourmet magazine eulogized so lovingly in an article in the 90s. a novelist and occasional food writer, I had never read any of her work, so I picked up home cooking (1988). I have since gobbled it, over and over, laughing at her chutzpah and salivating at her no-nonsense recipes.

american cooking (dale brown [who is still writing, by the way], 1968), another time-life series book, features the incredible strawberry shortcake recipe made by his grandmother, a farm wife. (see the post ‘shivering with anticip…ation’ for the recipe.) it also illustrates with photography and recipes the wonderful diversity of our culinary heritage, and is eerily accurate in predicting irradiation and genetic engineering. brown’s looking forward to these practices, which he believes promise an exciting future in food. it’s the only content within those pages that makes me cringe.

today I found yet another time-life series book, the cooking of scandinavia (also dale brown, 1968) and the williamsburg cookbook (the colonial williamsburg foundation, 1975). williamsburg has some extraordinary dishes; their game pie has haunted me since I first had it ten years ago. when I leafed through the index and saw it, tears actually came to my eyes. well, it has duck, venison, rabbit and slab bacon cooked in port wine and currant jelly. I couldn’t help it. this fall, definitely.

Strawberry shortcake, an old recipe from a New York State farmer's wife, circa 1930s.

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