Cornbread and the color line

A friend asked for my recipe for cornbread, and a blog craves content, and so I thought I would post it here. But the recipe requires a bit of explanation. You see, over the years my standard cornbread, which I bake every week or two, has evolved from a lightly sweetened cakey thing with half white flour to an all-corn, unsweetened cornbread. That means that I’ve had to change the cornmeal I use, from a medium-ground all-purpose yellow meal to a fine ground white meal. I’m not sure whether white is better than yellow, but fine-ground definitely is. I consider it an absolute necessity for all-cornmeal cornbread, in fact; coarse-ground meal never fully cooks, and without some flour to smooth it out, the bread is crumbly and gritty.

But that simple, pragmatic choice of ingredient appears to be fraught with Deeper Meaning. White cornmeal isn’t just cornmeal that happens to be white. Continue reading “Cornbread and the color line”

Jumbals

In researching historical baking I’ve ignored some old standards — very old standards, I mean, not like oatmeal cookies — and now that I have a lull in the research I’m picking them off. This month it’s jumbles, or jumbals, if you prefer the old spelling, which were formerly like nothing that goes by that name today. Continue reading “Jumbals”

Making fresh noodles

A few years ago I bought some fresh pasta at the farmers market. (Well, frozen fresh pasta, anyway.) I asked how much it cost, and the lady said six dollars. Not cheap for plain noodles, I thought, but ok — let’s try the new business. I handed over six dollars. She handed me a six-ounce package of noodles.

That’s sixteen dollars a pound for noodles, y’all. Silly me, thinking I’d get a whole pound for just six bucks.

As I have since learned, it isn’t actually all that difficult to make fresh noodles. What’s difficult is making them look perfect. That takes equipment and space. But if you are willing to accept the style commonly known as rustic, you can make fresh pasta for a weeknight dinner. Seriously. You need a food processor, but you certainly don’t need a pasta machine. And depending on how you shape your noodles, it only takes about ten minutes of hands-on work. Continue reading “Making fresh noodles”

Ye Olde Worcestershire: Eliza Leslie’s Scotch sauce, 1837

For Christmas dinner I wanted to try something historical — besides the cookies, I mean, and other than a plum pudding, which nearly killed me the one time I tried to eat it after the full-on holiday feast. The centerpiece was roast beef (top sirloin, which is nearly as good as prime rib and about a third the price per pound of actual meat), and heaven knows people ate enough beef in the nineteenth century. What did they put on that beef? Well, how about Worcestershire sauce? Continue reading “Ye Olde Worcestershire: Eliza Leslie’s Scotch sauce, 1837”

Enter the Belsnickel

The story of the Krampus has been making the rounds lately. For those who haven’t heard, he’s an old-world Germanic mythical creature who terrorizes naughty children at Christmas. Apparently pepper-spray-wielding shoppers at Target aren’t scary enough for Americans these days, because various cities are holding a Krampuslauf, or Krampus parade, this month. One of those cities is Philadelphia, and that’s a tragic heresy — not because it’s unchristian, but because Philadelphia is surrounded by the Pennsylvania German heartland, and the Pennsylvania German tradition has its own Christmas bogeyman, the Belsnickel. Before we go running back to Europe for bizarre new traditions, let’s take a closer look at one of our own. Continue reading “Enter the Belsnickel”

Christmas cookies: Speculaas

Occasionally I get to bake cookies without a research agenda, to try something new just for fun. Since it’s St. Nicholas Day, Ivy and I baked speculaas cookies, which is what the Dutch traditionally bake for that festival. I’m not Dutch, I’ve never in my life celebrated St. Nicholas Day, and until today I’d never eaten speculaas. Ah, the joys of cultural tourism! No pressure at all, no expectations, no childhood memories to contend with. Just a damn cookie.

Still, you know, I couldn’t just find a recipe and bake it. I don’t think I’m capable of that anymore. And, anyway, if I did, what would I have to blog about? Continue reading “Christmas cookies: Speculaas”

Not nutritious. Not progressive. Not patriotic. Just peanut butter cookies.

Dishes have been invented, recipes written, foods sampled and praised through the millenia for reasons that have nothing to do with taste. Consider, for example, the peanut. Weird dirty little legume that it is, it sparked no great enthusiasm in the Europeans who found it in America and fed it to livestock and slaves. Africans in America were reminded of the ground nuts they knew and cooked them similarly, in soups and stews, but most Anglos would eat them only as snacks, in candy (such as the peanut brittle made by Afro-Caribbeans in Philadelphia in the early nineteenth century and sold from carts) or roasted and salted, cracked open and shells discarded on the street or the floor of the theater, a peculiarly American custom that set visiting Europeans’ teeth on edge. For a hundred years white Americans wolfed them in informal public settings but wouldn’t dream of eating them at home as part of an actual meal; peanuts were the proverbial girl a guy would sleep with but never marry. Why? Who knows? Maybe because Africans ate them, maybe because they grew in the ground, maybe because nineteenth-century Anglo-Americans were singularly unadventurous eaters. Continue reading “Not nutritious. Not progressive. Not patriotic. Just peanut butter cookies.”

Of pancakes and elbow grease

One Sunday morning last winter I made pancakes, and then I made them again the next Sunday, and my daughter decided that twice was a tradition. Even the dogs started expecting pancakes. I go out to get the paper, I come back, they’re circling the stove. Ever since I have made pancakes nearly every Sunday morning, a lot of pancakes. Making a lot of something — making it often — is of course the best way to learn to do it well, especially when it comes to baking, which is harder to learn than cooking simply because it’s a black box; there’s no adjustment on the fly, no correcting the seasoning. And I would say that I’ve learned to make mighty good pancakes, but not because I figured out how to tweak the recipe (though I did) or discovered exactly the right turn of the stove’s knob (though I did that too). What I learned was that there aren’t any shortcuts: you have to work. And nobody, but nobody, tells you that in cookbooks anymore. Continue reading “Of pancakes and elbow grease”

Peanut graham crackers, 1902

When I found a reference on the internet to the first recipe for peanut butter cookies, I had to try it. Not because I expected them to be good peanut butter cookies, or even peanut butter cookies at all, but because I was, to put it gently, skeptical. I’ve learned to be skeptical of most claims to primacy in food history. Too often they aren’t all that carefully researched — not only because there may be other sources to consider, but because the people who make these claims have not actually tried the recipe to see if it is what it looks like. (That’s at least as true of professional historians as of amateurs.)

These “peanut wafers,” it turns out, are not what they may look like. They’re not the first of anything. They’re not even cookies. They’re more like experimental Progressive-era health food. But they’re interesting, and — surprisingly enough — they’re actually quite good. Continue reading “Peanut graham crackers, 1902”

Gilded Age tomato ketchup

For a few summers several years ago I made ketchup from half-bushel boxes of paste tomatoes, using a recipe from an old issue of Fine Cooking. The ketchup had good flavor, but it was a little too reminiscent of something Italian, with lots of bottom notes from charred onion and the faint pizza-aroma of oregano. We liked it but never used up a batch. The problem was that it substituted for industrial ketchup in only a few of its uses. It made a good topping for burgers and dipping for fries, but as a base for cocktail sauce it was terrible. Industrial ketchup essentially has no aroma; it’s pure mouth-taste — sweet, sour, salt, and umami. To emulate that blend at home would be a waste of time and money; homemade ketchup ought to have flavor. But making ketchup flavorful makes it something entirely different.

I decided to give homemade ketchup another try this summer, and this time, I went back to the nineteenth century for inspiration. Continue reading “Gilded Age tomato ketchup”