Early American gingerbread cakes

In researching 19th-century American cooking I started with gingerbread — why, exactly, is a long story — and in researching gingerbread I started with Amelia Simmons’ 1796 American Cookery. This was the first cookbook written by an American author and published in America, and although nearly all of the culinary influence is (unsurprisingly) English, there are American touches, such as recipes for cornbread and cranberries.

One American influence on Simmons’ cooking is the use of a chemical leavener, pearlash, for baking. Continue reading “Early American gingerbread cakes”

Preserves

It has for several years been a source of mild frustration to me that I cannot find a reliable recipe for preserves. I have all kinds of recipes for chutneys and conserves and marmalades, and for jams with honey and low-sugar jellies and for special preserves made from this or that sort of (where I live) unattainable stone fruit. What I want is simply strawberry preserves, peach preserves, blackberry preserves, and there, so far as I can tell, are no well-tested recipes to be had in books.

For basic jams and jellies, of course, the folded sheet in the box of pectin gives me instructions, but the point of preserves is not to use boxed pectin. Preserves is fruit with just enough sugar to literally preserve it, and perhaps a touch of fresh lemon juice if even that much sugar seems too sweet; it is stirred and tended while it cooks down; it is soft on the spoon and in the mouth, not molded like a school-lunch dessert. To make true preserves is to capture the essence of fresh summer fruit and hoard it away in a cupboard for the horrible soggy February morning when you simply cannot face another day of winter, and you open it up and spoon dollops onto buttered toast and feel that perhaps you can live another day. Continue reading “Preserves”

Weekly bread

bread For several years I have, in principle, been baking bread every week. You may guess from the phrase “in princple” that I have not actually been baking bread every week. The idea is to bake every Sunday so we have bread for the week’s breakfast and lunches, but sometimes I’ve kept up with it and sometimes I haven’t. My problem, in essence, has been finding a recipe I can make every week that meets my family’s needs rather than my foodie dreams. Continue reading “Weekly bread”

Five spice duck confit

five spice duck canape

For Chinese New Year, a bit of fusion cuisine. Every year we have a party for the lunar new year, and I try to make some kind of highly impressive centerpiece dish. One year I made a Szechuan duck that is similar to Peking duck, but like all Chinese duck recipes it requires last-minute preparation — in this case deep-frying — and I’d rather not spend all my time in the kitchen after our guests have arrived. So for the year of the horse (2002) I invented this as an equally tasty duck preparation that can be made a day ahead and requires only gentle warming before serving. Continue reading “Five spice duck confit”

Radish and watercress sandwiches

My grandmother taught me to eat radishes. Or, I should say, I learned the habit from her; I don’t think she had any grand plan to indoctrinate me. She served radishes and scallions with breakfast, accompanied by individual dishes of salt for dipping. My cousin and I, aged about five, theorized implausibly about why the salt improved the flavor of the radish. We could agree only that without salt, the radish tasted impossibly harsh; with it, like heaven. (I may not have been a typical five year old.) Continue reading “Radish and watercress sandwiches”