My first historical cookbook had no photos (of course) but also no ingredient list. Many recipes were just long paragraphs of tightly written prose. And then there were these strange instructions and odd phrasing. It felt daunting. It was on the same level as moving to Amsterdam in the 80s and realising I had to learn Dutch (but that really is another story).
Here are a few tips to make reading and cooking historical recipes easy. I’ve chosen a short and simple recipe I found from Hannah Glasse’s book The Art of Cookery – Made Plain and Easy (1805 edition). Within no time you’ll understand eighteenth century recipes a little bit more.
Take the yolks of twenty-four eggs, beat them for an hour; clarify one pound of the best moist sugar, four spoonfuls of orange-flower-water, one ounce of blanched and pounded almonds; stir all together over a very slow charcoal fire, keep stirring all the while one way, till it comes to a consistency; then put it into coffee cups, and throw a little beaten cinnamon, on top of the cups.
Look at multiple recipes
It might not be enough to look at one recipe. The recipe you choose may have some vital element missed out or an unclear instruction. Sometimes there are mistakes in recipes (that even happens today, even in National newspapers, naming no names). So go online and look for other similar recipes. Many are to be found with a Google search, many more to be found on special historic recipe collection sites.
Clarify sugar? This involved an internet search to discover that moist sugar means brown sugar and that to clarify sugar probably meant making it white. A process that’s outlined in cookery books but it’s probably easiest to buy white caster sugar for this recipe.
Terms, like these, were obvious to the people of the day. They might not be so obvious to you.
Don’t be tempted to adapt a recipe too much
Sometimes ingredients will remain obscure. There will be mysteries. That’s part of the joy of historical cooking. Although not in our example certain animal organs and musk were used in recipes. If these are an essential part of your chosen historical recipe it might be an idea to choose another one rather than make an oldey timey approximation. There are enough historical recipes to choose from. I’d suggest choosing one using ingredients you can get rather than replacing ingredients in a recipe to such a degree that basically you are creating something completely different. But that’s just me.
In our example of Marmalade of Egg the Jews Way referring to other recipes which sound similar such as “Portugal eggs” or “Spanish eggs’ may be deceptive. They may indicate recipes brought over by Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese queen consort of King Charles II, or English cooks variations on these dishes.
Sometimes you’ll never recreate a recipe exactly, but that’s ok
There can be discrepancies between old and new foodstuffs. Raw milk and cream behave differently to pasteurised milk and cream. Eggs were smaller. A dozen eggs during the eighteenth century can easily be replaced by eight now. It is likely that fruit and veg was smaller, but we can’t be sure. The flavour might have might have been different.
With all the above in mind here’s the recipe I used.
- 9 egg yolks
- 225g of light brown sugar
- 2 tsp of orange blossom water
- 15 g of ground almonds
Stir all together over a low heat, stirring all the time, until it coats the back of a spoon.
Pour the mixture into four small coffee cups.
Chill overnight to thicken.
To serve sprinkle cinnamon on top and if you like some candied peel.
How did it taste? It’s delicious if you like custardy type things. I’ve reduced the sugar in the above recipe from the original because I found it too sweet. How to describe the taste? Redolent of a very posh Butterscotch Angel Delight. And who could really resist trying that. Thanks again Hannah Glasse.