This post is part of the “Heat” series on The Recipes Project. You can read the editors’ letter here. Like my previous post, it also features a recipe from UPenn Ms. Codex 785.
The early modern hearth and the modern gas stove are rather different technologies for controlling heat. Again and again in my recipe recreation work, I encounter complex instructions for managing cooking temperatures on a hearth and try to translate those instructions to my own equipment. To what temperature should I set my oven? How high should I turn up the flame under the pot? What volume of water should I add when boiling water is called for and no volume is specified? How long should everything cook?
Early modern recipes trust that cooks know their hearth and ingredients well. Some recipes are very precise about weight and volume and others read like general concepts on which a cook might improvise as best suits their needs, inclinations, or tastes. Cooking these recipes on a hearth with variable fire types and temperatures demanded a skilled cook who could manage heat effectively.
This is the part of updating recipes that most challenges me: I have a PhD in English, but no formal culinary training. This is also the part of updating recipes where I have been most challenged by others. Members of the historical reenactment and historical interpretation communities have in turn urged me to try these recipes again on a hearth to taste the different flavors the fire instills and chastised me for attempting to cook these recipes without a hearth in the first place. As I grow as a cook and expand this project, I’m going to accept these kind invitations to cook alongside skilled recreators and interpreters. Katherine Johnson’s work in particular suggests what traditional academics can learn by spending time with reenactors and participating in reenactments. But Cooking in the Archives is a project designed to give all readers a taste of the past: even if those readers possess only the tiniest apartment stove. That’s the kind of stove that I had in my West Philadelphia rental when I launched this site with Alyssa Connell in 2014.
In order to cook these recipes on my stove, I have to determine some basic information: Is this something I should make on the stovetop or in the oven? In a pot, pan, or roasting dish? Is the recipe asking for water and should that water be boiled first or with the ingredients? To answer these questions, I naturally start with the recipes themselves. The phrases recipe writers use for the ferocity or gentleness of the fire are subtle, but informative. Then I look at recipes in modern cookbooks. The “Jumball” cookie mix looked like a shortbread cookie so I started with the oven temperature from a familiar cookie recipe and kept track of the time. These are skills that I learned from baking growing up and cooking for myself while I was in graduate school, but not, exactly, skills that I learned in the academy. Neither humanities course work nor historical recreation holds all the answers for how to, say, make an apricot marmalade from a late-seventeenth-century culinary manuscript in a twenty-first century kitchen.
This recipe “To make Marmalaid of Apricocks” is from Ms. Codex 785 at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania. I’ve prepared quite a few recipes from this specific manuscript, and this recipe, like a few others in the volume, derives from Hannah Woolley’s cookbook The Queen-like Closet or Rich Cabinet (1670). This marmalade is both fragile and delicious. It needs the careful tending outlined in the original recipe. I have attempted to convey this level of care in my updated recipe.
To make Marmalaid of Apricocks
Take Apricocks, pare them and cut them in
quarters and to every pound of Apricocks
put a pound of fine Sugar, then put your
Apricocks in a Skillet with half the Sugar
and let them boil very tender, and gently, and
bruise them with the back of a Spoon, till they
be like pap, then take the other part of the
Sugar, and boil it to a Candy height, then put
your Apricocks into that Sugar, and keep it stirring
over the ffire, till all the sugar is meted, but
do not let it boil, then take it from the ffire,
and Stir it till it be almost cold, then put it
into Glasses, and let it have the Air of the
ffire to dry it.
The recipe asks you to boil the apricots with sugar until the fruit is so tender that it breaks down into a luscious pulp. Then the recipe instructs you to make a simple syrup of sugar and water and allow the mixture to come to candy height or what we would now call the soft-ball stage. Early modern cooks would have been especially skilled at the subtle art of watching sugar change under the influence of heat. The cook is next told to stir the apricot puree into the hot sugar over the fire and then off the fire until the mixture is almost cold. The final instruction: “and let it have the Air of the ffire to dry it” is the most evocative image for me. The preserved apricots in glass containers glowing in front of the hearth.
This apricot marmalade is delicious on toast, lightly crisped by the heat of a toaster oven or toaster, of course.
8 apricots (7 oz, 200 g)
generous 2/3 cup sugar (7 oz, 200 g)
1/3 cup water
Peel the apricots, remove their pits, and cut them into quarters. Cook them to a pulp with half the sugar. The apricots will release their own juices so no water is necessary here. (Approximately 10 minutes.)
Make a simple syrup with the remaining 1/3 cup sugar and 1/3 cup water in a saucepan. Use a candy thermometer to keep track of the temperature and cook until it reaches candy height/pearl stage 240F on the thermometer. When the syrup has reached this temperature, add the cooked apricots to it. Stir to combine over the heat, but do not allow the mix to boil.
Remove from heat and stir as the mixture cools. Transfer into a clean jar. This amount of apricots and sugar nicely filled an 8oz jelly jar.
Keep refrigerated and eat within two weeks. (You can also properly can this for longer storage.)
This recipe captures apricots at their sweetest and juiciest. The two part method protects the fragile fruit from overcooking. My small batch was quickly consumed on all sorts of breads and biscuits.
I realized a few days after making it that refrigeration turns this lovely preserve into a thick paste. When I let it come to room temperature, it was a wonderful, easy to spread texture. This is yet another reminder of the difference between early modern and contemporary kitchens: refrigeration. If you’re planning to serve this at breakfast or tea, take it out of the fridge well in advance. Luckily the heat from freshly toasted bread helps it spread even if it’s straight from the fridge.
4 thoughts on “Marmalaid of Apricocks, a case study in Heat”
You raise a very central question to those of us who try to make 18th century receipts in the historically correct way–by using the hearth and a fire I think it helps if you were a girl scout, camper or backpacker. At least you begin by knowing fire basics. There are a couple of principles that the fire has taught me and I will share them here.
First of all, we 21st century cooks use thermometers and clocks to measure heat and time. These are the basic elements in making our cooking decisions. Eighteenth century cooks used their senses–of smell, of vision, of sensation–to guide them. This is one of the major differences when trying to translate old recipes into the present. I count heat they way we count lightening–one one hundred, two one hundred, three one hundred–when holding my hand next to the heat when roasting a chicken for example. This allows me to quantify the heat without using a thermometer.
The second very important fact is that the open hearth with its wood burning fire is capable of a far greater range of heat than our modern stove. On a good day, the best most of us can generate on our kitchen stove is a maximum of 550 degrees in our oven. On the lower end of the scale even the lowest setting on a range is too hot to closely hold your hand over it. In contrast, the open hearth, if you know how to use it, can generate a heat so gentle (by taking a glowing ember and surrounding it with ashes) that you can almost touch it. On the high end of the heat scale, a fire made with seasoned dry hard wood can generate temperatures in the 1200 to 1500 degree range. Really. The effect of this intense high heat on food alters the ingredients and transforms the product into something very different from what you get with our modern cooking equipment. (I’m sure professional stoves are far superior, but I have no experience cooking on them and so can’t say.) So it’s not just “the smoky taste” that differentiates hearth cooking from modern stoves. It’s the degree of heat and your skill in applying it.
The only book I know that even comes close to describing how to use a hearth properly is William Rubel’s “Magic of Fire” which is sadly out of print. I encourage anyone who is serious about studying historic recipes to spend time with fire cooks and get the full experience.
Mercy, thank you for writing this thoughtful comment and sharing your experiences. I know that I have a lot to learn about heath cooking from experienced practitioners like you.
The handwriting of the original recipe is absolutely gorgeous!
I also want to say thank you for translating these recipes. I’m fascinated by historical cookery, but I don’t have the supplies or (frankly) the time to do things the historical way. This apricot marmalade sounds delicious; I want to try to make it myself before the apricots are gone this year.
Thank you! Please let me know if you try it!