Solid Sillibubs

August: month of ok-fine-I’ll-have-another-salad-just-to-avoid-turning-on-the-oven. So, what better time to experiment with syllabub? A popular dessert in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – so popular that it was often served in dedicated pots and glasses – syllabub is a sweetened mixture of cream and wine. I returned to UPenn MS Codex 205, home to the excellent Beer Cakes, to try out “Solid Sillibubs.”

Leafing through these recipe books provides an ongoing education in how common certain dishes were in early modern cooking. Some, like fried cream or (ahem) fish custard, seem to occur only rarely. Others, like jumballs or various puddings, appear time and again. Selecting one recipe to try in these cases is something like settling on a chocolate chip cookie recipe today: you happen to have chosen that one, but there are numerous others out there. I thought syllabub would be a great test case to show what one dish can look like across multiple recipe books.

The syllabub recipes below all combine cream, white wine, and sugar, then thicken the mixture. Proportions of cream to wine vary. Some “solid” syllabubs are left to sit until the cream and clear portions separate by themselves; other “whipped” syllabubs strain the froth over a sieve, then dollop the thickened mixture on top of white or red wine. (This vocabulary isn’t entirely consistent, and other adjectives like “ordinary” and “excellent” complicate matters.) Recipe books might contain one or two or even, in Judeth Bedingfield’s case, three syllabub recipes. (Print cookbooks contained even more: Mary Cole’s The Lady’s Complete Guide; or Cookery in All Its Branches [1788] details five, ranging from “lemon” to “everlasting.”) The handful of syllabub recipes below allow us to consider how cooks write out similar instructions in different ways, vary or omit steps, create flavor twists, and put their own mark on a somewhat standard recipe.

Syllabub / Sillibub / Silly Bub: A Survey

ms753 ordinary syllabub{from MS Codex 753}

How to Make an Ordinary Sillibub

Fill yr Pott halph full of of Wien & good share of
Sugar, milke in as much Cream & Stirr itt once
about very softly. Let itt stand two houres
before you eate itt

ms625 whipt sillabub{from MS Codex 635}

A Whipt Sillabub

Take a p[in]t of cream w[i]th a spoonfull of
orange flower water 2 or 3 ounces of
fine sugar [th]e juice of a lemon [th]e white
of 3 eggs these wisk these up together
& having in yo[u]r glasses rhennish wine
& sugar & clarret & sugar lay on [th]e
froth w[i]th a spoon heapt up as leight as
you can

ms642 silly bub{from MS Codex 624}

A silly bub

Sweeten a quart of cream take a pint of renish wine & poure it thro
a narrow mouth bottle into [th]e cream let it stand a while before you stir

ms624 whipt sillabub{also from MS Codex 624}

whiptt sillabub

take[th] a pintt of sack [th]e like of whitt wine putt into itt A lemmon
sliced A sprigge of burrage & baulm & lett itt stand and steep 2 hours
sweeten itt w[i]th [th]Att of suger & pull outt [th]e herbs and lemmon then take
a pintt of sweet Cream & poure itt in A yard high leizurely into [th]e
wine & froth itt up w[i]th A chocolett stick and (as itt risis) w[i]th A spone lay itt
into [th]e Glases high as they will bair make 4 hours before Eatten
you may putt in [th]e whitt of an Egg well beten into [th]e wine to make itt
froth [th]e more

ms631 3 syllabubs{from MS Codex 631}

To Make Churn’d Syllabubs

Take a Quart of sweet Cream & 3 pints of white wine & a quarter of a pint of sack
[th]e peel of a Lemon & 3 quarters of a pound of Loafe sugar mingle all these well together
& beat or Churne them in a Glass Churne & when tis as thick as will be without turn:
:ing to butter milk pour them into y[ou]r Glases & let them stand 3 or 4 hours before they
are eaten /

To Make Rich Syllabubs

Take one pint of Cream, half a pint of white or Renish wine a quarter of a pint
of sack, [th]e Juice of one Lemon with [th]e peel grated three quarters of a pound of double
refine sugar, mingall all these together, in an earthen pot or Bason beat it all one
way with a Burchen rod, till it be so stiff that [th]e rod will stand upright in it then put
it into [th]e Glasses, it will keepe very good two or three days /

To Make Whipt Syllabubs

Take a Quart of Cream & as much of [th]e best white wine & when you have mixt
it grate as much as you can of [th]e rine of two Lemons & squeeze [th]e Juice of them into it
then grate a nutmeg & put as much powderd Loafe sugar as you please & whip it up
& take [th]e froth of with a spoone & put it into a Cullender for [th]e thin to run a way put in a Little new milk it makes it mill [th]e better when tis very thick put some wine
into [th]e bottom of y[ou]r Glasses with some sugar then fill y[ou]r Glasses still whiping it & it will
be better on [th]e morrow then now

Many printed cookbooks contain syllabub recipes, too. My personal favorites? The recipes that call for making syllabub in perhaps the most efficient way imaginable: straight from the cow. In a 1796 edition of The Art of Cookery, for example, Hannah Glasse details how “To make a Syllabub from the Cow” – and thoughtfully provides variant instructions if you lack a cow and need to approximate one (!):

Make your syllabub of either cyder or wine, sweeten it pretty sweet, and grate nutmeg in; then milk the milk into the liquor: when this is done, pour over the top half a pint or a pint of cream, according to the quantity of syllabub you make. You may make this syllabub at home, only have new milk; make it as hot as milk from the cow, and out of a teapot, or any such thing, pour it in, holding your hand very high, and strew over some currants well washed and picked, and plumped before the fire.

I was tempted to try this technique in my cow-less kitchen, but I stuck with the instructions from MS Codex 205.

The Recipe

ms205 solid sillibubs

18.                      Solid Sillibubs.

Take 1 Quart of Cream and boil it, let it Stand
’till ’tis cold, then take a pint of White Wine,
pare a Lemon thin, and steep the Peel in the
Wine 2 Houres before you use it, to this add the
Juice of a Lemon, and as much Sugar as will
make it very sweet; put all this into a Bason and
wisk it all one Way, ’till ’tis pretty thick:
Fill your Glases. Let your Cream be full Measure,
your Wine less so

Our Recipe
[halved from original]

1 pint (2 c.) heavy cream
1 c. white wine
1 lemon: rind peeled in thick strips, then juiced
1/2 c. sugar

In a small saucepan, bring cream to a boil; let boil gently for 2 mins. Remove pan from heat or pour into heatproof bowl and let cool.

Meanwhile, place the lemon rind in the wine and let sit for 2 hours. Remove the rind, then add the lemon juice and sugar.

Combine the cream and wine mixtures and beat with a stand or electric mixer or by hand* until frothy and slightly thickened. Pour into 2-4 glasses and refrigerate 4 hours or overnight; the cream will thicken and a small layer of liquid will appear below.

*At first I beat the mixture by hand and assumed that my arm power was the reason it didn’t thicken significantly. But when I transferred it to the stand mixer, the thickness remained the same. It should become frothy and be well-combined, but it won’t thicken like whipped cream.

The Results

This wasn’t my favorite, though I’m glad I made it and I can certainly see the appeal. The cream mixture is extremely rich – lemony and sweet – and the liquid underneath is a tart contrast to that. I think there should have been more liquid; I boiled the cream for about five minutes to let some water evaporate (in hopes of making a noticeably “solid” syllabub), but I think that was too much, so I’ve adjusted the recipe above. The topmost layer of cream becomes quite solid and mousse-like, while below about 1″ it remained softer. I dug through the layers with a spoon, but a straw would be even better! (As would smaller glasses: juice glasses or small mason jars would make more reasonable servings.)

A word about methodology: without reading up on other syllabubs, I wouldn’t have known to let the mixture sit. And I feel fairly certain that it should sit. Almost all the syllabub recipes, both handwritten and printed, that I read called for the mixture to be strained or to sit. A thickened layer of cream on top of a more liquid wine layer is characteristic of syllabub. So why not specify that step in this recipe? I think this is a good instance of a step being left implicit because the cook doesn’t think twice about it. It made me think of what we leave unspoken in our own recipes. Have you ever written down a well-loved and much-made recipe for someone else, then paused and added in more steps and specifications for someone making it for the first time? I think that’s what happened here. This first-time syllabub-maker didn’t know any better, even if the recipe writer would have.  Without letting the mixture sit, the whole thing is creamy but very liquid, not thick or “solid” at all.

I didn’t like this quite enough to keep experimenting with other syllabubs – plus, there are other refreshing liquid desserts to tackle before the end of the summer. Shrub! Posset! But if anyone feels moved (er … moo-ved?) to try “Syllabub from the Cow,” please report back.

Beer Cakes


Photo by Carley Storm Photography

We’re sometimes asked how the early modern recipe books we cook from ended up in library collections. It varies: some were purchased directly by the library, others were gifts. However they made it into holdings like the Kislak Center’s, we feel fortunate that they did. As I looked over the provenance notes for UPenn Ms. Codex 205, I saw a familiar name. The book was a gift from Esther Bradford Aresty, part of the Esther B. Aresty Collection of Rare Books on the Culinary Arts. Aresty (1908-2000) was a culinary historian and cookbook collector who donated her collection of 576 printed volumes and 13 manuscripts, ranging from the fifteenth to twentieth century, to the University of Pennsylvania. (For more on Aresty’s remarkable life and collecting, see here and here. Penn also holds Aresty’s papers, which I’m looking forward to digging into soon.) Aresty’s collection has already informed this project: of the recipe books we’ve cooked from so far, UPenn Ms. Codices 252, 625, 627, and 631 were also her gifts.

In her first book, The Delectable Past: The Joys of the Table – from Rome to the Renaissance, from Queen Elizabeth I to Mrs. Beeton. The Menus, the Manners – and the most delectable Recipes of the past masterfully recreated for cooking and enjoying today (1964), Aresty transcribed and updated over 700 recipes from the volumes in her collection in order to make them widely accessible: “The more I wandered around in those precious volumes, the more I wanted to share them with others” (9). The chapters begin with “Antiquity to the Middle Ages – The Delicious Beginnings” and end with “Late 19th-Century America – Cooking Lessons Well Learned,” each detailing several recipes and images. Aresty didn’t include any recipes from Ms. Codex 205, but it’s listed in the index as part of her collection at the time. She describes The Delectable Past as “the result of my adventuring through their pages.” Adventuring through the pages: what a perfect way to describe the experience of reading old cookbooks, or encountering older texts more generally.

Aresty characterized her method as one of updating: “I’ve tried to adapt the recipes in the simple style that made them such a delight to read and follow. … With few exceptions, they are all easy to prepare, and rely on a subtle twist, or nuance, or combination, rather than laborious preparation. Though canned soups and other commercially prepared products have not been specified, they may be substituted wherever you deem proper.” And she encouraged experimentation: “You may arrive at some individual effects of your own while using the recipes in The Delectable Past. All have been tested in my kitchen, but your imagination can take over in many of them. After all, the same recipe will produce varying though equally good results in different hands. Yours may be better than mine” (12). As I read Aresty’s words, with Ms. Codex 205 sitting to one side, I felt like I’d found a kindred spirit. I’m looking forward to more adventuring in Aresty’s collection.

UPenn Ms. Codex 205 begins with a handy table of contents of its recipes. I looked no further as soon as I saw #66: Beer Cakes. Beer Cakes? I had to try these.

205 tofc

This recipe book was probably compiled from the last few decades of the eighteenth century into the first of the nineteenth. Recipe #130 is dated 1791; #162 is dated 1801. The last page of the book details the diet plan “Mr. Whilby of Wallington Norfolk” used to raise his calves in the winter of 1777. (Now, there’s a sentence I’ve never written before.) There is also a loose letter tucked into the volume, dated February 1808, from “AB” to Mrs. Edward Browne, copying the recipe for “A Sweet Jar” that’s also written into the book. The first 109 recipes (including the Beer Cakes) are written in one hand, then the rest of the book continues in at least six hands.

The Beer Cakes call for “old Beer” – a very efficient way to use beer that might be past optimal drinking stage. Interestingly, this is the first early modern baking recipe I’ve noticed that calls for beer. I’m now curious about how common this was, so I’ll be on the lookout for more. The beer used would probably have been purchased; by the late eighteenth century, the earlier prevalence of home brewing had been largely displaced by industrialized beer production. (For more background, see, e.g., The Oxford Companion to Beer, ed. Garret Oliver [2011], and I. S. Hornsey, A History of Beer and Brewing [2003].)

I wasn’t the only one who found these Beer Cakes delicious, apparently: note the bookworm holes in the upper right-hand corner of the recipe page.

The Recipe

beer cakes

66. Beer Cakes

a Pound of Flour, 1/2 Pd. Butter, 1/2 Pd. Sugar, a few
Seeds, mix all together into a very stiff Paste, with
old Beer, roll and bake them on Tin Sheets.


Our Recipe

[halved from the original]

1/2 lb. flour (I used half white whole wheat and half all-purpose flour, about a scant 1 c. each)
1/4 lb. sugar (1/2 c.)
1/4 lb. butter (1 stick), room temp.
1 tsp. caraway seeds*
scant 1/2 c. beer, added in increments**

Heat oven to 350F. Line two baking sheets with parchment.

Combine all ingredients except the beer in a large bowl and mix with a spatula until relatively smooth. (You could easily do this in a stand mixer. I was feeling old school.) Add about half the beer and blend, gradually adding more as needed until you have a cohesive, stiff dough. It should be just wet enough to hold together but not so wet that it becomes soft and sticky. If it’s too wet, just add a bit more flour.

Lightly flour your surface and rolling pin, then roll out the dough to about 1/4″ thickness. (The day I made these was pretty humid – see: Philadelphia summertime – so I found that refrigerating the dough for about 10 mins. before rolling it out made the process of transferring cookies onto the baking sheets much easier.) Cut them out in shapes of your choice. My handy 2″ circle yielded 46 cookies. Transfer to lined baking sheets and bake for 12 mins., or until dry to the touch and golden brown on the bottom. (Your kitchen will smell like beer. Not at all unpleasant.) Remove to a wire rack and let cool.

*A note about “a few Seeds”: Other “seeded” recipes we’ve made have called for caraway seeds. I also looked at several print and manuscript recipes for Seed Cakes, all of which use caraway. So, I feel fairly certain that caraway seeds are accurate for the Beer Cakes. However, you could certainly experiment – poppy? Sesame?

**A note about the beer: I didn’t have any “old Beer” lurking at the back of my fridge – just as well, because I knew exactly which beer I wanted to use for this recipe. Philadelphia’s very own Yards Brewing Company produces three Ales of the Revolution, based on colonial brewing recipes. I was curious about how much the flavor of the beer would come out in the cookies, so I experimented by splitting the batch and making half with Thomas Jefferson’s Tavern Ale and half with Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce. (I also made another batch with a lager, for additional experimentation. Same results.) I couldn’t really taste a difference, probably because the amount of beer in the recipe isn’t that large and the caraway seeds dominate; I definitely couldn’t taste the piney-ness that characterizes the Tavern Spruce. But I didn’t mind having the leftover beer with my cookies.

The Results

Favorite recipe since Maccarony Cheese! Of the other “cakes” recipes we’ve tried, they’re most similar to the Desart Cakes, which I also liked very much. But the addition of butter and especially of beer give these a depth and richness that can be unusual for early modern cookie-cakes. (They’re still beige, of course. Marissa and I have started thinking of this project as the realm of beige baked goods.) They don’t really taste like beer, but they have a richness and a nice crumb that’s less dense than the Desart Cakes. I’ll be making these again.

Esther Aresty, I raise a beer cake to you and your adventuring. Thank you.


To Make fry’d Cream

Confession: I don’t love rosewater. Or orange flower water. To me they’re like cilantro – I’m just happier without them. And yet, because of this project, flower waters have become a fixture in my baking rotation, flavoring treats like Portugal Cakes and Artificial Potatoes. (Early modern recipes use flower waters when we might more readily use vanilla extract, for instance, which would have been cheaper and more readily available.) So, this time I decided to give myself a little vacation from floral tastes. Something easy, something that didn’t make me sigh and reach for the rosewater again.

I also wanted to check out a recipe book we hadn’t explored yet. It’s easy to play favorites – I’m looking at you, Ms. Codex 1038 – but the Kislak Center’s holdings include many others. I recently spent a pleasant morning going through some of these, including UPenn Ms. Codex 830. Unlike most of the recipe books we’ve cooked from so far, it is identified as the property of one person, Eliz. Kendrick. The title page displays her name, 1723, and a striking calligraphy drawing of a bird.

Eliz Kendrick bird

Kendrick’s book includes a higher than usual concentration of recipes for wines: damson, balm, raisin, elderflower, sage, lemon, gooseberry, birch. I’m not feeling quite adventuresome enough – yet – to turn to winemaking, but my curiosity about the taste of sage wine might eventually win out. Kendrick also includes many recipes for baked good like “Appel flitters [i.e., fritters],” “Biskets Cousins Hobbs way,” and “A Rich Cake,” which calls for 25 eggs. (The “Exelent Cake” on the same page only calls for 20 eggs, in case you’re feeling stingy.) I added a few of these to my to-be-made file but stopped short when I flipped to a recipe “To make fry’d Cream.” Fried cream? SOLD.

The Recipe

fry'd cream image

To Make fry’d Cream

A poynt of cream [th]e yolks of 4 Eggs a glas of wine, Nutmeg and Sugar
Mix them all to goather, Stir it oufer [th]e fier till it is hott [then] take
It of, and putt in thin Slices of bread lett it ly in half an hour
take it out in [th]e wole Slices, whet as much of [th]e Cream upon it
as you Can then it, as it is a frying power the rest of [th]e Cream
Upon it if aney be lost

Our Recipe

[halved from the original]

1 c. heavy cream
2 egg yolks
1/2 c. white wine
1 tbsp. sugar
scant 1/8 tsp. nutmeg
6 slices bread (thicker slices, around 1/2″, will hold together better than thin slices)

Arrange the bread slices in a pie dish or other heatproof vessel, even a rimmed baking sheet. Depending on the size of your vessel, they might overlap, but try not to have more than two layers. Heat all other ingredients over low-med. heat, whisking frequently, just until small bubbles form along the edges of the pan and the mixture is hot to the touch. Pour slowly over the bread slices, trying to distribute the liquid evenly. Press down gently on the bread with a fork to soak each piece; cover loosely with foil or plastic wrap and let sit 30 mins. Flip the slices and press down on them a few times while they’re soaking to make sure each piece is saturated.

Heat a nonstick frying pan or griddle on med. heat. Carefully lift one slice of bread at a time and place it in the pan; once you have fit as many slices as possible, pour a few tablespoons of the soaking liquid over them. Fry for 3-4 mins. on one side, flip over, then fry for 2-3 mins. on the other side, until they’ve picked up some color, like french toast. Serve warm.

The Results

Not surprisingly, fried cream turns out to be like a very rich, slightly boozy, soft french toast. The white wine and high proportion of heavy cream make this a heavy-hitting dish; I’m no lightweight when it comes to rich food, but I managed about half a slice before needing a breather. The main difference between fried cream and french toast is that fried cream has a higher cream-to-egg ratio, producing a softer, wetter result.

It’s unclear when in the day Kendrick and her contemporaries might have eaten this fried cream. We think of french toast as a breakfast/brunch option, and fried cream would certainly work for a decadent brunch, alongside fruit and coffee. Minus the sugar, it would also make a simple dinner with a green salad plus vinaigrette. (Whenever you eat it, I think some acidic accompaniment to cut the richness would be helpful.) I really liked the tangy addition of white wine to the soaking mixture – something a little different from other boozy french toasts made with bourbon or liqueurs like Grand Marnier.

I used sourdough in 1/4″ slices, but these were really too thin to hold together well after soaking; I think the thicker 1/2″ slice would be easier to work with. A denser white or multigrain loaf, even challah, would work well – anything you’d like for french toast.

It would be easy to play with the spices here, adding other flavors to the nutmeg. Cinnamon would work, of course, and ginger in the winter might be nice. You could also infuse the cream with a vanilla bean, cinnamon sticks, or another flavor before adding the other ingredients. Some orange zest would be lovely. And while I have no qualms about heavy cream, substituting milk for maybe half of the cream might lighten things up a bit. Just a bit – the recipe IS called “fry’d Cream,” after all. Light it isn’t.

Herb Soop

A few weeks ago, thanks to my old friend George Leader, I was lucky enough to visit an archaeological dig at an eighteenth-century farmhouse on The College of New Jersey’s campus. I’d never been to a dig site before, so the technical details alone were fascinating: the reasoning behind determining where to dig in the first place, the standing sieve to strain buckets of earth for artifacts, the practice of wrapping fragile artifacts in foil (who knew!), the technology used to date wooden architectural features. I really dug it. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)

Seeing the farmhouse, getting to hold some of the artifacts unearthed that day – a metal button, a shard of blue and white pottery, and a small clay sphere that we theorized might have been a marble – made me think about this project and what we can uncover. I’m used to engaging with the past through words on a page. The archives always feel a little bit magical to me: these texts still exist centuries later, and I get to touch them, smell them, read them. I felt a similar tug at the dig, seeing artifacts being unearthed and thinking about our access to the past through what happens to have been left behind. At a basic level, archaeological investigation and archival literary research give us physical access to fragments of past lives, preserved deliberately or accidentally. You figure out where to look, but you don’t always know what you’re going to find.

This project is one of reconstruction from a distance and with pieces missing: the recipes are vestiges of what did get recorded, leaving little behind of what didn’t. Cooking from the archives creates a powerful bridge between me and the past. I will never stand in a kitchen without refrigeration, without even the possibility of electric lights, without having spent my whole baking life reaching automatically for ingredients like vanilla extract and uniform sticks of butter, but I can still approximate how Naples biscuits would have tasted nearly three hundred years ago.

There’s always a gap, though, related to how just far that bridge can reach. Working on this project has brought me up short at this gap time and again: reading handwritten manuscripts begs to know more about the person who wrote them, but there’s often little headway to be made. We can decipher handwriting, but identities are harder. This impulse isn’t just personal – it’s a question that comes up often for me and Marissa, of who wrote these recipes down, of what we know about them. Usually, not much. But this recipe left a faint trace of one of the individuals behind it.

This Herb Soop comes from UPenn MS Codex 1038, home to some of my favorites, like the Maccarony Cheese and Desart Cakes. The volume contains at least three separate hands, and we still don’t know anything about these writers. This handwriting is the second in the volume, probably written down sometime in the 1790s or early 1800s. The end of the recipe attributes it to “Lady Laroche.” (She is probably the source and not the writer of this recipe, since several subsequent recipes in the same handwriting are attributed to other women.) It is nearly impossible to know anything about the other women whose names accompany their recipes – the Mrs. Baker who gave the writer her recipe for Curd Cheescakes, the Mrs. Fordham who told her how “To make Flumery,” or the Mrs. Turner who showed how “To Dress a real Turtle as the[y] do in the West Indies,” for instance. “Lady,” however, provides direction in a way that “Mrs.” often cannot.

It turns out that this “Lady Laroche” can be one of only two women. James Laroche, a Bristol politician and slave-trader, was created baronet in August 1776. Since the baronetcy became extinct when he died in 1804 without any male heirs, this Lady Laroche has to have been one of his two wives. The first Lady Laroche was born Elizabeth-Rachel-Anne Yeamans in Antigua. An heiress (she brought at least one plantation to the marriage) and widow, she married James Laroche in 1764 and moved to England with him. After Elizabeth-Rachel-Anne died in 1781, James remarried; his second wife may also have been named Elizabeth. We know nothing else of her except that she survived her husband and died in Wales in 1824. Can we know how or even if this recipe writer and either Lady Laroche knew each other? What else they might have talked about, why this particular recipe was the one shared? No. But sometimes, even this small glimpse into archival identities feels like uncovering something satisfying.

The Recipe

Herb soopHerb soop contd

To make Herb Soop

Take Parsley, Spinnach, Cabbage Lettice, Leaves of
White Beet, Sorrell, Cucumbers, Pease & small Onions
with the green ends to them, a little Mint, and a very
little Fennell. Wash them all clean, and Chop the
Herbs very small. Season them with Pepper & Salt,
Put them into a Pot to stew with a piece of Butter
according to your quantity, but no Water. Let
them stew quite tender. Have ready boiled some
Cream or Milk, with the Yolks of Eggs beat up in it,
Mix this gently with the Herbs and serve it up.
You must not let it boil, or be on the Fire after the
Eggs are put to it. You are to observe it is not to
be a thin liquid, but more herbs than Soop. that is,
thick of the Herbs. Less than half a pound of butter
will do unless the Terene is very large. There shoud
be Cellery chopped amongs the herbs if to be had &
other herbs you like but not strong of any one in particular.
Some leave out the Fennell, as it is apt to be too strong.
Lady Laroche.

Our Recipe

3 generous handfuls of spinach (about 1 1/2 c. chopped)
1/2 c. parsley, chopped
a few mint leaves, chopped
1 large or 2 small cucumbers, diced (I also seeded mine)
1-2 celery stalks, sliced thinly
1 c. chopped cabbage
3/4 c. green peas (fresh or frozen)
3 scallions, sliced thinly
1/2 tsp. salt
a few grinds of pepper
1 tbsp. butter
1/2 c. milk
1 egg yolk

In a medium saucepan, combine all ingredients except for the milk and egg yolk. Cook them over low-medium heat, stirring often enough to prevent the greens from sticking. Cook until the greens are all wilted and the cucumbers are translucent; for me, this took about 20 minutes. (Though you could probably let them “stew” even longer.) Heat the milk in the microwave or on the stove until quite hot. In a small bowl, whisk the egg and then, still whisking, add the hot milk in a steady stream. Remove the herb mixture from the heat and stir in the milk. Serve immediately.

The Results

The Soop tasted green: stewed together, the herbs and vegetables made a pleasantly flavorful whole. I’d never had cooked cucumbers before and was curious – they softened but held their shape, rather like zucchini, and provided nice texture in the soup. I liked the zip from the scallions and the chewiness of the cabbage (even if cooking it did make my kitchen rather … fragrant). In its piling together of many different herbs and vegetables, the Herb Soop felt like a precursor to some of Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipes. I found it satisfying that what I was tasting was probably pretty close to some of the results this recipe would have yielded for eighteenth-century cooks: all of the ingredients remain available, the cooking technique was easily duplicated in my kitchen (albeit with the ease of a gas stove), and the methodology was specific enough that I could follow the recipe’s instructions closely.

In fact, this Herb Soop recipe is quite detailed in its ingredient list and instructions – it’s very helpful to know, for instance, that the end result should be “more herbs than Soop” – more so than many of the other recipes we’ve engaged with, like Artificial Potatoes. But it provides few precise measurements. I guessed at these proportions, determining them largely based on what I had and what I liked. (I don’t love fennel, so I’m one of those “some” the recipe mentions who “leave [it] out.” And my little produce market doesn’t carry sorrel, so I didn’t use it.) And I imagine that’s what early cooks did as well, making the soup slightly differently each time based on what needed to be used or what was available.

What else could you toss in here? Leeks, zucchini, basil, cilantro, green bell peppers – really, anything green that happens to be lurking in your crisper could make its way into this soup. Some hot pepper flakes would liven things up. I see the appeal behind the milk-and-egg liquid choice: it’s a rich addition and adds some depth to the greens. However, I might substitute some vegetable broth or chicken stock for a lighter soup. Basically, this recipe provides a wonderful alternative idea for using up the leftover greens that I normally toss into a grain salad, a stir-fry, or baked eggs.


Artificial Potatoes

This recipe has been on my mind for a while. What are Artificial Potatoes? And WHY are they? I wanted to solve the mystery of the Artificial Potatoes. (The Mystery of the Artificial Potatoes: title for my first novel?) I couldn’t quite imagine from the recipe even what they would look or taste like, which is the perfect justification for a culinary experiment.

This recipe comes from Ms. Codex 1038, home to one of my favorites thus far: the Desart Cakes (which I mentally pronounce as “DeSART Cakes,” just because it’s fun). This is one of the first recipes in the book. Potatoes were introduced into England by the late seventeenth century, so the writer of this late-eighteenth-century recipe would have been familiar with “real” potatoes.

While we frequently notice recipes that crop up across multiple cookbooks (particularly for puddings), we haven’t come across another one for Artificial Potatoes. Curious, I ran a search through Eighteenth-Century Collections Online, an invaluable digital database of texts published between 1700 and 1800. And I found something interesting. Even with variant searches, only one recipe for Artificial Potatoes comes up, in Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife: or, Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion (1742, 11th ed.; the recipe appears through the 18th ed., 1773). While I’m sure there are other Artificial Potatoes recipes out there in manuscript and in print, this scarcity is striking. Our manuscript recipe is worth comparing with Smith’s:

Artificial Potatoes for Lent: A Side-DishSecond Course.

Take a pound of butter, put it into a stone mortar with half a pound of Naples-bisket grated, and half a pound of Jordan almonds beat small after they are blanched, eight yolks of eggs, four whites, a little sack and orange-flower-water; sweeten to your taste; pound all together till you don’t know what it is, and with a little fine flour make it into a stiff paste, lay it on a table, and have ready about two pounds of fine lard in your pan, let it boil very fast, and cut your paste the bigness of chesnuts, and throw them into the boiling lard, and let them boil till they are of a yellow brown; and when they are enough, take them up in a sieve to drain the fat from them; put them in a dish, pour sack and melted butter; strew double-refin’d sugar over the brim of the dish.
(E[liza] Smith, The Compleat Housewife [London, 1742, 11th ed.], 131-32)

That Smith identifies these Artificial Potatoes as a Lenten dish is intriguing. I don’t know of a reason why real potatoes might be off-limits during Lent, or why these fried dough balls should be particularly suited to Lent. (Any insights are welcome!) It’s also good to note that Smith identifies these as “a Side-Dish; Second Course” – not, in other words, as dessert. What we might think of as a dessert because of its ingredients (ground almonds, biscuit crumbs, sugar, flower water) wasn’t necessarily so for eighteenth-century eaters.

Smith’s recipe raises another question: what should these Artificial Potatoes look like? I assumed that they would be small and round, like new potatoes, “the bigness of chestnuts,” as Smith’s recipe directs. But the Ms. Codex 1038 recipe writer directs the cook to “Cut them into what shapes you like,” which sounds more like a flat roll-out cookie. As we’ll see, I tried both ways. But before shaping the Potatoes, I had to gather the ingredients.


Recipe within a Recipe: Naples Biscuits

As if these Artificial Potatoes weren’t mysterious enough on their own, they required some additional sleuthing for one of their ingredients. The recipe calls for “Naple Biscuits,” or Naples biscuits, but doesn’t provide a recipe. Research time! Naples biscuits are rosewater-flavored dry biscuits baked in small rectangular tins, similar in texture and size to our ladyfingers. Naples biscuits feature in a range of early modern recipes – for puddings, mince pies, even a possett drink. (Biscuit-crumb-enhanced cold possett? We might need to try that one.) They’re typically grated into crumbs and used as a thickening agent rather than left whole. But how to make them? Ms. Codex 1038 doesn’t contain a recipe, so I turned again to ECCO to search for Naples biscuits (or biskets). Interestingly, while a lot of eighteenth-century cookbooks call for Naples biscuits, sometimes in as many as eight recipes, they almost never include a recipe for them. My search yielded only a few recipes. This suggests either that the basic recipe was so well-known that it didn’t need to be given or, more likely, that cooks would buy Naples biscuits already made, just as we often do with ladyfingers.

I used Elizabeth Cleland’s New and Easy Method of Cookery (1759) for reference:

To make Naples Biscuits.

Take a Pound of fine Sugar pounded and sifted, a Pound of fine Flour, beat eight Eggs, with two Spoonfuls of Rose-water; mix in the Flour and Sugar, then wet it with the Eggs, and as much cold Water as will make a light Paste; beat the Paste very well, then put them in Tin Pans. Bake them in a gentle Oven.
(Elizabeth Cleland, A New and Easy Method of Cookery [Edinburgh, 1759])

My version, which halves Cleland’s:

4 eggs
1 tbsp. rosewater
1/2 lb. sugar
1/2 lb. flour

Beat eggs and rosewater (by hand or with a mixer) until frothy; add sugar and flour and beat thoroughly, until lighter in color and very well blended. If dough seems too heavy or dry, add 1 tsp. cold water at a time. (My batter held together nicely at this point, similar to a pound cake batter. Since another Naples biscuit recipe I looked at didn’t call for the addition of cold water to thin the batter, I left it out. I might try it next time to see if the water produces a slightly lighter biscuit, but these turned out just fine.)

Bake in greased madeleine pans, filled with 2 tbsp. batter each, for 14 mins. at 350F. They should be firm to the touch, lightly browned around the edges and on the scalloped bottoms, but the tops won’t have much color. Turn onto a wire rack and cool completely. Makes 20 madeleines. (Mini-muffin tins would also work.)

These Naples biscuits aren’t showstoppers, and they don’t clamor to be eaten by themselves, though I nibbled on one while making the Artificial Potatoes. They’re dense, dry, and nicely rosewater-y, and that’s about it. I understand why they were used more often as ingredient than eaten as a stand-alone treat.



The Main Recipe

artificial potatoes
To make Artificial Potatoes.

Two Ounces of Almonds beat with a little Sack or Orange-flower Water,
2 Ounces of Naple Biscuits, 4 Ounces of Butter, 2 Eggs, but one
of the Whites, and Sweeten it with fine Sugar, beat them altogether
’till it is fine, then Mix it up with Flower to a Stiff paste, Cut them into
what shapes you like, and fry them in lard — There must be a little
melted butter sent up with them.


Our Recipe

2 oz. (heaping 1/2 c.) ground almonds
2 oz. Naples biscuits [2 madeleines], grated or pulsed in a food processor into crumbs*
3/4 c. flour
4 oz. (1 stick) butter, softened
4 tbsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. orange flower water (optional; you could also use sherry or rosewater)
1 egg
1 egg white
oil for frying**

Combine dry ingredients (almonds, biscuit crumbs, flour) and set aside. Cream the butter and sugar, then add the orange flower water, egg, and egg white and mix until well-combined. Dough should hold together and be soft but not too sticky.

Shape dough in one of two ways:

1) Cut or pinch off about a tbsp. of dough and roll it in your hands until fairly round. Repeat. (I also flattened these round balls slightly for one round of frying; they cooked through somewhat better.)

2) Chill dough for 10 mins. to let it firm up a bit, then roll it out on a floured board to about 1/4″ thick; punch out rounds with a cookie cutter. Smaller rounds (1.5 to 2″) are best.

Line a plate with paper towels. Heat 2 tbsp. oil (see **Note) in a skillet at medium-high heat and fry the Potatoes in batches, giving them a few minutes on each side, until golden-brown. As the Potatoes are done, place them on the lined plate to absorb excess oil. I didn’t think they needed the flourish of extra melted butter on the side, but then again, melted butter never hurt anything.

*Note on pulverizing the biscuits: I grated mine on a box grater, but since the edges are quite hard, the process was pretty messy and I ended up with uneven crumb size (powdery from the edges, larger from the softer centers). I’d use a food processor next time.

**Note on frying: The original recipe calls to fry the Potatoes in lard, but I don’t exactly keep lard on hand. I fried the first batch in butter, which gave them a lovely browned-butter taste … until, of course, the butter solids started burning. I switched over to oil and had more success. So, fry in your preferred fat.

Clockwise from left: round ball, flattened ball, cut-out round


The Results

As sometimes happens with long-anticipated recipes, these were somewhat underwhelming. I’m still not sure what they should look like: it makes the most sense that they would look like small potatoes, but rolling and cutting them out bakes them more thoroughly and avoids a doughy center. Whatever shape, taste-wise they’re fairly bland. They’re also slightly greasy from being fried; I might actually try this recipe again but bake the rounds, just to see if they would work as cookies.

However, this experiment has taken the edge off my Artificial Potato curiosity. And now I have more than a dozen Naples biscuits in my freezer just waiting to thicken more dishes down the line.

Potingall/Portugal Cakes

This recipe has also been featured in the Washington Post, in Sarah Kaplan’s wonderful article on our project.

Check it out here.

Like the fantastic Desart Cakes, these Potingall Cakes caught my eye because of their intriguing name and relatively simple ingredient list. Unlike the Desart Cakes, which are what we would call cookies, these are little cakes. And pretty tasty ones at that.

This recipe comes from the first volume of UPenn Ms. Codex 631, dated 1730. (This two-volume collection has become one of our favorites.) “Potingall” is probably a stand-in for “Portugal,” since the recipe closely resembles the fairly common recipe for “Portugal cakes” found in many seventeenth- through nineteenth-century cookbooks. Getting “Potingall” from “Portugal” doesn’t seem unreasonable: the two words are visually similar, and the writer copying the recipe into Ms. Codex 631 could have been working from another recipe that was difficult to read or itself mistaken. (Like an eighteenth-century game of telephone!) “Portugal” named a type of orange in the period and might refer to the recipe’s use of orange flower water. However, Portugal cakes’ name more probably relates to one of their ingredients: sack, a sweet, fortified white wine originally produced in Portugal.

The Recipe

potingall cakes

To Make the Potingall Cakes

Take a pound of flower well dryed & a pound of Loafe sugar beat fine searce them
both & mingle them together, then take a pound of Butter & wash it well in rose water
or orange flower water, then work it well in your hand till it be all very soft & then strew
in your sugar & flower by degrees tell (i.e. till) it be half in, still working it with your hand, then put
in 6 yolks of eggs & 5 whites & beat them up with two spoonfulls of sack, then by degrees
worke in the half of the sugar & flower & when your oven is hott, then pick wash & dry a
pound of Currants over the fire, your pans must be ready Buttered, then fill them half full
& scrape double refine sugar on them, Let your oven be pritty hot & set up the Lead

Our Recipe

[Note: I halved the recipe because these cakes taste best within one to two days.]

1/2 lb. all-purpose flour

1/2 lb. granulated sugar

pinch of salt

1/2 lb. [2 sticks] unsalted butter

1 tsp. rosewater or orange flower water*

2 whole eggs + 1 egg yolk

1 tbsp. sherry**

scant 1/2 lb. currants

optional: sugar for sprinkling on top

Preheat oven to 350F. Butter, coat with cooking spray, or line your pans.***

Mix together flour, sugar, and salt; set aside.

In a stand mixer or with a hand mixer****, cream the butter and flower water until light and fluffy.

With the mixer running at low speed, blend half of the flour mixture into the butter mixture; scrape down the bowl. Add the eggs and sherry, then mix at low-medium speed until combined; scrape down the bowl again. With the mixer at low speed, add the rest of the flour mixture; mix until the batter looks uniform. Add the currants and mix at low speed until they are distributed evenly.

Spoon batter into your pans (a cookie scoop works nicely here) and even out slightly with a buttered spatula. The cakes won’t rise much during baking but bake best as smaller cakes, so fill madeleine pans to the top, mini-cupcake pans nearly full, and cupcake pans 1/2 to 3/4 full. Optional: lightly sprinkle granulated sugar on top. (This adds a slight sparkle to the cupcakes but isn’t essential to their taste.)

Bake until cakes are firm to the touch at the center and golden brown around the edges. (A toothpick inserted into a cake should come out clean.) This will take around 12-14 mins. for mini-cupcakes, 14-16 mins. for madeleines, and 18 mins. for cupcakes. Let cool in pans for 3-5 mins., then remove onto cooling racks.


*Note on flower water: I tried these with both rosewater and orange flower water; I preferred the rosewater version because the flavor was subtler, but both flavorings played nicely with the currants.

**Note on sherry: I replaced sack (a sweet, fortified white wine) with the similar and more readily-available sherry. If you prefer a non-alcoholic cake, orange juice or white grape juice (or water) would most likely be a fine substitute. Raisins could also substitute for currants in a pinch.

***Note on pans: This recipe works best as small cakes: cupcakes, mini-cupcakes, or madeleines, for example. Use whatever combination of pans you’d like. The recipe yields approx. 18-32 cakes: 12 large madeleines (filled with 3 tbsp. batter each) + 6 cupcakes / 12 small madeleines (filled with 2 tbsp. batter each) + 10 cupcakes / 24 mini-cupcakes + 8 cupcakes.

****Note on mixing: In the spirit of updating this recipe to modern kitchens, I used a stand mixer rather than blending the dough by hand. However, the original method would also work – and be satisfyingly messy.

The Results

These are not light and fluffy cakes. They’re moist and dense, like a weightier muffin, with a rich flavor from the flower water, sherry, and currants. I liked them best as madeleines because that shape provides the highest edge-per-bite ratio – the crisply browned edges are particularly tasty. They also made an excellent snack alongside our old favorite, carrot pudding.


Desart Cakes

King Arthur Flour’s Magazine Sift featured a version of our recipe here.

I’m a baker. I enjoy cooking – even more so now that we’re back in soup season – but to me there’s something special about the precise measurements that produce a perfect chocolate cake, the fiddly steps of making italian meringue frosting, the flexibility of quick bread recipes, the scooping and rolling of cookies. So I’m especially interested in the many recipes for baked goods scattered throughout the archive of recipe books we’ve been exploring. These “Desart Cakes” caught my eye – what characterizes a dessert cake? Is it not a cake but, like the snickerdoodle-esque Shrewsbury cakes, what we think of as a cookie? Could they even make the cut for my holiday cookie gift bags?

The recipe comes from UPenn Ms. Codex 1038, a fairly general compilation of recipes put together through the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This particular recipe was probably written down before 1793. Marissa also whipped up and enjoyed a batch of lemonade from the same volume here. (In fact, these recipes occupy facing pages. Lemonade and cookies, anyone?)

The Recipe

desart cakes

To make Desart Cakes.

Take a pound of flower, half a pound of Sugar, One Ounce of

Caraway Seeds, make it into a Stiff paste with Cream, and Roll’d

out as thin as the finest paper and pricked full of holes or they will

Blister, then put them on tins, which you must Butter & observe

when they are Baking to take them out of the Oven as they Brown //

as they will not all Brown together — a Moderate Oven is best.

Our Recipe

[If I’m not sure how a recipe is going to turn out, I like to avoid making an enormous quantity of it. Cookies make that easy: here, I halved the recipe. which yielded 44 2″ cookies. Plenty!]

1/2 lb. flour

1/4 lb. sugar

1/2 oz. caraway seeds (about 3 tsp.)

1 1/4 c. heavy cream*

optional: 1/2 tsp. vanilla**

In a mixing bowl, stir together the dry ingredients. Stir in the vanilla and the cream about 1/2 c. at a time, incorporating it thoroughly before adding the next pour. (A wooden spoon works nicely here.) The dough should start to hold together in a shaggy mass damp enough to be squeezed gently into an elastic, cohesive ball. (It shouldn’t be so damp that it sticks to your fingers at all – this isn’t a particularly messy dough. If this does happen, just add a touch more flour.) ]

Preheat oven to 350F.***

Divide the dough into halves or thirds for rolling out easily. Lightly flour your surface and rolling pin; you won’t need too much flour, but repeat the step often to avoid sticking. Roll to about 1/8″ thickness – thinner if you can since the dough shrinks back slightly once on the cookie sheets. Cut out dough with any cookie cutter**** and place on a baking sheet. (I lined mine with parchment paper.) Bake for 10-12 minutes, removing cookies as they brown around the edges. Cool on a rack – and try not to eat one as soon as it’s semi-cool!


*How much cream to add: I added 1/2 c. to start with and then more in 1/4-c. increments until the dough held together and felt slightly elastic when squeezed in a handful. My dough was wetter than biscuit dough or pie crust, for example. It should be wet enough to hold together easily without bits crumbling off but not so sticky that it adheres to your hands.

**Adding vanilla: I thought vanilla might add some nice depth of flavor with the caraway seeds, and I think I was right. In fact, next time I might add the full teaspoon. You could also try almond extract, orange extract, or skip the extract altogether. Or even switch out the caraway seeds for poppy seeds and toss in some lemon zest. It’s a flexible recipe.

***Baking temperature: I baked one sheet at 325F for 14-16 minutes and another at 350F for 10-12 minutes. I didn’t notice any difference in browning or in crispness produced by the different temperatures, so less time at 350F should be fine. You’ll start to smell the cookies when they’re nearly done; I removed them from the oven when golden-brown on the bottom and slightly browned around the edges. I also forgot to prick holes in the first tray (oops). I did add them to the second but didn’t note any difference (or “blistering”); feel free to stab them a few times with a fork if yours seem to be puffing up.

****Cookie cutter: I chose and liked a 2.5″ biscuit cutter with fluted edge, but most shapes would work, as would the top of a drinking glass. As mentioned, the dough does shrink a bit on the cookie sheet and then in the oven – none of my circles baked up to be perfectly even, and the caraway seeds make for somewhat ragged edges, so avoid any intricate shapes.

The Results

I thought these might be bland – inoffensive, sure, but not particularly tasty – and so was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed them. They’re nicely crisp (rolling them “as thin as the finest paper” really does produce the best result), sweet without being cloying, and flavorful from the caraway seeds. Plus, they smell incredible while baking! I ate the first few with a cup of tea … and then a few more later on with a glass of wine … and then a few more for breakfast the next morning in a pinch. If you like caraway seeds, you’ll like these. And if you don’t like caraway seeds, you can still like these cookies by swapping them out for poppy seeds or another variation. I might experiment with adding in some ground almonds or pistachios. (If you do some experimenting, please report back!) And indeed, some of these might even make their way into my holiday cookie rotation.

Italian Cheese

This “Italian cheese” has intrigued me for some time. It comes from UPenn MS Codex 876 (1780). Just under this one is a recipe for “Cow Head Cheese” – containing not just “two Cow Heads” but also “two Calves Feet” plus “two Calves or Sheepe tongues.” I wasn’t feeling daring enough for this one (and didn’t happen to have a few bovine appendages hanging around), but it certainly represents a nose-to-tail approach! Since I’d rather just carry home a pint of cream and a few lemons from the market, I decided that it was time for Italian Cheese. This recipe only requires three main ingredients: cream, lemons, and sugar, plus almonds and raisins (or whatever you’d like) for garnish.

The Recipe

italian cheese

Italian Cheese

Grate the rind of two Lemons,

into a Pint of good Cream, add to

it the Juice of one Lemon, &

a quarter of a pound fine Sugar,

Whip it up together, put it in

a small Sieve, & let it stand

all Night. When sent up, stick

it with blanch’d Almonds &

Raisins — it must not be over

whipp’d —

The Results

The easy availability of these ingredients and the straightforward instructions meant that I followed the instructions above fairly closely.  Since the recipe cautioned that “it must not be over whipp’d,” I whisked the cream, lemon, and sugar mixture lightly, by hand, for about 30 seconds. The mixture was thicker than unwhipped heavy cream but not yet thick or airy. I then poured it into my handy sieve … only to have most of it go straight through into the bowl below. Oops. I lined the sieve with two single sheets of cheesecloth and tried again, which worked perfectly. As instructed, I let it sit in the fridge overnight (plus the non-eighteenth-century addition of some plastic wrap on top) to drain and thicken. It had yielded about 2-3 tablespoons of liquid within a few hours; since that amount didn’t seem to increase much overnight, you could probably rush this recipe in 3+ hours if necessary.

I suspected that it might turn out something like our cream cheese, just sweeter and citrusy, perhaps closer in taste to mascarpone than to the tanginess of cream cheese. And this hunch was mostly correct: it’s thinner than cream cheese or mascarpone (think the consistency of a thin custard or non-Greek yogurt), with a rich, sweet creaminess. The lemon zest in addition to the juice adds a nice zip – since I like citrus, I might increase both the zest and the juice next time. It would be fun to try this with orange, with meyer lemons, or with a mix of lemon and orange. Many citrus possibilities!

Since this uses a pint of cream, and depending on how you’re serving it, it could probably yield at least six servings and up to ten. I spooned a few dollops into a bowl and sprinkled slivered almonds on top. I don’t particularly care for raisins but had some dried sour cherries at hand and used those instead – I really liked the lemon/cherry combination. Raisins could of course work, as would currants or even chopped dried apricots or figs. Basically, I think this recipe lends itself to many variations. I ate a few spoonfuls of the concoction on its own and then remembered some spiced jumball cookies (we’ll post the recipe soon) in my freezer. It turns out that jumballs make an excellent vehicle for Italian cheese! It would also work very well spooned over fresh fruit or in a trifle. Italian cheese: easy to make, easy to enjoy.

Shrewsbury Cakes

{Today’s post is also published on Unique at Penn, a blog maintained by Penn libraries to highlight their collections. Since we’ve been exploring the library’s manuscript recipe books, we’re thrilled to share one of our finished recipe with Unique at Penn’s readers.}

One of the things we’ve been struck by along the way in this stroll through the culinary archives has been the similarity of certain recipes to many we follow today.  This holds true particularly for baked goods. (Except the notorious fish custard.) We weren’t quite sure what to expect from these “Shrewsbury cakes” – small cakes? Pancakes? Drop cookies? It turns out that Shrewsbury cakes are basically early modern snickerdoodles.

This recipe comes from MS Codex 625, a manuscript recipe book that belonged to a student in a London cooking school in the early eighteenth century. The pastry school was owned by Edward Kidder, who taught at a few locations in London between around 1720 and 1734. Blank books with printed title pages seem to have been used by students to write down recipes they learned. Kidder also published his recipes in the printed volume, Receipts for Pastry and Cookery, in 1720.

The Recipe

shrewsbury cakes

Shrewsbury Cakes.

Take a pound of fresh butter a pound of double
refind sugar sifted fine a little beaten
mace & 4 eggs beat them all together with.
your hands till tis very leight & looks
curdling you put thereto a pound & 1/2 of
flower roul them out into little cakes

Our recipe (halved from the original)

1/2 lb. (2 sticks) butter, softened
1/2 lb. sugar
1/4 tsp. mace
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
2 eggs
3/4 lb. flour

Using an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugar. Then add the eggs and mix at medium speed until the mixture looks curdled. Sift together dry ingredients and add at low speed until just combined. Scoop and roll the dough by hand into 1-tbsp. balls, then pat flat. [You could also refrigerate the dough until it’s firm enough to roll out on a flat surface and cut out into rounds.]

Bake  at 350F for 15-18 minutes (ours were about 1/3″ thick, so you could roll them thinner and have a slightly shorter cooking time) They’re done once they turn the slightest bit brown around the edges. This halved recipe yielded about two dozen cookies.

The Results

If you like snickerdoodles (and who doesn’t?), you’d like these. We added the cinnamon because we like it and couldn’t resist, and we thought it rounded out the mace nicely. These are mild, fairly soft cookies that are great with tea. We rolled and patted the dough into individual cookies because it was too soft and stick to roll out, but a little bit more flour and a stint in the fridge might make the dough easier to work with a rolling pin.


Fish Custard

Update: Since we posted this recipe, we’ve learned that our fish custard might have been tastier had we prepared it using different methods and ingredients. Please see the comments for a variety of helpful suggestions. And if you successfully recreate this dish, please let us know!

Some recipes should stay in the archives.

We’ve had surprising success so far with these early modern recipes. All have been edible, most have been pretty tasty, and a few – like the inaugural mac and cheese and some spiced “jumball” cookies we’ll tell you about soon – have been downright great. So, we thought, let’s branch out and have a more daring culinary adventure. When Marissa found this recipe for “fish custard” (that’s right, Marissa, I’m blaming you), we thought immediately of Doctor Who’s infamous snack: (1)

The Doctor makes fish fingers and custard look pretty tasty. And while we suspected that fish custard might not prove our favorite recipe from this project, how bad could it really be?

Bad. So. Very. Bad.

This fish custard comes from UPenn Manuscript LJS 165, a collection of  recipes in multiple hands, written and gathered together sometime between 1690 and 1802. Readers could consult the collection to find other culinary recipes but also to find out about various household remedies, like how to cure colic (presumably, by not making someone eat this dish) or to kill moths (probably by setting out a bowl of fish custard, thereby driving all living things out of the vicinity).

Please don’t try this at home. No, really. Please don’t.


The Recipe

fish custard

ffish Custard

One pound of Almons beat them small, in the beating

put in the Row of a Pike 4 dates cut and the yolkes of

4 Eggs temper it with cold water Straine it through a

Strainer & make a quart of it Season it with Suger Rosewater

Salt pxxxxe beaten Mace When it is Baked scrape suger on

Our version:

1 c. ground almonds

1 to 1 1/2 tbsp. fish roe (ours was salmon)

3 dates, seeded and roughly chopped

2 eggs + 1 egg yolk

1/4 c. whole milk

1/4 c. sugar

1 tsp. rosewater

1/8 tsp. ground mace

a few pinches of salt

Preheat the oven to 350F. Butter a small casserole dish. Stir together all ingredients, then spread evenly in casserole dish. Bake for 15-20 minutes. Remove from oven and cool for at least 10 minutes before serving.

We quickly realized that this wasn’t going to be a traditional custard – the ratio of almonds to dairy is much too high to produce anything like a creamy texture. (The original recipe did include straining, but that would have removed all of the almonds and dates, which seemed counterproductive.) To make the mixture stir-able, we added a few spoonfuls of milk. We were unsure how vigorously to beat in the fish roe: should the eggs be broken down and, liquified, dispersed evenly throughout the custard? Or should they maintain their shape? We erred on the side of folding them in gently. It’s possible that we should have put the whole mixture in the food processor; this might have improved the final texture somewhat, though it’s unlikely to have helped the taste.

This recipe raised some interesting questions for us about interpreting early modern culinary instructions: with other recipes, we’ve had some idea of how they would turn out, especially when we started cooking and realized that they resembled some modern-day counterpart. This similarity provided some guidance; even when the original recipe’s instructions weren’t quite clear to us, we could extrapolate from other knowledge and proceed with some degree of confidence. The addition of the fish roe, in fact, threw us off less than the realization that this “custard” would not resemble anything we would call by that name. We were apprehensive – which seems a valid reaction to a fishy dessert – but also curious. What would the texture be like? Would the fish roe somehow pair beautifully with the almonds and dates in a salty-earthy-sweet combination?


The Results

Big surprise: dates, almonds, and fish roe don’t play well together. And the rosewater just made things worse. The “custard” resembled a bar cookie: very firm and sliceable into squares. In fact, it was quite dry, to the point that even if it had tasted good (ha!), eating more than a few bites wouldn’t have been very appealing. Another texture issue: baked fish roe either explodes warmly when chewed or takes on an off-putting rubberiness. We took tiny servings and managed a spoonful. (I think the fact that we did so speaks highly to our research initiative.)

So, was this failure our fault? The fault of the recipe? Should we write off early modern palates as utterly mystifying? Was the mere existence of this recipe a joke from the time-traveling Doctor? We’re willing to believe that the original execution of this recipe was probably more appealing than our effort, though we doubt that this would ever have tasted good.

Readers, we did this for you. You’re welcome. Now, please excuse me while I go brush my teeth again.