Margaret Baker’s sacke possett & fine biskett, or a year with Folger MS V.a.619

It’s an interesting experience to spend months with a single recipe book. This year I collaborated with an undergraduate student, Rachael Shulman, on a year-long research project centered around Margaret Baker’s recipe book which is held at the Folger Shakespeare Library (MS V.a.219). Working with the Early Modern Recipe Online Collective (EMROC) transcription interface maintained by the Folger’s Early Modern Manuscripts Online project (EMMO), Rachael and I began with transcription basics, preliminary readings, and went from there. We transcribed together and separately, we read widely and developed our own projects from the manuscript, and we’re still working on a series of blog posts (stay tuned) and an article from our shared inquiry. This spring, Rachael was awarded an award for Information Literacy by the Pennsylvania State University Libraries for her poster presentation at the annual research fair. It’s been energizing to see this manuscript through Rachael’s eyes as well as my own.

I’m thankful to the Abington College Undergraduate Research Activities program (ACURA) for supporting our collaboration and for funding our trips to the Kislak Center at UPenn and the Folger to look at an array of recipe books. I’m especially thankful to the Folger for allowing Rachael to see Baker’s manuscript in person after she’d spent endless hours looking at it on a computer screen. I’m excited to continue working on this project with Rachael, and other students, in the fall.

While Rachael’s research has focused on Baker’s medicinal recipes (which make up the majority of the volume), I decided to prepare two of Baker’s culinary recipes a few months ago.  I opted for a posset and a biscuit.  Alyssa and I have previously made possets and biscuits, but these versions stood out to me. We’ve made a “Could Posset” and a “Lemon Posset,” but not a “Sacke Posset.” We’ve made the seeded herbal biscuits “Little Cakes” and transformed Naples Biscuits into “Artificial Potatoes” and “Bisket Pudding,” but these “Fine Biskett” seemed like a nice addition to our repertoire.

Recipes

Sacke Possett

To make a sacke possett;
Take one pound of almonds beate them very small
with as much sack as will keep them from oyling
then take one pinte of creme put in your suger into
it sett it one a chafing dish of cols till it be redy
to boyle; then put in your almons sturringe it very
well soe serue it to your table;

Our Recipe

*Quartered from the original

1 c ground almonds
2 T sherry
1/2 c heavy cream
1/4 c sugar

Combine the almonds and sack in a small bowl.

Put the cream and sugar in a small pot and heat until they almost reach a boil. Stir in the almond-sack mixture.

Serve immediately.

Fine Biskett

to make fine biskett

take 1 pound of fine suger 2 pound of fine flower 8 or
10 eggs put amoungst it a penny worth of anneece seede &
a few coriander seede beat all well in a bason together &
make it up into cakes after it is baked you may cut it in slicee
& candy that wth suger if you please,

Our Recipe

*Quartered from the original

3/4 c sugar (4 oz) plus additional sugar to sprinkle on the biscuits
1 3/4 c flour (8 oz)
2 eggs
1t fennel seeds
1t coriander seeds

Preheat your oven to 350F.

Combine all the ingredients in a mixing bowl.

Form the dough into pleasing biscuits. I rolled half the dough into a log and sliced thin cookies. I shaped the remaining dough into cookies.

Place on a baking sheet greased with butter or spray (or covered with baking parchment). Sprinkle a little bit of sugar on the biscuits.

Bake 15 minutes or until the biscuits are golden brown at the edges.

The Results

Neither of these recipes would make my all time favorites list.

The sacke possett taste like a strange, boozy protein shake. The viscus texture was especially unappealing, although it might have improved if I’d used almond milk instead of the ground almonds I had in my fridge.

I loved the flavorful spices in the fine bisketts, but the dense, floury texture of the biscuit overall showed the lack of butter or cream in the recipe. On the other hand, Rachael prepared a vegan version of this recipe and was very pleased with her results.

The most important part of this process — in the archive and in the kitchen — has been the collaboration between me, my student, and Margaret Baker’s manuscript across time and space.

Let me know if you try any of these recipes and improve on them!

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Lemon Posset

Possets teeter on the divide between medicine and food. These boozy, herbal, and, in this case, creamy, beverages are refreshing drinks on the one hand, and curative concoctions on the other. We made a “Could Possett” in the early days of this project and I decided that it was high time to try another.

This recipe for “Lemon Posset” comes from MS Codex 785, the source of my recent posts about Mutton with Oyster stuffing and Simnel cake.

The Recipe

lemon posset

Lemon Posset
Take a pint & a half of Cream a pint of Birch or
White Wine the juice of one Lemon, pare one half
of the peel thin and steep it all night in the Wine
and grater the other part when you put the Cream
to in the Morning and Sweeten ’em to your taste
work it in a Jug with a Chocolate Mill and take off
the Froth as it rises.

Our Recipe

1 cup white wine (I used Vino Verde but any decent drinkable will work.)
Grated or zested peel of a whole lemon, divided into two batches
Juice of half a lemon
1 1/2 cups cream
1T sugar (add more or less to taste)

Put half the lemon peel and the white wine in a jug. I used a standard 4-cup mixing jug and covered it with plastic wrap. Let this mixture sit overnight to infuse. You can also let it sit for 6-7 hours during the day if you plan to serve this in the evening.

Before serving, add the remaining lemon peel and lemon juice to the jug. Pour in the cream and whisk vigorously. Skim off rising froth or unpalatable debris. (I did not find his necessary.) Taste the posset. Add sugar, I added one tablespoon, until the posset is sweetened to your taste.

Consume immediately.

The Results

Between the wine and the lemon I expected this posset to curdle, like many hot possets do, but it didn’t. It was like a frothy lemon milkshake, a tangy yogurt lassi, or an herbaceous egg white cocktail. It was sweet even before I stirred in the sugar. I wondered what flavors Birch Wine might contribute to its overall flavor. Then I added an ice cube to my glass and sipped it as I cooked other things.

Although I enjoyed sipping my small glass of posset, I still had quite a bit of it left over. Inspired by its texture and flavor, I decided to put the remaining mix in my ice cream maker and see what happened. I’m pleased to report that lemon posset ice cream is delicious. Since I poured the posset mix straight into the frozen bowl without adding eggs or more sugar, the texture wasn’t as lovely as other ice creams I’ve made. That said, I heartily recommend experimenting with posset ice cream as temperatures rise this summer. Tweak the recipe, follow the instructions on your ice cream maker, and let us know what happens!

Chacolet from Rebeckah Winche’s Receipt Book at the Folger Shakespeare Library

We wrote a version of this post for the Folger Shakespeare Library’s research blog, The Collation. You can read it here. A special thank you to the Folger and everyone who came out to our Free Folger Friday lecture in December and got a sneak peak at these recipes.

Dear readers, we finally found a chocolate recipe to share with you! Since we launched this project we’ve been looking for chocolate. Alyssa and I love chocolate, our friends and family who taste our recipes love chocolate, and we were pretty sure you would love a historical chocolate recipe, too. We knew hot chocolate or drinking chocolate existed in early modern England, but it took us a while to find a recipe. Chocolate was a luxury good and not necessarily something that would have been found in the households of the people who were writing the manuscripts we’re working with. Drinking chocolate finally became more affordable and widespread in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC has a wide range of culinary manuscripts, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of their holdings. In October we participated in a Transcribathon sponsored by Early Modern Recipes Online Collective and the Early Modern Manuscripts Online Project. Reading through Rebeckah Winche‘s receipt book, Folger MS V.b.366, we found this recipe for “Chacolet.” As the coordinators of the Transcribation noted, the manuscript has a dated inscription, “Rebeckah Winche 1666,″ that conveniently locates the book in a seventeenth-century English household.

The recipe for “Chacolet” describes the process making hot chocolate from whole cocoa beans. Europeans may have encountered cocoa beans, but many would also have encountered chocolate in processed cakes that resemble the final product of this recipe as Sarah Moss and Alexander Badenoch suggest in Chocolate: A Global History. Moss and Badenoch also remind us that our modern chocolate bars are still more than one hundred years away at the time that this recipe was copied down. Only in the nineteenth century did chocolatiers develop the modern machines and processes, like conching, that utterly transformed this rare bean into smooth, modern chocolate (57, 61). Our friends at The Recipes Project have also written some great posts about chocolate consumption. Amy Tigner has two posts about it here and here, and Amanda E. Herbert describes how she teaches with chocolate here.

The Recipe

folger image chacolet, croppedChacolet

the ingredienc

# ounces
cacao – 1 – 0
cinamon – 0 – 3,2 part of an ounc
spanish peper – o- 20 part of an ounce
sugar – 0 – 10th pf a pound
uanilles 3
musk & ambergrees 3 granes

take th cacao nuts which must be very godd
put aside all the brooken ^(to be done after) put them in a coper or
iron frieng pan neuer used for any pech ouer
a a good moderat fire & stir them continualy
Yt all may be alike tosted
to know wen thay are enough take some in your
hand if thay crumble easily thay are enough or if
thay crack & leape in the pan
the spices must be beaten fine & sevied & all but
the vanelles mixed with the suger iuste as the use
then
break the cacaos upon as stone
clener them from the husks
when it is in a mas like dooe grind it ouer againe
wth all the strength possible then strew in the suger &
spice mix it well to gether & grind it agane twice
ouer
lastly put in the vaneles mix’d wth sye the suger grinding
it till it looke like batter when it is cold you mak
make it in to what forme you pleas
the stone must stand ouer fire all the while it is
a grinding
it is not fitt to use till it has bene 3 munths made

One interesting feature of this recipe is that it looks much more like a modern recipe than other recipes in Winche’s book or in the archive of historical recipes we’ve been exploring in general. Most of those are written as narrative paragraphs that combine measurements and instructions. This one looks more like what we’ve come to expect recipes to look like in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: it begins with a list of ingredients with amounts – cocoa beans, cinnamon, Spanish pepper, sugar, vanilla, musk, and ambergris – and then includes a methods paragraph explaining what to do with these ingredients.

Since the recipe’s formatting and instruction was somewhat familiar, our process of updating focused more on the ingredients. Now, it’s hard to find whole cocoa beans in their husks in a specialty grocery store, let alone a basic supermarket. At a health foods stand in Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia Alyssa and I found cocoa nibs: dried and chopped pieces of cocoa beans. This form of chocolate is popular with bakers seeking to add crunch to chocolate chip cookies and raw foods enthusiasts looking for alternatives to processed chocolate. By grinding the cocoa nibs first by hand in a molcajete and then in a coffee grinder we often use for spices, I produced a hot cocoa mix with an even consistency. However, I decided to prepare Rebecca Winche’s “chacolet” two different ways: with cocoa nibs to get closer to the original cocoa beans and with cocoa powder, a pantry staple today. I also decided to leave out the rare, funky, and/or glandular musk and ambergris.

Our Recipes

starting with cocoa nibs

1/3 c cocoa nibs
1 1/2 t cinnamon
1/2 t crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 c sugar
1 t vanilla extract

To make the hot chocolate mix:

Heat the cocoa nibs in a shallow pan for about two minutes. When they begin to look glossy, add the cinnamon and crushed red pepper and stir to combine. Remove from heat.

Now it’s time to grind your cocoa nibs and spice mix. We started this process in a molcajete and then transferred the mixture to a coffee grinder that we also use for grinding spices. In the coffee grinder the mixture turned into a solid paste. A dedicated spice grinder or a small food processor would also do the trick.

Return the cocoa and spice mix to the pan. Add the sugar and vanilla extract. Stir over a low heat for 2-4  minutes until the sugar is completely integrated and the mixture is uniform in color and texture. Some clumps will form, especially at the bottom of the pan.

Transfer the cooled mixture into a jar and label with the date. Store in a cool, dry, dark place.

To make hot chocolate:

Heat one cup milk over a medium heat until steamy. Add 3 T hot cocoa mix. Whisk over heat for another minute or two until it begins to simmer and mix is completely dissolved. (We owe this part of our instruction to Smitten Kitchen’s recipe for “decadent hot chocolate mix.”)

starting with cocoa powder

1/3 c cocoa powder
1 1/2 t cinnamon
1/2 t crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 c sugar
1 t vanilla extract

To make the hot chocolate mix:

Add all the ingredients to a shallow pan.  Stir over a low heat for 2-4  minutes until the sugar is completely integrated and the mixture is uniform in color and texture. Some clumps will form, especially at the bottom of the pan.

Transfer the cooled mixture into a jar and label with the date. Store in a cool, dry, dark place.

To make hot chocolate:

Heat one cup milk over a medium heat until steamy. Add 3 T hot cocoa mix. Whisk over heat for another minute or two until it begins to simmer and mix is completely dissolved. (We owe this part of our instruction to Smitten Kitchen’s recipe for “decadent hot chocolate mix.”)

The Results

When I tasted the cocoa nibs version I was totally blown away. It was much spicier than I  expected and had a nutty, chocolate taste. The oils and larger granules from the cocoa nibs gave the mixture a unique texture. The cocoa powder version had a more concentrated chocolate flavor. Despite the fact that both versions have the same amount of chili flakes, this one was less spicy. The texture was smooth and creamy. I could drink either of these on any cold day!

The original recipe also made a curious suggestion: to wait three months before using the chocolate. Since I still had some of the cocoa nib mix in my cupboard a month after I first tested the recipe, I decided to test this point. The flavors had deepened and mellowed. The chocolate flavor in this cup of cocoa was deep and, in the whole, less spicy than the bath I made fresh. Feel free to store your hot cocoa mixes in a jar or plastic container in a cupboard for use throughout the winter and spring. Let us know if it changes over time!

By making this recipe two ways I was first and foremost negotiating the realities of a modern kitchen – it’s a lot easier to take cocoa powder, that marvel of modern chocolate processing, down from the pantry shelf than to cocoa beans or even cocoa nibs. But despite the different starting points, the side-by-side taste testing of the two versions showed remarkable similarities– the mix of chocolate and warming spices is the real flavor-profile of the recipe and that remained consistent. When Alyssa and I cook in historical archives we’re often confronted by the possibilities and limits of how much of the past we can taste. Accessing these recipes gives us the opportunity to try dishes that early modern cooks tried centuries ago – not just to read about them, but to make them and savor them. We cannot duplicate their exact taste profile, but we can approximate it and do so in ways that make sense for our own modern kitchens.

Lemonade

In August I moved to southern California from Philadelphia. Yes, dear readers, while Alyssa and I are still posting recipes we cooked together this summer, still scouring the manuscript archives at Penn in person and through digital surrogates, still scheming up delightful things to cook and share, we’re no longer working side-by-side in the kitchen. To cope with this change and steel myself for an October heatwave in the triple digits, I decided to start my weekend by making lemonade from a recipe in MS Codex 1038.

The Recipe

lemonade

To Make Lemonade.
Hamers-
ley

Boil One Quart of Spring Water, let it stand ’till it is
Milk Warm. Pare five clear Lemons very thin and put the
parings in the warm water. Let it stand all Night, the next
Morning strain off the peel thro’ a fine Lawn Sieve, Squeeze
the Juice of the five Lemons. Strain it and put it in the
Water, put in Eleven Ounces of double Refin’d Sugar, One
Spoonfull of Orange flower water. Mix these well together,
it will be fit for use.

This recipe is wonderfully lazy: Infuse the water with lemons overnight, sweeten and season it in the morning. Sip lemonade all day. Repeat.

I think that there are two valid ways to interpret this recipe’s instructions for preparing the lemons. Both interpretations depend on how one defines the verb “pare.” This recipe is from the eighteenth or early nineteenth century and according to The Oxford English Dictionary “pare” was used around this time to describe both slicing and peeling fruit. Here are two approximate paraphrases of the text above:

1) Slice five lemons very thinly and add the slices to the warm water. Strain mix in the morning. Squeeze any remaining juice from the lemon slices into the mix.

2) Peel five lemons and add the peel to the warm water. Set five peeled lemons aside. Strain mix in the morning. Squeeze the juice from five peeled lemons into the mix.

I decided to proceed with the first interpretation, but I’d be curious to hear from any readers who try the other method of preparation.

I was also curious about the recipe’s specification for “clear lemons.” Other historical recipes like the ones on this blog also require clear lemons. I turned to the Oxford English Dictionary again and found that “clear” was increasingly becoming a synonym for “unbruised” or “unblemished” around the time this recipe book was compiled. Following suit, I selected the best lemons I had on hand for this recipe.

In the past I’ve purchased useful and cheap ($2) orange blossom water from various Indian grocery stores to use in baking and cocktails. My choice to fix this recipe this weekend was partly inspired by finding a bottle of it in my local cheese shop. The Nielsen-Massey Orange Blossom Water is a bit stronger than other floral waters I’ve used in the past and it hold up to the acidity of the lemons in this recipe.

Our Recipe

5 lemons, sliced

1 quart water

11 ounces sugar (1 1/2 c) – or to taste

1 T orange blossom water

ice and/or sparkling water to serve

Day 1:

Boil a quart of water and set aside to cool. Slice five lemons as thin as possible. Let the water cool until it is warm to the touch, but no longer scalding. Add lemons, cover, and let sit overnight.

Day 2:

Strain the lemon mix and squeeze remaining juice from the lemons. Reserve a few slices to garnish your lemonade. Stir in the sugar. Add the orange blossom water.

When I first tasted the unsweetened, electric yellow lemon infusion it was delightfully tart. Normally I don’t like my drinks *too* sweet and I often adjust the amount of sugar in recipes accordingly, but the mixture was so strong I decided to use the full amount this time. The finished lemonade was syrupy and very, very sweet. To my taste, the citrus and floral notes were a bit overwhelmed by the sweetness. With a few ice cubes and a lemon garnish it was much more refreshing. After sipping half my glass, I added a generous pour of sparkling water and found my perfect version of this lemonade. In the future, I might halve the sugar instead.

Still, this lemonade greatly improved my steamy Saturday. If the heat wave holds on for much longer, I might try it again with variations adding like thyme, sage, rosemary, mint, or lemon balm from my garden to the initial infusion, or even swapping out the orange blossom water for rose water.

Chery brandy

There are many recipes for making alcohol in Penn’s manuscript recipe books. But most would require the average home cook to purchase complex equipment and invest quite a lot of time, energy (and, dare I say, courage?) in their execution. From recipes for “braggart liquor” (spiced beer), “sperit of rasberrys” (raspberry wine), and “Meade to make according to Queen Elizabeth receipt” (the “Queen’s” mead) in Penn’s manuscripts, to the infamous recipe for “cock ale” held in the Folger Shakespeare Library collections, working with spirits can challenge even the most adventurous cooks. (And we’re the cooks who made  fish custard!) There are some approachable beverage recipes in the archive. Our recipe for could possett was one, “Chery brandy” from Ms. Codex 1601 is another.

The Recipe

cherry brandy

Chery brandy

to a gallone of Brandy one dossin of blake
cheryes, pound the stons in a mortar to
brake them put them into an earthin pot
with the brandy stir them once a day
for nine dayes stop them uery close.
then straine it and squeise the chereys
[a]s drey as you can, then bottle it.

This is a very simple recipe. Cherries mingle with alcohol and magic happens. Other than reducing the volume a bit, we only made one major change: We didn’t break the cherry pits or add them to the liquor. Cherry pits carry low-levels of toxins, like cyanide. We may be fearless in the kitchen, but we see no need to experiment with known poisons, whatever flavor they may impart to a beverage.

Our Recipe

2 c brandy

6 cherries (washed, pits removed, and halved)

Put brandy and cherries in a well-sealed glass container. Place in a dark, cool area and stir daily for nine days.

The results

Over the nine days the cherries infused the brandy, the color of the concoction slowly, incrementally deepened to a rich red. Chery brandy is beautiful to look at in the bottle and in the glass.

Straight up, chery brandy is a bracing beverage. Like any brandy, it is a warming drink with strong flavors. The cherries added a pleasing, rich sweetness. After the initial sipping, we added an ice cube, bitters, and lemon peel to create a mellower drink, a sort of “chery brandy old fashioned.” We think this would be a great way to savor a hint of summer cherry deliciousness on a cold winter night. But it’s high summer, so we took it one step further and added some ginger ale to the mix. This final result created a lovely refreshing cocktail.

To make a “Chery brandy old fashioned”

2 oz cherry brandy
ice (one giant cube or 2 small cubes)
slice of lemon peel
dash bitters

Put ice in a rocks glass. Add brandy. Season with bitters. Garnish with lemon peel.

To make a “Chery brandy fizz”

2 oz cherry brandy
6 oz ginger ale (preferably high-quality, sweetened with cane sugar)
Lemon slice
ice

Fill a tall glass with ice. Add brandy and ginger ale. Garnish with lemon.

With late-summer stone fruits flooding the farmer’s markets, we’re curious to see how this recipe would work with apricots, plums, and peaches. Other base alcohols could add unique flavors to the mix (plum vodka? peach rum?). Melissa Clark proposed a related method for preserving summer fruits in alcohol in the New York Times  a few years ago. But, as you now know, mixing fruit and alcohol is a very old idea.