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How I cooked a Victorian dish and lived to tell the tale

2013 March 14
by lucinda matthews-jones

Tim Train

You know those blogs written by perfect cooks who spend their time cooking the perfect meal perfectly, and usually begin things by posting picture after picture of their perfect cooking for their readers? I hate those blogs. They make everyone else feel so inadequate, and me too. If anything, in this post, in which I detail my questionable attempts to come to grips with unfashionable recipes, I trust I will make your readers feel perfectly adequate about themselves in comparison.

The challenge offered on the Journal of Victorian Culture Online blog on February 12 was for a Victorian-cookery bake off. We were to take a recipe from a Victorian cookery book, bake to the original measurements, using only cooking tools that the Victorian cooks would have been familiar with, and to submit the results to family and friends for scoring; also, I was to submit a short post for the JVC blog talking about my experiences. I was confident about that last point, at least. The rest – well, we’d just have to see.

I settled on a cheesecake recipe from the Lady’s Own Cookery Book, a copy of which I found on Gutenberg. Since early last year I have been making my own cheeses, so I was quite interested in the various recipes for cheese and cheesecakes that could be found in Victorian cookery books. The recipe I used was imaginatively titled

Cheesecake. No. 4.

Break one gallon of milk with runnet, and press it dry; then beat it in a mortar very small; put in half a pound of butter, and beat the whole over again until it is as smooth as butter. Put to it six eggs, leaving out half the whites; beat them very light with sack and rose-water, half a nutmeg grated, half a quarter of a pound of almonds beaten fine with rose-water and a little brandy. Sweeten to your taste; put in what currants you like, make a rich crust, and bake in a quick oven.

The ‘rich crust’ recipe I found in Mrs Beeton. Actually, I wanted something that wouldn’t take too much time, so the ‘rich crust’ turned out to be the recipe

Common Paste, for Family Pies.

1207. INGREDIENTS. — 1–1/4 lb. of flour, 1/2 lb. of butter, rather more than 1/2 pint of water.

Mode. — Rub the butter lightly into the flour, and mix it to a smooth paste with the water; roll it out 2 or 3 times, and it will be ready for use. This paste may be converted into an excellent short crust for sweet tart, by adding to the flour, after the butter is rubbed in, 2 tablespoonfuls of fine-sifted sugar.

You may also note, in the cheesecake recipe, that I ended up with three leftover egg whites. So in addition to the cheesecake, I also made

Almond puffs

Blanch and beat fine two ounces of sweet almonds, with orange-flower water, or brandy; beat the whites of three eggs to a very high froth, and then strew in a little sifted sugar till it is as stiff as paste. Lay it in cakes, and bake it on paper in a cool oven.

(Also from the Lady’s Own Cookery Book).

Of course, when you curdle milk with rennet, you don’t just turn it into curds, you also turn it into whey: the curds and whey so beloved by Little Miss Muffet. Having poured off the whey from the curds, I was left with another pot of whey. This I used to make ricotta: I didn’t even need a recipe in this case; the idea is so simple. I heated the whey until it was almost boiling, scooped off the froth from the top, and when the ricotta curds had separated from the whey, I scooped them out and put them into a little cheesecloth bag, and carefully poured the rest of the whey through the bag to try and catch some more curds. I was left with a little ball of ricotta – somewhat smaller than a 50 cent piece….!

So far, so adequate: from here on, though, I started to make a few mistakes. After pressing the curds, the recipe said I should ‘beat it in a mortar very small’. I completely forgot about this, and so resorted to mooshing it about with butter in the bowl, squeezing each curd with my hands to make them smaller. Also, I neglected to add currants. (And I love currants!)  So when I poured all the buttery-curdy-eggy mixture into the crust lining the sides of the tin, I had to do a last minute sprinkling of currants, which I then stirred in.

The idea of the recipe was, I think, to make a cake with a kind of custard consistency – that’s what all the egg whites and butter were for – and I think if I had ground the curds up much finer I would have helped with that. As it was, once it had been in the oven, it seemed very sloppy and didn’t have a consistent texture – I almost spilled some taking it out of the oven and setting it aside to cool. Later, when I saw it wasn’t cooling quickly enough, I cheated a bit and… um… put it in the fridge. (In my defence, the fridge actually is a Victorian fridge. In that we live in the Australian state of Victoria named in honour of that venerable monarch.)

The almond puffs went into the oven shortly after; they browned a little but also seemed a little flabby (I think I should have whisked the egg whites for five more minutes, and there was probably too much moisture in the almond meal.)

So, what was the verdict from friends and family? I drew up a scorecard and sent it round to my wife, A., and our friends K., and N, asking for them to score the dishes out of 10. My wife hummed and hawed about the cheesecake score, asking me, ‘what are the points that I have to bear in mind in marking this cheesecake?’ She is a teacher at university, after all. ‘Your HUSBAND cooked it!’ I replied, in a tone that I hope was both affable and deeply wounded.

She duly gave the cheesecake a mark of 3.

The final scorecard:

Cheesecake

A: 3.
K: 5
N: 7

Almond puffs

A: 9
K: 7
N: 8

Naturally, I gave myself 10 out of 10 for both. I can deceive myself, if no-one else.

How would I describe the cheesecake? Actually, it tasted quite a lot like I imagine that English classic, Spotted Dick, would taste like. The nutmeg set off the flavour of the custard nicely. The consistency was more like scrambled egg than custard – I think this may have been partially affected by my not grinding the cheese curds finely. I only added a little sugar to the recipe (two tablespoons) as I was relying on the currants, the rose water, and the liquer to add sweetness – I think I judged rightly there.  The best of the almond puffs were crunchy, though in their case I think I may have added a little too much rosewater to the almond meal. (I love it too much for my own good.)

I humbly submit this meal for your consideration.

Tim Train

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