None of the cheesecakes in Beeton’s Book of Household Management have any cheese in them whatsoever. As far as I can make out from Andrea Broomfield’s Food and Cooking in Victorian England, these recipes are a relic of pre-Reformation fasting practices.[i] In the 1816 edition of her A New System of Domestic Cookery, Maria Rundell includes recipes both with and without cheese curd, but by the time of Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management, the cheeseless cheesecakes have won out – probably, Broomfield suggests, because cheese curd was hard to come by in the new urban areas.[ii]
I’ve always wondered what cheeseless cheecakes taste like, and so for this Bake-Off, I opt for Beeton’s ‘Apple Cheesecakes’.[iii] I happen to have bought fourteen little patty pans at an antiques sale once – I’ve been using them as tea light holders ever since, but no more! It’s promising to be fiddly work to line and fill them, and I’ll have to do it several times to make a big enough batch. As luck would have it, I find another twelve patty pans in my shared kitchen. This must be a good omen. My kitchen was built in the Edwardian period, and is consequently quite cold in early March: perfect for pastry-making. Another omen! Onwards!
The night before the big baking day, I make puff pastry for the first time in my life, following Beeton’s recipe.[iv] It turns out to be quite easy; the instructions are clear and comprehensive, and rolling out the butter-enriched pastry proves to be one of the most satisfying things I’ve done in a while. The next morning, I boil down apples to a pulp. Beeton just tells you the measure of finished apple pulp, not the starting point, so I have to guess. I end up making twice as much as I need. Melted butter, sugar and lemon is added, and then I let it cool down before I add the eggs to avoid scrambling them (this wasn’t in the recipe, but instinct serves me well. This is like one of those fiendish technical challenges in the TV show!).
Then I roll out half of the pastry – not particularly evenly, and it does stick to the table a bit because I underestimate how much flour I actually need. Beeton doesn’t tell you to grease the tins, but I decide to brush them with melted butter.
I manage to line the patty pans with the pastry and fill them pretty neatly. I refer back to Rundell’s book, which tells me to fill them three quarters full with the cheesecake mixture. I reckon since Beeton pilfered all her recipes from previous books anyway, I can do the same. No temperature is given, and in flicking back to the pastry recipe, I see that the only advice is to make sure the oven is properly hot before baking puff pastry. So I opt for 200 degrees C (gas mark 6). This works rather well, and the cheesecakes bake a lovely golden colour in about eighteen minutes. The filling rises up in the oven, so I’m glad I only filled them three quarters full – otherwise they would have overflown and looked a mess (thank you Rundell). Because of the small number of pans, the whole thing takes quite a while, and I have to make more filling half way through. Luckily I had saved the extra apple pulp! The final result comes in at forty-six cheesecakes. I seem to have avoided soggy bottoms and achieved a rather nice flake on the puff pastry.
Finally, the tasting and judging! I bring the cheesecakes to my choir, Exmoor Singers of London. I am a little nervous, since this is a choir with a rather discerning palate. For every event that includes food, members of the Exmoor Singers set a rather high benchmark, and a few of them can outstare Paul Hollywood. But the comments are very complimentary: people are amazed at the crunchiness of the pastry and seem to enjoy the filling, which is subtle rather than bold in flavour (this is another way of saying that you can only taste the apple if you know it’s in there). The comments on the score card ranges include ‘really yummy!’ and ‘How did you get them so CRUNCHY?’ A good result!
I definitely had beginner’s luck with the puff pastry, and plenty of things could have gone wrong, but didn’t. This has been fun, but I’m glad I didn’t have to do it against the clock. Even without a camera crew, the stress of trying to gauge the baking of the first batch was nerve-racking. With my trusty Beeton, and a little help from a Georgian cookbook and an Edwardian architect, I weather my first Victorian Bake-Off.
Mrs. Beeton’s recipes:
Very good puff-paste
Ingredients.—To every lb. of flour allow 1 lb. of butter, and not quite ½ pint of water.
Mode.—Carefully weigh the flour and butter, and have the exact proportion; squeeze the butter well, to extract the water from it, and afterwards wring it in a clean cloth, that no moisture may remain. Sift the flour; see that it is perfectly dry, and proceed in the following manner to make the paste, using a very clean paste-board and rolling-pin:–Supposing the quantity to be 1 lb. of flour, work the whole into a smooth paste, with not quite ½ pint of water, using a knife to mix it with: the proportion of this latter ingredient must be regulated by the discretion of the cook; if too much be added, the paste, when baked, will be tough. Roll it out until it is of an equal thickness of about an inch; break 4 oz. of the butter into small pieces; place these on the paste, sift over it a little flour, fold it over, roll out again, and put another 4 oz. of butter. Repeat the rolling and buttering until the paste has been rolled out 4 times, or equal quantities of flour and butter have been used. Do not omit, every time the paste is rolled out, to dredge a little flour over that and the rolling-pin, to prevent both from sticking. Handle the paste as lightly as possible, and do not press heavily upon it with the rolling-pin. The next thing to be considered is the oven, as the baking of pastry requires particular attention. Do not put it into the oven until it is sufficiently hot to raise the paste; for the best-prepared paste, if not properly baked, will be good for nothing. Brushing the paste as often as rolled out, and the pieces of butter placed thereon, with the white of an egg, assists it to rise in leaves or flakes. As this is the great beauty of puff-paste, it is as well to try this method.
Average cost, 1s. 4d. per lb.
[I ended up doubling the amount of filling].
Ingredients.—½ lb. of apple pulp, ¼ lb. of sifted sugar, ¼ lb. of butter, 4 eggs, the rind and juice of 1 lemon.
Mode.—Pare, core, and boil sufficient apples to make ½ lb. when cooked; add to these the sugar, the butter, which should be melted; the eggs, leaving out 2 of the whites, and the grated rind and juice of 1 lemon; stir the mixture well; line some patty-pans with puff-paste, put in the mixture, and bake about 20 minutes.
Time.—About 20 minutes.
Average cost, for the above quantity, with the paste, 1s. 2d.
Sufficient for about 18 or 20 cheesecakes.
Seasonable from August to March.
[i] Andrea Broomfield, Food and Cooking in Victorian England: A History (Westport and London: Praeger, the Victorian Life and Times series, 2007), p. 9.
[ii] Rundell, Maria, A New System of Domestic Cookery, facsimile of 1816 edn (London: Persephone Books, 2009); Broomfield, pp. 17-18.
[iii] Beeton, Isabella, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, facsimile of the 1st edn (London: Cassell, 2000), p. 622.
[iv] Beeton, p. 612.