Mrs Beeton and the Art of Early Rising

June 4, 2010

Waking early has always given me an inexplicable sense of calm and order.

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Ever since I can remember, I’ve always awoken at the first glinting hint of dawn, if not before.  In the past, I generally stayed up until nearly midnight, quite happily surviving on 6 hours of sleep or a little less.  I can’t say I always fly out of bed trilling and tango-ing gleefully (especially in the shivery chills of winter), but it always feels somewhat, oddly right to arise while the world still slumbers.

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These days, I’m still an absurdly early riser (even when our three cats don’t mew wake me at 4.40am, like they did this morning, begging to be fed.  I was away on a solo cycling holiday for 4 days until yesterday, leaving my boyfriend in charge of their two ‘wet’ meals a day.  But, as he’s a guy who snores louder than an erupting volcano and can – indeed, has proven that he can, will and must – sleep through hailstorms, cat fights, being poked, jabbed and hollered at, as well as frenzied vacuuming, the poor little dears had to wait until at least 8am to be fed.  No doubt they’d have hot-lined the RSPCA if they could).

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4.40am, thankfully, is not the usual time I’m up.  My alarm is generally set for 5.45am (6.30am on Sundays), although I more often than not awaken a few minutes before the alarm pings me out of bed and causes my boyfriend to grunt and roll over in his sleep.

Unfortunately, as much as I’d love to, I don’t seem to last the distance in the evenings as long as I used to (I don’t think it has anything to do with age, I’m only 33!).  With a full-time ‘official’ job, and a full-time job at home (I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that cleaning, cooking, taking care of family / pets /household etc. is more than a full-time job, leaving precious little time for hobbies or other forms of relaxation.  And I don’t even have children yet!).

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I’ve also recently noticed that a glass or two of wine after dinner is enough to have me crawling desperately into bed, with barely enough time left to clean the kitchen, tidy up the living room, put away the cats’ bowls, fold the dry laundry, set up for the morning, pre-prepare the coffee maker, put out my clothes for the morning and other assorted pre-bed activities).

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And yet, I don’t think I really mind.  Too much. Who was it that said ‘Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise’?  Everything I do is my own, instinctive choice.  My boyfriend is usually stunned and peskily delighted (“Ha!  I actually got up before her!”) when I very, very infrequently stay in bed a bit longer.

Interestingly, here’s what Mrs Beeton had to say about early rising – especially for the ‘mistress’ (or hausfrau, homemaker, housekeeper, housewife, serving wench, domestic slave or whatever else we like or tend to call ourselves!)

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EARLY RISING IS ONE OF THE MOST ESSENTIAL QUALITIES which enter into good Household Management, as it is not only the parent of health, but of innumerable other advantages. Indeed, when a mistress is an early riser, it is almost certain that her house will be orderly and well-managed. On the contrary, if she remain in bed till a late hour, then the domestics, who, as we have before observed, invariably partake somewhat of their mistress’s character, will surely become sluggards. To self-indulgence all are more or less disposed, and it is not to be expected that servants are freer from this fault than the heads of houses.

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Aside from the comment about sluggardly domestics, her advice still rings true today.  At least, I feel it does for me.  There’s not enough time in the day for everything as it is.  Even in the 21st century, early rising seems – to me – essential for some sense of order in the household, no matter the size.  Not to my boyfriend, however, who is at this very moment snoring lightly, wrapped cosily in both his own blanket and mine, too.

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On balance I think, even if I had the choice to stay in bed later, I probably wouldn’t.  For, to quote Mrs Beeton (quoting ‘The great Lord Chatham’):  “I would have inscribed on the curtains of your bed, and the walls of your chamber, ‘If you do not rise early, you can make progress in nothing.’”

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Mrs Beeton’s Advice for the Mistress of the House: http://www.mrsbeeton.com/01-chapter1.html#3

Apricot Cream

June 4, 2010

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Well, this is not exactly a cream.  Actually, it’s more like a jelly.  A creamy, smooth-bodied jelly, flavoured with new-season apricot.

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INGREDIENTS – 12 to 16 ripe apricots, 1/4 lb. of sugar, 1–1/2 pint of milk, the yolks of 8 eggs, 1 oz. of isinglass.

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We had a friend coming round for dinner, and I wanted to make a light dessert to go with the after-dinner coffee, as well as to satisfy my boyfriend’s insatiable sweet tooth (if I haven’t mentioned this already, he typically takes 3 HEAPED tablespoons of sugar in his coffee.  And he drinks a minimum of 5 cups of coffee a day.  Despite my horrified retching whenever I catch him flavouring a mound of sugar with coffee, I’m still waiting for him to develop diabetes or for his teeth to fall out, to provide me with a smug ‘I told you so’ opportunity.   Alas, so far the gods are on his side…).

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This is a simple, 2-stage dessert to put together.  Firstly, an apricot compote is made by boiling the fruit in a sugar syrup, then it’s mixed together with the other (pre-simmered) ingredients.  The recipe calls for 1/4 lb of sugar, but this is a mistake – it actually needs 1/2 lb sugar (as discovered when I read the recipe process steps).

I just made half the quantity as the dessert was only for three people.  Still, I couldn’t quite bring myself to use 4 egg yolks (cue some cheeky, grinning tut-tutting from my boyfriend, and his perpetual crow of ‘What would Mrs Beeton say?’ when I balk and gasp at some instruction or other).  Even with three yolks, it didn’t seem to adversely affect the final outcome.  And boy was our oldest, greediest cat Saturn excited when she was given the fried-up egg whites as a treat!

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As with the previous Mrs Beeton jelly-like dessert I made, I substituted agar agar for isinglass (I’ve never even heard of isinglass for cooking before I ‘met’ Mrs Beeton, anyway).  This time, I was a bit savvier with the quantity, and added slightly more agar agar to give the dessert a firmer consistency and appearance.

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Despite the amount of sugar used, and despite it being a really nice dessert (especially when served with vanilla ice-cream), it wasn’t quite sweet enough even to my taste.  Perhaps it’s something to do with the agar agar, which smells a bit like chlorine (but, thankfully, doesn’t taste like it – I don’t want to be thinking of swimming pools when I’m eating dessert!).

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“Maybe you should’ve used 4 yolks like she told you to,” grinned my boyfriend wickedly.

Maybe.  Perhaps.  It’s possible.  But, I’m more inclined to blame it on the apricots I used, which were rushed-to-the-shops, early season specimens and not as fruitily, robustly ripe as they will be in a few weeks time, when the season is in full-swing.

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Roll on spring and summer, with the glorious bounty of fruit and vegetables you usher in with you!

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Apricot Cream (Recipe 1405): http://www.mrsbeeton.com/29-chapter29.html#1405

Macaroni Soup

May 29, 2010

Well, there was me thinking that none of Mrs Beeton’s recipes revolved around pasta.

As I’ve worked my way through the index, there are various things I’ve not yet spotted.  Bananas, for one thing.  Did they have bananas in Victorian England? Even wondering this question makes me feel rather ignorant – but it’s really not something I’ve ever had to think about.  Melons don’t feature too heavily, either – and when they’re mentioned, it seems that ‘melon’ had a different sense and / or use back then (Mrs Beeton:  “THE MELON.—This is another species of the cucumber…”)

Anyway, back to the topic.

I was looking for a simple soup to take the edge off our hunger before dinner, something that my boyfriend wouldn’t just take three spoons of before slipping the rest to our 3 cats (seriously, they’re like a pack of starving wolves when we’re eating, despite being very well fed and cared for).  To my great surprise, ‘Macaroni Soup’ practically blinked back at me from the page.  I don’t mind being wrong when I’m hungry.

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INGREDIENTS – 3 oz. of macaroni, a piece of butter the size of a walnut, salt to taste, 2 quarts of clear stock No. 105.

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First, I have to confess something.  I had to cheat.  There was no way I could wait 5 hours to boil up the stock.  Nor was I going to add meat, despite my boyfriend’s protestations that the soup would taste a hundred million times better that way and what would Mrs Beeton think?

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So, I added most of the listed ingredients to a basic vegetable stock of my own, and gently simmered the mix for 30 minutes before adding the cooked, sliced macaroni to some of the liquid (I left the rest to continue simmering for another 4 1/2 hours, to see what the end result tastes like some other time).  I had bought the long-stemmed macaroni only that morning from a farmer at the local market, so I was pleased to be able to use it almost immediately.

After adding the cooked macaroni, I gave the liquid a few more minutes on the stove before gently ladling it into some bowls.

My boyfriend thought it was surprisingly tasty for what it was, especially with an extra big pinch or two of Parmesan Cheese.

The soup has a very mild taste – nothing spectacular, but enough to satisfy our hunger pangs while the main dish was being prepared.

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By the way, I’ve come to the conclusion that a Victorian kitchen, as envisaged by Mrs Beeton, must have been very much like a modern restaurant in many respects.  So many items needed to be prepared in advance, to be drawn on depending on daily requirements.  For example, the stock would have been prepared at least by the night before and used (presumably) for more than one planned dish.  Many recipes also call for storeroom cupboard products prepared far in advance – Mushroom Ketchup, Burnt Onion Sauce, Lemon Brandy, dried herbs, preserves, etc.  Very little could be easily and/or inexpensively procured from local shops or markets.

The more I get into this 365-day challenge, the more I admire and respect our Victorian ancestors.  Whether or not they could afford to live as Mrs Beeton encouraged, they still had to put in a heck of a lot of work to feed their families and run a household.  And some of their modern descendants complain about not having the energy to heat a ready-meal in the microwave!

Compared to our ancestors, we’ve got it sooooooo good, that’s for sure.

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Macaroni Soup (Recipe 135): http://www.mrsbeeton.com/06-chapter6.html#135

German Jelly Moulds

May 29, 2010

At least, I thought it was a jelly mould.  But now, I’m not so sure.

On the way to the supermarket this afternoon, we saw a small fleamarket (a word that never fails to get my attention) being held outside in aid of cancer research funding.  A good cause and a fleamarket were enough to get us to stop and check it out.

Amongst the goods on sale was a light brown mould of the dessert persuasion.  Or it could have been a wall decoration, given that there was a little screw-sized hole at the top.  By the time I followed the instructions for Jelly Liqueur in Household Management later that day and popped the mix into the fridge, I really began to wonder.  You never can tell sometimes.

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INGREDIENTS – 1 lb. of lump sugar, 2 oz. of isinglass, 1–1/2 pint of water, the juice of 2 lemons, 1/4 pint of liqueur.

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As a vegetarian, isinglass (dried fish bladder) and gelatine (derived from animal bones and skin) are not ingredients I like to work with.  I don’t eat jelly very often anyway, but I did some enthusiastic research and found something called ‘agar agar’ in my local health food supermarket.  It turns out that it’s a red algae derivative, popular in Asian cooking and perfect as a vegetarian alternative.

This jelly is made in two stages – first boiling the water and sugar together, with the agar agar and some more water in a second pan.  Then, these are added together with lemon juice and a liqueur of your choice, and left to chill.

I don’t usually have liqueur (except for in delicious liqueur chocolates, of course), but on a recent trip to Freiberg im Breisgau (popularly labelled ‘the capital of the Black Forest’), I picked up a cute little bottle of cherry liqueur.  I mixed it with a little of Mrs Beeton’s Lemon Brandy to make up the difference in quantity (see https://mrsbeetonin365days.wordpress.com/2010/02/03/day-69-lemon-brandy-part-1/) and https://mrsbeetonin365days.wordpress.com/2010/02/07/day-73-lemon-brandy-part-2/, and added it to the mix.

As soon as I began pouring the hot liquid into the mould, ominous cracking sounds could be heard.  I couldn’t see any damage to the mould itself, but I began to wonder if it really was what I thought it was.

“Do you think it’s dangerous?” I asked my boyfriend, seeking a second opinion.  Visions of jelly and sharp mould shards exploding all over the fridge raced through my head.

“I’m sure it’s fine,” he called out confidently from the living room, where he was recovering from what I gather was a somewhat disappointing final episode of one of his favourite TV programmes.

So I left it in the fridge to get on with its chilling.

3 hours later, I began doling it out into two plates with a bit of vanilla ice-cream. I hadn’t used enough agar agar to make the jelly stiff enough to form a shape matching the mould’s form, but that didn’t really matter to us.  For my first attempt, I was happy enough with the result.

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“I like it, it’s good” my boyfriend told me as we tucked into our desserts. “I don’t like these alcoholic desserts, but it’s OK, I like it.”

We both agreed that it was a bit on the sweet side, though.  But that’s Mrs Beeton for you, I guess!

I still don’t know if it’s a mould or a wall decoration.  Life is full of mystery.

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Liqueur Jelly (Recipe 1449): http://www.mrsbeeton.com/29-chapter29.html#1449

Beurre Noir

May 19, 2010

Do you have any idea how hard it is to make a decent sauce to go with asparagus – which isn’t Hollandaise Sauce?

Try as I might to get my boyfriend to love it, he just can’t see the point of asparagus.

“Why?  I don’t get what you lot [i.e. asparagus enthusiasts] find so interesting about this stuff.  It’s just…” he trails off, waving a fork with a pierced stalk of green about in the air with a puzzledly-disgusted expression.

Now, I can’t exactly explain it to you myself.  I claim it’s ‘delicious’ when prompted, but this isn’t necessarily what I mean.  Sure it has a lovely mild taste and all, but what exactly draws me to it?  I haven’t a clue.  Certainly not the smell in the bathroom afterwards, that’s for sure.

Yet I’m wildly enthusiastic that it’s ‘Spargel Season‘ here in Germany – the mere mention of the word on the menu outside a restaurant door draws me inside like nothing else can (except, perhaps, the magic words “Conan O’Brien will be appearing here tonight”).

In my quest to convert my less-than-enthusiastic hausherr, somehow I’m fixated on the idea that the perfect sauce will be enough to make him crave it as much as I do.  (“… and then you woke up,” I can just hear him smirking as he utters his oft-quipped aside).

Perhaps… Beurre Noir

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INGREDIENTS – 1/4 lb. of butter, 1 tablespoonful of minced parsley, 3 tablespoonfuls of vinegar, salt and pepper to taste.

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Slap butter into pan.  Heat to a very high temperature.  Let it ”smoke” for a few seconds before tossing in the parsley (I wasn’t brave enough for this, having set off the fire alarm once too many times in recent months – so I just let it get a little brown before adding the parsley).  Slosh in the vinegar (stand back, I nearly got burned by angrily-sizzling vinegar droplets) and add a pinch of salt & pepper.  Stir for a minute, then douse it over asparagus and serve.

“That’s a lot of butter isn’t it?” commented my boyfriend.

“Yeah, I’m doing Mrs Beeton again.”

“I figured, with all that butter!”

Despite the hissing and fizzling and spitting, the finished sauce is very tame indeed.  Possibly a little too tame for my liking – a mild, mild tang and a waist-taunting pool of melted butter.

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Buerre Noir (Recipe 374): http://www.mrsbeeton.com/10-chapter10.html#374

The Bottled Stuff Never Looks Like This

May 14, 2010

I rather like mint sauce, mint jelly and anything else of a minty persuasion (except mint-flavoured toothpaste – I can’t stand that totally fake chemical taste).

So I was rather pleased, as you can imagine, when I came across an entry for ‘Mint Sauce’  in Mrs Beeton’s glorious tome.  At this time of year, when spring is gliding choppily towards summer, fresh flavours and scents serve to remind us that heavenly fine days and drawn-out summer nights are peeking at us from just around the corner.

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INGREDIENTS – 4 dessertspoonfuls of chopped mint, 2 dessertspoonfuls of pounded white sugar, 1/4 pint of vinegar.

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Really, this is more of a mint vinegar than a mint sauce (distinguishable from her separate entry ‘Mint Vinegar’ only by the sugar content).   But the great thing is being able to control the quality and flavour by the type of vinegar used.  For this recipe, I used some delicious organic white balsamic vinegar that I normally keep for salad dressings.

I quartered the quantities for this trial – the mint plant on our balcony is only just beginning to recover from the long winter and it’ll take a few more weeks before it begins bursting into a cheery green overflow of sprigs. To make things less messy, I used a funnel to direct the ingredients into a small bottle.

The directions call for everything to be “put… into a tureen” and stirred.  ‘But… to heat or not to heat?’ I wondered, scanning the instructions for clues.  But as she makes no mention of the stove, I figured it was safe to assume that the sugar would dissolve on its own in the room-temperature vinegar. I guessed correctly.

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“What’s that?” enquired my boyfriend as he stumbled into the kitchen to seek out some hot coffee and peered over my shoulder.

“Mint vinegar… Mrs Beeton’s.”

“Mrs Beeton’s?  Figures.   But why’s it not green?”

The answer to this, I proudly informed him, is that it contained no food colouring.  I still clearly recall the lightning zap of shock that ran through me when one day, a few years ago, I happened to scan the ingredients of my favourite UK brand of mint sauce, only to discover that the green was the product of dye, not mint.  From that moment on, I’ve refused to eat store-bought mint jelly or sauce (and, as I’ve never had the opportunity to try it freshly made, it’s been a long while since I’ve savoured the taste of this marvellous concoction).

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I found that the longer I left it, the more infused and darker the sauce became (12 hours later, it was very nearly completely brown).

The fresh, sweet tang of this sauce on some hot baby potatoes at lunch-time took me very pleasantly by surprise, especially when dabbed in a splodge of butter.

I’m pretty sure that the way this sauce turns out depends very much on the type of vinegar used.  The white balsamic vinegar works very, very well indeed.

Never – I repeat never – will I consume even a drop of store-bought mint sauce again!

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Mint Sauce (Recipe 469): http://www.mrsbeeton.com/10-chapter10.html#469

Vegetables For Pudding

May 13, 2010

Carrot Cake, OK.  Carrot Jam, well, I was more into it than I thought.  But Carrot Pudding?  Big mental ‘hmms’ as I weighed up the pros and cons of making this recipe.  There was no way I could tell my boyfriend the real name before he tried it… such a foolhardy confession would lead to instant rejection (of the pudding and not, I hope, of me)

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INGREDIENTS – 1/2 lb. of bread crumbs, 4 oz. of suet, 1/4 lb. of stoned raisins, 3/4 lb. of carrot, 1/4 lb. of currants, 3 oz. of sugar, 3 eggs, milk, 1/4 nutmeg.

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The first ingredient that had me hmm-ing was suet.  I’m vego (my boyfriend emphatically isn’t – any attempt to persuade him otherwise would lead to the Common-Law equivalent of divorce), so the idea of using suet (which I had to research on the internet, just to be sure it was what I thought – i.e. hard animal fat) was not exactly appealing.  I know there are vegetarian versions out there.  I’m pretty sure they must sell both types in Germany too, where I’m currently living, but I haven’t a clue what it could be called or where to find it.

So instead, I substituted the suet for butter, reasoning that it was very much the same for the purpose of making a pudding and a whole lot better for my peace of mind.

I didn’t have any currants – but I ingeniously (or so I felt) soaked a double-portion of dried raisins in some fruit drinking syrup and left them to plumpen for 30 minutes.

‘How interesting, a pudding without flour!’ I marvelled as I put it all together.  Only after it was in the oven did I clock that I’d added breadcrumbs = flour. 😉

Not being very familiar with boiling anything pudding-ish other than the Christmas variety, I decided to bake the pudding instead. Household Management doesn’t state how hot the oven should be, but I opted for 190 degrees Celsius for 45 minutes.

It was absolutely delicious.

“Would have been better with ice-cream,” mumbled my boyfriend helpfully as he, despite the lack of ice-cream, cleared his plate in 2 seconds flat.

There was enough left over for us to have it for pudding the next day too, which he again managed to hoover up promptly enough to beat his 2-second record.  Our eldest cat got her paws on a piece – even she approved (but then again, she pretty much eats anything – recently, she leapt onto the table and slyly polished off some asparagus and Hollandaise sauce before we had a chance to react!).

This is a nice, easy pudding – I can see myself making this again in the near future.

With ice-cream, naturally.

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Carrot Pudding (Boiled or Baked) (Recipe 1259): http://www.mrsbeeton.com/27-chapter27.html#1259

Continuing with the French Theme…

May 10, 2010

And by what name is mashed potato known by that fount of the fanciful and practical, Mrs Beeton?

‘Puree de Pommes de Terre (or, Very Thin-Mashed Potatoes)’

Gotta love her.  She can turn the simplest and most unexciting of dishes into a must-tryable delight with a sprinkling of French.

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INGREDIENTS – To every lb. of mashed potatoes allow 1/4 pint of good broth or stock, 2 oz. of butter.

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I don’t know what it is with Mrs Beeton and butter.  Everything seems to require a liberal splodge of deliciously creamy lemon-tinted fat before it can be pronounced worthy of the dinner table.  In the interests of not denting our bathroom scales, I’ve found myself rebelling more and more often by slightly reducing the quantity in many (though not all) Household Management dishes.

The trick with this dish is getting the quantity of liquid just right.  Mrs Beeton seems to indicate that there’s a difference between regular mashed potatoes and this potato puree – namely, that the latter ought to be ”very thin[ly] mashed”.  After boiling the potatoes, the broth is supposed to be added immediately before attacking the white mountain with a masher.

As I began to mash, I couldn’t see any difference in consistency between this and the regular mashed potatoes, so I found myself adding a little more liquid (nearly double to stated quantity, in fact) before I was satisfied it was at least somewhat thinner than regular mashed potatoes.

Even on the plate, there is little visual difference.  The variation lies more in the mouth, with this version’s smoother, more buttery (eek!) taste.

This is a very nice dish, although I can’t see it being too out of the ordinary, aside from the tantalizingly posh title.   But it’s a nicely posh way of impressing dinner guests: “Oh, it’s nothing special, just a little something I whipped up.  Who would like to try the poulet with Puree de Pommes de Terre, accompanied by a swirl of jus?”

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Puree de Pommes de Terre (or, Very Thin-Mashed Potatoes) (Recipe 1146): http://www.mrsbeeton.com/25-chapter25.html#1146

When in France…

May 9, 2010

Well, I was in France yesterday, which is not as far as you might think – from where I’m living in Germany, it’s only 20km or so to the border.  There’s little more exciting on the weekend than ‘going to France’ (which sounds a whole lot better than ‘going 20km across the border’).

I love France.  The sheer marvellous-ness and deliciousness of the food is perfectly true.  Anytime I’m there, I feel a thrill of delight at the endless culinary adventurous-ness my mind and taste buds are inspired to.

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INGREDIENTS – A quart of French beans, 3 oz. of fresh butter, pepper and salt to taste, the juice of 1/2 lemon.

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Unfortunately, I have to confess that the beans I used weren’t French, nor were they the variety known as ‘French beans’.  But that’s OK – German beans are just as good and it’s the method, not necessarily the vegetable, which makes this a ‘French mode’ dish.

This didn’t take long to put together – boil beans, toss them into a fry-pan to drain off the remaining moisture, add the butter, salt, pepper and lemon juice and voila!

My boyfriend, even though I was totally convinced that he’d hate them, really seemed to enjoy this dish.

“Nice and good and lovely.   Lovely, good and nice!”

I’ve never thought of adding lemon juice to beans before, but it worked really well.

I think I overdid it slightly, giving it a bit of an unexpected tang, but it was as “nice, good, lovely” as my boyfriend said it was.

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French Mode of Cooking Beans (Recipe 1091 ): http://www.mrsbeeton.com/25-chapter25.html#1091

Almond Paste = Marzipan

May 1, 2010

This is the first time I’ve cooked something from Household Management, thinking, “I really hope this doesn’t kill somebody”.

I wasn’t even intending to cook anything this morning at all.  I’ve long felt guilty about living so close to the famous Schwarzwald (Black Forest) and I’d originally planned to go on a long walk through there with my boyfriend (= dragged-along, kicking and screaming walking companion).  Yesterday afternoon, he commented soberly “They tell me it’s forecast to rain tomorrow”.  I’m not sure if he added “unfortunately” – my memory says yes, but experience advises otherwise.  This morning, I woke up to radiantly blue skies and chirpily mischievous bird twitters outside my window, intermingled with happy snores next to me (was he actually smiling in his sleep?).  The mysterious “They” were wrong.  If it hadn’t subsequently become a little overcast, I would have shaken him.  However, I digress…

As I read through Mrs Beeton’s recipe for Almond Paste, something began to click in my head.  ‘Is this like Marzipan,” I wondered.  I’m not a huge fan of Marzipan, and I have to confess that I’ve never even though where it comes from or how it’s made.  Not that I thought it grew on trees or anything, but I’d have been stumped if pressed to name its constituents.

I looked it up on the internet and was amazed and abashed to discover that Marzipan is merely a combination of sweet and bitter almond, egg whites and sugar.

Bitter almond scares me a little – in its natural state, it’s meant to be poisonous.  A friend recently gave me a small flask of bitter almond aroma, which I’ve occasionally looked at with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation.

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INGREDIENTS – 1 lb. of sweet almonds, 6 bitter ones, 1 lb. of very finely sifted sugar, the whites of 2 eggs.

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I cheated a little – well a lot – by purchasing the almonds pre-ground instead of doing it myself.  After adding it to the mixing bowl, I happened to turn over the packet and read the following advice on the back:

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Great.  Not only am I afraid of poisoning someone, but they might actually end up chomping on “traces of other shell fruits “.

My youngest cat, Jack, got awfully exited at this point. He leapt on the bench with graceful glee and tried to stick his head in the bowl.  I promptly removed him, only for him to leap up again and make a second desperate attempt to be at one with the mixture.  (He’s a fussy little thing but he loves treats, and I think he thought the packet of almonds was a pack of cat treats).

I really wasn’t even sure how much bitter almond extract to use.  On the back of the flask, it said “1/2 bis 1 Fl. für 500g Mehl” (1/2 – 1 Fl. per 500g of flour).  The trouble was, I wasn’t entirely sure if Fl. stood for flasche (bottle, flask) or some other German measurement that I wasn’t familiar with.  Given my concerns about using this stuff in the first place, I did a lot of googling to reassure myself that Fl. does indeed (I hope) stand for bottle / flask.

Mrs Beeton’s recipe is, as so often, precise – but imprecise at the same time.  For example, is ‘finely sifted sugar’ our equivalent of icing sugar, or fine sugar?  I used fine sugar in the end, giving it a thicker consistency that the Marzipan I’ve seen in shops, so I’m wondering now if I should have used icing sugar instead.

The second thing is, is the sugar supposed to melt in the pan, or is it just meant to be combined until relatively dry?  The problem is, the mix at the bottom of the pan began to brown almost immediately, allowing no possibility of leaving it on long enough for the sugar to reduce to liquid form (if that’s what’s meant to happen).

After stirring for a good 10 minutes, I turned the heat off and left the pan to cool, as advised.

But, when I returned to it a little later, there was  no way that mix was going to allow itself to be made “into any shape that fancy may dictate”.  It was a pile of crumbs.  Crumbs!

We’ve got friends coming round for dinner tonight, so I think I’ll use the crumbs on top of a cake or muffins instead and get kudos for doing something different.  If I can only keep Jack out of the kitchen in the meantime, that is…

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Almond Paste (Recipe 1220): http://www.mrsbeeton.com/27-chapter27.html#1220