Posts Tagged ‘household’

365 Days Draw to a Close…

December 1, 2010

Although it’s been a little while since I’ve posted (finishing up a job in Germany, moving to Canada, setting up a new business, etc. have kept me rather busy), Mrs Beeton and Household Management are very often in my mind.

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Over the last year, as I’ve tried a multitude of her wonderful (and not so wonderful) recipes and tips, I’ve drawn quite a few conclusions about Victorian England and the art of running a household in general.  Here are a just a few of them:

1. That English food is ‘rubbish’ or ‘sub-standard’ (as many people I’ve spoken to seem to unhesitatingly think, even if they’ve never tried it) is a fallacy.  English cooking often gets bad press, as far as its image goes.  But reputation in this case has very little to do with reality.  Perhaps there was a time when it wasn’t as inspirational or interesting as it could have been (I suspect the 1970s, but I could be wrong), but the lingering perception amongst the general public is really quite unfair when compared to reality.

2. That England has lousy cooks.  Again, I don’t know where this general idea comes from, and nor do people I’ve spoken to when pressed to back up their claim with an example.  If television is anything to go by (in the 21st century alone, think Rick Stein, Keith Floyd, Nigella Lawson, Anthony Worral-Thompson, Delia Smith, Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre-White, Jamie Oliver, Heston Blumenthal, Gary Rhodes, etc. etc. etc.), then the great English cook is alive and lustily kicking.

3. That running a household is something easy and effortless – ‘just a woman’s job’.  If my other half was fond of joking about this a year ago, he certainly isn’t now. What’s more, for those women and men who choose to make housekeeping / home-making a full-time job (and even for those who do it in addition to raising kids and working outside the home), I say ‘bravo’.

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As I finish my year of running my household with the reassuring guidance of Mrs Beeton, I feel I’ve come away from this adventure with a richer kitchen repertoire, a broader range of household tactics, and a whole lot more self-respect for my roles as Head of Finance, Head of Cooking, Head of Cleaning and Head of Procurement.

Thank you, Isabella Beeton.  It’s been an absolute pleasure.

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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

Succulently Stewed Carrots

April 22, 2010

Sometimes it’s not easy trying to sneak in a few extra veg here and there, obviously or in disguise.

My boyfriend’s not overly fond of them, as I’ve pointed out many a time before.  It’s very difficult not to look at him sideways as he assesses his dinner plate each night, trying to work out what looks ‘edible’ (according to his somewhat-caveman visual assessment) and what can be safely left aside after claiming “Yes, of course I tried a bit first! (the unspoken end to this sentence being:  “…before I doused it in salt and slid it around my plate without touching it, so it looks eaten!”.

The great thing about Household Management is that there are plenty of simple new ways to prepare side dishes.  Every now and then, one of these slips by the caveman radar without comment, but more often than not the dish is poked with a fork, followed by the inevitable “So, what’s this then?” in a gently accusatory are-you-trying-to-pull-the-carrot-over-my-eyes? manner.

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INGREDIENTS – 7 or 8 large carrots, 1 teacupful of broth, pepper and salt to taste, 1/2 teacupful of cream, thickening of butter and flour.

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I like this recipe because it’s easy.  It took a little under 25 minutes from start to finish (not over an hour as was required in Mrs Beeton’s day), with very little intervention from me.

My boyfriend rather liked them, surprisingly.  The carrots were wonderfully tender, more tender than I’ve ever managed to cook them before.  Because of the cream, perhaps?

The only slight disappointment was the vaguely-floury flavour.  Mrs Beeton doesn’t specify the quantity of flour needed, so in my haste to get dinner finished, I guess I overfloured it (and left it on the stove slightly too long, meaning that the liquid had turned to a thickly-coating sauce instead).

But, yummy all the same!

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Stewed Carrots (Recipe 1102): http://www.mrsbeeton.com/25-chapter25.html#1102

Day 41: Champagne Jelly and Ice-cream

December 28, 2009

This is the story of a 2/3rds empty bottle of Champagne (or, to be precise, German Sekt) that was sitting in our fridge until earlier today.

Like all good stories, I won’t reveal if this has a happy or a sad ending for the Sekt until the end of the tale.

Its owner, feeling that too much alcohol imbibed over the course of Christmas festivities surely couldn’t be the best thing for her health or sanity, decided that Something Must Be Done To Get Rid of It In a Satisfactory Way.

The easiest option was, of course, simply to down the rest and be done with it.  Surely that would meet with the approval of its other owner, who has more than once commented that his girlfriend is easier to handle after a glass of vino.  (I don’t necessarily mean physically of course, merely that she’s more likely to agree with whatever he’s saying at the time.  ‘Dragon Age’? Of course you can play it all day and all night!).

However, a long-gone but very persistent author by the name of Isabella Beeton wasn’t going to let the Sekt end its days so ignominiously. The words  ‘Champagne Jelly’ flitted tantalisingly, yet mysteriously, past the girlfriend’s eyes as she scrolled through Household Management’s online version (www.mrsbeeton.com.  And no, I don’t get kick-backs for promoting this site!).

I say mysteriously, because Mrs Beeton gives no recipe for Champagne Jelly, although she mentions it at least twice in her mighty tome.

Using logical deduction and sound reasoning, the girlfriend put two-and-three together and got five.  Or at least, a simple but hopefully accurate recipe.

Champagne Jelly: For every 1 lb of Champagne / Sekt / similar beverage, combine with 3/4 lb sugar.  Simmer both together over a medium-to-low heat until somewhat reduced and thickened (approximately 1 hour).  Chill in the refrigerator for 2-3 hours until set.  Serve.



The clever girlfriend realised that her boyfriend could be persuaded to try this dish if accompanied by something else he simply can’t resist – ice-cream.

She poured a little over the creamy dessert and presented it to him.  With bated breath, she enquired as to his opinion.

“It’s ice-creamy I guess,” he replied.  “It’s good.”  And so thought she.

Although best described as a syrup rather than a jelly, it adds a rather sweet and, well, syrupy, dollop of tastiness to a humble bowl of vanilla ice-cream.

And so they all lived happily ever after.  Except for the 1/3rd bottle of Sekt, of course.

The next post will appear at the beginning of January 2010.

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Day 37: Would you like bread sauce with that?

December 24, 2009

Cranberry Sauce is so last year.

When I think of Christmas sauces, both Cranberry sauce and regular gravy immediately spring  to mind.  What I want to do this year is something completely different – but not too complicated.  But tasty.  And it’s got to be something my boyfriend won’t reject before even tasting it. (”Eww, I’m sorry, but I’m not eating that!” has been heard more than once in this household).

Here’s something I thought would fit the bill on all counts:

Bread Sauce: INGREDIENTS – 1 pint of milk, 3/4 of the crumb of a stale loaf, 1 onion; pounded mace, cayenne, and salt to taste; 1 oz. of butter.

Mode.—Peel and quarter the onion, and simmer it in the milk till perfectly tender. Break the bread, which should be stale, into small pieces, carefully picking out any hard outside pieces; put it in a very clean saucepan, strain the milk over it, cover it up, and let it remain for an hour to soak. Now beat it up with a fork very smoothly, add a seasoning of pounded mace, cayenne, and salt, with 1 oz. of butter; give the whole one boil, and serve. To enrich this sauce, a small quantity of cream may be added just before sending it to table.

It takes no time to prepare (sure, the bread & milk mix have to be set aside for an hour, but the preparation time itself is nothing).  I don’t have kitchen scales so I had to guess the weight of the bread – the sauce was not as liquidy as I guess it’s supposed to be, but that didn’t affect the taste one bit. I substituted nutmeg for mace as I didn’t have any, and a mix of fresh and ever-so-slightly stale bread.  The addition of cream at the end made a subtle but obvious difference – however, even without the cream it still tasted fantastic.

We tried it tonight with our steak (vegetarian and non-vegetarian) and veg.  Mmmm.


Simple.  Easy.  Totally delicious.  My boyfriend’s verdict:  ”Hmmm, very nice.  Very… bready.  Nice!”.

Merry Christmas everyone!

PS I tried this the next day with more milk added to make it look more saucy – even better.

Bread Sauce Recipe: http://www.mrsbeeton.com/10-chapter10.html (Recipe 371)

Day 35: Where’s my Feather Duster?

December 23, 2009

When you’re feeling rather low, or even a little blue –

Turn to Mrs Beeton (Page 4 42)

OK, so I made that line up yesterday rather than taking it from Mrs Beeton.

Sometimes when you’re not feeling as cheery as you’d like to, physical exercise is a fast-acting tonic.  But with snow and sleet, and the frozen ears and red nose that outdoor exercise entails at this time of year, I keenly sought an indoor remedy.

Our apartment is usually quite tidy (I’ve been compared to Monica Geller from Friends more than once).  Once or twice a week we vacuum and mop as well (with 3 cats, this is unavoidable).  But in the year that we’ve lived here, I can’t think of a time when it was more thoroughly spring-cleaned than that.

Household Management talks about seasonal cleaning (i.e.  every season) – but I can’t see myself being up for that (let alone convincing my boyfriend of the merits of helping out so often).  Flicking through a chapter for ‘Domestic Servants’ (how apt!), my eye skimmed down the page to ‘Periodical Cleanings’.  ”Ah,” I thought, ”something far more reasonable.”

Periodical Cleanings – Besides the daily routine which we have described, there are portions of every house which can only be thoroughly cleaned occasionally; at which time the whole house usually undergoes a more thorough cleaning than is permitted in the general way.

I decided to go through each room and give everything a good clean, dust and polish.  Beds, cupboards and the washing machine were pulled out and cleaned behind.  Mirrors were polished, keyboards were turned upside down and shaken clean, cat beds (minus cats) were beaten.  Even the dust cover thingy over the vent in the bathroom was given a swish with the cleaning rag.  When you think of it as a way to cheer yourself up rather than it all being an absolute chore, suddenly it becomes a whole lot easier to motivate yourself.

All the while, the cats were traipsing in and out onto the balcony (”What’s that white stuff out there?” they seemed to be thinking.  ”Snow!”  Then they realised – for the upteenth time – how cold it was and dashed back inside, leaving soggy wet paw tracks along the floor, carpets and my back.  Only to repeat the whole process 5 minutes later.

Within the 2-hour time limit I set for myself, I was really surprised by how much I got done when I put my mind to it.  Let’s face it, cleaning is not exactly a ‘fun’ activity.  But the sense of satisfaction when you look and see how much you’ve done (and how far away the next bout of ‘periodical cleaning’ will be)… well, there’s some measure of enjoyment in that.

Life’s little worries and cares are naturally forgotten when all you’re thinking, is “Geez, how did so much dust get behind these damn radiators?”  The one thing that motivated me more than anything was trying to beat the 2-hour time limit. I’m a competitive person.  Who better to compete with than yourself?

Perhaps doctors could prescribe ‘periodical cleaning’ rather than pills when patients need to cheer themselves up? The world might be a jollier – and cleaner – place because of it 🙂

For Isabella Beeton’s periodical and seasonal cleaning advice: http://www.mrsbeeton.com/41-chapter41.html (Section 2326)

Day 33: To Cook or Not to Cook

December 20, 2009

It’s now been a month since I started this Household Management challenge.

Looking back over the last 33 days, it’s already been an incredibly interesting journey.  I’ve tried quite a few things that I’d never have tried otherwise (Carrot Jam, Dampfnudeln).  Some things I won’t be trying again (Apple Soup, anyone?), but others will probably stick with me long after Mrs Beeton in 365 Days is over.  My household accounts are already in far better shape, for one.

But the thing is, when I first started this experiment I thought the focus would be much more ‘’householdy’’.  Instead, a lot of this challenge has so far revolved around the kitchen.  In a way, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management is really just a cookery book, with the kitchen as the star, the diva, the prima donna.  The chapters that provide advice to members of the household – the supporting cast, if you will – act as the backdrop against which the kitchen can properly function.

Part of the problem in applying Victorian advice to the 21st century, is that a lot of it just isn’t that relevant anymore.  At least, not in ordinary, non-toff households.  No one I know has a Butler, Footman, Housekeeper, Cook, Maid-of-all-Work, Laundry Maid, Cook, etc. (sometimes I wish I did!).

My boyfriend and I hired a weekly cleaner several months ago, which was possibly the biggest thrill I’ve felt since discovering Bretzeln (freshly baked pretzels).   But I felt so awkward about having a stranger in the house, and not knowing the proper employer-cleaner etiquette, that we let her go within a couple of months.

The core of Household Management – the beautiful, bountiful recipe sections – remains absolutely relevant today.  Even if the world were to be taken over by robots and aliens tomorrow, cooking – and the kitchen – will always play a central role in daily life.  A world without it wouldn’t be a world worth living in.

In the meantime, as it’s still apple season here in Germany, I lugged home 4 kilos from the market yesterday.  I spent the entire day in the kitchen, with Household Management by my side.  Most of the day was spent making preserves, including Apple Sauce.  I also made another quantity of her delicious custard, which I liberally doused over some Apple Crumble for dessert this evening.

Perhaps I’m making too hasty a judgment about Household Management’s wider value outside the kitchen (after all, it’s fairly long and I have several hundred pages yet to get through).

332 more days will tell!

Apple Sauce: http://www.mrsbeeton.com/10-chapter10.html (Recipe 363)

Day 27: How Not to Go Insane Over Household Spending (Part 2)

December 14, 2009

It’s 10.53pm, I’m utterly knackered, and all I want to do is get everything ready for the morning and crawl under the covers of my warm, ever-so-slightly cat-haired duvet.  Bliss.

But there’s something that’s been looming over me for the last few days: something that simply won’t be shooed away by sighs of weariness and attempts to ‘’think about it tomorrow”.

Ah, household accounts.  How I love thee.  When they’re done, that is.

As it’s been nearly a month since my renewed flush of enthusiasm, and with Saint Nick-related spending emptying one’s pockets, I realize it’s vital to keep on top of our end-of-year spending.  At the same time, a flicker of trepidation at just how much that might be at this stage contributed to a reluctance to do the accounts each day as vowed.  Catch 22.

With a glass of wine to fortify the effort, and playful cats gleefully darting after the scrunched-up paper balls, I set to work on the small mound of receipts, IOUs and mental notes that awaited attention.

The new system, as suggested by Isabella Beeton, breaks spending down into specific categories (Fruit & Vegetables, Meat, etc.).  At the top of each column is its monthly limit.  Entries are (or should be) regularly made with a running total calculated every few days to help keep a tab on things.

In spite of added festive spending for the kitchen and Beeton-inspired experiments, I exhaled with relief when each column’s current month-to-date total came in well under the limit I’d set.

So, by keeping a close eye on the accounts and trying to register everything on a daily basis, I’m sure I can continue to achieve this.

Moral of the story:  A close eye on your budget = a tight rein on your spending.

Likely outcome of the story: I’m afraid that I’m no fiscal saint, try as I might.  I’ll commit to updating it at least twice a week and see how it goes.  So far, the results are much more encouraging compared to my previous way of managing things.

Ground to Perfection

December 6, 2009

Call me an idealist, but I firmly believe that food and drink just tastes so much better when it’s fresh.

We’re quite fond of visiting local flea-markets and antiques markets on weekends, although prices at the latter usually bring with them a look-but-no-way-we-can-afford-to-buy-anything policy.

I’m always longingly eyeing up kitchen stuff, especially the old-fashioned coffee grinders.  Despite being more of a tea drinker, I’ve always found them rather fascinating as kitschy remnants of the past.

Today, we finally took the plunge and bought one.

Shops are closed on Sundays in Germany, so we swung by our local Starbucks and picked up a pack of medium-bodied Latin American coffee beans.

To have coffee in perfection, it should be roasted and ground just before it is used,” Isabella Beeton advises, ‘’and more should not be ground at a time than is wanted for immediate use…’’

The beans came pre-roasted, but we were able to do the grinding ourselves.

It took 4-5 minutes to grind the appropriate amount of beans to match the quantity my boyfriend normally gets through first thing in the morning (a lot).  It’s useful to be reminded that modern conveniences (which contribute to the expectation that everything is ‘instant’) are just that, and not something that is simply pulled out of a hat – or shopping basket – without someone or something doing the work for us to make life easier.

I tend to be more enthusiastic about food and drink than my boyfriend, but he seemed to enjoy the novelty of grinding the beans and watching them turn into deliciously-scented grounds.

I have to say, the kitchen smelt heavenly while the coffee was brewing – fresh, fresh coffee is such a fabulously-homey scent.  I actually enjoyed the process of preparing the grounds and waiting for the coffee to brew, instead of merely pressing a button and doing something else while I wait.

To me, the coffee tasted far better and fresher than the pre-ground variety.  But my boyfriend is the big coffee drinker in our household, so I hand over to him for his measured assessment:

”It’s nice.  I’m not saying I don’t like it.  It’s alright.  It’s nice. It’s good.’’

High praise indeed.

I can see this becoming a weekend rather than a weekday activity.  But that’s OK.  I’d hate for such a pleasurable little ritual to become snoringly routine.

More on Isabella Beeton’s advice about coffee: http://www.mrsbeeton.com/36-chapter36.html

Ingenuity and Ignorance

December 1, 2009

My ignorance, their ingenuity.

The Victorians, I mean.

Until I came across  the intriguing line “The freezing-pot is best made of pewter…’’ at the beginning of Isabella Beeton’s section for flavoured ices, I had no idea that such technology even existed back then.  Talk about being a child of the ‘consumer goods’ age!

Some further research into what a freezing-pot actually was reveals little readily-available information, aside from Isabella Beeton’s description.  I found one very informative website that gives a brief overview of the technology, as well as a number of mouth-watering reproductions of Georgian and Victorian ices.

http://www.historicfood.com/Georgian%20Ices.htm

The basic freezing-pot model consisted of a wooden bucket with a smaller pewter container (sabotiere- we always liked borrowing words from the French for fancy stuff) which was placed inside.  In between, a mix of ice (“mixed very carefully with either salt, nitre, or soda” advises Isabella) was added.

The most amazing-looking ices could then be made with this seemingly simple, yet brilliantly effective, device.

So it wasn’t as high-tech as the modern freezer, but it sure beats paying an electricity bill to keep the milk cool.

I was also surprised to learn about Victorian oven technology.  I knew that they had them, because I’d seen them before at various museums.  But I never envied the women who used to manage such comparatively clunky contraptions.

The typical oven would be heated by wood or coal.  Without switches or a temperature gauge, the user needed a great deal of experience (not to mention burnt fingers) to know when the oven was ready.  It took a lot longer than modern ovens to heat up, which meant that cooking and baking was not a speedy process.

The user could, with experience, assess the oven’s readiness by methods such as the arm test (holding an elbow in the oven and counting – e.g. if it got to a count of 10 before the user found it too hot, then it had reached a certain heat– again, this was discovered by experience and the individual oven’s capabilities).  Measuring heat by specific temperatures wasn’t an option, hence Isabella’s broader directions for recipes (e.g. ‘brisk oven’).

Although I’d rather eat a carriage wheel than give up modern technology, I have a new-found respect for the technology of Isabella Beeton’s era.

At some point, I’m going to try and get my hands on a freezing-pot (or if nothing else, a ice mould) and attempt to reproduce one of her recipes.