Desserts – 18th century style

I use a reproduction of the earliest American cookbook to guide my descriptions of food in my Will Rees mystery series. As discussed in earlier posts, there are not a lot of recipes for the kind of cakes and quick breads we know. Most of the recipes are highly spiced, probably to hide the bitter taste of pearl ash. I am beginning to think that the invention of baking powder should be up there along with indoor plumbing and central heating.

So what did they eat for desserts? Those who say fresh fruit may be only half right. Puddings, as discussed in Dickens, seem to be a huge favorite. The dessert we know and call pudding is actually called custard.Pudding, at this time, was a boiled dessert with sugar and spices. Think plum pudding which is boiled in a form or special cloth and is too sweet and rich for a modern palate. Interesting note: one of the desserts listed is potato pudding!

There are lots of recipes for pie- and without a good leavening agent this makes sense. Also, not only fruit but slices of pumpkin, lemons and other stuffs were put between the pastry layers as were various kinds of meats. I tried the sliced lemon pie and although it is very sugary I found it quite tart. The lemon gel under meringue is a huge improvement. I wonder how the pumpkin pie is since the pumpkin is not pureed but added to the crust in slices.

Those who talk about fat and sugar consumption now should read some of these recipes. Loaf cake starts: Rub 6 pounds of sugar (or fugar in the type set of the times), 2 pounds of lard, 3 pounds of butter, 12 pounds of flour, 18 eggs — well, you get the picture. Obviously this recipe is for loaf cakes for a large group.

One of the desserts we don’t see in the modern US is syllabub. This may have to do with the ingredients. One recipe begins: start with two parts cream to one part wine. Another begns: take a pint of cream and sweeten it to your palate. This dessert is usually drunk. I can only guess at the number of calories. I have had it in England, where it is still consumed as a dessert and it tasted like alcoholic whipped cream.

One element used to lighten some of the baked goods is egg whites, which have to beaten by hand. One recipe says beat for half an hour. If I had to spend this much time beating egg whites my family would never have cake.

More about baking

The replacement for the pearl ash (or pot ash) I discussed in my last post was something called salterus.

Salterus is bicarbonate of soda – yes, the stuff used for stomach acid or whitening teeth. We know it as baking soda and it is the leavening agent in soda bread.

This substance has been known for millenia. The Ancient Egyptians used it as a component of natron, the salt they employed to mummify bodies.

Umm, yummy. Using it for cooking seems more recent. (I read that the Native Americans used it but haven’t found additional documentation for this.) Anyway, baking soda works with something like buttermilk, which has a lot of lactic acid. In chemistry 101, we learn that the combination of an acid and a base yields carbon dioxide and that is what raises the bread.

Baking soda itself is pretty bitter. When I make soda bread I usually use baking powder as well. Pop quiz: what is baking powder? Well, it is baking soda combined with the powdered form of a weak acid but it also leaves less of a bitter aftertaste.

Early baking

Since I haven’t seen a workman for my kitchen for ten days (and counting) and I still am missing doors, knobs, and my new refrigerator, I am moving on in my blog.

I began to think about how cooks baked in the past. They had yeast but what leavener did they use for what we term quick breads.

There was no baking powder. They had yeast but that requires rising. Beer dregs can also be used – I;ve made beer bread but you would not want cookies made from beer.

So what did the cooks use? Pearlash. Wood ashes when soaked in water yield lye. Lye is used to make soap. Lye was also used to soak hominey and for other cooking purposes. Some where in 1780 some enterprising cook used it to make cookies and bread.

I’ve read, however, that it left a bitter alkaline taste in the mouth. The use of pearlash was short-lived. After 1840 a precursor of baking powder was produced.

kitchen coming to an end

After two weeks of nothing happening, several changes occurred in two days and I am now cautiously optimistic that I will not be camping out in my house much longer.

The new appliances arrived. But the fridge was wrong and had to be sent back so we are still using the old one.

















You can see the new desk and back splash.

And we finally got counters and water. Yay! No more washing dishes in the slop sink







Saga 2: counters

After almost a month’s delay in getting started, I have now been without a kitchen for 6 weeks. And counting. The cabinets went in last week. Nothing will happen this week. The place from where we ordered our granite had trouble with the forklift and couldn’t take delivery. I estimate a total of 6 days work in the past 6 weeks. Do I sound annoyed? I am.counter


What next? Or maybe I shouldn’t jinx this project.

If you can’t stand the heat …

There’s no getting around the fact that a renovation is stressful. I am really tired of washing dishes in the slop sink. And it keeps going on.

We got the flooring in. A little grayer than I like but still light. flooring

The same day the flooring went in the stove broke. No kidding. I was baking chicken in the oven and went to take it off and the entire handle came off in my hand. I can still get the oven door open with a potholder but it isn’t easy. 

Fried food anyone?


In other news, with the garage door left open so the workmen can bring in flooring, cabinets (arrived but not installed) we have had an army of mice appear. Most recent count: 10. We’ve found dead ones in our closet (yuck!) and in the bathroom. I don’t blame them for wanting out of the cold but I wish they wouldn’t choose my house.





Painted Wall

The contractors spent a few days getting up the sheetrock and painting. I see how The Property Brothers can gut a house in 4 weeks; the crew spends every day on one property. I wouldn’t like having the Property Brothers choose everything, though. I might not like the result. The contractor and I had a disagreement over the paint. He thought it should be lighter. When the flooring is in, we will see.

Meanwhile, I am finding not having running water in the kitchen tiresome. Can barely cook – no counters. green wall