Archive for the ‘English’ Category

I’ve done posts on making Christmas cookies ever since I started writing this blog. Most have been about various favorite recipes that I’ve made for many years. Since I try to write about dishes that will interest my readers, I know I shouldn’t feature the same cookies every year, no matter how beloved they are. (In that respect, writing about food is different from making it.) So this year’s cookie post is about two kinds I’ve never made before, along with a to-me-irresistible celebration of two of the kinds without which it wouldn’t be Christmas at our house.

Candied Orange Peel Cookies

These are based on a recipe called Cherry Cookies that I found in the Cookies & Crackers volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series. I just substituted candied orange peel for the recipe’s candied cherries. The original was a pre-war English recipe by Florence White, who in 1928 founded the English Folk Cookery Association “to capture the charm of England’s cookery before it is completely crushed out of existence.”

The age of the recipe is evident from the absence of any kitchen machines in its instructions – which I tried to follow as written. So I rubbed the butter into the flour by hand, then stirred in sugar and the minced candied peel. Next, I was to “bind the mixture with beaten egg to form a cohesive dough” using a knife. Odd as that sounded, I tried it, but a knife is really not the tool for that job. Surely there were spoons in those days! I reverted to completing the dough by hand.

The rolling, cutting, and baking were the standard procedures, and the cookies came out quite well. Firm and crunchy, with a little chewiness and pleasant flavor from the orange peel, they have a certain charm as an old-fashioned holiday treat. They’ll also be very nice, I think, alongside a not-too-sweet dessert wine.

Spice Sablés

I found this recipe for a sort of modern variation on spice cookies in Lee Bailey’s Country Desserts. It’s attributed to the pastry chef of the ultra-fashionable, now long-closed Barefoot Contessa food shop in ultra-fashionable East Hampton. Despite the glamorous pedigree, it’s a good, sturdy cookie.

To sablés’ basic shortbread mix of butter, sugar, and flour, the recipe adds ground almonds, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and Grand Marnier. These, and the use of brown sugar rather than white, struck me as intriguing flavors for a cookie.

I almost got in trouble over my long-kept brown sugar, which had solidified in the annoying way it does, and had to be pulverized. Unlike fresh brown sugar, it had no moisture, and I didn’t take that into account in mixing my dough. Accordingly, it was very dry and refused to hold together, even after overnight refrigeration. The next day I realized the cause of the problem and was able to correct the texture by kneading some water into the dough. That held it together for rolling out and cutting in Christmas tree shapes.

The cookies are very good. The texture isn’t as “sandy” as sablés typically are, but just a little rough in the way shortbread is. The flavor is unusual, subtle, and interesting. Though very plain looking, they’re rich and satisfying, and will make a nice addition to my Christmas repertory..

Peanut Butter Cookies

Is there anything more quintessentially American than peanut butter cookies at Christmas time? I’ve made them every year-end holiday season for as long as I can remember, and my mother made them all through my childhood. This batch came out exceptionally well, a little crisper and more tender than some in past years. I feel awfully sorry for people with peanut allergies, who can’t enjoy these little delights.


Cream cheese in the dough for these tiny rolls makes for a smooth, soft pastry, which happily encloses fruit and nut fillings. I make them as my mother did, way back in my childhood. This year I did half the batch with walnuts, hazelnuts, cinnamon, and sugar, the other half with the two nuts and strawberry jam. They’re festive flavors, and both kinds came out very well. It may be a bit of a struggle to keep Beloved Spouse from eating them all before Christmas gets here.

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Apple Crumble

Apple Crumble is not a dessert that has ever been in my repertoire. If I thought about it at all, I’d probably have assumed it was something one would learn in a Girl Scout troop’s cooking class. But I recently came across a recipe for it in a novel I was reading on my Kindle called Lord James Harrington and the Winter Mystery.

Lord James HarringtonI didn’t really like the book: It’s one of the “cosy” variety, and I found the writing pedestrian and several of the characters ridiculous. A lot of eating and drinking goes on in it, which I generally approve of, but with far too many sweets being served and glasses of cream sherry taken as aperitifs. When, however, Lord James makes his grandmother’s famous apple crumble for a village fête, I was mildly interested, and when I found the recipe printed at the end of the book, I decided to try it.

I’m glad I did: It’s a nice little dessert. I almost said “easy as pie,” but it’s actually much easier than pie. I’ve now made it a few times, always successfully. Here’s what it takes for two to four servings.


You peel, core, and chop up two apples, put them in an unbuttered baking dish, and top it with two tablespoons of sugar, one clove, and a sprinkling of cinnamon.

apples 1


Rub together three ounces of flour and three tablespoons of butter to make crumbs; stir in two more tablespoons of sugar; spread that mixture over the apples, and sprinkle on more cinnamon.

apples 2


Bake at 400° for 40 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

apples 3


I rate this apple crumble highly on the pleasure-produced to work-involved ratio. With minimal ingredients it produces classic apple dessert flavors. You can use any kind of apple, throw the ingredients together, let the dish sit until needed, bake it in advance and reheat it later. Once cooked, it even keeps well in the refrigerator for a day or two. Leftovers make a nice breakfast. This is as close as one gets to a culinary no-brainer.

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Cooking chicken and leeks together in a dish makes both taste better than they do on their own. Evidently, it’s a real synergy: The combination creates umami, that mysterious fifth taste discernable to human palates. The chemistry of it seems complicated (ribonucleotides and glutamates) but the effect is simply to make certain ingredient pairings produce unexpected flavor.

T-L BritishThat was definitely the case with the Cockaleekie I made this week. The recipe I used – from the Cooking of the British Isles volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series – is just about the barest version there is of this old Scots soup. Just six components: chicken, leeks, barley, salt, parsley, and water.




The full recipe (I was making half) called for a stewing fowl. What I had were very large chicken legs from my favorite poultry farm out on Long Island, and I knew such well-grown birds would yield plenty of developed flavor. I dropped the legs into a pot of cold water, brought it to a boil, and skimmed briefly; added the cut-up leeks, barley, and salt; and simmered until the chicken legs were almost ready to fall apart – about an hour and a half. On the face of it, this seemed to be the essence of all the old jokes about British cooking: Whatever it is, boil it to death. I took the legs out, let them cool somewhat, skinned and boned them, and cut the meat into shreds.


Then all there was left to do was return the meat to the soup pot, heat everything through, and sprinkle on the parsley.



I had worried more than a little that the soup might be too austere – as pale in flavor as in appearance. Some cockaleekie recipes buttress the broth with additional ingredients: celery, carrots, butter, thyme, bay leaf, chicken bouillon. A very traditional variation even includes prunes. But I meant this to be a test of the basic recipe, and to my delight this pure, minimal version passed with flying colors. It was subtly rich, warm and welcoming; the quintessence of chicken and leek. I’m not a food chemist, but I guess I achieved umami.

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Oxtail Stew

Earlier this week, as soon as predictions began for a “crippling and potentially historic blizzard,” “one of the largest in the history of New York City,” with near-hurricane-force winds and up to three feet of snow, I made my emergency preparations: (1) Rummage in the freezer for hearty, rib-sticking meats. (2) Look up recipes that need the oven going for a long time.

T-L BritishThe first good prospect my freezer produced was oxtails: a batch of small, tail-tip pieces that I hadn’t used for my last dish of coda alla vaccinara. My cookbook research came up with an attractive recipe for oxtail stew in the Cooking of the British Isles volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series. The day the snow started, I made the dish.

It turned out not to be what I would call a stew at all; rather an oven braise. It starts conventionally, with salting, peppering, flouring, and browning the pieces of oxtail in a skillet with lard and transferring them to a Dutch oven. But the good array of vegetables – carrot, onion, celery, and turnip – aren’t added in chunks, as is usually the case. I had to coarsely chop them and cook them all together for 10 minutes in the same skillet that had browned the meat.




Once softened and lightly browned, the veg went into the Dutch oven on top of the oxtails, along with a cup of stock, bay leaf, thyme, and parsley. I brought the pot to a simmer on the stove, covered it tightly, and put it in the oven at 325° for 2½ hours. My oven tends to run hot, so I checked it a few times and indeed had to stir in about a cup of water to keep the sauce from thickening too much. But that was all the tending it needed.




The recipe said to skim the fat before serving, but my little oxtails didn’t have much to begin with, and there was really none left at the end. I had feared that the vegetables, small as they were, would have turned to mush after that long cooking, but no, they were still biteworthy. As was the beautifully tender meat. A successful, simple new winter recipe, to be enjoyed even without the impetus of a blizzard. (Which, by the way, largely bypassed NYC. We had only 4-5 inches of snow in my neighborhood.)


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All right – so I’m never going to be the greatest cook of the 14th century. I got an inkling of that last week, when I experimented with a medieval recipe for pottage. And I’ve now conclusively proved it, since I’ve made a more elaborate medieval dish. I think I’ll stick to reading about gastronomy in the Middle Ages, not trying to practice it.

KlemetillaFor this second attempt at medieval cooking, I chose a dish called Salmon Pie with Sweetmeats, from Hannele Klemettilä’s The Medieval Kitchen: A Social History with Recipes.

Though it covers much the same time period as Peter Brears’ Cooking & Dining in Medieval England, the other new food history I used for last week’s recipe, it’s a very different book.

The Brears book is structured around the physical arrangements for preparing, serving, and consuming food. Klemettilä, a Finnish cultural historian, structures hers around types of edibles (chapters on breads, vegetables, meat, seafood, sauces, etc.) and the ways nobles, peasants, and the middle classes ate them on feast days, fast days, and ordinary days. Also, where Brears considers only England, Klemettilä also covers France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Scandinavia. The books provide two interestingly different perspectives on 14th- and 15th-century foodways.

The salmon pie I chose to make has all the exuberant array of ingredients that were common among medieval dishes served at the tables of the rich, perhaps on one of the many meatless days. It contains figs, currants, and dates; cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, saffron, salt, and pepper; pine nuts and almond milk. Not the kind of things we think of nowadays as accompaniments to fish!

I approached the recipe with cautious enthusiasm. The first steps were to make up a short-crust pastry dough and some almond milk. I used a modern recipe for the dough (which the author allows). For the “milk” I boiled ground almonds, water, sugar, and salt; then strained the liquid. Next, I cut dried figs in small pieces, cooked them in white wine until soft, and pureed them. I sliced a nice filet of salmon into strips, cut dates into small pieces, and cooked those two items together in white wine for five minutes.

figs, salmon

When the fig puree was cool, I added all the spices to it, along with enough of the strained wine broth from the salmon to make a spreadable consistency. Now I was ready to assemble the pie.

I lined a pie dish with half the dough, spread the spicy fig puree over it, sprinkled on the pine nuts, and spread the drained salmon-date mixture over that. After adding a top crust I brushed it with the almond milk in which I’d dissolved a little more saffron. That turned the crust a brilliant golden yellow.

assembled pie

Baking enriched the golden color and brought up an unusual but savory aroma. I took the pie to the table and cut two plump slices. With some trepidation, we took forkfuls.


It was a one-bite lesson in how our culture shapes our lives. It tasted bizarre: an unsettling clash of flavors. The crust was good – tender and enriched by the almonds and saffron. The fig layer was good – spicy, mildly fruit-sweet, and pleasant in combination with the pine nuts and the crust. But the nice, fresh, succulent-looking salmon that went into the pie tasted just wrong! Against the other flavors it seemed positively unwholesome: fishily tart, fishily sweet.

Tom’s judgment on the pie was Disgusting! Though he’s always claimed his Jesuit education made him one of the finest minds of the Middle Ages, it apparently didn’t equip him with the commensurate palate. He took about two bites and then just nibbled at the edges of the crust. As the person responsible for this whole undertaking, I doggedly finished my whole slice, trying to accustom myself to the unfamiliar flavors. I couldn’t do it: It remained bizarre, strange and exotic in an unattractive way.

I hate to waste food, but the rest of that pie was not eaten.


For anyone who might be interested, here’s the book’s reproduction of the original recipe, from Harleian MS 4016.

Tart de ffruyte. Take figges, and seth hem in wyne, and grinde hem smale. And take hem uppe into a vessell; And take pouder peper, Canell, Clowes, Maces, pouder ginger, pynes, grete reysouns of couraunce, saffron, and salte, and cast thereto; and ϸen make faire lowe coffyns, and couche ϸis stuff there-in, and plone pynes aboue; and kut dates and fresh salmon in faire peces, or elles fressh eles, and parboyle hem a littell in wyne, and couche thereon; And couche the coffyns faire with ϸe same paaste, and endore the coffyn withoute with saffron & almond mylke; and set hem in ϸe oven and lete bake.

Maybe it tasted better in Middle English, served prettily to Chaucer’s high-toned Prioress, while the Miller and the Monk guzzled ale.

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I recently bought two books on food history: Peter Brears’ Cooking & Dining in Medieval England and Hannele Klemettilä’s The Medieval Kitchen. Both are filled with fascinating information, illustrated with woodcuts, paintings, kitchen floor plans, menus, provender lists – and recipes, mostly from 14th- and 15th-century manuscripts, updated for modern cooks. Naturally, I had to try a few of those, even though I know that intellectual curiosity and palatal satisfaction don’t necessarily coincide.

???????????????????????????????For my first foray into the Middle Ages, I chose a pottage recipe from Brears’ book. An expert on both medieval history and medieval cookery, the man is clearly a pottage enthusiast. He calls it “one of the most interesting and varied forms of medieval English food.” Now, to the extent that I’d had any notion of what pottage was, I imagined it to be something like porridge – a sort of cereal mush. Wrong! Brears gives over 100 recipes for pottages, which can be based on meats, poultry, fish, dairy products, nuts, vegetables, or fruits, as well as cereals.

The nearest general term for those dishes today might be stew. The common factor is a liquid medium, usually broth or wine, with the main ingredients chopped small and often the addition of a thickening substance, such as oatmeal or breadcrumbs. A great variety of herbs and spices also appear in the recipes, many in combinations that are strange to the modern palate. That in fact was the most intriguing aspect of these dishes: how would those odd combinations actually taste?

The recipe I made, Mutton Hashed in Onion, Herb and Spiced Stock, is one of the simplest. The main reason I chose it is that it starts with lamb that has previously been roasted, and I had plenty of leftover lamb from my Easter dinner. The meat had to be chopped very fine (I used the food processor) and put into a pot with finely chopped onions, red wine, wine vinegar, salt, pepper, cinnamon, and saffron. A mere ten minutes of simmering, and it was ready to serve.



???????????????????????????????Brears writes a lot about exactly how food was served in medieval times. Pottages were brought to the table in large bowls, containing a spoon for each diner. He gives a drawing of one. The pottage was eaten directly from the common bowl. That’s why you see two spoons in the mess of pottage I made for Tom and me.


“A mess of pottage” is now a derogatory term, derived from the Old Testament story of how Esau sold his birthright for what English translators and commentators called a mess of pottage. (Evidently it was actually a lentil stew; see Genesis 25:30.) I’d always thought the negative connotation of that phrase came largely from the word “mess,” suggesting a sloppy heap of ill-mixed ingredients. Wrong again! Brears explains that, in medieval times, a “mess” was a group of people who regularly ate their meals together and were served with certain dishes to share. A mess of pottage was the quantity necessary to feed the group. (That sense of the term survives today in the military, where soldiers eat in messes, in company with their messmates.)

You may notice I haven’t rushed into saying how my pottage tasted. I cannot tell a lie: not great. It wasn’t awful. It was just moist, crumbled lamb with a mild, vaguely mideastern-tasting seasoning – probably the cinnamon and saffron speaking. Tom pronounced it boring, and I had to agree. We ate some of it, and I packed away the rest, thinking I may eventually try giving it some zip and using it in empanadas or calzones.

So, my first attempt at medieval cookery was not what one might call an outstanding success. You might say the mess was the message. Next week I’ll tell you about my second attempt.

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None of the new dishes I’ve tried lately seems to deserve a whole post of its own, so here’s a roundup of a few small culinary experiments.


No Trumpets for Crumpets

I’ll get “the Bad” over with first. Tom and I like English muffins a lot. One morning I had the idea that their cousins, Crumpets, which I’d never eaten, might be interesting to make for a breakfast, so I looked up the recipe in my Cooking of the British Isles volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series.

It calls for small metal flan rings to hold the crumpet batter in shape while it cooks on a griddle. Fortunately I had some, made from tunafish cans, which I use occasionally for making frittatine, miniature vegetable omelettes for antipasti. I dug them out and went to work. I made a yeast batter with flour, milk, egg, salt, sugar, and butter. While it was rising, I clarified more butter for brushing the griddle and the rings.

The batter rose ebulliently (it had a lot of yeast) and was extremely thick. As I spooned it into the rings on the hot griddle it only reluctantly spread out to fill them.

When bubbles appeared on the surface of the batter, the bottoms had browned, as the recipe promised, so I removed the rings and turned the little cakes over to finish cooking. As I understand crumpets, the bubbles are supposed to break and leave tiny holes all over the surface (for the butter you put on them to melt into), but mine didn’t. They came out looking like anemic English muffins.

Tom and I tried them for breakfast. Despite all the yeast, they were quite flat – both physically and palatally. Like tasteless pancakes, bland and boring. Butter and jam did nothing for them. Toasting didn’t help either. We each ate part of one and dumped the rest. Was it me? Do you have to be British to appreciate these? Do you have to have grown up with them? Was it a bad recipe? Was the griddle too hot? I don’t know, and I don’t think I’ll try again. I’ll just stick to store-bought Thomas’s English muffins.


Praise for a Pound Cake

Next comes “the Good.” I had some sour cream in the refrigerator that it was time to use up. I was thinking about putting it in muffins, but when I browsed among my cookbooks for things to do with it I found a Sour Cream Pound Cake recipe in Lee Bailey’s Country Desserts.

I usually make pound cake from Joy of Cooking or from an old handwritten recipe of my mother’s. Those call for sweet milk and baking powder, while Bailey’s calls for sour cream and baking soda. His also separates the eggs and folds in the stiffly beaten whites at the end. In other respects it’s a typical pound cake: beat butter and sugar together until light, beat in egg (yolks, this time), flour, liquid (the sour cream) and vanilla; bake in a loaf pan in a moderate oven. I thought I’d give it a try.

It was really nice. A good, loose-textured crumb. Fragrant, mildly tangy, not too sweet (I cut back the sugar a bit). An especially tasty crust. Altogether a very successful pound cake, simply begging for a topping of fruit, with or without cream.

The book says the cake improves with a day of aging, so I toasted a slice for breakfast the next day. The fresh-baked fragrance came right back up, and the flavor was excellent. This is a recipe that will probably enter my repertory.


Decent Dessert Bananas

Finally, here’s the “So-So.” I’ve never understood the appeal of Ferran Adrià’s “molecular gastronomy” and never felt any compulsion to visit El Bulli or purchase any of the famous chef’s cookbooks. But a newspaper review, some time ago, of The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adrià included a very simple recipe of his for Bananas in Lime Syrup. No foams, no chemicals, no technology: just bananas, limes, and sugar. I clipped it out for my recipe binder.

Tom and I like good bananas, and this week the stores had them from Costa Rica, which we’re convinced have a richer flavor than other countries’ bananas. (We learned to love them from several birding expeditions to that fascinating little country, where the eco-lodges would hang whole huge bunches of bananas on the porch that guests could help themselves to.) Naturally, I bought too many and had to find ways to use them before they turned totally black.

Out came the Adrià recipe. I made a simple sugar-and-water syrup, let it cool, added the juice and grated zest of a lime, submerged two thinly sliced bananas into it, and refrigerated the bowl for a few hours.

The recipe said to serve the bananas either alone with their syrup or over ice cream. Wickedly, we chose ice cream: crema and cioccolata from L’Arte del Gelato, whose local shop is a constant temptation to overindulgence.

The bananas were nice enough. They tasted exactly like bananas in sweetened lime juice. Nothing to complain about, but nothing exciting either. The gelato, which was delicious, tolerantly accepted the companionship of the fruit. I guess I’d been hoping the molecular gastronomy genius had discovered some obscure chemical affinity of ingredients that would make the dish greater than the sum of its parts. Nope.

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