Friday, 30 September 2011

A review of The Marvellous Mrs Beeton, with Sophie Dahl. BBC TWO.

Sophie Dahl. Photo: BBC

If I were to choose a presenter to front a programme about Mrs Isabella Beeton, Sophie Dahl would certainly not be my first choice. Nor would she be my ninety-ninth, or hundredth for that matter. However, as programmes go that touch upon the social history of food, I have actually seen a lot worse than The Marvellous Mrs Beeton, with Sophie Dahl, which I watched last night. 

Why is it that these programmes are always made to the same pattern - a celebrity chef who knows very little about the subject; a quest of discovery involving a few train journeys; a handful of over-enthusiastic experts as talking heads; an obligatory visit to Borough Market; the weaving of a hypothesis (this time Beeton's chaotic childhood was shown to be the main factor that shaped her career); some recreations of the food just to show how awful it was at the time; and then a final recapitulation, when all of the talking heads join the hostess around a dinner table, to eat that 'dreadful' food and say witty things about it. 

This exact structure was first used by Optomen Television a few years ago in Hannah Glasse the First Domestic Goddess and then again in The King's Cookbook. What terrible wasted opportunities those programmes were. Then it was Heston's turn to recreate food from the past using exactly the same structure.  His two part series Feast  told us more about his extraordinary creativity as a contemporary chef than it did about the history of food. But it was the dinner parties at the end of each programme with the sycophantic celebrities that I could not stomach! Sorry Heston mate. It was not your fault, but the programme makers' insistence on using that unimaginative shoehorned format approach.

And now it is Sophie Dahl's turn with Mrs Beeton. What next? Naomi Campbell dates Escoffier, or Kate Moss goes to bed with Carême

Actually the best thing about Sophie's programme is that she did not attempt to cook much. That was left to Dr. Annie Gray, a Victorian food specialist who directs the domestic offices at Audley End. Dr. Gray knows what she is doing and at times I wished she would have shoved the doe-eyed Dahl out of the way and told us more about the food she was preparing. I also constantly felt the presence of Kathryn Hughes, who wrote the splendid The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton. I suspect she may have been the historical advisor to the programme. It would have been better if she and Dr. Gray had actually presented it together sans Sophie. Sorry Sophie!

The trouble with Mrs Beeton is that her celebrity and her enduring brand conspire to act as a smokescreen, which very effectively conceals a number of other more worthy nineteenth century food writers from our view. Most of the authors who were her main sources are sadly now forgotten. She was a compiler rather than an original writer and was certainly not a cook. She cruised widely on the Victorian internet and cut and pasted whatever she found. If she was alive today she would probably run a website called

As to factual accuracy, Sophie's effort was much better than in that Optomen programme of a few years ago on Hannah Glasse and the other on the King's Cook Book, which were riddled with jabberwocky and nonsense. The only mistake I noticed was that oft-repeated statement that Mrs Beeton was the first cookery author to list the ingredients at the beginning of each recipe. She was not. In Britain this was first done by J. Caird in The Complete Confectioner (Edinburgh: 1809) and in the US by Eliza Leslie in Seventy-five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats (Phildelphia:1828). Mrs Beeton's book was published in 1861.

Despite everything I have said here I actually enjoyed Miss Dahl. Some of her observations were intelligent and she showed a genuine enthusiasm which endeared me to her. But please Sophie, do not make any more programmes about our great food writers. Leave that to someone who knows what they are talking about.

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Queen Cakes and Cup Cakes 3

Apparatus for making a paper case from W. Jarrin. The Italian Confectioner. (London: 1820)

I remember as a child in the 1950s being sent to the grocer by my mother to buy a pack of the waxed paper cases used for making small cakes. This was always an exciting experience because it meant she was going to make a batch of fairy or butterfly cakes, which was what we all used to once call cupcakes in Britain and Ireland. The fairy cakes were little fluffy buns baked in the cases and then covered in icing with a few hundreds and thousands scattered over the top. The related butterfly cake was made by chopping off the top of the same cake and filling its centre with butter icing. The decapitated top was cut in two and stuck in the icing to make the butterfly's wings. Nearly every Sunday these cakes graced our high tea table. And with the large number of children in my family they tended to vanish very quickly.

When I first encountered an American style muffin in an English cafe many decades later, I was confused. It looked just like a giant fairy cake to me. Surely a muffin was a round of yeasted bread dough baked on a girdle? Anything to me that was baked in a paper case had to be a fairy cake, even if it was larger than usual. It was the paper case that defined the cake. I remember so well scrapping off those sticky bits that stuck to the bottom of the case. That was the best part.

British fairy cakes, American muffins and cupcakes. What these all have in common are the crimped paper cases in which they go into the oven. They are as essential to a cupcake as a cone is to an ice cream. In all the material I have read so far on the history of these cakes, these essential little pieces of culinary origami have been completely ignored. So when were cakes first baked in paper cases?

Paper has been used for centuries for putting under and over cakes baked in wood fired ovens to stop the surface from burning. The wooden hoops, garths and metal moulds used for baking cakes were wrapped in layers of paper for the same reason, a practice still carried out today. But it was a big jump to bake cakes in containers made of paper. The earliest recorded instance of a paper case being used for baking a cake that I know, is described in a recipe to make Naples biscuit written by Frederick Nutt in The Complete Confectioner (London: 1789). Naples biscuit was what we would now call sponge cake and was made in a very similar way then as it is now. Nutt tells us 'to take one sheet of paper, and make the edges of it stand up about an inch and a half high, and pour your batter in it'. To get the cake out, you had to brush the paper with water on the back, then wait a few minutes for the water to soak in and the cake would come out perfectly. I have made Nutt's orange flower and caraway flavoured Naples biscuit many times and it really makes sense to bake it in this way.

In his early career, Nutt worked as an apprentice at the Pot and Pineapple, a celebrated confectionery shop in Berkeley Square in London. In the following century, another member of staff at this establishment was a young Italian from Colorno near Parma who arrived to work at the shop just after the Napoleonic Wars. This was William Jarrin, who in 1820 issued the most important work on confectionery techniques to be published in Europe at the time, The Italian Confectioner. This work, sadly nowadays unknown in Italy, was written in English. It describes in great detail not only the techniques of the day used to make confectionery, but also the equipment. In a recipe for making Biscuits in Cases, Jarrin first of all tells us that the paper containers for making these 'are generally made of a square form', exactly like those described by Nutt forty years earlier. However, he then goes on to say that they are 'sometimes round like little baskets' and proceeds to explain how these were made, referring us to a diagram illustrating a finished case and the equipment required to make it. In describing the technique, he instructs us 'to form plaits like the frill of a shirt'. The plaited paper cupcake case was born! Jarrin's engraved plate is illustrated at the top of this posting.

William Jarrin, the earliest author to describe cakes baked in crimped paper cases.
If Amelia Simmons was the Mother Of All Cupcakes, William Jarrin must be the Father.
Jarrin describes these little cakes as biscuits, which might puzzle a modern American or English reader, because the word has different meanings nowadays. In the early nineteenth century 'biscuit' was a common name for sponge or savoy cake. So in many ways, Jarrin's little biscuits in cases deserve to be given a prominent place in the history of the cupcake, because they are much closer to our modern concept of the cake than any of the other historic cakes we have looked at so far.

Later nineteenth century authors also describe Jarrin's exact method of making paper cases by hand, which came to be used for serving not only baked goods, but also soufflés, mousses and jellies. Even special ice creams called biscuits were served in them! By the middle of the nineteenth century these cases were being manufactured on a large scale by companies like Hunt, Mansell, Catty and Co. Many very fancy variations on the theme became fashionable in the 1890s.

The modern craze for ornamenting American style cupcakes with frosting and decorative icing was pre-empted in the early twentieth century here in England by a fashion for French style petits fours served in Jarrin-style paper cases. These were in fact little miniature cakes made of carefully cut pieces of Genoese ornamented with fondant and other forms of icing and served, though not baked, in little crimped cases. Here is an illustration of one from 1903. In the amazing world of food history studies, you quickly learn that there is nothing new. It has all been done before! And frequently done much better.

At the beginning of part 1 of this rant, I hinted that the soundbite style approach to food history preferred by television producers can frequently give a very distorted version of the truth. I would like to add that this is not usually the fault of the experts who are often asked to contribute. They have no control over how their interview or demonstration will be edited.

And of course this is not the end of the story. Both Plumcake and I would love to hear from any readers of this blog who have any additional information about the development of these interesting cakes.

Despite the complex history outlined in these postings, decorated American-style cupcakes are really the modern day descendants of Edwardian petits four like this one illustrated in T. Percy Lewis and
A. G. Bromley. The Book of Cakes (London: 1903)
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Thursday, 29 September 2011

Queen Cakes and Cup Cakes 2

 Eliza Leslie. Seventy-five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats (Phildelphia:1828). Probably the first cookery book to include a recipe for a cake that was actually called a cup cake

Miss Simmon's 'light cakes baked in cups' and Mrs Rundell's queen cakes in tea cups were not actually called cup cakes. So when did these cakes first get this name? Food History Jotting's researcher Plumcake has been investigating the American history of the cupcake and the earliest recipe she has found actually called by name 'cup cake', was published by Eliza Leslie in Seventy-five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats (Phildelphia:1828). The reason why Miss Leslie calls this a cup cake is not because it is baked in a cup - it is actually baked in small tins - but because the ingredients are measured out in cups. Here is her original recipe. 

Perhaps the earliest printed recipe for cup cakes. From Eliza Leslie Seventy-five Receipts for Pastry, 
Cakes, and Sweetmeats (Phildelphia:1828)

Miss Leslie's recipe is the only one in her book that uses the cup as a unit of measurement. All the others are written in pounds and ounces. This makes the recipe very significant in terms of American culinary history, because the volumetric unit of the cup eventually becomes standard in all US cookery texts, as it is today. Her 1828 recipe Cup Cake seems to have pioneered this approach. Miss Leslie's book is important in another way too, because it is probably the first cookery text published in the New World which lists the ingredients at the beginning of each recipe. This approach to recipe layout was first used in print by the Scottish confectioner and cook J. Caird in The Complete Confectioner (Edinburgh: 1809).

Related to this kind of cup cake, where the ingredients are measured out with 'a cup of that, two cups of this, three cups of that etc.', was the much older pound cake, two recipes for which were published by Miss Simmons in 1796. These give units in weight rather than volume -  a pound of this and a pound of that etc.,  thus the name. However, pound cakes first emerged in England, the earliest we know first appearing in Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy (London: 1747). 

So the earliest cake to actually be called a cup cake was given this name, not because it was baked in a cup, but because its ingredients were measured out by the cup. This of course made the recipe easy to commit to memory. In fact by the early 1850s one variation on the theme became known as a 1-2-3-4 cake, because it was made from 1 cup of butter, 2 cups of sugar, 3 cups of flour and 4 eggs. What a perfect mnemonic! 

Plumcake has discovered that the earliest printed recipe found so far for this kind of cake appeared in Lydia Maria Child's The American Frugal Housewife in the 29th edition published in 1844. However, it is not called a 1-2-3-4 cake, just plain cup cake. Mrs Child's book has a complex publishing history, the first edition being printed in Boston in 1829, under the title The Frugal Housewife, Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy. By the eighth edition of 1832, its title was changed to The American Frugal Housewife, so as not to confuse it with the book called The Frugal Housewife by the English author Susannah Carter. Neither I, nor Plumcake, have seen any of these earlier editions of Mrs Child's book, so if any readers of our blog have access to any of them, we would be interested to hear from you, especially if you find a recipe which predates 1844. 

Mrs Child's recipe is in every way a cup cake. The ingredients are not only measured out in cups, but the individual cup cakes are also baked in cups. Here is her recipe.

Maria Child's recipe for cup cake, the precursor of the 1-2-3-4 cake

In her search for the earliest recipe which uses the name 1-2-3-4 cake, Plumcake says this, 
'I do not know who first entitled the cake as 1-2-3-4 cake, but the earliest recipe title, as far as I know, is in The American Matron: or Practical and Scientific Cookery (1851), by a housekeeper in Salem, Massachusetts.' Here is the recipe -

1,2,3,4 CAKE. 
One cup of butter; two cups of sugar; three cups of flour; four eggs; cup of milk; scant tea-spoon of saleratus; one nutmeg; a little cinnamon. Work the butter and sugar together; beat the eggs separately to a froth, and work the dough as well as pound cake. Add the soda and put the cake immediately to bake.

This sounds like one large cake rather than individual small cakes like Miss Child's cup cakes. Saleratus was an early name for sodium or potassium bicarbonate from Latin sal aeratus - aerating salt. It occurred naturally in the vicinity of Saleratus Lake in Wyoming and was first marketed in North America as a leavening agent in the 1840s. It was the Americans, or more correctly German Americans, who seem to have popularised soda as a raising agent in baking. Amelia Simmon's baking recipes frequently call for pearl-ash, a form of potassium carbonate made by further burning the potash produced from plants and wood. 

In fact a cup cake recipe in an English cookery manuscript dated 1835 in the Food History Jottings collection includes pearl-ash as an ingredient. As far as we know, this is the earliest English recipe for a cup cake, but because of the inclusion of pearl-ash, we suspect it is of American origin. The recipe indicates that it was baked as one large single cake.

An English recipe for a cup cake in an 1835 manuscript belonging to Food History Jottings

So the cup cake did eventually come to England and by the late nineteenth century cakes of this name were  being made commercially. In fact our friend Frederick Vine not only gives us a couple of professional recipes, but shows us the equipment used to bake them. Here is an illustration of a tray of tin cup cake pans. The individual cups were riveted to the metal tray. The cakes he advocated baking in these, were egg leavened fruit cakes with currants and mixed peel, quite different to any cup cake we have seen so far.

From F. Vine. Saleable Shop Goods (London: 1898).
Now in trying to trace the development of our traditional foods, nothing is ever plain and simple. A contemporary of Vine, the great London chef Theodore Garrett. gives us a couple of recipes for cup cakes which are radically different to any of the others that Plumcake and I have studied so far. One describes a cake mixture raised with yeast which is then transferred into cups to be baked. The other one, which is much more unusual is reproduced below. Here the cup cake mixture is moulded in teacups, but not baked in them.

So cup cakes seem to have been many different things to many different people. We have also reached the end of the nineteenth century and we still have not seen anything like the modern cup cake which depends for its character on being baked in a paper cup. So we had better deal with the issue of paper cups in our next posting - Queen Cakes and Cup Cakes 3.

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Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Queen Cakes and Cup Cakes 1

Two Queen Cakes with their fancy nineteenth century pans
I am sorry to be banging on once again about the food history snippets in the current BBC series The Great British Bake Off, because many readers of this blog may not have seen the programme. This popular, though heavily formatted series is a clone of the well-known Master Chef. In between features where the competitors try out their baking skills in such laudable exercises as 'the great cupcake challenge', an expert is interviewed about the history of one of the baked goods.

To be fair to the makers of the series, most of their history cameos pass muster. Some are actually much more interesting than the cupcake challenge stuff itself, but are far too short. A number of the experts are genuine and distinguished authorities on food history and some of the content has been engaging, informative and accurate - Peter Brears and Laura Mason on funeral biscuits for instance and Kate Colquhoun and Robin Weir on Bath Olivers. Despite the brevity of their slots, they all had interesting things to say. And it would have been better if we had heard a lot more from them.

However, a few of the other 'histories' were badly researched, or offered erroneous and misleading information. In Episode 1, as well as the nonsense talked about the Battenburg Cake (see earlier posting), the cupcake was subjected to a similar 'food detective' style investigation. The conclusion was that this cake had emerged from the kitchens of the great houses of England and was originally baked in a tea cup. A recipe for queen cakes from Maria Rundell's A New System of Domestic Cookery (London: 1807) was cited as the earliest cake to be baked in a cup and was therefore the 'mother of all cupcakes.' I am afraid the truth is much more complicated. In no way do I blame the expert - Dr Annie Gray of Audley End, who cooked the cakes in this section. She acquitted herself with intelligence and flair. I just got the feeling that the producer of the programme was trying to turn a very complicated story into a digestible, but superficial television soundbite.

Nothing at all was said in the programme of earlier recipes published in America, the true home of the cupcake, the garish modern incarnation of which has gained in recent popularity on both sides of the Atlantic as a result of appearing in an episode of Sex in the City. Nor was anything said about the development of the paper cup used for baking this type of cake, which is essential to the cupcake as we know it today. The cake baked in a tea cup on the programme was actually a queen's cake, a much older type of cake than the cupcake. So let me deal with the queen cake first.

Queen cakes were traditionally baked in tin pans which were made in a great variety of shapes, as in the print below. The most popular of these was in the shape of a heart, but many other forms were used.

Queen cake pans from F. Vine Saleable Shop Goods. (London: 1898).

Different shaped queen cakes could be arranged on a plate in a nice kaladaiscope pattern in the same way in which mince pies were served in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. In fact the earliest recipe for queen cakes known to us, dates from 1724, at a time when shaped mince pies were at the height of fashion. Here is the recipe -

An early queen's cake recipe from R. Smith, Court Cookery (London: 1724).

Although in ingredients and method, this recipe is very similar to later ones, it says nothing about the little tins in which the cakes were baked. Perhaps these were like the shaped patty pans that were popular at this period for baking small mince pies, designs for which appeared in a number of contemporary cookery books. It is possible to make mince pies in these complex forms without specialist pans, but it is a tedious and longwinded business. The tinsmiths of the period would have made it a straightforward task by providing a variety of shaped pans. Sadly none have survived. Here are some designs from a book published just over a decade before Smith's queen's cake recipe -
Mince pie designs from Henry Howard England's Newest Way (London: 1703).
During the eighteenth century the Staffordshire potteries produced similarly shaped patty pans in salt glazed stoneware. These were made in the form of stars and other fancy shapes.

These mince pies were made in similar shapes published by Edward Kidder in
Receipts of Pastry and Cookery (London: nd. c.1720s)
Mince pies like these had become obsolete by the second half of the eighteenth century, but the similarly shaped queen cakes remained popular. Most of the English cookery books of the Georgian and Victorian period offer recipes. Queen cake pans were sold in a myriad of forms and were still in production in the early twentieth century. Here are some that were advertised in the 1890s.

Queen cake tins from Theodore Garrett, The Encyclopaedia of  Practical Cookery (London: nd. c.1890).

Most early queen's cake recipes call for an egg-rich batter that rises high above the tin, creating a domed top that frequently ruptures open rather like a modern American muffin. In the nineteenth century, professional bakers guaranteed this effect by including volatile, pearl-ash or soda in the mixture as raising agents.

Procuring a set of queen cake patty pans from a tinsmith required a modest investment and shortcuts were almost certainly taken by those who did not possess any. Mrs Rundell, the early nineteenth century cookery author who was the source of the cake made on the programme, suggests baking them in 'little tins, tea-cups or saucers'.  Rundell's book was first issued in London by Byron's publisher John Murray in 1807. The author gives two recipes. The alternative one suggests baking them in 'buttered patty pans'. She also instructs us to butter the tea cups, so the cakes were designed to be removed from the cup to be served. 

However, Mrs Rundell's recipe is not the earliest for a cake of this type to be baked in a cup. Another had appeared in the previous century in a book published on the other side of the Atlantic. This cake first saw the light of day in Amelia Simmon's American Cookery issued in Hartford, Connecticut in 1796. Here is the recipe.

Emptins was a form of yeast, so this cake was quite unlike the normal egg-raised queen cakes. Amelia does give a conventional recipe for queen cakes on the previous page to be 'put into pans'. They are more or less identical to the queen cakes being baked at this time on our side of the Atlantic. So it is to America that we need to go to explore the complex history of the cupcake, which will be continued in our next posting.

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Thursday, 22 September 2011

Mrs Raffald puts on her cowboy boots and goes to Texas

Eighteenth Century table setting at Rienzi, MFAH, Houston Texas
I have just spent a week installing an eighteenth century table setting at Rienzi House Museum in Houston Texas. The table, part of an exhibition called English Taste: The Art of Dining in the Eighteenth Century was designed to act as a showcase for an assemblage of important English rococo silver by Paul de Lamarie, Paul Crespin, William Cripps, and Robert Tyrill. Elements of the celebrated Meissen Möllendorff Service, said to be designed by Frederick the Great, also appear on the table. The exhibition runs from September 17th 2011 to January 29th 2012.

The layout shows the second course of a typical high status English meal of the second half of the eighteenth century. It is based on a table diagram published by the Manchester confectioner Mrs Elizabeth Raffald in The Experienced English Housekeeper (Manchester: 1769). Although savoury foods dominate the setting, including a larded hare complete with head and ears, there are also a number of Raffald's novelty flummeries and jellies, such as her fishpond and Solomon's Temple.

Credit must go to my dear friend Tony Barton of Bendipeeze Ltd and his Bendy assistants for making much of the remarkable artificial food, including that crazy larded hare, the original of which was roasted on a spit in front of my kitchen fire. A rare image of the closely guarded secret method of making fake peas used on the Bendipeeze production line can be seen at the end of this posting.

It is a great pity that an exhibition of this kind has never been set up in Manchester, England, where Raffald worked. So hip-hurrah to Christine Gervais at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston for having the vision to invite me to do this. 

More can be found out about the exhibition at the MFAH website.

Mrs Raffald's Cribbage Cards in Flummery - rather impractical blancmange playing cards
Mrs Raffald's fishpond - gilded blancmange fish swimming in Lisbon wine

Frantic preparations at the Bendipeeze depot. The Bendies have
heard a rumour that Mrs Rafffald herself is about to visit the factory.
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