Friday, March 21, 2014

Fresh start

It's been a busy winter, full of changes, and here's one of the biggest: I have a new site! I'll now be posting at, so please update your links accordingly. Blogger was a great way to start out, but Wordpress offers much more flexibility, and I'm looking forward to getting back into blogging on the new site. I'm still tweaking, so bear with me as I figure out this new system. See you there!

Friday, February 14, 2014

Personal reading history

Happy Valentine's Day! I've been hunkered down at home with a nasty virus, and the wintry mix outside isn't doing much to make things feel more festive. So instead, I've been daydreaming about our summer honeymoon in England.

Josh and I have been studying guidebooks galore, making lists of places to see and trading visions of our 9-day trip. I'm such an Anglophile, and lately we've watched so much Downton Abbey, Sherlock, Marple, and Call the Midwife that Josh has turned over to the Union Jack side, too. It's been great fun to page through books and websites, or even to see the London Eye in the opening credits to Sherlock and say, "We'll be there!"

(Also, several researchers have found that people get the most enjoyment out of planning a vacation, rather than going on a vacation! So far we've definitely been enjoying the planning process.)

I discovered a funny thing while flipping through a guidebook one evening. On a map of Wessex I saw the detail "Quantock Hills" and sat up straight and gasped. Why? Because when I was in high school, I was totally obsessed with the series "Sisters of the Quantock Hills" by Ruth Elwin Harris. It was about four sisters growing up in the early 1900s, and a centerpiece of all four books revolved around the trip they made to the Quantock Hills. On some level I knew that the hills existed in real life, but it was so surprising and gratifying to see them on a map.

The same thing happened with other locations: Dartmoor and Exhampton reminded me of Agatha Christie's The Sittaford Mystery, while Epping Forest recalled Lord Peter Wimsey's investigations in Unnatural Death. I told Josh, only half-joking, that we could chuck it all and just make a literary pilgrimage. And that's not counting Bloomsbury, or Jane Austen's house, or Haworth...

It's oddly satisfying to see your personal reading history written on a map. Such a small country, but one with so many writers who've produced so many long-standing works. It makes all those characters seem more real, somehow, and those works seem more like history than imagination. Now, if I can just convince Josh to go on a hike through the Quantock Hills...

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Winter is coming

But really, it's here.

Last weekend Josh and I hosted two separate gatherings of friends to play the Game of Thrones board game. This is a complicated, multiplayer game where folks play as the houses (House Stark, for example) from the books by George R.R. Martin. Each house aims to capture seven castles, all while dealing with betrayal, vicious fighting over single pieces of land, and lots of jokes about Valyrian steel.

Here's where I confess.

I'm in the midst of both reading and watching Game of Thrones, and it's tons of fun. Josh blazed through all the books a few summers ago (and suffered through a major, inadvertent spoiler), and watched the entire TV series about as quickly. I am traditionally pretty measured in my approach to media: I don't binge-watch TV shows, I like to space out my installments of beloved book series. Right now I'm gearing up to watch the second season and read the third book (because of course, it's best to read first, then watch). George R.R. Martin has done a fabulous job constructing a complicated world with compelling characters, and even though it's sometimes hard to keep track of everyone, the first two books have been immensely fulfilling.

So yes, playing as House Baratheon was pretty great. Even better was playing with Josh's personalized deck of cards, which he developed over winter break. We also brewed some medieval spiced wine, which, while not technically of Westeros origin, might very well have been served at Ned Stark's banquets. It was warm and toasty and spicy and did the trick on a cold winter's night.

All Stark jokes aside, though, I've been having a rough time with winter this year. Sure, I love snow days, and tramping around in freshly fallen snow is satisfying in a way I can't describe. But there's something about the bleakness of the days, the gray skies and biting wind, the fumbling with keys while you still have your mittens on, the inability to just sit on the porch and enjoy the day because the weather sucks, that gets to me. After the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, January and February are bitter. It was great fun to sit inside over a board game, but now that the workweek is once again upon us, it's hard to be interested in much of anything when the weather's like this.

In the meantime I'll make some more spiced wine and watch my narcissus grow. Spring has to be on the way, right?

Spiced Wine (Hypocras)

4 cups red wine (roughly one bottle)
5 tbsp sugar
2 tsp powder douce (recipe follows)

First, make the powder douce: mix 3 tbsp ginger, 2 tbsp sugar, 1 1/2 tbsp cinnamon, 1 tsp cloves, and 1 tsp nutmeg together in a small bowl.

Next, pour 2 tsp of the powder douce, and the sugar, into a saucepan. Mix in the red wine. Warm over medium-low heat until steaming. Serve in cozy mugs.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Colonial Craft: Pomanders

Happy New Year! I hope you had a wonderful holiday season and that you're settling into 2014. I spent Christmas with my family in Ohio, listening to my dad's beloved Ray Conniff Singers and cooking up a storm. We spent many an evening by the fire and even processed maple syrup in one long day of patient boiling and simmering.

I also had a rather crafty evening in front of a Doris Day movie, and that's what I want to share with you now. I made pomanders: fruit studded with cloves and rolled in spices.

Pomanders originated in the Middle Ages, when folks would melt spices and aromatics together and enclose the resulting mass in perforated cases. They then wore these around their necks or carried the cases with them to ward off plague or disguise body odor. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the English began to make pomanders the way we think of them today, poking oranges and apples with cloves and rolling them in a mixture of spices and preservatives. Early immigrants to North America brought this craft with them as a Christmas or New Year's custom, but as oranges were far too expensive (they had to be imported), colonists typically made their pomanders with apples.

In researching the history and construction of pomanders, I was pretty surprised by this last fact. Like many women my age, I grew up with the American Girl dolls, and Felicity (the colonial-era doll) had a book of colonial crafts for girls to make. One of the crafts was, of course, a pomander made with an orange, but it turns out that very few colonial girls could have used oranges for their crafts. American Girl lied to me! Or, perhaps, glossed over the more complicated truth; Felicity very well might have been able to afford an orange, as her father owned a general store and would have had immediate access to imported produce. But her friends? Probably not.

Despite this disillusioning discovery, I enjoyed making the pomanders. I chose to make a "real" pomander out of an apple, spiking it all over with cloves and rolling it in a mixture of cloves, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and orris root (a preservative that helps it last). The other adhered to my childhood understanding: a simple pomander made with an orange, with only a decorative pattern of cloves. This one won't last very long.

They both make my apartment smell quite nice, however, and I'm looking forward to keeping the apple pomander for years to come. If you'd like to make your own, here's the recipe I used.

(slightly adapted from InSeason)

1 apple or orange
several ounces of whole cloves (varies)
1 tbsp cinnamon
1 tbsp cloves
1 tbsp ginger
1 tbsp nutmeg
1 tbsp orris root

Mix the ground spices together in a small bowl. Set aside.

Press the whole cloves, sharp side down, into the fruit. You can make a pattern, or if you'd like the pomander to last as long as possible, keep the cloves close together and cover the fruit with them.

When you've finished with the whole cloves, roll the fruit in the spice mixture. Store in a cool, dry place, still in the spice mixture, until dry. Make sure to roll the fruit in the spice mixture each day.

Works cited: White Lotus Aromatics newsletter. InSeason: Making Traditional Pomanders.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Apple pie

Sometimes you get old recipes right the first time: you decipher the flowery language, you make the right substitutions, you determine the correct proportions. And sometimes, well, you don't.

This is a story of when I got it wrong.

We begin in apple season. I've been buying apples nonstop at the farmers' market every Saturday, and sometimes my friend asks me to pick up her farm share for the week and I wind up with a dozen more apples besides. A few weeks ago, I found myself with more apples than I knew what to do with. So I decided to make a pie. Easy, right?

I turn to my newest cookbook, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Mrs. Hannah Glasse, originally published in 1747 and updated in 1805. Hot off the presses! Verbatim, here is what she tells me about how to make apple pie:
"Make a good puff paste crust, lay some round the sides of the dish, pare and quarter apples, and take out the cores, lay a row of apples [t]hick, throw in half the sugar you design for your pie, mince a little lemon peel fine, throw over, and squeeze a little lemon over them, then a few cloves, here and there one, then the rest of your apples, and the rest of your sugar. You must sweeten to your palate, and squeeze a little more lemon. Boil the peeling of the apples and the cores in some fair water, with a blade of mace, till it is very good; strain it, and boil the syrup with a little sugar, till there is but very little and good, pour it into your pie, put on your upper-crust and bake it. You may put in a little quince or marmalade, if you please."
This raises several--okay, many--questions. First, I need to find that puff paste recipe. Second, how many apples? What kind? I suppose I can wing the seasonings, but really, how much sugar should I design for my pie? (And why on earth is this recipe so poetic?)

The recipe for puff paste is no help:
"Take a quarter of a peck of flour, rub in a pound of butter very fine, make it up in a light paste with cold water, just stiff enough to work it up; then roll it out about as thick as a crown-piece, put a layer of butter all over, sprinkle on a little flour, double it up and roll it out again; double it, and roll it out seven or eight times; then it is fit for all sorts of pies and tarts that require a puff-paste."
Upon doing a bit of research, I discover that a quarter of a peck of flour is 2 dry quarts of flour, or 8 cups. This tells me several things: First, this will make WAY more puff paste than I possibly need for one pie. Second, this is probably because most women make a lot of pies and tarts at once (on baking day, for example), unlike our silly modern methods of making one pie at a time when we want it. Third, I need to know how thick a crown-piece is.

Happily, I have some help in the form of Fresh from the Past, a collection of modernized recipes from 18th-century London. The book contains recipes very similar to Mrs. Glasse's puff paste and apple pie, so I set to a makeshift sort of preparation, combining and substituting where I see fit. For example, I design 1/4 cup and 2/3 cup sugar for my pie (divided for that layered effect) as recommended by the modern book. The most troubling part is where I make a syrup of the apple peels, water, and sugar. Most likely this is meant to extract some of the pectin to help the pie gel, but my syrup winds up more watery than pectin-y. Nevertheless, I pour it over the apples, cover the whole thing with a top crust, and bake. Thanks to the mace and cloves, the pie smells heavenly.

And it tastes heavenly, too. The problem? The watery syrup turns the whole dish into pie soup. It never gels, perhaps too because I used a mixture of sweet and tart apples rather than sticking entirely to tart Granny Smiths.

Josh makes a lot of fun of the pie, and I vow to redeem myself later with a new pie. (It's semi-successful.) And I settle down to enjoy the tasty pie soup served over Greek yogurt, which I highly recommend should this happen to you.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Afternoon Adventure: The Tavern Club

Happy December! I've just returned from a whirlwind trip home to Cleveland for Thanksgiving, and it was wonderful to see family and take long walks and eat lots of delicious (modern) food. Around the holidays we often reflect on the past--not only our recent past and childhoods, but the "family past," stories about my grandfather's grandparents and early Cleveland. Occasionally trips downtown are involved. Yes, I come by my history obsession genetically.

This time around, my sister and I had the chance to visit the Tavern Club, a venerable men's club in downtown Cleveland. Our grandfather is a long-standing member of the club (and he owns the striped tie to prove it!), and he escorted us to the club's yearly Father-Daughter Tea the evening after Thanksgiving. This is the one time women are allowed in the club, and while we weren't allowed to take documentary photos, I took careful mental notes to report back to you.

(Cleveland Area History, 1904)

Back in the 1890s, when Cleveland hadn't yet experienced its troubles of the mid-twentieth century and was still home to millionaires like John D. Rockefeller, many well-to-do men belonged to clubs. As Warren Corning Wick, chronicler of Millionaires' Row, noted,
"Membership in these clubs was carefully noted in code next to a man's listing in the Blue Book, the Bible of high society."
Just as in England (where Cleveland men most likely got the idea), a man's club told a lot about him. And in the 1890s, the sons of prominent Cleveland families decided that none of the available clubs were quite right; they were too stuffy, too grown-up, with not enough emphasis on horse-racing and squash. So they got together and founded the Tavern Club in a humble house, though it quickly moved to its official, current building in 1904. The new building, "an adaptation of Elizabethian architecture," included squash courts upstairs, lockers, and plenty of dark rooms for playing poker and smoking cigars. While the squash courts have been improved, the building still looks remarkably like it did in 1904.

Founder and first president Henry K. Devereux (Heritage Pursuit)

My grandfather gave us the grand tour, and we took our time poking around. Dark wood paneling and chinoiserie accents make you feel immediately like you're in a turn-of-the-century club, and there's a massive fireplace surrounded by comfy leather chairs in almost every room. The walls are covered with tasteful paintings of female nudes (it is a men's club, after all), 1916-era photographs labeled with inside jokes, and portraits of club presidents and squash team champions. The bar on the first floor is plastered with old stock certificates, supposedly dating from the stock market crash in 1929--the certificates were worthless, so members papered the walls with them instead. Upstairs you can peek in the marble bathrooms, and in the basement wooden lockers remain from the days of Prohibition, where men could store a personal bottle of spirits away from home.

The whole building felt like such an old-boys' club. As my grandfather put it, it's the kind of place where "deserving young men" could get away from the rigors of business and relax with their closest friends in a congenial atmosphere. What's even more fascinating is how the club has survived, because it's such a hold-over from the days when men and women relaxed in segregated circles. I'm not sure you'd find any all-male clubs being founded in America today. More's the pity: despite the exclusivity, the Tavern Club was a cozy place to while away a late November afternoon.

Works cited: My Recollections of Old Cleveland by Warren Corning Wick. Excerpt from Cleveland Town Topics, May 7, 1904.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Colonial Cookbook: The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy

Meet Mrs. Hannah Glasse. By day, she is a plain English housewife, struggling to scrape by in the mid-1700s. By night, however, she works on her revolutionary new idea: a cookbook designed for the masses of untrained servants working in fine English homes.

source: Wikipedia

By 1746, when Glasse began to write The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, a growing middle class was settling into the cities of England. Hoping to set themselves up comfortably, they hired servants, but very few of those servants actually knew how to cook. Glasse aimed to fill that void with her cookbook, offering a collection of original recipes and those rewritten from other sources. She was clear about her motives: "I do not pretend to teach professed Cooks, my design being to instruct the ignorant and unlearned...and that in so full and plain a manner, that the most ignorant Person, who can but read, will know how to do Cookery well," she stated in her introduction.

And instruct she did. According to food historian Karen Hess, Glasse's book sold well in England and her colonies in North America following its publication in 1747. Many noted Americans owned copies (including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington), despite their growing discontent with Mother England. In the mid-18th century, many Americans still relied on English foods, as they still saw themselves as British subjects. Yet ingredients found only in North America crept into their English recipes, as Glasse's special "American Mode of Cooking" section proves.

And we see "American" ingredients and recipes in this book because I'm using the 1805 edition. By this point, foods in America began to take on a more distinctly "American" flavor, just as the newly-minted nation began to form its unique identity. This edition comes at a major turning point in American history, and the recipes and ingredients reflect that, harking back to the colonists' European origins while looking ahead to New World foods.

I'll try to highlight that cross-section with the recipes I choose from Glasse's book, but of course you can expect some recipes just for fun, too. How could I have resisted those stewed pears?

Works cited: "Hannah Glasse: The original domestic goddess" (Independent). British Library. Karen Hess introduction.