Thursday, April 26, 2012

Cheese biscuits

Yesterday Josh and I had a simple night in. Cooking dinner, watching the latest New Girl episode, talking about our days. As part of our goal to become more mindful, healthful eaters, Josh made a delicious vegetarian chili, chock-full of sauteed veggies, onions, and spicy peppers, ladled over brown rice.

Before he started cooking, I thought about what else we could add to the meal to round it out (my brain is full of terms like this ever since I started obsessively reading Bon Appetit and Cooking Light). I'd been eyeing a cheese biscuit recipe in the Williamsburg cookbook, and that seemed like the perfect accompaniment.


All went well as I mixed the dough. It's a simple recipe, flour and salt and butter and cheese. I love cheese, friends. It makes everything better. Someday I'll have to give you my rapturous ode to cheese (when I'm feeling more positive about it). But then it came time to cut the biscuits for baking.

Why yes, that is one half of a tea ball infuser sitting right next to the cut biscuits. What's that, you say? They're the same size? I must have cut the biscuits with a tea infuser?

Sigh. It's true.

See, back in ye olde colonial Williamsburg, "biscuits" meant "crackers." Or "biscuits," too; it was one of those catch-all terms. This lovely recipe, which put me in mind of fluffy, substantial cheese biscuits in the style of Joy the Baker, actually tells you to make them cracker-sized. So I did. With my tea infuser.

These "biscuits" cook up nice and crispy, with a subtle cheesy bite. But they're just the same size as quarters or buttons, and when you prick them with a fork before baking, they kind of start to resemble banana chips. Or buttons.

(I called them "cheese buttons" in the privacy of my kitchen.)

So, Josh and I turned to another recipe I messed up in the past: vegan quinoa cornbread. Last time we tried it we were also making soup with barley, and I may or may not have mistaken the barley for quinoa. And made barley cornbread. This time I was determined to get it right! If we couldn't have fluffy cheese biscuits (though they did make a wonderful pre-dinner snack), we would have fluffy vegan cornbread.

And let me tell you, friends, we did.

Cheese Buttons
(adapted from The Williamsburg Art of Cookery)

1 cup flour
1/3 cup butter, cubed
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup grated cheese (I used cheddar and leftover asiago)
1-2 tbsp cold water, as needed

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Whisk the flour and salt together until combined. With your fingers, rub the cubed butter into the flour mixture until it resembles cornmeal. Add the cheese, and mix it into a stiff dough. If needed, add one tbsp of water at a time until the dough comes together.

On a flat, floured surface, roll out the dough to a 1/2-inch thickness, and cut with very small pastry/cookie cutter (your tea infuser, if you have one, makes a very nice-sized cracker). Arrange the crackers on an ungreased cookie sheet and prick with the end of a fork. If you like, prick crosswise so the crackers resemble buttons. Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until the bottoms of the crackers are just beginning to turn golden brown.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

History 101: Colonial Virginia

This little blog has always been something of an experiment; heck, it's even in the name! And like the way my students pepper me with questions when I haven't taught a lesson clearly enough, for some time now this space has been nagging me (in my own mind) for more clarity. I jump from cookbook to cookbook depending on my mood, with no logical connection between either (Little House to colonial Williamsburg...), and with very little sense of how the cookbook reflects the history of the time. So to set things straight in my mind, I'm going to lay out a brief history of the time periods I've looked at so far. Hopefully this will lend the blog a little more organization. And I do hope you'll enjoy it as well, dear readers.

First up: colonial Virginia.

Time Period

the cookbook in question
The Williamsburg Art of Cookery takes its recipes from cookbooks published/written between 1732 and 1922. These later books were compilations themselves, meant to represent "Housekeeping in old Virginia." That makes our job--figuring out when most of these recipes were created--a little tougher.

Since the book we're using was created by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, I think we can safely assume that most of its recipes date from between 1699 and 1780, the years when Williamsburg served as the capital of colonial Virginia. These are also the years (roughly) represented by the current Colonial Williamsburg living history site.

So, to be clear, we're talking about pre-independence America here. Virginians are still supposed to be loyal to the British king, and while the Revolutionary War might have begun (1775) and the Declaration of Independence issued (in 1776), America won't officially become its own country until 1783.

Colonial Virginia

engraving by Theodor de Bry, 1590, of Virginia Indian chief
Virginia was the first North American colony founded by Europeans, in 1607. Its early history is one of failures and, in my opinion, utter ridiculousness. Most of the first settlers in Virginia were gentlemen expecting to mine for gold.  They nearly starved their first few winters in the New World, since few of them knew how to farm, and it was only the kindness of the Native Americans (including Pocahontas' tribe, the Powhatans) that carried them through. After a while John Rolfe (yes, the one who married Pocahontas) introduced tobacco, and that cash crop turned Virginia into a thriving colony.

For a while most Virginians were young bachelors hoping to make a buck or two on the tobacco trade. Then women started to arrive in 1619, along with indentured servants and African slaves to work the tobacco fields. The colony began to expand, especially after it was made a royal colony in 1624 (governed by the king of England). Finally, African slavery became entrenched in Virginia and the other southern colonies around 1700.

How It All Relates to Cooking

By the mid-18th century, Virginian society was pretty hierarchical, because of its status as a royal colony and its reliance on a cash crop. Here's how it broke down:

  • Royal Governor (the big kahuna)
  • Wealthy Planters (who were also political)
  • Small Farmers (rather poor)
  • Landless Whites (very poor)
  • Indentured Servants (who worked out apprenticeships)
  • Slaves (owned by the wealthy or small farmers)

"The Good House-wife" of the 18th century
The Williamsburg Art of Cookery is billed as the "Accomplished Gentlewoman's Companion." The author goes on to describe the wonders of old Virginian hospitality, even to utter strangers. Apparently this book is full of recipes that an "accomplished gentlewoman" would have served to visiting dignitaries, family members, etc.

In other words: this is not a cookbook for the small farmers, the landless whites, the indentured servants, or the slaves. It represents what the governor or wealthy planters would have eaten--only they would have wives known as "gentlewomen."

My uncle recently visited Colonial Williamsburg, and he told us about his visit to a small 18th-century farm where people ate an extremely limited diet, often 1-2 types of food per day. So as I'm cooking all these recipes, it's helpful to keep in mind who exactly would have been eating this food, because this cookbook certainly doesn't represent all of colonial Virginia.

I hope this was helpful for you, friends! Do you have other questions about old Virginia? Or cooking in general? Or what on earth an indentured servant was?

Works Consulted: The American Pageant, 13th edition. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Photos: 1. Author. 2. History of Virginia. 3. "Women and Education in Eighteenth-Century Virginia."

Monday, April 9, 2012

Kitchen garden (I)

I've thought about starting my own little garden for a while now. My front windows are filled with plants, sure, but of the amaryllis and African violet variety rather than the edible kind.

When I graduated from college and first started living on my own, my parents gave me a set of lucky bamboo as a housewarming gift. Somehow I managed not to kill the bamboo, and now, four years later, they're growing strong in my kitchen. In the morning the leaves catch the sunlight, and they make the whole room feel cheerful.

However, I've had mixed results with other plants. Flowers? I've been growing iris bulbs in pots for two years and they have yet to flower. The African violet is quite happy, though. Trees? This winter's Christmas tree--a miniature pine in a pot--is now browning quickly and might keel over come summer. Too bad we named him. (Lord Conington: Josh's invention, of course.)

decorating, back when the tree was lush

I've had the most success with herbs so far: basil, chives, rosemary. Having just the tiniest flavor of food that I grew myself makes cooking so much more exciting, and now I want to branch out to other foods. Besides, having my own little garden could give me one more insight into the past, back when people relied more on what they could grow themselves.

Since I'm a complete novice at gardening, though, I didn't want to make the first try too hard on myself. This is strictly container gardening for now, anyway, so I decided to start off with easy plants and a couple handy guides to urban gardening. (The City Homesteader by Scott Meyer and Apartment Gardening by Amy Pennington: both inspiring, neither intimidating.) In an epic trip to the home improvement store, I bought all the seed-starting, planting materials I'd need, plus a few varieties of lettuce, peas, and herbs to try. (Who knew that wandering the gardening aisles of Home Depot could be so exciting?!) Finally, my parents brought an extra grow lamp when they visited this past weekend, and we set it up and tended to Lord Conington (my dad was full of ideas to save the poor tree). Once I return from chaperoning a five-day field trip this week, I'll be all ready to start those seeds.

And in one of those serendipitous coincidences, a friend gave me nine little tomato plants to inaugurate my kitchen garden. They're not historic in the least--Americans were suspicious of tomatoes until the 1900s, and therefore didn't grow very many of them--but they're familiar as childhood, and just the right thing to start my garden.

So this summer, I'll hopefully be posting updates on gardening as well as cooking. I'm excited to use my own food for cooking--it feels more authentic, somehow, more rooted in nature and the past than in going to the grocery store. Are any of you gardeners? What are you planting this spring?