Thursday, September 27, 2012

Dining at Downton: The perfect cup of tea

You know you're in a committed relationship when you start buying the foods your significant other likes. When Josh and I started dating, we quickly discovered that while we both enjoy tea, there are a few major differences in our habits:
  • Josh loves green tea
  • I prefer black tea, but usually I'd rather drink coffee
  • Josh hates coffee
They pose a few difficulties, right? Well, when I started buying special green teas at the grocery store and Josh invested in a Keurig machine for my individual cups of coffee (he is so good to me), that's when I knew it was serious. I've adjusted to his love of green tea, and I'll even sip some now and then. But my heart still thrills to the scent of Earl Grey. Every time I make myself a cup of black tea, I feel like I'm getting away with something.

So I might as well learn how to make the perfect cup of tea, to make those stolen moments that much more enjoyable. And, you know, just in case Violet, Dowager Countess comes to visit.

Our first Dining at Downton post is concerned with that most basic of aristocratic skills: brewing tea. It's a little more involved than boiling water; in fact, the ritualistic aspect of it is probably the best part. Plus, you get to indulge in fancy china! (Pro tip: Anthropologie has beautiful tea services.)

Afternoon tea is a staple at Downton Abbey. In the 19th century, well-to-do Brits adopted the custom of taking afternoon tea as an elegant snack. You'd drink tea, eat sugary biscuits and tiny sandwiches, and catch up on all the latest gossip. As devotees of Downton Abbey know, afternoon tea is fraught with import, whether it's because the girls are planning how to find eligible bachelors, or because middle-class Matthew Crawley is discovering that he'll be waited on hand and foot at Downton. (In a later post, we'll discuss how to create a full afternoon tea meal.)

Little has changed about brewing tea since Queen Victoria's times, when afternoon tea first became a custom. So for instructions, I turned to Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, which was the authority on cooking and housekeeping in 19th century Britain.

Mrs. Beeton claims that "[t]here is very little art in making good tea," but nevertheless provides detailed instructions for the brewing process. Here they are, updated for the modern reader.

You'll need:
loose tea
  • 1 large teakettle for boiling water
  • 1 smaller teapot for brewing the tea
  • loose-leaf tea (1 tsp per person, plus 1 for the pot)
  • teacups and saucers
  • 1 tea strainer
  • milk, cream, and sugar as desired
Once you've assembled your materials, fill the large teakettle with water and heat until boiling. Pour enough boiling water into the smaller teapot to fill, then let sit for 2-3 minutes. This heats up the teapot so it will keep the tea warm for a longer time. Meanwhile, measure out the tea you'll need. Mrs. Beeton recommends "the old-fashioned plan" of 1 tsp per person, plus 1 tsp "for the pot." When I make tea for myself, I like to use 2-3 tsp of tea total, depending on how much I want.

When the china teapot is warm, pour the water back into the larger teakettle. If you'd like, reheat it so it's freshly boiled. Measure the loose tea into the china teapot, then pour the boiling water back in. Cover and let steep for 5-10 minutes. This is very important, according to Mrs. Beeton; otherwise the leaves won't open, and "the beverage will consequently be colourless and tasteless."

When you're ready to pour, set the strainer over the teacup to catch any loose tea. Pour, and doctor with milk, cream, and/or sugar as you like.

My perfect cup of tea: Earl Grey with a bit of cream, no sugar.

What's your perfect cup?

Monday, September 24, 2012

A very British announcement!

It's no secret that I'm a bit of an Anglophile. This, combined with my love of history, made me fall utterly and irrevocably in love with Downton Abbey.

For those of you not in the know, Downton Abbey is a PBS historical drama (ITV in the UK) chronicling the secrets, romances, and tragedies of the aristocratic Crawleys and their staff on the eve of World War I. Sounds like your typical stuffy English period drama, right? Well, for some reason, we Americans have gone absolutely batty for it. It has everything we love in a TV show: scandalous rendezvous, British accents, backstabbing, murder charges...and Maggie Smith.

The second season follows the Crawleys through the devastation of WWI, and the third season, which debuts in January, promises new intrigue. But January is oh-so-far-away, and I can't give up an excuse to try out new historical recipes. So I'm extremely excited to introduce a new series for the blog:

Dining at Downton will feature all the recipe testing and historical tidbits you've come to expect from regular posts, plus fanciful speculations as to what Lady Mary might have eaten before, say, going out on a hunt with her future paramour. Of course, this is meant only to be a fun experiment, unauthorized and all (with apologies to Julian Fellowes). It's a leap across the pond from what we've been talking about so far, but hopefully it will be a fruitful and fun adventure.

Don't worry, the regular recipes aren't going away. You'll still find stories, photos, and American history here, just a bit more spread out.

I'm thrilled about this new series, and I hope you will be, too. Special thanks to Josh for creating the beautiful banner. Now, let's talk! Are there any British recipes you'd like to see on the blog? Certain Downton episodes we should discuss? I'm always up for a good dish on the Crawley sisters...

Monday, September 17, 2012


Suddenly it's fall.

Vendors' stands overflow with corn and pumpkins and squash and apples at the farmers' market. Mornings are chilly enough to put on a warm sweater. Starbucks has switched over to Pumpkin Spice Lattes and Salted Caramel Mochas. Saver's now advertises Halloween costumes. Corporate America is ready to remind you that yes, it's really September, just in case you can't tell.

This afternoon I stopped by a craft store to get some dried flowers and other materials to make a fall wreath, which involved walking by garlands of garish orange leaves and flowers with colors you'd never find in nature. It's funny that big box stores tell us to mark fall, traditionally a time of harvesting natural foods, with fake decorative plants. While I tried to find the least obnoxious materials for my wreath, I think it's still going to feature at least a few plastic grains.

Ah, well.

Recently I've found myself thinking a lot about harvest time and how to stay close to the land and the seasons. My parents visited briefly this weekend, and we walked around the new neighborhood and commented on the abundant gardens people grow here. My parents love to garden, though they seldom can devote as much time as they'd like to their plants. When I was little, they had a big plot in the backyard where they grew corn, squash, tomatoes, and giant pumpkins. There's a picture of me, aged 6 months, sitting on top of a pumpkin that's bigger than I am. Looking at old photos like that, I get the sense that our lives revolved around the garden and the seasons in a way that we've tried to recapture ever since. My dad still tends to a few tomato and cantaloupe plants, and you all know the saga of my own kitchen garden. But there's something about the demanding nature of a big garden that ties you down to the land until you've harvested every last crop.

(I tend to get rather poetical and starry-eyed about the idea of farming. I suspect that if I ever did start my own farm, those romantic notions would never survive.)

So, mind full of dreams and desires to root myself to the earth, I've been looking at some photos from the old garden. The year my sister was born, my parents planted wheat and harvested it at the end of the summer. In a few exhausting days, my grandmother helped my parents reap, thresh, and grind the wheat into flour, that my dad then used to make bread.

It's a great story, one that speaks to my family's strange desire to mimic old-fashioned farming methods.

I love looking at these photos from long ago. There's my sister, just a babe in arms.

There I am, a little two-year-old helping out with the threshing and the bread-making. There are my parents, younger versions of themselves when they had more time to work in the garden. And my grandmother, with whom I wish I could share my growing love of all things crafty and historical.

And this last photo, where my dad is teaching me how to knead bread, which explains everything about this blog.

Happy fall, friends.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Kitchen garden (V)

It's been a while since the last update from the garden. Unfortunately, in between moving and travel, the poor tomatoes and peas had a rough transition. Those big green tomatoes I planned on harvesting? The squirrels at my new place have a fondness for them. While I waited for each tomato to ripen, the squirrels got impatient and helped themselves.

(The worst part was how the squirrels would carefully remove each tomato from the vine, take a big bite, and then leave the now-rotting tomato on the balcony to taunt me. Now I know why my dad has a book called Outwitting Squirrels.)

But somehow I managed to salvage two tomatoes, which now sit on the kitchen table waiting to be enjoyed. They're small and misshapen, not the giant fruits I'd hoped for. But they're red and they smell fresh and I'll take them.

Monday, September 10, 2012

A tale of two peanut butters

This weekend the weather turned. It's been hot and muggy all week, the air dense with rain. And now the heat has burned off and it actually feels like fall. Supposedly it won't last, but after Saturday, we'll take it.

Even though summer is my favorite season, there are loads of things I like about fall. The crisp leaves, the way the air feels fresh and brisk, cooking with apples and pumpkins, going to harvest festivals. I love getting ready for school (which is probably why I became a teacher), picking out new notebooks and pens and binders. That back-to-school trip to Office Max or Staples, where the shelves are full of notebooks and the air is crisp with possibility...sigh.

I'm a huge nerd.

This year things are quite different for me as a teacher, since I'm working part-time as a humanities teacher at a Montessori school. As I mentioned earlier, there's a lot to get used to about this new set-up. Aside from a few bumps, it's been going smoothly, but I'm still trying to figure out the most important thing: lunch.

When do I eat it? Do I eat it in the classroom with the children? Do I wait until I go home? If I don't get out of the building until 12:30, and I don't get home until 1:15, will I be dying of hunger? What should I make? What's portable and easy to heat up when there's a line of children waiting to use the microwave?

As you can see, it's a topic fraught with anxiety.

At my previous school, teachers ate separately from students and had time to heat up their food and chat with each other. At this school, teachers eat in the classroom with their students and manage to down a few bites in between kids asking where the forks and knives are, if they can go outside and play because they finished their lunches in five minutes, etc. A very different experience. So far I've been sticking to salads, but I'm itching to try something new. Exotic sandwiches? Maybe soup?

Lo and behold, The "Settlement" Cook Book had just what I needed: a whole chapter on sandwiches for luncheon. You'd typically make these recipes for an afternoon picnic or an informal luncheon with your closest lady friends. I flipped through the chapter, looking for something that sounded promising. And then I found it: "Peanut paste for sandwiches."

The 1903 equivalent of peanut butter! A classic school lunch! Even the recipe was easy: after crushing half a cup of peanuts (with your modern food processor), you mix in a cup of boiling water, some cornstarch, and let the whole mixture thicken for 8 minutes, after which you season it with poultry spices. Aside from the poultry spices, it seemed pretty straightforward.

Little did I know. I'm not sure what kind of peanuts Mrs. Kander used when she wrote the recipe, but those crushed peanuts did not thicken into a paste until I'd added a tablespoon of cornstarch and boiled the heck out of it for half an hour. So by the time I sat down to lunch, my expectations weren't too high. I decided to compare the peanut paste with Jif Natural peanut butter from our pantry, rounding out the whole meal with some lingonberry jam (thank you, Ikea) and carrots. Like I said, a classic school lunch. With a twist.

And the twist is this: peanut paste tastes pretty much like you crushed up some peanuts and mixed them with water. It's less appetizing than whole shelled peanuts, and the poultry spices make it more savory than sweet. I found myself nibbling on my Jif peanut butter and jelly sandwich in between every bite of the peanut paste one. While this recipe isn't one of my major failures, it's a disappointment.

I'll stick with Jif.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Canning fruit (II)

Yesterday I recounted how my friend Nina and I decided to can 40 lbs of tomatoes. When I left off, we had just realized how much time (and patience) this project required.

Nevertheless, we persevered. Once the crushed tomatoes had boiled, we started ladling them into our sterilized Mason jars (prepped with lemon juice to prevent evil bacteria from forming. Botulism is no joke).

Then came the fun part: lowering the filled jars back into the boiling water of the canning pot. This is what seals the jars and prevents more bacteria from forming.

After that, we let them all boil for 40 minutes while we maybe talked to them a little bit. Because they looked so cozy sitting together, and it can't hurt to encourage them.

However, by the time the sauce was ready, we had been at this canning project for 5 hours and I had plans for dinner. So courageous Nina finished the project on her own, documenting the final stages for posterity. We haven't counted the jars yet...but suffice it to say, we'll be eating a lot of tomatoes this winter.

photo by Nina
And the funniest thing about this whole project is that it didn't make us run screaming from the prospect of more canning. No, in the quiet moments while we waited for the sauce to boil, we flipped through Canning for a New Generation and made plans for fall and winter projects. Pear and ginger preserves, anyone? Spiced cranberries? We've already got our holiday presents taken care of!

This adventure reminded me why canning is so special.

  • First, you get to preserve the tastiest fruits and veggies from your garden (or your farmer's garden), to enjoy long into the winter.

  • Second, it brings people together. My friend Emily first taught me how to can, before I'd started this blogging project and dedicated myself to testing out homesteading methods. We made a batch of strawberry jam, and by the end of the afternoon I was a goner. It seems to be one of those skills that people pass on to one another, through afternoons in the kitchen or community classes. It helps bring people together.

  • Third, even if you can by yourself, you can give your gorgeous Mason jars as gifts (see holiday plans above).

  • Fourth (you knew this was coming), it's one of the most practical ways of carrying on historical cooking methods.

Intrigued? Want to try it yourself? Emily's written an excellent guide to canning your own jam, and I suggest you check it out if you've never canned before and want to try it.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Canning fruit (I)

Last Sunday, over dinner at our local Ethiopian restaurant, my friend Nina said, "When can we can?" And thus began a rather silly and ultimately fruitful (heh) endeavor of canning 40 lbs of tomatoes. And making lots of canning jokes. ("Yes, we can" is Nina's favorite.)

Canning is a fascinating process. Before refrigeration, it was one of the best ways for home cooks to preserve the bounty of their gardens long into the winter. Now that we can easily freeze leftover fruits and veggies, canning has become more of a fun way to preserve food than a necessity. Plus, along the way it's acquired an exotic sort of aura. Not everyone knows how to can, and the uninitiated tend to see it as a complicated art that requires years of practice. The funny thing is that it's pretty easy. It just takes time, patience, and a strict adherence to directions. Sort of like ice cream.

Here are the basics:

  • You prepare your fruit for canning (and yes, tomatoes are a fruit). You can do this however you wish; we used a few recipes from Liana Krissoff's excellent Canning for a New Generation.

  • Meanwhile, you should heat up a large pot for processing the cans, and wash the jars and lids you'll be using. 

  • When the water in the canning pot is hot, you slip the jars in to keep them hot and sterilized until you ladle in the fruit.

  • Once you've put the fruit in the jars, you set the jars back into the boiling water of the canning pot to process. This is the part that seals the jars to make them safe for storage.

So it's not such a difficult process. It just takes a lot of pots and pans. And, as we discovered, tomatoes in particular need a lot of time to process. They're finicky fruits, those tomatoes.

Nina and I blithely set out to spend yesterday afternoon putting up tomatoes for the winter. Nina's farmshare gave her an excellent deal on tomatoes, and I picked up a few pounds more to even out the numbers. This meant that we had 40 lbs of tomatoes all together.

this isn't even all of them

40 lbs of tomatoes is a lot of tomatoes, friends. Especially if you've only canned twice before, like me, or never, like Nina. This is the point where we began to worry that the afternoon would resemble an episode of I Love Lucy.

Nevertheless, we soldiered on. We set up our army of pots (my canning pot took up 2 burners alone) and boiling water, and arranged an assembly line to peel the tomatoes and prepare them for cooking. We planned on making tomato sauce, which required 45 minutes of simmering before it could be canned, and crushed tomatoes, which only needed 5 minutes. So naturally we began work on the tomato sauce first.

However, by the time we'd finished peeling and crushing the 24 lbs meant for the sauce, the canning pot was ready for processing (understandably, since it was an hour and a half later). So we decided instead to prepare the crushed tomatoes for efficiency's sake. This took another half an hour of peeling, plus managing which pots would fit on which burners and waiting for the tomatoes to boil. We didn't actually start processing the filled cans until 3 hours into our canning adventure.

And yes, at this point we'd cracked open a couple of beers and I was sighing, "No, we can't."

Would we manage to can all 40 lbs of tomatoes before the end of the afternoon?

Would we lose our minds?

Would we not do it correctly and poison ourselves and everyone we knew with botulism?

Check back tomorrow to find out!