Friday, June 28, 2013


First order of business:

Yes, friends, Google Reader is finally going away. To make sure you don't miss a post here, you can try one of the following alternatives:

You can follow along at Bloglovin.

Or you can try out feedly.

There's also The Old Reader, for old-school types.

And you can also subscribe via email, using the handy box to the right.

Second order of business:

I am finally on Pinterest! You can take a look at my dreams for someday-gardens or kitchen projects. I am already slightly obsessed with pinning...

Happy Friday!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Devil's cake no. 1

Yesterday I celebrated my birthday! I turned 27, just a few weeks after this blog turned 2. In between melting in the 90-degree heat and dashing through torrential rainstorms (yes, it was an eventful day, weather-wise), I enjoyed a pastry from my favorite bakery, assembled a Settlement birthday cake, and tried out a new restaurant with Josh. I can now say definitively that lots of food-related activities make for one delicious birthday.

Now, let's get serious about this birthday cake. My father loves buying cake. And I mean, he loves it. He buys decorated cakes (vanilla or yellow, with buttercream frosting) from Giant Eagle for every occasion he can think of: birthdays, Mother's Day, the Fourth of name it, he celebrates it. Once my dad even bought a cake to celebrate my birthday when I wasn't even going to be home on the occasion. You get the picture: my family can be depended upon to have a bit of store-bought cake hanging out in the freezer at any given time.

However, I haven't enjoyed Giant Eagle cake since middle school. I'm not sure why, but for some reason the frosting and consistency of the cake just doesn't do it for me. I've tried a few different solutions, like cherry pie (to which my dad cried, "but it's not a real birthday without cake!"), and a marble cake in the hopes that chocolate would be tastier (our dog pulled it off the counter and ate it). Somewhere down the line I gave up and decided that making my own cake would be the easiest solution. But I haven't found the perfect recipe yet.

This year, I tried a recipe from The "Settlement" Cook Book, partly to kill two birds with one baking pan. It wasn't a total success; devil's food cake from 1903 is decidedly less chocolatey than our modern-day palates would like, and the method of making the frosting felt very old-fashioned. But it's still tasty, and a perfectly fine way to celebrate another birthday.

Devil's Cake No. 1
(from The "Settlement" Cook Book)

for the cake:
2 oz unsweetened chocolate
3 tbsp water
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/2 cup butter
1 cup buttermilk
1 tsp baking soda
1 egg yolk (reserve the white for the frosting)
2 cups flour

for the frosting:
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
2 oz unsweetened chocolate
1 egg white, beaten
1/8 tsp cream of tartar
1 tsp vanilla

To make the cake:
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease two 8-inch round pans and set aside.

In a small pan over low heat, melt the chocolate, water, and sugar together, stirring until dissolved. Add the butter and stir until blended. Remove from heat and let cool.

In a separate, large bowl, combine the buttermilk, baking soda, and egg yolk, beating well to blend. Add the cooled chocolate and beat well. In a few strokes, add the flour until just combined. Pour the mixture into the prepared pans and bake at 350 F for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

To make the frosting:
Heat the water in a small pan over medium heat until just boiling, then add the sugar and stir. Once the sugar is completely dissolved, heat the mixture slowly without stirring to the boiling point. Let syrup cook until it forms a thread when drizzled from a spoon, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the chocolate until well-blended.

When the syrup is ready, quickly add the cream of tartar to the egg white and beat to combine with a fork or whisk. Add the egg mixture to the chocolate syrup and beat well. Add vanilla and beat again. Let the mixture cool, placing in the fridge if necessary.

When ready to frost, stir the frosting once more. Turn one cake out onto a plate and frost evenly, then place the other cake on top. Spread remaining frosting with a knife or spoon.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Brewing and distilling the old-fashioned way

Turns out cooking from historical recipes isn't the only way to play with food and history. There's a new trend brewing in the alcoholic beverage world (sorry, couldn't resist).

Cleveland's Great Lakes Brewing Company, maker of some of the best craft beers around (not like I'm biased), is now working with archaeologists from the University of Chicago to replicate 5,000-year-old Sumerian beer. Hoping to discover what the first beer in the world tasted like, the Great Lakes brewery is using Sumerian hymns and other cuneiform texts supplied by the archaeological team to brew their concoction. The archaeologists also help the brewery use the appropriate equipment, like clay pots and wooden spoons. Unfortunately, Great Lakes doesn't plan on selling the results to the public...but it doesn't sound like Sumerian beer would appeal to modern tastes. Sour, warm, with a distinct vinegar flavor? Not what I like in my beer.

However, Coastal Extreme Brewing (or the Newport Storm brewery, as they're popularly known) in Newport, RI, is taking a decidedly more palatable approach to old alcoholic beverages. In 2006, the brewery began distilling Thomas Tew Rum, named after a notorious pirate from the 18th century. The company uses traditional methods, equipment, and ingredients to distill rum the way it was originally made in Newport, back in the 18th century. Turns out Newport was the center of the sugar and slave trade when the colonies were young, so naturally a number of rum distilleries sprang up around the city to make good use of the molasses coming into port. Today, Coastal Extreme prepares its rum in traditional copper stills, then lets the rum age for years in barrels, just like the original Newport distilleries of old.

Unsurprisingly, I'm fascinated by the idea of referring to old recipes (some ancient!) for brewing as well as cooking. Just as I can learn a lot from historical recipes, these two breweries have their own motivations. They want to...

  • Find out first-hand what ancestral brews were like
  • Try out slower brewing methods that produce small-batch beverages
  • Recall our nation's history (however unsavory it may have been)
  • Play around with ancient ingredients, like cardamom, honey, and dates

What do you think? Would you ever try Sumerian beer or colonial rum?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The best-laid plans of gardeners

It's been some time since we've visited the container garden. Let's take a stroll, shall we?

Here's the basic layout: broad beans (the happy tall stalks in the corner); sugar snap peas climbing those bamboo trellises; one strawberry plant; onions flanking tomatoes and peppers; garlic and carrot shoots; lettuce; hyssop; an attempt at a Three Sisters planting (corn, green beans, and pumpkin); and rhubarb, generously given by my friend Gaia. There's lavender and lobelia, too, to pretty up the backyard.

A bit different from my original plans, right? While some of the seeds I started came up vigorous and healthy, some of the others grew anemic and spindly. And after I hardened them off and planted them in containers, we endured epic torrential rains. First in the spring, then just a few weeks ago. Day after day of rain, rain, endless rain, can do a number on your tender plants. And downpours from southern tropical storms can tear the leaves of your rhubarb plant to shreds.

Yes, shreds.

We've also discovered that our squirrels are vicious, vicious creatures. Since we moved in last summer, we didn't have a chance to find this out during the regular growing season. But oh, are we learning. They shimmy up drainpipes, they cling to our second-floor window screens, and they nibble at my almost-ripe strawberries to show who's really in charge. (Hint: it's not me.)

Nevertheless, we persevere. Next week I'll give you a glimpse of the "squirrel vault" Josh and I built to keep out those dastardly rodents. After the torrential rains, I replaced some of my drowned seedlings with more vigorous starts from the farmers' market and the store, and they're happily taking root. And while it's momentarily disappointing to see plants brought low by weather or critters, I'm excited to see what this adjusted garden will produce over the summer. (I'm also accepting any and all advice for dealing with squirrels, which are quickly becoming my fiercest enemies.)

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Two years

Dear blog,

Today you are older and hopefully wiser. (I'm not sure I am.) We've done quite a bit this past year...

Yes, we've branched out past historical cooking. We're still learning from old recipes, but we're also referencing the past more loosely, imbuing the present with old-fashioned methods, activities, and hobbies. We're visiting old mansions to look at what's survived. And I have to say, I like it.

I'm excited to see what this coming year will bring. Thanks to our wonderful readers, as always, for following along. You make it so much more fun!


Thursday, June 13, 2013

Afternoon Adventure: Longwood Gardens

A month ago my family met up in Philadelphia to celebrate my sister's graduation. We had some free time before the festivities began, so we drove about an hour outside of the city to the Brandywine Valley, former home of painter Andrew Wyeth and current location of some absolutely beautiful estates and gardens.

We spent the early afternoon at Longwood Gardens, a stunning estate with acres of gardens and a classic conservatory. Because it was Mother's Day, we had to navigate wandering crowds, but the whole place is so big that we hardly noticed most of the time.

Longwood began as a farm and arboretum built by the Peirce family, who purchased the property from William Penn way back in 1700. As Quakers, the Peirces respected the land and focused on planting and preserving native trees. By the time industrialist Pierre du Pont purchased the land from the Peirces in 1906, Longwood was already known for its collection of trees and aesthetic beauty.

But it was Pierre du Pont who slowly molded the property into what we see today. He used his immense fortune and his interest in conservation to develop the property, designing a range of gardens, building a gorgeous conservatory to house indoor plants, and installing of-the-moment fountains around the grounds. Inspired by the world's fairs he visited in his youth, he referenced the architecture and horticultural designs he saw at these fairs, making for an estate that is at once rooted in the past and forward-looking.

We could have spent all day at Longwood. Because we wanted to check out another estate (and eat lunch), we had to drag ourselves away after a few hours, but I definitely want to go back. We wandered through the fountain gardens, where my dad marveled at the 1930s-designed pumps.

I took a few too many pictures of utterly indulgent garden fixtures that I really, really want in my someday-garden, like follies and walls of sculpted fountains.

We spent a long time in the vegetable and fruit gardens, where I took copious notes on scenic fencing and supports for climbing vines. (And I crushed on rows of raspberry bushes.)

Horticultural Dome, Chicago World's Fair

Just before we left, we stopped in the conservatory, which reminded me of all those long-ago photographs of the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, with its huge hanging plants and light-filled rooms. (It also made me feel like I'd stepped into the steampunk world of Bioshock Infinite, which begins at an alternate version of the 1893 Exposition.)

Longwood is the perfect place to slow down and relax for a day if you're in the Philadelphia area. We left inspired and refreshed, and that's exactly what we needed on a busy graduation weekend.

Works cited: Longwood Gardens History. Paul V. Galvin Library, World's Columbian Exposition of 1893.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Dining at Downton: Gilded crust (pain perdu)

When I took French in middle school and high school, I particularly loved the words that had both literal and figurative meanings. "Petit chou," you might call your sweetheart, meaning..."little cabbage." "Pomme de terre" was on the list of grocery store vocabulary as the humble potato, but literally it meant "apple of the earth." For someone who was beginning to love language, these little linguistic treats made French class that much more fun. (Also, we learned a lot of food words in those first few years. There may or may not have been an epic project where we created a grocery store and bought and sold paper fruits and veggies entirely in broken French. Ah, good times.)

Pain perdu was another one of those phrases that utterly delighted me. Although it refers to something akin to French toast, it literally means "lost bread." This most likely references the stale pieces of bread that would otherwise be thrown away, were they not soaked in milk and egg and fried to perfection. But it's a phrase rich with linguistic possibility, making me think, nonsensically, of orphaned pieces of toast, or bread condemned to purgatory.

(Random, yes. Sometimes that's just where your mind goes.)

While the best way to describe pain perdu is as French toast, in reality it's a little different. After soaking slices of stale bread in sugary, vanilla-perfumed milk, you then dip it in a bath of sugared, beaten eggs, after which you fry them in a hot pan. Then you sprinkle with sugar and serve as dessert after a meal. At least, this is how Auguste Escoffier, author of the Bible of French cooking around the turn of the century, described it. As a result, the Crawley family most likely would have followed his advice and eaten this dish after luncheon or a light supper instead of at breakfast.

Weird, right? I can't wrap my mind around the idea of eating French toast after dinner. And really, maybe that's the true reason we call it pain perdu--it's lost in the confusion of meals, being served at the wrong time of day. Because if you live at Downton Abbey, you can do whatever the heck you want.

Whenever you eat this "gilded crust," however (I went rogue and ate it for breakfast), it's delicious: light and crisp, perfumed with vanilla and dusted with sugar. And dipping the bread twice, first in milk and then in egg, adds a subtle dimension missing from plain old French toast. They sure knew what they were doing in the Downton kitchen.

Gilded Crust (Pain Perdu)
(adapted from The Escoffier Cookbook)

2 slices stale bread
1/2 cup milk
1/2 tsp vanilla
2 tsp sugar, divided, plus more for dusting
1 egg, beaten
butter, for frying

In one bowl, mix the milk, vanilla, and 1 tsp sugar together until blended. In another bowl, mix the beaten egg and the other tsp sugar until blended. Set a frying pan over medium-high heat and melt the butter. The pan will be ready when the butter is sizzling and a few droplets of water flung in the pan evaporate with a hiss. Just before you're ready to cook, dip the bread in the milk mixture, drain, and dip in the egg mixture and drain. Fry in the skillet until one side is brown, then flip and brown the other side. Drain on a plate and sprinkle with a bit more sugar. Serve with fruit whenever you darn well please.