Monthly Archives: July 2011

Ce n’est pas une Macaron

If you look at old recipes for puddings, you’ll find they often require macaroons; sometimes as the sponge to soak up the booze at the bottom of a trifle, crumbled over the top of a dessert or used as part of the base to a cheesecake. Indeed, in Jane Grigson’s English Food, macaroons are needed for several recipes. She doesn’t give a recipe herself, and seeing as one of the blog’s roles is to try to fill in all the recipes that were omitted from English Food. If it had appeared, it would have been in the Biscuits section of the Teatime chapter.

However, don’t get macaroons confused with coconut macaroons – they are a relatively modern invention, old receipts require the classic macaroon, made of stiffly whipped egg whites and ground almonds. They are quite hard to find these days. If you are lucky, you might find them in a french bakery. Indeed, they are called french macaroons in America, and are found miniature-sized and sandwiched together with some buttercream. Delicious, of course, but no good for baking with.

The traditional macaroon is part-biscuit (cookie), part-meringue, wonderfully chewy and sweet. They are quite easy to make, though the mixture does need to be piped onto a tray. I recently made some for the 300th recipe for my other blog as  part of a trifle. Luckily for me they would be drowned in dessert wine and then covered with custard, so a deft piping hand was not required (as you can see in the pictures below).

Macaroons were originally invented by Italian monks and became popular in France in the 1530s when the pattisiers of King Henri II’s wife used the Italian recipe and started making them for the court. I dont’ know when they eventually made their way to Britain, but I am sure it was pretty soon after that, as French and English cuisine was very similar and they were always looking toward each other for inspiration, especially in those times. Most recipes from around that era are very difficult to pronounce either French or English as everything overlapped so much. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that the idea of making tiny ones glued together with buttercream took off.

The modern brilliantly-coloured and tiny macaroons

My recipe below is based on two others:  one from Elizabeth Raffald’s 1769 book The Experienced English Housekeeper, and the other from Martha Stewart’s website of all places. The older recipe includes orange flower or rose water, which was not used as a flavouring per se, but as a way to prevent the whole almonds turning into a paste when they were being ground. I like the taste, however, so I have included it in the recipe.

If you come across a recipe that requires macaroons, or you just want some to go with a cup of tea, here’s how to do it:

Ingredients:

5 1/2 oz icing (confectioners’ sugar)

4 oz ground almonds

3 egg whites

pinch of salt

2 oz caster (fine granulated) sugar

1 teaspoon rose water or orange flower water (optional)

Begin by mixing together the icing sugar and the ground almonds. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg white and salt until they form stiff peaks, i.e. if the turn the bowl upside down, everything stays within. Whisk in the caster sugar gradually so that the egg whites become glossy. Mix in the orange flower or rose water. Next, using a metal spoon, fold in the icing sugar and almonds. Take your time here as the mixture gets thick and tacky, and you don’t want to lose all the air from your whisked eggs.

Line a baking sheet with baking paper and grease it lightly. Pipe out the mixture leaving some space between each one as it will rise in the oven.

For small macaroons, use a number 4 tip, for larger use a bigger size or pipe out in a spiral shape. It’s up to you how careful you are – the classic shape is a dome.

Leave to dry for 15 to 30 minutes, depending upon size and humidity before baking at 180°C (350°F) with the oven door slightly ajar (use a wooden spoon handle!) for between 15 and 25 minutes, depending on size. You can tell when they are done when the tops go from shiny to dull. Remove from the oven and allow to cool on a rack.

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Filed under Biscuits, food, French Cookery, history, Recipes, Sixteenth Century, Teatime

Charles Darwin and the Owl

When I am not writing blog entries, I actually work for a living – believe it or not. I am an evolutionary biologist at the wonderful Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. Now it goes without saying that, as an evolutionary biologist I have a huge amount of respect for a certain Charles Darwin who came up with his theory of evolution by natural selection.

However, before he made his amazing discovery whilst floating about the oceans upon the HMS Beagle, he spent four years at Christ College, Cambridge, cutting his scholarly teeth and collecting beetles. He also spent alot of time getting drunk on port. But don’t think that Darwin was a conservationist. Such a concept did not exist in his day, oh no.

For what you may not know is that Charles Darwin had a huge interest in food, and during his time in Cambridge he was the President of the  infamous Glutton Club. The main objective of the club was to seek and eat ‘strange flesh’ and chow down upon the rarest ‘birds and beasts which were before unknown to human palate’. The club met weekly and was a roaring success. They ate such beautiful birds as the bittern and hawk. The club eventually came to an abrupt end when a tawny owl was served up. The meat was disgusting and stringy and was described as, er, “indescribable”.

‘Indescribable’: the tawny owl

Rarity and beauty of the animals aside, I don’t think I could eat an owl or a hawk. There is something very disagreeable to me about eating carnivores. I want to tackle animals that have fed upon dewy grasses and juicy leaves or whatever.

Anyway, all this Gluttony put old Charlie in good stead for his voyages: for he had no qualms about eating animals like ostrich and armadillo, which he said ‘look and taste like duck’. I like duck. The next time I see some armadillo roadkill I should pick it up and have it for my dinner, no? He also had some unknown mystery 20 pound rodent that he declared to be ‘the best meat I have ever tasted’. Maybe it was a capybara?

Capybara: the mystery meat?

The best story I have found about Darwin’s dinners occurred during a Christmas feast where he realised the bird was dining upon was a very rare small species of rhea (later named Darwin’s rhea). He rose abruptly from his chair and quickly scraped the remaining parts of the carcass together so that he could study them much to the shock of the other guests.

Always the scientist, our Chuck D was.

Darwin’s Rhea by Diane Sudyka

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Filed under food, history, science, The Victorians

God Bless Her, and all that Sail in Her

Queen Liz 2

"God bless her, and all that sail in her"

Well hello there. Welcome to my brand-spanking new weblog British Food: A History.

From my love of cooking and interest in history, I thought it best I should start this blog on all things British and culinary. This interest has not come from nowhere, I have another blog called Neil Cooks Grigson which tackles all the classic as well as many of the weird and forgotten English dishes throughout the last 700 years or so. The idea behind that blog was to cook all the recipes in Jane Grigson’s English Food, a truly excellent piece of writing.

So what does this new blog have to offer if I am already sort-of doing it on another?

Well, the answer is that the other blog will have glaring omissions because the book does. So I always originally intended to produce an English Food V2.0. However, the more I researched for posts, the more I got interested in old recipe books and the history surrounding them and found that, although a great deal of fun the other blog is, I wanted to cast my net even further with this one.

The amazingly talented Mrs Jane Grigson

I want to add the recipes Jane Grigson didn’t use, I want to add the best of the ones I have cooked from the book, more importantly I want to look more at Wales and Scotland. Not just that, but to extend the map to the other countries that have had links with my own – for better, or for worse – like Ireland, France, India and the countless other countries too that have moulded our people, culture and food throughout history. I also want to go back in time to Britain before the Middle Ages too. What influence did  the Roman occupation have, for example? What about further back to prehistory? How did farming come about in Britain and what did the foraging people eat before farming on any scale even occurred?

So, the blog will be a mix of recipes, findings and short essays on our amazingly rich, frequently odd and overwhelmingly dynamic the Britons have been – and still are – with their food.

Most intriguing of all though, is to find a recipe and cook it and really experience how people lived; reading about is of course wonderful fuel for the imagination and it allows us to understand our past, and therefore our present and future. As is watching film documentaries. But these all fail in that the experiences are all second-hand. For example, eating something that a king from the Middle Ages ate on his coronation, in my opinion, the closest you can get to climbing inside a time machine and transporting yourself there.

So, there you go, that’s the idea behind it all. Let’s just see if I can pull it off…

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