Tag Archives: Alexis Soyer

Toast

toasting fork

from iggandfriends.wordpress.com

Hot buttered toast must be the most popular British breakfast item, whether eaten on the run to the bus stop, or served up with a full English breakfast or posh scrambled eggs and smoked salmon on a Sunday. Elizabeth David described it as a ‘peculiarly English…delicacy’.

It is true that the wafting smell of freshly made toast combined with the sight of the slow melting of a good covering of salted butter is so comforting. Indeed, the first thing offered up to you after you’ve come round from an operation on the NHS (and I unfortunately have had many times) is tea and toast. (Digressing slightly, the first thing offered up to you after an operation in the USA is the similarly comforting cookies and milk.)

Most toast today is, of course, made from the flabby Chorleywood processed white sliced loaf, which produces quite depressingly poor ‘wangy’ toast. Proper toast requires proper bread; bread that has gone a slightly stale. Perfect toast is in the eye of the beholder: thick, thin, crisp throughout, soft in the centre, pale, dark, a scraping of butter or lashings of it.

Making toast was a way of using up stale bread, of course, so toast shouldn’t even be required now that we have the invention of Chorleywood processed bread. It’s ironic that our love of toast means we, on the whole, now make it with a product unsuitable for making it.

It won’t surprise you that there are some very detailed descriptions in old cookbooks as to the best way for making toast.

soyer

The earliest official piece of toasting equipment was the toasting fork. Here’s the flamboyant Victorian chef Alexis Soyer’s instructions from A Shilling Cookery for the People from 1854:

How to Toast Bread – Procure a nice square loaf that had been baked one or two days previously, then with a sharp knife cut off the bottom crust evenly, and then as many sliced you require, about a quarter of an inch in thickness. Contrive to have a clear fire: place a slice of the bread upon a toasting-fork, about an inch from one of the sides, hold it a minute before the fire, then turn it, hold it another minute, by which time the bread will be thoroughly hot, then begin to move it gradually to and fro until the whole surface has assumed a yellowish-brown colour, then turn it again, toasting the other side in the same manner; lay it then upon a hot plate, have some fresh or salt butter (which must not be too hard, as pressing it upon the roast would make it heavy),spread a piece, rather less than an ounce, over, and cut the toast into four or six pieces. You will then have toast made to perfection.

Coal range

Next rung up on the evolutionary ladder of toast-making was the invention of the toast plate, a cast iron rack that could sit in front of coal-powered range cooker. My friend Andreas actually has an original coal range cooker with a toast plate built in. I am very jealous.

range toasting plate

You can buy plates that lay over a gas burner on the stove top that I suppose achieves a flavour closest to the ones found on the coal ranges. Elizabeth David owned one (from English Bread and Yeast Cookery, 1977):

Elizabeth David

Part of the charm of the toast produced on this device is that every piece is different, and differently marked, irregularly chequered with the marks of the grill, charred here and there, flecked with brown and gold and black.

At home, the best way to make toast is by using a grill, preferably a gas grill; it produces a much more even heat and therefore even toasting than an electric grill. I love the flecked toast that David described, but an electric grill has hot spots that produce slices well done in one patch and hardly coloured in another.

THE WAY WE COOKED

You might think all you need to do is stick the bread under the grill and wait, right? Wrong. Here are Delia Smith’s instructions for making toast under a grill, though first you need to slice it (from How to Cook: Book One, 1998):

  1. The key to slicing bread is to use gentle, rapid saw movements with the knife and not to push down too hard on the loaf. For toast, cut the bread into slices about ½ inch (1 cm) thickness. The crusts can be on or off, depending how you like them.
  2. Pre-heat the grill for at least 10 minutes before making the toast, turning it to its highest setting.
  3. Place the bread on the grill rack and position the tray 2 inches (5 cm) from the heat source.
  4. Allow the bread to toast on both sides to your own preferred degree of pale or dark golden brown.
  5. While that is happening, keep an eye on it and don’t wander far.
  6. When the toast is done, remove it immediately to a toast rack…Putting it straight on to a plate means the steam is trapped underneath, making it damp and soggy. If you don’t possess a toast rack you really ought to invest in a modest one. Failing that, stand your slices of toast up against a jar or something similar for about 1 minute before serving.
  7. Always eat toast as soon as possible after that, and never make it ahead of time.
  8. Never ever wrap it in a napkin or cover it (the cardinal sin of the catering trade), because the steam gets trapped and the toast gets soggy.
  9. Always use good bread, because the better the bread, the better the toast. It is also preferable if the bread is a couple of days old.

The toast rack is an essential. Before I owned one, I leant the slices against each other as you would for a house of cards.

So there we go, a definitive guide to making toast, well, as long as you’re not using an electric toaster!

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Filed under baking, bread, Britain, cooking, food, General, history, Recipes, Teatime

The Pearls of the Fields

Autumn is nearly upon us and that means it will soon be mushroom season. I haven’t much experience with gathering mushrooms myself, but have found them in the past when walking in the woods. I reckon there are only about five types I can identify and be 100% sure I know what they are. When you do see some that you know, it is very exciting to collect them and bring them home. There is, apparently, a mushroom-collectors’ club in St Louis, so I shall be checking that out.

Oyster mushrooms are easy to find – they grow on dead beech trees

 Jew’s ear fungus is less well-known, but very easy to identify

Our relationship with mushrooms goes back a long, long way; mushrooms were consumed by Paleolithic man ten thousand years ago. Fungi, then as now, were not just used as food, but also as poison and for their narcotic effects.

Field and woodland mushrooms were highly-prized; it is odd to think that oysters were once used as a cheap mushroom substitute. These days, the basic mushroom is the closed cap cultivated kind, which was only grown on a large scale in the nineteenth century, so it is obvious why they were so highly sought-after. This was only in Britain though, the Romans managed to cultivate them way back when, as did the French a century before we British. We were just a bit slow on the uptake there, I suppose.

Mushrooms also were thought to be magical: they cause the familiar fairy rings you see during rainy periods in late summer and seemed to appear from nowhere. The first century Greek physician Dioscorides, suggested throwing the shredded bark of the poplar tree over compost to obtain mushrooms ‘spontaneously’ by ‘the grace of the gods’. In the Middle Ages, mushrooms were officially pronounced magical, and it was up to the alchemists of the day to try and discover the secret of creation from them (they must’ve become frustrated with the turning base metals into gold thing).

A fairy ring of mushrooms

Mushrooms have been used to give food an interesting meaty and earthy flavour to food. The reason they are so good for this job is that they all chock-full of umami – the recently-discovered fifth taste. Cooks in the eighteenth century made a lot of mushroom ketchup and mushroom powder for seasoning food, and I will make some myself eventually and put the results on this blog.

I love mushrooms of all kinds, so I thought I would give a couple of recipes – one historical, and the other a British classic.

Alexis Soyer (1810-1858)

The first is from a book called Shilling Cookery for the People by Alexis Soyer, published in 1854. He was the first celebrity chef and I am sure he’ll get a posting all to himself at some point. He happened upon some tasty field mushrooms and tells us the story of how he came up with a recipe for those ‘pearls of the field’:

“Being in Devonshire, at the end of September and walking across the fields before breakfast to a small farmhouse, I found three very fine mushrooms, which I thought would be a treat, but on arriving at the house I found it had no oven, a bad gridiron and a smoky coal fire. Necessity, they say, is the mother of Invention, I immediately applied to our grand and universal mamma, how should I dress my precious mushrooms, when a gentle whisper came to my ear… The sight when the glass is removed, is most inviting, its whiteness rivals the everlasting snows of Mont Blanc, and the taste is worthy of Lucullus. Vitellius would never have dined without it; Apicius would never have gone to Greece to seek for crawfish; and had he only half the fortune left when he committed suicide, he would have preferred to have left proud Rome and retire to some villa or cottage to enjoy such an enticing dish.”

I have reported this recipe in the other blog with Jane Grigson’s modifications for making the delicious dish yourself in a modern oven. Click here for the recipe. Try it – you will not be disappointed, no siree.

For some crazy reason there is no recipe for Cream of Mushroom Soup in Jane Grigson’s English Food. I do not know why this is because when I was thinking about recipes that were omitted from the book, it was one of the most glaringly obvious absentees. As you may know, it is one of the reasons for doing this blog – compiling recipes that were missed out of English Food. This recipe is one of my staples and is from Lindsey Bareham’s excellent book A Celebration of Soup. It is delicious and very quick to make and uses the old-fashioned way of thickening soups with the use of old bread.

Ingredients:

2 oz stale white bread

milk

1 lb mushrooms, finely chopped (any kind, but Portobello mushrooms are the best for this)

2 oz butter

1 clove of garlic, finely chopped

2 tbs finely chopped parsley

salt, pepper and nutmeg

1 pint of chicken or vegetable stock

4 fl oz double cream

Place the bread in a dish and pour enough milk over it to make it nice and soggy. Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the mushrooms.
Cover, and simmer for five minutes. Squeeze the milk out of the bread, break it up and add it to the pan along with the garlic, parsley and the seasonings (don’t be tight with that nutmeg, folks) before pouring the stock over the lot. Bring to a boil, and turn the heat down to a simmer and cook for a further ten minutes. Pop the soup into the blender, return to the pan, stir in the cream and bring back to the boil. Easy!

If you want to do a low-fat version, use some fat-free cream cheese like Quark, or just use milk instead of cream.

That’s enough mushroom talk for now, I think….

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Filed under food, history, Recipes, Soups, The Victorians, Vegetables