My goal for 2010 is to explore Victorian cookery though the recipes in a classic of the era, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, henceforth referred to as “Beeton’s” or “Mrs. Beeton’s.” I am using an out-of-print, unabridged 1969 facsimile of the first edition. I am going to prepare a meal from this book weekly as an informal but sumptuous family-style supper, and will crank up the fanciness for special occasions like parties or holidays.
My goal is not to kill myself always making everything from scratch. I know the Victorians jumped at shortcuts and conveniences when they could (like a staff of eight, ho ho), and I will too, when it seems necessary. When I want to go crazy and make stock and candy my own orange peel and basically do the work of a staff of servants all by myself, I will. I am going to make some food that is uncommon on our tables now–I will make aspics, will attempt to source less-common game, and will explore the world of organ meats, something I’ve avoided in the past. I think this will fulfill one of my primary goals, which is to amuse myself.
I did a three-course Victorian-style meal for Christmas, based on two different December menus that are presented in Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. If you have an interest in cookery and were raised eating Western European-style cuisine, Victorian cooking is not going to be that out there.
There are a few things I’ve noticed about the December menu, and the recipes in general. It sounds extremely obvious, but I am used to doing whatever I want, whenever I want, with any food I want. Your typical modern general cookbook is going to have variations on dishes from all over the world, or will combine cuisines.
If I felt like making a fresh strawberry dessert yesterday, I certainly could have, though the results would probably not be as delicious as the same dessert in June. I understand the Victorians were fond of hot houses and greenhouses and even had access to exotic foods like pineapple if they were wealthy enough and were interested in pursuing in cultivating tropical fruit. Beeton’s is directed at a more general audience and seems to have been affordable to the masses, so the recipes and menus have a seasonal focus. There are even asides in the recipes, such as “when parsley is not available.”
In a nutshell, what this means is that a December menu is going to focus heavily on game, onions, and other root vegetables. Here is the menu for my dinner:
I served five people and cherrypicked from menus 2116 and 2118, but ultimately decided to roast a stuffed duck, because they are delicious and I hadn’t made one in yonks. Most recipes were scaled WAY back because originally I planned to serve two people and a preschooler, but lo, my sister and her husband did not have plans and so they came to dinner. Of course with a full-sized duck and pudding in the offing, there were little tastes of something, and loads of others.
I asked everyone to be very honest and restaurant-critic-y, because I was more interested in the true take on recipes rather than fluffing my ego because I’d worked for hours preparing dinner. Hits were the béchamel, which, as I mentioned in a Christmas Day blog post, was different than what you see now, with stock, arrowroot (I used cornstarch), and cream as a base, rather than flour, butter and milk. Same principle (fat, thickener, dairy), but remixed. The sole in cream sauce and fruit-ices (one part cream to one part mashed/pureed fruit, sugar to taste) was also declared a success, making creamy dairy the winner of the day.
The meal was very heavy on “breadcrumb,” which meant croquette coating, duck stuffing, and pudding component. I decided not to go all medieval on dinner and bought a couple loaves of “pain paysan,” a loaf made by a local company that seemed French-bready–no bells and whistles, just a nice chewy white bread that would probably hold up to being coating and stuffing. I could not bear to stuff a duck with crumbs (ugh, the resultant sog) so I chopped them into small cubes.
The most interesting part of this for anyone who is into this level of napkin-gazing was the unexpected. I have never prepared rabbit, and I was shocked at how little I was advised to actually eat off it–back legs and saddle. As I write this, the rest of the once-raw carcass is becoming stock along with the cooked duck leavings.
The rabbit led to the other big surprise for me–the mulligatawny soup. I did not expect it to be half as tasty as it was. It called for “pounded almonds” to be added at the end, I reckon as thickener, and I did the best I could with some almonds and the food processor. I served it over rice, as Beeton’s suggests. Since that was my favorite, I will reproduce it here with my notes, and I will list the rest of what I made with the paragraph numbers [n.b. Link to be added to forthcoming menu page], which is how Beeton’s is organized.
2 tablespoons of curry powder
6 onions (I used 3; 6 would not be too many)
1 clove of garlic (I used 6)
1 oz. pounded almonds
a little lemon-pickle, or mango-juice, to taste
1 fowl [smaller] or rabbit
4 slices lean bacon
2 quarts medium stock (this refers to quality, I used Pacific Brand chicken broth)
Slice and fry onions of a nice color; line the stewpan with the bacon [I chopped the bacon and fried everything else in the subsequent drippings, dropping the bacon into the stewpot I used]; cut the rabbit or fowl into small joints and slightly brown them [I tossed the rabbit in flour and lightly fricassed the chunks]; put in the fried onions, the garlic [I minced and gave it a quick panfry as well] and simmer gently till the meat is tender; skim very carefully, and when the meat is done, rub the curry powder to a smooth batter [I added the curry powder with the stock]; add it to the soup with the almonds, which must first be pounded with a little of the stock [it was fine just stirred in]. Put in seasoning or lemon-pickle or mango-juice to taste [I topped with a dollop of homemade curried green tomato pickle], and serve boiled rice with it.
Time–two hours. [This is about how long I stewed it.]
Complete Searchable Mrs. Beeton’s (Whole chapters posted, so you have to kind of know what you are looking for.)
My Complete Christmas Set (with family mixed in with food)