The Vintage Cookie

Saturday, July 31, 2010

What is an authentic vintage recipe?
I made scones today, using the New York Times Cookbook, publication date of 1963. This is the cookbook I grew up with, and this is the scone recipe I grew up with. But I tweaked it -- tried a suggestion I read in Cooks Illustrated for cutting in the butter. I froze the butter and grated it into the flour using a box grater. Worked great. I also used some leftover eggnog instead of milk. Results - a great scone. Tender and almost flaky, with a lovely sweet flavor. But still a traditional scone, not what passes for a scone in Starbucks.

But here's the rub -- was this a "vintage" scone? Probably not. So, if I were directing someone to make a vintage scone, what do I tell them. Okay, I would skip the eggnog. Although eggnog is a very old recipe, with a very old flavor profile. And it was really, really good. But what about the trick with the box grater. It just makes a better scone, better along the lines of what a cook in 1963 would have understood as a good scone, not better in some new, modern way. And it doesn't use anything not available in 1963. On the other hand, I am pretty sure it is not the classic method.

So when does a recipe stop being vintage?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Unpacking the past - and ruminating on tea and Tea

I have been unpacking the dishes, linens, and other "kitchenalia" I bought in Scotland. Most of it is headed straight over to The Vintage Cookie (found at Eclectic Nature, 1503 Mount Vernon Avenue, Alexandria VA).

Most of what I have brought back relates to tea -- to the meal "tea" as well as the beverage. Scotland is simply awash in pretty tea sets, antique, vintage, and new. A tea set generally includes cups, saucers, and dessert plates, what the British call a "trio." The set may also include serving pieces, such as a tea pot, sugar bowl, cream pitcher, and/or cake plate. If the set is really fancy there may be different cups for coffee, but even the most elaborate tea set is a simple thing compared to a full dinner service. The tea set is meant to be used in the parlor, or drawing room or living room or whatever you want to call it, but not in the dining room. The plates are small, you could balance one on your knee if you were not near the tea table, and accommodate only simple food - sandwiches and pastries. In Scotland I found tea sets to suit every fashion, from the high Victorian straight through to the 21st century hipster (Marks and Spencer has some really nice sets). These pretty sets got me to thinking about tea and Victorians and the invention of modern life.

Tea, the meal, served in the mid-afternoon, is a very modern meal. I know this is not how it is generally viewed. Most of us, when we think of tea, think of pretty porcelain, white gloves and good manners, as well as silver trays loaded with cucumber sandwiches and tarts. A full-on British tea is very Victorian. Tea, as served at the Ritz or the Plaza, is about as close as one can get, without ridiculous effort, to a meal served in the manner in which it might have been enjoyed 110 years ago.

But that is exactly the point - we still enjoy "tea," the meal. It still suits our modern, more casual way of life. Tea, for a middle or upper-middle class Victorian, was not a formal meal. Quite the contrary, tea was the casual meal. Most of our modern meals, I argue, are descendants of the middle class Victorian tea. Whenever we eat anywhere outside the dining room, we are essentially having tea.

Tea is the meal that fled the dining room. The Victorian dining room was a fearsome place, where the full power of the Victorian concept of the patriarchal family was brought to bear. Everything about the dining room was intended to reflect the role of the husband and father. The furnishings were to be sober and masculine. The male head of household sat at the head of the table, with each other member of the family sitting in a spot that reflected his or her relationship to the father and his or her place in the family (the woman of the house sat, always, at the foot of the table.) And the father, or his representatives the servants, served the food. People ate the food according to strict rules of etiquette. There were dedicated tools for nearly every food that might be offered. And fingers were never, never to touch food.

Tea, on the other hand, was served in the drawing room, a woman's room. The drawing room could be decorated in pretty colors, and the arrangement of the seating was determined by the whims of the occupants. The participants at tea could sit where they liked, next to friends on a sofa or in a particularly comfortable easy chair, no matter their social position in the family. Servants were generally banished - they brought the tea things in and set them out, but then left. The tea, and the accompanying finger sandwiches and cakes, were served by the women of the household. People ate and talked. If someone could play the piano, they might be prevailed upon to do so for the entertainment of the room. If it were a family tea, with no guests, newspapers and books might even have come out. If TV had existed, it would almost certainly have been turned on.

And that is exactly the point - today we eat meals that would be identified by the Victorians as tea far more often than we sit down to anything that would look to a Victorian like a proper dinner. Our dining tables are covered in old mail and mittens. Instead we either eat in the kitchen (what a middle class Victorian might call High Tea, after he got over the shock of a middle class family eating in the kitchen), or we grab our food and head for the sofa. Of course, we are even less formal than Victorians were. To us, the Victorian tea does look formal - with one person pouring while another hands out finger sandwiches. But those are details. At its core, tea was a democratic meal, where men and women, old and young, could relax, eat, and talk, as equals.

Which brings me back to tea sets and dinner sets. In Scotland I went to a viewing at a very nice auction house. The second floor was given over largely to dishes of every description - tea sets, full dinner sets, fish forks, art pottery pitchers, silver chocolate pots, and anything else that might conceivably hold food or drink. Most of the pieces shown were late nineteenth through mid twentieth century. As I strolled the aisles I couldn't help noticing how much I liked the tea sets, and how little I liked the full dinner services. The dinner services were solid, conventional, pedestrian, and dated. The tea sets, even when clearly Victorian, Art Deco, or Mid-Century, seemed more modern, lighter of touch and far more likely to look good today, sitting on a modern kitchen table, or on the coffee table in the family room, or on a desk next to a laptop computer.

Now I don't generally ascribe moral characteristics to inanimate objects, but I do think in this case that the heavy weight of traditional expectations may be more than the average dinner service can gracefully handle. Tea sets, free from such expectations, are free to be pretty.  The only dinner service I saw which I thought escaped this fate was an 18th century dinner service. On the Orkney Mainland there is an old manor house, Skaill House, where oddly, you will find Captain James Cook's dinner service from his final voyage. (Quick check on Wikipedia will reveal that Captain Cook was killed in Hawaii in 1779.) This was not a woman's service, but it is exceptionally pretty and lighthearted, as you can see from the following picture of the dinner plate.This is not the plate of a man who worried whether or not his dishes supported his place in the patriarchy.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Play Dough from the Women of Galilee

A couple of days ago I was visiting my father, who lives in a high rise condominium tower. In the basement, on your way out to the parking garage, there are a couple of bookshelves where residents leave books they want to be rid of. Often these include cookbooks. On my last visit I found two interesting cook books: an English language translation of the classic French cookbook Tante Marie, and Loaves and Fishes from the Women of Galilee Episcopal Church, Virginia Beach, Virginia.

I love community cookbooks. Even when most of the recipes aren't very good, the collection tells a story about the group that chose them and put them together. Occasionally, the books are also promising as cookbooks. Loaves and Fishes looks to be one of the promising ones. The book is undated, but based on the illustrations it is post-1962. I would guess it is actually late 70s or early 80s. There is an unusually limited use of canned soup and other prepared foods, and a nice variety - plenty of seafood dishes, as well as lamb, buffalo and venison. But one of the most charming chapters is "Children's Recipes," which include a few treats, bubble soap, face paint, and several recipes for modeling doughs. One of them looked simple enough, and it was. Fifteen minutes after starting, my four year old and I had:

Play Dough (contributed by Leslie Reid Baker, p. 41)

2 cups flour
1 cup salt
4 tsp. cream of tartar
2 cups water
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
Food coloring

Cook over medium heat, stirring until mixture leaves the sides of the pan. [Turn contents out onto a large cutting board.] Knead in food coloring. Store in airtight container.

Who knew that Play Dough was really a salty choux paste? Anyway, this worked remarkably well. The Dough is lovely and soft and models well. I think I like it better than the commercial stuff. The recipe is  generous. We had enough Dough to fill 5 of the larger empty Play-Doh containers. We made five different colors, picking from my vast collection of food colors. Next time I think we will make more colors. And the whole project took fifteen minutes from reading the recipe to settling my son down for a couple of hours of quiet play with his new Play Dough.

Score one for the ladies of Galilee.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


I will be spending most of this week painting my space for The Vintage Cookie at Eclectic Nature. I'll be blogging more about the design of the space, with pictures, but for now I wanted to recommend the best book I know on how to actually paint a room, Painting Secrets from Brian Santos, The Wall Wizard. Usually I stay away from books labeled "XYZ Secrets," suspecting that I will get a bunch of disconnected tips. But this book is complete, covering all you need to know to produce a paint job better than most professionals can produce. It is my room painting bible. The instructions are detailed, thorough, and easy to follow. The advice covers not just how to paint a perfect room, but how to clean up and prep a room with problems. The book also covers equipment, planning, and clean-up. I have found the detailed description of clean-up to be especially useful. If you are planning to paint a room, buy this book.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Cookbook Review: Ethnic Cuisine by Elizabeth Rozin

This cookbook changed the way I understand cooking. The recipes are good, but the book is much more than simply a collection of good recipes. Ethnic Cuisine develops an intellectual framework for thinking about cuisine. I will be using this intellectual framework for my exploration of historical recipes here on The Vintage Cookie.

In Ethnic Cuisine Rozin identifies three features which determine a "cuisine," 1) basic foods, 2) cooking techniques and 3) the "flavor principle." Of these, the flavor principle is the most important for learning to cook a cuisine.  According to the flavor principle, different cuisines can be identified by "the pervasive use of certain combinations of seasoning ingredients" (p. xiv, emphasis in original). The book is organized to showcase 36 distinct flavor principles, from Soy sauce - rice wine - gingerroot (China) through Sour orange - garlic -achiote (Yucatan).

The recipes are excellent. Among the recipes which have entered my general repertoire are Egyptian Vegetable Soup (p. 83), Chicken in Garlic Vinegar Sauce (p. 157, Northern Italy), and the Chopped Liver (p. 124, Jewish). In general, Rozin's recipes in this book, as in her other books, are absolutely reliable. She is one of the few authors whose recipes I am willing to make for the first time for guests.

But the book is much more than the sum of the recipes. I have read "Ethnic Cuisine" through, cover to cover, several times. Rozin is an excellent writer, and her lively and informative introductions to each "Principle" are as valuable as the recipes. With the flavor principle, I plan better menus - and not just one-cuisine menus. The principles are almost like colors, it is possible with just a little testing to learn which ones go together. I also find I am much better at creating my own recipes. I still remember one of the first recipes I ever created on purpose (that is, not just by messing with ingredients I had on hand). I had made the Greek Chicken (p. 92), flavored with tomatoes, cinnamon and lemon. The flavor profile seemed to beg for a new interpretation - as a dairy-free, meat-free onion and eggplant pizza.

For this current project, the concept of the "flavor principle" will largely guide my study of historical cuisine. I will not ignore the other two elements - basic ingredients and technique, but to the extent that these differ from current practice, adopting them is often prohibitive. I do not have a cooking fireplace in my kitchen, nor do I have a brick oven for baking. Ingredients which are hard to get, like mutton and unpasteurized milk, are also unlikely to become a regular part of my cooking. But I can adopt some of the "flavor principles" which can be gleaned from period cookbooks. I will in general try to replicate recipes as closely as possible on the first pass, and learn from that attempt. Then I will explore what modifications, if any, might be made to introduce the dish into a modern repertoire, with understanding of, and preservation of, the dish's flavor principle as the guiding framework. I hope that together we can come to better understand the palate of our ancestors, to taste the world more as they tasted it, even if we cannot quite see with their eyes what they saw.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Still too hot to cook - a chicken sallad from 1839

Chicken Sallad (The Kentucky Housewife, pp. 123-124. facsimile ed. Applewood Publications)

Too hot to bake again today, and family coming over for dinner. I was poking about again in The Kentucky Housewife and the recipe for chicken sallad looked extremely promising, both simple to accomplish and likely to be tasty. My guests apparently agreed; four adults polished off all but 1/2 cup of the "sallad."

I started with a plain rotisserie chicken from Whole Foods. I served the sallad with potato rolls, instead of "slices of light bread," but otherwise followed the recipe exactly. For reference, a gill is 4 oz, or half a cup. I mixed the dressing with my Korean mortar and pestle, but a food processor would also work great. I used a French mustard containing only mustard seed, water, salt, and vinegar. I dribbled the oil and vinegar in slowly, probably slower than was necessary. Equal parts oil and vinegar may seem like too much vinegar, but the dressing came out very nicely. Mrs. Bryan is also right about serving right after mixing; when I ate the leftovers this morning, the chicken had gotten very mushy, and the celery was still very crunchy, which threw off the texture. Taste was still great.

And without more ado, here is the recipe:

"Take a fine young fowl, season it well, and either boil or roast it till it is very tender; set it by to cool; then take off the skin and mince the meat fine from the bones. Wash two large heads of celery, cut the white part into small pieces, mix them with the minced fowl, put the mixture into a covered dish, and set it by till the dressing is prepared, which should not be put on till a few minutes before it is sent to table, as it has a tendency to harden both the chicken and the sallad, and make them tough. For the dressing, take the yolks of six hard boiled eggs; mash them to a smooth paste with a spoon, add to it half a tea-spoonful of fine salt, half a tea-spoonful of cayenne pepper, half a gill of made mustard [1/4 cup], a gill of vinegar and one of sweet oil [1/2 cup of each]. Mix all these ingredients well together, mashing and stirring them till they become very smooth; then pour it over the chicken and sallad, and mix them thoroughly together. Send it to the table in a deep dish, accompanied with slices of light bread neatly spread with butter, also crackers, grated tongue, oysters, etc.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Advice from The Vintage Cookie - Silver Plate without the Pain

I love silver and silver plate. I love the way silver looks on a dinner table, how it reflects the light. I even like polishing it -- once. There is something very satisfying about bringing home a new piece, black with tarnish, and bringing it back to life. However, it is dispiriting to re-polish, cleaning yet again a piece you have already polished. And worse, each time the piece tarnishes and must be polished you lose silver. On a solid piece the loss may be minimal, although over time any designs will be worn down. On a piece of silver plate you will eventually remove the layer of silver, revealing the base metal beneath, and ruining the piece.

So -- it is best if your silver and silver plate does not tarnish in the first place.

Tarnish on silver is mostly silver sulfide, although there may be some silver oxides or carbonates present as well. The sulfur comes out of the air and also can come out of food, paper, or latex. So here are a few rules to protect your silver

1. Store all silver and silver plate pieces in airtight packaging. I favor ziploc bags. For really big pieces I have really big bags.

2. Use a sulfur-eating product in the ziploc bag. You can buy impregnated cloth (Silver cloth), or you can use sachets of activated charcoal. The activated charcoal can be bought at any pet store. You will eventually have to replace the charcoal - how often depends on how often you open the ziploc bag. Every couple of years should do it.

3. Do not ever serve sulfur containing foods in silver. This includes all eggs, from deviled eggs to caviar. There is a reason that caviar spoons are made out of horn, not silver. Also avoid serving mushrooms on silver.

 4. Do not use rubber around silver. Use vinyl gloves, or cotton, not rubber, when handling or polishing silver. Do not use rubber bands.

5. Do not pack silver with paper, especially newsprint. Modern paper is better then older paper, but it can still contain sulfur or other oxidants.

6. Use cotton gloves on your hands when handling clean silver, especially if you are about to put it away in the zip bag. Your skin oils can tarnish the silver.

7. If you have to polish silver - go gently. On heavily tarnished pieces I use Wright's Silver Polish, on less heavily tarnished pieces I favor Wright's Silver Cream, and for the regular cleaning of pieces which I use regularly or semi-regularly, I like the very gentle Hagerty's Silver Wash. The Hagerty's is used wet, with a sponge, when you are washing up an item. It gently removes only the most superficial flush of yellowing, but if you follow my storage suggestions above, that is all you should ever have to deal with. To polish pieces I use only 100% cotton rags -- and I cut off all of the seams, because even on a 100% cotton T-shirt the seams usually contain polyester threads, which can scratch. I do not use microfiber cloths on silver unless the cotton really isn't working to remove deep tarnish - and if without removing the tarnish the piece can't be used. Microfiber cloths are fairly abrasive (they will leave a swirl pattern you can see in a raking light.) But a buffing with a microfiber cloth will often clean off the most stubborn tarnish.

I hope these suggestions will encourage to get out your silver and silver plate and use it. Especially for a big party or holiday dinner, nothing looks quite as festive. I love laying out a buffet on my silver plate dishes and platters. If you don't have any silver or silver plate, you are in luck, because there is lots and lots of it available. The silver is pretty expensive these days - but when you factor in the fact that you are actually buying silver, you often are not paying much for the skill and effort that went into making the object. Silver plate is generally very inexpensive, especially vintage. There is lots of it around, at antique shops and even charity shops. You can usually buy enough for a buffet party for a lot less than it would cost to set yourself up with a plastic or glass buffet service at The Crate and Barrel.

Of course, I have a lovely selection of silver plate at The Vintage Cookie in Eclectic Nature (1503 Mount Vernon Ave, Alexandria, VA). I also sell big zip bags and activated charcoal sachets, for protecting your silver plate at home.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Too hot to bake, just right for lemonade.

8 am,  and it is already 85 degrees out - not a good day for Vintage Cookies. Instead I offer you a more seasonal recipe from the wonderful The Kentucky Housewife, written by Mrs. Lettice Bryan and published in 1839.

Lemonade (p. 387)

Take ripe lemons, roll them under your fingers on a table till they appear like they are full of juice; then squeeze the juice into a bowl, to each pint of which allow three pints of water, or if in summer, allow two and a half pints of water and a lump of ice equal to the other half pint. Sweeten it to your taste with loaf sugar, and serve it up in small glasses.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Vintage Cookie Project

Come. Pour yourself a cup of tea, a mug of coffee, or a big glass of milk and join me on a visit to the past, with cookies.

In this blog I will chronicle my trip through the history of cookies, with recipes -- an invitation to explore, to learn, and to enjoy some of the sweetest bits of history.

Why cookies? Well, first, because I like them. Second, because I can reasonably expect to be able to make cookies on a regular basis. A formal 6-course Victorian dinner does not fit my current lifestyle very well -- but I can mix up a batch of "jumbles" or gingerbread before the four-year-old gets out of preschool. But third, and perhaps most important, I like the thread that cookies weave through history. There are fancy cookies, cookies baked mostly by professional bakers in large cities -- but many cookies, perhaps most, were developed by housewives and baked at home. Since the founding of America, American women have treasured cookies and cookie recipes, and have shared both with their family and friends.

What is a cookie? A small, flat cake -- generally including flour, sugar, eggs and some form of shortening. The cookie may also include a wide array of other ingredients for flavor or texture - nuts, chocolate, oatmeal, spices and flavorings of every description. The anonymous author of the wikipedia article on cookies posits a "general theory of cookies," as opposed to cakes. While cakes, whether baked small or large, use water or some water-based liquid as the "medium for cohesion," the cookie has largely abandoned H2O in favor of oils and fats. Oils and fats, of course, are lovely things. They carry flavor much better than water, they create a marvelous texture, at once crisp and moist, and, as they don't evaporate, cookies remain fresh and lovely much longer than cake.

Cookies are old, but they do not come into their own until the nineteenth century. Several forces seem, to me, to have been important, including the development of easily available chemical leavening, such as baking soda and baking powder, the decreasing cost of sugar, the spread of technology for easier, quicker baking, the increasing availability of once exotic ingredients like coconut and vanilla, at least near major cities, and publication of both cookbooks and of periodicals written for housewives, which introduced new recipes. At the end of the nineteenth century the rise of Domestic Science as an academic course of study, and the rise of competitive baking for County and State agricultural fairs, may also have played a role in establishing home baked goods, including cookies, as an important female accomplishment. In the twentieth century recipes developed and disseminated by the manufacturers of ingredients have introduced some of our most important cookies, including the chocolate chip cookie. The original recipe is still printed on the back of every bag of Nestle "Toll House" chocolate chips sold.

So dust off your cookie cutters and let's get baking.