The Vintage Cookie

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Nineteenth Century Peach Ice cream and the Flavor Principle

Well, now that I have finished painting (for at least the immediate future), I can return to FOOD. It is still too hot to cook, so I  made Peach Ice Cream, another recipe from Mrs. Lettice Bryan's recipe in The Kentucky Housewife (1839). I followed the recipe as given (although I used an electric ice cream machine), so I will present the recipe first. Then I will discuss how it came out, and what I learned.

Coincidentally, the ice cream is made with heavy cream but without eggs (although the author offers an egg custard made with milk as a variant, if you are low on cream.) Apparently this style of ice cream is enjoying something of a comeback, and even was covered in the New York Times recently. (See Egg-Free Ice Cream Lets Flavors Bloom , and thanks, Pauline, for the link.)

The Kentucky Housewife by Mrs. Lettice Bryan (1839), pp. 341-342
Select peaches that are very ripe and soft, peel them, extract the stones, and mash them to a marmalade. Having one quart of peach pulp, mix with it one pound of powdered sugar, a grated nutmeg and a tea-spoonful of powdered cinnamon; stir it into a quart of rich sweet cream, and freeze it as directed [in an earlier recipe.] If cream is not to be had, substitute a quart of rich sweet milk, stir into it the beaten yolks of five or six eggs, simmer it till the eggs are sufficiently cooked, set it by till cold, and then stir into it the peaches, &c. as before directed.

Comments -
First off, this is a lovely ice cream, and it improves with a day or two in the freezer to let the flavors meld. This is also an excellent example of the concept of the flavor principle, as discussed in my review of Elizabeth Rozin's book, Ethnic Cuisine. This ice cream reflects a very old flavor principle in English cooking - sugar, nutmeg and cinnamon. To the modern palate, this ice cream tastes like a cross between peach ice cream and pumpkin pie. But that reflects just how old fashioned pumpkin pie is (well, how old fashioned the spices are, pumpkin pie is relatively modern, since pumpkin is a new world food.) Nutmeg and cinnamon were extremely common Elizabethan spices, used in savory as well as sweet foods.

In the U.S., and even in Britain, we have largely abandoned this flavor profile, especially the lavish use of nutmeg. It is hard to appreciate nutmeg's importance from a few recipes, but from at least the 17th through the 19th century, nutmeg (and its relative, mace) were dominant spices in cooking in the English speaking world. In some rural districts, nutmeg remained important well into the twentieth century. My husband remembers playing as a child in an abandoned grocer's cart. The cart had functioned as a traveling grocery store, visiting remote farms in southwestern Scotland before World War II. Even in the 1970s, the ruins were coated in a thick layer of ground nutmeg dust which covered every surface in the interior. When you make a modern recipe that uses nutmeg, such as pumpkin pie or eggnog, you are preparing a dish with ancient roots. This ice cream strongly reflects this ancient flavor profile, nutmeg with sugar and cinnamon.

The flavor of this ice cream is also notable for what is missing -- vanilla. Vanilla is the flavor profile that has replaced nutmeg in so many of our sweets. This ice cream, without either vanilla or egg, has an unusually bright, fresh flavor which is quite delicious, and even a little exotic. So dig out your ice cream maker and enjoy a quick trip to an antebellum summer party.

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