Potty about Pancakes

I like pancakes. I like their simplicity and their versatility. They are quick, cheap, and endlessly edible, as there really isn’t a limit as to what can be put with them. But we don’t tend to eat pancakes very often, and it’s sad. The association of pancakes with Shrove Tuesday (more usually known, let’s face it, as Pancake Day), is so overwhelming that, for many people, eating pancakes on another day would be as remarkable as eating turkey when it’s not Christmas. But pancakes are lovely! (And turkey is vile). The modern neglect of them in Britain is just weird. Bring back the pancake!

The Shrove Tuesday thing is understandable. Lots of countries have edible rituals associated with the day before the Lenten fast starts, and many of them centre around treat foods, such as waffles or buns and cakes. The usual explanation is that these foods use up the animal products which are in the house before 40 days of fast. Well, yes, except that an organised household would have run these things down anyway, and eggs last weeks, and Sundays were exempt from the animal product prohibition. Lent, if you were practising a medieval style fast, would have been fairly tedious, and it was long. Far longer than the Advent fast, the other biggie in the Catholic calendar at that point. (Though, to be fair, the diet of most people would have been fairly tedious anyway). I suspect the joyous eating of Pancake Day and Fat Tuesday and the like has more to do with a mental hair-letting-down in preparation for a lengthy bout of seriousness, but one which quickly became enshrined in medieval codes of conduct. There’s a fair amount of fun to be had beyond the pancakes themselves: pancake races started in some places by the 15th century, and that’s always a laugh. Most of the modern ones are exactly that, by the way – modern – but still amusing.

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Inter-livery pancake race outside the London Guildhall, 2015

Pancakes are a pretty good food to centre a party around, if you want that party to be open to everyone. They’ve become codified in British culture as a white flour-based batter, enriched with eggs, with milk as the liquid agent. But that’s a conception that really only took firm hold as the number of occasions upon which we ate them dwindled to that one day. You only have to glance across the channel at France to see how wrong-headed we are on this one. The Breton crêperie is an absolute institution, and a reliable standby for cheap, quick fodder, centred around a predictable menu. The Bretons were to France as the Irish were to Britain: viewed as a poverty-stricken, barely educated mass, perfect for supplying labour to factories and mills, and servants to the middle and upper classes. But where the Bretons went, their food came too, and that meant crêpes and their savoury equivalent, the galette. They were food for the poor, made of easy available cereal crops, ground to flour and mixed with any available liquid and and egg if possible. Galettes are normally made of buckwheat flour. But they remain a pancake, really, and pancakes can be made of anything.

The first pancakes were probably prehistoric. Because they can be made of anything, wherever people settled, they could grind something to a powder and add it to liquid. Tapioca, spelt, einkorn, rye…all these newly fashionable ancient grains work in an unleavened batter, to be cooked on a stone or, later, metal griddle. So too do ground cassava, potato, rice, chickpeas etc. Throughout the world, there are pancakes, and the vast majority do not conform to the British norm. And that’s even without widening the definition to include chemically leavened griddled products. Or fried dumplings. Or fritters. Many types, such as American style pancakes, only properly developed only after the mid-19th century and the popularisation of baking powers. The same goes for crumpets, pikelets, and drop scones (although some variants did exist, using yeast and demanding a proper prove).

Pancakes were a universal food, a fairly neutral base to which other ingredients could be added to make a meal – cheese, ham, potatoes were the most obvious savoury additions in most of Europe, while sugar, spice and preserves made for a sweet course. This latter set formed the basis for the upper class pancake, enabling the pancake to hold a fairly rare position in the culinary sphere. With very little tweaking of the basic foodstuff, it was able to be both poverty food and elite food at the same time.

The elite versions had been around forever – the Roman writings of Apicius contain a recipe for a pancake-like thing (the amounts are characteristically vague, so it could also be an omelette, custard, or cake), which uses pepper and honey. By the medieval period they were sufficiently common that writers referred to them with an assumption that the reader knew what they were. Indeed, the thin British form became a metaphor: flat as a pancake. 18th and 19th century cookery authors used them as a universal culinary marker, instructing that batters should be ‘of the consistency of pancake batter’, and that things should be ‘the thinness of a pancake’. Posh pancakes as they developed in the 17th and 18th centuries are delightful. The early ones used brandy, wine or ale as the liquid agent, frequently with sweet spices in the better as well. By the late 18th century, the ubiquitous cream tended to be used instead, though often with a generous glug of brandy or sweet wine as well. A typical recipe comes from Robert May in 1660:

Take three pints of cream, a quart of flour, five eggs, salt, three spoonfuls of ale, a race of ginger, cinnamon as much, strain these materials, then fry and serve them with fine sugar.

However, if you want a historic pancake recipe to really make your senses sing with joy, try this, from Frederick Nutt’s Imperial and Royal Cook (1809):

Pink coloured Pancakes: Boil beat-root till tender, and then beat it fine in a mortar; add the yolks of four eggs, two spoonfuls of flour, and three or four of cream; sweeten it, and grate in half a nutmeg: add a glass of brandy: mix all well together, and fry your pancakes in butter: garnish them with green sweetmeats.

I am organising a crack team of live interpreters, who will be cooking and talking about Georgian food at Kew Palace over some of the Easter weekend. You can rest assured that they will be making that one. Pink pancakes!

Pancakes, therefore, can be anything, to anyone. If you plan to make them this Tuesday, and you see them as a novelty to be cooked once a year, you are doing yourself a disservice. Fillings, flours, liquids…stacks, rolls, wedges….the possibilities are endless. Oh and the Fear Of Tossing? Escoffier tosses. Others flip. Or turn. Or even make them so thin they don’t need cooking on the other side. Toss if you want to (there can be advantages, as it’s quick and if it works, the thing won’t stick, like particularly evil clingfilm, to itself). But don’t feel obliged. And if all else fails, the Austrians do a thing called Kaiserschmarren, which is pancakes chopped up or pulled apart, so that they look like good scrambled eggs, but taste like heaven. There is a solution to every cooking fail.

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Kaiserschmarren. Breakfast of Emperors.

NB: If you do try the above, remember that eggs were smaller then, and use 2/3 of the amounts – and as small as you can get.
Further reading:

Ken Albala (2008) Pancake: A Global History
Harold McGee (2010) Keys to Good Cooking
Darra Goldstein and Sidney Mintz (2015) The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

BBQ tips from Georgian cooks

The new series of The Kitchen Cabinet is here – yay! In keeping with the bank holiday tradition of having a ridiculously late lunch of half cooked meat with a tang of firefighting fluid, we discussed barbecuing. I brought one of these with me.

A gridiron. (American, 1890)
A gridiron. (American, 1890)

I’ve been asked a few times about the history of barbecuing: where it originates, why it’s so inexplicably gendered, and why so much of the stuff turned out on BBQ’s in the UK is crap (ok, I made that last bit up, but I had a fairly traumatising occasion last year involving poultry, charcoal, and the clear need for a meat thermometer. It could have ended in A&E). It has a long, complicated, and increasingly disputed history. The OED suggests etymological origins from Portugal, with the word itself entering the English language by the seventeenth century. You can find early English recipes in most eighteenth century cookery books, such as this one, from Henderson (c.1800):

BBQ pig, Georgian style. It's quite nice.
BBQ pig, Georgian style. It’s quite nice.

Here, the specificity doesn’t lie in the technique – it’s just roasted meat – but in a mixture of the ingredients, the basting, and the use of the contents of the drip pan to make a sauce. We’d recognise the application of direct heat to a lump of meat and the dousing in a spicy sauce as being part of modern day barbecuing. Elsewhere, the term is used to indicate the grilling of meat over a fire on a platform or piece of apparatus constructed for the purpose. Again, something we’d sort of recognise today.

(Incidentally, grilling is in in the old English and modern American sense of heat from below, rather than modern English heat from above. Today we use grill for top heat, Americans use broil. We used to use broil for top heat too. Etc.).

Barbecue as a term continues to crop up throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century in English-authored cookery books, and it would be plausible to see a link between the fairly basic techniques of grilling and roasting on open fires with some form of sauce, and the development of modern BBQ, which is overwhelmingly associated with countries which were colonised and/or opened up by westerners in the same period. Australia, New Zealand and, of course, America, in particular the Deep South, also have the benefits of having a climate which makes the development of BBQ techniques and recipes not only feasible, but necessary – put simply, in a country like Britain, where you can reasonably only BBQ three or four times a year, BBQ can only ever remain a bit of a novelty. Elsewhere, it’s a quotidian cookery method. There’s a strong argument, however, that BBQ was (and is) a pretty low-tech way to cook, and that, for that reason, in America, it was the very poor, especially rural poor who really elaborated the techniques and flavours. And yes, very poor, and rural poor, in the Deep South, means slaves and their descendants. There were, of course African antecedents – but let’s face it, every culture armed with food and fire and a basic ability to construct a bit of kit has traditions involving open fire cookery. There’s an excellent article on this subject by Michael Twitty from The Guardian here, and a piece on the tension between modern, white BBQ  champions and the real heritors of many of the historic aspects of BBQ on the BBC here.

BBQ, then, historically, is just cooking. English recipes clearly show that, even if its origins may have been in outdoor, open-fire cookery, the term was quickly applied to kitchen-based cookery. In America, where it stayed outside, it was still everyday cookery. So how on earth did we get to a stage where, in the UK at least, it has become a weirdly gendered, and very specific style, of ruining your lunch?

I think part of it comes down to open fires disappearing from our homes. BBQ doesn’t have much of a presence in formal food writing, at least, in the twentieth century, until the 1960s. Of course, many homes still had open fires for heating at that point, but fires for cooking on were increasingly rare. Rare, mildly dangerous things, especially those involving physical labour and special gadgets aren’t naturally gendered – nothing is – but sadly they tend to be written about in gendered terms and marketed toward men. By the late 60s and 70s, when BBQ recipes and techniques were starting to appear in cookery books, the gender division was already clear, along with the cunning ploy of selling extra kit to naive cooks. Here’s Marguerite Patten’s Book of Savoury Cooking (1961), and The Good Housekeeping Camping Caravan Cookery Book (1978):

A man and his bird.
A man and his bird.
I'd be more impressed with a really big G&T and lots of camembert.
I’d be more impressed with a really big G&T and lots of camembert.

Pshaw, I say. It’s all a load of rubbish, I hear you cry! Well, of course. We have absolutely no need for heaps of special tools for cooking stuff in a way in which was the only way of cooking stuff for quite a lot of centuries. A modern day standard charcoal BBQ is just a chafing stove. Here’s one at Kew Palace.

Kew Palace chafing stoves, c.1730

Gosh! A grill with charcoal in, and stuff cooking on top! Hmm. Which brings me to my last point. I have had some really good food cooked on BBQs (I’m not even going never the idea of gas BBQs here, by the way – just, no). I’ve even had good food cooked on BBQs in the UK. But generally it’s still a heady mixture of raw and burnt, firelighter flavoured and served with poor quality bread baps and sodding iceberg lettuce. But how to better the British BBQ experience? Well, if you think of your BBQ as a chafing stove and basic roasting apparatus, it does rather help. Here are my top (historically influenced) tips:

1. BBQs enable most of us to get as close to proper roasting as we will ever come. If you’ve a kettle BBQ, you can use indirect heat to roast a joint. If you’ve a more basic beast, buy a spit mechanism (about a tenner in French supermarkets from April to September). Then you can do this:

Chicken on a spit. It works better if you put the coals underneath really, but I was experimenting.
Chicken on a spit. It works better if you put the coals underneath really, but I was experimenting.

2. It’s a grill. Grill stuff. Hence the gridiron I opened with. Use the same techniques you would use in a top heat grill attached to an oven. Presumably you don’t usually serve half raw chicken legs from the grill, right? (Sorry – honestly, it was a terrible evening and the memories just burn).

3. It’s a stove. You can make sauces. Like this:

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You can use a normal pan. Though clearly a 3-legged earthenware pot helps to ‘look the part’.

4. Buy a meat thermometer. Please.
For more BBQ fun, the podcast of The Kitchen Cabinet is available via iPlayer, iTunes and all the usual suspects. Or the dedicated webpage is here.

Sham ham and other stories

I accidentally acquired a new mould at the weekend. I say, ‘accidental’,, but clearly I walked into a shop, ogled, lusted after and paid money for, said mould, so it didn’t exactly fall into my sticky mitts or anything. However, on Friday I had no idea I needed a new mould, and by Saturday evening I was convinced I couldn’t have lived without it. Here it is:

Ham mould, c.1890. Photo from the Appleby Antiques website (it's lethal for food historians)
Ham mould, c.1890. Photo from the Appleby Antiques website (it’s lethal for food historians)

Isn’t it lovely?! Somewhat co-incidentally, I’d recently rediscovered this picture, of a surprise sweet entremets, from Garrett’s Encyclopedia of Practical Cookery, c.1895.

IMG_-4z6lgdA sweet entremets came about 3/4 way through an à la Russe meal, of the kind Garrett would have had in mind. As a diner, you’d already have ploughed through hors d’oeuvres, soup, fish, a savoury entrée, a roast, a remove, some vegetables or such like and you might be be a tad jaded. Enter….a ham. ‘Not more meat!’ you cry, weeping tears of mutton fat from your buttery brow. But no, for it is ‘en surprise’…. Garrett describes it as a sponge cake, hollowed out from the bottom and filled with sweetmeats or cream, glazed with chocolate for the colour, and garlanded with candied flowers. The corks are yet more cake, (and could also be filled with cream), while the champagne bottles are real. Quite obviously, this could be called a bold and clarion challenge.

Anyway, it was obsess over that or the small fortress made of fried bread, with carrot cannons and truffle cannon balls from Soyer’s Gastronomic Regenerator, and I know my limits.

This picture was, I think it can be said, directly responsible for the mould purchase. For what came next I can only really blame myself.

Cake in oven
Cake in oven
Cake out of oven
Cake out of oven
Cake filled with sweetmeats
Cake filled with sweetmeats

The cake was a standard fatless savoy recipe, the sweetmeats lemon and cinnamon (essentially they are flavoured marzipan), and the flowers are clary sage (uncandied – it was 10pm by this point). I had a lot of fun.

Hams seem to be pretty popular for this kind of treatment. Garrett also has a swan ‘en surprise’, and this kind of fantasy fun food has a very long history. There are, of course, the mock foods born of necessity – the infamous wartime ‘mock goose’, various mock bacons, and the various vegetarian foods which are made to look like meat (why?). But there is also a lengthy tradition of making one thing look like another. From medieval manuscripts come things like fake guts – actually sweet, but look like something spilled its stomach on the table. Then there’s the  cockentrice, which is somewhat different, given it doesn’t actually look like anything real, but it’s pretty cool anyway (there’s a brilliant explanation, with pictures and commentary, from the inestimable Richard Fitch here). I’ve previously done a meat mellon from Eliza Moxon. And then there is a whole range of cakes or pastes sculpted to look savoury – and ham is right up there for your base item.

I think one reason is its colour – hams are bright, striped, and have yellow and red and brown and the potential for some breadcrumb action. Another is that they were often served cold, at ball suppers and the like, so the lack of steam or cover wouldn’t give the game away too early on. And another may well be that serving a whole ham wasn’t that common – hams were used for cooking with, or in sandwiches, or as luncheons or suppers, and wouldn’t often have appeared at the kind of very expensive dinner at which these sweet fakes would have made an appearance. Basically, if you can afford to have a cook spend all afternoon making marzipan look like bacon, you can afford to serve your guests something more upmarket than ham. So, double surprise – ‘good lord! a ham, how plebeian. but – OMG – it’s CAKE!’. etc.

Incidentally, I’m not convinced the illusion really worked. In the case of the cake, diners would have been expecting a sweet course, so they would’ve guessed within seconds. In the case of the one below – well, that’s more interesting. I cooked it at an event at Kew Palace, and in dim light, a lot of people did mistake it for a lump of pig….

Here’s the final ham cake. And here’s a Georgian/early Victorian sham ham made of almond paste, just to ring the changes.

The final cake.
The final cake.
Sham ham (Ude, French Cook).
Sham ham (Ude, French Cook).

Gin (and cake)

Plug-time. I have a talk coming up at Kew Palace on June 20th called Gin & Cake. It does, pretty much, what it says on the tin. I spend about 45 minutes taking you through the history of gin, which is often fairly sordid, and remarkably free of my usual anatomical gags. Indeed, when writing the thing, I found it a topic quite devoid of laughs.

As a hardened gin drinker, I was aware, in the back of my mind, of its darker history. Like every British schoolchild, we ‘did’ Hogarth’s Gin Lane and Beer Street at some point (presumably between the voyages of discovery and endless, endless, hours of Corn Laws which is most of what I remember from pre-GCSE history classes. I knew that gin was demonised, polarised as part of 17th and 18th century class and gender dialogues, and I knew, if I thought hard enough about it, that it must have been rehabilitated sometime in the 19th century. Otherwise, wherefore all those pictures of grinning Englishmen and women wearing far too much clothing while supping on a G&T on immaculate lawns in Singapore, Hong Kong and India. When I started researching gin properly, however, both the vitriol of its detractors, and the desperate need of its drinkers, was striking. Gin was blamed for every conceivable social ill, especially (of course) the ruination of the flower of English womanhood. It was taxed, it was legislated against, it was, in effect, outlawed. But it outlasted all the attempts to prise consumers away from it, and onto more suitable drinks: beer, ale and, though itself disliked in some circles, tea.

Clearly, people getting blotto and falling out of their clothing, vomiting, putting themselves and others in danger is not a new phenomenon. Neither are warnings against the evils of drink which somehow cross the line into public entertainment (witness all those REAL POLICE, and FRIDAY NIGHT ON THE STREETS style TV programmes). We’re shamed, appalled, and fascinated in equal measure, as much in 1715 and in 2015.

Gin, however, has changed. It’s fashionable. You can visit gin distilleries run by bearded hipsters who can reel off the names of more obscure botanicals than they’ve had hot dinners. But it’s still edgy. James Bond drinks gin (admittedly as a cocktail). It’s an acquired taste, disliked by most adolescent drinkers, at least. It’s still got a certain something. (Not tonic, round my way, as I stopped drinking tonic with it once the usual 18th century corruption of my palette kicked in, and now I drink gin neat, which can get me strange looks). I suppose the whys and wherefores of that are what I eventually set out to explore in my talk.

The cake bit of Gin & Cake is a completely different thing. The history of cake, though, is not without controversy, mainly due to its frivolous nature: cake is not a staple food; we don’t need cake in our diets. As early as 1845 Eliza Acton was calling it ‘sweet poison’, and sniffily refusing to give many recipes for cake (a shame for cake-likers, as she’s one of the best pre-1900 authors I can think of). But cake hasn’t (yet) been blamed for murder, or beatings, or riots. Who knows – the current demonisation of sugar echos that of gin in the 17th century in some ways. In both cases, there’s a level of black and white thinking which allows for very little middle ground for the occasional consumer.

Anyway, the talk is on Gin and Cake, and, as usual, I aim to entertain and educate in fairly equal measure. Last time I gave the talk (last year), it sold out, which was nice, and I had the most mixed audience I’ve  ever seen. Absolute gin fanatics rubbing shoulders with interested in history teetotallers. Young and old, men and women – etc. It was great to see so many people coming together through a love of the past (or, possibly, drawn because of the samples of gin and cake of an historic persuasion, included in the format of the talk). Hey ho.

Link to Kew Palace talks site is here.

NB: I’m doing a sort of mini-residency at Kew this summer:
Gin and Cake (20th June)
Flatulence & Phlegm: on Georgian salads and herbs (2nd July)
Spice Night (8th August)
Abusing Hot Liquors: tea, coffee and chocolate (3rd Sept)
All will include samples.