THE MUFFIN MAN

Do you know the muffin man … the muffin man … the muffin man?  Well, if you mean the one who lives on Drury Lane … Yes, I know the muffin man!   I am dating myself now, quite certainly, by recalling this childhood song.  I doubt any millennials can sing it, or have ever heard of it.  But one thing I do know is that I love English muffins.  Doesn’t everyone?  Splitting an English muffin in half, toasting it and spreading it softened butter and jam has to be one of the best breakfasts I know of … although they weren’t originally intended to be eaten that way.

In America we think of ‘muffins’ s as small hearty, cake-like breakfast items, which may or may not be made with fruit and nuts.  These are not to be confused with English muffins, which we sometimes call “crumpets”.  Although both did originate in England and both are griddle cakes, technically, a “crumpet” is a bread-like dough using baking powder as its leavening agent, while “muffins” use the same bread-like dough but with yeast as its leavening agent.  Also, crumpets are meant to be eaten without slicing open … muffins are sliced open.  Confusing, I know.

If you’ve watched Downton Abbey, or Upstairs Downstairs, you know that all wealthy aristocratic families had their own kitchen staff which, depending upon the size of the household, included cooks and bakers.  The “muffin” or “crumpet” originated from the leftover dough the bakers would be baking that day.  He or she would take the leftover bits, roll them up into a ball, flatten them and toss them onto a hot griddle.  These would then be enjoyed by the “downstairs” staff at tea time.  These crusty morsels were such a tasty hit, the “upstairs” family wanted them too.  It wasn’t long before these bready treats were also being served “upstairs” at tea time.

The word quickly spread about these delicious, small, round grilled rolls.  And soon bakers everywhere were making them and peddling them on the streets to the working classes.  At that time it was far too dangerous for city homes and apartments to have an indoor working oven.  As a result most people could not do their own baking.  So this inexpensive bread roll became an easy breakfast to grab and go while on the way to work.  Early in the morning, on the streets of London, with a wooden board balanced on his head and a bell in hand, the “muffin man” would walk up and down the “lanes” ringing his bell to signal his arrival.

And now that we know who the muffin man was, let’s make some muffins!  I’m using British bread baker, Paul Hollywood’s recipe.  Not quite sure how they are going to turn out, but let’s have fun trying.

ENGLISH MUFFINS
Makes 8 to 10 good-sized muffins.  Prep time:  about 2 to 3 hours.

2-1/3 cups white, bread flour
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon softened butter
1 medium-sized egg at room temperature, beaten
2/3 cup milk, warmed
vegetable oil
corn meal

This makes a VERY wet, soft and sticky dough and can be tricky to handle.  Should it get too sticky while kneading, let it rest for ten minutes.  The gluten will relax and then go back to kneading.

In a large mixing bowl with a paddle attachment (or by hand), mix all the dry ingredients together.  You may want to dissolve the dry yeast in the warmed milk, or not.  It’s up to you.  If you dissolve the yeast in the warmed (not hot) milk, it will shorten the proving time a bit.

Add the milk (yeast mixture), beaten egg and softened butter.  Beat all the ingredients together until smooth, glossy and the dough has formed a ball.  Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board and let it rest for ten minutes.

After ten minutes, begin kneading.  It  will be STICKY.  Don’t add more flour or you will change the structure of the dough.  Continue kneading (scraping the board if necessary) until the dough has stopped sticking and is smooth and shiny.  This will take about 15 minutes.

Place the dough into a lightly greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap and put it in a warm place to double in size.  If you want to make the dough at night to cook in the morning, just place the dough into the refrigerator.  This will slow down the proving process.

When the dough has doubled in size, tip it out onto a lightly floured board which has been dusted with corn meal.  Roll the dough out like a pizza to about 1″ thick.  Using a biscuit cutter, dusted with flour (or tuna fish can, which is what I use), cut out the ‘muffins’.  You should get between 8 and 10.

Place the muffins onto a parchment lined sheet which has also been dusted with corn meal.  Cover the muffins lightly with plastic wrap and let them rest for about 30 minutes.

Preheat a stove-top griddle over medium heat.  Lightly oil the griddle.  If you prefer to oven bake them, preheat the oven to 350° and use a heated pizza stone.  When the griddle is ready, toss the biscuits onto the surface and cook them for about 10 minutes or more on each size, depending upon the thickness of the muffins.  Baking will take about 25 minutes (flipping them over half way).

When done, move them to a wire rack to cool.  Then put the kettle on, get the butter and jam.  Slice one open and lash on the goodness.  You deserve it.  Honestly, once I realized how to work with such a sticky dough, they were quite easy.  Now they are going to be a weekly treat … perfect for a weekend breakfast.

Ella Fitzgerald can even make this little ditty sound good.  Listen ……

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References:  Kitchen Project, The Foodies Companion, Bread Through History, BBC Food

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Mother’s Milk

I am the grandmother of yet another grandbaby … which number it is, honestly, I’ve forgotten.  All that matters is each one is perfect and I love them all.  Their name, however, may occasionally slip away from me (but just for a moment).  While visiting with the new Momma recently, it was necessary to reassure her that she’s doing ‘a wonderful job’ and, ‘yes, it will get easier’.   It was quite fascinating to discuss how many beliefs, ideas and customs have changed since I had my first baby (some 50 odd years ago) to today.  From swaddling to breast feeding to when to introduce solid foods – on and on.  Today, the issue at hand was ‘breast feeding’ … and not necessarily ‘should I or should’t I’, but how there was a time when it wasn’t an issue to be decided by the new mother at all.  Doctors discouraged it, opting instead for the “modern and scientific” way to nourish your newborn … “formula”.

When I think of it now, why was this manufactured substitute for mother’s milk the recommended method and why was it referred to as “formula”.  A name which has stuck to this very day.   Did a marketing genius decide the name “formula” would comfort the then new mother who only wanted to give her newborn all the nutrition and love it needed, or was it just a tag name that ‘stuck’.

It really wasn’t that long ago when, if a new mother did not have milk to nurse her newborn, or did not survive childbirth, there were very few choices.  In Israel, 2000 BC, breastfeeding was considered a religious obligation.  Wet nurses were not only practical, but necessary, and in biblical times, held in very high esteem.  From an Egyptian medical encyclopedia, 1550 BC …

“To get a supply of milk in a woman’s breast for suckling a child:
Warm the bones of a sword fish in oil and rub her back with it.
Or: Let the woman sit cross-legged and eat fragrant bread of 

soused durra, while rubbing the parts with the poppy plant
.” 

A recent scene from the PBS program, Queen Victoria, showed Lehzen, Queen Victoria’s secretary, interviewing new, lactating mothers from the village to see who had the largest breasts and could possibly nurse the future heir to the throne for the soon-to-give-birth Queen.  Queen Victoria was never interested in breast feeding any of her nine babies, so a “wet nurse” had to be found for each of them.

The scene was actually quite disturbing when you consider that should the lactating new mother be chosen she would have been required to give up nursing her own infant in order to be available at a moment’s notice to feed the infant of the Queen.  Queen Victoria was not alone in her decision.  For many aristocratic women of those times, this was quite a common occurrence.  Because of the necessity of wet nurses, for some poorer women, it was actually a means of providing an income for their families … yes, a career choice.  But by the early 1900s, with the introduction of modern and scientific ways to feed infants, the career of wet nursing had pretty much disappeared.

Although feeding bottles of one sort or another had been in use in every culture since the beginning of time, it wasn’t until the 19th century when Elijah Pratt invented a functional and successful rubber nipple so that orphaned newborns could “latch” on simulating a mother’s breast.  Now the problem was what to put into those bottles that didn’t result in so many infant deaths.  They needed a “formula”.

Obviously, animal milk (cows, sheep, goats) was the most common source of replacing mother’s milk but nutritionally, it was inferior to breast milk.  In 1865 a German scientist,  Baron Justus von Liebig, suggested that if foods consisted of protein, carbohydrates, and fats, couldn’t these nutrients then be combined to replicate mother’s milk?  He did not challenge the idea that mother’s milk was the perfect food for an infant, but rather he claimed he had succeeded in concocting an emergency food, a “formula”, whose chemical makeup was identical to that of mother’s milk.  Two years later, the Baron introduced “Liebig’s Soluble Food for Babies” to the European market and by the next year it was being manufactured and sold in London by the Liebig’s Registered Concentrated Milk Company.


Many doctors began proclaiming these “formula foods” (which consisted of dried cow’s milk, wheat malt flour, and potassium bicarbonate) to be superior to the milk of wet nurses.  With the Industrial Revolution now well underway and many women in the workforce, it’s easy to understand how this now “doctor recommended” infant formula food became so appealing.  Unfortunately, with the lack of necessary nutrients missing, “formula” fed babies did not thrive as babies nourished with mother’s milk.

Baby “formulas” continued to be improved and, with the introduction of evaporated milk in the 1910’s, began to be widely commercially available.  Milk corporations began funding clinical studies which suggested that babies fed with evaporated milk formulas thrived “as well as breastfed babies”.  Soon there were dozens of companies manufacturing these products.  The best known of which was Nestle.  Nestle’s advertisements said it was better for babies than milk, for “impure milk in hot weather is one of the chief causes of sickness among babies.”  Their most effective marketing campaign was giving away free samples.  Another company, Mellin’s, combined this offer with free handbooks on proper infant care.  Not only did these handbooks convince new mothers of the reasons to feed their infants “formula”, they convinced many doctors as well.

By the 1940s, bottle designs had also improved, from those which lay flat with openings on either sides, to those which stood up straight, each with detachable rubber nipples.  Whatever the design, they were becoming very popular, and by the 1950s, the U.S. and Britain welcomed the introduction of heat-resistant upright Pyrex bottles.  These newly-improved, hygenic bottles could be sanitized, adding another layer of safety for newborns.

The aggressive marketing of “formulas” in not only the U.S. and Europe, but in developing countries as well, contributed to a global decline in breastfeeding.  This decline generated negative publicity for many manufacturers of baby “formulas”, and beginning in the 1970s, the movement to promote breastfeeding began.

The controversy of whether to feed your baby naturally or with “formula” was not my intent.   My intention was merely to examine the original question of why do we call this alternative food for mother’s milk “formula”  and why was I never given the choice of whether to nurse my babies or not.  I think I’ve found the answers.

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References:  Food Timeline, Alimentarium, Domestic Geek Girl, The Journal of Perinatal Education,

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BREAKFAST TEAS

Have you ever had one of those nights when you’re laying in bed and your head becomes full of the most bizarre, unrelated thoughts.  As hard as you try to toss them aside, you can’t.  Those thoughts just keep coming back into your consciousness … rolling around and around and around.  Well, that’s exactly what happened to me last night.  And, for some reason, the subject was breakfast teas.  Yes, I know … bizarre!   English Breakfast and Scottish Breakfast to be exact.

What kept occurring to me was, “why do they exist?”  Although I’ve traveled through all the wonderful countries of Great Britain, never have I seen (except in grocery stores), been offered or served a “breakfast tea”.  I’ve been served PG Tips, Yorkshire Gold, Barry’s, Twining’s, A&P, Tetley and a variety of unknown bagged teas.  I’ve also been served, on one occasion, a very nice Ceylon.  But never anything for breakfast called “breakfast tea” whether it’s from England, Scotland, Ireland or Wales. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist or aren’t being sold in grocery stores.  Barry’s now has an English Breakfast and Taylor’s even has a Scottish Breakfast.

Here in the States, however, many tea drinkers think you need to start the day with a breakfast tea … most often, English Breakfast, but, of course, if you are a “real tea drinker” then it’s Irish Breakfast.  Why would all of this be running around in my head at 3am?  I don’t know.  But the more I tried to put it away, the more I tried to understand it.

As a tea retailer, my English Breakfast tea … a bright blend of assertive Ceylon and hearty Assam with a burgundy-like Keemun … was by far my most popular seller until that is, customers started asking for something stronger.  They needed a tea that packed the punch of a cuppa coffee … something that would stand up better to milk and sugar.   Knowing that Barry’s packed a punch, I created a tea much like it … a rich, dark blend of high-quality CTC (cut, torn and curled) malty Assams … Irish Breakfast it was!  And it was a huge hit.  But now other customers said it was too assertive, too rich, too dark.  You cannot please everyone, I guess, so back to the blending table.

I felt like Goldilocks and the Three Bears … if the Daddy Bear Irish Breakfast was too strong, and the Baby Bear English Breakfast was too weak, then we needed a Momma Bear.  How about … Scottish Breakfast!

Scottish Breakfast became an even bigger success than English or Irish.  Every customer loved it.  A blend of orthodox full-bodied Assams with just a hint of Ceylons, it struck the right balance between the two.  It held its own with milk and sugar, or dark right from the pot.  It was such a success that orders for 2, 3 and 5 lbs. were coming in continuously.  Customers didn’t want to run out.  Even today, although I’ve closed up shop, I still get requests for “Scottish Breakfast” tea.

But the question still remains unanswered.  With more than 3500 varieties of teas available including Assams, Keemuns, Ceylons, Yunnans, Darjeelings, white teas, green teas, pu-erhs and oolongs, teas from countries all over the world, China, India, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Nepal, Kenya, Japan, then why are breakfast teas still so much in demand here in the States?

And as I sit here this morning enjoying a delicate cup of fragrant, light  Silver Needles with its hint of sweetness, this question remains unanswered and still continues to run through my head.

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(MOCK) APPLE STRUDEL

I am continuing in what appears to be my “mock apple” series of desserts.  Yes, this uses zucchini and, yes, no one will ever know.  From all appearances this is a classic strudel, rich, fruity and delicious.  It just doesn’t have apples in it … which actually makes it more fool proof.  One of the problems I have with making apple desserts, such as strudels or turnovers, is that the apples can sometimes cook down too quickly and become mushy, making for ‘soggy bottoms’.  Zucchini stays firm for that right amount of crunch.

If you are still picking zucchini from your garden at the end of September, as I am, please give this recipe a try.  I know its a bit time consuming, but well worth it!   So, gather all your ingredients and prepare to make something your friends and family will be wow’d by!!

MOCK APPLE STRUDEL
6 cups zucchini – peeled and diced
1 lemon, juiced
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
2 cups fresh bread crumbs (not packaged seasoned)
1/2 cup melted butter
1 egg, separated (white only)
1 package frozen puff pastry dough, thawed

Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.  Preheat oven to 400°.  The strudel bakes for 30 minutes or til golden brown and cooked through.

In a large saucepan over medium heat, add the peeled, chopped zucchini.  Add the lemon juice, white sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt.  Cook til softened – about 15 minutes.  It will bubble up and appear very syrupy, add the cornstarch and continue cooking until very thick – about 5 more minutes.  Remove from the heat and add the raisins.  Set aside while you toast the bread crumbs.

Using old stale bread, toss it into your food processor or blender and shred it up.  You’ll need about 2 cups of bread crumbs.  In a saute pan, melt a half stick of butter (1/2 cup) and then add the bread crumbs.  Toast lightly til brown but not burnt.  Then set those aside.


From the frig, get a package of thawed puff pastry dough.  On a floured board, roll out one sheet of puff pastry until its  v-e-r-y  thin.  Yes, thinner than you think it can handle.  It won’t break apart.  Keep flouring and moving the pastry sheet around so that you can work with it.  I was able to get it 25″ long.  How about you?

Now working from about 3″ in from the long edge, spread the cooled, toasted bread crumbs, about 4″ or 5″ wide.   On top of the bread crumbs, sprinkle the chopped walnuts.  On top of the bread crumb/walnut mixture, drop spoonfuls of the thickened zucchini/raisin mixture.  Spread it out as smoothly and evenly as possible.

Now comes the fun part.  Pull the 3″ swath of pastry that you left without filling, up over the filling.  Press down.  Don’t be afraid.  It will work.  Fold each side in and over the filling – about 1″ or less.  Now put your hands under the filling (which has been rolled once) and roll that over onto the pastry.  Press down.  Now do it again.  You should be able to roll the pastry at least three times, resulting in a long, cylinder of filled pastry.

Lightly beat the egg white and brush it onto the open edge to seal everything.  Press it into the pastry roll tightly.  You don’t want anything leaking out.

Carefully pick up the strudel and lay it onto the parchment paper.  Don’t be alarmed if your strudel doesn’t fit onto your pan.  Forming a horseshoe shape is traditional.  Brush the top with the remaining egg white.  Put the strudel into the refrigerator to cool while you preheat the oven to 400°.

When the oven is ready, put the strudel into the center of the oven to bake – approximately 30 minutes.  Check it quickly at 20 minutes to make sure its baking evenly.  Turning the pan may be necessary for even baking.

When baked, cool the strudel on a baking rack.  It may be necessary to use two spatulas to lift it.  I know you’ll want to dive right in, but let it cool a bit.  Trim off the end pieces and then serve it up … warm with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream!   Rich, fruity, flaky … this is delicious!!!

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HIGHLAND GAMES

The Highland Games and Festival has been taking place in New Hampshire for 42 years.  We’ve been in New Hampshire for 24 years … and this was our first visit.  Why we haven’t made it a point to attend before I’m really not quite sure.  Could have been the fact that I was working most weekends.  But, we finally made it.  And, it was fantastic!

One of the  countries largest Scottish festivals, this three-day event, held at the base of Loon Mountain in New Hampshire, attracted visitors from, not only all over the country, but from all over the world (well, the U.K. mostly).   From the sheep dog trials, the whisky tastings, Ceilidh (pronounced ‘kay-lee’) dancing, caber tossing and hammer throws, to the fiddle contests, traditional foods, crafts and music, it did not disappoint.

Tossing the Caber

The highlights for us were the ‘heavy lifting’ games.  These ‘games’ … caber tossing, hammer throws, dead lifts, shot put … are, after all, the reason for the festival.  And Hafthor* was there to participate and break world records.  Who is Hafthor* you are asking?  Honestly, I had no idea either, but he was impressive … not only throwing cabers and tossing hammers, but lifting a car – with four men in it!  This event gave new meaning to the image of “men in skirts”.

The Highland Games and Festival has been held in New Hampshire for 42 years, but the oldest of the Highland Games are believed to be the Ceres Games of Fife which began in Scotland in 1314.  Although competitive games can be traced back to Greece more than 1,000 years B.C., Scottish games are very specific.  They focus solely on strength and stamina, designed to test the endurance of Scottish warriors.  Clan leaders needed to keep their men sharp and ready for battle.  They would build their strength using simple, easily found objects.  A tree trunk would be made into a pole or wooden beam called a “caber”, to be thrown end over end as far as possible.  Heavy, smooth rocks would be gathered from river beds and would be used to lift and throw.  Lead weights would be tossed underhand over a bar more than twice as high as the athlete.  Each event would be assigned points and the competitor who accumulated the most points would, of course, be the Champion.

Highland Sword Dance

I don’t think anything captures the spirit of the Scottish culture more than Highland dancing though.  Dancing was not only enjoyed by men and women at celebrations and feasts, it was also a form of practice for battle.  Warriors needed to be fast and light on their feet.  Imagine the wailing cry of the bagpipes in the background on a cold, damp battlefield as the warriors quickly and silently pounced on their enemy.  Let’s also imagine that same cold, damp battlefield at night … dancing must have been a great way to keep warm around the fire.

As the men focused on competing in games of strength, women began participating in pipe and fiddling contests and the Highland dance competitions.  These ritualistic solo dances have, for so many Scottish migrants around the world, become an obsession.  Of the most famous of these competitive dances, such as the Highland Fling, the Sailors Hornpipe and the Reel of Tulloch, I believe, is the Highland Sword Dance, which depicts the defeat of the enemy with one sword crossed over the other.  If a dancer touches the sword, they are disqualified.

Photo credit to Pam Sullivan

Today, however, women can and do participate in the heavy lifting events.  Shannon Hartnett broke the gender barrier by convincing organizers to allow women to compete in the heavy lifting events, although only against other women.  Hartnett won every competition she entered.

As are shortbread,”Auld Lang Syne”, Scottish bagpipes, kilts and whisky, the Highland Games are a Scottish icon.  The event was great fun, but more than that, it showcased the strength, dignity and pride of a culture that celebrates traditions which transcends time.  You may never get the opportunity to visit Scotland (and I hope you do), but if possible, make the time to visit New Hampshire next September.

The Highland Games and Festival has been held at Loon Mountain for 42 years and you can be sure we won’t miss another one!  It was fantastic!

 

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References:  Wikipedia, Caber, Highland Sword Dance, Scotland Traditions, Historic UK 

* Hafthor … Hafþór Júlíus “Thor” Björnsson is an Icelandic professional strongman, actor, and former professional basketball player. He plays Ser Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane in the HBO series Game of Thrones.
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Here Zucchini, There Zucchini, EVERYWHERE Zucchini!

I have never had a harvest of zucchini (courgettes in G.B.) as I’ve had this year!  It’s out-of-control!

This photo is just from this morning’s romp in the garden. Believe me, my garden is small … and I am no gardener. But, what to do with this latest batch??? So far, I’ve sliced, diced and stuffed zucchini.  I’ve pickled zucchini, frozen zucchini, made ratatouille, frittatas and quiches.  I’ve added zucchini to salads, stir fries and soups.  I’ve made zucchini muffins, breads, and fritters … and of course, the delicious lemon zucchini drizzle cake and chocolate zucchini bread (recipes available).  Friends, family, co-workers and neighbors don’t want them.  Yikes, what am I going to do?

I am tough … I’ll trudge on … bound and determined to use them all.  So, today I am making Mock Apple Shortbread Bars, a great, easy-to-make recipe that will have everyone scratching their heads.  Trust me!

MOCK APPLE SHORTBREAD BARS
Bake 350°.  Makes 40 or more (depending upon how big or small you cut them)

6 cups fresh zucchini, peeled, seeded and diced (about 3 large)
1/2 cup lemon juice
1 cup sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
3-1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 sticks butter, icy cold and cubed
1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
1 cup oatmeal (not instant)

Use a large 16″ x 10″ sheet or jelly roll pan and line it with parchment paper or grease it well.  I like to use parchment paper so that I can lift everything out of the pan at once, let it cool and then slice.

In a large sauce pan, saute the diced zucchini with the lemon juice for about 10 minutes until soft (not mushy).  Add the sugar and cinnamon and cook for another minute or two.

While the zucchini is cooking, in a very large mixing bowl, combine the flour, salt, sugars and cinnamon.  Cut in the butter (just as if you’re making a pie dough or scones) until the flour is pea shaped and crumbly.  You can certainly do this by hand, but I like using a food processor.

From this flour mixture, take 1/2 cup and stir it into the cooked zucchini til blended with no lumps.  This will help to thicken the zucchini so that its not runny.

Add the oatmeal and chopped walnuts to the rest of the flour mixture and then take half of that and press it into the prepared sheet pan.  Really press down on it because this is going to be the crust.

Spread the cooled zucchini mixture over the crust.  Then, on top of the zucchini, spread the rest of the flour mixture and press down lightly.

Bake at 350° for 45-55 minutes.  The bars should be lightly browned, cooked on the bottom and the filling bubbly.  Cool thoroughly before slicing.  Cut them in squares, bars, diamonds.  Keep them large or small.  Trim the edges as I have here, or not.  There are no rules!

Serve these as a ‘grab and go’ bar cookie, or plated as a dessert with a scoop of ice cream. They’re great for picnics or the beach.  Crunchy and sweet, a gooey filling with a hint of cinnamon.  Your family will love them and they’ll never know they are eating their vegetables!

So if your garden is exploding with zucchini (or even if it is not), add this really easy-to-make, delicious  “mock apple bar cookie” to your ‘go to’ zucchini recipes!!  Absolutely delicious!

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Why Was the Hatter MAD?

Who doesn’t love the nonsensical story of a bored little girl, Alice in Wonderland?  This classic book, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, written by Lewis Carroll (Charles L. Dodgson) in 1871, has been translated in over 100 languages, has never been out of print and from which 17 movies have been made, the first being filmed in 1903.

I’ve written about Alice before … to mark her 150th Anniversary.  Check out the link if you are interested in learning more.  This time, however, I’m more interested in the less-than-subtle character of The Mad Hatter. You have to admit Carroll’s characters are incredibly delightful and entertaining.  Each character is a vivid portrayal of the people in Charles Dodgson’s (Lewis Carroll) world.  As Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Oscar Wilde, etc. each wrote about people with whom they were familiar, interesting characters who were actually part of their lives. How could you not love the Queen of Hearts (Queen Victoria) or the Cheshire Cat?  Of course, the tea party wouldn’t be complete without the Dormouse and the March Hare.

My favorite, and apparently Tim Burton’s as well, is The Mad Hatter.  But my question is, “why was the Hatter mad?”  In the book, he was never referred to as The Mad Hatter.  He is referred to only as “The Hatter”.   It is certainly apparent, however, with his constant barrage of questions, reciting silly poetry and songs, darting in and out of seats at the never-ending tea party, that he is without a doubt, MAD as a HATTER.   Where did this catch phrase and this character come from?

After visiting a “living history” (their words, not mine) museum this past weekend, I learned that “hat manufacturers” from the 18th and 19th century were ‘mad’, with acute cases of dementia, tremors and the like.  It seems the chemicals used to cure the felt used in hat-making included mercurious nitrate.  And we all now know the dangers of being exposed to mercury.  Mercury poisoning from the prolonged exposure to the vapors of mercury causes uncontrollable muscular tremors, distorted vision and confused speech, not to mention hallucinations and other psychotic symptoms.  Dementia was a common ailment for Victorian-era hat makers.  Hence the term “mad as a hatter”.

Theophilus Carter – 1824-1904

Carroll knew one such interesting character by the name of Theophilus Carter, who, it is believed, could have been the inspiration for “the hatter”. Theo wasn’t actually a ‘hatter’ himself, but rather an upholsterer and furniture maker, and a very eccentric and flamboyant one at that.  Often seen standing at the door to his Oxford shop with his infamous top hat perched on the back of his head.  Could Theo have come in contact with mercury vapors while making and upholstering furniture?  Possibly.

How did the process for using mercury to cure felt begin?  It seems that it can be traced back to the Middle East where camel hair was used for the felt material from which fez hats are made. The demand for these hats was tremendous after Sultan Mahud made them fashionable and mandatory for his military.  It was discovered, quite by accident, that the felting process could be hurried up if the pelts were soaked with urine, camel urine to be specific.

19th Century Hat Making

The fashion for felt hats moved north into Europe and with it the manufacturing.  But, camel urine was unavailable.  It is believed that workmen in France, not having camels handy, used their own urine.  Interestingly, one workman in this particular French factory seemed to produce a consistently superior felt. This workman, it was discovered, was being treated for syphilis, with regular doses of a mercury compound.   The connection between the mercury in his urine and the improved fibers of the felt were made and thus began the widespread use of mercury nitrate in felt making.

As a result, mercury poisoning became endemic with hat makers.  Although the hatters were exposed to the mercury fumes in the making of the felt, the wearers were not.  The vapors would have dissipated long before the hat was worn. Needless to say, this process is now banned in the U.S. and Europe.  And now we know why “the hatter was MAD“.

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“In that direction,” the Cat said, waving its right paw round,
“lives a Hatter: and in that direction,” waving the other paw,
“lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they’re both mad.”

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here.
I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be, said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

 

The March Hare and the Hatter put the Dormouse’s head in a teapot, by Sir John Tenniel.

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References:  Wikipedia, Corrosion Doctors, Alice in Wonderland, American Chemical Society,

The Diminutive Lady Who Ruled the World

I’ve been fascinated by Queen Victoria since watching “VICTORIA” the new Masterpiece series which began on PBS this past year.  Jenna Coleman, who rose to fame as the adorable side-kick on the on-so-popular British tv series, Dr. Who, plays the young, diminutive, but strong-willed Queen beautifully.  The series so intrigued me that when I saw the book, VICTORIA, THE QUEEN by Julia Baird, I just had to pick it up.  Described as “An intimate biography of the woman who ruled an empire” it is just that.  At 695 pages, it wasn’t a weekend read, but, I have to admit, once I delved into the pages, I couldn’t put it down.

At the age of 18 and just under 5′ tall, Alexandrina Victoria was never suppose to rule Great Britain.  This tiny teenager was actually fifth in line under her father, Edward, the Duke of Kent . When Edward realized that his siblings were not producing any heirs and that the throne might, in fact, become his, at the age of 51 he choose a young woman to wed, who gave birth the following year to the future monarch.  One year later, Edward died and it seemed his vision was to become reality.

Victoria never wanted to become Queen and, as a young girl, when faced with the possibility that this would become reality, would burst into tears.  Sinister plots and threats to kill her always loomed over her head.  Victoria’s mother would never allow Victoria to be alone or play with other children without a guardian, and made sure Victoria had an official ‘food taster’.

Of course, as Victoria blossomed into a young woman and her ascension to the throne became more evident, many a young man sought her hand in marriage. Although some of her suitors were dazed by the possibility of power, her mate had already been selected … by her Uncle Leopold … his son, Albert (yes, her cousin*).

     *Aristocratic families often intermarried.  It wasn’t until the mid 1800’s that the medical           establishment began to be opposed to the practice, citing developmental issues.

Potential heirs to the throne were not surviving.  Victoria was next in line.  And it was with the announcement by private courier at 6am on the morning of June 20th of King William IV’s death did this 18 year-old teenager become the “Queen”.

Victoria immediately rose to the job of monarch of this vast nation, despite the thrashing and naysaying of the ministers, clergy and noblemen.  With her very first address before Parliament, strong-willed and determined, Victoria proved that this little slip of a girl, whose feet could not reach the floor when she sat o the throne, was a formidable force, to be respected and admired. But, could she rule alone?  Queen Victoria also needed to be married.

Although the marriage was, more or less, a foregone conclusion, Victoria did fall madly in love with (her cousin) Albert … and he with her.   Despite her concerns about being a wife and mother and not the decisive, powerful, ruling Monarch that she thrived to be, three years after meeting the tall, dark and handsome Albert, they were wed.

The Wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, February 10, 1840

Victoria had a fight on her hands, however, because she wanted the intellectual and ambitious Albert to be recognized not just as her husband, but as a well-respected and well-paid, member of her Kingdom.  She also wanted her husband to realize that SHE was the Sovereign and that nothing could stop her from ruling her country.  Slowly, Prince Albert began immersing himself in assisting Victoria with her ever-increasing duties as Queen.  Victoria loved being married and loved being Monarch of Great Britain.  She was devastated, however, to find out, after only a few weeks of being married that she was pregnant.  How was she to balance being a Queen with being a wife and mother?

Nine months later Victoria gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Victoria Adelaide, the first of her nine children. Surviving childbirth at that time was a challenge, with approximately 5 in 1,000 women dying from complications during labor and delivery.  Infant mortality was much higher, about 75 in 1,000.

Within the year, baby number two was on the way and despite her earlier protestations, Victoria was becoming less and less interested in political matters.  Meanwhile, Albert, a dedicated husband and father, took a greater role in handling matters of State, especially regarding slavery, working conditions and education, as well as the arts and sciences. Unfortunately, Albert suffered his whole life with, what we know today as Crohn’s disease.

The royal family divided their life between Buckingham Palace, the Isle of Wight and their beloved Balmoral Castle in Scotland, where they could relax and be at peace. The children were growing and setting off on their own with schooling, marriage, adventures and misadventures.  Although Victoria was strong-willed and well educated, she depended upon Albert more and more, frequently referring to him as her “Lord and Master”. Her confidence as a ruler was slipping and she questioned her decisions.  But as Albert was taking a stronger hold in politics, his health was declining rapidly.  Then after 21 years of marriage, at the age of 42, Albert died.

Victoria was heartbroken.  She did not attend her husband’s funeral and threw herself into mourning, referring to herself not as the Queen, but as the “brokenhearted Widow”.  Dressed now only in black, with no adornments, for four years she was unwilling to appear in public. Then around the fifth year, although Victoria still continued to insist she was weak and feeble, politically, she slowly came back to being the force she was before marriage.

Never again would Queen Victoria wear anything but a simple black frock.  She would go on to rule the then most powerful country in the world until her death at the age of 82.  The “people’s Princess”, Victoria, was the longest reigning monarch until the present Queen Elizabeth II.

Beginning as a young child, Victoria recorded her most intimate thoughts and actions.  She was religious in keeping a calendar of all events, good and bad, to which she looked back on and celebrated continuously.  She was a voracious letter writer, and a very talented artist.  She loved to dance, play the piano and she cared very much about animals.

Edward, Prince of Wales, by Queen Victoria 1843

One of the reasons we know so much about Queen Victoria is because of the very important diaries and letters she wrote.  It is believed that, upon her death, Victoria had written a total of 60,000,000 words (2,500 per day), amounting to volumes of material (most of which have now been edited, some destroyed) which remain in the Royal Archives.

My point in writing this blog was not to give you more information about Victoria the Queen, but to share with you a woman, who, like the rest of us, loved deeply and emotionally, enjoyed fun and laughter, as well as serene, quiet moments, and upon whom extreme responsibility and pressure was forced.  She was not perfect, by any means.  She could be brash and selfish … certainly self-absorbed and obstinate … and battled depression for years.  But, Victoria, like most of us, was fragile and needy at times, and gave of herself, perhaps too much, at other times. Keeping her weight under control was a battle she ultimately gave up on.  She despised racial prejudice and injustice.  She loved to surround herself with beauty.

Yes, Victoria was the ruler of an empire who left a very impressive legacy, but she was a lover, a wife, and a mother, and admittedly not the best mother she could have been.  She was also a strong and passionate lover of her family, her country and the responsibility that was hers.  I think I would have liked Victoria!

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References:  Too many references to mention, but some included:  Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine,  Albert Prince Consort, Queen Victoria, NY Times,  History, Julia Baird
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Lemon Zucchini Drizzle Cake

I might have mentioned in previous posts how much I love the Great British Bake Off.  Most of the items the bakers are asked to make I’m familiar with, but occasionally they’re asked to bake something that I (and even they) have never heard of.

While watching the other night, for the very first challenge, Mary asked the bakers to bake a “drizzle cake”.  A drizzle cake?  What in the world is a “drizzle cake”?  Get out the laptop and Google “drizzle cake”.  It appears that a ‘drizzle cake’ (a term used in the U.K. and not to be confused with a ‘glazed cake’) is a loaf or pound cake which has been punctured with holes after baking into which a simple syrup is poured (flavor of your choice), and then glazed.  Okay, sounds easy enough, which probably explains why it was the first challenge of the season for the British Bake Off contestants.  So, I’m going for it!

Of course, I’m not going to replicate Mary’s, or the contestant’s bakes.  As always I’ll create my own recipe, and with a garden bulging with zucchini (courgette for all the U.K. readers), have the perfect idea … a Lemon Zucchini Drizzle Cake.

After a few failed attempts (too much zucchini, too wet a batter, not enough leavening, etc.), the following recipe is a winner.  Not too puckery … not too veggie-like … and not too sweet, just chock full of lemony zucchini goodness.  Dense, rich and moist … think of carrot cake but without the spice … and, of course, add in the “drizzle” factor.

This one’s definitely a keeper.  I hope you enjoy it as much as we do!

LEMON ZUCCHINI DRIZZLE CAKE
Makes one large loaf cake, or 12 muffins/small cakes.  Bake at 350° for one hour (for cake) … 35 minutes or so for smaller cakes … or til done.

1-1/4 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup plain Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons (or more) lemon zest
1 teaspoon good quality vanilla extract
2 eggs, room temperature
2 cups all- purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 cups shredded zucchini, drained dry

Drizzle
1 cup confectioner’s sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 350.  Grease a large loaf/cake pan or muffin tins.

This is really quite easy to make.  First grate the zucchini and put it in a colander to drain.  You want as much moisture removed from the zucchini as possible.  I grated the zucchini and let it drain for over an hour, then gathered up handfuls of zucchini and squeezed it dry.  If your zucchini isn’t squeezed dry, your cake will be wet and soggy.  And no one wants a “soggy bottom”.

In a large bowl combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.  Whisk together til well blended and the flour has lifted.

In another large bowl, beat the eggs til lemony colored and then add the sugar.  Beat well.  Add the oil, lemon juice, vanilla and yogurt.  Mix well and then add the lemon zest.

Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, mixing well, but don’t over-beat.  Fold in the DRY, grated zucchini.

Pour the batter into your prepared pan or pans.  Bake in the center of the oven, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean and dry … about an hour … and until the cake begins to pull back from the sides of the pan. When the cake is fully baked, cool it in the pan for 15 minutes, then remove it from the pan and cool it on a rack for another 15 minutes while you prepare the “drizzle”.

In a small bowl mix the confectioner’s sugar and the lemon juice.  It should be thin, but not too thin.  This is not a thick glaze.  After the cake has cooled, put it back into the pan and with a long skewer (I used a chopstick from last night’s takeout), poke holes in the cake about an inch or two apart.  Pour half the “drizzle” all over the cake, letting it settle into the holes, let it rest for about 15 minutes, then pour the rest of the “drizzle” over the top.

The “drizzle” oozes into this yummy cake making it very moist.   Leave the cake to set for at least an hour before serving.  And then serve this cake for a sweet treat at lunch, brunch or if you want the perfect accompaniment for your afternoon tea.  Absolutely delicious!  Enjoy!!

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Watercress …

I know what you’re saying “Huh, watercress?”  I said the same thing when a dear friend suggested that “watercress”  could be an interesting topic for my blog.  “But, watercress? Whatever could watercress have to do with the U.K. which would make it unique or interesting?” The only association I could make was, of course, tea sandwiches.   But after watching an episode of the fascinating PBS series, VICTORIAN SLUM HOUSE, suddenly watercress seems as if it could be an interesting topic.  And now after doing my research, I’m writing about … “watercress”.

Watercress is known to have been growing wild along shallow wetland areas in the Mediterranean since before recorded time.  It has been cultivated in that region since 500 B.C. The botanical name for watercress is “Nasturtium Officinale” or “twisted nose” and with its pungent, mustardy tang, the flavor sort of makes you do that … wrinkle your nose.

Artaxerxes, the king of Persia (Iran today), loved watercress and ordered his soldiers to eat this cruciferous greenery to keep them healthy during their long marches.  The ancient Romans and Greeks believed that this aromatic plant would give you courage, strength and character. Although they didn’t know it then, watercress is rich in vitamins and essential minerals like iodine, sulpher, iron and vitamin C, and it is part of what today we call “super foods”.  I do believe, however, that Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, knew all this when he built his first hospital on the Greek island of Kos alongside a stream where wild watercress grew.  Hippocrates was a strong believer that disease had natural causes and he used various plant-based remedies to treat his patients … referring to “watercress” as the “cure of all cures”.

Watercress is very easy to grow, so as people migrated north, the seeds traveled with them … from the Middle East to Italy, Germany and ultimately to the U.K.  Slowly, British aristocracy began to recognize the value of eating this spicy micro-green.  Scientist, philosopher and statesman, Francis Bacon, touted the belief that eating watercress would “restore youth to ageing women”.  The most notable botanist in London, John Gerard, recommended watercress as a remedy for, among other ailments, gallstones and, more importantly, scurvy.  Because of this recommendation, Captain James Cook added watercress in the diet of his sailors, and as a result, was able to circumnavigate the world three times.

The first British crop was grown in Kent in 1808 by an enterprising entrepreneur, William Bradbury, who saw the potential of this diminutive plant.  With each successful crop, he would gather the cress and take it to the London markets to sell.  It was during the Victorian era when the plant’s popularity really soared.   If you’ve been watching the VICTORIAN SLUM HOUSE series on PBS, now you know how and when I had that “ah ha” moment.  Thousands of people living in London during the Victorian era were living in abject poverty. Because of the ever-growing population and the huge influx of imported goods, with no money and little work available, women and children took to the streets selling whatever they could to survive.

Watercress Girl by Johann Zoffany

In the center of London was the Farringdon market.  Not as large as Covent Garden, but a rather expansive market for food wholesalers, most of whom were selling watercress to these street urchins, now known as ‘watercress sellers’. Each day, hundreds of watercress sellers, mostly young girls, dressed in rags and shoeless, but armed with their wicker baskets, would line up before dawn at the entrance to this market, waiting for the iron gates to open.  When that moment came, they would run to the stalls to be the first to get their watercress for that day, hopefully before the cress was gone.  Then these young watercress sellers would walk the streets each and every day, regardless of the weather, selling bunches of watercress … to the working man who would eat it on the way to his job, or delivering fresh watercress to the homes of the middle class for their cleansing ‘watercress soup’. Known as the ‘poor man’s bread’ “Fresh wo-orter-creases here” was heard as early as 5am.

One street urchin became a legend in the watercress trade and was nicknamed “The Watercress Queen”.  Eliza James, at the age of five, was given 40 bunches of watercress each day, by her family, to sell to the workers in the factories in Birmingham.  For years, little Eliza would rise before dawn, go down to the factories, selling more and more watercress.  Moving from Birmingham to London, as she grew into adulthood, Eliza’s drive and determination continued.  Still selling watercress, she began buying watercress farms, one after another.  At the time of her death in 1927, Ms. James was the biggest owner of watercress farms anywhere in the world, handling up to 50 tons of watercress in just one weekend.  She was the only watercress supplier to nearly every hotel and restaurant in London, and still with all that success every morning, before dawn, up to the day she died, Eliza James would be at her stall at Covent Garden market selling watercress.  The Daily Mirror reported: “… by selling watercress (this) is surely one of the most wonderful romances of business London has ever known”.

In 1861, the Winchester Railway Company built a new railway to connect London and Southampton.  Although it was primarily a military transport, it also moved goods, mainly watercress … from the nation’s watercress capital of Alresford to London.  The railway transported so much watercress it was soon lovingly referred to as The Watercress Line. Today, thanks to the selfless endeavors of many volunteers, the railway is open as a museum and tourist attraction in the market town of Alresford.

The watercress industry continued to thrive during both World Wars. Watercress was a staple ingredient … in schools, at home, and, of course, at “afternoon tea”.  In the 1940s more than 1,000 acres of watercress were under cultivation in the U.K.  Unfortunately, by the end of the 20th century, less than 150 acres remain.

Realizing the nutritional value of watercress, small U.K. farmers have joined together to bring awareness to this once great British ingredient.  Each spring Alresford, the “watercress capital of the U.K.”, holds a Watercress Festival highlighting this versatile and delicious veg … with cooking demonstrations, watercress eating contests, a parade and, of course, the crowning of a watercress queen.

World Record Watercress Eating Championships 2016 (Image: James Newell)

A promotional campaign, “Not Just a Bit on the Side”, was launched in 2003, in the hopes of spurring interest in this, the original super food. Packed with essential vitamins and minerals, gram for gram, watercress contains more vitamin C than oranges, more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach and more folate than bananas. Current scientific research has shown that the high levels of antioxidants can increase the ability of cells to resist damage to their DNA, helping to protect against the cell changes that can lead to some diseases.  Perhaps Francis Bacon was right!

A big ‘thank you’ to Judy for suggesting this topic for my blog.  I didn’t realize, at the time, how culturally significant watercress actually was to Great Britain.  Needless to say, my curiosity is piqued even more and I’ll be adding watercress recipes very soon.

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References: Cambridge World History of Food, History of Food, BQ Quality Growers, Food Timeline, Wikipedia, The Victorianist, Geri Walton, Watercress Queen, Watercress Festival, Watercress Line

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