JAM ROLY POLY

I’ve been hearing the name “JAM ROLY POLY” for years but have never been quite sure what it was.  I thought it might just be a silly name for an English version of a jelly roll cake or a rolled pastry filled with jam.  With a name like that, it definitely has to be a children’s dessert, right?  Well, I was partly right.  What I’ve learned is that, not only was it one of hubby’s favorite school foods which tugs at the heart strings of most Brits, it has a fascinating history.

If you search online, as I did, for JAM ROLY POLY, you’ll find unappetizing names likedead man’s arm ordead man’s leg, and shirt sleeve pudding‘  which just didn’t provide much information and only continued to confuse me.  To learn more about this strangely named childhood favorite, I actually had to go all the way back to Great Britain’s Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution began in Britain around the latter part of the 18th century with the invention of the steam engine.  Up until that time most goods were made by craftsmen and power was created by water or animals.  Now with the advent of the steam engine, machinery and technology became the catalyst for mass production.  Before long,  an increase in global trade created a greater demand for these manufactured goods and factories were built in all the urban areas.

Inventors were creating more and more machinery to push productivity.  Coal now became a major player to fuel the engines.  The critical element necessary for success to operate all of this machinery was, of course, people.  Three quarters of Britain’s population, at that time, were craftsmen and farmers who lived in the countryside.  But with these rural cottage industries closing, they had no choice but to pack up and move to the cities in search of jobs.

Although British productivity soared, the overwhelming competition for jobs kept the wages low. Some individuals became very wealthy, too many people, however, lived in overcrowded slums with little or no comforts or food.  With so little income, parents had no choice but to send their children to work in the factories as well.

Prior to this, education was not free.  Poor children eked out whatever education they could.  In 1833, the government passed the Factory Act, the first of many legislative attempts to improve conditions for children working in factories. In addition to limiting the hours a child could work, this Act made mandatory two hours of education a day.  This did not, however, ensure that these rules would be followed.  Children were wage earners and to have them attend school and not work placed a huge financial burden on the family.  Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy captured the brutality of this era in the storytelling of David Copperfield and Oliver Twist.

In 1844, the Ragged Schools Union was set up to provide free education to poor working class children.  The success of these “ragged schools” demonstrated that there was a demand for education among the poor and in 1870 public funding began to be provided for free elementary education.  Although Britain’s economy was flourishing, the health of its people was not.  One third of its children were malnourished.  Infant mortality was on the rise.  Men were deemed not fit to serve in the Armed Services.  But it wasn’t until 1889 when a report was published which indicated that over 50,000 pupils in London alone were attending school without having eaten anything at all which prompted two school board members to take action. Margaret McMillan and Fred Jowett persuaded Parliament to introduce legislation which would encourage free school meals for children.

Mrs. Macmillan was passionate about improving the welfare and education of children and encouraged others to see children as the future of the nation.  Her belief was that children couldn’t concentrate on their lessons because they were starving.  Although charities had been feeding the hungry for years, a formal program was now put in place to feed schoolchildren.

Breakfasts for the school children consisted of bread with jam and milk.  Lunch (or dinner as it is called in Britain) consisted of a porridge or stew, pudding, bread and butter and milk. Puddings have been an integral part of the British diet since the middle ages.  They began as a savory item made with suet to bind all the ingredients together and then steamed in muslin cloth (hence, the reference to ‘shirt sleeve pudding’ or ‘dead man’s arm’).

A typical school lunch program from the early 1900’s:

Monday: brown vegetable soup, jam roly-poly pudding, sauce;
Tuesday: savoury batter, beans, gravy, semolina pudding;
Wednesday: potato and onion soup, ginger pudding, sweet sauce;
Thursday: stewed beef and gravy, mashed potatoes, baked jam roll;
Friday: fish and potato pie, parsley sauce, peas, sago pudding.

As you can see, meals had to be inexpensive, filling and something the children would eat.  To get them to eat the more nutritious porridge or stew, a sweet “pudding” was always served.  The one they liked the most … JAM ROLY POLY!

A roly-poly is a pudding made with a suet dough, which is then spread with raspberry or strawberry jam, rolled up, tied in a muslin bag and boiled or steamed.  First published in 1861, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management included a recipe called jam roly-poly pudding and so began the British love affair with this sweet, stodgy pudding served with lashings of hot custard.

Now that we’ve uncovered the origins of the JAM ROLY POLY, do we really want to make one?  Maybe … maybe not!

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References:  Health.co.uk, Wikipedia, BBC, National Archives, Intriguing History, British Food History, the Nosey Chef, Food Timeline,

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THE REAL DOWNTON ABBEY

It’s hard for me to realize that I haven’t posted all summer!!  What have I been doing?  Going to the beach?  Nope.  On vacation?  Nope.  Long, lazy, relaxing days of doing nothing?  Nope.  But, somehow the summer has now come and gone, and some of you have been wondering where I’ve been.  I’ll be darned if I know.  What I do know is that I’m back!

I have, however, caught up on some reading over the past few months.  One book which I found quite fascinating is LADY CATHERINE AND THE REAL DOWNTON ABBEY, written by the current Countess of Carnarvon, Fiona Herbert.  Fiona is married to the 8th Earl of Carnarvon, George Reginald Oliver Molyneux Herbert.  The current Earl and his family live in what fans of the award-winning PBS period drama series now refer to as “Downton Abbey” but in reality is Highclere Castle.  Downton Abbey might have been a fictitious television program, but the 5,000 acre estate in Hampshire, England, does exist in all its splendid glory.

Countess of Carnarvon

In her book, Fiona takes us on a journey through the tumultuous lives of the 6th Earl of Carnarvon, Lord Porchester aka “Porchie”, and his American wife, Catherine.  From the glamorous, high-style living of wealthy aristocrats in the free-spirited 1920s through, in vivid heart-wrenching detail, to the impact both the first and second World Wars had, not only on Great Britain, but on Highclere and the people associated with it.  It’s an engrossing book detailing characters and a past lifestyle, which many of us may find hard to comprehend, but in the end, captures us and tugs at our hearts.

LADY CATHERINE AND THE REAL DOWNTON ABBEY by The Countess of Carnarvon

Julian Fellowes, the creator, writer and producer of Downton Abbey, was inspired by the original events of Highclere for his storylines.  He and his wife, Emma, are actually close friends of the Earl and Countess.  ‘Obviously we talk around the dining table when Julian and Emma stay,’ stated Fiona, who moved to the estate when she married her husband Geordie in 1999. ‘They ask questions and later we notice the characters saying things we’ve said.’

The revenue brought in from the commercial success of the tv series has been a financial boon to the cash-strapped estate.  The original home, a large, classic squared-off mansion, was built around the 14th century.  The first major remodeling was in the early 18th century, representative of the House of Parliament.  The last redesign Highclere underwent was in the 19th century.  You can only imagine that 200 years later, Highclere Castle … a modest home of 200 or 300 rooms, 80 of which were bedrooms … was in drastic need of major repairs.

The castle was unlivable.  At least 50 of the rooms were completely uninhabitable with only the ground floor and first floor rooms usable.  The Earl and Countess had to live in a modest cottage on the estate’s grounds.  Water damage had caused the stonework to crumble and the ceilings to collapse.  Estimates for repairs on the estate were around £12 million.

Although the series has ended, fans continue to que up to see the great hall, the dining room, the drawing room, library and music room, as well as any bedrooms which were used for filming.  And now because of the high number of paying visitors, Lord and Lady Carnarvon have made the necessary major repairs.  Although the family now lives in Highclere during the winter months, when the castle is open to the public in the summer, they return to their little cottage.

Even Queen Elizabeth was a fan of the tv series and is also frequently mentioned in Fiona’s book.  Having been a frequent guest at Highclere as a child, Queen Elizabeth was a very close friend of “Porchie”, the 6th Earl, about whom the book is written.  On the Netflix series, The Crown, Queen Elizabeth tells Prince Philip ‘not to be jealous of her friendship with Porchie because he is just “part of the furniture.’”

This was not meant to be a post about the fictitious Downton Abbey, but about the real and factual Highclere Castle, home of the Carnarvon family.  The stories have been taken from the private archives … all richly detailed, including beautiful period photographs … in the Countess of Carnarvon’s book, LADY CATHERINE AND THE REAL DOWNTON ABBEY.
A fascinating read!

 

 

 

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References:  Wikipedia, Highclere Castle, Lady Carnarvon, Amazon,
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ZUCCHINI STREUSEL BREAD

If you check out my recipes page, you’ll find that I have quite a few “zucchini” recipes.  There’s a reason for that … some vegetables  I can grow easily, and zucchini is one of them.  I’ve picked the last of the summer’s crop of zucchini for this year, and, believe me, it was a bumper crop as usual.  I’m not quite sure which of my zucchini recipes I like the best.  They are all tried, true and delicous!   My suggestion, give them all a try and then let me know.

This quick bread is a “go to” and not as complicated as it may look.  I like to make the streusel topping first and set it aside.  Then I mix the dry ingredients together …. the wet ingredients together and combine.  What could be easier!
Happy baking!

ZUCCHINI STREUSEL BREAD
Stays very well for 4 to 5 days if wrapped and refrigerated.  Or this bread can be made ahead and frozen for up to 3 months.  

2 large eggs, beaten
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup plain yogurt, non-fat or full-fat
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3 cups grated, unpeeled zucchini (about 2 large)
3 cups all purpose, unbleached flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
Optional:  1 cup chopped walnuts, dried fruits

Preheat the oven to 375°.  This recipe will make two one pound loafs, one large 13 x 9 tray loaf or 24 muffins.  Grease and line whichever pans you’d like to use.

Grate the zucchini either by hand or with a food processor, then wrap the grated zucchini in a kitchen towel and squeeze out all the excess moisture.

In a large bowl beat together the eggs, sugars, vanilla, oil and yogurt.  When fully combined, fold in the grated, squeezed-dry zucchini.  A medium to coarse grating is perfect.

In another large bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg.  If you are adding walnuts, dust with a little flour first to prevent them from sinking into the batter.

Quickly fold the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients until well combined.  Don’t overmix.  Spoon the batter into the prepared pan(s).  Bake at 375° for half the total baking time – 25 minutes for breads – 15 minutes for muffins.  At this half-way point, you’ll want to generously spread the streusel topping onto the bread(s), pressing down slightly.

STREUSEL TOPPING
2/3 cup old-fashioned oats (not instant)
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 stick cold butter, cubed
Optional:  1/2 cup chopped nuts, chocolate chips, Reese’s pieces, brittle

In a bowl thoroughly mix together the dry ingredients and then cut in the cold, cubed butter until the mixture looks crumbly.  Set aside until ready to spread onto the bread batter.  

Finish baking until a tester inserted into the middle of the bake comes out clean.  Cool on a wire rack for at least 15 minutes before removing from pan.

Now it’s time to put the kettle on and make that pot of tea.  When serving, there’s no need for butter, cream cheese or any other spread, this bread is moist, rich and delicious!  Have a second slice, you’ve earned it!!

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STRAWBERRIES

I love strawberries and every year I buy a few strawberry plants and plant them in the garden.  Yes, I know.  Strawberries are perennials, which means the plant grows back every year … in the same place … generally bigger and stronger than the year before.  But, not for me.  Every spring I look to see where the strawberry plants should be and there’s nothing.  Nothing I should say except the dead plants from the season before.

I realize I live in New England and our winters get pretty cold, but no one else has a problem growing strawberries.  I mulch them heavily to make sure they stay as warm as can be over the winter.  But, I have yet to have any plants survive.  All the other perennials in the garden are fine.  As soon as the weather and the soil warms up, the shoots start to pop up from the ground, the blooms burst open and all’s right with the world.  Except, that is, for strawberries!

Strawberries are sweet, delicious and good for you (full of antioxidants and very low in calories).  And they are so versatile.  You can just pop them into your mouth or use them in salads, smoothies and all sorts of desserts from ice cream to shortcakes.  You can make jams, jellies and spreads, or dip them into chocolate.  They freeze easily, and for some people, they are easy to grow.  I, however, have been relegated to a “pick-your-own-fruit” farm where I “pick-my-own-strawberries”.  Now, armed with 10 lbs. of strawberries and a three-day window before they start to lose their appeal, it’s time to get cooking.

Strawberry jam is on the list as is Strawberry Cake Squares and Strawberry, Goat Cheese, Prosciutto Tart … but because this classic dessert is one of my favorites, the first thing I am making is Strawberry Shortcake.  No, not the packaged sponge cakes which always appear next to the strawberries in the produce aisle of the grocery store.  This recipe is more like a crisp, sweet scone.  Split them in half, add the sliced, sweetened strawberries and top with whipped cream!  Oh my, nothing better!

STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE
Depending upon the size you cut the biscuits, you can make as few as four really large ones to as many as twelve minis.  Oven temperature 425°.  Bake 12 to 15 minutes.

For the biscuits/scones:
2 cups all purpose flour
4 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup very cold butter, diced or grated
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 egg white, beaten

Mix together the flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda and sugar.  Either by hand or in a food processor mix the cold, diced butter until the flour mixture resembles crumbs.  Don’t over-mix in the butter.  It needs to be a bit chunky.  Whisk together the egg, buttermilk and vanilla.  Quickly mix these wet ingredients into the dry ingredients.  Again, don’t overmix.

Dump the dough onto a lightly floured board and bring together into a round ball.  Flatten the ball and gently roll it into an 10″ circle, about 3/4″ thick.  To cut out the biscuits, you can use a knife and cut the dough into squares or use a biscuit cutter to cut out rounds.  The size, again, is up to you.  I like to make smaller ones … using two per serving.

Place the cakes onto a parchment lined baking sheet, brush with the beaten egg white and sprinkle with sugar.  Demerara sugar has larger crystals and adds a bit of color and crunch.

At this point, put the baking sheet into the refrigerator while you preheat the oven … 425°.  This will ensure the butter is nice and cold.  Bake for about 12 to 15 minutes or until lightly browned.

Strawberry Filling:
1 lb. fresh strawberries
4 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 cup heavy cream, whipped

Wash, hull and slice the strawberries.  Put them into a bowl and sprinkle with sugar and balsamic vinegar.  Let the strawberries mascerate for 30 minutes or more.  When ready to serve, split the biscuits in half, spoon the strawberry filling inside, add the top and then slather on the whipped cream.

It’s hard to find a better, more delicious dessert … guaranteed to impress your toughest critics!  Should you prefer to use other berries or fruits, please do.  Or fill these biscuits with ice cream and top with hot fudge!  Yum!!!


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Where Have All the Tea Rooms Gone?

My first visit to a tea room was in London in 1986.  During that trip, I visited as many as I could, from the grand Afternoon Tea hotel experience to the simple, unassuming village repast.  I took what I learned and incorporated it into my business – serving tea to our guests.  They loved it.  And the business flourished.

My next visit to a tea room was in this country, ten years later (I had been busy, very busy).  What I didn’t realize, or perhaps had forgotten, was how much I had enjoyed afternoon tea.  It was relaxing … refreshing … and, yes, even rejuvenating.  I know.  I know.  It’s those three “r’s”, but it really was true.  Was it the tea, the rituals which surround tea, or was it the camaraderie  of being with like-minded friends, sharing food and an experience?  I’m not sure, but, from that moment on, I knew I had found my “happy place”.

An acquaintance soon became a good friend, especially after I found out she and her friends had formed a “tea club”.  Each month they would travel to a different tea room, as a group, and share in the tea experience.  Of course, that didn’t prevent any of them from visiting their local tea rooms at every opportunity.  Immediately, I became a proud member of the tea club.

TEA TIME Magazine

As a group, we’d do our research:  tea magazines, websites, chat groups, word-of-mouth.  We’d be there for the grand opening of the newest tea room, as well as always revisiting past favorites.  There were so many tea rooms to choose from.  We traveled all around New England and then up and down the East Coast.  If the distance was more than 100 miles, we would organize an entire weekend around one or two tea room visits.  The weekends always included staying at a local bed and breakfast, antique shopping and, of course, lots of good food.  Repeat tea room visits ended with our befriending the owners and their staff.  They now becoming “tea friends”.  Our group and tea family grew.

But, no more!

For years, we enjoyed these afternoon tea sojourns … until suddenly … we ran out of tea rooms!  At one time, we could choose from hundreds, now there are perhaps one or two.  I understand tea rooms are, in reality, a restaurant and restaurants are a hard business, a very hard business.  I understand the profit margins are very low.  I understand the owners want to retire.  I understand there’s no interest in the next generation to take over or start up a tea room.  I understand real estate is very expensive.  The reality is I have been a business owner … and I understand.  But, I don’t like it.

Wenham Tea House, Wenham, MA

Did you know tea rooms were the first “women owned” businesses in the U.S.?  At the turn of the century American hotels were mimicking their European counterparts by serving Afternoon Tea in their restaurants, but this was not something a woman could participate in without a male escort.  Unescorted women would not be served.

In the cities and the countryside enterprising women began realizing that women of all classes wanted the ability to socialize outside of the home together, without the required male escort.  They also knew that we were becoming a more mobile and motorized society.  Women in the villages and small towns began turning their front parlors, or shed, or back kitchen into an inviting area where they could serve road-weary travelers a hearty cuppa and something to go along with it.  In the city, middle class women opened their front parlors for other women to gather and enjoy each other’s company without the required ‘man by their side’.  The American tearoom was born.

Tea at Charters Towers, 1880, Courtesy of New Old Stock

These businesses were important.  This was the first opportunity women had to start their own businesses, earning an income, without leaving their homes.  By adding handicrafts and baked goods made by the townspeople, the tearoom also offered a means for others to earn money.  Tea rooms played an important role in our society, our culture and to women.  But now its 2018 and everything is changing.  Why?  Are we all so busy that we haven’t the time or the interest to support this traditional women-owned business?  Are we too sophisticated, or too jaded?  Do we have to be stimulated by something new all the time?  What has happened to the value and importance of traditions?

I can’t stress enough how important it is for you to support your local tea room … woman owned or not.  Small businesses are an important part of our heritage.  Do we really want every shop, restaurant, business in every town to look like the every other shop, restaurant or business?

There are a few tea rooms left around the New England area.  Not many.  I can’t recommend enough that you visit them.  Each is unique, wonderful and an experience you’ll always treasure.  Do it now before they too are gone forever!

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Tea Rooms to Visit in the Greater Boston area
FANCY THAT
WENHAM TEA HOUSE
BOSTON PUBLIC LIBRARY
THE TEA LEAF
THE DUNBAR TEA ROOM
HEATH’S TEA ROOM
COZY TEA CART

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TEA in SPAIN

I really should title this post “Searching for Tea in Spain” … because I was hard pressed on our recent trip to find any.  No, I’m not talking about the obligatory selection of tea bags sitting next to the carafe of hot water at the breakfast buffet in the hotel.  And, of course, if you ordered tea at a cafe or restaurant, you were served tea … sometimes even in a teapot.  What I was hoping to discover was a love for, a connection with, or history of  … ‘tea’.

We started in the capital of Spain and the third largest city in Europe, Madrid.  An exciting city, full of vitality and passion, and now well on its way to shaking off the financial woes it experienced during the past decade, but even in the heavily traveled tourist areas, no outward signs of “tea” existed.  What was I looking for?  Perhaps a retail store, tea room, even a tea display or sign … something that beckoned the tea drinker.  Nothing.

We then traveled south into the magnificent area of Andalusia with its vast savannahs filled with olive groves and vineyards, surrounded by the majestic Sierra mountain ranges.  Our visits to the white-washed villages of Cordoba, Toledo, and Ronda were breathtaking … but no ‘tea’.

We marveled at the Roman ruins in Merida, the medieval walled city of Carceres, and hoped to see a bullfight in Seville, but didn’t.  We climbed the narrow stone steps into the cathedral towers, got lost in the maze of winding alleyways, clapped to the beat of the flamenco guitar, and ate tapas, authentic tapas, some spicy, a few not, some raw, others fried … but no ‘tea’.

We strolled through the lively gypsy neighborhoods, wondered at the priceless art collections, and indulged in an occasional afternoon siesta.  We attended the prestigious annual patios festival, took photographs of the vibrantly festooned balconies, and dunked our churros into hot, thick dark chocolate.  We drank red wines and white wines from the local vineyards; rich, red, fruity sangria, and syrupy sweet sherry over ice … but we didn’t drink ‘tea’.

Until we came to Granada.

Granada is one of the most important cities in Spain’s rich history.  Settled by the Phoenicians until the Romans overtook it in the 3rd century; by the 5th century Rome had fallen and Granada was then ruled by the Visigoths.  The Visigoths held this area for a few hundred years until Muslim forces coming from Morocco across the Strait of Gibralta, conquered it around 1010.  The Muslims remained in power, living side-by-side with Christians and Jews, until 1492 (hmmmm, that date sounds familiar), when Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand took control.  Why is any of this important?  Because during the Muslim rule, the city became one of the richest cities in medieval  Europe.  Trade routes from Morocco were open and the artistic and scientific communities flourished.  With these trade routes came silk, cotton, paper and … ‘tea’.

Yes, “TEA” is alive and well in Granada!   Although the Muslims were forced out of the city by the 15th century, their influence has remained.  Within the old Moorish district of Granada, known as the Albayzin, there are Arabic tea houses or teterias.   A narrow, cobblestone paved street called “Calle Caldereria Nueva” is as close to a Moroccan souk as you can find, crammed full of trinkets, rugs, lanterns and it is dotted with tea houses!  No, you will not find bone china cups and saucers.  There’s not a scone or tea cake anywhere around.  But what you will find are lavishly decorated, intimate cafes serving loose leaf tea.

Calle Caldereria Nueva

So while sitting on a long, pillow-topped divan, with heavy drapery covered walls, in a Moroccan-inspired tearoom, sipping a hot steaming cup of mint tea, what I learned was, in Spain, unless you are visiting Granada, it is “coffee country”.

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References:  Wikipedia, Andalucia, Love Granada, Trip Savvy,
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MARZIPAN – MARCH BREAD

First of all, I love sweets!  Yes, I’ve said it.  Candy, chocolates, pastry, cakes, pies and tarts!  I do not discriminate.  There’s hardly a bakery, patisserie, Godiva, Lindt or Ghirardelli shop I haven’t been into.  Whenever I travel, I am immediately and irresistibly drawn to specialty confection and pastry shops.  Our recent trip to Spain satisfied all those desires.

Here in the states, most people think of marzipan, if they’ve even heard of it at all, as those small candy confections molded and colored to look like miniature fruit, usually only available around the holidays and sold in specialty shops.  In Great Britain and Europe, there’s a broader view and range of marzipan which includes using marzipan as fondant to cover cakes, as well as a filling in tarts and pies.  While in Spain, I was quite surprised to learn that not only was marzipan invented there (sorry Italy), but there are confectionery shops dedicated to making and, of course, selling marzipan.  I don’t know why this surprised and fascinated me, but it did.

Here in the northeast, along the seashore,  we have specialty candy shops which sell ‘salt water taffy’.  This sweet, boiled and pulled taffy (which my dentist will no longer let me eat) is generally made in large copper kettles in full view of the public.  Candy stores and gift shops up and down the coast sell this sweet confection, in individually-wrapped pieces, from large bins to tourists who try to choose between the many different flavors.  Ergo marzipan!

If you’re not familiar with marzipan, it is a sweet, thick paste made from ground almonds and sugar, commonly referred to as a ‘sweetmeat’.  And as with all great things, who invented it is up for debate.  The Italians say it was invented in Sicily.  Spain claims it was invented in Spain. Greece takes credit for it, as well as Germany and the Middle East.  After being in the small village of Toledo, Spain, I think I now have the whole story.

Spain was settled by the Romans, but during the 5th century the Visigoths conquered the Romans and took over the kingdom.  The Visigoths established the village of Toledo as their capital.  It was a turbulent time.  Hostilities were everywhere … between the Catholics, the Aryans and the Arabs, who were now moving in.  By the end of the 6th century, the Arabs had successfully taken over and drove the Visigoths from Toledo.  The Arabs settled into this peninsula bringing with them, among many other foods,  almonds, asparagus, dates, figs, grapes, strawberries and olives.  None of these foods had been known to the Europeans before this time.

Southern Spain flourished.  Wealth was being generated by the now rich and fertile farmlands.  Irrigation systems were developed.  Dams were built.  Windmills were constructed. And Jews, Christians, and Muslims all lived together peacefully.  But nothing is forever.  Christian forces started moving down from the north and captured this area in 1085.  The battles took years and dried up all the food sources.

There was widespread famine everywhere.  It was devastating. The wheat fields and storerooms were gone and with no wheat to make bread, what would the people eat?  What Toledo still had stored, however, was sugar and almonds.  The nuns from the Convent of San Clemente, in an effort to come up with something to feed the starving population, created a paste combining these two ingredients, sugar and almonds.  Some historians claim eggs were added to it, others claim ground chicken meat was added to it, but the fact that a paste using these ingredients was fed to the people and kept them from starving to death.

Is it possible the nuns could have had prior knowledge about mixing these ingredients?  We don’t know for sure, but we do know that a paste made from ground almonds and eaten during Ramadan is mentioned in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, written around the 8th or 9th century.  Because of its extensive cultural heritage, Toledo was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986.  And with such a fascinating and rich heritage, you’ll find nuns from the many Convents in Toledo still making this very popular confection today.  Should you be fortunate enough to travel to this fascinating little town of Toledo, you can actually take a marzipan making class, which I wish we had time to do.  Definitely with our next visit!

Marzipan which literally translates as March Bread is a sweet, nutty confection known and enjoyed all over the world.  Italy, of course, is a large producer, as is Germany and the Middle East, but to proudly wear the D.O. (designation of origin) stamp assigned by the Mazapán de Toledo Counsel, the marzipan must be made in Toledo and contain at least 50% almonds.

Although we didn’t take the marzipan cooking class, we certainly did purchase and sample as much as we could.  Marzipan shops line every street in this quaint town.  Creamy in texture, rich in flavor, from simple bite-sized pieces to large impressive sculpted designs … none of those fussy little imitation fruits … this was the best marzipan I have ever had.  But now that we’re home and all the marzipan is gone, you know I’m going to try making it myself.  How difficult could it be?

This is a recipe I found online.  Now to go shopping …

MARZIPAN

  • 2 cups finely ground blanched almonds, or almond flour
  • cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 tsp pure almond extract
Instructions
  1. In a food processor blend together the almonds and sifted sugar.
  2. Stir together the honey, egg white and almond extract.
  3. With the food processor turned on, slowly add the honey mixture in a slow stream.
  4. When all of the honey has been added the marzipan should hold together, like play dough.
  5. If it is a little too dry add more honey a tablespoon at a time.
  6. Form the marzipan into a log and cut it into two or three portions,  wrapping each one tightly in plastic wrap.  Refrigerate until ready to use.  Will last two to three weeks.


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    References:  Arab America, World History, Eye on Spain, Wikipedia,
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THE ‘CUP’ CAKE

As I’m sure most of you, I grew up with the occasional packaged cupcake treat in my lunchbox.  Whether it was Little Debbie’s or Hostess, that chocolaty cupcake with its white squiggle and creamy surprise inside was a lunchtime treat.  Or if you were lucky enough to have a Mom who enjoyed baking, you probably had one of Mom’s yummy, little cakes for your lunchtime dessert.  Cupcakes were child-sized, sweet desserts, which, for the most part, were served only at birthday parties and sold at school bake sales.

Somewhere along the line though that all changed.  I believe it was in 2007 when Oprah waved her magic wand and swooned over the single-serving, glamorous little cakes being sold by Williams Sonoma, adding them to her much sought-after “O” list of ‘favorite things’.  The homey cupcake quickly became one of the trendy foods. The trendy food title was then permanently cemented when Carrie Bradshaw and her girlfriends indulged in these miniature, buttercream topped cakes on an episode of the cultural phenomenon Sex in the City.  Boom!  All of a sudden a new industry was born.  What were once lunchbox treats were now sought-after designer desserts.  Specialized cupcake bakeries sprang up all over the country.  The Food Network even created an entire baking competition series around them, “Cupcake Wars”.

If you are interested in the history of everyday things, as I am, you may have read about cupcakes being invented here in the U.S. in the late 1800s.  Well, sorry to disappoint, but cupcakes have been around a lot longer than that.  There are actually two schools of thought.  One is that these small, single serving cakes, were derived from the very popular, single-serving mince pies so popular in England in the 18th century.  The mince pies  were baked in miniature, sculpted tin molds and were served displayed on a platter in an artfully-shaped pattern.

Queen’s cakes, spiced pound cakes with currants, were also quite popular.  As the aristocracy tired of  miniature mince pies, they turned to cakes.  Chefs began using the tin molds, or “patty pans”, from baking mince pies to baking Queen’s cakes.   Whether baked in these individual pans or cut out using them, these miniature, iced cakes would also be presented on a platter, forming a variety of elaborate patterns.

Having been made by a craftsman or tinsmith, a set of these miniature mince pie or cake molds would have been very expensive … something the middle and lower classes would never have been able to afford.

A very romantic, but probably unlikely theory, suggests that the baker or head chef would occasionally hold out a little batter from the large lavish cake he was preparing for the Lord of the Manor’s evening dinner, to give a bit of a treat to the staff.  Certainly, not enough for an entire cake, but enough perhaps for a few single servings.  After the aristocracy enjoyed their lavishly decorated dessert cake, the staff downstairs could look forward to enjoying the leftover cake batter, baked in earthenware tea ‘cups’.

The very popular, early 19th century British cookbook author, Maria Rundell, actually suggested baking cakes in ‘little tins, tea-cups or saucers’.  In her book, A New System of Domestic Cookery: Formed Upon Principles of Economy and Adapted to the Use of Private Families. By a Lady, Mrs. Rundell suggests two ways for baking these miniature cakes “… butter little tins, tea-cups, or saucers, and bake the batter in, filling only half.  Sift a little fine sugar over just as you put into the oven.” or “… butter small patty pans, half fill, and bake twenty minutes in a quick oven.”  [A New System of Domestic Cookery. Maria Rundell, 1808].  It seems to me using “buttered tea cups” would certainly make something called a ‘cup cake’.

The second school of thought for the origin of “cup cakes” is that name for the individual cakes came from the measurement of ingredients required to bake a cake.  Prior to this, measurements were by weight … now they were by volume or “cup”.  These cakes became known as number cakes, or 1-2-3-4 cakes because the easy-to-remember recipe called for:  one cup of butter, two cups of sugar, three cups of flour, and four eggs.  I’m not sure how this simple recipe became associated with individual servings of cakes baked in cups.  For that reason, and because in Great Britain baking is still measured by weight, I’m going along with the first belief.

Wall Street and the Huffington Post report that the “cupcake craze” is over.  But, I’m not convinced.  You can’t go into a shopping district or market place without seeing one, perhaps two, specialized cupcake bakeries.  Even the bakery departments in supermarkets have upgraded their grocery store bakes, selling delectable little treats, individually or prepackaged, in tiny ‘one bites’ up to massive ‘two-handers’.  Every season and holiday now has a festive cupcake specifically decorated for that event.

What once was a simple, little lunchbox treat has grown into a cottage industry.  Customers patiently line up at cupcake food trucks anxious to try some of the creative, and occasionally unusual, flavors which seem to be a very popular trend.  No longer are we satisfied with vanilla.  Now it has to be peanut butter fudge, lemon blueberry ripple, salted caramel apple, banana toffee crunch …. and more.

Maybe Wall Street is right and the frosting has fallen off some of the top cupcake chains, but I don’t know anyone who doesn’t become a child again at the irresistible offering of a cupcake.  For me though, there will never be anything better than that little chocolaty treat with the white squiggle on top and the surprise inside!

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References:  Researching Food, Revolvy, Cupcakes, The Atlantic, Food Timeline
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PANCAKE DAY!

In Great Britain, Tuesday is Pancake Day and time for the Great Pancake Race!  All across the country, villages and small towns will be celebrating their Shrove Tuesday by flipping pancakes!

Tuesday is known as Shrove Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday.  In French, this day translates to a name I’m sure everyone is more familiar with … “Mardi Gras“.  What day am I talking about?  Yes, the day before Lent.  The day when, as a Christian, you can celebrate and feast on absolutely anything you want, in any quantity you want, because, beginning Wednesday, you must fast.

Wednesday is the beginning of the solemn Lenten season, a time of penance and renewal before Easter.  Sunday starts the three-day celebration period before Lent, which is commonly known as Mardi Gras or Carnival.  In medieval times it was known as “Shrovetide“, with the final day called Shrove Tuesday.  (The name ‘shrove’ comes from ‘shrive’, which refers to the ritual of confessing sins.)

How do pancakes and races fit into all this?  Again, during this Lenten period, fasting was strictly adhered to.  Rich, fatty foods such as meat and fish, sugar, eggs and dairy were prohibited during this solemn time.  For the poor and middle class, food was precious and they did not want to waste a bit.  What dish could they make to use up all these ingredients?  Pancakes.  This humble dish which used all the household’s fat, eggs, milk and sugar ultimately became the symbol of Shrove Tuesday.

At one time, Shrove Tuesday was a very important religious day in Great Britain.  It was a national holiday, a mini Mardi Gras, a time for celebration.  During this time, many events would take place … from football games to cock fighting to skipping rope contests.  But precisely at 11:00am, the village church would ring a bell as a reminder to the housewives that it was time to prepare the pancake batter.  After which, the church would then ring a ‘Shriving Bell’ to call the people to church for the confession of their sins.

But pancake racing?  Apparently, in 1445, in the village of Olney, or so the legend goes, a woman heard the ‘Shriving Bell’ while she was in the middle of making her pancakes.  Not wanting to stop for fear she would burn her pancakes, and still in her kerchief and apron, she ran to the church clutching her frying pan and flipping her pancake.  From that day on, every year, all of Britain celebrates Shrove Tuesday by honoring this woman and her pancake-making prowess by conducing “pancake races”.  The Olney Pancake Race is now world famous.

Although it is no longer a holiday, the bell is still rung today in villages across England and Shrove Tuesday celebrations are everywhere.  If you’d like to enter the now famous Olney race, the rules are very strict.  The race starts promptly at 11:55 am.  Bring your skillet.  Competitors have to be local housewives and must wear an apron and a hat or scarf.  The pancake flippers start at the market place in Olney and race to the Church of St. Peter, flipping their pancakes along the way.

If you don’t live in Olney, don’t be concerned, pancake races are held in most villages across the country.  You’ll see not only housewives, but school children, clerks, clergy and even professionally-dressed businessmen in aprons.  The object of the race is to rundown the street, carrying a frying pan with a hot, cooked pancake in it and flip the pancake at least three times as you run.  The first one to cross the finish line, and serve the pancake to the bellringer is the winner.

Whether you participate in a pancake race or not, I hope on Tuesday you at least uphold this fun tradition and fill your belly with rich, sweet, delicous pancakes!

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References:  This is Church, Historic UK, Wikipedia, Olney Pancake Race, Project Britain
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CHAI … it’s sordid beginnings

In many languages “cha” or “chai” is the word for tea.  Chai, or Masala tea as it is called in India, is that milky, spicy, sweet, hot beverage we’ve all come to love.  Knowing the humble origins of chai, I’m amazed when I go to stores like Home Goods or TJ Maxx or even Ocean State Job Lot to see ‘chai‘ in shelf-stable packages, pre-made and ready to drink.  Actually I shouldn’t be surprised at all.  As much as we might love this spicy beverage, we’ve become a country in which we are so busy, we don’t have time to sit, relax and enjoy the process of … making chai, baking bread, growing herbs .  I’m one of those people, however, who tries to make time for it all.

I find the story of how Chai began quite fascinating, because it tells the story of tea … with all its grit, espionage, smuggling and deceit.  Chai has one of those sordid origins where it was bred out of necessity, much like soul food.  People had to eat (or in this case, drink) what was available.  If they didn’t they went hungry, and in most cases, they would die.

Let’s start at the very beginning.  It was 1848 and the East India Company had lost its monopoly on the China tea trade.  The Chinese were resentful that Britain attempted to addict their entire nation to opium and refused to do business with them.  The whole of Great Britain was now demanding “tea” and It was imperative that the British government establish its own independent tea supply.  But where and how?

Among botanist Robert Fortune’s tasks in China was to learn the procedure for manufacturing tea, as shown in this 18th century tea plantation. (The Granger Collection, New York)

A Scotsman by the name of Robert Fortune, curator and botanist of the Royal Horticultural Society, was asked by the East India Company to go on a “tea-discovery” mission to China.  Little did Fortune know that he was about to become an international man of espionage.  For three years, disguised as a Mandarin, Fortune visited the most famous tea districts, kept meticulous notes on the soil, the pruning, plucking and manufacturing process, and systematically collected seeds and plants.  By 1851, Fortune had amassed such knowledge, and plants, that he filled four vessels sailing from Hong Kong to Calcutta with thousands of plants, seedlings and had hired a team of experienced Chinese tea workers.

While Robert Fortune was busy collecting specimens, Robert Bruce, a fellow Scotsman, was meeting with one of the chiefs of the Singpho tribe in Assam, India.  The Singpho tribe, as the Chinese and other tribes in Southeast Asia, had also been making tea for centuries.   A tea committee was immediately formed to explore the possibilities of growing tea in this Assam region, which lies just to the west of China.

And then the takeover began.  Britain appeared to align themselves with the tribes, but their intent was to take over this territory.  They began by moving into this area and stripping the tribal people of their land, and then increasing the land tax to the point where the Assamese were unable to pay it.  This forced the Assamese to work clearing their own swampy, mosquito-laden land for the future tea gardens of their new British land “lords”.

These indigenous people had no experience laboring in this manner, and under deplorable working conditions.  The  British viewed them as “lazy, indolent and miserable”.  As a result, the British began “importing” labor from other parts of India. This “importing” of labor was, in fact, slavery.  Recruiting agents were sent into rural areas and promised a good wage and better life to men, women and children … ‘recruits’ who willing to immigrate to Assam.  When they had enough ‘recruits’ from one area, they loaded them onto overcrowded boats with appalling conditions for the six- to eight-week trip up the Brahmaputra River.  Many of the men, women and children, or ‘coolies’ as they were called (the term ‘coolie’ is believed to originate from the Tamil word for wages, ‘kuli’), died from cholera, dysentery, malaria or typhoid fever.  The ones who did survive were put to work no matter how sick, hungry or tired.  They were managed with whips, lived in pitiful huts, were chronically ill and malnourished, and unable to escape.

Most often the only source of nourishment for the ‘coolies’ was rice and tea.  No, not a good quality tea, but tea made from the dregs of the pluckings, infused with some milk for nourishment, sugar for energy, and spices to cover up the bad taste.   As a result, coolies suffered a very high mortality rate.  Between 1863 and 1866 half of the 84,000 laborers brought into this area died.  As I said, the history of “tea” and this now-beloved drink isn’t the sweetest tale.  Many thousands upon thousands of people died from malnourishment, disease and mistreatment.

Born out of necessity, today “chai” is the national drink of India. From sipping chai in someone’s home, while making a purchase in a shop, at a train station, or on a street corner, you can’t visit India without experiencing this unique culture.   Chaiwallahs are on every street corner in every village and town, ready to serve you a small cup or glass of this wonderful beverage.  Each may have their own special recipe or preparation style, but rest assured, each is as delicious as the next.

Everywhere in India there are chaiwallahs on the street with large kettles selling their spicy tea steeped with boiled milk and sugar. Because of the stiff competition between chaiwallahs, each tries to develop a unique style.

While specific recipes can vary, the black tea is always brewed with a blend of spices, generally cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, ginger, and cloves, with the addition of milk and sugar or honey.  In the U.S., some folks steep their tea together with milk, spices and sweetener. Others steep the tea and spices together, then add the milk and sweetener. A third group steeps the tea, stirs in the sweetener, and enjoys it without milk. It’s your choice.

We enjoy ours best steeped in a saucepan for 10 minutes or more with equal parts water and milk and one teaspoon of tea, spices and sugar for every 8 ounces of liquid.  Milk may burn if the heat is too high, so steep the heat at a medium temperature for about 10 to 15 minutes. After steeping, strain into a pot, and enjoy.

Yes, making it yourself does take about 15 minutes or more, and you can certainly buy prepared chai in bottles or packages, or even dry chai mixes, but taking those 15 minutes is so worthwhile.  And, if you make too much, just put it into the refrigerator and enjoy it cold the next day, over ice, or reheat it.  In the summertime, I love to make chai shakes … with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in the blender.  Try it.  It’s absolutely delicious!!

I may occasionally order a chai (notice I didn’t say “chai latté”), in a café, but I really enjoy making it at home.  The aroma of those comforting spices steeping in that dark, rich tea just relaxes the senses and puts me in that “happy” place.

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References:  TEA by Roy Moxham, The Heritage of Indian Tea by D.K. Taknet, For All The Tea in China by Sarah Rose, Academia, Teatulia, Smithsonian

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