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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The Great British Tea Break

What has happened to the great British tea break?  The “tea break” was just a mere 15 minutes, mid-morning and mid-afternoon, where all work stopped to allow workers to regroup, relax for a few moments, and share in a cuppa.  And it seems this lack of preserving traditions that were once very important is sadly happening all over the world.  In the States we’ve also done away with the once mandatory, twice-daily coffee break.  The lowly, but very important, tea break is just another British tradition that is slowly becoming extinct.  In today’s fast-paced, head-down, remote-access, work-at-home workplace, people, not only in Great Britain, but around the globe, just don’t have the time to stop and put the kettle on.

During the industrial revolution, a typical British laborer would start their day around 5 or 6 am. By mid-morning, a bit of fatigue would set in and employers realizing that their employees needed a bit of bolstering, would let their workers have a 15-minute break. Realizing that this “tea break” was a way of boosting productivity, they implemented a 15-minute afternoon break as well. Considering where most laborers worked – cold, drafty factories, warehouses and mines – coupled with England’s often damp and bone-chilling weather, you can understand how much a hot, hearty cuppa would be looked forward to.

For the better part of two hundred years, these 15-minute breaks where a worker could ‘have a sit down‘ with a hot cuppa and a biscuit, and share a story or two with a fellow co-worker, were an integral part of the workday.

The industrial revolution also brought with it ‘trade unions’.  Working conditions were, for the most part, so deplorable that people began to organize in an attempt to implement labor guidelines and safety measures, provide higher wages and benefits. Over time, however, the trade unions grew so large and powerful they became some of the biggest political forces in Great Britain.

In the 1970s, British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, aka “Iron Lady”, began to break up the stronghold these powerful trade unions had on the economy and political scene.  To many people, especially those who worked in heavy industry and the public sector, this was a devastating move.  Workers took to the streets, from the north to the south, and began to strike.  “Tea Breaks” became the battle cry.

During the strikes, people endured electricity shortages and trying to buy candles … three-day work weeks and not earning enough money to afford heat … baking your own bread because bakers were on strike … rat-infested piles of garbage lining the street … the army recruited to put out fires because firemen were striking.  It’s amazing the U.K. survived such turbulent times.  But through it all, there was the “tea break”.

The traditional ‘tea break’ was once upheld as an important social activity in the workplace, but no more.  A recent study in the U.K. of over 2,000 workers were asked about ‘tea breaks’ and, sadly, 76% responded they were to busy to take a proper break.  Stepping away from the desk or workstation for a short break has actually been shown to increase productivity in workers, not to mention the valuable social aspect and morale boost that comes from a good cuppa, shared with colleagues.

Tea improves concentration, mood, and energy, as well as relaxation.  According to research studies by Unilever, people who drank tea four times a day for six weeks were found to have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.  Their lead scientist, Suzanne Einother, said of these findings: “… they appear to confirm what many of us suspect; that the close to sacred ritual of the tea break can effectively boost your mood, which in turn can lead to other benefits such as improved problem solving.”

It seems to me that in this fast-paced, hurry-up world, we may have lost something important. Traditional tea breaks, or coffee breaks, seem to be a lost tradition as workers today tend to just  ‘grab and go’.  If only businesses and employees realized the benefits.  A short break every day can lead to a happier, healthier workforce. When I’m sitting at my desk, jotting down my thoughts, or in the kitchen whipping up something whether quick and easy, or intensely complicated, you can be sure there’s always a cuppa tea next to me.

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References:  Royal Voluntary Service, Washington Post, Wikipedia, BBC News, Daily Mail

TOAST

Have you wondered why I’ve named this blog ‘Tea, Toast and Travel‘?  Well the ‘tea’ seems fairly obvious as does the ‘travel’, but ‘toast’?  I’ve had that question asked more than once. For me ‘toast’ is a warm, crunchy accompaniment to a hot cuppa tea … slathered in creamy, salty butter and, most often, a thick, sweet, fruity jam.  As a child, whenever I was sick … cold, flu or just a belly ache … my Mother would make me “toast” which now epitomizes comfort food.  I also use ‘toast’ as a category for recipes that I feel pair well with a cuppa tea … whether hearty soups or quick and easy desserts.  And this blog is meant to be about me sharing what I enjoy, so “Tea, Toast and Travel” suits me to a ….. T.

Years ago, I mentioned to hubby that I would love to open a small restaurant called “TOAST” and just serve just that – ‘toast’.   High-quality, loose leaf teas would, of course, be served too, but it would be ‘toast’ with all kinds of specialty toppings from savory to sweet.  How about bacon, avocado and poached egg on toast … or a garlicky ricotta cheese and English peas spread with a hint of lemon … or a thick slab of roasted turkey breast smothered in pan roasted drippings (yes, I used to have that same lunch sitting at the Kresge’s counter with my grandmother) … or Nutella and banana slices, a sprinkle of pecans and topped with Marshmallow Fluff under the broiler all melted and gooey?  My ‘toast’ would not be thinly sliced, pre-packaged white bread. It would be crusty, thick slices of artisanal breads from sourdough to whole grains.

When I mentioned my idea to hubby little did I know I was a few years ahead of a trend.  Today it seems ‘toast’ has already become the latest fad among foodies.  There are restaurants named ‘TOAST’ in New York City, Los Angeles, Long Island, one in Michigan, another in Charleston, and there’s even one here locally. They’re all over the country and they are all individually owned … not a chain, each one with a different image and menu.  There’s even a point-of-sale system for restaurants called “toast”.

I know trends are short-lived, but how fun to ride the wave. We’ve survived the freeze-dried coffee era, the fondue dinner party fix, the ubiquitous seven-layer dip which appeared at every social gathering.  Then there were bagels:  breakfast bagels, pizza bagels, dessert bagels, bagel chips, bagel bits.  And, of course, thanks to Oprah, the never-ending parade of cupcakes.  From smoothies to sliders, mac ‘n cheese to short ribs, we now have ‘toast’.

The word ‘toast,’ in fact, comes from the Latin word tostum, meaning to scorch or burn.  It is believed that 5,000 years ago Egyptians used ‘toasting’ bread was a way of preserving it.  (Not quite sure how researchers have been able to determine that time line.) Romans also preserved bread by toasting it, and this continued to be spread throughout Europe.  The British really took to ‘toasting’ (what goes better with a cuppa?).  And, of course, anything that was popular in Europe found its way to the Americas.  Cutting slabs of bread and roasting them on an open fire sounds intoxicating and romantic to me.

Although its only been around for about 100 years, the most common household item is the electric toaster.  Doesn’t everyone have one?  The invention of the electric toaster in 1893 by a Scotsman was thought to be the greatest invention of all time, although sliced bread wasn’t invented until 1928.  I’m not sure how popular it was, having to lay your bread against the coils and and watch it, quickly taking the bread off before it burned.  It wasn’t until the 1920s when the electric toaster as we know it today was perfected, evolving into a two-slice, pop-up device with a timer.  And with the invention of pre-sliced bread, the world was changed forever.

As a child isn’t toast the first thing you learned to make?  Ask someone who may not know how to cook if they know how and you’ll probably hear “I can make toast”.  So now how do you feel about slicing bread, toasting it under some type of heat source, spreading your favorite topping on it and then sitting back and savoring its sweet, crunchy goodness?  Serve that up with a piping hot mug of tea, and I’m yours!


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References:  Thoughtco, H2G2, Today I Found Out
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Palmiers

If you know me, you know that I adore elephants.  Elephants are my most favorite animal (which we can discuss another time), and for some reason my “cannot resist dessert” is Elephant Ears. Is there a connection?  I don’t know.  Elephant Ears, or Pig’s Ears, or Palm Leaves are names for what the French call “Palmiers“.  Palmiers are an elegant confection or cookie made using Puff Pastry.  Puff pastry (flour, butter and water) is known and used by many cultures from Europe to South America to the Middle East for everything from sweet to savory.

French painter Claude Gelee, circa 1630. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Because I couldn’t authenticate the origin, “legend” suggests that Puff Pastry was invented in France in 1645 by an apprentice pastry cook, Claudius Gelée. As the story goes, Mr. Gelée wanted to bake a butter cake for his father, who was on a special diet. With a recipe of just flour, water and butter, Claudius mixed the flour and water together, but realized he completely forgot to incorporate the butter into the flour.  Thinking quickly he ‘lay some Butter in litle Pecies’ onto the already rolled dough.  He then folded the dough over and rolled it out … and then he did it again and again and again. After folding and rolling the dough several times, he formed it and baked it.  When Claudius removed the cake from the oven, surprisingly, not only had it risen significantly, it was light and “puffy”.  The story continues with Mr. Gelée being hired by the famous Rosabau Patisserie in Paris, where he perfected his  ‘puff paist’, became quite successful, moved on to Florence only to have his secret recipe stolen from him by the Brothers Mosca Pastry Shop.  Fact or fiction?  Who really knows.

What we do know is that Puff Pastry is a near relative to Phyllo (Filo) Dough.  Phyllo Dough is used throughout the Middle East much like European Puff Pastry and seems to have existed long before Puff Pastry was invented.  Although the two can be used interchangeably, there are differences.  Puff Pastry has layers of butter incorporated within the pastry, which when baked, causes pockets of steam to form in the dough.  The dough then separates into flaky layers.  Phyllo needs oil or melted butter brushed onto each pastry layer before baking, usually requiring three or more layers, it then becomes tender and flaky.

Making Puff Pastry from scratch is doable, but it is so labor intensive.  If you’ve ever watched the Great British Bakeoff, you’ve seen the Puff Pastry challenge where the contestants are asked to make Puff Pastry from scratch in order to create their specialty desserts.  No thank you!  For me, it’s to the frozen food aisle in the grocery store.  Good quality puff pastry, using butter and not shortening, is available and it’s not overly expensive.  Because it’s handy for so many dishes from meat pies to desserts, I always keep a couple of boxes in my freezer.

This recipe is an easy, sure-to-impress cookie … perfect for tea time.  You can get as creative as you’d like by varying the fillings … a mixture of brown sugar and pecans, or a cinnamon sugar blend, or how about bananas and peanut butter.  Get creative and have fun!

CHOCOLATE WALNUT PALMIERS
1 sheet frozen puff pastry dough, thawed
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup chocolate spread (Hershey’s, Nutella, Biscoff)
1/2 cup chopped walnuts, or any chopped nuts

Preheated oven at 400° (but only after the pastry is rolled and in the refrigerator).  Makes about 2 dozen.

Sprinkle 1/4 cup sugar over the pastry board and then unfold the thawed puff pastry dough on top.  With a rolling pin, gently roll the dough out just to smooth it and incorporate the sugar onto the underside.  Turn the pastry sheet over and sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup sugar on the board and roll it again.

Spread the chocolate (or Nutella or even peanut butter, if you’d like) over the entire sheet of pastry.  Sprinkle evenly with chopped nuts.

Starting from one long end, begin to tightly roll the pastry into the center.  Stop halfway. Then from the other long end, tightly roll that side in to the center.  You should have an equal number of rolls on either side, meeting in the middle.  Squeeze the middle together, then turn the rolled pastry over and place it seam side down onto a parchment lined baking tray.  Place the tray into the refrigerator for at least half an hour (or 15 minutes in the freezer) to chill thoroughly.

Now its time to preheat the oven to 400°.   Take the rolled pastry out of the refrigerator and place it onto a cutting board. Cut into slices about 1/4″ to 1/2″ thick.  It’s entirely up to you.  The thicker the slices, the longer they will take to bake.  Bake for approximately 20 minutes or until they are golden and cooked through.  Cool on a wire rack.

You can make a quick glaze using confectioners sugar and milk to drizzle over the top (or not).

With a steaming cuppa tea, a fruity glass of wine, or an icy cold glass of milk, these crunchy on the outside, gooey on the inside, sweet pastries are just delicious!  Enjoy.

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References:  The Foodie’s Companion, Fusion Chef, Great British Chefs

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The Tea Cup Story

I didn’t write this.  I’m not sure who did.  It’s just a lovely, inspirational story and I wanted to share it with you.

There was a couple who went to England to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. They both liked antiques and pottery, especially tea cups. While shopping in an antique shop, they spotted an exceptional tea cup and asked, “May we see that cup? We’ve never seen one quite so beautiful.” 

As the shopkeeper handed it to them, the tea cup suddenly spoke. “You don’t understand,” the tea cup said. “I have not
always been a tea cup. There was a time when I was just a lump of clay.  My master took me and rolled me, pounded and patted me, over and over and I yelled out, ‘Don’t do that. Leave me alone,’ but he only smiled and said, ‘Not yet!’ ‘Then, WHAM, I was placed on a spinning wheel and was spun around and around and around.  ‘Stop it!  I’m getting so dizzy! I’m going to be sick!,’ I screamed.  But the master only nodded and said quietly, ‘Not yet.’

He spun me and poked and prodded and bent me out of shape to suit himself.  Then he put me in the oven. I never felt such heat. I yelled and knocked and pounded at the door.  ‘Help! Get me out of here!’ I could see him through the opening and I could read his lips as he shook his head from side to side, ‘Not yet’.

When I thought I couldn’t bear it another minute, the door opened. He carefully took me out and put me on the shelf, and I began to cool.  Oh, that felt so good!  Ah, this is much better, I thought.  But, after I cooled, he picked me up and brushed and painted me all over.  The fumes were horrible.  I thought I would gag. ‘Oh, please, stop it, stop it!’ I cried. He only shook his head and said, ‘Not yet!’

Then he put me back into the oven. Only it was not like the first one. This was twice as hot and I just knew I would suffocate. I begged and pleaded; I screamed and cried. I was convinced I would never make it. I was ready to give up.  But then the door opened and he took me out and placed me on the shelf, where I cooled and waited and waited and wondered, ‘What’s he going to do to me next?”

“After an hour, he handed me a mirror and said ‘Look at yourself.’ And I did. I said, ‘That’s not me; that couldn’t be me. I’m beautiful!’

Quietly he spoke, ‘I want you to remember, I know it hurt to be rolled and pounded and patted, but had I just left you alone, you’d have dried up. I know it made you dizzy to spin around on the wheel, but if I had stopped, you would have crumbled. I know it hurt and it was hot and disagreeable in the oven, but if I hadn’t put you there, you would have cracked. I know the fumes were bad when I brushed and painted you all over, but if I hadn’t done that, you never would have hardened. You would not have had any color in your life. If I hadn’t put you back in that second oven, you wouldn’t have survived for long because the hardness would not have held. Now you are a finished product. Now you are what I had in mind when I first began with you.”

The moral of the story:  God knows what He’s doing. He is the potter, and we are His clay. He will mold us, shape us, and expose us to just enough pressures so that we may be made into a flawless piece of work. So when life seems hard, and you are being pounded and patted and pushed almost beyond endurance; when your world seems to be spinning out of control, when you feel like you are in a fiery furnace, when life seems to “stink”, try this …. steep a cup of of your favorite tea in your prettiest teacup, and have a talk with the potter.

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LINZER COOKIES or IS IT TARTS?

Are these rich, shortbread-like nutty pastries with their fruit filling, topped with a sweet powdery cookie called Linzer Tarts or Tortes … or Linzer Cookies … or are they Linzer Tart/Torte Cookies? Could they also be Linzer Augen or Linzer Eyes?  It’s so confusing.  I’ve looked all over the ‘web’ and I can’t seem to get a definitive answer.  I believe Linzer Tortes are the large lattice-topped, pie-shaped pastries, cut into wedges and served wit a dollop of cream.  Now to find out …

As with so many other dishes, the Linzer Torte is named for the city from where it was invented … Linz in Austria.  “Torte” is German for ‘a rich cake made with eggs, flour and nuts’.

Linz, Austria

According to Wikipedia, the Linzer Torte is said to be the oldest ‘cake’ in the world.  I think I’ve read that statement about most of the desserts I’ve researched. Although with an original recipe dating as far back as 1653, it does qualify as ‘old’.

This rich, fruity dessert was a hidden gem in Austria until a pastry chef started mass producing it around 1820.  From Austria the recipe was brought to the U.S. in 1856 by a young Austrian, Franz Holzlhuber.  It seems a very artistic and talented Franz had a job promised him in Wisconsin, so he packed up his things and traveled west. Unfortunately, between Austria and Wisconsin, not only did he lose his luggage, he lost the job. With nothing else to lose at that point, Franz went to work as a baker in Milwaukee and introduced America to the Linzer Torte.

Today, if you search online for Linzer Cookies or Tarts, you’ll see them referenced as Christmas treats.  I’m not sure why.  Could it be that they take a little more time and effort to make, and the only time we put any effort into baking is during the holidays?  Yes, these cookies take a bit more time, but not that much, and they are so worth it.  (William Sonoma sells a dozen of these cookies for $49.95 …. yikes!!)

My shortcut, unlike Martha Stewart’s recipe, is to use almond meal … which is simply ground almonds. If you want to use hazelnut meal, or any other ground nuts, feel free.  They are usually available in better grocery stores.

LINZER TORTE COOKIES
Preheated oven 350°.  Makes approximately 24 2-1/2″ cookies.
1 cup ground almond meal
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
zest of one lemon
2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 jar good quality raspberry jam (or any other flavor)
confectioners sugar to sprinkle

No need to preheat the oven until later because these cookies are easier to handle if the dough is chilled for an hour.
In a large bowl, sift and thoroughly mix together the dry ingredients.  In your stand mixer, or with a hand mixer, beat the butter and sugar until light and creamy – about 3 to 4 minutes.

Beat in the egg and vanilla.  Reduce the speed of your mixer, or by hand, add the dry ingredients and the lemon zest.  Do not overmix or the cookies will be tough.

Dump the dough onto a floured board and knead quickly into a ball.  Cut the dough into two even-sized portions.  Wrap with plastic wrap and refrigerate about an hour.  Now preheat the oven to 350° and line your baking sheets with parchment paper.  No greasing required.

On a lightly floured pastry board, roll one portion of the chilled dough to about 1/8″ or 1/4″ thick.  The thickness actually depends upon you.  The thinner the cookie, the more crisp (and the more cookies).  I like them a bit thicker – 1/4″.

Using a 2″ to 3″ cookie cutter, cut the dough and place the cookies on the parchment-lined sheets. Flouring the cookie cutter helps to keep it from sticking.   Using a smaller cookie cutter – circles, hearts, stars, whatever you’d like – cut out the center from half of the cookies.  Remember, you are making tops and bottoms.  Gather up the cuttings and knead them back into the left-over dough and continue rolling and cutting.

Bake at 350° for about 10 to 12 minutes, until just cooked through but not browned. Gently transfer the cookies to a cooling rack.  Now roll, cut and bake the second batch of dough. While the cookies are baking, you might want to put the jam in a sieve to release any excess moisture. As Mary Berry says, ‘there’s nothing worse than soggy bottoms’.

When all the dough is baked and thoroughly cooled, turn the bottoms over so that you are assembling bottoms to bottoms.

Use a sieve to sift the confectioners sugar generously over the cookie tops before assembling the cookie.  Spread the jam on the bottom half of the bottom cookie.  Don’t be overly generous with the jam or it will ooze out the sides.  Place the top cookie on top of the bottom and you are done!

Rich, fruity, nutty whether you call them Linzer Tarts or Tortes or Cookies or Augen doesn’t really matter.  What does matter is that whatever you do decide to call them, I’m calling them absolutely delicious!!!

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References:  Wisconsin Historic Society, Wikepedia

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Cheese and Onion Pasties

Pasties … Great Britain’s most popular ‘grab and go’ food.  Chock full of fillings, pasties or hand pies are available in bakeries, sandwich shops, convenience stores, grocery stores, food trucks and carts … just about everywhere.  Counted among one of hubby’s top favs is the “Cheese and Onion Pasty“.  For the history and origins of the “pasty”, please check out my “CORNISH PASTIES” page.

Some pasties are made with a short crust (basically a pie crust dough), and others are made using a puff pastry dough.  The difference between the two is puff pastry is lighter and flakier and has a much higher ratio of butter to flour.  As delicious as it is, it can be quite challenging to make.  Short crust pastry is very easy to make especially if you have a food processor.  I’ve used a short crust many times before, but for Cheese and Onion Pasties I’ve decided to use something even easier than short crust pastry … pre-made puff pastry from the grocery store.

If you decide to make these (and, yes I recommend you try them), when you read the ingredients you’ll notice there are potatoes.  Yes, potatoes are part of the filling, but for some reason, they are never called “Cheese, Onion and Potato Pasties“.  The potato adds just enough bulk to the filling so that the cheese doesn’t just melt right out.  These are very easy to make, but will take about 40 minutes to prepare.  Well worth the effort.

CHEESE AND ONION PASTIES  
Bake at 400° for 20 to 25 minutes.  Makes 6 (or more)

1 lb. puff pastry sheet (thawed)
1 lb. potatoes, peeled and diced
6 oz. good quality aged cheddar cheese, grated
1 large onion, diced
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
1 egg, beaten
salt and pepper

This is a great recipe if you happen to have leftover boiled potatoes.

If not, bring the potatoes to a boil in salted water and cook til tender (about 10 to 12 minutes).  Drain and set aside.

In a saute pan, melt the butter and add the diced onion.

Saute over medium heat until transparent (also about 10 to 12 minutes) but not browned.


In a large bowl, combine the cooked, diced potatoes with the cooked, cooled onions, parsley and the grated cheddar cheese.

Don’t skimp and buy low-quality cheese.  Good, aged, cheddar is what you want.

Season with salt and pepper.  Mix well, but lightly.  You don’t want mashed potatoes.

On a lightly floured board, roll the sheet of puff pastry out until its about 10″ x 12″.  You don’t want the pastry too thin or the filling will pop through.

Cut the pastry into six long, evenly sized rectangles.

If you’d rather make circles, or any other shape, feel free. There are no rules.  Just be sure to place the filling on one half of the pastry.

Divide the mixture evenly among the six pastries, placing the filling on one end only.

Brush the edges with the beaten egg.  Fold the other end of the pastry over the top and seal the edges securely.

Either press the edges together with your fingers or crimp with a fork.


Place the six pasties on a parchment lined baking pan (or two pans, as I did).

Brush the tops with the egg wash.  Bake in the center of the oven for about 20 minutes, or until the pasties are puffed up, crisp and golden brown.

Transfer them to a wire rack to cool.

Serve these hearty hand pies hot out of the oven for a delicious lunch, or pack them away to be eaten later.

I hope you enjoy them as much as we do.  Hearty, cheesy and delicious!

Cheese and Onion Pasties

I think to be enjoyed at their best, they should be served warm in all their cheesey gooeyness.
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Portmeirion . . . ?

On the southern coast of northern Wales lies the magical village of Portmeirion … and I couldn’t wait to visit.   As a subscriber to many travel magazines, Snowdonia and Portmeirion always seemed to pop up as a feature in one or another.  The photographs looked amazing, but I must admit I had never bothered to delve into the articles.  Many friends have visited and told me if we were going to visit Wales, I had to put Portmeirion on my “must visit” list.  We did.

The Prisoner – Patrick McGoohan

If you happened to be around in the 60’s, then you know Portmeirion was the location for the short-lived, cult tv series THE PRISONER, starring the oh so handsome Patrick McGoohan. That’s where my knowledge ended.

We had been staying in Snowdonia National Park for the week and, now I’m ready to visit this “interesting, but-not-really-sure-what-it-is” place.  Armed with only a map, no travel brochures to be found, we took an afternoon to visit … again not really sure what it was we were going to. Easy enough to find, but signage made it appear to be some sort of amusement park … ‘where to park’ and ‘where not to park’, admission times and prices, ‘no dogs allowed’.  This ‘lack of welcome’ was a little off putting.  Still confused about what type of place this was … a residential village, an amusement park, or a museum?  After parking our car, paying the admission and picking up a couple of brochures, we walked down the path into the village … and this unique, quirky, colorful little village unveiled itself.

Inspired by the Portofino village which lies on the Amalfi coast in Italy, Portmeirion was the brain-child of Welsh architect, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, who set out to recreate his own personal idyllic community.

A very successful and ambitious architect as well as avid sailor, Sir Clough’s dream was “to erect a whole group of buildings on my own chosen site for my own satisfaction – an ensemble that would in fact be me.Since the age of 6, he had imagined “creating clusters of architecturally imaginative buildings”, which is a great description for Portmeirion’s charm. The footpaths crisscross from this way to that and what appears to be one thing from a distance, is actually something else entirely when you get closer to it. Windows are painted on.  Doors lead to nowhere.  A boat which appears to be docked, isn’t a boat at all.  The colors on the buildings are bright, warm and Mediterranean.  The gardens, of which there are many, from the small, clipped formal gardens to a 70-acre sub-tropical forest, are truly magnificent.  All of this lying on a small sandy peninsula overlooking the Traeth Bach tidal estuary, in northern Wales.

Aerial View of Portmeirion Village

Sir Clough Williams-Ellis began looking for the perfect site years before buying this location and, after visiting 22 islands some as far away as New Zealand, ended up finding the perfect spot not far from where he lived.  The ideal location was a private peninsula off the coast of Snowdonia, where a neglected hundred-year-old mansion on an overgrown, weed-choked plot of land was for sale.

Clough bought this “neglected wilderness” in 1925 for £20,000 and spent the next 50 years creating the place of his dreams.  It was never easy.  World War II saw a ban on all building. Finding, buying and transporting the glorious buildings, columns, ceilings, plasterwork, stones, all took time and money.  He knew that eventually the only way this place was going to succeed financially would be with tourist dollars.  He was right.

This unique, little hamlet of tranquility attracted quite a few creative people seeking refuge and solace.  Noel Coward, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and Bertrand Russell were frequent guests.  But the one who is responsible for unveiling this idylic retreat was Patrick McGoohan, who hid away in Portmeirion while writing his new tv series, The Prisoner. When Portmeirion was given credit at the end of the series as the filming location, fans of the series thronged to this village, and they haven’t stopped.

We were there for the day, but for those wanting a longer stay, there is the Hotel Portmeirion, where you can choose from a lovely room overlooking the estuary, or perhaps one of the 13 cottages.  If you are there for the day, and are not planning to have a (rather expensive) meal at the (rather expensive) hotel, there are a couple of eateries, The Town Hall Cafe, Caffi Glas and Caffi Sgwar.  They do get quite busy, so plan in advance.

For shopping, of course there is Portmeirion Pottery.  In New England you can find world-class Portmeirion pottery in every high-end gift shop.  But, honestly, I wasn’t quite clear on the connection between “Portmeirion the village” and “Portmeirion the dishware”.

Portmeirion Pottery was founded by Sir Clough’s daughter, Susan Williams-Ellis.  As artistic as her father, Susan graduated from the Chelsea Art School and began by working as a book illustrator, but pottery was soon to become her passion.  At a small pottery shop in Stoke-on-Trent, Susan began by applying her designs to other people’s pottery.  Portmeirion the village wasn’t quite the tourist attraction it is now, but it did have a small souvenir shop, which was doing poorly.  Susan and her husband took over the running of this small shop in 1953 and began creating the iconic designs we have all come to love and recognize.

Do I recommend a trip to Snowdonia National Park?  Absolutely!  It is magnificent in its steely greyness, mirror blue lakes, wooley pine trees and rocky coastline.  And while there, do I recommend a trip to Portmeirion?  How could you not visit this unique little peninsula of creativity.   And if I were to define Portmeirion … would I say it’s ‘a residential village, an amusement park, or a museum’?  I’m still not sure.  What I do know is that it is an elegant, strange, magical place that, once you grasp its meaning, leaves you in childlike wonder.

Clough’s motto “Cherish the past, adorn the present, construct for the future” lives on at Portmeirion.

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References: Snowdonia National Park, Portmeirion Village, Susan Williams-Ellis, Portmeirion Pottery
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ECCLES CAKES

What a strange name … Eccles Cakes (especially when you consider they aren’t cakes at all). On one of our early trips to England, hubby said “I know you’re going to love these things.  Don’t ask. Just try one.” Knowing me as well as he does, I fell in love with them.  These hand-held puff pastry confections are flaky and full of dried fruits.  Made well, they are delicious.  Made badly, they are cloyingly sweet and sticky.

These puff pastries were quite a success when they were first sold in a little shop in Eccles, a small town just west of Manchester, England, in 1793 by James Birch.  Mr. Birch is thought to have come across the recipe for “sweet patties” in the best selling cookbook of that time, “THE EXPERIENCED ENGLISH HOUSEKEEPER.  The original recipe for “sweet patties” consisted of a mincemeat filling wrapped with puff pastry and then fried or baked.  The mincemeat, which this recipe called for, was “the meat of a boiled calf’s foot, plus apples, oranges, nutmeg, egg yolk, currants and French brandy”.

Artist Joseph Parry, Manchester Art Gallery

But neither Mr. Birch, nor The Experienced English Housekeeper invented these flat patties.  It seems they date as far back as the 1500’s. Every year the townsfolk would celebrate the construction of the “Eccles” church.  As part of the church fair, these brandy and mincemeat “cakes” were served.  The fairs were so popular they attracted people from all over and became quite rowdy, often resulting in bloody mayhem.  But when the Puritan, Oliver Cromwell, came into power in 1650, he banned the Eccles celebrations and he banned the very popular Eccles Cakes.

I just love learning about the sometimes bizarre origins of traditional foods.  The next step, of course, is learning how to make them so we can enjoy them at home and not have to wait for our next trip to England.  I know Eccles Cakes are available in export shops and international food stores, but the packaged ones aren’t that good …. sorry!

Traditional recipes for Eccles Cakes call for a large circle of pastry, which is then filled, sealed, turned upside down and baked … hoping that they’ve been sealed tightly so that the filling does not run out of the pastry.  My recipe uses far less sugar than standard recipes and uses two pastry circles – one for the top and one for the bottom – which is then crimped and sealed (easier and less chance of seepage).  I think Eccles Cakes also need some crunch and a little acid (they can be cloyingly sweet), so I’ve added the zest of one lemon and toasted walnuts.  Now this is a recipe worth making!  Enjoy

ECCLES CAKES
Pre-heat the oven to 400°.  Makes 24 3″ pastries.

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
1-1/4 cup dried fruits (any blend of currants, raisins, sultanas, etc.)
½ cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons cane syrup or honey
½ tsp allspice
½ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp cinnamon
zest of one lemon
½ cup chopped walnuts, toasted

1 box (17.5 oz. package) frozen puff pastry, thawed
1 egg white, beaten
Demerara sugar (or table sugar)

In a small saucepan, over medium heat, melt the butter and stir in all the other ingredients.  After the sugar has dissolved, take it off the heat to cool and add the zest of one lemon.

Using one sheet at a time (put the other into the frig to stay cold), on a floured board, roll out the pastry to approximately 12” or ¼” thick.

With a pastry cutter, biscuit cutter, or whatever you like to use, cut out approximately 24 circles. One will be for the bottom, one for the top.  Brush all the pastry circles with the beaten egg white.  Place a heaping teaspoonful of filling in the center of 12 circles.   Take the top circle, place it on top of the bottom, covering the filling completely and then seal or crimp the edges together.

Place the filled, sealed circles of pastry onto a parchment lined baking sheet.  Brush the tops with more egg white.  With a sharp knife, make two slits into the top for the steam to escape. Sprinkle each with Demerara sugar.  Then place the baking sheet into the refrigerator to keep cold while you prepare the second sheet of puff pastry.

After you’ve finished the second sheet, you should have two trays with approximately 12 Eccles cakes on each … ready to bake.  Puff pastry bakes up lighter and fluffier when its really cold, so be sure to put the finished trays into the refrigerator while you preheat the oven.

Bake them on at 400° for about 15 to 20 minutes or until they are golden brown. Move to a wire rack to cool.  They’ll keep beautifully for about three to four days (but not in my house).

You can certainly make larger cakes, if you’d like, but for me, these sweet little confections are the perfect size for your afternoon tea.  And I must say one of these Eccles Cakes with a cup of one of my most favorite teas, a Golden Yunnan, is so satisfying!

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References:  Lancashire Eccles Cakes, Salford, Eccles Historic Society
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Chocolate – The Elixir of Love

Every February we are inundated with tv, internet, magazine and newspaper ads all selling the “passion” of chocolate, not to mention Facebook posts and blogs about this desirable substance (including this one). Roses have been pushed aside, Valentine cards are a thing of the past, and now chocolate has become the one true symbol of love and romance.  I need to find out not only how our obsession with chocolate began, but  where our love for chocolate started.

If you’ve read my blog “The John Company” then you know how “tea came to Great Britain.  It was Queen Elizabeth I who gave the East India Company a charter to go out in search of spices, competing with the Spanish and the Dutch.  Not only were spices necessary for preserving foods, spices made spoiled foods taste better. Spices were also used for embalming the dead, in religious practices, and as medicine.   Nutmeg was the most cherished of all spices because it was believed to be a miracle cure for the plague, which killed more than 35,000 people in London in 1603.

Over the 60 years during which they had a monopoly, The East India Company did bring back spices … pepper, cinnamon, clove, saffron, ginger and nutmeg … and they also brought back tea, coffee and cacao beans.  But it was actually the Spanish who are credited with introducing “Chocolate” to Europe.

Coffee House – 17th century

By the mid-17th century coffee houses were well established in London. These male-dominated “penny universities” were the social and political centers of London.  No woman would dare enter.  Although alcohol was not served, these places were not always ‘high brow’ destinations. In fact, King Charles II made an attempt to ban them altogether by 1675, but the public was so outraged, it was withdrawn.

Coffee was served, tea was just being introduced and alongside coffee and tea a new “hearty drink called “Chacolate” was starting to peak London’s curiosity.  In 1659 Thomas Rugg wrote in his Diurnal … “And theire ware also att this time a Turkish drink to bee sould, almost evry street, called coffee, and another kind of drink called tee, and also a drink called Chacolate, which was a very harty drink.”

Historians have been able to trace the origins of “Chocolate”, which is the result of roasting the ground beans of the cacao plant, back to as early as 1900 B.C. in Mexico, Central America and South America.  The Mayans and Aztecs used the pulverized seeds of the cacao plant, together with water and chili pepper, to brew ceremonial drinks.  They actually believed the cacao bean had divine and magical properties, which made it suitable for use in the most sacred rituals of birth, marriage and death.   The word “Chocolate” comes from the Maya word “xocoatl” which means “bitter water”.

Cacao beans were also used in trade as currency.  In 1545 a list of Aztec prices illustrates the value of this precious bean:  1 good turkey hen for 100 cacao beans, 1 turkey egg for 3 cacao beans, 1 fully ripe avocado for 1 cacao bean, 1 large tomato for 1 cacao bean.   Unfortunately, according to a report at that time from Hernando de Oviedo y Valdez, cacao beans also bought:  a slave for 100 cacao beans. services of a prostitute for 10 cacao beans, and a rabbit dinner for 4 cacao beans.

It’s hard to know who to credit in the mid-16th century with introducing Spain to the cacao bean and the “hot beverage” that was made from it.  Was it the explorer Christopher Columbus, the conqueror Hernán Cortés, or was it the returning missionary Dominican friars?  Whoever it was certainly made an impression on the Spanish court.  This hot, bitter beverage made from the pressed blocks of dried cacao beans and hot water became a hit with Spanish aristocracy, but only after they began adding honey or sugar to it.  They found it most enjoyable when mixed with milk and flavorings such as vanilla, cinnamon, ground cloves, allspice and chilies.

“Chocolate” then migrated from Spain to France because of the marriage of Spanish King Philip IV’s daughter, Marie Thérèse, who, when she married French King Louis XIV, introduced these hot and hearty drinks to her French entourage.  King Louis XIV became so very fond of chocolate, he actually granted a monopoly for manufacturing this beverage to David Chaillou, a French importer.

Back in England, it was an entrepreneurial Frenchman now familiar with this wonderful elixir who, wanting to elevate the chocolate experience in London, removed it from the bawdy coffee house atmosphere and in 1657 opened the first “chocolate house”.  As always, the wealthy elite were the only ones who could afford this luxurious experience.  Tea was very dear, selling at approximately £26 per pound … which, when you consider the average income was less than £10 per year, was outrageous … and chocolate was just as expensive!

But where did the allure of chocolate as an aphrodisiac come from? The Spanish were quite observant in noticing that the Aztec emperor, Montezuma, drank copious amounts of this cacao bean beverage before he visited his harem.  Montezuma, is said to have drunk cold, thick chocolate from golden goblets daily, which were thrown away after only one use.  And when returning to Spain with the new elixir these Spanish explorers were quite eager to tout the aphrodisiac properties to the Spanish court.  The explorers also described this native “food of the gods” as a drug, able to treat a variety of ailments.

It is said that the French aristocrat, Marquis de Sade, became quite proficient in using chocolate to disguise potions.  The following is taken from a guest’s diary at an elaborate ball given in 1772 by the Marquis:

“Into the dessert he slipped chocolate pastilles so good that a number of people devoured them. There were lots of them, and no one failed to eat some, but he had mixed in some Spanish fly. The virtue of the medication is well known. It proved to be so potent that those who ate the pastilles began to burn with unchaste ardor and to carry on as if in the grip of the most amorous frenzy. The ball degenerated into one of those licentious orgies for which the Romans were renowned…”

Needless to say, the European’s love for chocolate grew, especially when they believed it to have nutritious, medicinal and properties able to increase their libido.  But, like tea, it remained a privilege of the rich.  In the 1700’s, the British obsession for chocolate (and sugar) grew to such proportions they established colonial plantations in tropical regions around the world just to grow cacao and sugar.  Sadly, we all know what happened when European diseases were transmitted into these countries which, to the then privileged Europeans, didn’t stop them from going in search of cheap labor.

Chocolate was always a hot (or iced) drink until 1828 when Dutch chemist, Coenraad Johannes van Houten, invented a specialized hydraulic press  to squeeze the fatty cocoa butter from the roasted cacao beans, leaving behind a dry cake which could then be pulverized into a fine powder.  (We still see “Dutch process” as a way of branding cocoa today.)  This fine powder could be mixed with liquids, poured into molds and solidified into edible, easily digestible chocolate which paved the way for the solid chocolate we all know and love.  This also resulted in making chocolate affordable to everyone. And in 1830, J. S. Fry and Sons, a British chocolate maker, is credited with making the first solid, edible chocolate candy bar.

50 years later, J. S. Fry and Sons merged with another company you may have heard of … Cadbury.  In 1824 John Cadbury opened a grocery store in Birmingham, England.  In addition to groceries, he sold drinking chocolate, which he prepared himself using a pestle and mortar.  Van Houten’s 1828 invention allowed for a much more affordable and versatile product, enabling Cadbury to sell 16 flavors of drinking chocolate.  And when Daniel Peter from Switzerland puts the first milk chocolate on the market, the appeal for chocolate skyrocketed. In 1913 another enterprising Swiss, Jules Sechaud, introduced the process for filling chocolates.  We haven’t looked back since!

So how did we get from there to being the one true symbol of love and romance?  English philosopher, James Wadsworth, translated the Spanish works Treatise (1640), which poetically combined the descriptions of this new hot chocolate beverage with the promise that if you drank enough chocolate anyone would become “faire and amiable.”  Both England and France used this statement as a powerful marketing tool.

Cadbury’s Valentine’s Day Box

St. Valentine’s Day, as a romantic holiday, was well established by the 1840’s.  It first appeared in the writings of Chaucer during the medieval period in 1382 with knights giving roses to their maidens and serenading them with songs.  By the 1840s, the Victorian era of excess was well underway and they were indulging in chocolate, tea, Cupid and romance.  Richard Cadbury recognized this as a great marketing opportunity and designed an elaborately decorated box in which he would put their Cadbury chocolates.  From that moment on, Cupids and roses were put on heart-shaped boxes everywhere.

In 1907, the American chocolate company, Hershey, launched production of its revolutionary tear-dropped shaped “kisses,” (named because of the smooching noise made by the machines as the chocolate was manufactured). Let’s not forget from the earliest days of movies, chocolate has been an important cast member.  Jean Harlow’s seductive performance in the 1933 film Dinner at Eight linked chocolate and sexuality forever, as she suggestively nibbles her way through a giant box of chocolates.  And who will ever forget the classic episode of “I Love Lucy” when Lucy and Ethel worked on a chocolate factory assembly line?

Chocolate lovers are passionate about chocolate, but does chocolate really create passion? Scientists have isolated phenylethylamine (PEA) which is a stimulant found in chocolate (as well as many other foods), and also in the brain.  A minuscule amount of this stimulate is released at moments of emotional euphoria, which raises blood pressure and heart rate.  Although we have learned about the many antioxidant benefits of high-percentage cacao in chocolate, there really is no scientific proof that chocolate is an aphrodisiac.

Does any of this matter?  Not really, because who doesn’t love the luscious, pleasurable sensation of chocolate as it melts in your mouth? And, for me, a velvet-covered, heart-shaped box full of divine chocolates is the quintessential Valentine’s gift.

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References:  Wikipedia, Message to Eagle, Chocolate of the Month, Cornell University, History, Cadbury, Public Domain Review, Smithsonian,
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