GBBO . . . what’s happened to you?

What has happened to the Great British Bake Off?  Now in season 10 (or is it 9, maybe 8?) it has become a showcase of unattainable, unrelatable challenges.  No longer is it a baking show to which home bakers can think about, perhaps some day, challenging themselves to bake that irresistible, classic cake/pie/tart/bread/roll/pastry.  Now the contestants are asked to bake scenic ‘landscape desserts‘, pita bread on an outdoor  fire pit, and what in the world is a ‘Kek Lapis Sarawak‘ cake?  I completely understand that this is a long-running program and there is a need to have new “content” for each of the 10 episodes, but biscuit chandeliers? REALLY?

Has anyone else noticed that the bakers are younger, more stylish, and dare I say, more attractive?  In past seasons, there was a wide range of ages.  But not so much any more.  Where’s the Val, Diana, Brendan, Norman and Nancy today?  Is this home baker now too old for the commercial Channel 4 audience?  Also, these much younger contestants, with their perfect teeth, coifed hair and slim  bodies appear to be in ‘character’ now … much like MasterChef.

Season 1, which (unless you have a streaming service) we in the U.S. have never had the opportunity to see, featured 10 home bakers baking in the imposing tent which then moved around the U.K. to six different locations.  It was all about the classic bakes, ranging from puddings to breads to cakes.

The judges were Paul Hollywood, a seasoned bread baker, and Mary Berry, the Julia Child of Great Britain.  Together with comediennes Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins as the sympathetic, caring, yet off-beat presenters who were always there to bolster a sagging souffle, the show was an immediate hit.  Let’s not forget the music.  Combining cellos, violins and a xylophone, the tension-building introduction perfectly set the mood of the show.

Mary Berry, Paul Hollywood, Sue Perkins, Mel Giedroyc

The logistics of a roving tent must have been too daunting because in Season 2 the tent became permanently setup on the beautifully landscaped grounds of a 17th-century mansion house.  The number of contestants increased from 10 to 12 and a “star” baker was introduced.  It was official.  The Great British Bake Off was a huge hit!

Season 3, which here in the U.S. is referred to as Season 1, is when the rest of us fell in love with this charming baking show.  We were tired of the gimmicky, cut-throat, competitive, backstabbing drama which was so prevalent in our cooking shows.  We all fell in love with this simple format and with contestants who actually cared about each other, helping each other out when a crisis was imminent.

Ian dumping his bake into the bin.

Yes, there was one incident in Season 4 when Diana is accused of leaving Ian’s ice cream out of the freezer, which caused his bake to fail, and thus being eliminated.  Diana left the show because she said the program was edited to make it look as if she left the ice cream out when, in fact, she had put it back into the freezer.  She departed the show because of how she was portrayed.

The BBC series ran for six seasons, but when Channel 4 purchased the show, Mary, Mel and Sue left.  Paul Hollywood remained.  We were then introduced to Prue Leith as judge, replacing Mary Berry.  Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig took over for Sue and Mel.  Yes, they get the job done, but with gimmicks and slapstickish comedy, none of the clever, witty interplay we so enjoyed from Mel and Sue.

The first six seasons of this beloved show are constantly rerun on PBS, while Netflix has kept us up-to-date on the recent three.  Will I continue to watch?  Absolutely!  I wouldn’t miss one episode.  But I do miss the eccentric, aging, snaggle-toothed, rural baker who is completely uncomfortable in front of the camera, but was such fun to watch.

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CAKE

One of the oldest forms of what originated as a sweetened bread is cake.  In its simplest form, it is flour, sugar, milk, eggs, and butter, but it can be so much more than just that.  Cake can evoke so many different emotions and memories in each of us.  From the modest, but much-loved birthday cake of our childhood, to the multi-tiered symbol of love, the wedding cake, to the rich, decadent torte we enjoyed during our last extravagant dinner.  Or perhaps it was that $5.00 cake at the grocery store which looked so good you couldn’t pass it up.  Today a celebratory Cake is a ‘must have’ for most cultures at every occasion … from the baby shower to the anniversary dinner to the retirement party.

Duff Goldman photographed next to one of his designer cakes, a floral wedding cake at Charm City Cakes West.

I am fascinated by the incredible cakes produced on some of the Food Network shows. Watching episodes of Cake Boss or Ace of Cakes can leave you feeling hopelessly inadequate as a baker.  But you must know that lavishly decorated cakes didn’t begin when the Food Network started showcasing these professional bakers and their cake masterpieces.  It began during the Victorian era.

When hubby and I have a weekend free, we love to spend a Sunday afternoon strolling around rural town centers, browsing through curiosity and antique shops.  Recently I came across a fascinating  book entitled The Victorian Book of Cakes, Recipes, Techniques and Decorations from the Golden Age of Cake Making”.  Not the original, this reproduction, written in 1958, is taken from the turn-of-the-century tome which was the standard for professional bakers during the Victorian era. The recipes range from petit fours to pound cakes, slab cakes and shortbread, to gingerbread and marzipan.

The illustrations in this book are remarkable in that they are not photographs but drawn capturing the precise details from each original baked item.  The images of wedding cakes are astonishingly beautiful, each having won prizes at the London International Exhibition 100 years ago.

The book has hundreds of recipes, which are quite interesting.  Most use the same simple ingredients, but with very minimal direction.  The cakes are generally traditional fruit cakes, with nuts, spices, and rum or brandy, such as the wedding cake Prince William and Kate Middleton served for their wedding.

For leavening agents, although they do not call it “baking powder”, a blend of ‘cream of tartar’ and baking soda (two pounds of cream of tartar to one pound of baking soda) is used – which essentially is ‘baking powder’ (invented by Alfred Bird in 1840).  Yeast or beaten egg whites were also used to lighten batters, all of which leads me to think that most of these cakes were probably more ‘bread like’ and quite dense.

In a Victorian bakery or pastry shop there would be a variety of cakes and biscuits for sale from scones and shortbread to meringues, marzipan and trifles.  This book gives the bakery owner, not only recipes for its ‘best sellers’, but advice on how to display these confections and what to charge … with cakes starting at a shilling.  One description for a “SHILLING GATEAU” is described as “very saleable and enhance the general shop display.  They should be made from a good Genoese base, either a light egg mixture or a closer-eating butter mixing.  The latter seems to be the favorite of the cake-eating public.”  How fun!  I guess we ‘cake-eating public’ like a ‘closer-eating’ mixture … whatever that may mean.

In addition to the advice and recipes are the original advertisements for all the baking essentials required, from flours and sugars to cake stands and ovens.  One advertisement which I found interesting was for a “vegetable butter” made from “cocoanuts, as an excellent substitute for butter, margarine and lard”.  Why has it taken us another 100 years to fully incorporate coconut oil into our baking?

Times may have changed and although some of the ingredients have stayed the same, progress seems to be  mostly in the preparation, and in the myriad of flavors we have today.

I’m sure you’ve probably realized by now that ‘I like to bake’.  Breads, cakes, cookies, it really doesn’t matter.  I find baking to be relaxing.  It also provides a much-needed creative outlet.  Taking an assortment of unrelated ingredients and turning them into, hopefully, a confection that not only tastes good, but is pretty to look at, is quite satisfying.  Not all my ‘bakes’ have been successful, of course.  In fact, some have been complete disasters, requiring a quick trip to the nearest bakery when it was an occasion for which I was to supply the “cake”.  But, for the most part, they’ve been pretty decent.

I’m not sure any of us would enjoy making the seemingly simple, but on closer inspection, overly-complicated recipes in this “The Victorian Book of Cakes” today,  but I do feel challenged to try my hand at making one or two – some shortbread perhaps?  Not that I would ever do what Julie Powell did with Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  But, then again …

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THE BEATLES

I’m sure you’re all scratching your heads wondering why in the world would I be writing about the Beatles.  What could they possibly have to do with a blog called TEA, TOAST and TRAVEL?  Well,  they certainly do qualify … definitely from England, and they were all “tea” drinkers.


We just returned from a two-week visit to England and, never having visited before, this year we decided to go to Liverpool.  How surprised were we when we discovered this once down-on-its-heels city of the working classes is now a thriving metropolis with a world-class seaport district, high-end restaurants and shops, museums and a tourist mecca.  How did all this happen?  The obvious and logical answer, of course, is the investment over recent years by developers into revitalizing the city.  I say it’s because of four young men from the ‘neighborhood’ …. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison.

In making plans for our visit to Liverpool, I thought it would be great fun to take a “Beatles tour” … maybe finding a cabbie to take us around, or we might find a ‘hop-on-hop-off’ bus.  So, I started trolling websites looking for what we might be able to do.  Not only did I find a slew of companies offering organized Beatles tours, ranging anywhere from three hours to a full day, and anywhere from a private tour with an ‘expert’ Beatles guide, to full bus tours, it was impossible to choose.

Looking at the range of possibilities (and the costs), I choose one of the bus tours.  Now I had to choose the day and time to make our reservation.  Huh?  Although they offered tours every three to four hours, they strongly suggested advance reservations because they usually sell out before the day of.  Once again, huh?   This was just one of the many Beatles tours.  So, I selected one time slot which would work for our schedule …. sold out.  Okay, I choose another …. sold out.  Picked one for the next day …. sold out!  What the?  I had to switch to another tour group.  Finally, landed on the “Magical Mystery Tour”.  Made the advance online reservation.  Paid in full.  And exhaled!

Never having been to Liverpool, we wanted to get there early, poke around the city center a bit and get a feel for this coastal metropolis.  Thank goodness for “sat nav” because without it, we’d still be driving in circles, trying to navigate the many bridges and tunnels.  And when we finally emerged, it was beautiful!  Elegant ornate old stone buildings intermingled with the sleek, modern architecture of today.  With the help of the many tourist information stands, we found our way to the “Magical Mystery Tour” kiosk (located right next to the Beatles museum), picked up our “Tickets to Ride” and were soon in the midst of other like-minded tourees … all ages … all countries … all interested in The Beatles!

There we all were clustered in front of ‘our’ bus (of which there were many), taking selfies, waiting patiently for the doors to open.  As soon as they did, we piled in, jostling each other for the best seats.  The tour leader boarded, introduced himself and we were off.  We began at the stadium where tickets to Paul’s 2008 concert sold out in seconds to twice its capacity, when he played far into the night without ever taking a break.  We then drove to the ‘neighborhood’ where the four young men grew up, visiting each individual location, the schools, the hangouts, the barber shop, the church where Paul was a choir boy … learning about all the inspiration for their songs.  Along the way, the entire bus group would break out into song, everyone knowing the words, to the Beatles background music.

The tour leader was not only entertaining, he provided us with so many rich details on each band member, making it quite an intimate experience.  Starting from 1957 when 15 year old John Lennon started a skiffle band, to Paul McCartney asking his banjo-playing mother to teach him how to play the guitar, to Richard Starkey wearing a bunch of gold rings and earning the name “Ringo”, to Lennon wanting George Harrison in the band because “that kid can sing and he’ll get us all the girls”.  And learning that the reason the Beatles broke up was not because of Yoko Ono, but because of the death of Brian Epstein, the cement which kept these talented four together.

Yes, we stopped at Penny Lane, Strawberry Field, Paul McCartney’s home, George Harrison’s home and more.  At each destination, everyone piled out of the bus, taking turns for our photo op in front of whatever icon we visited, while watching similar buses, taxis or limos pulling away with another group of like-minded Beatles fans.  I felt badly for people living on the streets where all this activity goes on day after day.  They still had to go to work, school, shopping, the dentist, whatever, and here we all were clogging up these narrow, little neighborhood streets.  Our tour driver insisted not only don’t they mind, they actually love all the attention.  I hope so.

Two hours later, our tour ended back in the city center where it really all started for the Beatles, at the Cavern Club.  This little below-ground club is where in 1961 the Beatles (before Ringo) played to the lunchtime crowd almost daily.  Today this alleyway of a street is the hub for Beatles mania!  The Cavern Club sits mid-way, but first there are Beatles gift shops selling absolutely every item you can imagine with Beatles images on them.  Outside the Cavern Club is a brick wall with the name of every known country, rock or blues musician.  And be sure to have your photo taken with John Lennon or Cilla Black.
Each year Liverpool hosts an International Beatles Week attracting thousands of fans, with concerts all throughout the city performed by hundreds of Beatles tribute bands from around the world.  And, if you are such an ardent Beatles fan that you want an all-consuming experience, then you must stay at the Hard Day’s Night Hotel.  This high-end establishment is adorned with specially-commissioned artwork and memorabilia.  And, yes, it serves Afternoon Tea.

As I said Liverpool is a vibrant and thriving city now.  If you ever get the chance to visit, you won’t be disappointed.  And if you want to argue that Liverpool’s amazing turnaround over the past 30 years is because of the investment of dedicated developers which has led to the revitalization and rebirth of the city, you may be right.  But I say it’s all because of four lads, who called themselves the Beatles.

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References:  Hard Day’s Night Hotel, The Cavern Club, Beatles Tours, Wikipedia,
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THE NATIONAL LOAF

Today is the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the allied invasion of Normandy, which was a major turning point during World War II.  The horrors of war are untold and we are very fortunate to live in a country in which we haven’t had to fight a world war on our soil.  I realize the Civil War, Revolutionary War, and French and Indian War were all fought here, but they were not ‘world’ wars and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who lived through those times.  You can, however, still find people who lived through World War II and remember the horror and sacrifices that had to be made.

Britain entered the second World War in 1939 after many attempts at appeasing Germany.   At that time, Britain was importing about  20,000,000 tons of food each year to feed its 50 million people, from meats and cheeses to sugar, fruits and grain.  Most of Britain’s imported food, at least 70% of its grain, came by ship across the Atlantic from Canada.  Although Great Britain had the support of many countries, war is incredibly expensive and food, fabrics, coal and oil had to be rationed.   A year later, in addition to the months and months of bombings, Germany’s strategy was to cut off all imports to Great Britain, attacking all ships bound for England, and starving this island nation into submission.  By 1942, with no end in sight, this once-powerful country was not only running out of money, it was running out of food and the ability to produce the most important staple of life … bread.

The government-organized Ministry of Food was resurrected from WWI to create a system of rationing.  Customers were required to register at selected shops where they would receive ration books with coupons for their purchases.  Prices were controlled and the shopkeeper would have just enough food and goods for those registered customers.   When making a purchase, the shopkeeper would take the necessary coupon.  If you did not have a ration book, you could not buy (unless, of course, you had the money to pay exorbitant prices on the black market).  Although some fruits and vegetables were not rationed, they were available in very limited supplies.  Children growing up during this time had never heard of, and didn’t even believe ‘bananas’ existed.  It was during this time that “victory gardens” were encouraged, and are still very popular today.

But it was bread, the staff of life, that garnered the most attention.  Today, quite a few of us wrinkle up our noses at the thought of a loaf of squishy white bread, preferring whole grains and artisan loaves.  But in Great Britain at that time, a loaf of ‘white’ bread was thought to be the preferred bread, eaten by the upper class, with whole grains relegated to the poor lower classes.  With the diminishing supplies of wheat, however, the Ministry of Food had to come up with a way to provide a more nourishing staple for the masses.  What they came up with was a milled flour which had far less ‘white flour’ and contained far more wheat germ, to which they added calcium and fortified it with iron.

Now named the ‘national loaf’, bakers were banned from baking any other type of bread.  To further complicate the availability of purchasing this national war effort ‘loaf’, bakers could only bake the fibrous bread one day a week … and could not sell it until the next day … realizing that the day-old bread could be sliced thinner, providing more slices per pound, although the one pound size was also reduced to 14oz.

A homemaker filling out her bread ration card for the day.

Many sacrifices had to be made during the war and rationing of food supplies was some of the hardest.  But it was the bread which they loathed the most.  Nicknamed “Hitler’s Secret”, the high fiber, dense flour, created a loaf which, although nutritious, was heavy, grey in color, and stale by the time it was purchased.  Even Eleanor Roosevelt, America’s First Lady, when visiting Buckingham Palace in 1942 was served “the same kind of war bread ever other family had to eat.”

On May 8, 1945, the Allies formally accepted unconditional surrender of the Nazi Germany armed forces, but it wasn’t until 1956 when the ‘national loaf’ was finally laid to rest, after years of providing healthy, nutritious bread to stave off hunger during and after the war.

“Pat-a-loaf, pat-a-loaf
Baker’s Man
Bake me some Wheatmeal
As fast as you can:
It builds up my health
And its taste is good,
I find that I like
Eating just what I should.”

We are so very fortunate to live in a country and during a time when we have vast amounts of foods available to us, not only quantity, but superior quality, and unlimited varieties of foods.  Sadly, 30% to 40% of the food produced in the U.S. is quite literally thrown away, ending up in land fills across the country.  Given a national emergency, could we survive food rationing and would we support a “national loaf”?  I wonder.

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References:  Wikepedia, World War II History, Granny Robertson, Cook’s Info
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PIT BROW LASSES

If you read my post on THE COURTING CAKE you might remember where I mentioned how the coal mines in Great Britain during the Industrial Revolution were staffed by, not only men, but women too.  Today is National Women’s Day and, I feel, it’s the perfect day to shine a little light on these brave, incredibly hard-working women who never received the attention they so rightly deserved … Pit Brow Lasses.

Because of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain in the 19th century, coal production increased dramatically.  Not only was coal used for fueling the steam engines, it was also used for heating and lighting.   In the coal mining areas, from Yorkshire County to Wales, it was very common for whole families to work in the mines.  “Pitwork” in these areas, was usually the only work to be found.

Prior to the passage of “The Mines and Collieries Act of 1842” when it became illegal to employ women and children to work underground, it was commonplace for women, young and old, and their children to work in the mine shafts, alongside their husbands, fathers and brothers, with pick axes and shovels, hauling coal and moving stones.  Children as young as five often worked underground alongside other members of their family.  From 6am to 6pm, six days a week, the work was dirty, brutal and incredibly dangerous.  And for a mere six to eight shillings per week,  depending upon which owner you worked for, was just enough to keep them out of the workhouse.  The women and children, of course, worked for less than half what the men received.

The shafts were dimly lit, hot, cramped, with no ventilation.  Most often the children worked either as ‘trappers’, opening and closing ventilation doors, or as ‘hurriers’, pushing tubs of coal.  And with baskets strapped to their backs, or chains wrapped around their chests, armed with picks and shovels, the women worked right alongside the men, in the shafts, hauling coal.

Sweating profusely and stripped to the waist, if they weren’t completely naked, the women would wear trousers.  But they had very few choices.  It was extremely hot in the shafts, but if they wore lightweight, flimsy clothing, it would be seen as inviting promiscuity.  The trousers were practical, but often led to large holes wearing through, and provided no protection after all.  Needless to say, Victorian England was outraged.  No, not about the dangers of working in the mines, but about the clothing or ‘lack of’ which these women miners did or did not wear.  The mining women were then branded as “unsuitable for marriage and unfit to be mothers.”

Devastating accidents occurred more frequently than not … fires and explosions were commonplace, but it was a flash flood in 1838 in a Yorkshire mine, which caused the deaths of 26 children, all of whom died trying to escape the pit … 11 girls aged from 8 to 16 and 15 boys between 9 and 12 years.

This disaster led to a public outcry and finally came to the attention of Queen Victoria who ordered an inquiry.  Commissioners began to investigate the working conditions in the mines and seeing for themselves, they were appalled by what they found. The working conditions were horrific.  This resulted in the passing of the Mines Act  which prohibited the employment of women and children under the age of 10 to work underground in the mines.  But for many mining families who were dependent upon this income, it was a devastating blow.  These women were not afraid of hard work and needed their wages.

After the passage of the Act, some women, knowing there were few inspectors around, and that the employers (who paid the women half of what the men earned) would turn a blind eye, continued to work underground in the pits.  Others continued to work at the mines, but above ground, sorting the coal.   Slowly, however, these strong, hard-working women began to accept the inevitable fact that they had to work above the pits, and not in them.  These women and children were eventually replaced with pit ponies, horses who were bred to be miniature in stature, whose size and strength was perfect for pulling the coal barges in the mine shafts.

Above ground the work was still rough, cold, dirty and physical.  But now the women chose practical clothing and dressed more as men than as women.  They wore thick boots to protect their feet, trousers under heavy, rough skirts to protect their legs, and kerchiefs tied tightly around their heads to keep out the coal dust.  These hard-working coal mining women quickly became known as ‘Pit Brow Lasses’.

 

Victorian society now feared these “Pit Brow Lasses” who dressed and acted like men, but somehow they became a sort of fascination for social commentators of that time.  Some social commentators had a fascination for not only mining women, but any woman who worked outside the home, from servants to factory workers.  But it wasn’t the fact that these women worked at the mines that caused the stir, it was only the fact that they wore trousers.

Photographers came from around the country just to photograph them.  Most of the “Pit Brow Lasses” saw this as an opportunity to make a little extra cash and began charging to have their photo taken.  Now many of these extraordinary images are on display in mining galleries in and around Yorkshire County.  As with most women, though, these Pit Brow Lasses didn’t think they were doing anything out of the ordinary.  They did what all women around the world do.  They had a job to do, a family to support, and they did it!


“A Pit Brow Wench For Me”

Anonymous

“I am an Aspull collier, I like a bit of fun
To have a go at football or in the sports to run
So goodbye old companions, adieu to jolity,
For I have found a sweetheart, and she’s all the world to me.

Could you but see my Nancy, among the tubs of coal,
In tucked up skirt and breeches, she looks exceedingly droll,
Her face besmear’d with coal dust, as black as black can be,
She is a pit brow lassie but she’s all the world to me.”

 

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References:  Balmaiden, History, Atlas Obscura, Daily Mail, Wikipedia, History Extra
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THE COURTING CAKE

Today you might think it a very thoughtful gesture to ‘bake a cake’ for your loved one … especially for Valentine’s Day.  But there was a time, in northern Britain, when baking a cake to show your love was exactly what you did.

Lancashire County, north of Cheshire and west of Yorkshire, was a very working-class area.  Although the low lands were and are important agricultural areas, the predominant industries were coal mining and textile mills. The Industrial Revolution actually started in this county with the invention of steam power, fueled by coal, and the resulting creation of the factory system.  The coal mines were staffed by men (women were forbidden to work underground in the mines … but that’s a story for another day), and the textile mills were staffed by women.  The work was hard, usually six days a week, with little time and few places for socializing.  But these young, hard-working men and women found a way.

Each Saturday and/or Sunday, eager-to-meet-the-opposite-sex, young men and women would dress in their finery, and along a designated area of the town square … women friends together on one side of the street … men on the other … each group would stroll or “promenade” up and down the streets. Hopefully, you might catch the eye of the opposite sex and, if you liked what you saw, you would accidentally meet at the local tea shop.  Different towns had different designated “promenades” and “accidental meeting spots”.  In some towns the “sorting” process was even more segregated.  In one part of town the promenade would be comprised of only factory workers, while across town, would be those who worked in offices.  The end result, however, was the same … to find true love.

We’re all familiar with the old saying “a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach”, well this is where the “courting cake” makes its appearance.  Should the connection be made and true love was found, the young woman would bake her betrothed a cake … a “courting cake“.  Was this to impress the young man or perhaps the potential mother-in-law, we’ll never know, but the cake was always the same … a shortbread base, filled with fresh strawberries and whipped cream.  How can you go wrong with that classic combination?

This tradition didn’t just exist in England.  It actually crossed the Atlantic into America, as so many traditions did.  The future “first lady of the United States”, Mary Todd, made this cake for her betrothed, Abraham Lincoln.  Upon tasting it, Lincoln proclaimed, “it was the best cake he had ever had”.  This recipe eventually became a tradition in the Lincoln home and is printed in Mary Todd’s cookbook.

As a symbol of love and in keeping with the Lancashire tradition, in the last public appearance before they were married, Kate Middleton and Prince William were presented with a courting cake.  The shortbread-based, two-layer cake was baked was in the shape of a heart with the couple’s names on the top.

I’m all about keeping traditions alive and with Valentine’s Day fast approaching, I think my day is going to be spent making a “courting cake” to show my love for my special guy.

COURTING CAKE
Bake 350°F.  25-30 mins.  Makes one two-layer cake.

1 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
4 large eggs, room temperature
2 tsp. vanilla
1/4 cup milk
2-3/4 cups all purpose flour
4 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups strawberries
1/4 cup confectioners sugar

Butter and flour two (or three) round cake pans.  In a large bowl cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy … about 6 to 8 mins.  Beat in eggs, one at a time.  Add vanilla.  In a separate bowl, thoroughly sift together dry ingredients.  Fold the dry ingredients into the butter/sugar mixture.  Slowly add the milk.

Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans.  Bake between 20 to 30 mins (a little less if using three pans).  The top should be lightly browned and firm to the touch.  Remove and cool thoroughly.

Meanwhile, slice the strawberries and whip the heavy cream.  I like a touch of vanilla and tablespoon or two of confectioners sugar in my whipped cream.

To assemble, place one layer on the plate, top with half the whipped cream (or 1/3 if making three layers) and half the strawberries.  Place the top layer on and repeat.  Be sure to arrange the berries in a decorative pattern.  Sprinkle with confectioners sugar and enjoy.

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References:  Downton Abbey Cooks, New Opinions, Lancashire Life, Curious Taste Bud
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GUINNESS

Do I drink Guinness? No.  I’ve tried Guinness … but just don’t like it.  I am, however, in the minority.  Guinness is one of the most popular beers in the world.  So why am I blogging about something I don’t care for?  Because I find their story fascinating.  With so many breweries, not only in Great Britain, but around the world, how did this small Irish company become such a favorite?
During the middle ages, beer and ale were the most common drinks in Britain.  Because many of the rivers and waterways in the cities were polluted, water, at that time was not always safe to drink.  Beer (a much less alcoholic version than we know today) was drunk with every meal, by everyone, every day.  Providing the bulk of the caloric intake, beer was also believed to be nutritionally good for you.

Brewing beer at home was quite common and the Guinness family did as well. I’m sure one of Arthur Guinness’s jobs growing up was to help his father with the brewing.  Although many families brewed their own beer, it was also commercially available.  At inns and taverns, alewives would put out an ale-wand to show when their beer or ale was ready.  Gradually brewers began organizing themselves into guilds and as brewing became more reliable, many inns and taverns then stopped brewing and began to buy beer from these early commercial breweries.

Arthur Guinness

When Guinness was 27, his godfather died and left him £100 (over £5,000 today).  Having an entrepreneurial spirit, in 1755 Guinness purchased a floundering brewery not far from Dublin.  He began brewing ale … an “unhopped” brew.  After four years, Arthur put his brother in charge and then purchased another brewery, about 20 miles away at St. James’s Gate in Dublin.  The brewery industry was beginning to fail, but it didn’t deter young Guinness who took out a 9,000-year lease on a 4-acre, run-down brewery … for a cost of £45 per year.  And just ten years later, Arthur Guinness began exporting his brew.  It may only have been six barrels to England, but it was ground breaking at that time.

In 1761 Arthur married Olivia Whitmore, who bore him 21 children – 10 of which lived into adulthood.  Three of his sons eventually joined him to work at the brewery, with Arthur Jr., his second son, eventually becoming senior partner.

Meanwhile, Londoners were enjoying a new style of dark beer, called Porter or “stout”, named after the river porters who worked in London.  Although his brewery was doing well, Arthur made the decision to stop brewing ales and concentrate on perfecting this bold, black beer.  In 1778 Guinness started selling only Porter.  By his death in 1803, the annual output at the brewery was over 20,000 barrels.  With Arthur Jr. now at the helm, exporting became his focus and sales continued to soar … from 350,000 barrels in 1868 (now with Arthur Jr.’s son in charge) to 779,000 barrels in 1876 to over one million barrels ten years later.

With the death of Queen Elizabeth’s husband, the beloved Prince Albert in 1871, a local pub owner decides to create a drink in his honor.  By combining Guinness’ Stout with champagne, he created the Black Velvet, a drink that is still very popular today.

The Guinness brewery grew by leaps and bounds and remained in the family for four generations.  The original 4-1/2 acre property grew to where it boasted its own medical facility, fire department, railway system and canteens; and it took very good care of its workers.  By the 1900s the brewery provided unparalleled benefits for its 5,000 employees, costing the brewery one-fifth of its total wages.

By 1914, Guinness was producing 2,652,000 barrels of beer a year, more than double that of its nearest competitor Bass, and was supplying more than 10% of the total UK market.  In the 1930s, Guinness became the seventh largest company in the world.

Some very creative advertising and marketing campaigns were begun at this time.
The first advertisement featured the slogan ‘Guinness is Good for You’.
Following this success came ‘My Goodness, My Guinness,’ which featured the now famous Guinness toucan.
When World War II broke out, all British Troops in France receive a bottle of Guinness to accompany their Christmas dinner.
And let’s not forget the Guinness Book of World Records, which came about in 1954 when the Managing Director had the idea for a promotion based upon settling pub arguments.  Little did he know that this book would go on to become an all-time best seller, and spawned an entire culture of its own.
To celebrate their 200 anniversary in 1958, Guinness dropped 150,000 bottles into the Atlantic Ocean, from different points, over six weeks.  Should one of those bottles reach shore, inside you may have found a certificate from ‘the Office of King Neptune’, or a booklet telling the story of Guinness.  Others may have had instructions on how to turn the bottle into a lamp.

Guinness Book of World Records – Longest Bicycle

In 2000 Guinness transformed the former fermentation plant at the St. James’s Gate Brewery into a magnificent seven-story experience, now the biggest tourist attraction in Dublin.  The story of Guinness is brought to life from its humble beginnings through to its modern-day successes.

Today Guinness is brewed and enjoyed all over the world.  It may not be a favorite of mine, but obviously I am in the minority.   As Irish actor Peter O’Toole once said, “My favorite food from my homeland is Guinness. My second choice is Guinness. My third choice … would have to be Guinness.” 

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References:  Ranker.com, Guinness, Wikipedia, World Records
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DONUT DOLLIES

Who doesn’t love donuts. The puffy little mounds of fried deliciousness can be found in countries all over the world. They may or may not have a hole in the middle and they may be called by another name … beignets, bombaloni, bismarks, sfenj, lokma, badusha and more; but we all know what these deep-fried sweet yeasty balls of tenderness dipped in a sugary substance are … and we love them.

Although the donut appears to be such a true symbol of America, I wonder how many know that the donut was not invented here. I wonder, also, how many people know how important the donut became during a time of crisis?

A fried ball of dough can be traced as far back as prehistoric times, but historians believe that the sweetened version of fried dough we’ve all come to love originated in the Netherlands, and were (and still are) known as ‘olykoeks’ or oily cakes. From Amsterdam the donuts or oily cakes came to New Amsterdam (or, as we know it today, New York City) in the late 1700s. But as popular as they are today, donuts really didn’t come into their own until World War I. Women volunteers from the U.S. and England served up donuts daily to home-sick American boys. These brave, selfless women earned the name “donut dollies“, a name that is still being used today.

It began in 1917 when the Salvation Army sent 250 women volunteers to the trenches of eastern France in order to boost morale by providing some of the same comforting touches the soldiers would have enjoyed at home. One of the more specific requests from the men was for a taste of something sweet, like pies or cookies. But baking in the battlefields was absolutely impossible, never mind trying to get supplies.

Two of the women, Margaret Sheldon and Helen Purviance came up with the idea for making donuts. They collected surplus rations for the dough and used wine bottles and shell casings for rolling pins. They then filled a soldier’s helmet with lard for frying. The Boston Daily Globe reprinted a letter from Sgt. Edgar S. Chase of Haverhill, Massachusetts, who wrote from the battlefield, “Can you imagine hot doughnuts, and pie and all that sort of stuff? Served by mighty good looking girls, too.”

Archival footage courtesy of the Salvation Army

These brave women became lovingly known as “donut dollies” and were just one small part of a larger female war effort. John T. Edge in Donuts: An American Passion cites that these treats were an immediate hit, and cemented the Armed Forces’ relationship with donuts, and the women who served them. “By the close of World War I, the Salvation Army was among the strongest charitable forces in America – and their chosen totem, the doughnut, was an ingrained symbol of home.”

When World War II began, the Red Cross immediately began recruiting young women to serve as “donut dollies.” The women had to be at least 25 years of age, with a college education, pass a physical exam, and have a pleasing personality. They needed to be intelligent, charming and sensible. They were expected to be “the girl next door” … nothing more. From the many volunteers, only one woman out of six passed.

The Red Cross then began retrofitting English Army buses to serve as “Clubmobiles” supplying not just coffee and donuts to the troops but outfitted with a small lounge where the men could sit for a few moments. With freshly made donuts, hot coffee, a record player, gum, cigarettes, magazines, newspapers and a friendly face these Clubmobiles provided the morale boost the soldiers desperately needed. The first clubmobile arrived in France just days after the D-day invasion, staffed with three women volunteers. By July 1944 there were well over 100 clubmobiles in action.

“We were standing in the village street in a row serving our coffee and donuts and I was at the end of the line with the coffee dipper. And a G.I. came up to me, a very young guy, a 19-year-old, like a lot of them were, and he said his name was Jerry and he just needed to talk to me,” said Barbara Pathe, a Clubmobile worker with the troops in Germany. “And so he stood there and talked to me the whole time we were serving. Listening was the biggest thing we did. Nothing else, just listening.”

With volunteers from every walk of life, women played an important role in the American war effort, risking, and some losing, their lives to do so. The Donut Dollies continued their service throughout France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany until 1945 when WW II was won, but they did not stop there. They continued to operate during not only the Korean War, but the Vietnam War as well.

The Vietnam War was a divisive and highly controversial war. Morale within the troops was at an all-time low. In 1965, Defense Department officials asked the Red Cross to establish a program in Vietnam and the “Donut Dollies” were put into service once again. From 1965 through 1972, nearly 630 brave, young women served in Vietnam through this program.

In 2014 filmmaker Norm Anderson made a documentary about two women who served as “Donut Dollies” in Vietnam as they attempted to retrace their steps during this tumultuous era. One of the donut dollies was Norm’s mother. The other, her best friend. If you are interested in learning more, please click on this link …
The Donut Dollies an untold story about American women in Vietnam.

Donut Dollies in service to the Red Cross in Vietnam. Credit Larry Ray/American Red Cross

From World War I to the Vietnam War “Donut Dollies” were not shielded from the horrors of war. Not only did they drive the buses and fix them when they broke down, the Donut Dollies risked their lives every day as they tried to fulfill their mission to cheer up the troops. They saw death all around them, and some women lost their lives, but each day they had to compartmentalize their own fear and sadness, and provide that glimmer of hope and kindness which was so appreciated. 

We can all sit back and debate the merits of Dunkin’ Donuts vs Krispy Kreme vs the local donut shop, but one thing we can all agree on is that “we love donuts and we love the “Donut Dollies“.

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References: Smithsonian, All Good Found, NY Times, Easy Science, War Veterans, My Recipes,
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Peek Freans

How about “a nice-cuppa-tea-and-a-sit-down”?  It’s the perfect way to recharge when out for a day of sightseeing, or shopping, or just running errands.  The afternoon is winding down and you need to relax for a few moments, over a hot cuppa.  And, what do you need when you’re having that “sit-down”?  A biscuit or two, of course.

The marketing genius who decided that tea and biscuits should go together was James Peek.  Perhaps you’ve heard of the Peek Freans Company, once one of the biggest biscuit (cookie) companies in the world.  How did it start?  With ‘tea’, of course!

William Peek was born into a wealthy family from Devon.  In 1818 William decided to move to London and start a tea importing business, W. Peek and Company.  It became quite successful and within two years William’s two brothers, Richard and James, decided to join the firm.  The name of the company then became, Peek Brothers and Company.

Peek Bros Trademark — Camel Caravan. 1884. Peek House, 20 Eastcheap, London. These premises were the headquarters of Peek Bros & Co., dealers in tea, coffee and spices, built 1883 – 1885. (Ward-Jackson)

In 1824, James Peek married Elizabeth Masters and had 8 children.  As most fathers, James wanted his sons to join him in the family tea business.  But his two eldest sons were not at all interested in tea.  Ever-creative James, realized that a business which would complement “tea” might be perfect for them.  He suggested a biscuit business.  Of course, his sons were still just teenagers at this point, so now James needed someone to run his new biscuit business.

3rd U.S. Infantry eating hard tack.

James’ niece, Hanna, had recently married George Frean.  George was a miller and baker of “ship biscuits” or what was commonly called “hard tack”.  Hard tack is a simple, tasteless cracker made from flour, water and salt.  It is very inexpensive to make and can last for long periods of time, making it commonly used by the military.  James wrote to George, saying that he had set up a biscuit business for his sons, but because he was still managing the tea business, he wanted to know if George would manage the new biscuit business.  George agreed.  The business was set up with James and George as partners, and the factory opened in London in 1857.   The new partners registered their company as the Peek Frean Company.  Just as James had predicted, the business took off, but after three years, the sons wanted nothing more to do with it.

Now George needed help.  George wrote to his long-time school mate, John Carr of the Scottish biscuit company (perhaps you’ve heard of Carr Crackers and Biscuits).  Carr accepted the offer and came down from Scotland to join the company in 1860.  Throughout this time the Peek Frean Company was just producing those tasteless “ship biscuits”, but Carr was working on new ideas and new products.  In 1861, they introduced the Garibaldi biscuit, a thin oblong of biscuit dough with a filling of dried currants.  It’s still very popular in the U.K. as well as Australia and New Zealand.

Now it was time for a softer, sweeter biscuit with no “docker holes” (which kept the biscuit from rising during baking).  Carr named this new soft and crumbling, yet crisp biscuit, the Pearl Biscuit.  The Pearl Biscuit was revolutionary.  Everyone loved them.   In the meantime, an order from the French government came in for 460 tons of “hard tack” which was needed to help feed the armies during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.  Business was booming!

After the “Pearl”, came the “Marie”, then the “Chocolate Table”, “Pat-a-Cake”, the “Golden Puff” and then in 1910, the company introduced the first cream sandwich biscuit, now known as the “Bourbon” biscuit , a chocolate sandwich with a chocolate cream filling.  But did Peek Frean invent this biscuit?

Credit for the “Bourbon” biscuit, the “Custard Creme” and “Nice” biscuits go to Harold Trixie, not an employee of Peek Frean, but housemaster at the King Edward VI Boarding School in Nottinghamshire.  Harold’s father was a baker,  and created the “two biscuits sandwiched together with a creamy filling”.   Boarding schools at that time were notorious for underfeeding their students.  Remembering the French-inspired baked goods his father would make, Trixie used the same method, a soft filling between a harder outer shell, to make biscuits for his young male students.  Disguised as a demonstration of good etiquette, Trixie began hosting informal ‘afternoon tea’ sessions at the boy’s school, bringing in his own baked goods and biscuits.   Because of the extra sugar and fat provided by the biscuits, it was noticed that Harold Trixie’s students had begun to outperform their peers.  His chocolate creation was named the ‘Bourbon’ after the French noblemen’s House of Bourbon.

The Peek Frean Company began hearing about these unusual two-piece with a creamy filling cocoa biscuits.  They contacted the school to ask whether they could reproduce these interesting biscuits, for which they were willing to pay a fee.  When put in touch with Harold Trixie, they were told that the biscuits were free to whoever cared to bake them.  Peek Frean began producing Bourbons, crediting Trixie with his creation, and they became an immediate success.

Peek Frean’s mission was that their workforce should be healthy, comfortable and contented.  For over a hundred years Peek Frean’s focus was the community, with free medical and dental care for their over 4,000 workers.  In addition to its own fire brigade and post office, they founded a cricket club in 1868 and later musical and dramatic societies were set up. In 1918, they cut back worker’s hours, introduced a week’s paid holiday for everyone, a pension fund, and daily tea breaks.  This was a true family-run business which employed generations of families.  Sadly, the biscuit factory closed in 1989, but there’s hardly a Brit who doesn’t lovingly remember them.

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References:  Brighton Toy Museum, Cook’s Info, Wikipedia, Exploring Southwark, Rousdon Estate, Quora,

MARY MALLON, A SURVIVOR

I just finished reading a book by Anthony Bourdain, entitled TYPHOID MARY.  It was a quick and easy read about a subject which I found fascinating.  No, not the fact that Mary Mallon from Cookstown, Ireland, unknowingly infected many people with typhoid, three of whom died.  What I found fascinating was how resilient and resourceful women from Ireland in the late 19th century had to become.  Not to say that women from other countries were less so, or had to endure less, but this story about Mary Mallon‘s need to survive seemed personal.  Coming from a large family of strong Irish women, this required a bit more research.

Mary left Ireland at the beginning of the devastating potato famine.  In only seven years, the Irish potato famine changed the face and lives of an entire country.  Unfortunately, this catastrophic event doesn’t seem to be taught or even discussed in schools.  But …

Let’s start at the beginning.  Potatoes are indigenous to South America … and if you’ve ever visited Peru you know how many thousands of varieties they have.  It wasn’t until the 16th century, however, that the potato was introduced to Ireland, after having been brought from South America by the Spanish.  It was discovered that not only could this crop grow easily in the cloud-covered, moist Irish climate with its rich soil, it could feed many, many people per acre.  As a result, the lowly potato quickly became the staple food for the Irish, and in particular, the poor.  With no wheat, corn or grain available to them, a typical peasant might eat up to eight pounds of potatoes each day, providing 80 percent of their caloric intake.

Famine Memorial In Dublin, Ireland

But in 1845 a potato blight, crossing from Europe, began to sweep through the country.  A few days after the potatoes were dug from the ground, they’d begin to turn into a slimy, decaying, black “mass of rottenness.”  Experts started investigating every means possible to understand where this blight was coming from and how to handle it, but they had no answers.  It wasn’t discovered until years later that it was a fungus which traveled from South America.  Nonetheless, one-third of Ireland’s population were completely dependent upon this crop for food, and now their source of food was gone.

Over the course of the next seven years, one in every nine people (over one million) died from starvation and related diseases:  cholera, dysentery, scurvy, and typhus.  As people packed up and took to the roads trying to find food, the highly-contagious typhus was carried with them from town to town.  At times, entire families, ravaged by the disease and starvation, simply laid down along the roadside and died.  Those that could find a means to leave the country, did so.  Another million people emigrated to the United States and Canada.  One of those was Mary Mallon.

Irish Women Domestics – Circa 1850

Many Irish women, leaving their families behind, emigrated to America alone.  But once here, they faced huge barriers … among them discrimination and religious persecution.  “No Irish Need Apply” was the common sentiment.  But because these young women served as the economic lifeline for their families back home, it was imperative that they find work.  And because domestic service jobs generally offered room and board, these were their only choice.

“Going into service” as it was called appealed to many Irish women.  It had no expenses for food, housing, shelter, heat, water, or transportation and meant that they could live in middle-class neighborhoods instead of the tenements.  They knew, however, that they had to delay or forego marriage altogether.  Despite the constant discrimination, they clung to each other and their ethnicity with passion and fervor.

Mary Mallon was one of these women … strong, independent, fearless and resourceful.  But unknown to her, she was carrying the deadly typhus pathogen.  When Mary landed in New York City, she quickly learned to cook (hence, Anthony Bourdain‘s interest).  Mary knew that if she could cook, and be a good one, she could at least elevate her status a bit, and not end up as a laundress or housemaid.  And she did.  Mary was able to find work in some of the most prestigious homes in New York City and Long Island.  Although she never exhibited any signs of illness, she innocently left a wake of illness behind her.

Although Mary was tracked down, she managed, many times to get work and avoid capture by changing her name and her residence.  Mary was a survivor.  It wasn’t until an outbreak of typhoid in a maternity hospital in which Mary was working was she discovered and apprehended.  The resulting story, I think, is a sad one, because although many typhoid carriers were walking around the streets of New York City at the time, Mary was forced into isolation for the rest of her life … 23 years.

Mary never knew, nor did she believe, that she was a carrier of a deadly disease.  The only thing Mary knew was that she had to survive.

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References:  Potatoes, Post Gazette, History, World History Project, Irish Working Women, History.com/Typhoid Mary, History Place/Famine
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