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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CHICKEN “POT” PIE WITH ROASTED VEG

I wonder why Americans add “pot” in the name of a meat pie. In the U.K. this is a “chicken pie with roasted veg”, but here in the states, it is a “chicken pot pie”. It doesn’t really matter to me what it is called, as long as its delicious … which this pie is!

Pot pies or pies in a pastry crust seem to have gone out of fashion. You can’t beat them, however, when the weather is as cold and gloomy as it has been and you need something hearty and comforting. They’re also a great way to use up whatever leftovers you may have in the frig. If you want a real time saver, you can buy pre-made pie dough at the grocery store, and along with a rotisserie chicken and a package of frozen vegetables (all of which I’ve done before), just assemble and bake.

Not today though. The chicken is going to be marinated and the vegetables are going to be roasted, which gives this pie a whole new dimension and depth of flavor. Although this is a ‘from scratch’ recipe, all of it can be done ahead of time … make the dough one day (up to three days in advance) … the vegetables another … and the chicken another. But it’s a very wintry day, and I’m in the mood to bake.

CHICKEN AND ROASTED VEG PIE
Preheated oven – 400°F. Roasting time – 20 to 30 mins. Baking time – 30 mins.

2 to 3 lbs. skinless chicken (breast, leg, thigh or combination)
Pie Crust for 2 9” pies
Marinade:
1/4 cup white wine or chicken broth
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh sage, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped  
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
Stock:
1 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup white wine or water
2 teaspoons cornstarch + 2 tablespoons water = slurry
1/2 cup cream
Vegetables:
6 cups vegetables – cut in chunky pieces
– carrots
– sweet potatoes
– onions
– bell peppers, red and/or green
– mushrooms
(or any combination – Brussel sprouts, parsnips, cauliflower, etc)
olive oil
salt and pepper
1 egg

Early in the day (or the day before) prepare the marinade.  Mix all in a bowl and set aside. Cut the chicken into cubes, about 2”.  Pour the marinade over the chicken, cover and refrigerate … at least two hours. When you are ready to assemble, preheat the oven to 400°F.

Peel and cut the vegetables into chunky pieces. Put them into a bowl and drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper. Spread the veg on a roasting pan and roast for about 30 to 40 minutes until tender and browned. After they are beautifully charred, let them cool and, if too big, cut into bite-sized pieces.

While the vegetables are roasting, heat olive oil in a large saute pan. Remove the chicken pieces from the marinade with a slotted spoon and brown in the hot pan. Don’t fuss with them, let them brown – 3 to 4 minutes. Then add the chicken stock, the remaining marinade and bring to a boil. Meanwhile make a slurry with the cornstarch and water.  After the chicken mixture has reached a boil, add the cornstarch slurry to thicken and make a gravy.  When it has thickened, take it off the heat and add the cream.  (I said this was hearty …  not lo-cal.) Taste for seasoning.

Add the vegetables to the chicken mixture and stir to combine.  Again, check for seasoning. The liquid may have thinned. If it’s too runny, add more of the slurry to thicken it.

Spoon the chicken and vegetable filling into pie plates … one very large pie plate or casserole, two 8″ pie plates, or many individual ones.

Roll out the pastry dough. Not too thin. Cover the mixture with the pie crust. Press down slightly and seal the edges. Brush with a beaten egg and then cut little slits in the crust for the steam to escape. It’s always fun to decorate with the scraps of pie dough (which, you can see, I did.)

I made one large 9″ and two smaller, single serving pies, which are going into the freezer to be baked and enjoyed another day. Bake in a preheated oven at 375°F for 40 to 45 minutes or until golden brown and the filling is piping hot.

Serve immediately with a nice crisp salad and glass of wine. So delicious. So comforting. So good!

I hope you enjoy this comforting meal as much as we did.
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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,

CUSTARD APPLE PIE

We did not go apple picking this year.  I’m not sure why.  It’s not as if every weekend was so busy we didn’t have time.  Nonetheless, my frig is stocked with apples.  How can anyone pass up those “tote bags” from local orchards in the produce aisle at the grocery store!  Not only are apples delicious and nutritious, they are soooo versatile, and this time of year, very affordable.

This is one of my ‘go to’ recipes.  Hopefully, you’ll like it as much as we do.  Don’t want to make pie crust … don’t worry.  Store bought pie crust is a great time saver.  If you want an easy recipe, my pastry recipe is at the bottom of this post …

CUSTARD APPLE PIE
Makes one family-sized pie, or two or more tarts (depending upon size).  Bake 350°.

1 recipe pie crust (store bought or see bottom)
1/4 cup butter
3 apples, Granny Smith are best, sliced (peeling is optional)
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 cup butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
4 eggs, room temperature
3/4 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons flour

In a saute pan over medium heat, melt the butter and add the sugar and cinnamon.  Mix together and then add the sliced apples.  Cook until the apples are tender and the caramel has thickened … about 5 minutes.

Line the pie plate (or tart pans) with the pastry.  I like to use tart shells … just because they look so pretty.  Put the pastry-lined pan into the refrigerator to get really cold.

In a large bowl, beat together the butter and sugar.  Add the eggs, one at a time.  Add the milk and vanilla.  When all is blended well, add in the flour and continue to beat until smooth.

Take the pastry out of the refrigerator and place it on a baking tray.  Then arrange the sauteed apples with the caramel sauce on the bottom of the pie.  Leave a few apples out for decorating the top.  Put the baking tray in the oven before pouring in the custard.  This will help avoid spillage.

Pour the custard on top of the apples.  Bake at 350° for about 40 to 50 minutes until set (but still a little jiggly in the center).  The pastry should be browned and a slight browning on the custard.

Remove from oven and arrange the saved apples on top.  Drizzle with the caramel.  Let cool completely before serving.  Flaky crust, creamy custard and cinnamon apple goodness … what more could you want this time of year?  Now go ahead, put the kettle on, and wait for all the compliments!!

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Pastry
1-1/2 cups flour
pinch salt
1 stick ice cold butter, cut in pieces
3-4 tablespoons ice cold water
1 tsp lemon juice

I use a food processor to make pastry which makes it so-o-o easy.  To the flour/salt cut in the ice cold butter til crumbly.  Don’t overwork it.  You should be able to see chunks of butter.  Quickly add the ice water/lemon juice til dough comes together.  Dump the dough onto a lightly floured board and knead quickly into a smooth ball.  Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 15 minutes, or up to three days.  The colder the butter, the flakier the crust.
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PUFF PASTRY … MY ‘GO TO’

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but puff pastry is my absolute ‘go to’ when I want to make an impressive-looking dessert.  Take a peek in my freezer and you’ll always find a couple of packages.  All you need to do is take out a sheet or two, let it thaw in the refrigerator, and you’re only limited by your imagination.  Regardless of what I’m making, the results always look as if I’ve spent far more time (and money) than I actually have.

For this recipe, I wanted an elegant-looking tart … flaky, buttery puff pastry, filled with vanilla creme (referred to as creme patissière on the Great British Baking show), and topped with fresh strawberries.  I cut the pastry sheet into fancy envelope shapes for these.  Perhaps a little more time consuming, but I think the results were well worth it.  Let me know what you think.

(If you want to use packaged pudding mix for the pastry cream, go right ahead.  I’ll never tell.)

VANILLA CREAM TARTS WITH STRAWBERRY
Preheat oven at 425° for 20 minutes prior to baking.  Bake 18-20 minutes.  How many you get will depend upon the size you make.  Generally 12 from one sheet of pastry.
(This pastry cream recipe will make three cups and will keep up to three days.  Enjoy it in this recipe, other recipes, or alone with a dollop of whipped cream.)

1 package frozen puff pastry sheets (thawed in refrigerator)
1 pint strawberries, washed, dried and hulled (or any other berry)

3 cups milk
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
4 eggs
3/4 teaspoon vanilla
3 tablespoons butter, softened

Make the pastry cream first to allow it to set in the refrigerator while you make the tart shells.

PASTRY CREAM
Sift together the flour and cornstarch and set aside.  In a good-sized bowl, beat the eggs.  Add the flour/cornstarch and continue to beat until a pale yellow color and thickened.  Set it aside.  Now its time to heat the milk and sugar.  In a large saucepan, over medium-high heat, bring the milk and sugar to a simmer (bubbles around the edge of the pan).  Stir constantly to prevent scorching the milk.

When bubbles begin to form, take the milk off the heat and slowly pour about 1/4 of the heated milk into the beaten eggs.  Continue to whisk.  Do not add all the hot milk at once or the mixture will curdle and the eggs will cook.  Once fully incorporated, pour the egg mixture back into the hot milk pan, and place it back on the heat, stirring constantly.  It may sound difficult, but it really is not.

Lower the heat and continue to cook the custard until thick and lemony-colored.  Scrape the sides and bottom of the pan continuously.  After it has thickened, continue to cook for another minute.  There’s nothing worse than that “flour” taste.  Yuck!

Remove from the heat and add the vanilla and butter.  Stir til smooth.

Place a strainer on top of a clean bowl and strain the custard, pushing down to remove any lumps which may have formed.  Then place plastic wrap directly on the surface of the cream.  Place the cream in the refrigerator to chill for at least an hour.  You can make this up to three days ahead.

TART SHELLS
Now its time for the tart shells.  This shape is called an envelope and I’m sure there’s an easier way to get the fold, but this is the way I did it.

Take the thawed sheet of puff pastry dough from the frig and place it on a lightly floured board.  With a floured rolling pin, roll the pastry out just a bit to even it out, and square it off.
Measure and cut 3″ squares from the sheet.

Now it’s time to cut inside each individual square.  Cut a 1/4″ border around each square except for two corners.  Leave two corners intact.  Take one cut corner and bring it over to the inside of the other side.  Now do the same with the opposite corner.  You should have a diamond pattern (or envelope).  Press down slightly around the edges.

Place the shaped puff pastry on parchment-lined baking sheets and place the baking sheets.  Square them off a bit and place the baking sheets into the refrigerator.  Puff pastry puffs up much better when its very cold.  This is when I preheat the oven.

Bake the pastry til golden brown, about 20 mins.  Remove from oven.  Now take a sharp knife and remove the center portion of each pastry, creating a pocket, or cavity for the pastry cream.  Place each pastry on a wire rack and let cool completely.

Now its time to assemble.  What could be easier … spoon (or pipe) a dollop of pastry cream into the center of each individual pastry.  Place a sliced strawberry on top and sprinkle with powdered sugar.  Arrange your pastries on a serving tray until ready to serve.  Then show them off to all your guests and wait for the oohs and ahhs.  You deserve it!


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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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JAM ROLY POLY

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

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

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

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

Although British productivity soared, the overwhelming competition for jobs kept the wages low. Some individuals became very wealthy.  Too many people, however, lived in overcrowded slums with little or no food or comforts.  With so little income, parents had no choice but to send their children to work in the factories as well.  Children were welcomed by the factory owners and managers, not only because they were cheap labor, but because their small statures and nimble fingers made them suitable for many work situations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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THE REAL DOWNTON ABBEY

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

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

Countess of Carnarvon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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References:  Wikipedia, Highclere Castle, Lady Carnarvon, Amazon,
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