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Food for Thought
An Old-Fashioned Easter
I may have bitten off more than I can chew this month. I hope you're in the mood for a good laugh, because in the past week I have had more "fails" than successes!
It all began with my search for a hot cross bun recipe.
With minor variations, the recipes were basically the samea slightly sweet roll with either raisins or currants, and a cross on each roll made of dough or icing. I guess when something is as traditional as hot cross buns, nobody wants to change the recipe.
I ran across a website that had information about the history of Easter foods and a really, really old recipe for hot cross buns, and I was intrigued by the challenge of interpreting the recipe into today's measurements and methods. I couldn't resist; this sounded like a lot of fun to me!
Of course, this discovery led me to others, and before I knew it I had committed to writing my April column about heirloom Easter recipes. So you are welcome to come to Easter dinner, where I will be serving ham, chervil soup, scalloped potatoes, hot cross buns, and a choice of either kulich or neppetelle for dessert. Pull up a chair!
For many people, Easter wouldn't be Easter without hot cross buns. I have a very good recipe for them, but felt compelled to try out that old recipe from 1875. The only thing in this recipe that really threw me was the "wine-glassful of yeast." It could be yeast dissolved in a liquid or it could be a sponge. I went with the yeast and liquid because it was easier, and it seemed to work just fine, even though I had no idea if wine glasses had changed in size over the years. The recipe also called for a teaspoon of powdered spice. No specifics, just spice. I looked at lots of different old recipes and came up with a representative spice mixture. You could use pumpkin pie spice just as easily, but I don't like to do anything the easy way!
I rewrote the recipe for you with real measurements and everything. This one's a keeper for sure!
Next I tackled the ham, assuming it was going to be one of my easier efforts. I wanted to try a recipe I found in a book of heirloom recipes involving an uncooked ham that was cooked in sweet dough, which intrigued me. I had a mental picture of how this would turn out: a golden brown crust encasing a tender, upright piece of meat that sliced like a dream. Hold on to that thought, OK?
I had my doubts about the recipe; it was pretty clear that any dough made of 1 cup of honey, some spices, and 1 1/4 cups of flour was going to be sticky! But it was an old family recipe. A tried and true recipe that was printed in a beautiful hardcover autographed book! It had to be correct, right? I tried rolling the dough out on a generous bed of flour, and it seemed to be working very well, until I went to lift it onto the ham. It was stuck firmly to the counter.
It was time for Plan B. I lightly floured a piece of parchment, put the dough on it, sprinkled a little more flour on the dough, and covered it with another piece of parchment. I smiled smugly as I rolled the dough through the parchment. Here's how that played out:
Plan C was to take the remaining salvageable dough (thank goodness I had a much smaller ham than the recipe had called for) and put it back on a thick pile of flour and beat it into submission with flour flying everywhere. I managed to get a layer of dough on the ham, and it looked reasonably good. Whew.
The recipe suggested seven hours of baking time. However, my ham was only 5 poundsabout half as big as the one the recipe called for. So I guessed that four or five hours would be about right. Within an hour the dough had turned a dark brown. After four hours I managed to punch a meat thermometer through the concrete honey-and-flour shell and was happy to see that it was done. I know, I know . . . pioneer women didn't have meat thermometers, but I wasn't messing around with raw pork. I cheated.
It tasted fine, but we all pulled the dough crust off the meat before eating it. And even though the flavor wasn't bad, the beautiful ham I had envisioned actually turned out like this:
At least the scalloped potatoes were a success. We were all very enthusiastic about those!
I had actually bought two hamsone raw, one cooked. I boiled the cooked one a few nights later, to rave reviews. It's been requested that I always cook ham this way in the future, and I'm delighted to comply! If you've never boiled a ham, you really should try it. It removes a little of the saltiness, but leaves the flavor. And the meat just falls apart.
Simply put an unsliced bone-in ham in a big stock pot of water, place a lid on the pan, and boil it until the meat falls off the bone. Four hours was just right for my 7 1/2-pound ham. Use the leftover liquid for cooking vegetables or making soup.
Speaking of soup . . .
Chervil soup is a traditional German Easter dish that is served on Holy Thursdaythe Thursday before Easter. The recipe sounded wonderful, until I realized that chervil wasn't stocked at any of the grocery stores in our small town; nor was the créme fraiche that the recipe called for. Stumbling blindly ahead, I substituted parsley (which is admittedly green, but lacking the subtle anise flavor of chervil) and made my own créme fraiche.
I will definitely be growing chervil in my garden this year, because the parsley added a very strong flavor to the soup, and my research tells me that chervil has a more subtle, delicate flavor. And yet, it was still very, very good. I would proudly serve that soup to company, and plan to make it often.
Kulich is a traditional Russian Easter treat. It's a beautiful cylindrical bread studded with raisins and candied fruit and enhanced with just a bit of cognac or rum.
My first effort at kulich was a real bomb. I was fascinated by an old recipe from 1861 that measured things in glasses and teacups, called for "1 lot vanilla drops," and said to "heat the milk to the temperature of milk fresh from the cow." Since I've never milked a cow, I didn't feel qualified to make that judgment. Rather than take my chances with the recipe, I picked a similar one that sounded a little more modern.
Just because recipes are posted on the Internet that doesn't mean they're free from errors. The amount of flour in the sponge was omitted, and the recipe never did say when you were supposed to add the sponge. While the little voice in my head was screaming "that can't be right," I just plugged away and did what I was told, and ended up with this:
Adding over 3 cups of oil to dough was an interesting experience. It puddled and flowed, and my hands and arms were used to dam it and keep it from pouring from the counter to the floor. The dough had no intention of accepting that much oil. I have to wonder if it was a typo; maybe the author meant 3 1/2 tablespoons, not cups. The recipe also helpfully suggested that more flour should be added as needed to help absorb the oil. By the time I was finished, I had an enormous pile of heavy, oily dough, and had to use two large bowls to hold it while it rose.
Except that the dough really didn't riseat least, not much. What it did was sit in the bowl oozing oil. Eventually the dough was swimming in a pool of oil. I added more flour, kneaded it again, and put it back in the bowl. I finally filled two coffee cans and an angel food cake pan, and still had a bowl full of leftover dough. The dough wasn't rising and the pans were beginning to leak oil when I gave up and went to bed.
When I got up the next morning, the dough was almost to the top of the angel food cake pan, so just for grins I wiped the oil off the bottom of the pan, wrapped the bottom in foil, and threw it in the oven. It looked pretty good when I brought it out. Ten minutes later the top had sunken horribly, and I knew it was a lost cause.
This was an expensive failure, because the recipe had cognac, saffron, candied orange, raisins, and a whole bottle of cooking oil in it! And yet, I tried again.
This time I took several recipes for kulich and took the parts I liked out of each of them, trying to average out the wildly varying amounts of butter and eggs. I skipped the saffron this time and used cardamom (less expensive, in case this batch bombed, too) and made some wild guesses on basics like yeast and sugar.
A brief moment of panic when I spilled half of the raisins and cognac on the floor was my only real setback, and even though the bread took a long time to rise, I finally got three beautiful loaves like this one.
I find it interesting that the way we define foods has changed so much over the last century. Several recipes referred to kulich as cake, though today we would consider it yeast bread. I think our palates have evolved to the point where we crave a lot more sugar and fat than our ancestors had in the old days. This was proven again when I made Italian Easter cookies (Neppetelle) which certainly wouldn't be considered cookies in our time. They are small yeast pastries filled with a delicious fruit and nut mixture, but they wouldn't measure up to our expectation of cookies. The crust was decidedly bread-like. When I stopped thinking of them as cookies and started thinking of them as pastries, I enjoyed them thoroughly.
Even though these are Italian pastries, I want to try making them again using butter in the dough instead of olive oil, to give the crust more flavor. (I'm sure this would horrify an Italian baker. Mi dispiace!) My husband, however, loved them and proved it by eating them hand over fist.
I was surprised by the liberal quantities of extras these women of the 1800s used. They used pounds of nuts, lots of citrus and saffron, and generous amounts of eggs and butter. I vividly remember the Little House on the Prairie books, and the thrill the family got when there was something extra on the table. I don't remember there being an abundance of anything in those stories. I suppose it depends on where these women lived. Here in the Northwest fruits and nuts would have been plentiful. I know that citrus became widely used once the railroads were built and goods could be shipped from California.
How they found time to make these creations is beyond me. The kulich debacle took up two days of my life; I certainly couldn't have been scrubbing clothes, milking cows, and hoeing fields at the same time. They were formidable, those women of the 1800s, and I'm fascinated by their lives.
Next month I am going to try a few recipes from the Oregon Trail. The recipes probably won't be full of candied fruit or white sugar, but from what I've been reading, the women on the trail had ways of making special meals out of very little.
I hope you'll come back in May and join me in discovering more about pioneer food. I promise I won't make hardtack!
Contact Lorinda at email@example.com
Lorinda resides in Eastern Washington, where she joyously combines her love of cooking and gardening. Baking is her passion, and licking the batter off the spoon after making a cake is her reward. When she's not in the kitchen, she's out in the garden pulling weeds and snacking on young peas. Also enjoy Lorinda's blog, The Rowdy Baker.
Food for Thought copyright 2019.