Le Bon Mot

Because recipes are written in the imperative, they can often sound unconsciously droll, particularly as food is often described using words that have a different, though similar, non-food meaning. And so as we peruse recipes, we sometimes see sentences like "Choose round lettuces with good hearts" (Hilda Leyel, Picnics for Motorists, 1936) and my favorite line from a recipe for the confection, Sonhos, or Dreams, in Brazilian Cookery (Margarette de Andrade, 1965), "Yields approximately 30 small-size Dreams."

Then there is the pithy assertiveness of promotional recipe booklets. Like the declarative,

and the gentle assurance and authority that persuades,

Because these recipe booklets were often produced to educate the consumer on a new or recent food innovation, they often describe food with words that seem odd.  "The Useful Marshmallow" was printed circa 1925 with this purpose in mind, although marshmallows had been available since the late 19th century.  "Useful" is not one of the first adjectives that comes to mind in connection with marshmallows.  But the Royal Marshmallow brand was of course trying to convey the idea that marshmallows could be used in a variety of food preparations.

The first page then proclaims, "Their Texture and Flavor Are Fascinating," and although marshmallows do have a unique consistency, I wouldn't say I'm fascinated by it.  Of all the adjectives used to describe the taste of food, "fascinating" is probably one of the least common.  Then again, if we consider the meaning as derivative from the Latin fascinare, to enchant, or fascinum, as in a spell or witchcraft, we might agree that food often does have the powerespecially when it is novel or tied to memoryto bewitch.

The Elderflower and Its Berries

"The scent of an elder-blow...is event enough for him." So said Ralph Waldo Emerson of a poet's heightened sensibilities.  Indeed the lacy blooms of the common elder bush, Sambucus nigra, cast a fragrance with the pungent verdure of sweet, fresh cream -- a scent that only June flowers lay claim to.  From late May to June, the flowers are used in culinary preparations such as elderflower cordial and salads, and in July, the sweet-tart berries may be used in wines and baked goods such as tarts.

Elderflower heads make lovely fritters, developing cauliflower-like incrustations.  They are surprisingly sturdy, holding up well to the heavy batter, and are easily dipped into and removed from the batter and oil by the stem.


Shallow Fried Elderflower Fritters


8 elderflower heads
1/2 cup flour
2 eggs, separated
1/2 to 1 cup milk
Grapeseed oil

1. Gently shake off any insects dwelling on the flowers.  Beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form.  In a separate bowl, beat egg yolks, milk, and flour until well-blended.  Gently fold the egg whites into the flour mixture.

2. Wash elderflower heads under cold water and set aside (do not dry). In a small saucepan (about 6 to 7") add about a half inch of oil.  Heat until small bubbles appear and then reduce heat slightly.  Holding the stalk, take 1 flower head and plunge into batter.  Swish around until completely coated, then drop into oil and cook until golden brown.  Gently remove from the oil and place on a plate lined with paper towels.  Repeat with remaining flower heads.  Alternately, the flowers can be deep fried in a larger saucepan using about 4" of oil.

Recipe: White Mulberry Peach Lattice Tart

In North America, the white mulberry, morus alba, (native to China) is one of very few trees that produces berries that are desirable for human consumption.   While white mulberry leaves are valued as a feed for animals and silkworms, the fruit is often passed over for the sweeter red or black mulberry varieties.  It is a prolific bearer of fruit and if the berries lack the rounded flavor of darker varieties, they offer up subtler floral notes that respond well in culinary uses.

Since their color will not bleed over other fruit, they are an excellent choice for a multi fruit tart.  I combined them with peach and because I needed a few more berries for the filling, added a few chopped strawberries.  Any fruit combination will work well with these modest summer gems.  Mulberry trees can grow up to 30 feet high and so the berries are often harvested when they fall to the ground.  When ripe, the berries appear glossy and juicy, and sometimes acquire a damask blush. Give them a good soak to remove any dirt before cooking.


White Mulberry Peach Lattice Tart

Ingredients, for a 7" tart

1 1/2 - 2 cups white mulberries
1 large peach, peeled and chopped
1/8 cup sugar
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 egg, beaten with a little milk
1/2 Tbs butter
Chilled piecrust dough

1.  Preheat oven to 350°F. To clean mulberries, place in a large bowl and fill with water so that dirt falls to the bottom of the bowl.  Remove berries with a slotted spoon, discard dirty water and repeat 2 times or until water is clear.   Place berries on a towel to dry.

2. Combine whole berries with chopped peach.  Sprinkle with sugar and lemon juice and stir to coat evenly.  Set aside while you line the tart pan with the crust.  Pour in fruit, dot with butter and cover with strips of piecrust in a lattice weave.  Brush lattice crust with beaten egg mixture.  Bake for 45 minutes to an hour or until crust is golden.

A Thousand Damask Roses

In pre-industrial society, common herbs and flowers were frequently used for their medicinal and culinary properties.  The rose, with its intoxicating fragrance and edible petals, leaves, and fruit, was used in food and scent preparations as well as in decorative display.  In previous posts I've discussed rosewater and cooking with roses.  Rose Recipes, a 1939 English publication by Eleanour Sinclair Rohde collects early English and French instructions for using roses in a multitude of ways.  The recipes for rosewater, dating to the 16th and 17th centuries, are quite complex and detailed, and are distinguished by specific uses such as scenting laundry, perfume, and cooking.  

For instance, "To Make a Sweet Water of the Best Kind," a recipe included from Sir Hugh Plat's Delightes for Ladies (1594) calls for a thousand damask roses to be mixed with lavender, mace, cloves, and running water (i.e. fresh, not still water) in an earthen pot and kneaded every day for four days.  As one of Queen Elizabeth's courtier's, Plat would likely have sourced this impressive amount of fresh roses from a large, local estate.  As most of the other ingredients in this and other comparable recipes are given by weight, this recipe stands out for the sheer volume required.  Rohde's own recipe is much simpler, requiring that the petals (preferably red so as to achieve a pink hue and deep fragrance) be gently heated in soft water and then strained.

A recipe for "odoriferous candles" from The Charitable Physician by Philbert Guibert Phisytian Regent in Paris (1639) ambitiously claims to act "against venome and the plague."  One wonders about the success rate of this candle, made with red roses, cloves, storax (sweetgum resin), lebdanum (a resin), benjamin, frankinscence, staechados (French lavender), citron, yellow sanders (probably satinwood), juniper, musk, and ambergreese (amber gris, a wax-like substance produced by whales).

Some of the very sage advice on cooking with roses presented in this volume includes collecting roses a few hours after dawn when the dew has dried, and removing the yellow base of petals, which imparts a bitter flavor.  Sugar is copiously used in recipes to balance the rose's natural astringency. To achieve the most concentrated rose flavor, Rohde recommends drying the petals first.  This can be done over mesh screens or in sand, as was the preference in the Elizabethan era.

Like Plat's thousand-blooms rosewater recipe, the culinary recipes in this volume reflect an elite pantry.   A lovely recipe for Rose Drops uses liberal amounts of both sugar and lemon juice, both dear commodities in the 18th centuries.  If you make these candies, however, you'll see that they were well worth the expense.  

Rose Drops from a recipe from The Complete Housewife (1736).

This recipe requires dried rose petals, ground to a powder.  A coffee grinder works well.  To a 1/2 oz. of rose powder, use 1/2 lb. granulated or superfine sugar, and the juice of 2 lemons.  This yield requires about 3 cups fresh rose petals.  Choose a dark crimson variety.  Dry completely in a single layer over a mesh screen (about 2 days).

To Make Rose-Drops 

From The Complete Housewife (1736), published in Rose Recipes (1936)

The roses and sugar must be beat separately into a very fine powder, and both sifted; To a pound of sugar an ounce of red roses, they must be mixed together, and then wet with as much juice of Lemon as will make it into a stiff paste; set it on a slow fire in a silver porringer, and stir it well; and when it is scalding hot quite through take it off and drop in small portions on a paper; set them near the fire, the next day they will come off.

See also:

Banana Economics, or How to Peel a Banana

As commercial printing became more affordable and widespread in the late 19th century, food companies in the United States increasingly published promotional material designed to educate the consumer about new foods, production and preparation methods, and brands.  With commodities such as milk and fruit, these booklets were often published by a central source that represented a number of smaller companies, thereby linking up regional distribution centers and presenting a uniform image of the product that could be disseminated across the country.  Such booklets assumed limited knowledge on the part of the consumer and provided basic information such as how to determine a fruit's ripeness, as well as scientific attestations to health benefits.

Booklets were typically authored by women affiliated with the company's home economics department.  In the vein of ladies' domestic manuals of the 19th century, these booklets transmitted ideas about the science of nutrition (presented as a male domain) to an assumed female consumer charged with preparing family meals.  A Study of the Banana: Its Everyday Use and Food Value (1942, 5th ed.) is one such example, produced by the Home Economics Department of the Fruit Dispatch Company, Distributors of United Fruit Company.  Although no single author's name is given, a first edition copy of the same title is credited to Ina S. Lindman, who was director of United Fruit Company's home economics department until the 1950s.

It can be interesting to contrast the information presented in such booklets with current renderings of the same food item.  For instance, if one compares the nutritional facts stated in the booklet with the current data listed on the USDA's and the Chiquita Banana website, it appears that today's vitamin and mineral levels are significantly lower.  Perhaps the data are computed differently today, but if the numbers published in 1942 are correct, then for every 100g of raw banana, there has been a decrease in iron (about half), magnesium (4 mg), phosphorous (4 mg), and potassium (15 mg).  Oddly the booklet lists 42.0 mg of sodium, which is grossly out of proportion with today's 1.0 mg, suggesting a misprint.  I wonder if the other editions show the same figure.

In branding a Latin American food crop under one North American corporate entity, United Fruit Company exerted an imperialist influence with political, environmental, and social repercussions.  Through material such as booklets, food corporations tacitly reinforced a distinction between those who produce and those who consume.  Here, it is clear that the booklet speaks to white American consumers of all ages, as illustrated in the photographs below.

This 1942 edition is illustrated with a jolly though rather generic anthropomorphic banana.  Two years later the United Fruit Company adopted the feminized Chiquita banana logo, based on the entertainer, Carmen Miranda, further commodifying indigenous culture and entrenching notions of exoticism.

Book Review: Hsa*ba

Burmese food blends the pungent sweet-sour flavors of Chinese Southeast Asian cuisine with the robust aromatics of the Indian subcontinent. While there are a handful of Burmese cookbooks on the market, one need look no further than hsa*ba (2008), written by Tin Cho Chaw, a Rangoon native currently living in the UK.  The author translates the Burmese greeting, "hsa ba" as "please eat," and with this sentiment, the reader is invited to partake in 100 family recipes including street snacks and festival dishes.

Hsa*ba feels like a very personal collection of recipes and is interspersed with brief essays on specific places and dishes. The book opens with savory snacks such as pea crackers--delicate fried wafers dotted with yellow split peas-- naan bread, and Myanmar's signature laphet thote, or pickled tea leaf salad, and follows with chapters devoted to ingredients as well as many noodle and rice dishes.  A chapter on condiments provides some essential Burmese meal accompaniments, garnishes, and dips including sour chilli dip, spicy bean curd and peanut sauce, and pickled vegeatbles.  While maintaining the integrity of the dish, hsa*ba adapts dishes for which the main ingredient is impossible to find outside of Myanmar.  A recipe for shauk dhi thote, ordinarily made with shauk thi, a native citrus, is thus reworked as lemon relish, or thambayo dhi thote.

Every dish I've prepared from this book has turned out just as described; the instructions are clear and thorough.  My favorite recipe in hsa*ba is for ohn nyot khaut swe, coconut noodle soup, reminiscent of Malay/Indonesian laksa, a spicy coconut curry broth served with noodles and eggs, for which I had never found a good recipe.  As I don't eat meat I replaced the chicken in this recipe with firm tofu and used my favorite vegetable stock as a soup base.  Even with these adjustments the dish was as complex and rich as some of the best laksa I've ever eaten.

Pain Au Cumin: Cumin and Other Members of the Parsley Family in French Pastry

In preparing the last post on pains au chocolat, I came across a recipe for petits pains au cumin, or cumin rolls, in Urbain-Dubois's, La Boulangerie d'Aujourd'hui (1933).  Although cumin has a long history in European cuisine and is often seen in recipes from the Medieval period, particularly in Northern and Eastern Europe, I was not familiar with its use in French breads and desserts.  Yet, no description or explanation of the bread prefaced the recipe, suggesting that cumin was a known and perhaps common flavoring for bread.  Intrigued by the use of this pungent spice in baked goods, I looked for other examples in late 19th and early 20th century cookbooks and found cumin to be a popular flavoring in spice cakes and breads.  Known in both English and French as 'cumin', Cuminum cyminum is native to the Mediterranean and Mesopotamian regions.  A member of the parsley family, cumin is related to caraway and fennel, both of which are sometimes called 'faux cumin' and said to be interchangeable if not on hand for recipes calling for one of these spices.  Caraway, or Carum carvi, is a European native commonly known as caraway in English, but referred to in French variously as 'carvi', 'cumin des prés' (wild cumin), or often simply 'cumin'.  

According to Dictionnaire Universel du Pain (2010), caraway's most common bread association is in the Polish pain au cumin, which is described as a rye bread.  The dictionary further clarifies that this use of the word 'cumin' is not to be confused with true cumin, typically found in Arab cuisine.  Yet the French recipes I consulted did not use rye flour, but rather a gluten-rich pastry four.

In Le Livre de Patisserie (1873), cumin is a prominent ingredient in both Gâteau de Compiègne and Manqué, both molded cakes made with a rich, sweet dough and flavored with dried fruit or spices.   Cumin is used similarly in Lina Rytz's La Bonne Cuisinière Bourgeoise (1868) in a recipe for Gâteau au Cumin. Since I did not find any mention of caraway among the recipes in these 19th century cookbooks, it was not clear whether the spice in use was Cuminum cyminum, native to the Mediterranean and Mesopotamian regions, or its eponym, the more mild and domestically available caraway.

Manuel de L'Épicier (1904), a treatise on spices by Léon Arnou, collocates cumin with Dutch cheeses and German breads and German and Russian liqueurs. Arnou also notes that caraway is used in some patisseries in the North and in a variety of other food preparations.  This likely includes the Alsace region, where caraway seeds often accompany cheese.  In the household book, Un Ménage Bourgeois (1892), E. Heilmann, a chemist, refers to both cumin and cumin des prés in the preparation of liqueurs.  But it was in the Dictionnaire Universel de Cuisine Pratique (1905) by Joseph Favre that I found mention of cumin in association with bread.  An entry on batonnets, or breadsticks, mentions that in the North these are made with cumin.  This may reference true cumin, as Favre specifically differentiates between cumin and cumin des prés elsewhere in the book, stating that cumin is used in bread in many European countries, particularly in the North.  Yet Favre describes the other members of the parsley family--including nigella and caraway--as varieties of cumin, thus confirming the use of 'cumin' as a general term for various members of the parsley family.  While I could not find a definite answer to whether true cumin was used in bread, it seems likely that this spice was employed at times, as was caraway and fennel, in the breads and cheeses of Germany and other countries in Northern Europe.  The author of a 1930 travel article in La Femme de France, a French women's magazine, describes pain au cumin as an everyday bread, seen on the streets of Germany.  I've provided an adaptation of the recipe from La Boulangerie d'Aujourd'hui and recommend making half with cumin and half with caraway.


Petits Pains Au Cumin, adapted from La Boulangerie d'Aujourd'hui (1933)

1 litre milk
50g yeast (assuming this to be baker's yeast, this should convert to roughly 2 packets of dry yeast--1/2 oz. total)
150g butter, softened
2 eggs, beaten
2 egg yolks, beaten
cumin and caraway
1 tsp salt
all-purpose flour

1. Heat the milk until warm, pour into a large bowl and sprinkle yeast over surface.  Stir until yeast is dissolved.  Mix in softened butter, eggs, and salt.  Add a cup of flour, stir to combine, and gradually mix in additional flour, about a 1/2 cup at a time, stirring after each addition of flour until the liquid is absorbed and you have a shaggy dough.

2. Knead until the dough is smooth and soft, about 10 minutes.  Cover with a cloth and rise until doubled in volume.  Preheat oven at 400-425°F.  Form dumpling-sized balls with the dough or shape into small logs.

3. Arrange on a greased pan and let rise again, covered with cloth.  Brush with beaten eggs and sprinkle with cumin seeds.  Bake for 20 to 25 minutes.