Monday, January 26, 2009

Never Idle

I have been fairly silent these past few weeks, but let me assure you I have not been idle. For better or for worse, I have spent quite a bit of time knitting recently.

"The pretty make-believe industry, or elaborate idleness, of knitting all sorts of things in all sorts of crinkum-crankum ways . . ."

My needles have click-clacked non-stop, though to be quite honest, not exclusively on 19th-century projects. I've produced a set or two of baby booties, not to mention a cloche that I promptly unravelled as it did not fit quite right. I think the yarn was too heavy and now intend to use it for a lacy tank top.

Back to the 1850s, I've also finished my second grey railway stocking. I think I may take a break from knitting before starting my red stockings. I'll need to buy some more yarn soon too. But first, I intend to do something else with my life for a while. Otherwise, these little notes will become simply too dull to write, let alone read.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Blackstrap Baking

A beautiful bottle of blackstrap molasses has sat on my shelf for some time, calling to me in a quiet little voice every time I pass the pantry door. I opened it last weekend to sweeten an apple and pear pie; a mere two tablespoons added a delightfully subtle flavor and brought out the nutmeg quite nicely.

Despite the pie's success (my husband downed three slices in a single sitting), my craving for molasses was hardly allayed. So this afternoon, finding myself at the proverbial loose end, I decided to find a cookie recipe sweetened only with molasses. A quick search of Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project provided this gem from The New England Economical Housekeeper by Esther Allen Howland, published in 1845.

In case you are having trouble reading the image, here's the recipe:

61. Gingerbread, No. 8.

* Take a tea-cupful of molasses, a tea-spoonful of saleratus, dissolved in half a cup of boiling water, a tea spoonful of ginger, and flour to make it hard enough to roll. Bake it five minutes.

I substituted baking soda for the saleratus of course, but otherwise followed the directions exactly. The mix of boiling water, soda, and molasses fizzed up in a most alarming way at first, but it calmed down once I began stirring in the flour. I must admit I have no idea how much flour I ended up mixing in. Probably somewhere between three and four cups, but part of the fun was just adding more until it seemed about right. I had to knead the last bit of flour in at the very end, after the dough became too thick to stir effectively.

I rolled it fairly thin, with lots of flour to keep it from sticking to my pastry board. My cookie cutters were less than 19th-century (a duck, a cowboy, and a giraffe) and of course I baked them in a modern oven. I set it to about 350 degrees. They baked through after about 7-10 minutes -- perhaps the oven should have been quicker -- and stayed nicely soft while cooling. I wonder if they will get hard once they've been in the tin for a day or so. We shall see . . . if they last that long.

Did I mention they are quite tasty? Not very sweet, but nicely spiced and chewy.

Monday, January 19, 2009

A Confession

I am addicted to knitting. This past week, while shepherding my computer through a serious roll-back (to June 2006!) to repair a failed program installation, I finished my second grey wool stocking. Since the beginning of the year, I have also knit a pair of baby booties (decidedly not 19th-century) and begun a cloche in mist grey bamboo blend for my early spring hat. I have even been considering writing a book of knitting patterns based on 19th-century accessories.

The consequence of this growing obsession is quite serious however. I seem to spend every free moment with needles in hand, instead of writing, reading, studying, or even cleaning my apartment. I must find a way to cut back...

On a side note, but also in the nature of a confession, two days ago I discovered proof of something I have long suspected: I knit backwards. I cannot tell you what mortification this has caused me, not to mention the oaths I suppressed while attempting to teach my hands how to do it right way round. I think I have the knitting part almost mastered, but the pearling still gives me pause. Since I knit with the yarn held across my left finger instead of casting every stitch, I have had to modify the little twists I use to pick up the working strand. The result is less slanted than my previously twisted style, but it's still a bit uneven (perhaps that will correct with practise) and definitely slower (also something that may improve with continued industry).

My camera cord was left at work by mistake, so I cannot even post pictures of my latest knitting accomplishments (including the beginnings of my hat, knit in the new, corrected, manner). But perhaps that is not such a tragedy. It will force me to focus on other topics as I plan upcoming posts.

Cheerio for now. Back to my knitting.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year Cakes

I must say, I didn't expect them to be crunchy.

In honor of the New Year (and just in time to serve on January 1), I finally got around to testing out Eliza Leslie's New York Cakes recipe, which she claims are quite similar to New Year's Cakes.

The recipe, being quite old, needed some interpretation and substitution. I also hunted about in various places for a corroborating description of said cakes, which oddly enough, I found with little trouble. My final preparation was to purchase an intricate cookie mold from a Pennsylvania Dutch wood carver I found on the Internet:

The flavors (nutmeg, cinnamon, rosewater, and caraway seeds) are a bit jarring to the modern palate and the cakes are barely sweet; it has taken me a day or so to find them rather pleasant after all. As I mentioned at first, the texture was definitely a surprise. I had thought they would be very similar to German Springerle -- they certainly are in appearance -- but instead of being cakey, they have a definitely biscuit-like crunch. The insides are flaky and break apart in layers.

Here is the description of New Year's Cakes I found. You'll note that it is from Buffalo, not New York City, but according to Godey's in January 1847, writing about New Year's calling, "A custom obtains in the city of New York - and we believe to a considerable extent throughout the state..." so I think that we may fairly attribute Buffalo's general attitudes on New Year's Day to the rest of New York.

There must be many younger men and women who well remember Van Velsor's New Year's cakes. I had almost said that New Year's was ushered in by these famous confections for their popularity in Buffalo was almost universal. They were of various shapes and sizes, some being eighteen or twenty inches across, and from three quarters to an inch in thickness; the smaller ones were about half an inch thick. They were heart-shaped, or in the form of stars, spheres or diamond-shaped, with flowers, baskets of fruit, cornucopias, birds, etc., stamped on the upper side in very distinct relief. They were redolent with caraway seeds, and fond papas quite generally stopped on their way home on New Year's Eve, to purchase the expected New Year's cake.
New Year's Day In The '3o's, Collected Essays from the Buffalo Historical Society edited by Frank H. Severance, 1905

Elsewhere in the essay quoted above, the authoress actually mentions her family's dependence on Miss Leslie's cookbook, making it even more apropos that I should be working from the following recipe. How often does one find such synchronicity in historic research?

From Directions for Cookery by Eliza Leslie 1817 (1840 edition)

NEW YORK COOKIES. --Take a half-pint or a tumbler full of cold water, and mix it with half a pound of powdered white sugar. Sift three pounds of flour into a large pan, and cut up in it a pound of butter; rub the butter very fine into the flour. Add a grated nutmeg, and a tea-spoonful of powdered cinnamon, with a wine glass of rose water. Work in the sugar, and make the whole into a stiff dough, adding, if necessary, a little cold water. Dissolve a tea-spoonful of pearl-ash in just enough of warm water to cover it, and mix it in at the last. Take the lump of dough out of the pan, and knead it on the paste-board till it becomes quite light. Then roll it out rather more than half an inch thick, and cut it into square cakes with a jagging iron or with a sharp knife. Stamp the surface of each with a cake print. Lay them in buttered pans, and bake them of a light brown in a brisk oven.

They are similar to what are called New Year's cakes, and will keep two or three weeks.

In mixing the dough, you may add three table-spoonfuls of caraway seeds.

Rubbing in the butter -- I had to use the salad bowl to hold all 12 cups of flour.

My first challenge was to change the ingredient amounts into modern measurements. A half-pint water was easy. I used the weights on the sugar and flour packages, along with their servings per container to calculate how many cups of each (1 cup sugar, 12 cups flour) I needed. I had no idea how much an entire nutmeg would be once it was ground, so I grated one fresh. Like the water, butter and cinnamon needed no translation. I discovered that a wine glass held a bit more than a cup of water, but as I was nervous about making the dough too wet, I added the rosewater in parts, first 1/2 a cup, then the other 3/4 of a cup.

I had to replace some ingredients that are no longer available. The powdered sugar nearly had me tricked. Without thinking, I initially planned to use confectioner's sugar. Just in time, I remembered that it was not pure sugar -- it's actually a mix of finely ground sugar and cornstarch. Instead, I dashed out to the store for superfine, or caster, sugar. I imagine that it might be quite similar to what Miss Leslie thought of a powdered sugar, back in the days when you had to grind your sugar off a loaf.

The pearlash was a problem as well. I have not been able to find any commercial source of this early leavening (used until the middle of the 19th century, when the first baking powder was invented -- that's a whole other blog post). I did discover directions for making it, but lacking both a wood burning fireplace and the courage to feed distilled hardwood ashes to my friends and family, I decided to substitute baking soda.

Here is the flour/butter mixture with all the spices added.

Kneading was fun, and the dough did actually become quite light.

Rolling out, stamping, and cutting the cookies was very laborious. It took me nearly 2 hours to produce 80 cookies. Since I only had a single mold, I had to press (very hard) each cookie and cut around it with the 'jagging' knife individually. I began by rolling the dough nearly 3/4 of an inch thick, but discovered that it took far too long to bake them through. I discovered that if I rolled the dough on the thin side, it would contract once I cut out the oval and become nearly 1/2 an inch thick.

I tried baking them first at 425, for a 'brisk oven', but they seemed to burn on the outside before cooking through. So I lowered it to somewhere between 375 and 400. It took about 15 minutes for each batch to develop the called for 'light brown' color.

When fresh out of the oven, they were soft and flaky, like butter biscuits. After cooling, they began to harden, and now, a day old, they are very hard indeed. Not unpleasant though. We shall see how they fare with the guests tomorrow! Perhaps their pedigree will help ingratiate them with a 2009 audience.

Happy New Year to one and all!

ANOTHER YEAR! another year,
Is borne by Time away;
Nor pauses yet his swift career,
Nor tire his wing, nor makes me here
E'en one short hour's delay. -
But hurries on, and round and round,
The wheel of life is sped;
Unnoted oft, until rebound
Upon the ear, the startling sound,
Another year has fled!
Who ever said, 'tis New Year's day ,
With unmixed care or glee?
For hope still points the future gay,
And memory o'er the past will stray,
With sorrowing constancy.
Yet blest if they here behold
The grave of well-spent days'
The joy of gratitude that told
The tear, in patient trust that rolled -
The christian's hallowed bays.
Another year! so swift it flew,
We scarce had marked it ours;
Ere, fading from our backward view,
'Tis but the past our eyes pursue;
Eternity's long hours!
'Tis New Year's day , the coming year
All blank before us lies;
Oh! may no blot or stain appear,
To mar its history written here,
When published in the skies!
'Tis New Year's day ! how oft have I,
While yet a simple child,
Made it the goal from whence to try,
That race to run, which to the sky
Can guide through Time's dark wild.
The sky, that home of quiet rest,
When Life's poor dream is o'er,
Where spirits mingle with the blest,
And sorrow, in the aching breast,
Shall reign, shall reign no more!

Weekly Advocate, January 1837

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Half Done is Well Begun

Grey stockings: one down, one to go.

I'm using fingering weight wool this time, instead of lace, and it seems to work up quite well (not to mention MUCH faster). The result isn't nearly as cloud-like, but I think it's closer to the gauge intended by the original pattern. Also, I'm working it over three needles this time instead of four, as I read that stockings are knit with four needles (three for the stitches, one for knitting) and doilies with five. I guess it's to help manage the decreases and heel shaping.

Next up, the second grey stocking. And then there is the red yarn...and then the white silk blend.

P.S. I'm going to give in and buy some machine knitted stockings online. I found a few sites that sell them at various prices/qualities. And someday, maybe, I'll find someone with a working 19th-century stocking frame -- and bribe them.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

'Twas a Few Days After Christmas

If a poem can see 186 Christmases come and go without a lessening of its appeal, you know it is a classic. When Clement Clarke Moore penned it as a Christmas gift for his children in 1822, it was called "A Visit from St. Nicholas." In 1851, it's title was changed to "'Twas the Night Before Christmas."

Considering its ubiquitous popularity, I will presume that you have already read the work (or at least can find the text elsewhere) and will not attempt to reproduce said lines here. Instead, let us take into consideration where Mr. Moore found his inspiration for the jolly old elf, depicted above in an early illustration.

Can it be mere coincidence that the 1821 (just a year before Mr. Moore's poem was reportedly written, though it was not published until 1823) edition of Washington Irving's History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty by Dietrich Knickerbocker, in which St. Nicholas (Irving's designated patron saint of New York) is described as:
. . . equipped with a low, broad-brimmed hat, a huge pair of Flemish trunk-hose, and a pipe that reached to the end of the bowsprit.

. . . riding over the tops of trees in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children . . . And he lit his pipe by the fire, and sat himself down and smoked; and as he smoked, the smoke from his pipe ascended into the air and spread like a cloud overhead. . . . And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his hat-band, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look; then, mounting his wagon, he returned over the tree-tops and disappeared.

And a few pages later, the same book expands further on the predilections of St. Nicholas:

At this early period was instituted that pious ceremony, still religiously observed in all our ancient families of the right breed, of hanging up a stocking in the chimney on St. Nicholas eve; which stocking is always found in the morning miraculously filled; for the good St. Nicholas has ever been a great giver of gifts, particularly to children.

We are told, in the sylvan days of New Amsterdam, the good St. Nicholas would often make his appearance in his beloved city, of a holiday afternoon, riding jollily among the tree-tops, or over the roofs of the houses, now and then drawing forth magnificent presents from his breeches-pockets, and dropping them down the chimneys of his favorites. Whereas, in these degenerate days of iron and brass, he never shows us the light of his countenance, nor ever visits us, save one night in the year, when he rattles down the chimneys of the descendants of patriarchs, confining his presents to children, in token of the degeneracy of the parents.

Clement Clarke Moore
I most emphatically do not wish to imply that Clement Clarke Moore, a professor at Columbia University and landowner whose estate, Chelsea, lent its name to the Manhattan neighborhood that grew up around it, was a plagiarist. It is merely meant to suggest that we might all do well to read a little more Washington Irving.
And perhaps it is also worth looking back occasionally at the way our cultural icons developed. For instance, in the early 1850s, a decade or so before Thomas Nast crystallized the image of Santa Claus with his illustrations for Harpers, P. T. Barnum was using this poster to promote Jenny Lind's American tour. The caption reads:
I'm a jolly old man--I ride in the wind;
The lady behind me is Miss Jenny Lind;
The horse that we ride is a broomstick, you see --
Oh! this is the horse for Miss Jenny and me.

P.S. In the interest of fair scholarship, let me reveal here and now that I first heard about the apparent connection between Moore's poem and Irving's satire in a book on the history of Christmas (I have misplaced the title and cannot look for it at present I am afraid). In the course of writing this post, I am indebted to Mr. Seth T. Kaller for the article on his website that confirmed my memory and supplied the date of Irving's second edition.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Upon the Midnight Clear

Those happy chimes!
like fairy laughter!
How deliciously they carol !
What sounds to my soul,
like "peace on earth; good-will to men!"
Godey's Lady's Book, 1855
Long before I knew its lineage, "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" was my favorite Christmas carol. Imagine my joy to learn that it is thought to be the first 'American' carol, written in the late 1840s. According to Wikipedia, its author was Edmund Sears, pastor of a Unitarian church in Massachusetts. It goes on to say that the melody was provided by one Richard Storrs Willis.
And here, according again to Wikipedia (can you tell I'm too taken up with holiday preparations to put much time in on research?) are the original and complete words:
It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold:
Peace on the earth, goodwill to men,
From heaven's all-gracious King.
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.

Still through the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O'er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o'er its Babel sounds
The bless├Ęd angels sing.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.
And ye, beneath life's crushing
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!

For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever-circling years
Comes round the age of gold
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.
Happy Christmas!