Making Snow in a Blazing World

I’ve always linked the early modern writers Margaret Cavendish and Hannah Woolley in my mind. They were some of the first women to seek publication under their own names, Woolley for her recipe and household books and Cavendish for her scientific Poems and Fancies. In their works also appears a similar and unique perception of the relationship between domestic labor and science: Woolley calls her recipes “experiments,” and Cavendish takes that thread and runs with it to suggest that the epistemic labor of recipes can help order and investigate the workings of Nature. Lately I’ve been reading Cavendish and her contemporary utopia-crafters through the lens of this blog and my ongoing concerns with women’s labor, and I’m finding connections everywhere.

snow cream_woolley

This weekend I was rereading Margaret Cavendish’s 1666 scientific utopia The Description of  New World, Called the Blazing-World, in which she envisions a world of scientific inquiry ruled over by a wise Empress–who of course comes to a fictional “Margaret Cavendish” for advice. I came across the following passage, in which the Empress asks her Bird-men (her Astronomers) how snow is made:

“To which they answered, That according to their observation, Snow was made by a commixture of Water, and some certain extract of the element of Fire that is under the Moon; a small portion of which extract being mixed with Water, and beaten by Air or Wind, made a white froth called Snow, which being after some while dissolved by the heat of the same spirit, turned to Water again. This observation amazed the Emperess very much; for she had hitherto believed, That Snow was made by cold motions…” (168).

It bounced around in my head all weekend until I realized why Cavendish’s language sounded so familiar: recently I read a recipe for Snow-Cream in Hannah Woolley’s 1672 The Ladies Delight, or a Rich Closet of Choice Experiments and Curiosities. There are striking similarities between the method Woolley describes and the process the Bird-men describe:

To make Snow-Cream

Take a pint of Cream, and the whites of three Eggs, one Spoon-full or two of Rose-water, whip it to a Froth with a Birchen Rod, then cast it off the Rod into a Dish, in the which you have first fastened half a Manchet with some Butter on the bottom, and a long Rose-mary sprigg in the middle: When you have cast all the Snow on the dish, then garnish it with severall sorts of Sweet-meats.

Both “recipes” involve mixing a base ingredient with an extract (for Cavendish, the fire under the moon distilled by methods unknown; for Woolley, rose-water an early modern lady would likely have distilled herself) and beating it until it changes texture or transmutes.

It is no wonder the Empress is “amazed” at this method her Bird-men propose for making snow: it resembles closely the process she (if we take her as a figure for the genteel English lady) would use herself to imitate Nature on her own table. In fact, this imitation of the natural world was quite fashionable for early modern housewives, and a number of household/ladies’ delight books feature recipes that result in imitations or preservations of the natural world–extracts of flowers, snow cream, hedgehog pudding (coming soon on this blog!), and little universes in bell jars.* But for kitchen processes to transfer the other direction, from the kitchen into a scientific universe, is less common–and suggests that for Cavendish at least, scientific experimentation and inquiry and the labor of the kitchen mutually constituted a way of understanding the natural world.

*See the introduction to Wendy Wall’s Staging Domesticity for more on these fantastical imitations of nature on the banquet table.

Early Modern Food, Phrase 2

phrase of apples_Woolley

Some of the more famous early modern cookbooks were those published by Hannah Woolley. She was one of the first women to write and publish cookbooks and gentlewomens’ guides. The majority of household guides prior to Woolley were written by men, who relied on a variety of authorizing gestures to transmit women’s knowledge–typically by claiming they were given the knowledge by female servants, while also deferring to the superior experiential knowledge of the housewife. Woolley’s recipes and advice came from her own experience: she worked as a servant to a lady, and learned medicine and physic from her mother. She used her credentials of experience to write a number of books–including her most famous, The Queen-Like Closet (1670) and The Cooks Guide (1664), which is where this recipe is from.

As the authors of Cooking the Archive have beautifully articulated, there are a number of problems in “replicating” early modern recipes, and unless you are very clever or have access to an early modern kitchen (which are uncommon in California), it’s not feasible to achieve complete authenticity. At the level of ingredients, 400 years leads to considerable differences. Produce varieties were much more abundant; people had a much larger working knowledge of herbs and greens, as well as access to greater variety; and of course, no refrigeration meant that you had to either cook what was seasonal or find clever ways to preserve produce.

Since I’m working with the budget and tools of a graduate student, authenticity isn’t my primary concern. I’m more interested in the epistemology of reading a recipe and producing it–what knowledge is assumed, what practices are involved, and what bodies of knowledge are involved? For a first experiment, Woolley’s “A Phrase of Apples” seemed an appropriately entry-level recipe: not too complex, similar to things we still make, and within my own range of experience (desserts). An image from Woolley’s original text is above (thanks EEBO!) and I’ve transcribed the recipe below:

To make a Phrase of apples

Take two pippins, pair them, and cut them in thin slices, then take three eggs, yolks, and whites, beat them very well, then put to it some nutmeg grated, some rose-water, currants and sugar, with some grated bread, as much as will make it thick as batter; then fry your apples very well with sweet butter, and pour it away; then fry them in more butter till they are tender, then lay them in order in the pan, and pour all your batter on them; and when it is fryed a little turn it; when it is enough dish it with the apples downward, strew sugar on it and serve it in.

Apples frying in the pan.
Apples frying in the pan.

After transcribing comes translating, and this is where the epistemological gaps lie. What, for example, is a “pippin”? (A small sweet dessert apple–I used Jonagold, but with the limited apple varieties available to modern cooks, really any sweet cooking apple should work). What is grated bread? After considerable research, I found a blog associated with Plimoth Plantation that has had success translating “grated bread” as breadcrumbs. It makes sense–if I were to grate a loaf of bread, I’d have something resembling breadcrumbs. What about rosewater? You can buy it at most groceries, of course, but it’s not really on the Western palate of seasonings anymore. When paired with nutmeg, what sort of flavors would I be creating? Also, it’s quite common now to pair apples with cinnamon and/or nutmeg, so I was a little surprised by the lack of cinnamon in this dish.

After figuring out the ingredients, then it’s on to the instructions, which can be even more befuddling. It was conventional not to include “standardized” measurements in recipes, which is why you see a large variety even in relative measurements: a handful, a pound, a bit, and most frustratingly, “enough.” This method of conveying a recipe assumes a certain existing literacy on the part of the cook already: either from experience or experiment, the cook was supposed to know how long to beat the eggs, what texture the batter should be, and how long to cook or fry things. There were often some guides like we have today (until brown, until firm, etc) but these recipes pose a challenge to modern cooks used to recipes that detail every step. Most of my own cooking process for this recipe was guesswork, estimation, improvisation, and hoping that I wouldn’t set things on fire. On top of the problem of method, there’s the problem of taste: for example, how much sugar is appropriate? Early moderns loved their sugar (even put it on salads!) but the American sweet tooth might exceed even that. What proportions of nutmeg and rosewater should go in? For these questions, I was able to refer to my own experience: for example, I’ve rarely seen recipes that asked for above 1/2 tsp of nutmeg, because it’s quite strong. By using comparisons with successful modern recipes, I was able to fudge my way through the early modern one–and an early modern cook would likely have followed a similar process, although with actual knowledge backing up her “guesses.” I overdid it on the rosewater, however, precisely because I’ve never used it before and didn’t realize how strong it was. I’ll continue to think about knowledge and labor as I keep trying these recipes, but these are some of the major concerns when attempting to cook food from 400 years ago.

Batter, far too thick. It should be a pourable consistency.
Batter, far too thick. It should be a pourable consistency.

So here’s my best take on the modernized recipe:

2 sweet apples, peeled, cored, and sliced into rounds

3 eggs

1/2 tsp nutmeg

1/2 tbsp rose water (I used 1 tbsp and it was overpowering)

1/2 to 2/3 c bread crumbs

1/3 c sugar

6-8 tbsp butter, unsalted and softened to room temperature, and halved

Beat eggs well, until light-colored. Add nutmeg, rose water, currants, and sugar and beat again. Add bread crumbs until the mixture resembles a pourable batter. (It thickens quickly, so let sit between breadcrumb additions). Fry the apples in butter twice, pouring the butter away in between fryings. On the second frying, pour the batter over the apples and keep frying until the tart holds together when you shake the pan. Turn the phrase over in the pan and continue frying. Fry until dough is crisp and light brown.


This did not flip well.
This did not flip well.

To serve: turn the dish out onto a tray or plate and “strew” with white or powdered sugar. Serve warm. (Seriously, this has to be eaten warm. It congeals unpleasantly if you let it sit out. It’s also quite good warmed up on the second day.)

Still not sure why it's called a "phrase."
Still not sure why it’s called a “phrase.”

Results: Surprisingly not awful! Definitely edible, which will come as a surprise to many of my friends (and I’ll admit, surprised me). As I said above, the rosewater lent a very strong flavor to the dish, but it wasn’t unpleasant. Rose and sweet apples do pair well, and the rose water adds back some of the fragrance that modern apples have lost in the breeding. It’s quite hard to flip the dish, which makes me think that it would either be better made on a smaller scale or you’d have to have a very large spatula–and this is also the reason why my version looks less neat than I’d hoped. However, the principle that enough butter, sugar, and frying will make anything edible seems to be as true for early modern recipes as it is today, because this tasted a bit like an apple fritter, and therefore pretty decent and a successful first attempt.

Early Modern Food: A Phrase of Apples

phrase of apples_Woolley

Coming soon: Hannah Woolley’s recipe for “A Phrase of Apples” from the 1664 Rare Receipts for Cookery, one of her earliest household guides. I chose this one for a first experiment because the instructions looked simple enough to understand and replicate, and the ingredients all have modern correlates. If this recipe goes well, I’ll work my way to more complex and confusing ones from Woolley’s cookbooks–I have my eye on an early modern recipe for cheesecake and something called a “Hedge-Hog Pudding,” which is not what you think it is.

Coconut Sticky Rice

Years ago, at the single Thai restaurant in my Midwestern college town, my friends and I ordered dessert after our meal. It was late enough in the day that the only dessert left available was the sticky rice pudding with mango, so that’s what we got.

It was life-changing. The warm rice was perfectly chewy; the coconut sauce was rich and just a little salty, and the mango complemented the two perfectly by adding a little bit of spice and scent. I’d always thought I preferred complex desserts, usually involving chocolate, but the coconut rice was stunningly minimalist. If you thought about it, you could tell that its simplicity was supported by time and technique, not flashy ingredients or fancy flavor combinations.

I kept the memory of that taste untouched for a long while. (Here I will avoid a reference to Proust’s madeleine.) Until recently, when I noticed that I wanted to eat sweets that were not very sweet, and desserts that weren’t bread-based. Maybe it’s California kicking in, or the stubborn refusal to use my temperamental, infernal mini-oven. Or a calcium deficiency because I haven’t had ice cream in a few weeks.

rice 5

At any rate, The Kitchn posted a simple recipe that looked like it would reproduce my memory pretty exactly, so off I went to the Asian market to find sweet sticky rice.

rice 1

The rice matters very much for this dish–more readily available varieties, like jasmine or basmati, have a lower starch content and will dissolve in the overnight soaking. (According to the recipe, black sweet rice is also a good substitute, and would be stunning with the white coconut sauce.) Thai sweet rice might be available at specialty grocery stores (Whole Foods, the Nugget, etc) but you’re better off finding an Asian market, not least for the pleasures of unfamiliarity.

1 cup white or black Thai glutinous rice
1 (13.5-ounce) can coconut milk (unshaken)
4 tablespoons sugar
Pinch of salt
Assorted fruits, to serve

Wash the rice, then place in a bowl and cover with cool water. Soak for at least 2 hours or overnight.

When ready to steam the rice, drain it and then place in a glass bowl, glass pie dish, or other heatproof bowl. Place a heatproof metal trivet inside a large pot, and add enough water to just barely cover the trivet. Place the bowl with the rice on the trivet (the water should just touch the bottom edge of the bowl). Bring the water to a boil, and once boiling, cover the pot with a layer of foil and a lid, and steam for 20 to 30 minutes until the rice is transparent and soft.

rice 2

My makeshift rice steamer.
My makeshift rice steamer.

While the rice is steaming, prepare the coconut milk sauce. Open the can of coconut milk without shaking it, skim off about 1/2 cup of the thick cream from the top, and set aside to use for the topping. Gently stir the remaining coconut milk until it’s uniform in texture. Combine 1 cup of the stirred coconut milk, sugar and salt in a small pan, and heat until just coming to a boil. Keep warm. (Reserve the remaining coconut milk for another use.)

When the rice has finished cooking, lift out the bowl using oven gloves, as the steam can be very hot. Stir the coconut sauce into the cooked rice until the sauce is completely absorbed. Let the sticky rice sit for about 20 minutes to let the flavors blend.

As the rice sits, it will soak up more of the milk. You'll know it's ready when the individual grains are visible again.
As the rice sits, it will soak up more of the milk. You’ll know it’s ready when the individual grains are visible again.

To serve, place the reserved coconut cream in another small pot and heat until the cream starts to melt and become liquid and just steam around the edges. Place small spoonfuls of the pudding in bowls, and pour over a few tablespoons of the warm coconut cream. Serve with fresh fruit.

Notes: The salt makes all the difference. Thai cuisine typically pairs sweet and salty/savory, but in this dish the salt adds a much-needed depth to the sweet coconut sauce, and brings out the creaminess even more. I’d suggest over-salting the sauce just a bit–if you taste the coconut milk-sauce and it tastes perfect, add a little more because the rice soaks up a lot of flavor. It’s an immensely comforting dish, and should be eaten immediately while warm. It also helps to have an ideal taste or texture in mind that you’re working toward with this dish, but it’s just as easily accomplished if you’re trying it for the first time.

Chocolate Cobbler and Kitchen Chemistry

I watched Jon Favreau’s magnificent film “Chef” this weekend, and in an early scene a food blogger attacks the molten chocolate cake for being “undercooked.” Favreau’s character responds in an expletive-filled description of how chocolate lava cakes actually work: a frozen ball of ganache is placed into the center of the batter, so that while the cake bakes, the ganache slowly melts to become the molten center. Despite my talent for making single-serve 8-minute lava cakes of my own, I didn’t know this!

This week I attempted similar kitchen sorcery, although not so far as freezing balls of ganache: a chocolate cobbler with a brownie-like top and a molten, gooey (another unpleasant food word) base. Apparently this is considered a retro recipe, and people will give you funny looks when you say it’s a cobbler, but mostly it’s just fun to make for the chemical reactions that happen!


The batter is topped with a layer of brown sugar and cocoa powder, which then gets covered in hot water. The water melts the sugar and turns it into a crispy-topped cake while it bakes–this is also how you get brownies with a crispy top, incidentally. If the sugar is allowed to melt before baking (in brownies, if it goes in with the melted butter and before the eggs) it turns into a sort of caramel-y crisp. It looks very weird going into the oven, but it comes out wonderfully.


Chocolate Cobbler

1 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 cup granulated sugar

6 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder, divided

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

1/2 cup whole milk

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, melted

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup packed brown sugar

1/2 cup chocolate chips

1 1/2 cups very hot water

Vanilla ice cream, for serving
Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a medium-sized 8 x 8 inch (or any small to medium-sized) baking dish.
In a medium mixing bowl, combine the flour, granulated sugar, 3 tablespoons cocoa powder, baking powder, espresso powder, and salt. In another bowl whisk together milk, melted butter, and vanilla. Add the liquid mixture to the flour-sugar mixture and stir to combine (the batter will be thick.) Pour into the prepared baking dish.
In a separate bowl, combine the brown sugar and remaining 3 tablespoons cocoa powder. Sprinkle the brown sugar-cocoa mixture evenly over the batter, followed by the chocolate chips and pecans. Pour the hot water over the top, but do not stir.
Transfer the baking dish to the oven and cook for 40 minutes, until the center is just barely set. Allow to cool for 5 to 10 minutes before serving warm with vanilla ice cream.

Tasting notes: Because my oven is a miniature eye of Sauron, this was overbaked in under 30 minutes. Had it been taken out of the oven a little earlier, the consistency would have been just perfect–a layer of cooked brownie resting on something like ganache. The quality of the cocoa powder also makes a large difference–I used regular Trader Joe’s cocoa powder, which is fairly light, and the cake turned out less rich than I’d imagined. A more intense cocoa powder would produce a darker, more chocolaty cake.

Eggs in Purgatory: The Utopian Breakfast

I heard about the podcast Gastropod recently from a fellow foodie colleague, and I’ve been catching up on their episodes on my morning runs. This week I listened to the breakfast episode, and found myself doing some serious thinking about my breakfast habits.

The episode suggests that what Americans think of as a traditional breakfast is really not; not by historical standards nor by comparison with the rest of the world. The rest of the world is more content with eating savories and vegetables for breakfast, like beans, complex grains, spiced greens, leftovers, etc. What Americans reach for each morning–refined flours, coffee, juice, etc–is, as the hosts mention, the ideal capitalist breakfast–nutritionally, it provides just enough kick to get you out of the door and into the workplace, but no more. (And there’s also the matrices of industrial food production that go into the cereal industry and the morning bacon and eggs… If only those Victorian sanatorium owners who made the first health cereals could see the cereal aisle now.*)

So, in the true spirit of gustatory reflection, I looked at a week of my own breakfasts. Most days I make scrambled eggs with at least one vegetable, usually spinach–but this is often accompanied by white toast with peanut butter (natural, so points for me?), coffee with creamer, and a banana-berry smoothie. Lately, however, I’ve been eating more and more cereal, because it really is a miracle food for people with no time in the mornings. More and more processed food and flours, and fewer and fewer vegetables and protein. This got me thinking–what is my aversion, exactly, to eating savory foods for breakfast? Really, nothing but tradition and what the market sells us as breakfast. I’m perfectly content eating “breakfast” for dinner, so why not the inverse?


I suppose that means what I’m making this week is a Marxist utopian breakfast? (Yes, I know this is a misapplication of Marx. Don’t critique my theory jokes.) Fitting, then, that I picked a dish that’s often called “Eggs in Purgatory”: shakshuka.

The folks at Gastropod spoke highly of shakshuka, and the ever-brilliant @notthatoxford has spoken highly of the dish, so off I went to buy pounds of tomatoes. PK Newby’s modified shakshuka recipe seemed like a good place to start my breakfast vegetable consumption, and as it turned out I’d bought twice as many tomatoes as the recipe called for, so I decided to double the recipe to make a huge batch, so I can make single-servings all week. The recipe below, however, will make about two servings.


Ingredients (with modifications by me)
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• 3 tablespoons yellow onion, diced
• 1/4 cup green pepper, diced
• 2 garlic cloves, minced
• Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to season vegetables
• 2 teaspoons harissa (or Sriracha, as long as it’s spicy)
• 3/4 teaspoon paprika
• Big pinch dried oregano
• 1 1/2 cups diced tomatoes, either canned or fresh, with their liquid
• 1/3 cup water
• 1/3 cup white beans
• An egg per serving

Heat the olive oil over medium in a saucepan then add the onions and peppers, season with salt and pepper, and sauté until soft, about 6 minutes. Stir in garlic, sriracha, and paprika until fully coated and fragrant, about 45 seconds. Mix in tomatoes, water, and white beans to combine and simmer over low heat until somewhat thickened, about 10 minutes. Taste and reseason with salt, pepper, and spices as desired.


Create a small ditch in the sauce for each egg (make sure you can’t see the bottom of the pan). Crack egg into the hole, cover the pan, and simmer over low heat 3-5 minutes. Cook until whites are firm and yolk is as you desire it.

Tasting notes: Holy cow, why aren’t we eating savory breakfasts all the time? This dish is warm and comforting, satisfyingly filling, and has enough spice to wake up even the most tired of TAs. I like it with green peppers instead of roasted red ones, and the dish could also take zucchini well, if you were so inclined.

*Disclaimer: Just so we’re clear that this is not a cereal- or Victorian-sanatorium-owner- hating post: Grape Nuts have always been my favorite cereal.

The Ides of Market: Fennel-Blood Orange Salad and Meyer Lemon Asparagus Salad

For the sake of my own and my officemates’ waistlines, I’ve decided to alternate between sweet and savory dishes. I have the sweet tooth of a five-year old at a birthday party, and so far my recipe hunts have resulted in me mostly bookmarking decadent brownies, or icebox cakes, or lemon poppyseed mini bundt donuts or whatever. This, I realize, is not healthy, and since one of the goals of this blog is to help me eat mindfully and healthily, I am going to tempt you with pictures of artfully arranged vegetables. (NPR said it was a good idea recently).

This week, the week before finals, was library week—which means I spent most of my time in a secluded corner of the stacks trying to get as much done before the 72-hour grading frenzy that is the end of winter quarter. Consequently, I wanted food that could be easily thrown together, was fairly balanced nutritionally, and would travel well in my backpack.

It’s also the Ides of March this weekend. So here are two recipes featuring blood oranges and spears of asparagus.

Fennel salad

First: a fennel and blood orange salad, straight from the farmers’ market. The fennel bulb was the runt of the litter, so the flavor was very mild and delicate, and it didn’t make the salad taste overpoweringly of licorice. And blood oranges are a thing of beauty and joy forever—they work surprisingly well with salt, spring onion, and olive oil. A salad like this should be eaten the same day it’s made, because blood oranges tend to stain everything an eerie pinkish, especially root vegetables with capillaries. (“Purpled hands” and “ruby lips” apply equally as well to working with blood oranges as to letting slip the dogs of war.)

Asparagus salad

Second: a modification of this recipe, because I wanted a dish to display the Meyer lemons I bought at a roadside market and it’s asparagus season. (Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your spears?) The salad is wonderfully nourishing, easy to throw together, and quite adaptable—quinoa would work well, or wheatberries, or fancy rice. And because I’m contractually obligated to do this now that I’m a California resident: kale would also go well with the grains and lemon.