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.

First Experiments with Odd Ingredients: Ginger-Lime Cake

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of a large ginger root must be in want of a recipe to use it all at once. However little the cook in question may know about cooking with ginger, the root has sat so long on the kitchen counter that it must soon be the feature of a large cake.

Some hunting online revealed a bunch of recipes for ginger cake, but many had molasses, which was not so appealing and would lead to a more autumnal, heavier set of flavors. It’s early spring in California, and I wanted to make a bright, light dish in honor of the season. This recipe from Epicurious fit the bill. I decided to substitute limes for lemons and not add extra ground ginger, because why follow a recipe when you’re making it for the first time?


For cake

3 tablespoons finely chopped peeled fresh ginger

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup whole milk

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened

2 tablespoons finely grated fresh lime zest

2 large eggs

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

For glaze

1/2 cup confectioners sugar

1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

Preheat oven to 325°F. Generously butter pan, then flour it, knocking out excess. Chill 10 minutes.

Finely grind together fresh ginger and 1/4 cup sugar in a food processor (or a blender if you’re a poor graduate student without fancy kitchen tools).

Whisk together flour, baking powder, ground ginger, and salt.

Stir together milk and vanilla in a small bowl.

Beat together butter, remaining 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, and zest in a large bowl with an electric mixer until fluffy. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition.

Alternately add flour and milk mixtures to butter and eggs in 4 batches, beginning with flour and mixing at low speed until each batch is just incorporated. Mix in ginger sugar until just combined, then lemon juice. Batter will be a little liquid.

Spoon batter into pan, smoothing top, and bake in middle of oven until golden brown on top and a tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 40 minutes (about 1 hour for loaf pan). Carefully loosen edges with a knife and immediately invert cake onto a rack to cool completely.

For glaze:

Gradually add confectioners sugar to 1 tablespoon lemon juice, whisking until smooth and adding more juice, 1 drop at a time, if glaze is too thick. Drizzle decoratively over top of cake.

ginger-lime bundt_2

Tasting notes: It’s not pretty, but it’s tasty. It did NOT de-pan well. I used a silicone baking pan for the first time, but the pan was far too large for the amount of cake batter and so I was left with a sad, flat little ring with weird caramelized bits. Mini bundt cakes would be much better, or a loaf pan. Or maybe I put in too much lime juice and not enough baking powder? This is where a knowledge of food chemistry would come in handy.

The cake itself tastes quite lovely—the ginger and lime balance each other out nicely; the cake is dense and sweet (I am not going to use the word moist), and the icing is fantastically tart. You could even leave it off and garnish it with a raspberry-jam glaze or fresh berries.

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In other news, I also went to the farmers’ market this week! And brought home exciting produce to feature in the future: fennel, broccolini, spring onions, and blood oranges. And also Girl Scout cookies, which are not a vegetable—but I couldn’t resist buying a box from a young lady who did not look enthused to be dressed as a Thin Mint.

Kitchen fancies

header pic

One day, I bought a pound of lemons and a quart of crème and reached for a cookbook.

So begin most food blogs, at some point, and so did the inspiration for mine. Except the cookbook I reached for was from 1657: Gervase Markham’s The English Huswife, the Joy of Cooking of its day. And the dessert I made was something that fell out of fashion a couple centuries ago.

I’m a graduate student working on early modern English literature, and lately I’ve gotten very interested in women’s labor—how it helped create households and cities and economies and nations, and how it’s still largely absent from the historical record. I stumbled across some 17th-century recipe books while working on a paper last year, and began to think about not only how women inscribed a whole experiential, practical body of knowledge in their recipes but were also practicing experimental science in ways very similar to “recognized” scientists like Boyle, Hobbes, Hooke, Newton, and friends. In high school I wanted to become a chemist, but found my calling in literature and teaching instead. My work now has gravitated as close as it can back to chemistry, and I hang out at the intersections of literature and early modern household science, medicine, and culinary arts.

Aside from the research reasons, I’m also starting this blog as a creative outlet and as a way to remind myself to eat mindfully. My schedule is so busy that usually I either eat what’s quickest—usually cereal—or make a big dish over the weekend and just eat that for two weeks. (cf. The Eternal Casserole Saga). Last weekend, I found myself in a flow state while making said casserole, and I was surprised. The dish was wholly absorbing, in a way that research and writing haven’t yet consistently been. And true, writing an article is a very different kind of mental activity than chopping shallots and grating lemon, but at the very least it’s a good mental exercise to lose oneself in a work.

So, in allowing myself to cook for this blog I hope to carve out some much-needed creative space, eat a little better (definitely a little weirder), and get to know the practical side of my research.


There are a number of people out there doing historical recipes (Cooking the Archive, for example), but these writers seem to have a solid foundation of contemporary cooking which then they build on by making obscure rabbit pies or sugary salads. (The one above is from Markham.) I don’t have these contemporary skills, which makes the project of recreating early modern recipes all the more difficult because I don’t yet understand the chemistry of food and how it’s supposed to work. I’m hoping to teach myself these things as I cook both new and old recipes, and figure it out from experience and trial-and-error—much like my early modern women would have done.