It’s that time of year where, thanks to a certain television show, those of us who are so inclined get an extra boost of motivation to get in the kitchen and start testing our baking skills. At the same time, I’ve come across a recipe book here in Special Collections that caught my attention. Interest in historical cooking processes remains high and the popularity of the Edible Archive project from the Scottish Council on Archives shows that tasty morsels can be produced from historical recipes. So, why not investigate just how edible our archive is by having a go at some historical recipes that can be found within our rare books and manuscripts? A quick search of our rare books catalogue shows many good potential sources of recipes from as far back as the 17th century.
The recipe book that sparked this new baking adventure is, in its original incarnation, a cookery book kept and added to by Anna Matilda Whistler, the mother of painter James McNeill Whistler. Obviously the original 19th century notebook can’t be taken home into your kitchen. However the recipes have been reproduced and interpreted for a modern audience by Professor Margaret MacDonald in the book Whistler’s Mother’s cook book, also available in Special Collections and the main library stock. What better way to start trying some historical recipes than with this interesting and accessible recipe book?
There’s something quite appealing about getting an insight into the life of the mother of a great and famous painter – especially one that has her own kind of quiet fame as ‘Whistler’s Mother’ the enigmatic figure from the painting ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1’ The handy interpretations of Anna Whistler’s recipes in the book by Margaret MacDonald seemed like a good starting point for delving into the slightly disorientating world of historical recipes and so I have initially opted to try out a simple cake recipe called ‘Gambles’. Although really it’s a sort of biscuit-y/cake-y recipe.
“1 lb of butter, one of sugar, 4 eggs, rosewater. Flour sufficient to stiffen them. roll them in powdered sugar”.
MacDonald helpfully translates this into ‘cups’ for measuring and so on, as well as providing a temperature setting for the oven and a more detailed description of the steps involved in making the mixture. However, as she also indicates that the recipe makes about 48 cakes, I opted to halve the recipe!
The method is straightforward: mix together the butter and sugar, whisk the eggs with the rosewater and then alternate adding the egg mixture with the flour. From the description I wasn’t too sure what consistency of dough I was looking for – it was still quite soft and more of a batter than I might expect for then rolling them in sugar. I had made a biscuits from a similarly soft dough before where the recipe suggested chilling the dough so that it could be handled more easy and then rolled in sugar, so this is what I opted to do and then rolled them in caster sugar (instead of ‘powdered’) to give them a sweet crispy coating. Then in to the oven!
The result was a subtly sweet biscuit that went quite nicely with a cup of tea – though they admittedly weren’t much of a showstopper! I felt the rosewater was a little lacking in the flavour so I think I would worry less about ‘perfuminess’ and be a bit freer with the amount next time. Margaret MacDonald describes them in her book as “light sponge cakes with a crisp sugary crust” and this sums them up quite accurately.
To get more of a feel for other home baked treats that could be found in the Whistler household I intend to try a couple more of the recipes. Next time, a slightly more complicated recipe from Whistler’s mother’s cook book –“ cocoanut pudding”!
Categories: Special Collections