Friday, December 31, 2010

The Tartlett Experiment: 14th Century Flavor!

Hi folks. Sorry for the lag in posting, but we were supposed to have a babysitter come on Wednesday morning and she had to reschedule for this morning. Friday. I think it's Friday? It's hard to keep track of the days of the week, the date, etc., when most of your days go something like this:

1. Wake at ungodly hour.
2. Wrestle child into clean diaper and, hopefully, pants. Repeat ad nauseum.
3. Provide child with a variety of wholesome, nutritious food then despair when child will only eat Veggie Booty and Kix. Repeat ad nauseum.
4. Play with child, including but not limited fashioning outfits for small plastic zoo animals out of Scotch tape and paper towels.
5. Collapse into bed wearing sweatpants and a booger-encrusted shirt around the same time most childless San Franciscans are dressing for dinner.

Anyway, enough about my thrilling life! What you want to know,  I am sure,  is "how did the vaguely disgusting-sounding 14th century pork tartletts turn out?"

The short answer: not bad.

The long answer:

I started by investigating the composition of the mysterious "powder fort" and "powder douce." It turns out they are basically medieval curry powder-- that is, they have a general kind of character but the exact ingredients vary from source to source. Powder fort is, unsurprisingly, a strong blend with heavy ginger and pepper flavor. Powder douce includes sugar and healthy doses of the "sweeter" spices like cinnamon and cloves.

For the powder fort I used these proportions:

1 TB ground cloves
1 TB ground mace
1 TB ground allspice
1 TB ground white pepper
4 TB ground ginger
3 TB ground black pepper

(In the middle of this it became abundantly clear that I was not going to be able to hand-grind 3 TB of black pepper from our anemic IKEA pepper grinder. My sainted husband strapped our 28-lb. toddler into the backpack and trekked out to the store to purchase two tins of the pre-ground sawdusty stuff, bless him, thus saving my wrists from a possibly permanently debilitating case of repetitive stress injury. Thanks, babe.) 

For the powder douce: 

3 TB ginger
2 TB sugar
2 TB cinnamon
1 TSP cloves
1 TSP nutmeg
I suspect you could substitute pumpkin pie spice for the powder douce if you were feeling lazy. Seriously, go ahead, we don't judge here.

I mixed up a double batch of each with the idea that I would be using these blends again. 

Next I decided to prep the tartlett filling, hoping that a couple of hours in the refrigerator would make it easier to handle. I pulled this glistening beauty-- two pounds of wild boar shoulder, provided by the fine folks at Golden Gate Meats-- from the fridge and proceeded to get medieval on its ass. Or, um, shoulder.

Unrolled, it was kind of an awkward flappy thing with a distinctly gamy aroma. It didn't smell bad, it smelled... wet. And kind of metallic-bloody. So, medieval! I was already giddy with the thrill of authenticity. 

I introduced a pound of the feral pig to the grinder attachment of my KitchenAid, which kind of deflated the authenticity elation, honestly, but no way was I about to attempt to mince this by hand with nothing but a cheap Chinese cleaver and my trusty Wusthof chef's knife. (In case you were wondering, the other pound of meat went into the freezer to reappear at some point either in this blog or as wild boar carnitas. Mmmmm, carnitas. I hope I have an excuse to buy lard soon. But I digress). I used the small grinding plate,  assuming that smaller pieces would cohere better in the tarts than big chunks. 

To all this porcine goodness I added two heaping tablespoons of powder fort, a half cup of currants, a teaspoon of sea salt, and two eggs.

These were mixed and put back in the fridge, (covered, of course; as dedicated as I am to this experiment  I would prefer the smell of my refrigerator remain firmly in the 21st century, thankyouverymuch), to chill while I prepped the dough.

Ahh, pastry dough. How I hate thee. I hate fiddling with you and your finicky, capricious nature, even if the end result is going to be apple pie, which I love. I hate you more when I don't know if the result is going to even be edible.

Luckily,  further research revealed that much medieval dough was of the "hot water" variety, which happens to be very similar to the hot water dough used to make wontons and gyoza-- that is, it's flour. And hot water. And not much else.

I started with two cups of Bob's Red Mill Buhr Stone Ground Whole Wheat flour, which was both surprisingly affordable and available at the ghet-TO Safeway by our house. I then sifted the flour with a teaspoon of salt through a fine-mesh strainer, which removed some small bits of the bran.

Then I added just-boiled water in a steady stream while I stirred with what I hoped was medieval vigor. My efforts were rewarded with a blob of unusable slop with the consistency of... oh, there is nothing to compare it with. It was just gross. Half pancake batter, half PlayDo.

So sorry, Bob and your Red Mill.  I don't like to waste flour.

I started over, this time admitting my weakness and hauling out the Cuisinart. Once again, flour and salt were sifted, added to the bowl of the food processor along with an egg for the hell of it, and whizzed at low speed while I added the hot water in a slow stream until the dough just came together. I sprinkled it with a little extra flour and was able to pull it out of the processor bowl in more or less of a ball.

Following a tip I picked up from a wonton-wrapper recipe, I placed the ball of dough into a Ziploc bag, sealed it up, and let it steam itself until it was cool. I am sure there is a medieval equivalent to the Ziploc bag; I just haven't quite found it yet. But I will. Oh, I will.

The result was nothing short of miraculous. The dough was pliable, forgiving, and easily rolled out into a 1/8"thick sheet. We are lucky to have (albeit hideously patterned) marble countertops in our kitchen, which further eased the pastry-rolling process. The only downside was the color. Brown. Browny-brown-brown. Waaaayyyy more brown than I expected. Still, the texture made me too happy to care that it was the color of baby shit.

Maybe I am just inured to baby shit after dealing with it on a daily basis for so long. Man, that's a depressing thought.

(Did I mention that I was also cooking like five other hors d'oeuvres for our Christmas Eve party at the same time I was making these freaking tartletts? Because I was. That's the kind of bad decision-making that results from a two-year case of Mommy Brain, FYI. Consider that a public service announcement).

The upside to having the party was the assistance of two of our guests, the lovely Susi (of the awesome Craftroom) and Gina. They gleefully jumped in to help roll, fill, and photograph the tartletts-to-be.

Here you can see the exacting method employed to cut the pastry into circles. Yes, that is a pint glass. 'Cause we are Klassy like that here at the Time Traveling Cook. And I may have had some ale in that glass later. Ale's an authentic 14th century beverage; beer is not. I am just saying.

I should probably mention that I had set a 3 quart saucepan filled with a mix of homemade chicken and beef stock to simmer on the stove, to which I added four threads of saffron and two tablespoons of the powder douce. I got saffron for myself for Christmas, and I gave it to myself on Christmas Eve! I am so nice to me. The saffron gave the broth a lovely yellow color, though I was hard-pressed to taste it, honestly.

Gina and I then filled the pastry circles with the wild boar mixture and used an egg beaten with a little hot water to seal the edges. Voila!

From there it was pretty smooth sailing. Once we had tartletts equal to the number of party guests, I placed them, in batches as to not crowd the pan, into the simmering broth. 

Employing the totally scientific method of guesstimating, I cooked the tartletts until the the filling felt firm to the touch and the pastry edges felt soft. I used my fingers. Somehow during this step the broth went from a lovely saffron-yellow to a dull-- you guessed it!-- brown. 

The cooked tartletts looked like this: 

They tasted pretty good. Actually, with the ginger flavor from the powder fort and the wonton-like texture of the pastry, they were vaguely Asian-tasting. The pastry probably could stand to be rolled even thinner, because it definitely swelled in the simmering-- in several of the tarts, some of the filling's flavor was lost in the "doughiness" (is that even a word?) of the pastry. The currants added a nice textural element and bright little bursts of raisin flavor.

I then proudly presented my tartletts in the broth to the party guests, who gamely partook of them and pronounced them "OK!"

The guests even politely ignored the fact that it looked like I was serving them brown turd patties wrapped in turd dough floating in a bowl of watery diarrhea.

Perhaps from now on I will use historically accurate lighting when serving medieval cuisine. Darkness could only improve the appearance of these tartletts. Still, I am going to call this one a qualified success. They were edible, even pleasant-- and they definitely had an out-of-our-time quality that is the ultimate goal of this entire Time Traveling Cooking enterprise.

NEXT UP: I am going to attempt something American, probably 18th or 19th century, and possibly over an open fire! I hope the neighbors don't call the authorities. Stay tuned for the big reveal in a day or two.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Thank you, Santa!

I must not have been too bad this year, because Santa brought me some amazing cooking-related books for Christmas. 

Santa must spend a lot of his downtime on the interwebs reading upstart cooking blogs written by eccentric, frazzled, stay-at-home moms. 

Saturday, December 25, 2010

I did it!

Dear Readers, I did it.

I made the 14th century tartletts. They were edible. It would not have happened without the assistance of my husband (who walked to the grocery store on Christmas Eve with our 28 lb. toddler on his back to buy me a pantload of black pepper), and my lovely sous-chefs Susi (of the Craftroom and Iron Craft)  and Gina.

I am too exhausted after two solid days of nearly nonstop cooking and Christmas-present-assembling to write a proper debriefing of the Tartlett Experiment, but I assure you it will be posted soon along with photographs (not that it was anything to look at, unless you like brown food in brown sauce with brown filling).

However,  it was extremely educational. I've learned a lot about how to approach these "recipes" from the past and what to do and what NOT to do.

Mostly, don't try to pull this off on the same day you are expected to host a Christmas Eve party and feed 20 guests something tasty enough to soak up all the pre-holiday booze you are serving them.

Oh, and if you are giving your kid a gift with "some assembly required," start said assembly before 11:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

Cheers, all! Hope you had a wonderful holiday.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The First Dish Revealed

We are hosting a small "soiree" for some friends on Christmas Eve. I'd planned to serve your basic hors d'oeuvres-- baked brie en croute, Swedish meatballs, bruschetta, etc. Then, the light went off over my usually dull head.

Let them eat history!

In the interest of maintaining friendships with the aforementioned guests, I've determined that laying out a plate of stuffed dormice a la Pompeii is not a great idea. Plus, I haven't figured out a source for dormice yet. After poking around my books and on the internet, I've decided upon a 14th century recipe for "Tartlett" from the book "The Forme of Cury" (aka "The Manner of Cooking").

There's a translation of this recipe in To the King's Taste: 
"Take cooked pork and grind it small with saffron. Mix it with eggs, currants, strong powder, and salt. Make a thin leaf of dough and enclose the stuffing in it. Cast the tartlettes in a pan of boiling salted water. Take some unspiced meat without eggs, and boil it in good broth. Add sweet powder and salt. Divide the tartlettes into portions in dishes and pour the broth on top. "

I am a bit skeptical about the adaptation of this recipe in To the King's Taste, which is essentially an Italian agnolotti in brodo. According to my research, pasta was not unknown in England by the 14th century, but it was certainly a rarity. I can confidently assert that 14th century pasta was a homely, chewy cousin to what we think of as "pasta" today. Why? 

First of all, consider the flour they had to work with. I've been considering it a lot over the past three days. Wheat flour was strictly for the elites; peasants made do with rye, spelt, and barley flour. Nevertheless, wheat flour was all stoneground (which left quite a lot of the stone in the flour; medieval people apparently suffered fewer cavities than do modern people simply because the tops of their teeth were ground flat and smooth from chewing so much grit). The whiter the flour, the more prized and expensive it was-- but even the whitest medieval flour was a lot more like our whole wheat flour than a bag of Gold Medal. To further refine their flour, bakers would sift out the largest chunks of bran. 

In the interest of historical accuracy, I am going to do the same with a stoneground whole wheat flour. Additionally, I am going to make my tartletts less like ravioli or agnolotti and more like pierogies-- that is, more dumpling-like.  

Oh, and the pork-- I'm off to the butcher's this morning to pick up some wild boar meat. Apparently, American wild boar are the descendants of domestic pigs brought over by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, making wild boar the closest thing I am going to get to the scrawny free-range (as in eat whatever they can find, including dead animals and people. These are the things you learn researching a novel about the Black Death, by the way) medieval swine. When I called the butcher this morning at 6:45, they calmly assured me that that had both boar shoulder and hams, and THIS is why we pay an obscene amount of money to live in San Francisco. 

In addition, I am making my own broth from a chicken carcass I've been hoarding in the freezer, some onions and carrots, and a pinch of saffron. 

As for "powdo fort," I have no clue. More research will be undertaken during naptime today. 

Did I mention tomorrow is Christmas eve? And that I am going to do all this shopping with a two-year-old in tow? 

Yeah, wish me luck. I'm going to need it. 

Monday, December 20, 2010

Books I've Packed for the Journey, Part Deux

Sorry for the delay between posts, everyone. I had a bit of a detour to the emergency room, my daughter's second birthday party, and a visit from my parents this week, which precluded the continuation of my list of reference materials for this project.

Enough about my boring, 21st Century white lady First World life. What you want to know is... how revolting are the recipes going to get for this project?

Let me assure you, dear Readers. It will get gross.

To whit, consider the rest of my historical cooking library.

The Martha Washington Cookbook by Marie Kimball, copyright 1940. This is a transcription of the First First Lady's personal cookbook, with notes and background. Actually, the recipes in this book are straightforward and surprisingly modern (with a decidedly Classical French flavor, not surprising given the era). My favorite is "To Make Red Deer of Beef." It involves a lot of lard, which is always a good thing in my book.

Food in History by Reay Tannahill, copyright 1973. No recipes here, but detailed discussion of cookery techniques by era. Once again, there is a lot of meat on sticks.

The Little House Cookbook by Barbara M. Walker, copyright 1979. Confession time: I was obsessed with the Little House books as a girl. I BEGGED my mother to make bread from wheatberries hand-ground in a coffee grinder a la The Long Winter, shook heavy cream in Mason jars for hours to make my own butter, and wore a sunbonnet whenever I could. I keep meaning to write an article for Saveur or Gastronomica about the Little House Books as primary sources for American frontier culinary history, but then my kid slams her finger in a door or I drop a load of laundry down the basement stairs and the thought goes completely from my head. Anyway, Wilder's descriptions of the foods-- and lack thereof-- of her childhood are vivid, direct, and detailed enough that one could cook directly from her novels. This book supplements the series with cultural background information on foodstuffs of the period.

To the Queen's Taste and To the King's Taste by Lorna J. Sass, copyright 1975 & 1976. A friend lent me these two volumes. The first consists of recipes and menus from Elizabethan England and the second of recipes translated and adapted from Richard II's book of feasts. I haven't had time to really dig into these but I've already threatened my husband with "Tripe in Gingered Broth." Heh heh.

And that's it. I've done some digging around and found this quite comprehensive and drool-worthy list of historical cookbooks:

Broad hints have been dropped regarding this list and our proximity to Christmas, so I suspect that once in the New Year I'll have more reference material to share with you all.

In the meantime, I need to pick a recipe for my first actual cooking project. We're hosting a little Christmas Eve soiree and I'd love to put something historical on the hors d'oeuvre table.

Stay tuned to find out what it will be!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Welcome! Or, I am insane for even thinking about doing this.

Yeah. So, this whole Time Traveling Cook thing seemed like a really good idea when I was lying in bed after two glasses of wine, trying to figure out a way to blog about SOMETHING that didn't involve wiping bodily fluids off of my toddler with the sleeve of my shirt, which is how I spend a good portion of my waking hours.

When I am not actively attempting to keep a two year-old from grievous bodily harm and an all-white-foods diet, I am trying to write a novel set in 14th century England. You know, the 1300s! Hundred Years' War! Black Death! Peasants' Revolt!

The one thing I manage to do in between the novel-ing and the offspring-death-preventing is cook. I cook for my patient, omnivorous husband and my patient, mostly-omnivorous friends. I cook to focus my chaotically jangled brain into a linear task-at-hand; to test my limits of taste and skill; to teach my daughter about the pleasures and dangers of knives, gas ranges, and well-seasoned, nearly-hereditary cast iron skillets; and to give gustatory pleasure to the people seated around my dining room table.

I cook my father-in-law's Azorean kale soup. I cook my step-grandfather's "bread on the pan." I cook my mom's baked macaroni with onions and tomatoes and obscene amounts of cheese. I cook red beans and rice from my college roommate's recipe. I cook grits because I grew up in the South; I long for good bagels because I was born in New Jersey. I cook my personal history. I am no purist, though; sometimes my personal history is made by Kraft and comes in a blue box, and I am OK with that, too.

 So back to me lying in bed NOT thinking about toddler secretions. I thought about how I cook my family history, then-- well, duh. Why not cook the human family history? In typical history-nerd fashion, my first impulse was to glean any relevant research titles from our fields of overstuffed Ikea bookshelves.  What I found only sort-of surprised me. Herewith are the books I am starting this project, along with notations:

The Horizon Cookbook and Illustrated History of Eating and Drinking through the Ages with 600 Classic International Recipes and Menus by William Harlan Hale, copyright 1968.
768 pages of usefulness.  I must admit I married into this particular tome; I found it on my husband's bookshelf while we were still in a delicate "are-we-or-aren't-we" period and put it on the bedside table as a bit of light reading. It stayed there for years. I am pretty sure it belongs to my better-half's ex-wife, who is also a history nerd, but she's not getting it back-- especially now that I have the recipe for stewed lampreys I've been longing for. Sorry, Lisa!

Food & Drink in Britain From the Stone Age to the 19th Century by C. Anne Wilson, copyright 1973.  I promise to cook something from the Stone Age. I am guessing it's going to be meat, and probably on a stick.

Around the Roman Table: Food and Feasting in Ancient Rome by Patrick Faas, copyright 1994. The Romans were even more f-ed up than repeated viewings of Gladiator would have you believe, according to this book. And yes, vomitoriums were real.

Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome by Apicius, translated and edited by Joseph Dommers Vehling, copyright 1936. Oh, see above. This is generally regarded as the first cookbook of Western Civilization, and this is a Dover edition. I love Dover ANYTHING. Seriously, we gave out Dover books as favors at our wedding. There is a recipe in here for lentil stew with cumin, coriander, and leeks that sounds better than anything in the Moosewood Bible.

Oh crap. It's past midnight, Wow! That's a first post, right? If I promise to list the rest of my research books tomorrow will you all forgive me?