Monday, April 27, 2015

Fried Cheese for the Historical Food Fortnightly Challenge 24: Snacky Snackables

Fried Cheese alla Platina, c. 1470s

The Challenge: Snacky Snackables 
April 19 - May 2
Who doesn’t love a snack? Make something meant to be consumed in between meals, on the go, or late at night when you’re scrounging for munchies!

The Recipe: Fried Cheese
I chose a recipe from the first cookbook ever to be published using a printing press, De Honesta Voluptate by Bartolomeo Platina; it first appeared about 1470 in Rome. The version I am using is marked as coming from Venice in 1475. 

There is an interesting description of the book by the author: 

"Platina's Book on Food and Honest Indulgence and Good Health . . . a little work on foods and honest indulgence by the very learned man Platina: Printed in Venice with the work and care of Father Laurentius of Aquila and also Sibyllinus Umber for the distinguished Duke Peter Mocenicus on the Ides of June, 1475.

The recipes in this cookbook were borrowed from Martino of Como, the chef for Cardinal Trevisan. His recipes were written early in the 15th century in manuscript form. The 1475 edition of this work consists of nine books or sections that are each devoted to particular topics, from exercise to "tarrying with a woman" (ha, ha), fish, grains, herbs, spices, nuts, fruits, vegetables, dairy products, meats, game, potages, broths, condiments, torts, and custards.

I chose a recipe from Book 8 for a dish that definitely could be considered a snack-Fried Cheese! I particularly like the advice given at the end of the recipe which instructs the reader to regard this food as unhealthy--classic advice for snack foods!

Fried Cheese
Take pieces of rich cheese, neither quite aged nor quite new and fry them in a pan especially made for this purpose with butter or liquamen. When they begin to be tender, turn them and take them out right away. They should be sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon and eaten while they are still hot. Another Way: Put bread crumbs that have been well toasted on all sides into a pan in rows and spread your morsels of cheese in a layer over them. Put your pan covered with smelled near the hearth. When your cheese melts, sprinkle this with sugar, cinnamon, ginger and eat right away, if you want something that is bad. For it is very difficult to digest and is poor nourishment. It causes obstructions and stones.

Here is some of what Platina Says About Cheese in Italy in his Time:
"Today there are two kinds of cheese in Italy which could contend for pre-eminence: the Marcelonius*, for thus the Tuscans call it, which is made in Tuscany in the month of March; and the Parmesan, as it is called, made on this side of the Alps during the month of May." 

Unfortunately, these along with ricotta, are the only cheeses Platina mentions by name but are all too soft to pan-fry. As a result, I am choosing to use a firm low moisture full fat mozzarella for this recipe, as the inclusion of ricotta cheese would indicate that mozzarella was also made (ricotta was made from the residual whey after the mozzarella was made).

*This cheese is Marzolino which is a very special pecorino (sheep's milk cheese) production made with milk from selected pastures grazed only during the month of March.

Date/Year and Region

How Did You Make It

  • The recipes does not specify how thick to cut the pieces of cheese for frying. Therefore, I decided to try three different thickness: a sliver, 1/4 inch, and 1/2 inch. 
  • I heated a generous amount of butter in a frying pan on high heat.
  • I heated the sliver for just a few seconds on each side; the 1/4 inch piece was heated for just about 20 seconds on each side; and, the 1/2 inch piece was heated for about 40 seconds per side.
  • I sprinkled a mixture of cinnamon and sugar on each piece.

Time to Complete
See above--not a long time at all!

Total Cost
About $4 for the cheese.

How Successful Was It?
They all tasted good; however, the sliver crisped up the most and was therefore nice and crunchy. The others started to melt before they actually crippled up. Therefore, I recommend using slivers. The fried cheese tastes better than it looks!

How Accurate Is It?
I followed the intention of the recipe but had to experiment a bit. 

Reference Regarding Platina
Ken Albala, Food: A Cultural Culinary History for the Great Courses, 2013.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A Potent 19th Century Potable: Regent's Punch

Regent's Punch

About the Recipe
What is great about this recipe is that it proves beyond a doubt that Americans in the south were drinking a version of iced tea as early as 1847! Usually, iced or "sweet" tea is credited with being invented at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. However, documentary evidence shows that it was in place long before that. For example:
  • A recipe for iced tea was found in a cookbook called, Housekeeping in Old Virginia in 1879. 
  • A published recipe for iced tea appeared in the August 8, 1868 issue of Harper’s Bazaar.
  • This recipe for Regent's Punch predates both of these as it was published in 1847. While it is an alcoholic version of iced tea, it does show that people were not adverse to drinking chilled tea.

The Recipe: Regent's Punch
Source: Sarah Rutledge, The Carolina Housewife, 1847

Modern Recipe Adaptation


  • 4 Tbsp Green Tea Leaves, Loose (or you can use 8 tea bags)
  • 2 Quarts Water
  • 1 Cup Red Currant Jelly
  • 1/2 Cup Granulated Sugar (or to taste)
  • Juice of 4 Lemons
  • 1/2 Cup Brandy
  • 1 Lemon, Sliced in Rings
  • Half of a 750 ml bottle of Champagne or Sparkling Wine (or more, if you like!)

  1. Brew Your Tea:  Heat the two quarts of water to boil. Remove the water from the heat and pour into a heat-safe bowl or 2-quart size measuring cup. Allow to cool to just about 180-190º F. Then add the tea leaves to the hot water and allow to brew for about 2 minutes. Strain the tea leaves out of the brewed tea into another heat-safe bowl. Add the currant jelly and the sugar to the hot tea and allow them both to melt/dissolve into the hot tea. Stir. Set aside to cool and when cool place in the refrigerator for several hours.
  2. Assemble the Punch: Pour the sweetened and cooled tea mixture into a punch bowl. Add the lemon juice and the brandy. Mix together. You can add the Champagne at this point, if serving immediately. If not, place the punch back in the refrigerator to keep cold and add the Champagne just before service.
  3. Ice: You can also add ice to the punch at the time of service, but it is not part of the original recipe. I froze water with some raspberries in a pretty gelatin mold and used that as my ice. You could also freeze some of the green tea/red currant mixture in this way to keep from diluting the punch with plain ice.
  4. Finish the Punch: Top the punch with the lemon rings. 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Sichuan Peppercorn Salt

Sichuan Peppercorns and Salt
Sichuan peppercorns are actually berries that come from the prickly ash species (Zanthoxylum simulans), a type of Asian citrus tree. They are not peppers, nor do they have a spicy heat level in the same way as a capsicum pepper. Instead, these berries are full of a chemical mixture consisting of alkamides, alkaloids, flavonoids, lingnoids, essential oils, and tannins that together produce not a spicy sensation on the tongue but a numbing sensation. Even a small taste of these berries can trigger this response. Because Sichuan peppercorns anesthetize the tongue, they are often added to very spicy food to ease the burn and are mistakenly thought to be producing the heat in the dish rather than easing the effects of the heat.

Sichuan peppercorns are commonly used in dishes from Sichuan and Hunan, the colder more Northern regions of China where the food can be very heavy and complex. Interestingly, the importation of Sichuan peppercorns into the US was banned in the late 1960s because they were found to carry a bacteria that threatened Florida's orange groves. While illegal importation continued on the black market, it was not until 2005 that US ports were legally allowed to trade in the spice once again. Therefore, use of this spice in America has grown by leaps and bounds just in the past decade. 

Sichuan peppercorns are an important component in the famous Chinese Five Spice Powder. This powder is made from equal parts Ground Cinnamon (Chinese Cassia variety), Ground Cloves, Star Anise, Fennel Seed (tasted and ground), and Sichuan Peppercorns (toasted and ground)--note, Ginger and/or Cardamom may also be added making it a six spice blend.

Here is a recipe for a way to add both saltiness and a numbing effect to your favorite spicy dish:

Sichuan Pepper Salt
1 Tablespoon Table Salt
1 1/2 Teaspoons Sichuan Peppercorns (order at The Spice House)

In a dry frying pan, place the salt and the Sichuan peppercorns. Set the pan over medium-high heat and cook for about 7-8 minutes, shaking the pan frequently. You will know it is time to remove the pan from the heat when you start to smell an aroma from the peppercorns. Remove the pan from the heat, but keep shaking the salt/pepper mixture frequently for 3-4 minutes. Remove the mixture from the pan and cool. When cool, grind the mixture in a spice grinder. You can store the salt in a sealed container for several month.

Ground Sichuan Peppercorn Salt 

Spicy Sichuan Nuts

2 Teaspoons Vegetable Oil
1 Cup Nuts (almonds, peanuts, pecans, or any you prefer)
2 Teaspoons Sichuan Pepper Salt (recipe above)
1/4 Teaspoon Cayenne Pepper (or more to taste)

Place the oil in a frying pan with the nuts. Set over a medium-high heat. Heat for 2-3 minutes, shaking the pan frequently. Sprinkle the Sichuan Pepper Salt and the cayenne pepper over there nuts. Shake vigorously to distribute the spices evenly. Heat for another 1-2 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool. 

Spicy Sichuan Nuts

  • Bill Briwa, The Everyday Gourmet: Essential Secrets of Spices in Cooking for the Great Courses (USA: 2013)
  • Alan Davidson, The Penguin Companion to Food (New York, 2002)
  • Gary Paul Nabhan, Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey (California: 2014)

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Cornish Pasty

Cornish Pasty

Another Item in the Eponymous Epicurean Delights Series . . . 

The Cornish Pasty is descended from centuries of food traditions related to encapsulating fillings in pastry. Nowadays, the word "pasty" (pronounced \ˈpas-tē\) usually refers to a small or medium sized meat-filled pastry turnover. However, their history shows that they came in many different forms throughout the years. 

Medieval Pasties 
Pasties and pies are related but different. In the Middle Ages, pasties could be very large and often referred to meat or fish enclosed in a pastry case without the help of a mould or exterior dish.  Medieval pasties could have also been enormous because it was not uncommon for them to contain whole joints of meats. On the other hand, pies referred to a mixture of ingredients contained within the pastry and were made in raised forms rather than as a turnovers which was standard for pasties. To further complicate things, Medieval pasties could also be made from a mixture of sweet ingredients such as raisins, sugar, and eggs, almonds, apples, pears, etc.

Here are some examples of the types of pasty recipes that can be dated to the late 1300s from The Good Wife’s Guide, Le Menagier de Paris, A Medieval Household Book, Translated by Gina L. Greco & Christine M. Rose (Cornell University: 2009):
  • Spring Chickens
  • Mushrooms
  • Water Parsnips (Skirret Root)
  • Venison
  • Beef
  • Beef Cheeks
  • Mutton
  • Veal

In The Forme of Cury, by the chief Master-Cook of King Richard II, c. 1390, there are several pasty recipes made in the form of "Chastletes", castles with battlements and crenelations, that were filled with a variety of ingredients. They are:
  • Pork, salt, saffron, cream of almonds
  • Cow's milk colored with sanders [red from sandalwood]
  • Raisins, apples, pears
  • White fritters colored green 

In the 16th century, the word Chewet also referred to a type of pasty that contained various meats, fish, dried fruits, and/or spices. Chewets were made in a small enough form to be considered finger food for banquets. For example, in The Good Housewife's Handmaide for the Kitchen (1594) there is a recipe "To make chewets of veale." Another reference to chewets in the 16th century comes from a satirical ballad, The Image of Hypocrisy, in which there is a section about cardinals; it reads cardinals " . . .wallow bestially As hogs do in a sty, Serving their god, their belly, With chewets and with jelly, with Venison and with tarts And portingale farts To ease their holy hearts ."

Enter the Cornish Pasty
Clearly pasty history is extensive; however, the Cornish Pasty has only been popular for about the last two hundred years. By the 18th century it was established as a Cornish food by poor working class people who could only afford ingredients such as potato, turnip (swede), and onions. Cheap cuts of beef were added later. 

One of the earliest records of a specific type of pasty in Cornwall goes back to 1808 when it was mentioned in Worgan's Agricultural Survey. The early 19th century burgeoning industrial economy of Cornwall (located in the Southwestern corner of England) influenced the region's reliance upon this eponymous food because the pasty was portable and therefore convenient to bring down into the tin mines.  Also, the Cornish pasty is made in a distinctive D-shape with a crimped pastry edge that could be used as a handle. Supposedly, this pastry-dense handle was discarded because the arsenic in the mines could settle within it (not sure if this is a myth though). 

Pasties are a good food in a region reliant upon a precarious industrial mining economy that could be so easily affected by market prices; in prosperous times lots of meat could be used but in poorer times more vegetables could be used. These individual hand-held meals were also quite convenient for satisfying picky eaters. Each could be filled according to the taste of its future eater, thus each person's pasty was traditionally marked with their initials. Finally, one Cornish  pasty could serve as both main dish and dessert because one end of it might be filled with meat while the other end with a sweet such as apple.

Recipe: Cornish Pasty

Source: English Food by Jane Grigson. Penguin Books, 1974.

Shortcrust pastry:
12 oz. Plain Flour
¼ Teaspoon Salt
6 oz Lard

1 lb. Skirt or Chuck Steak
4-5 oz Chopped Onions
3 oz. Chopped Turnip (Swede)
8 oz. Thinly Sliced Potato
Salt, Pepper
Pinch of Thyme

Beaten Egg


Make the shortcrust pastry in the usual way. Do not be tempted to use butter or any other kind of fat, because lard gives the right flavor and texture to the crust. Leave the pastry in a cool place for an hour to rest.

Meanwhile remove the lean meat from the skin, gristle, etc., and chop it with a sharp, heavy knife. There should be a generous half pound (the trimmings can be kept for stock-making). Mix the meat with the vegetables and seasoning.

Beef and Vegetable Pasty Filling

Using a bowl to make pasty circles.
Roll out the pastry and cut it into two large dinner-plate circles. Divide the steak mixture between the two, putting it down the middle. Brush the rim of the pastry with beaten egg. Bring up the two sides of pastry to meet over the top of the filling, and pinch them together into a scalloped crest going right over the top of the pasty. Make two holes on top, either side of the crest so that steam can escape. Place the pasties on a baking sheet and brush them over with beaten egg. Bake at mark 6, 400º, for 20 minutes. Then lower the heat to 350º, for a further 40 minutes. Serve hot or cold.

Lay the filling in a line in the center of the pastry dough and then crimp the edges to seal.

  • Andrew and Maureen Dalby, The Shakespeare Cookbook (The British Museum Press, 2012)
  • Alan Davidson, The Penguin Companion to Food (New York: 2002)
  • Gina L. Greco and Christine M. Rose, translators, The Good Wife’s Guide, Le Menagier de Paris, A Medieval Household Book (Cornell University: 2009)
  • Jane Grigson, English Food (Penguin Books, 1974)
  • The Forme of Cury