Thursday, July 14, 2016

Coffee Cream: Sweet and Creamy With a Bit of History Thrown In

Coffee Cream

The following recipe comes from a collection of recipes found in a manuscript journal located in the H. Furlong Baldwin Library at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. The manuscript is attributed to Ann Maria Morris and the date of 1824 is written on the inside cover. The recipe below is one of many from the manuscript that will be included in a book I am writing. The book will contain biographical information about Mrs. Morris, an annotated transcript of the entire manuscript as it was written, and a section of modern recipe adaptations (including this one!).

Coffee Cream
Boil a calf’s foot in water till it wasted to a pint of jelly, clear it of sediment & fat. make a tea cup of very strong coffee; clear it with isinglass to be perfectly bright, pour it to the jelly & add a pint of good cream, as much sugar. give one boil up & pour it into the dish, it should jelly, but not be stiff.

Coffee Cream: Modern Recipe Adaptation
Serves 4

  • 4 Ounces Hot Black Coffee
  • 1/2 Cup Granulated Sugar, Or to Taste
  • Two .25 ounce Packets of Knox Unflavored Gelatin
  • 1.5 Cups Boiling Water
  • 1 Pint Heavy Cream


1.   Add the sugar to the coffee while it is still hot. Stir thoroughly, place in a large mixing bowl, and set in the refrigerator to cool completely.
2.  When the coffee is cold, sprinkle the two pouches of the gelatin over cold coffee and stir. Allow to sit for at least one minutes so the gelatin can activate.
3.  Then, add the boiling water to the gelatin/coffee mixture and stir until the gelatin is completely dissolved. Place this mixture in a large thick-bottomed saucepan and whisk in the cream and bring to a simmer. Turn the heat to low and cook for 5 minutes, stirring constantly.
4.  Pour into serving glasses and refrigerate for about two hours to allow the cream to cool completely, thicken, and become slightly gelled.  Serve cold topped with a dollop of whipped cream.

Notes on the Recipe:

On Coffee:

Coffee appears to have originated in Ethiopia, but spread throughout the Muslim society of the Middle East. The wild coffee bush, coffee Arabica, is thought to reach back to the sixth century, but the first written evidence of coffee was in the tenth century by an Arab physician. Coffee eventually reached Turkey, and in 1554 the first coffee house in history opened in Constantinople. Coffee was observed and written about by Englishmen in the Middle East, and, as a result, coffee made its appearance in England by the middle of the 17th century. Appropriately, the first English coffee house opened in Oxford about 1652 by a Turkish Jew. 

Coffee Arabica
(source: wikimedia commons)

While there is no definitive data pinpointing the exact date coffee arrived in North America, there is no doubt that its presence in America helped develop American culture, particularly from the 19th century to the present. It is suggested that John Smith brought coffee to America in 1607; other accounts credit the Dutch for first bringing coffee to New Amsterdam in 1614, and there are also claims that coffee was first introduced to North America via Canada. Regardless of its origins in North America, coffeehouses were in full force by the 1660s. However, tea remained the favorite drink in America throughout the eighteenth century, and even into the early nineteenth-century. Myth suggests that the American penchant for coffee began with the rejection of tea as a result of the Boston Tea Party in 1773. As the myth goes, in consequence of English taxes on tea, Revolutionary Patriots claimed that coffee would become the new national American drink. However, records of household consumption of coffee do not actually begin to overtake the average consumption of tea until the 1830s. As a matter of fact, probate inventories from the year 1800 prove that more than half of American households had the correct equipage to host a proper tea. In addition, the consumption of tea actually increased steadily throughout the early decades of the 19th century. 

By the 1860s, coffee had finally reached its prominent position as the favorite American hot drink. For Civil War soldiers, coffee was one of the most important items they were given in their rations. The caffeine was wonderfully effective in waking up a tired soldier or keeping a soldier awake for extended periods of time. Both Northern and Southern troops relied heavily upon coffee; however, the less well-supplied Southern forces found coffee beans scarce, leaving them no choice but to use inferior substitutes such as peas. The heavy reliance upon coffee during the war most likely cemented the gradual displacement of tea with coffee as the quintessential American hot drink. 

On "Clearing the Coffee":
You will notice that the recipe instructs the user to clear the coffee "with isinglass to be perfectly bright." Whole eggs, including shells, egg whites, fish skin, and isinglass were used to clear or clarify coffee. Isinglass is a collagen-rich protein found in the air bladders or fish, particularly sturgeon. When mixed with liquids containing impurities, the protein-rich collagen serves as a magnet to those impurities and they all rise to the top and can be skimmed off.

The ground coffee was mixed with one or more of these items and the result was that the coffee grinds would sink to the bottom of the boiler. The clear coffee, free of grinds, could be poured off into the coffee serving pot. A “biggin” coffee pot, invented in 1780 by a "Mr. Biggin", could also be used to brew and clear coffee. This pot contained a strainer or filter that allowed the water to infuse with the grinds without allowing the grinds to mix with the water. 

Biggin Coffee Pot
(source: Pierre Blot, Hand-Book of Practical Cookery , New York, 1884)

Based on research of contemporary cookbooks, the biggin pot is recognized as a viable method but did not seem to supplant the traditional method of using a protein-rich additive to keep the grinds at the bottom. There is a recipe for both using a biggin pot and clearing coffee with isinglass or eggs in The Kentucky Housewife (1839); The American Frugal Housewife (1833) contains instructions for using fish skin and also suggests that “salt pork is excellent” as a substitute (p. 83); and, the 1854 American Home Cook Book also suggests using isinglass (p. 121-2).

  • Larkin, Jack. The Reshaping of Everyday Life 1790-1840 (New York, 1988)
  • Oxford English Dictionary
  • Sutherland, Daniel E. The Expansion of Everyday Life 1860-1876 (New York, 1989)
  • Tannahill, Reay. Food in History (New York, 1988)
  • Primary Sources Listed in Narrative

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