Ready for this Jelly

When people ask about the contents of early modern recipe/household books, I find myself turning first to remedies. The contrast between contemporary medicine and the strange herbal potions is striking and shocking and gets people interested quickly. It often allows us to talk about the types of specialized knowledge early modern women would have had–the chemical and medicinal properties of all sorts of plants; the intimate knowledge of disease symptoms and progression that required careful observational skills, and the willingness to experiment with a frankly astounding range of plants, animals, and substances to cure the human body.

It’s easy to assume, then, that early modern cooking was just as unfamiliar and weird as the remedies are. But I’ve found that’s often not the case. The majority of food recipes look a lot like their contemporary equivalents, especially the desserts. Early moderns figured out pretty quickly that sugar was delicious, and quickly found ways to put it in everything from the expected (a million varieties of jam) to the unexpected (meat dishes. Why does your beef need sugar? Unclear.) Preservational methods also look very similar–either put stuff in vinegar in jars, or dump a bunch of sugar into it and make jam.

Like Elizabeth Sloane’s 1711 “To make Jam of Raspberries.”

This recipe came from a collection of primarily sweets and delicacies in the British Library, very neatly lettered and embellished.

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BL Add MS 29739

To make Jam of Raspberries

Take the raspberries mash them & strain half; put the Juice to the other half that has the seeds in them; boil it fast for a quarter of an hour; then to a pint of raspberries put three quarters of a pound of Sugar; & boil it till it Jellys; put it into potts or glasses.

3/4 of a pound of sugar is 1.4 cups, or a scant 1 1/2 cups. These proportions are higher in sugar than contemporary jam recipes, which usually follow a 1:1

Contemporary recipe:

2 pints raspberries

scant 1 1/2 cups sugar

(lime zest to infuse sugar optional; you may also add the juice of one lime to cut the sugary taste)

Mash one half of the raspberries in a bowl. In another bowl, mash the other pint. Strain this second pint somehow so you have extra-juicy raspberries. Boil the fruit by itself for 15 minutes, then add the sugar and boil for another 2-5 minutes. According to an English nan on the BBC Food community, you’ll know it’s jellied when you drop a bit on a chilled plate, push your finger through it, and it acts like jelly. [This feedback loop assumes that you’re closely familiar with the properties of homemade jelly, which acts differently than storebought jelly.]

Note: it is incredibly difficult to strain raspberries if you doesn’t have muslin or cheesecloth. My makeshift setup involved a tea strainer and lots of pressing. A great arm workout, but not very efficient.

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This is what “boiling fast” looks like.

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Once the sugar’s been added it begins to thicken and take on a more jewel-like color.

Finally, put the jelly into “potts or glasses” to cool. Given how much early modern ladies liked to draw owls, I thought little pots covered in owls would be appropriate. This recipe makes about 2 jam jars’ worth.

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Good on toast, ice cream, or in a birthday cake you make because you miss London.

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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!

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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.

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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.