Recreating lemon biskeats

This semester my Women and Medicine class (HSCI 3243) is working on manuscript recipe books written by early modern English women, a project I’ve blogged about before (see here and here). Many of my students are planning to recreate culinary recipes from these books, so I was inspired to try one myself, both because I love doing this (for one of my earlier adventures in early modern recipe reconstruction, see here), and because I thought it would be helpful to them to model the kind of research required.

This recipe I chose is from a manuscript compilation of medical and culinary recipes, produced in England ca. 1600-1710. It is currently held by the University of Pennsylvania (Ms. Codex 252), and is accessible in digital facsimile.

Lemon biskeat
take 3 lemons great the pell and put it in tow a
pund of duball refined sugar then tak as much froth
of whits of eggs as will wet the sugar and then
beat it in a marbell mortor tow a past, butter papers
and ly it in lumps let not your oufon be tow hot

Take 3 lemons, grate the peels and put these into a pound of double-refined sugar. Then take as much froth of the whites of eggs as needed to wet the sugar. Then beat the mixture in a marbel mortar into a paste. Butter paper and place the mixture in lumps on the paper and bake. Do not let your oven be too hot.

This is a simple recipe, with just three ingredients: lemon peel (or what we would call “grated lemon zest”), sugar and egg whites. You mix these together to form a paste, drop them in “lumps” onto buttered paper and bake. It looks like it will turn out to be a type of cookie. Although the recipe gives specific quantities for the lemons and sugar, it just says to use as many egg whites “as needed.” There are no specific instructions for the heat of the oven (other than not “too hot”), or for baking times. This, of course, makes sense. Eggs were of varying sizes (perhaps more variable than lemons) and ovens had no thermometers, so these were things an individual cook would have to judge for herself. Also, depending on how large you made the “lumps,” cooking times would vary.

“Biscuit” is a word that obviously meant something different to this writer than it does to us. In modern British English, a biscuit is what Americans call a cookie. And in modern American English, biscuits are what the British call scones. Here, as I noted, the word seems to mean a type of cookie, but I wanted to dig a little deeper into the history of biscuits. I started by looking up biscuit in the Oxford English Dictionary, which also pulls up variant spellings like besquite, bysqwyte, byscute, bysket, and bisket. The definition is:

A kind of crisp dry bread more or less hard, prepared generally in thin flat cakes. The essential ingredients are flour and water, or milk, without leaven; but confectionery and fancy biscuits are very variously composed and flavoured. Even the characteristic of hardness implied in the name is lost in the sense ‘A kind of small, baked cake, usually fermented, made of flour, milk, etc.’ used, according to Webster, in U.S.

Next, I did a keyword search for biscuit in Early English Books Online. This search too pulls up variant spellings. I got just under 400 hits in books about 300 books. Scanning through these hits, it was apparent that the vast majority of authors who mentioned or discussed biscuits were referring to a crisp, dry, hard flat bread – the first definition in the OED.

The word showed up over and over in texts that discussed provisions for long voyages, especially at sea. In 1697, seamen in the Royal Navy were allotted one “Bisket” per day, along with a gallon of beer. Beef, pork, pease, oatmeal, butter and cheese were allotted two to four times a week. In his account of traveling through Armenia, the French Jesuit Philippe Avril recounted that he took “Biscuit, Dates, and some other dry’d Fruits, together with a little Coffee, for a Journey of above two hundred and fifty Leagues.” The natural philosopher Robert Boyle, in his investigations of the properties of air, questioned how biscuits could stay good for long periods of time. He recounted being told by “the inquisitive and learned Mr. Borreel,” that he had “eaten Bisket that was yet good, after it had been carryed from Amsterdam to the East Indies, and brought back thence again (in which Voyage, between two and three Years are wont to be spent).” The biscuit was preserved by being stored in air-tight containers that were only opened “in case of absolute necessity, and then presently and carefully closed again.” It’s clear that early modern biscuits were usually not sweet. They were hard, like crackers and could be stored for long periods of time. They don’t sound very appetizing.

But amidst all these references to sea biscuits, I found some biscuits referred to as “fine” or “fancy.” For example, one book had directions “To make the vsuall bisket solde at Comfitmakers.” A comfit is “A sweetmeat made of some fruit, root, etc., preserved with sugar” (OED).

TAke a pecke of flower and foure ounces of corriander seede, one ounce of anniseed, take three egges, three spoonefulls of ale yeast, and as much warme water as will make it as thicke as past for Manchets, make it in a long roule, and bake it in an Ouen one houre, and when it is a day olde pare it, and slice it, suger it with searsed suger, and put it againe into the Ouen, and when it is drie, take it out, and new suger it againe, and so box it and keepe it.

Kenelm Digby has a similar recipe:

To half a peck of flower, take three spoonfals of barm, two ounces of seeds; Aniseeds or Fennel-seeds. Make the paste very stiff, with no|thing but water, and dry it (they must not have so much heat, as to make them rise, but only dry by degrees; as in an oven after Manchet is taken out, or a gentle stove) in flat Cakes very well in an oven or stove.

(Manchet is fine wheat bread.)

And in Thomas Dawson’s The Good Huswifes Iewell, there is a recipe for a “Bisket bread” that is sweet:

FIrst take halfe a Pecke of fine white flower, also eight newe laid Egges, the Whites and Yolkes beaten together, then put the said Egges into the Flower, then take eight Graines of fine Muske, and stampe it in a Morter, then put halfe a pint of good Damaskewater, or else Rosewater into the Muske, and mingle it together, and put it into wine, or Muscaden, but Muscaden is better, and put it into the flowre, also one ounce of good Annisseedes cleane picked, & put therein, and so to worke them altogether into a Paste, as yee doe bread, and then make your biskettes into what fashion you thinke best, and then put them into an Ouen and bake them harde if you will kéepe them long, or else but indif|ferent, if you will haue it candite, take rose water and Suger, and boyle them toge|ther till they be thicke, and so slices of bread, then set hot in the Ouen vntill the same be candit

These seemed closer to my lemon biscuit recipe, but they all had flour and various seeds, like aniseeds and corriander. Finally I found a reference in Randle Holme”s The academy of armory to “Bikets, Mackroons, naple Bisket, Italian Bisket.” These “Italian biscuits” or macaroons sounded more like my lemon biscuit recipe. And indeed the combination of sugar, egg white and flavoring, does sound like what I think of as a macaroon or a meringue.

So then I started looking for other contemporary macaroon recipes, and I found a recreation of a 17th-century recipe “To make maccarons of valentia Almonds” on the wonderful Cooking the Archives blog. After reading Marissa Nicosia’s discussion of the recipe and the modifications she made to make it in a modern kitchen, I came up with the following version of “lemon biscuits”:

Ingredients

  • zest of 1 1/2 lemons
  • 1/2 pound extra fine sugar
  • 2 egg whites

Steps

  • Preheat oven to 350 F
  • Line cookie sheets with buttered parchment paper
  • Mix lemon zest and sugar
  • Lightly beat egg whites, then add them to the sugar and lemon zest.
  • Stir until mixture forms a paste
  • Drop by spoonful onto the prepared cookie sheets
  • Bake about 20 minutes
My assistant grating lemons into sugar.

Results

I ended up with cookies that were shiny on the top – they looked like they had been iced – and crispy and crumbly underneath. They were intensely lemony, and tasted a lot like meringue. In sum, a real success! I served them to a dinner guest with strawberries, and she pronounced them delicious.

As you can see from my pictures of the tray going into the oven and then coming out, the lumps spread a bit in the oven. I initially used three egg whites, and I think that was too much. I’d back down to two in the future to ensure that the paste was thicker. I baked these at 350 F, but it would be interesting to see what would happen if I followed modern meringue cooking times and baked them in a 250 F oven for an hour.

Concluding thoughts

While we may be inclined to think of “British cooking” as a distinctive thing, even this very simple recipe reveals how cosmopolitan the food on a British table was in the 17th century, and how connected to a global exchange of products. Lemons and sugar were not produced in the British Isles. Lemons were imported from southern Europe – Spain or the Italian peninsula. Sugar came from British slave plantations in the West Indies, principally Jamaica. And it appears that the shift in meaning of the word biscuit, from a hard bread used to provision long sea voyages to a sweet treat to be enjoyed with tea (another imported product) reflects Italian influence.

References

  1. The Glory of the British Seas: Being a LIST of the Royal Navy (1697)
  2. Philippe Avril, Travels into divers parts of Europe and Asia, undertaken by the French King’s order to discover a new way by land into China containing many curious remarks in natural philosophy, geography, hydrology and history : together with a description of Great Tartary and of the different people who inhabit there / by Father Avril of the Order of the Jesuits ; done out of French ; to which is added, A supplement extracted from Hakluyt and Purchas giving an account of several journeys over land from Russia, Persia, and the Moguls country to China, together with the roads and distances of the places (1693)
  3. Robert Boyle, Some considerations touching the vsefulnesse of experimental naturall philosophy propos’d in familiar discourses to a friend, by way of invitation to the study of it (1663)
  4. Thomas Dawson, The good huswifes iewell VVherein is to be found most excellent and rare deuises for conceits in cookerie, found out by the practise of Thomas Dawson. Whereunto is adioyned sundry approued reseits for many soueraine oyles, and the way to distill many precious waters, with diuers approued medicines for many diseases. Also certaine approued points of husbandry, very necessarie for all husbandmen to know (Imprinted at London: By Iohn Wolfe for Edward White, dwelling at the litle North doore of Paules at the signe of the Gunne, 1587)
  5. Kenelm Digby, The closet of the eminently learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. opened whereby is discovered several ways for making of metheglin, sider, cherry-wine, &c. : together with excellent directions for cookery, as also for preserving, conserving, candying, &c. / published by his son’s consent (1669)
  6. Randle Holme, The academy of armory, or, A storehouse of armory and blazon containing the several variety of created beings, and how born in coats of arms, both foreign and domestick : with the instruments used in all trades and sciences, together with their their terms of art : also the etymologies, definitions, and historical observations on the same, explicated and explained according to our modern language : very usefel [sic] for all gentlemen, scholars, divines, and all such as desire any knowledge in arts and sciences / by Randle Holme (Chester: Printed for the author, 1688)

Cooking in the Classroom; or, how to make a Hedge Hogg

This semester I tried a new type of assignment in my HSCI 3013 class. I had students transcribe and analyze recipes from an early modern English manuscript recipe book held by and digitized by the Wellcome Library in London.  You can find the catalog record, and link to the digital version of MS 8097 here.  According to the Wellcome catalog record, the manuscript is from the 17th and early 18th century.  It contains multiple hands, but none of the authors are known.  One section of the book contains recipes for food, and the other contains recipes for medicines.

One purpose of this assignment was to give students experience working with primary source documents. I modeled the assignment after Lisa Smith’s “An Experiment in Teaching Recipe Transcription” and Amy Tigner’s “Teaching Recipes”.  I drew considerable inspiration and numerous ideas from Colleen Kennedy’s “Baking a Pumpion Pye (c. 1670)” and Marissa Nicosia’s Lobsters in the Archives and the amazing blog Cooking in the Archives.  I will write more about how this assignment fit into a course on the history of science in a subsequent post.

My choice of this particular manuscript was serendipitous. A group of students in my HSCI 3013 class last fall found it while researching early modern diseases and remedies. (Their work on a remedy for jaundice is described in A Bill of Mortality (and a peck of snails) ) After they drew my attention to it, I started paging through the book, and I was utterly charmed. The culinary recipes are a delightful mix of the familiar (rice pudding and coffee cake) and the very unfamiliar (calfs head pie and roasted pigeons). The medical recipes evoke the pain and suffering of everyday life, both in the past and in the present: sore breasts from nursing, smallpox, coughs, back pain, burns, plague and miscarriages. The writers frequently name the people who gave them the recipes, suggesting a larger community and a network of people exchanging recipes and information. The recipe for preserving walnuts includes the detail that “Sir Harbottle Grimstone found great good by these, but he used to eat them dry [before] going to bed.” (MS8097a pg. 86). Although the authors of this book are unknown, every so often they use “I” or “my” or “me” in a recipe and one catches a fleeting glimpse of their lives. In a remedy “for a cold,” the author comments that this medicine is good for children’s coughs and adds, “mine found good by it” (MS8097a pg. 113). It was this last aspect of the book, these tantalizing glimpses of the lived experience of women and men and children in the past, that inspired me to incorporate this manuscript into my class.

One of my goals as a teacher of history is to bring the past alive, to get students to see people in the past as living, breathing, three-dimensional individuals. Once an elementary school teacher told me that one of her students asked if there was color in the past. She didn’t at first understand the question, but then she realized he was confused because historical photographs are all black and white or sepia-toned. He wondered if that was what the past actually looked like. I’ve always thought that this charmingly naïve question was actually pretty astute. Many students of history see the past in sepia tones, whether they realize it or not. It is especially easy for students in history of science classes to see the people we are studying (Galileo, Newton, Cavendish) as disembodied minds, not as people who had to fill their bellies, deal with aches and pains and attend to sick children. Further, most of the people we study in the history of science are named individuals (mostly men) who published their work, or who left written records that were carefully preserved by their families or students or friends or colleagues. I want my students to see that a much broader range of people, women as well as men, contributed to exploration of the natural world in the early modern period.

I intend to write at least two more posts on this manuscript and what my students were able to do with it. They have just turned in their assignments, and I am just beginning to sort through them. The day the project was due, my teaching assistant (Calandra McCool) and I recreated five recipes from the manuscript for students to taste. We chose the hedgehog (see below), rice pudding, taffity tart, coffee cake and fried cucumbers. We will write more about these recipes in a subsequent post. For now, I’d like to share my favorite, the hedgehog. Don’t worry, it’s not an ACTUAL hedgehog, but a dessert made to look like a hedgehog!

The hedgehog, p. 33.

HedgeHogRecipe

To make a Hedge Hogg.

Take a pint of sweet Cream very thick, beat 2 whole eggs and strain them, put to it 2 spoonfulls of Sowre Cream, for want of that take butter milk, seting it together on the fire stiring it all one way untill it comes to curds and whey, then tye it into a strainer and let it hang up that the whey may run from it, when it has done droping take the curd and mix with it a quarter of a pound of blanched and beaten Almonds with roswater, sweeten it to your tast, make it in to the from [i.e. form] of a Hedge Hogg with a spoon in your dish, putting 2 curance for the 2 eyes keep out 10 Almonds to cut into long pieces and stick them on thick for bristles on the top, when you bring it to the table, have a pint of cream ready boyled and seasoned with sugar and rosewater and quite cold, put it to the hedghog so sende it up. this looks pritty and eats very well.

Here’s the recipe in somewhat modernized form, although none of the ingredients have been altered. I’ve added in a few measurements to reflect how much sugar and rosewater I used, but no one should feel bound by that.

For hedgehog:

1 pint heavy whipping cream

2 eggs

2 tablespoons sour cream or buttermilk

¼ pound blanched almonds, finely ground

1 tablespoon rose water

¼ cup sugar

3 raisins or currants

Slivered almonds

For sauce:

1 pint heavy whipping cream

1 tablespoon rosewater

Sugar to taste

Directions:

  1. Combine heavy whipping cream and sour cream (or buttermilk) in a saucepan.
  2. Beat two eggs together and add them to the cream mixture through a strainer.
  3. Heat the cream and egg mixture over medium heat, stirring constantly. Do not allow the mixture to boil over.
  4. After about 20 minutes, the mixture will start to thicken and form curds. Continue stirring until it is about the texture of cottage cheese (the curds are not quite this big, and there will be a bit more liquid).
  5. But the mixture into a cheesecloth bag. I placed a wide strip of cheesecloth over a plate (with the edges hanging over the plate), dumped the mixture onto the cheesecloth on the plate, and then wrapped the edges of the cheesecloth around the entire mixture, gently squeezing out excess liquid.10399442_928325990534295_2492489343551749772_n
  6. Hang the bag over a bowl and allow it to drip for a while. I let it drip for over an hour the first time I tried this. That’s longer than it needed to get all the liquid out, but you also want it to cool down enough that you can handle it.
  7. When the bag of curds has stopped dripping and is cool enough to handle, add the ground almonds, sugar and rosewater. I ground the almonds in “ye Olde Cuisinart.” If that’s not authentic enough for you, I suppose you could use a mortar and pestle, or just chop them super fine with a knife. I used ¼ cup sugar and a tablespoon of rosewater, but you could use more or less. (It tastes fine without the rosewater, if you can’t find this.)
  8. Shape the resulting mixture into a hedgehog. (Note: the first time I tried this recipe, the mixture was a bit too mushy to mold properly so I stuck it in the refrigerator for about an hour to stiffen it up. Then it worked fine. The second time I guess I’d gotten the hang of it, because I was able to shape it immediately after mixing it.) A hedgehog is basically a dome, with a pointy head stuck on it. Add raisins or currants for eyes and nose and stick slivered almonds all over the dome to make the bristles. Refrigerate until you are ready to serve. Keeps fine overnight.
  9. Full disclosure – this little beasty is so rich I did not actually feel the need to douse him in sweetened cream, so I did not make the sauce. But if you want to go whole hog (or whole hedgehog), heat a pint of heavy cream over medium heat, add sugar to taste and stir until dissolved. Take off heat, add rosewater and chill.

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I was INCREDIBLY pleased with how this came out. While I am a pretty competent cook and baker, I am NOT skilled at things like cake decoration. I DO NOT attempt anything I see on Pinterest. But this actually looks like a hedgehog! And I thought it tasted delicious. It’s a bit like mascarpone with ground almonds, although the flavor is definitely creamy, not at all cheesy. My students seemed to like it as well. Several took pictures of it before we cut it up, and there was none left over.

11096416_928325980534296_5544407784547787657_nMy three-year-old son Niels was so disappointed that I was taking the hedgehog to my class that I had to promise to make him another one. For Niels’s hedgehog, I halved the recipe and used chocolate chips for the eyes and nose because he doesn’t like raisins.

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