Olives, Tears, and a Pastry From a Volcano

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“Where are we going today?”

The kids took a look at the atlas I had opened and placed on the table.

“Greece!”

“Yep. We’re still talking about early civilizations and how people developed their natural resources. Like the people of Mesopotamia and ancient China, the ancient Greeks took what grew around them and used it to their advantage.”

The kids took some guesses about what ingredient we’d be using in our lesson.

“Wheat?”

“A fruit?”

“The olive.”

An indigenous variety of olive was already growing in Greece before the first people settled there, but the fruit of the wild olive yields little oil. The tree was native to the Levant as well, and people in both places did what people do once they realize the potential of a resource — they domesticated it. 

Evidence suggests that by 4000 B.C.E., people along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean had already started cultivating the tree. Anyone want to take a guess which countries make up that area now?”

“Um…”

“Turkey?”

“Yes! But also, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine. And then the Minoans, who settled on the island of Crete, also realized the value of the olive. Archaeologists have found olive presses and large jars for storing oil there.”

We talked about why olive oil was so prized: for eating and cooking, as fuel, taken as medicine, and used cosmetically. It also played a part in religious rituals.

“Which is why it was a major part of the economy and trade in the Mediterranean, and why the Greeks continued to breed more varieties of olives when they took over after the Minoan decline.”

I explained that olive trees need coastal semi-arid land. We consulted the map.

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“That’s a lot of coast.”

The ancient Greeks’ main trade items were oil and wine, and they spread out and colonized areas where the tree could grow — Italy and Sicily, the Iberian peninsula, and the coast of France. 

“Olives and olive oil are a huge part of Greek culture.”

Most of them remembered the myth of Athena and Poseidon, and some of them were very enthusiastic about telling it to those who didn’t.

I continued on with my list: “Olive oil still plays a part in the religious lives of the Greeks. The olive branch signifies peace and love. And yes, they consume a lot of olive oil.”

While the Greeks aren’t the largest producer of olive oil, they consume the most per capita.

“5 gallons?!”

We imagined people with very sleek hair.

“Most people think of olive oil as a savory ingredient, but Greeks use it in everything, even pastry.”

Melitinia are traditionally made the week of Easter — to be eaten once Lent is over — and come from the island of Santorini. 

The kids found the history of Santorini interesting, and we talked for a few minutes about how a caldera is formed.

They again took a look at the map, noticing that the archipelago that Santorini is part of forms a circle.

“Ohhh, I see it!”

“But the map says Thira.”

“You guys might remember from our history reading that the Minoans on Crete were impacted by a huge volcanic eruption, one that may have contributed to that civilization’s decline — that was Thira.”

On to the baking portion of the lesson.

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We had an extra little helper who wanted in on the action.

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“The melitinia is filled with sweetened cheese flavored with mastic.”

“What’s mastic?”

Mastiha (mastic) is the resinous sap that is exuded from the Pistacia lentiscus chia tree when it is wounded. Chian mastic growers make small cuts in the tree and collect the globules of sap, called tears. These “Tears of Chios” are used in food and drink, in the medical/pharmaceutical and chemical industry, and in cosmetics and perfume. They are a Protected Designation of Origin product.

The kids chewed away as we discussed the meaning of masticate.

“It tastes like forest.”

“I think I’ve got one stuck in my braces.”

Uh oh.

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Dental crisis averted, we returned to mixing the filling.

The kids took turns pulverizing the mastic tears with a bit of sugar.

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Then we began filling and pleating the pastry.

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The kids did a great job with their nimble little fingers, and the melitinia baked up into lovely little golden suns.

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While our pleating may not have been quite up to yia yia standards, the kids were proud of their Greek pastries, and even happier to eat them.

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Melitinia (adapted from several recipes)

Makes about 24

The pastry is traditionally made with olive oil, but can also be made with butter. The filling is supposed to be a Greek, usually homemade, unsalted goat cheese, or a soft, moist mizithra, neither of which are easy to find here. After consulting several recipes, I settled on a combination of homemade ricotta and a good Greek feta.

All the recipes I read included mastic, but if you don’t have mastic, the vanilla alone should do.

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 cup olive oil or melted butter (unsalted)

1/4 cup water

Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl. Add the oil while using your fingers to rub the mixture until crumbly. Add the water and mix until the dough can be gathered into a ball. Press the dough into a round and wrap it tightly in plastic wrap so that it doesn’t dry out. Set aside to rest for an hour or refrigerate overnight. Bring the dough back to room temperature before rolling out.

1/2 cup of the freshest ricotta you can find, (see above), or a good, soft goat cheese

2 ounces good quality feta cheese, crumbled

1 large egg, room temperature

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

a rounded 1/4 teaspoon powdered mastic (we ground the tears in a mortar with a bit of sugar)

3 Tablespoons of unbleached all-purpose flour

When you are ready to form the melitinia, prepare the filling: combine the cheeses, egg, sugar, baking powder, vanilla, and mastic in a bowl. Whisk together until well blended. Beat in the flour until combined.

Heat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Divide the dough in half. On a floured surface, roll one potion as thin as possible. Use a round cutter to cut out as many rounds as you can. (I used a 3 1/4″ cutter and was able to get about 10, then another two out of the re-rolled scraps). Repeat with the remaining portion of dough.

Working with one dough round at a time, spoon 1 T of filling onto the center. You can dampen the perimeter of the dough round with a bit of water to help with the pleating of the dough. Use your fingers, (we used our fingers and a toothpick), to pinch and flute the dough around the filling. Here’s a video demo. Ours were not that tight or neat, but you get the idea.

Place the melitinia on a parchment covered baking sheet and a bake until golden and crisp, about 30 – 35 minutes. Let cool for few minutes before sprinkling with powdered sugar.

 

 

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Chocolate Cake for a Devil, Hold the Sauerkraut

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“We started this ‘history through cake series’ at the end of the 18th century.”

They all laughed at me. Then I realized what I’d said.

“No, not literally. The first cake recipe we made in the series was written at the end of the 18th century!”

Darn sticklers.

“We started out with an English-style cake, leavened with yeast, then we baked a couple of cakes that were leavened manually, by beating air into the butter. If we look at the progression of the recipes, it seems like we are moving away from heavy traditional cakes. What are some things that brought about these changes in cake baking?”

We talked about the railroad — new ideas about food spread with travelers, and both ingredients and baking equipment could be shipped across the country.

“You could order a cake pan from the Sears and Roebuck catalog…”

“And three weeks later you could bake a cake!”

Exactly.

What else happened?

Baking powder became commercially available; Worlds Fairs in Philadelphia and Chicago exposed people to new foods, (bananas!), and showcased more modern cookstoves; chocolate manufacturing was a growing industry; and new equipment continued to be introduced.

“So, it was getting much much easier for people to bake. They no longer had to grate their sugar, churn their butter, or make their own chemical leavening agents. Cakes were getting lighter. And because people were spending less time on preparation, cakes were getting fancier.”

We had already made a chocolate cake recipe from 1847.

“But that cake contained just grated chocolate. It took decades for someone to fully incorporate melted chocolate into a cake — the first recipe of that kind was published in 1886. It seems odd considering that chocolate was thought to be somewhat of an energy boosting health food.”

The kids got a kick out of that.

Yet once chocolate became the main ingredient in a cake, the idea took off.

“Bakers mixed in all kinds of spices and odd ingredients like mashed potatoes. Or sauerkraut.”

“Sauerkraut?!”

“It’s a thing! But the most popular all-chocolate cake was devil’s food.”

Perhaps the name devil’s food came about as a reaction to the popularity of angel food cake — it was as dark and rich as angel food was light and airy, or it may have been named after the reddish hue of the baked cake — a result of baking soda, an alkali, reacting with the acidity of the cocoa.

The kids were over talking about it.

We got to baking.

Ingredients were measured.

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They were excited by the idea of using coffee in the batter.

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Dry ingredients were sifted together.

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Creaming the butter and sugar together creates pockets of air that increase in size when baking soda reacts with cocoa powder.

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They took turns adding the eggs.

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Our experienced bowl scraper made sure that there were no bits of unmixed batter stuck to the bottom of the bowl.

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Dry ingredients were added alternately with the liquid.

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Finally, we finished off mixing the batter by hand.

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We divided the batter into the prepared pans and loaded the cakes into the oven.

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“Do you guys want to help me make ganache for frosting the cake?”

“No, we’ve done that before.”

Alrighty then.

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Chocolate cake fresh from the oven is just about one of the best smells ever.

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I explained what one should look for when a cake is fully baked:

“You should be able to press the top lightly, right in the center, and it should spring back. The sides will just begin to pull away from the pan. If you are unsure, you can always test it with a toothpick — at most, there should be moist crumbs clinging to the tester, but the toothpick shouldn’t emerge with batter on it.”

I also showed them how to run a thin spatula around the side of the cake, against the pan, so the the top edge doesn’t stick to the pan as the cake cools.

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Once the cakes were sufficiently cooled  no longer scorching hot, I demonstrated how to remove the very top of each layer with a serrated knife.

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These were promptly eaten.

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We place one cake layer right side up and poured ganache on top of it.

We flipped the second cake layer cut side down and sandwiched it together with the first layer and ganache.

Now we had a nice flat surface to work with.

Ideally the cake would have been completely cool and the ganache would have been room temperature, but that doesn’t always happen.

There were no complaints.

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Especially when the slightly warm and melty chocolate cake was paired with ice cold milk.

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“Should we have made it with sauerkraut?”

“Noooooo!”

It was perfect just as it was.

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Devil’s Food Cake, from David Lebovitz

9 tablespoons unsweetened natural cocoa powder
1 1/2 cups cake flour, not self-rising
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup strong coffee
1/2 cup whole milk

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour two 9″ x 2″ cake pans and line the bottoms with circles of parchment paper.

Sift together the cocoa powder, cake flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder in a bowl.

In the bowl of a standing electric mixer, or by hand, beat together the butter and sugar about 5 minutes until smooth and creamy. Add the eggs one at a time until fully incorporated. (If using a standing electric mixer, stop the mixer as necessary to scrape down the sides to be sure everything is getting mixed in.)

Mix together the coffee and milk. Stir half of the dry ingredients into the butter mixture, the add the coffee and milk. Finally stir in the other half of the dry ingredients.

Divide the batter into the two prepared cake pans and bake for 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Let cakes cool in the pans for about ten minutes before turning them out onto a rack and removing the parchment. Flip right side up.

Cool completely before frosting.

Chocolate Ganache

I used 70% bittersweet chocolate for this recipe. If you choose to use chocolate with a lower percentage of chocolate liquor (cocoa bean solids), you can use slightly more chocolate and less cream. For example, if there is no percentage marked on a standard bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, or anything marked 50 – 60% use 1 cup of cream for 8 oz of chocolate. For 61 – 66%, use 1 1/4 cups for 8 oz of chocolate.

7 oz bittersweet chocolate, (70%), chopped into small pieces

1 cup heavy cream

Place the chopped chocolate in a medium bowl. Bring the cream to a simmer and pour it over the chopped chocolate. Let stand for 5 minutes, then stir until the chocolate is smooth. Let the ganache cool at room temperature, without stirring, until it looks thick enough to spread. If it firms up too much before you can use it, set the bowl in a pan of barely simmering water until the ganache is partially melted, then stir gently to the desired consistency.

To assemble the cake:

Again, it is much much easier to cut and work with a cold cake. Pop them in the freezer if you have time. Otherwise forge ahead, a little crumbs won’t hurt you.

Slice the very top off of each layer.

Place the first layer, cut side up, on a plate. Spread room temperature ganache on top of the layer.

Place the second layer, cut side down, on top of the ganache.

Spread more ganache on the top and sides of the cake as decoratively as you like.

Cake is best served the day it is baked, but can be kept for another day, covered, at room temperature.
For more in this historical cake series:

Cake As a Lens

I Vote For Cake

The Redemption of a Sad Paste

Chocolate and Elbow Grease

Best Laid Plans

Fit For Angels

A Cup is a Cup is a Cup

 

 

Chocolate and Elbow Grease

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Scrape down three ounces of the best and purest chocolate, or prepared cocoa. Cut up, into a deep pan, three-quarters of a pound of fresh butter; add to it a pound of powdered loaf-sugar; and stir the butter and sugar together till very light and white. Have ready fourteen ounces (two ounces less than a pound) of sifted flour; a powdered nutmeg; and a tea-spoonful of powdered cinnamon–mixed together. Beat the whites of ten eggs till they stand alone; then the yolks till they are very thick and smooth. Then mix the yolks and whites gradually together, beating very hard when they are all mixed. Add the eggs, by degrees, to the beaten butter and sugar, in turn with the flour and the scraped chocolate,–a little at a time of each; also the spice. Stir the whole very hard. Put the mixture into a buttered tin pan with straight sides, and bake it at least four hours. If nothing is to be baked afterwards, let it remain in till the oven becomes cool. When cold, ice it.

— Eliza Leslie, The Lady’s Receipt-Book, 1847

“This is the first chocolate cake recipe ever published in America.”

I don’t know if the kids were more intrigued by the novelty of the recipe or by the main ingredient, but I did notice that at least one of them recognized Miss Leslie’s name from our last baking project.

They also knew, from a previous session, that by 1847, chocolate had been around for a very long time.

“I wonder why it took them so long to work it into a cake?”

It turns out that the method of chocolate consumption hadn’t changed much from the 16th century, when the Spaniards brought it from Mesoamerica to Spain and, by extension, to the rest of Europe.

Two hundred years later, people still drank their chocolate — hot, with milk and sugar. It was considered healthful and they drank it as often as possible despite it being very labor intensive:

A portion of one of the cakes must be scraped fine, added to a sufficient quantity of water, and simmered for a quarter of an hour; but milling is necessary to make it completely smooth. For this purposes [chocolate pots have] a circular wheel of wood or metal within, fixed to a stem that passes through the lid, and which, being whirled about rapidly by the palms of the hand, bruises and mixes the chocolate with the water. The chocolate must be milled off the fire, then put on again to simmer some time, then milled again until it is quite smooth. From the fineness there should be no sediment, and the whole should be drunk; cream is generally used with it … Sugar may be put in with the scraped chocolate, or added afterward.

— Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy, 1845

We checked out some pictures of these special chocolate pots and mills.

“They had to use the stirring rods in order to keep the chocolate from separating. Cocoa beans are 53% cocoa butter, so that fat will want to rise to the surface unless you keep mixing it. Otherwise, you’d have a bit of an oil slick on top of your hot cocoa.”

The kids remembered trying cocoa nibs and happily dug right in.

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“People could buy ‘prepared cocoa’ which meant cocoa nibs that had been ground into a powder, or they could purchase chocolate in tablets, where the nibs had been ground into a paste and let harden. Even Ben Franklin sold chocolate tablets in his print shop.”

I explained that the process of manufacturing chocolate was even more labor intensive than the lengthy preparation of hot cocoa — many chocolate makers still ground their beans by hand, though some used rudimentary machines or even grist mills.

“Like the Indian corn?”

“Yeah, just like that. Then, factories started popping up. The first was Hannon’s Best Chocolate in Massachusetts in 1765.”

None of the kids had heard of Baker’s Chocolate, so my story of how Hannon’s became Baker’s, which is still in business to this very day (!), was met with blank stares.

Moving on.

“So all this industrialization made chocolate that much more available and affordable.”

A Dutch chocolate maker’s patent of a press that removed the cocoa butter from ground cocoa nibs was the next major development in the chocolate world. Casparus van Houten’s hydraulic press removed the cocoa butter from the ground chocolate mass to create a “cake” that could then be pulverized into what we now call cocoa powder.

Then, van Houten’s son, Coenraad Johannes, developed a process  in which cocoa is treated with alkaline salts to reduce its natural acidity. This “dutch process” results in a product that is much darker than natural cocoa due to the chemical reaction of the salts and the cocoa.

“So when you bake with cocoa you need to pay attention to the recipe and whether it calls for dutched or natural cocoa — that tells you which leavening to use: baking soda for the acidic natural cocoa, or baking powder for alkalized cocoa.”

They examined the two powders, smelling and sampling each.

“Yuck.”

I promised that, once we got our cake mixed and in the oven, I would make sweetened pastes with both kinds of cocoa so they could have a more pleasant tasting experience.

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While Miss Leslie’s original recipe called for either prepared cocoa or “scraped” chocolate, the updated recipe we were using called for grinding unsweetened chocolate in a food processor — because now we have electricity and modern appliances, and for that I am thankful.

“Can we taste the chocolate?”

Sour faces.

I warned them it wasn’t sweetened!

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“So, Miss Leslie would have grated her chocolate by hand. She would have also mixed this cake by hand. Notice there is no chemical leavening in the recipe.”

We discussed how a cake of this kind gets its loftiness, and how much muscle would have gone into mixing it without a machine: first beating the butter and the sugar, then whipping the yolks, and finally, whipping the egg whites. Whew.

“I bet you’d have one arm a lot bigger than the other!”

Ah, but we did have a machine. And we were more than happy to use it.

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The kids took turns gradually adding sugar to the creamed butter and chocolate mixture.

“We are trying to create as many air bubbles in the butter as possible. The edges of those sugar crystals rubbing against the butter will do that.”

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Once all the sugar was added, we continued beating the mixture for several more minutes to aerate it even further.

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Then, they added the eggs.

“That’s a lot of eggs!”

I explained that the original recipe called for even more eggs because, when whipped, they act as additional leavening; since our electric mixer had the ability to incorporate a lot more air into the batter than mixing by hand, we could use fewer eggs.

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And finally, they added the flour.

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We popped the cake into the oven and the kids made short work of the mixing bowl.

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While the cake was baking, I kept my promise to provide the crew with a better taste comparison of the two cocoas by mixing up a bit of each with sugar and hot water.

They were unanimous in their preference for the natural cocoa.

“It tastes more chocolatey!”

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And we were all unanimous in our approval of Miss Leslie’s cake.

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Whatever it was that prompted Eliza Leslie to incorporate chocolate into a pound cake recipe, we approved wholeheartedly.

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Eliza Leslie’s Chocolate Cake, 1847

Adapted slightly from Greg Patent’s recipe in Baking in America

Makes one 10-inch bundt cake, about 12 servings

3 cups sifted cake flour

3/4 tsp sea salt

2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

3 oz unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped

2 cups sugar

1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter at cool room temperature, (about 70 degrees)

1 T vanilla extract

8 large eggs at room temperature

2 T whole milk

Adjust the oven rack to the lower third position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and 10-inch (12 cup) bundt pan and flour it, set aside.

Place the cake flour, salt, and nutmeg in a bowl and whisk to combine.

Process the chocolate with 1/4 cup of the sugar in a food processor until the chocolate is chopped into very small granules and set aside.

Beat the butter in a large bowl with an electric mixer until smooth and creamy. Add the ground chocolate mixture and vanilla and beat for 1 minute on med-high speed. Beat in the remaining 1 3/4 c sugar about 1/4 cup at a time, beating for 20 to 30 seconds after each addition.

When all the sugar has been incorporated, beat for 5 minutes.

Beat in the eggs two at a time, beating for 1 minute after each addition; stop to scrape the bowl and beaters occasionally.

On low speed, gradually add half the flour mixture, beating only until incorporated. Beat in the milk, then the remaining flour. Use a rubber spatula to finish folding the mixture together.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan and gently shake it to level the top.

Bake for 55 to 60 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the thickest part comes out clean. Cool the cake in its pan for 20 minutes.

Gently loosen the edge of the cake from the pan and cover it with a wire rack. Invert the two and carefully lift the pan from the cake. Let cool.

 

For more on this historical cake series:

Cake As a Lens

I Vote For Cake

Redemption of a Sad Paste

Best Laid Plans

Fit For Angels

Chocolate Cake For a Devil, Hold the Sauerkraut

A Cup is a Cup is a Cup

 

The Redemption of a Sad Paste

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“We’re baking an Indian pound cake today. Anybody want to guess where the name comes from?”

I love that all four of the kids raise their hands.

“Because the Indians baked it?”

“Because Americans baked it for the Indians?”

“Is it in honor of the Indians?”

There were several more guesses — all good.

“Remember our last session, when I told you that the cookbooks of that time were British? Well, fast forward a bit and we’ve got recipes that are still traditionally British, but now we’ll start to see those same recipes incorporate ingredients native to North America, like maize.”

I explained that while there are now several varieties of corn, they all descend from one kind of grass, called teosinte, that is indigenous to Central and South America.

The kids were interested to learn that corn is grown exclusively by man, that is, no present form is capable of self-propagation.

“Scientists have determined that humans domesticated teosinte approximately 6,000 – 10,000 years ago in southern Mexico.”

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We compared the physical characteristics of both and discussed how artificial selection gave us the corn we eat now.

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Still, it seemed unbelievable to us that anyone would find that hard-shelled plant worthy of replanting for food.

I shared a story detailing how scientists wondering the same, were able to test a theory that made the early farmers’ choices much more understandable.

“After that, maize made its way up to North America where Native Americans continued to cultivate it.”

They all remembered learning about the Spanish colonization of the Americas, so it was easy for them to understand how corn could travel to Spain via Columbus, and from there to the rest of Europe, Africa, Middle East, India, and China.

“So while corn wasn’t completely new to the European settlers, they had never seen it used the way the American Indians were using it. The new Americans referred to it as Indian Corn.”

The colonists and subsequent immigrants from Europe were used to wheat flour.

“You guys know what bread made with wheat flour is like — lofty and chewy due to the development of gluten and its ability to stretch and capture gases released by whatever leavening agent you’re using.”

Cornmeal, which does not form gluten, stubbornly refused to rise for the unknowing bakers.

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I read a quote from a woman named Rebecca Burlend, who emigrated to Pike County, Illinois, in 1848:

As our money was growing scarce, [my husband] bought a bushel of ground Indian corn, which was only one-third the price of wheaten flour…Its taste is not pleasant to persons unaccustomed to it; but as it is wholesome food, it is much used for making bread. We had now some meal, but no yeast, nor an oven; we were therefore obliged to make sad paste, and bake it in our frying pan on some hot ashes. 

— from The Story of Corn by Betty Fussell

But! It was cheap and plentiful and wholesome, and the ever persevering pioneers “made do.” They “made do” so well in fact, that they came to like the Indian corn.

Pray, let me, an American, inform the gentleman, who seems ignorant of the matter, that Indian corn, take it for all in all, is one of the most agreeable and wholesome grains in the world; that its green leaves roasted are a delicacy beyond expression; that samp, hominy, succotash, and nokehock, made of it, are so many pleasing varieties; and that johny or hoecake, hot from the fire, is better than a Yorkshire muffin.

— Benjamin Franklin, 1766, in response to The London Gazette writer who had argued that Americans could never give up tea because their Indian corn was so indigestible.

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As we began preparing our ingredients for the cake, I gave the kids some background on Eliza Leslie, the author of the cookbook containing the original Indian pound cake recipe that our working recipe was adapted from.

Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats was first printed in 1828, and is the earliest American baking book. Eliza Leslie had wanted to be a fiction writer, but her mother sent her to Mrs. Elizabeth Goodfellow’s Philadelphia cooking school so that she could help with the family boarding house.”

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The kids continued with the recipe — they had made pound cake before.

Reading Miss Leslie’s book reminds one of just how much effort it took to bake a cake. While cast iron ovens had been introduced, they were expensive, so most people were still cooking their food in brick fireplaces.

Very few ingredients were purchased ready-made: butter needed to be churned, sugar was grated from loaves or cones, flour required drying to remove the excess moisture that would make baked goods heavy, leavenings were homemade, even cornstarch was do-it-yourself.

“If the butter and sugar are to be stirred together, always do that before the eggs are beaten…For stirring them, nothing is so convenient as a round hickory stick about a foot and a half long, and somewhat flattened at one end.”

— from Preliminary Remarks in Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry,  Cakes, and Sweetmeats

We skipped the hickory stick and went straight for the electric mixer.

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We divided the batter between two pans and used a knife to make sure that they were equally full.

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Close enough.

We popped them into our non-wood-burning oven.

“Mom got the cornmeal from an island!”

It took me a second to understand what my son was talking about.

“Oh, no honey, I think you mean Rhode Island!”

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I had ordered cornmeal from Gray’s Grist Mill, the oldest continually operating mill in the United States. They mill Narragansett Indian Flint Corn, which is the only true strain of native corn left in New England; only 40 – 60 acres of Rhode Island are planted in white cap corn, while thousands of acres are planted in other types.

While the kids were interested to learn about the workings of the mill and its long history, they were more interested in eating the Indian pound cake.

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I sliced it up while it was still warm, and they devoured it. Then they asked for seconds.

“So, it’s not a sad paste?”

“No!”

It was unanimous. It wasn’t sad, and neither were any of us.

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Eliza Leslie’s Indian Pound Cake, adapted slightly from Richard Sax’s version in Classic Home Desserts

Makes two 9 x 5 inch loaves; each serves 8 to 10

1 1/2 cups sifted cornmeal, fine stoneground is preferable

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp baking powder

2 tsp ground cinnamon

3/4 tsp fresh-grated nutmeg

3/4 tsp fine sea salt

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at cool room temperature

1 cup packed light brown sugar

1/2 cup granulated sugar

grated zest of 1 lemon

8 large eggs at room temperature

1/2 cup whole milk at room temperature

3 T brandy

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour, or butter and line with parchment, two loaf pans. Mix the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, spices and salt together and set aside.

Beat the butter until light. Add the sugars and the lemon zest and continue beating until very light. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well. Add one-third of the dry ingredients and combine on low until just mixed. Add the brandy to the milk and add half of the mixture to the batter. Alternately add the remaining dry ingredients and milk, scraping the bowl and mixing gently after each addition.

When all the ingredients are just combined, divide the batter between the prepared pans. Bake until the cakes are golden and toothpick inserted near the center emerges clean, about 45-50 minutes.

Cool the cakes in the pans on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Unmold and turn right side up; cool. Serve at room temperature.

 

For more on this historical cake series:

Cake As A Lens

I Vote For Cake

Chocolate and Elbow Grease

Best Laid Plans

Fit For Angels

Chocolate Cake For a Devil, Hold the Sauerkraut

A Cup is a Cup is a Cup

Cake As A Lens

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I thought we’d do something a little different in baking class this year — American history examined through cake recipes.

I am a big fan of the Food52 site, and was excited by a genius post in which the author chose a dozen American cakes that “highlight advancements, ingredients, or fads throughout the years.” The post inspired me to create my own recipe list, (though it contains most of the same cakes), that we could use to enhance our study of 18th and 19th century America.  There is a wealth of information in these recipes of years past –ingredients and cooking methods employed by the bakers of the time, the recipe author’s culinary and homemaking tips, and even bits of the cookbook creator’s biography — all of these things would contribute to a fuller picture of everyday life in a continually changing America.

We are excited about the focus of our baking journey this year, and we hope you’ll join us in your own kitchen. If you do, be sure to let us know. And share your photos! The kids would be tickled.

Happy baking!

 

Recipes in this series:

Election Cake, late 18th century

Indian Pound Cake, 1828

Eliza Leslie’s Chocolate Cake, 1847

Malinda Russell’s Cream Cake, 1866

Angel Food Cake, 1880’s

Devil’s Food Cake, late 19th Century

1-2-3-4 Cake, late 19th/early 20th Century

I Vote For Cake

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“Do you think more people would vote if they got free cake?”

We’d been talking about Election Cake. It had been an interesting conversation so far — one that meandered from voting requirements to Presidential eligibility to citizenship, and finally, to the Obama birther kerfuffle. So many questions from the kids. Whew. But let me back up…

We were making a cake. Or was it a bread? And what did it have to do with the political process?

I had kicked off our class that day by explaining that all the cookbooks in early America had been wholly British, that is, they contained recipes that employed traditional British cooking techniques using ingredients common to Britain. It wasn’t until 1796 that the first truly American cookbook was printed. Published in Hartford, Connecticut, by Amelia Simmons, American Cookery, or the art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables, and the best modes of making pastes, puffs, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves, and all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plum to plain cake: Adapted to this country, and all grades of life, was the original manual for cooking American dishes using foodstuffs indigenous to the young country. It was hugely popular, and public demand kept it in reprints for 35 years. It was in the second edition of the book that there appeared what some food historians consider the first recipe for an Election Cake:

“Thirty quarts of flour, 10 pound butter, 14 pound sugar, 12 pound raisins, 3 doz eggs, one pint wine, one quart brandy, 4 ounces cinnamon, 4 ounces fine coriander seed, 3 ounces ground allspice; wet flour with milk to the consistency of bread over night, adding one quart yeast; the next morning work the butter and sugar together for half an hour, which will render the cake much lighter and whiter; when it has rise light work in every other ingredient except the plumbs, which work in when going into the oven.”

American Cookery, Amelia Simmons, facsimile of the Second Edition, printed in Albany, 1796

I imagine that recipe would have produced enough cake for a whole town! Or perhaps an army?

In fact, the Election Cake is thought to be a variation of a Mustering Cake. Before the Revolutionary War, colonists would gather for military training exercises or “mustering.” The women would bake simple cakes to serve to the crowd of hungry men. After the revolution, mustering was no longer necessary but men still traveled to the town center to vote. Election Day was treated much like a holiday, with an abundance of revelry and celebration, so the Muster Cakes were fancied up a bit and evolved into Election Cakes.

“We need to get going on the sponge.”

“A sponge?!”

I reminded them that we had used the same process for the brioche we had baked in one of our last sessions.

“Oh yeah.”

I also reminded them that in 1796 baking powder would not yet have been introduced, (that happened in 1843). The one chemical leaven that was in use and included in American Cookery was pearl ash, an undependable and bitter-tasting product derived from wood ashes that tended to leave ghoulish green streaks in baked goods. Thus the need for a yeasty sponge leaven.

As commercial yeast would not have been available until the 1860s, the yeast mentioned in the original Election Cake recipe would have meant barm, the foam or scum created when brewing ale.

“Ooh so they used pilsner in their cake?!”

Since we weren’t brewing any ale, we would use commercial yeast for this cake.

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When the kids had finished mixing the sponge, we set it aside to ferment. In the meantime, we gathered the rest of the ingredients together, buttered the baking dishes, and chatted some more about cooking in 18th century America.

“So, this cake is a celebration cake, but it seems pretty plain. Any idea why?”

I let them consider that for a moment before pointing out that baking in those times was kind of a pain.

“Just getting the ingredients together was more difficult. You couldn’t just scoop sugar out of a jar. Some books still included instructions on ‘How to boyle and clarify sugar.’ And in the late 1800s, white sugar was expensive, used sparingly, and had to be scraped from loaves or cones with special shears.”

Then, there was the manner of cooking. In colonial American kitchens, baking was done in small brick ovens built alongside the fireplace. By the 1840s to 1850s, brick-oven baking had been supplanted by the cast-iron wood-burning range, but cooking in one was still labor intensive:

Too much care cannot be given to the preparation of the oven, which is oftener too hot than too cool…A good plan is to fill the stove with hard wood…let it burn until there is a good body of heat, and then turn the damper so as to throw the heat to the bottom of the oven…In this way a steady heat to start with is secured…if the hand can be held in from twenty to thirty-five seconds…it is a “quick” oven, from thirty-five to forty-five seconds is “moderate,” and from forty-five to sixty seconds is “slow”… All systematic housekeepers will hail the day when some enterprising Yankee or Buckeye girl shall invent a stove or range with a thermometer attached to the oven, so that the heat may be regulated accurately…

— The Women of First Congregational Church Marysville, Ohio The Centennial Buckeye Cook Book Minneapolis, 1876

By now, we could see that our sponge had fermented and was well-risen.

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While we added the sponge into a mixture of creamed butter and sugar, we discussed the various sugar products that were available and how they were produced.

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The grating of nutmeg prompted a completely unscientific sniff-test comparing it to mace.

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“It’s important to mix your fruit with flour so it doesn’t all sink to the bottom of your cake.”

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We finished mixing the batter, and set the cakes aside to rise a second time.

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“It looks like banana bread!”

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I was unsure how tasty the cakes would be, but the kids loved them. The recipe says they keep well and are delicious sliced and toasted, but I haven’t tested that because they’ve been gobbled up each time.

If you do make this recipe you might consider making extra — depending on which way you’re leaning this election cycle you could either throw a party on election night or drown your sorrows in cake. Either way, get out and vote.

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Election Cake, adapted only slightly from Classic Home Desserts by Richard Sax

Makes two 8×4-inch loaves; each serves about 8

For the sponge:

1 package active dry yeast

1/2 c packed light brown sugar

1 1/2 c lukewarm milk

3 cups all-purpose flour

For the cake:

3/4 c (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

3/4 c packed light brown sugar

2 large eggs

1/2 c all-purpose flour

1 1/2 t ground cinnamon

3/4 t fresh-grated nutmeg

1/2 t ground mace

3/4 t fine sea salt

1 c golden raisins

3 T brandy

Dissolve the yeast and 2 T of the brown sugar in 1/4 c of the lukewarm milk; let stand until bubbly, about 10 minutes. Stir in the remaining 1/4 c plus 2 T brown sugar and the remaining 1 1/4 c milk; gradually add the flour and knead in a standing mixer with a dough hook for five minutes. (You could also do this by hand with a wooden spoon). Scoop into a buttered bowl, cover, and let rise until doubled in volume, 45-60 minutes.

In a bowl, combine the flour with all of the spices, the salt, and the raisins, tossing them to coat.

In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and brown sugar until light. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Punch down the sponge and add to the butter mixture; beat just until partially combined.

Add the flour mixture to the dough, along with the brandy, and beat until well combined; the dough will be very soft.

Generously butter the loaf pans. Divide the dough evenly between the two pans, cover and let rise in a warm place until fully doubled, about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Bake until the loaves are golden brown, about 45 minutes. A toothpick inserted in the center will come out clean.

Cool the cakes in the pans on a rack for about 15 minutes. When cool enough to handle invert the cakes onto the rack, unmold and turn right side up. Cool to room temperature. Wrapped well, the cakes will keep several days.

 

More in this series:

Cake As A Lens

The Redemption of a Sad Paste

Chocolate and Elbow Grease

Best Laid Plans

Fit For Angels

Chocolate Cake For a Devil, Hold the Sauerkraut

A Cup is a Cup is a Cup

 

The Food of the Gods

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(Another activity I meant to write about back in, oh, May.  I never claimed to be efficient.)

We are Story of the World users.  Sometimes we do the suggested activities, sometimes not.  Sometimes we come up with our own.

In Chapter 32 of Volume 2: The Middle Ages, we covered the Mayan, Aztec, and Incan Empires.  The kids were particularly interested in the importance of cocoa to the people of pre-Columbian Meso-America, which lead, of course, to a discussion on chocolate.

We enjoyed this video, where the boy demonstrates how cocoa pods are harvested, and how to roast and grind the dried cocoa beans to make hot chocolate.  My kids thought this would be fun to do themselves.

I envisioned a chocolate tasting session.  I do it for the kids.

One shopping trip and three bars of Mast Brothers Chocolate later, we gathered around the table to examine a small bowl of cocoa nibs, which are pieces of fermented, dried and roasted cocoa bean.

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The kids checked out the craggy cocoa nibs, rolling them around in their hands.  The deeply aromatic, dark brown bits smelled just like chocolate. They popped the nibs in their mouths.

“Um…oh, that doesn’t taste like chocolate!”

I wish I could have gotten a picture of their collective faces.  If you’ve ever eaten unsweetened chocolate when you were expecting it to be sweet, you’ll understand.

“They’re kinda crunchy.”

“Like nuts.”

They went back for more.

“They taste a little like chocolate…but a little sour.”

Personally, I like the taste of cocoa nibs.  They are crunchy yet tender, and seem buttery in the way that nuts are, (from the cocoa butter). The chocolate flavor is intense, yet not sweet.  The flavor just takes some getting used to.

Apparently they had gotten used to the flavor, as they kept slipping nibs into their mouths throughout the rest of the session.

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We talked a bit about the cocoa tree, (genus Theobroma, which is Greek for food of the gods), the parts of its pod, and how the Aztec and Mayan people used it to make a cocoa drink, called xocolātl, which means “bitter water”.

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The kids took turns with the mortar and pestle, grinding up the nibs to steep in hot water.

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We strained our cocoa water and added a little honey, remembering that the people did not have access to sugar at that time.   We had read earlier about the different flavorings and spices the Mayans and Aztecs may have added to their cocoa and debated which ones might taste best.

“Vanilla!”

“Chili pepper?”

At least one kid liked the cocoa water.  Everybody else was underwhelmed.

We all knew that the chocolate we drink or eat in today’s world was different from what we had just tried.  We discussed how the Spaniards brought cocoa back to Spain and added sugar; eventually it made its way to the rest of Europe, where the process of making our contemporary chocolate was born.

“Let’s try some chocolate!”  Big whoops all around.

We opened up the different bars and tried a little of each.  I had chosen Mast because they are single-origin chocolate bars, meaning cocoa that has been harvested from one variety from one region, with the sole addition of a small amount of sugar.   I wanted the kids to taste just how different the chocolates could be.

We started with Belize since that was from the area we had been studying. The responses were mostly “yum.”

On to Dominican Republic.

“Oooh that tastes different!”

And Madagascar.

“Fruity!”

Of course we went round again because now they could taste the differences and better compare the three.

Everyone offered up their favorites.  I don’t even think there was a clear winner.

We looked up the different growing regions on a map.  I pointed out that they were all fairly close to the equator.

“The trees must grow better in warmer weather.”

“And with rain.”

“Where else do you think they might grow cocoa trees?”

“Hawaii?”

“What about Canada?”

“Noooo!”

Not quite ready to end our sweet session, we whipped up a batch of hot chocolate.  Rich, slightly milky, barely sweet.

We all enjoyed it very much.  Although one of us kept hold of a mug of cocoa water.  She was sticking with both.