Saturday, December 22, 2007

Why Plum Pudding Isn't Medieval

For the past few years I've been making a traditional plum pudding at Christmastime. The recipe I use is a sort of average of the one from the Better Homes cookbook, and several that I found online. This year, as I was mixing it up and putting it into the pudding mold, I was musing over how medieval the recipe seemed.

Plum Pudding
(Not Medieval)

First, it's a holiday recipe that contains lots of dried fruits and spices. This is typical of a lot of medieval dishes, where imported fruits and spices served both to excite the palate and to blatantly advertise how wealthy the host was. Also, the general form of the dish - a boiled pudding - is in itself very typical of the middle ages. A prime example is Wastels Yfarced, a recipe where a bread crust is hollowed out, the crumb is mixed with eggs, currants, and spices, is put back into the crust, and then the whole thing is boiled. Add to this dishes like haggis, and some "sausages" where often little or no meat is used, and the filling is stuffed into an animal stomach or intestines and boiled.

So plum pudding is probably medieval too, right? Sadly, no. Oddly, I've found very few medieval recipes for boiled puddings that are desserts - almost all of them are savory dishes. The really big clue though is the inclusion of baking powder or baking soda. This makes the pudding turn out something more like modern cake, and neither baking powder or baking soda were used in cooking until after the sixteenth century. My guess is that somewhere in England in the late seventeenth century, a cook decided to experiment and crossed a medieval-style pudding with a new cake recipe. That, or they put the baking soda in by accident (it happens). Either way, whoever that cook was, I am forever in their debt.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Rumballs and Gyngerbrede

While looking through Christmas cookie recipes last year, I came across a couple for rumballs. I probably would have skipped right over them, but I thought I remembered that my grandmother used to make them once upon a time, so I took a closer look. Immediately I was struck by how similar the recipe was to many of the medieval Gyngerbrede recipes. I've made gyngerbrede before, so how hard could this be? Things got busy though, as they frequently do during the holiday season, and I just didn't get around to trying it out.

The though did stick in my mind though, and either I'm way ahead this year or I'm way behind and haven't figured it out yet, because I managed to have time to make a batch this evening. The results? Well ...

Let me start with a small rant. One of the worst things a person can do - something that in my book guarantees them a place in the 5th circle of culinary hell - is to intentionally give out a bad recipe. I'm not talking about vague recipes, where they say "keep adding flour until it's thick." I'm not talking about typos or stupid oversights. I'm talking about when they tell you the wrong amount of flour, or leave the cinnamon out, or any number of tricks, just so they can be sure no one will be able to make the dish as good as they can. It's a form of lying and it's just plain evil. If you don't want to share a recipe, that's fine, but have the guts to say so. Don't pretend you're sharing. Ok, I'm done now.

I'm not sure that the recipes I'd found are examples of this, but there are aspects of each that make me suspect something. From my experience with the gyngerbrede, all of them looked like there was too much liquid and not enough solids - they'd end up really gooey.

So I made a chocolate cake (from mix), crumbled it up, added less rum than the recipes called for (1/2 cup), added less sticky liquid (chocolate & karo syrups) than they called for (3/4 cup), added the same amount of ground pecans, and mixed it up.

They ended up really gooey.

So to try and salvage the goo ('cause it tasted good), I took a trick from the gyngerbrede recipe and started adding bread crumbs until it was too thick to stir. Fifteen slices of bread later and it was workable. I rolled a bazillion bite-sized balls and rolled each one in ground pecans. The wife and kids thought they were ok. I think they could be a lot better. So here's what I'm going to do next time:

  1. Make two (2) cakes, and let them sit out overnight. I don't want them to be too stale (that'll make the final product too grainy), but I really should have let the cake dry out more. I figure with double the cake I may not need any bread.

  2. Add rum flavoring. I could just barely taste the rum, and using more would probably make it gooier (gooeier? gooeyer? is that even a word?).

All that being said, I've still eaten too many of the blasted things and am about 15 minutes away from a food coma, so they can't be that bad.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

It's really not that hard ...

I'm more than a little conflicted when it comes to "Medieval Times" - no, not the period of history but the chain of theme restaurants.  On the one hand, it generates interest in medieval European history.  However they present a version of the middle-ages that is notably less accurate.

One of the areas where they stumble rather badly is the food (no surprise that I latch onto this aspect, eh?).  On their website they have this to say about their dinner. 

With clockwork precision, legions of serving wenches and serfs deliver four courses to hungry guests in minutes. The meal begins with savory garlic bread and a steaming hot vegetable soup ladled into pewter bowls: then come roasted chicken, spare rib, a seasoned potato and pastry of the Castle. Two rounds of beverages are included with the feast. Cash bar service is also available throughout the show. To the special delight of the guests, the feast is served "medieval style" - without silverware, but with plenty of extra napkins.

Let's go over this point by point:

  1. Describing this as a four course meal is really silly when a typical course in a medieval feast contained four to six dishes - and that didn't include bread.  

  2. The vegetable soup might be ok, depending on what exactly is in it.

  3. Seasoned potato?  Potatoes are new-world ... hello!

  4. What the heck is a pastry of the castle?  Ah, another site lists it as an apple pastry. Apples are good, pastry is good, the name is dumb.

  5. Medieval style means no silverware?
    "There were no utensils in medieval times, thus, there are no utensils at Medieval Times. Would you like a refill on that Pepsi?"

So how could they fix this to make it more authentic, while still appealing to the masses?  It wouldn't take much in terms of time or money.

The first step is to go through their menu and recipes and get rid of all the new-world ingredients.  Tomatoes, potatoes, green beans, chocolate, vanilla, tea and coffee are the ones that most often sneak into a pseudo-medieval menu.

I suspect that this would effect the soup.  If so, then find a new recipe that is actually medieval.  There are hundreds of medieval soup recipes out there, many are quite good, and almost all of them are cheap to make.  Pick one or two.

Replace the potato with the old-world equivalent - the turnip.  They're just as easy to cook, and there are medieval turnip recipes that just about anyone would like.

Beverages are pretty easy too.  Serve the kids grape juice, and give the adults the added option of beer, wine or mead.

Finally, for Pete's sake give them spoons and knives!  The medieval serving manuals clearly state that all diners should be furnished with spoons and knives.  We're talking the middle-ages here, not the stone-ages.

Do I actually expect Medieval Times to do this?  No, not really.  I can dream though. It's not like I want them to do a proper four or five course feast with around 30 different dishes, complete with different menus for meat and meatless days. I just want them to get a few very basic things right. Kind of like how people expect a documentary about Pearl Harbor to be set in Hawaii instead of Des Moines, Iowa.

Monday, December 3, 2007

So why do I do this again?

I came across a phrase on another website about medieval cooking.  It basically stated that the recipes were adapted for modern cooks.  For some reason the word "adapted" bothered me, which meant that it kept bouncing around in the back of my mind, using up precious processor cycles and forcing its way into my attention.  I will therefore analyze my reaction and the thoughts around it so I can stop thinking about them.

Adapted ... That means the recipes were changed to suit modern tastes, equipment, supplies, etc.

From an academic viewpoint, this is a bad thing.  It hides the information and experience of what was really done and pastes over it a veneer of what is done now.

But I do an awful lot of adapting on my website.  All of my recipes have changes of one sort or another - at the very least, I cook them in a modern kitchen.  Crap.

This leads me to question my motivations.  Why do I make recipes from medieval sources?  Why do I publish the adapted recipes?  Is my website doing a disservice to academia?  Let's take these one at a time:

Why do I make recipes from medieval sources?
This is a pretty easy question to answer.  I like food in general, and I like foods from many different cuisines.  The cuisine of medieval England and France is as unique as any modern style of cooking.  I like the flavors, and it's easy and very forgiving for the novice cook.  Add to this that I can make a contribution to the cuisine without going to culinary school - I already have all the tools and information I need.

Why do I publish the adapted recipes?
I don't do it for the fame - neither Food Network or CNN have called.  I certainly don't do it for the money - running the website is a cheaper hobby than golf, but it still costs me.  I guess I do it because I love the cuisine and want to advance it.  The more overall interest in medieval cooking, then the more other people there are out there who are also researching it, and therefore the more help I have in the research overall.  I put the recipes in a form that's easy for modern cooks to understand, which hopefully draws in people who are new to the field.

Is my website doing a disservice to academia?
Great googly-moogly, I hope not.  While I do make changes to the original recipes, I always include the primary source so that others can look at what I've done and where I may have gone astray.  I try to go back and correct mistakes I discover as I learn new things.  When people ask questions, I try to find the answers.  When I can't find one, I make my best guess - but I try to remember to always make it clear that my best guess is still just a guess.  So, on the whole, I think that is a good example of the scientific method.  I formulate theories based on the available information, research for new information, test the theories, and correct or discard them as appropriate.

So why do I do this?  For the food, of course.  It's all about the food.