Still worried about that extra Halloween candy you gobbled down? Imagine how many miles you’d have to spend on the treadmill after attending the 1450 banquet, held in England celebrating the enthronement of an archbishop where guests munched on 104 oxen, six ‘wylde bulles,’ 1,000 sheep, 400 swans and such game birds such as bustards (larger than a turkey), cranes, bitterns, curlews and herons?
“Our ancestors had gastronomic guts,” Anne Willan tells me as we chat on the phone, she in Santa Monica, California where there’s sunshine and me in the cold Great Lakes region. I find it fascinating to read old menus and descriptions of banquets and feasts and for that Willan, founder of famed French cooking school École de Cuisine la Varenne, recipient of the IACP Lifetime Achievement Award and author of 30 cookbooks, is the go to person.
Even better, after collecting cookbooks for some 50 years and amassing a collection of over 5000 tomes, last year Willan and her husband, Mark Cherniavsky immersed themselves in their antiquarian cookbook library and came out with The Cookbook Library: Four Centuries of the Cooks, Writers, and Recipes That Made the Modern Cookbook (University of California Press $50).
“Seals were eaten on fast days along with whale, dolphin, porpoise and thousands of other fish,” says Willan. Hmmm…that’s different than the macaroni and cheese and fish sticks I used to eat at the homes of my Catholic friends on Fridays.
Here we peruse four centuries of gastronomy including the heavily spiced sauces of medieval times (sometimes employed because of the rankness of the meat), the massive roasts and ragoûts of Sun King Louis XIV’s court and the elegant eighteenth-century chilled desserts. One for the interesting detail, Willan also tells the story of cookbook writing and composition from the 1500s to the early 19th century. She highlights how each of the cookbooks reflects its time, ingredients and place, the recipes adapted among the cuisines of Germany, England, France, Italy and Spain as well as tracing the history of the recipe.
Historic cookbooks can be so much different than ours, ingredients unfamiliar and instructions rather vague. For example, Willan points out the phrase “cook until” was used due to the difficulty of judging the level of heat when cooking a dish over the burning embers in an open hearth. It wasn’t until the cast-iron closed stoves of the 19th century that recipes writers begin were finally able to give firm estimates for timing.
For food historians and even those just appreciative of a good meal, the book is fascinating. For me as a food writer, I wonder about covering a dinner where birds flew out of towering pastries, seals were served and eels baked into pies and it was often wise to have a taster nearby in case someone was trying to poison you.
The following recipe is from The Cookbook Library.
Rich Seed Cake with Caraway and Cinnamon
This recipe is based on a cake in The Compleat Housewife by Eliza Smith, published in London in the 1700s. Willan, ever the purist, suggests mixing the batter by hand as it was done 300 plus year ago.
“The direct contact with the batter as it develops from a soft cream to a smooth, fluffy batter is an experience not to be missed,” she says. “If you use an electric mixer, the batter is fluffier but the cake emerges from the oven less moist and with a darker crust.”
At times, Willan needs to substitute ingredients. The original recipe listed ambergris as an option for flavoring the cake. “Ambergris,” writes Willan, “a waxy secretion from a sperm whale, was once used to perfume foods. As it is now a rare ingredient, I’ve opted for Mrs. Smith’s second suggestion, of cinnamon, which marries unexpectedly well with caraway.”
1 pound or 31⁄2 cups) flour
1 2⁄3 cups sugar
6 tablespoons caraway seeds
4 egg yolks
1 pound or 2 cups butter, more for the pan
11⁄2 tablespoon rose water or orange-flower water
2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Heat the oven to 325ºF. Butter a 9-inch springform pan. Sift together the flour and sugar into a medium bowl, and stir in the caraway seeds. Separate the whole eggs, putting all the yolks together and straining the whites into a small bowl to remove the threads.
Cream the butter either by hand or with an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the yolks two at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the rose water. Whisk the egg whites just until frothy, then beat them, a little at a time, into the egg yolk mixture. Beat in the cinnamon. Finally, beat in the flour mixture, sprinkling it a little at a time over the batter. This should take at least 15 minutes by hand, 5 minutes with a mixer. The batter will lighten and become fluffier. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan.
Bake until the cake starts to shrink from the sides of the pan and a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean when withdrawn, 11⁄4 to 11⁄2 hours. Let the cake cool in the pan on a rack until tepid, then unmold it and leave it to cool completely on the rack. When carefully wrapped, it keeps well at room temperature for several days and the flavor will mellow.