Winter Salads

“Salads are supposed by a large class of people to be difficult to prepare; but such is not the case. They are really simple of construction, and one needs only to use a little judgment in their preparation.”
~ Murrey’s Salads and Sauces by Thomas Jefferson Murrey, 1884.

A salad of fresh, tender lettuces is a light, refreshing enhancement to any meal. Today’s high-speed transportation methods and numerous pre-washed lettuce choices allow us to enjoy fresh salads year-round. But during the Victorian era, salads were usually reserved for the upper class. Lettuces were highly perishable and therefore expensive, particularly during the colder months when they were out of season.

Resourceful Victorians got around this obstacle by using hothouses to grow salad greens and other vegetables. By 1900, cities such as Philadelphia and Boston farmed acres of vegetables under glass, including lettuce, radishes, tomatoes, cucumbers and artichokes. Although the prices were steep, these commercial enterprises allowed well-to-do Americans to serve fresh green salad for lunch or dinner any time of year.

As a result, green salads dressed with vinegar and oil quickly became a fine dining essential throughout the U.S. One of the many French influences on American cuisine, these crisp, leafy greens tossed with a light vinaigrette dressing were often called “French salads” as a way to distinguish them from creamy mayonnaise-based lobster or chicken salads, which were also popular. The French style dressing was a combination of oil, vinegar, mashed egg yolk and a dash of mustard. Sometimes a little sugar was also added, and Philadelphia cooking school instructor Sarah Tyson Rorer suggested tarragon vinegar as a more flavorful substitute for plain vinegar.

Apparently achieving the appropriate balance of dressing ingredients was a source of great controversy during this timeframe. The Germantown Telegraph ran a series of letters, recipes, satire and other culinary opinion about the proper method for dressing lettuce in the late 1860s. And according to cookbook collector Elizabeth Pennell, it was formerly the Philadelphia custom for the husband to shop for the salad and dramatically put it all together at the table. Gentlemen were judged by their salad making skills, particularly the manner of blending the dressing. Eliza Leslie also advised her readers of this tradition, stating that the gentleman was to “mix up the dressing on a separate plate, and then add it to the lettuce, and offer it around, as he choose.”

Today salads are typically served at the beginning of a meal, but in the Victorian era this was not the case. The American Practical Cookery Book (1861) recommended them as a part of the second course, “given with the roast meat; it should be placed fresh upon the table, then removed and dressed by a waiter.” Mrs. Rorer preferred a “simple French dressing for lettuce, served after a hearty meal.” She advised placing the green vegetables for salads in ice water for an hour, then carefully drying them on a towel in order to preserve their freshness and flavor. “Never mix any salad with the dressing until you are ready to serve it,” she added. “Use the coldest of dishes to serve it on, and if garnished properly, it is one of the most attractive and wholesome dishes on the table.”

Celery was another popular vegetable among the elite classes during this timeframe. Today celery is typically reserved for crudité platters or chopped finely to add crunch to chicken or tuna salad, but in the nineteenth century it was considered a high-status food, mainly because it was rather difficult to grow – it had to be blanched, or protected by piles of soil as it grew in order to preserve the whiteness and sweetness of its stalks.

Celery Vases2The Victorians gave celery extra-special treatment, creating distinctive stands or vases in which to serve them. Made of decorated glass or silver, they could be tall and sturdy to hold the celery upright like a bouquet of flowers, or shaped like a low basket or oval “boat” to cradle the celery lying down.

Common celery preparations included stewed, fried, braised or dressed with mayonnaise. According to New York Cooking School instructor Maria Parloa, “celery should be scraped and washed and then put in ice water to be made crisp, at least an hour before it goes on the table.”

Both celery and lettuce were popular items on holiday menus, as evidenced by Germantown resident Cornelius Nolan Weygandt’s diary entry from January 1, 1897, which lists “our own celery” as one of the menu items from his family’s New Year’s Dinner. And referencing a Christmas menu published in the Ladies Home Journal in 1897, Mrs. Rorer noted, “The salad course is no small part of a dinner. If you cannot get lettuce or celery do not object to the inner white portion of a hard head of cabbage. Serve it with French dressing, delicate crackers toasted in the oven, and hot cheese balls.”

There were two types of cheese balls used to garnish salads: one was made from grated cheese mixed with egg (and sometimes breadcrumbs) and spices such as red pepper, paprika or Worcestershire sauce, formed into small balls and then fried in lard or oil. These were served warm on top of a salad, similar to cheese croutons.

The other method was to take a soft cheese, such as Neufchatel or cream cheese, add some grated Parmesan, spices and melted butter, then form into balls the size of an English walnut. These were also placed on top of salad greens, but served cold (kind of like goat cheese rounds are today).

Lettuce salad

Lettuce salad w French dressing2(This salad was listed on a Christmas menu featured in the Dec 1897 issue of Ladies Home Journal. It was typical of the green salads that were popular during the Victorian era and would have been served throughout the winter months).

Rub garlic in the dish in which lettuce, with French dressing (without onion) is to be served. Leave no pieces of the garlic – merely rubbing the dish will give flavor enough. The French often use garlic in salads. OR (and this is what Mrs. Henderson advised) use the simple French dressing with onion to mix with the lettuce leaves, and dispense with the garlic. Use the plain or tarragon vinegar. Nasturtium blossoms have a most pleasant piquant flavor, and make a beautiful garnish for a salad.

French Dressing
Ingredients: One table-spoonful of vinegar, three table-spoonfuls of olive-oil, one salt-spoonful of pepper, one salt-spoonful of salt, one tea-spoonful of onion scraped fine. Many use tarragon vinegar, i.e. vinegar in which tarragon has been soaked. Pour the oil, mixed with the pepper and salt, over the salad; mix them together; then add the vinegar and mix again.
(This is the usual mode of mixing the salad; but Mrs. Henderson preferred to mix the pepper and salt, then add the oil and onion, and then the vinegar; and when well mingled, to pour the mixture over the salad, or place the salad over it, and mix all together. She thought it was more evenly distributed in this manner.)
Both recipes from Practical Cooking, and Dinner Giving (1878) by Mary F. Henderson

Watercress Salad with Cream Cheese Balls
Watercress salad w cheese balls2Ingredients:
• 1 8 oz. package Neufchatel cheese
• 2 tablespoons grated parmesan
• Dash of red pepper
• ½ teaspoon paprika
• 1 tablespoon melted butter
• ¼ teaspoon salt
Mix all ingredients together thoroughly and form into small balls. Chill in refrigerator on a plate. At serving time arrange watercress or other salad greens in a shallow salad bowl, put the cheese balls over the top, sprinkle with French dressing and serve.

From New Salads for Dinners, Luncheons, Suppers and Receptions (1912) by Sarah Tyson Rorer

The diary of former Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion resident Anna Smith Maxwell (1831-1912), also known as “The First Lady of the House,” contains a number of recipes for salads and dressings, including Salad Dressing (featuring raw eggs, mustard and milk), a newspaper clipping for the satirical poem “Sydney Smith’s* Recipe for Salad Dressing,” and the recipe for Mayonnaise Dressing listed below (another concept borrowed from the French). This would have been combined with any number of ingredients, such as chicken, lobster, celery or tomatoes to make a nice salad suitable for any fine luncheon. An article on “Salad and Salad Making” in an 1898 issue of Good Housekeeping magazine called mayonnaise dressing “a triumph of the culinary art when well made.”

Mayonnaise Dressing
• Two eggs
• Two tablespoonfuls of melted butter
• Three tablespoonfuls of cream (sour cream is the best)
• One quarter of a tablespoonful of mustard
• One half teaspoonful of salt
• One half cupful of vinegar
Beat the eggs, add cream and the melted butter, or oil if preferred, dissolve the mustard in the vinegar and add just as it is and put on the stove. Cook until thick over boiling water, stirring constantly.

* Sydney Smith was the author of several best-selling books, including Salad for the Solitary and Salad for the Social.

From the diary of former Ebenezer Maxwell resident Anna Smith Maxwell

Sources: Murrey’s Salads and Sauces by Thomas Jefferson Murrey, 1884; Mrs. Rorer’s Philadelphia Cook Book: A Manual of Home Economies by Sarah Tyson Rorer, 1886; Savory Suppers and Fashionable Feasts by Susan Williams, 1996; 35 Receipts from the Larder Invaded by William Woys Weaver.

Posted in: Anna Maxwell's Recipes, Life in Victorian Germantown

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Upper Middle Class Housing in the 19th Century Germantown

The family of Cornelius N. Weygandt lived in rented houses for the first twenty years of their residence in Germantown.  It was fairly common for middle class families to rent their homes during this period.  Some of the first houses that the Fallon Brothers built on Tulpehocken Street were rental properties.  In 1883, the Weygandts’ lease for their home on the 200 block of Tulpehocken Street was up.  They rented the house from the Catherwood family heirs (living in Pittsburgh at the time) through their trustee the Philadelphia Trust Safe Deposit and Insurance Company whose president was J. Livingston Erringer (in his late 60s in 1883) – the “Old Erringer” that Weygandt mentions.  The excerpts below give an insight in the costs of rental houses during this period and also what sort of options the Weygandts had in Germantown.  To provide some perspective on the costs the Weygandts had, Henry H. Houston rented out 266 W. Tulpehocken Street and 6129 Wayne Avenue each for $1,200 a year in 1889.  The first excerpt has a brief account of the first house the Weygandts rented with Cornelius’s sister and brother-in-law, the Godleys, on W. Walnut Lane near Greene Street.


Wednesday, February 21, 1883

…Lucy and I went out, in the evening, at about eight o’clock, and called on Mr. & Mrs. Joe Perot, and afterwards at Mr. & Mrs. A.G. Elliott’s.  The Perots live in the old Button house, at the corner of Main [now Germantown Ave.] & Walnut Lane.  We sat while there in the library, a nice old fashioned room, with pretty wood mouldings, chair strip, polished brass lock on the door and a very well carved old wooden mantle, etc.  A Mr. & Mrs. Bissell called while we were there, and we left them there, when we took our departure, at about nine o’clock.  Bissell is an auditor in the Penna R.R. office, and his wife is a daughter of Elliston Perot, decd.  We made quite a long visit at Elliott’s, and did not leave until a quarter of eleven.  Their house has been very nicely “done up,” and it looks pretty outside and inside, but is small and has low ceilings.  We have an interest in it, as the first house in Germantown in which we lived, having rented it furnished for four months along with the Godleys. …

Monday, July 9, 1883

…I wrote advertisements for a house, this afternoon; and took them to the Telegraph & Ledger, for insertion during the week.  I wish to see whether I can better ourselves, before I try to renew the lease of our present house on Tulpehocken Street; and also to be prepared to make a good bargain for myself, by having alternatives to quote to my landlord. ..

Wednesday, July 11, 1883

…After our visitors left, I drove Lucy & Rachel, in the phaeton, to look at the Sykes house, on Clapier St., which is offered to me for rent, at $1.000. pr. annum, by Lansdale, in reply to my advertisement in the name of “Nolen.”  Something will also be allowed for repairs.  We do not like the situation but the house looks like a very good one. …

Wednesday, July 18, 1883

…Came home in the 4.45 train.  Drove out in the phaeton with Corney and Walter.  First to Pulaski Street, and then to Fisher’s Lane to look at houses & grounds offered to “Nolen” for rent.  I wish to go again to Pulaski Street, with Lucy, to examine more carefully the situation, etc. …

Friday, July 20, 1883

phaeton…Came home in the 4.45 train. Drove out in the phaeton with Lucy & Corney.  Went down Wayne, to Manheim, Pulaski Streets and into the Brinley place, which is offered to me for rent, at $1,000. pr. year.  The grounds are very pretty, and four acres in extent, but the house is very small and frame.  There is a good view from the porch over the city.  Then to Clapier Street & looked at the Baxter & Sykes places, & afterwards, over Duy’s Lane [now E. Wister St.] to Chew Street, Locust Avenue, Cedar street, Church Lane, Ross St. Shoemakers Lane [now E. Penn St.], Green St. etc. home.  I think I should like to buy the Brinley place if it could be had cheaply, and build a good house on it.  …

Sunday, July 22, 1883

Went out to drive in the phaeton yesterday afternoon, with Lucy & Rachel.  We went by Wayne, to School [House Lane], and on School, as far as the Weightman place; then returned on School, and drove on Township Line [now Wissahickon Ave.], Queen, Wayne, Manheim & Pulaski, and into the Brinley place again, where we met W.W. Knight from whom I learn that the place belongs to the Pinckney family, his wife being one of the heirs & owners.  There are nearly five acres and $25.000. is the price asked.  Too dear for me, as I told Knight.  It was dropping rain, while we were out, and shortly after we left the Pinckney place, it began to come down so smartly, that we drove directly home by Pulaski, Manheim & Wayne etc. …

Saturday, July 29, 1883

… Put another advertisement in the Ledger, this afternoon, for next week; for a house & stable etc.  I expect to also have one in the Telegraph, next week, but will attend to that on Monday. …

Friday, August 3, 1883

John Patterson called, and I asked him to see old Erringer as to my rent.  Suggested to John to name $1.000. as a fair rent for the place, $1.200. much too high, etc.  I lent John $400., for a few days to pay his workmen.  He stayed a very long time, talking. …

Tuesday, August 7, 1883

…Dined at Laubers between 12. & 1. o’clock.  Lansdale called, and left a card with me, introducing me to Mrs. Sykes, who is living in a few rooms only, of her house, and who will show it to us.  Rent $800.  John Patterson came in this morning and borrowed $100., on a three months note from our chief, in order to pay me the load I made him on last Friday.  John promises to see old Erringer, this afternoon to try to get him down to $1.000. pr. annum for our house.  The weather cool and pleasant today.  Came home in the four o’clock train.  Brought Moffley up from the Depot, to his house, on Wayne Street.  I had a short chat with him about real estate, in our neighborhood.  He says that I ought to buy the lot opposite to our house, now offered at $45.000., and build a house for myself on the Western end of it and sell off the rest of the land which might be done at a profit.  I told him that the price asked is still too high.  Drove out in the phaeton, with Lucy & Sophie, on getting home.  We drove to Mrs. Sykes’ house, on Clapier Street, and found, on our arrival that Mrs. S. was not at home.  She soon came in, however, and took us over the house; which is very large, and has a great many fine rooms.  The entrance hall is, however, very small and mean, and the grounds are not as large as we now have, and they are in wretched disorder.  The kitchen is in the basement, and is dark, though very large.  There are four large porches; one very pleasant one in the second story.  Mrs. Sykes is an extraordinary looking woman.  She is dressed in a suit of complete black, nun like clothes, with a white fillet around her face (under the chin & over the top of the head) a large black cross hanging to her neck, a round fan of black crape [sic], and such dilapidated shoes!, which were visible to us as she went up stairs.  She is a Roman Catholic, and she informed us that Mr. Sykes was received into the church three weeks before his death, which was beautiful, etc.  Also that Mr. Sykes was a very handsome man.  He was an old rake when I used to see and meet him, and not choice in his conversation.  Mrs. Sykes is very voluable [sic] and a great deal to say in praise of her house.  She was a Miss Lucy Lamb, before her marriage, and a handsome woman in her day.  She is probably about 50. to 55. years old.  The rent is very low at $500.  I heard on getting home from our drive, that Mrs. VanSchaick has a notion of sending her daughters, Molly & Clara, to the new school, at “Ogontz,” Jay Cook’s former residence.  The cost to be $900. each, including the board; with extras, which may bring the total expense up to $2.500.  Mrs. Van is trying hard to introduce two girls into good society – so far with very little success.  Germantown is a hard place for such people!  …

Sunday, August 12, 1883

Lucy, Rachel and I talked over our house rent, for a good while, after breakfast, and I have determined to see old Erringer, tomorrow, to offer him, as our ultimatum $1.000. pr: year.  I spent the rest of the morning, in reading the papers and magazines, on the porch and in the library.  We had our usual Sunday dinner of roast beef and vegetables.  Some corn from our own garden was very good.  After dinner I looked over the architect, Holly’s book on “Modern Homes,” to get suggestions for a house which we should like to build for ourselves.  Our chief trouble just now, is to find an eligible lot of two acres, or more, that will suit us both in situation and price; a difficult matter.  Finding very little of use in the plans in this book I took up Dicken’s “Pickwick Papers,” which I have not looked at for a long time, and read it during the rest of the afternoon and evening.  Took a walk around our grounds, with Corney, after tea. To be early – about 10.P.M. …

Monday, August 13, 1883

…I called upon old Erringer this morning, and I had a chat with him about our rent.  I told him about the imperfections of our house; the condition of the bath room and the rotting of the ends of the joists of the first floor, etc.; and I offered to pay a rent of $1.000. a year.  He is to confer with one of the Catherwoods, and to advise me as to the result.  I also told the old fellow about four houses – being to rent in our immediate neighborhood and about the Sykes house.  He thinks that Clapier St. is an undesirable neighborhood; partly on account the ponds near it. … On getting home, I wrote a sketch of a note to send to old Erringer, about the rent of our house; and I read it to Lucy, and Rachel.  I remind him, in the note, that, if we leave the house in September, it may be empty for six months at least, at a loss to the owners of $500., at the rent I offer.

Friday, August 17, 1883

Old Erringer came in, this morning, to say that $1.000. was the lowest rent for our house; but I got him down to $1.000. with the proviso that we are to do the repairs.  As I have been doing the repairs for some time past, this arrangement is better for me.  I tried to get a lease for two years, but E. insisted on one only, so I conceded it.  I am glad this is fixed; as I can now take my vacation without any anxiety on this subject.  Graham Elliott rode in the train with me, this morning, and we talked of house building and sites in Germantown.  I want to find a good site, now and to being to build a house for myself.  …

Posted in: Life in Victorian Germantown

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Strawberry Shortcake

Jelly Tins smTrue strawberry shortcake incorporates a rich, crumbly, biscuit-like cake that is not too sweet – very similar to a scone. The biscuit dough can be shaped into one large cake and then cut into pieces, or baked as separate little cakes, either by cutting the dough into rounds with a biscuit cutter, or dropping spoonfuls of dough on a baking sheet like a drop biscuit. Each individual cake is then split in half, filled with ripe, juicy strawberries and topped with fresh whipped cream.

A popular Victorian dessert, strawberry shortcake began popping up in American cookbooks in the mid-1800s, likely evolving from the shortcake and biscuit-type desserts that were common in England, such as Derby Short Cakes (also known as Derby Biscuits or Derby Cakes) – thick biscuits sweetened with sugar and sometimes currants, cut into scalloped rounds. Derby Short Cakes were apparently an offshoot of Yarmouth Biscuits, an even richer treat made with liberal amounts of butter and eggs and seasoned with caraway seeds.

But Derby Short Cakes and the other shortcake recipes that came later were different from Yarmouth Biscuits in that they all used some form of dairy  – milk, cream, buttermilk, sour cream, etc. Not only did this moisten and tenderize the dough, it also gave the biscuits a crisper crust and added structure, preventing them from collapsing in the oven.

Here’s a recipe for Derby Short-Cakes from The cook and housewife’s manual, by Mrs. Margaret Dods (Edinburgh, Scotland, 1826):

Rub down a pound of butter into two pounds of flour, and mix with this a half-pound of beat sugar, an egg, and as much milk as will make a paste. Roll this out thin, and cut out the cakes in any form. Bake on tin plates for about ten minutes. They may be iced, or have sifted sugar strewed over them.

However, these still would have been rather flat since they contained no rising agent. But once chemical leavenings came on the scene in the nineteenth century, they were added to shortcake recipes, resulting in full, fluffy biscuits with a softer crumb. For example, this recipe from 1829 by Lydia Child incorporates pearlash (potassium carbonate), which combined with an acid like sour milk or citrus, produces a chemical reaction that lightens baked goods:


If you have sour milk, or butter-milk, it is well to make it into short cakes for tea. Rub in a very small bit of shortening, or three table-spoonfuls of cream, with the flour; put in a tea-spoonful of strong dissolved pearlash, into your sour milk, and mix your cake pretty stiff, to bake in the spider, on a few embers.

(Source: The American Frugal Housewife by Lydia Maria Francis Child, 1829)

shortcakes smIt is not known for sure when strawberries were first partnered with shortcake. Wild strawberries are native to both the Old and New World, so they would have been available to European and American cooks. Although they produce smaller berries and lower yields than today’s commercial varieties, they are sweeter and more flavorful – a perfect companion for rich, not overly sweet shortcake.

Strawberries were so beloved in America that British traveller Godfrey Vigne wrote about a strawberry party, or “Fête champêtre” that took place in Baltimore in 1831. “Quadrilles and waltzes were kept up with great spirit, first on the lawn, and then in the house till about eleven. In the mean time strawberries and cream, ices, pineapples, and champagne, were served up in the greatest profusion,” he remarked.

So perhaps it was a “given” that shortcake was topped with strawberries or other fruit, it just wasn’t written down in the recipe books. In any case, the oldest mention of strawberry shortcake I was able to find dates back to 1835, published in The New York Farmer and American Gardener’s Magazine, although the author refers to it as “Strawberry Cake”: “In several parts of New-England, and I suppose wherever the worthy housewives of that portion of our country are scattered, short-cake is made, and while hot is cut open, and strawberries sweetened with sugar are put in. This cake is said to be delicious.” Sounds like the strawberry shortcake we all know and love!

The earliest recipe I found with the exact wording “Strawberry Short Cake” was published twenty years later in 1855, and it sounds absolutely decadent:

Strawberry Short Cake

Take one pint of rich sour cream, half a teaspoonful of pearlash and flour enough to make it of the consistency of soft biscuit, salt, roll it out and bake it on a large pie plate when cold enough to split and not make it heavy; split it evenly and put a quart of nice strawberries in the centre, covering them with half a pint of rich sweet cream and powdered sugar; return the upper crust, and when you serve it cut it the same as pie. Very rich for the stomach.

(Source: The Practical Housekeeper, and Young Woman’s Friend By Marion L. Scott, 1855)

But the version I decided to try was from the journal of Anna Maxwell (also known as Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion’s “First Lady of the House”). Even though I made her recipe in August, late spring would have been the time of year for serving Strawberry Shortcake in Victorian times. We have the luxury today of buying strawberries year-round, but in Anna’s day, they would have only been available when strawberries were in season, typically May and June.

shortcake dough smGardeners had begun to experiment with strawberry cultivation way back in the 14th century, and by the 19th century there would have been commercial varieties available, including the “Keens Seedling,” known for its size and flavor. However, these would have probably been smaller, juicier and tastier than modern supermarket strawberries, which are bred so they are hardy enough for transport, and to reach colossal sizes.

Anna’s recipe was so easy and required minimal ingredients – simply a joy to make. The biscuits were delicious and could be served on their own as part of a chicken dinner, paired with other summer fruit such as blueberries or peaches, or even for breakfast. In fact, my children had the leftover biscuits the next morning with a little melted butter and smear of whipped cream – they raved about this indulgent treat!

Here’s Anna’s recipe:

Strawberry Short Cake

1 quart flour, 3 tablespoons butter, 1 large cup of sour cream, 1 egg, 1 tablespoon sugar. Teaspoonful of soda dissolved in hot water, pinch of salt. Bake in jelly tins, + spread the fruit sugared + creamed between the layers when cool

The recipe can be pretty much followed exactly, but I recommend a few tweaks, including starting with just two cups flour and adding more in ¼ cup increments if needed (the 1 quart as directed in the recipe would be four cups of flour). I found that a cup of sour cream was also a bit much – ¾ cup was ok. Also, it is important that the butter is cold and cut into tablespoon-sized pieces, and I dissolved the baking soda in the sour cream, not water. And instead of jelly tins (biscuit molds), I rolled out the dough and cut it into biscuits. Lastly, since the biscuits should still be warm when serving this dessert, it is helpful to prepare the strawberries and whipped cream ahead of time (directions below).

strawberry shortcake smAnna Maxwell’s Strawberry Short Cake (modern version)

For the strawberries, hull and slice 1 pound of rinsed strawberries. Place in bowl and add sugar to taste. Set aside.

For whipped cream, chill whisk beater and bowl in freezer for 15 minutes. Combine 2 tablespoons powdered sugar, ½ tsp vanilla and 1 cup heavy cream in bowl. Whisk just until the cream holds its shape.

For shortcakes:

2 cups flour, 1 tablespoon sugar, ¼ teaspoon salt, 3 tablespoons chilled butter, cut into pieces, ¾ cup sour cream, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1 egg, beaten.

Preheat oven to 375. Mix the flour, sugar and salt together, then add the chilled butter, blending it in with a pastry cutter until the mixture is a fine consistency. Dissolve the baking soda into the sour cream and add to the other ingredients along with the egg. Mix with a fork until a soft dough forms; add a little extra flour if needed. Form into a ball with floured hands and roll out onto a lightly floured surface to ¾-inch thickness. Cut into 4 biscuits with a biscuit cutter and place on ungreased baking sheet. Scoop up remaining dough and roll out again, cutting out two more biscuits. Bake for about 15 minutes and cool on wire rack.

To serve, split shortcakes in half with serrated knife, spread strawberries and their juices over the bottom halves and top with shortcake tops and whipped cream. Enjoy!!!

My taste testers loved this dessert and even asked for the recipe. A true American classic that’s just as excellent today as it was during the Victorian era!


Additional sources: Baking in America by Greg Patent; The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson; The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, ed. by Andrew F. Smith; Food in the United States, 1820s-1890 by Susan Williams, The Foods of England Project website-

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Shakespeare_smThe Victorians couldn’t get enough of William Shakespeare. They loved to read his collected works, and on stage the plays were never more extravagant. As a society, they worshipped Shakespeare with a reverence that playwright George Bernard Shaw coined “Bardolatry.” The writer from Stratford was always a genius, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that his reputation reached the level we take for granted today. It was almost as if the world discovered something very special that had been waiting to be acknowledged fully. Gifted performers of the era like Ellen Terry and Henry Irving made their names performing Shakespeare’s great roles, a rite of passage that still continues today.

magic hat_smThe people of the Victorian age were also intensely fascinated by all things to do with magic and the occult, including fairies. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the most logical detective in fiction, believed in them. In many homes, little Shakespeare societies were commonplace. Friends would gather together and read the great plays aloud, laughing and discussing long into the night, in love with Shakespeare’s vivid art.

And that is where the staged reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion comes in. One of the great things about experiencing theater at the Mansion is the ability to be transported to a different time and let the 21st century fade away. To that end, we invite the audience into one of those exclusive Shakespeare parties, with elegant refreshments and a Victorian magic show happening in the Library. Eventually everyone will gather in the Parlor, and suddenly the play begins. The Victorian actors have been mingling with you the whole time, chatting about the play and the characters they will be bringing to life. Sometimes they will sit in the audience with you while you watch Shakespeare’s most glorious comedy unfold all around you.

On a personal note, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the play that sparked my passion for theater in the first place. When I was in eighth grade, we took a field trip to see the high school’s production. I still remember great chunks of that show to this day, and by the end I knew that I had found my calling. When I got interested in directing as well, Midsummer was the first play I ever did. It’s a play that brings happiness and laughter to anyone who encounters it. It has given me a lot, and that’s why it was such an easy decision that it would be the first Shakespeare ever performed at the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion.

We want to take you back to a midsummer night during the reign of Queen Victoria, and experience one of the Bard’s most beloved plays. Make sure you bring the kids. You never know, they fall in love with the magic of theater, just like I did.  Click here to buy tickets to A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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July Fourth on Tulpehocken Street in 1879

July Fourth on Tulpehocken Street in 1879

This entry provides an interesting glimpse into various aspects of life on Tulephocken Street in the 1870s.  The Weygandt family at this time was renting a house (later demolished) a short distance west of the Maxwell Mansion.  Based on the description in the diary it would appear that their house was  very similar to many of the others on the street built in the late 1850s.  Weygandt has several references to going up to the cupola or “observatory” of the house.  In 1879 he would have had a fairly extensive view of the surrounding landscape with its young trees and still open fields.  The fire Weygand describes was at the home of Joseph W. Bradley 239 W. Walnut Lane.  Bradley’s house was later demolished and a new one built on the site by Calvin Pardee in 1886.

As you will see from the entry, Weygandt underlines the word hot several times.  In the era before air conditioning and the tee-shirts and short pants, warm weather was not an easy thing to bear.  The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the “day turned out to be a ‘scorcher’ so far as the temperature was concerned; but, happily, what would otherwise have been intolerably hot weather was relieved all day by brisk breezes, which made it feel much cooler than the previous day.”   The temperature was 89 at 10 AM and 97 at 3 PM.

The Houston children Weyandt describes were the children of their neighbor Henry Howard Houston.  Gertrude (who later married George Woodward) became a close friend of Sophie Weygandt.  At the time this entry was written Sophie was 12 and Corney 8.


Friday, July 4th 1879

I was awakened while in bed last night by the noise of a steam fire engine; hearing at first nothing but the pulsations, or throbs of the engine.  It sounded very near, but I could see no light in the sky on going to our chamber window.  I then went up to our observatory, and at once saw light and flames; but they looked much father off than the sounds indicated.  Lucy soon joined me, and we watched the fire until it subsided.  We thought it to be the Unitarian Church [at Green St. and Chelton Ave.] and the adjoining board yard; or possibly the new English cottages, on Green St. near Chelton.  But still the sounds of the voices, and the noise of the falling walls, or timbers appeared to place the fire over at Mr. Bradley’s, only a square from us, on Walnut Lane.  And there we found it to be, this morning.  I went around to the place, after breakfast with Sophie & Corney.  Saw the furniture, carpets etc. out on the lawn, and many inquisitive sympathizers(?) talking to Bradley.  I did not attempt to see him.  The furniture was being moved into the adjoining house (Champion’s); which fortunately for Bradley is empty.

The weather very warm indeed.  I spent the morning out of doors, under the trees, reading the paper and talking to Lucy, who as shelling peas, etc.  Had very good vegetables for dinner, out of our own garden (peas and beans etc.)  Some Claret wine (a present from Patterson) tasted the better for the hot weather.  Our cow is now giving much better milk, as John Patterson claimed it would; and we have beautiful golden cream from it.  I ought to have written up my diary today, and intended doing so, but the heat of the day overthrew my virtuous resolves.  Spent the afternoon in the dining room, reading bound volumes of Littell, and occasionally taking a short nap.  It was very warm.  I gave Lawrence a holiday his morning; and Lucy gave the afternoon tothe girls; who went to a Roman Catholic picnic; I think at Fisher’s Lane [present-day East Logan St].  Sophie & Corney amused themselves during the day with exploding “caps” in a “bomb shell” and “pistol” (so called), and throwing torpedoes.  I would not allow them to have fire crackers; nor to go to Van Schaick’s where they had them.  I am afraid of Sophie’s getting her dress on fire, from the explosion of the power, or the burning remains of the crackers.  We had some fine rasperberries [sic] and cream for tea.  The berries from our own garden and the cream from our own cow.

After tea, when it became dark, I surprised the children (Corney & Sophie) by producing the bengola lights and tableau fire, and setting them off.  They were very much pleased.  Sophie went toHouston’s, to invite Gertrude to look on; and came back with both Gertrude & Sam Houston, who were added to the spectators.  I allowed each one of the children to assist, and to set off some of the fireworks.   After this, the youngsters went up into our observatory, to look out for the rockets, etc.; and then came down to the dining room to have some ice cream and mixed cakes.  I then had my musical box out, playing for their benefit.  Gertrude is a very nice little girl, about eleven years; and Sam a polite boy of fourteen.  Gertrude and Sam went home shortly before ten o’clock; their father meeting them at our gate as they were leaving.  Our children to bed soon afterwards.  We had a heavy rain storm, with thunder and lightning, shortly after the Houstons left.  The house very warm, from being shut up on account of the storm.  It was still uncomfortably warm when we went to bed, about eleven o’clock.

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Sponge Cake

Simple, light and elegant, sponge cake was the quintessential cake of the Victorian era, transformed into endless style and flavor combinations. Some were served plain, garnished simply with fruit, whipped cream or a sprinkling of confectioner’s sugar. Others took it up a notch by adding flavorings such as lemon or orange. The most elegant were delicate, two-layer cakes with a jam or cream filling and perhaps some icing drizzled on top.

Cookbooks from the latter part of the nineteenth century contain pages of sponge cake recipes – Almond Sponge Cake, Hot Water Sponge Cake, Cream Sponge Cake, even Perfection Sponge Cake, which called for a whopping fourteen eggs. Then there were the many recipes that used sponge cake as a base, such as Boston Cream Pie, Charlotte Russe (individual dishes lined with sponge cake and topped with whipped cream), Strawberry Short Cake, and the luscious Victoria Sponge. This cake sandwiched Chantilly cream and jam between two fluffy golden cake layers. A favorite of Queen Victoria, it was supposedly introduced by the Duchess of Bedford (one of her ladies-in-waiting) in the 1880s and quickly became a huge hit.

These wondrous Victorian desserts evolved from the “biscuit bread” and “sponge fingers” which spread throughout Europe and America in the 18th century. They were typically named after their place of origin – Savoy, Naples, Lisbon and Spanish biscuits, for example – and became especially popular in England. All were made from fairly similar cake batter; it was the baking molds that differentiated them. Some biscuits were a small oblong-shape (like ladyfingers), but others were essentially cake (this type of molded cake was often called a biscuit). Savoy cake was an especially fancy version of sponge cake – baked into a very high, spectacular mold reminiscent of a tall building or sculpted work of art.

In the early part of the 19th century (before chemical leavenings such as baking powder and cream of tartar came on the scene), a sponge cake’s light, airy texture was achieved by beating eggs and sugar for a long time until they were thick, smooth and pale yellow. This “mechanical leavening” whipped air into the eggs to produce a mass of bubbles called a foam, allowing the cake to rise up nice and light due to the expansion of the air bubbles during baking. It was a long and tedious process that sometimes took hours – a task often delegated to servants.

But the Victorian age introduced many kitchen conveniences, including the invention of the rotary eggbeater around 1870 and chemical rising agents such as saleratus (an early form of baking soda), baking soda and baking powder. These newfangled gadgets and ingredients made the cook’s job easier, although many still preferred using eggs as a rising agent. In the words of cookbook author Belle De Graf, “a true sponge cake contains no baking powder but is lightened entirely by the air which has been beaten into the eggs.”

Most recipes called for beating the egg yolks and whites separately, then gently folding them together with the flour and other ingredients. However, celebrated Philadelphia cooking school instructor Mrs. Elizabeth Goodfellow felt this was seldom necessary if they were just going to be mixed together, and it actually helped prevent the cake from developing streaks during the baking process. As noted by her famous pupil, Philadelphia notable Eliza Leslie, “The justly-celebrated Mrs. Goodfellow always taught her pupils to beat the whites and yolks together, even for sponge-cake; and lighter than hers no sponge cake could possibly be.”

cake molds 2Flipping through the journal of Anna Smith Maxwell (also known as Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion’s “First Lady of the House”) on one of our many freezing days this winter, I was struck by the large number of sponge cake recipes, including Sponge Jelly, Cream Sponge Cake, Orange Cream Cake and Charlotte Russe. Tired of the harsh, cold weather, I thought testing a few of these light, dainty-sounding cakes would be a perfect way to welcome spring.

The two recipes I decided to try were Hot Water Sponge Cake and Cream Sponge Cake. But as is the case with many older recipes found in manuscript cookbooks, they were just listings of ingredients, with no specific directions or guidance. For example, here is the Hot Water Sponge recipe:

1 ¼ cups granulated sugar 4 eggs. 1 ½ cups Flour

2 small tea spoonful [sic] baking powder.  4 table spoons [sic]

boiling water pinch of salt

This one especially intrigued me because it was attributed to “Wanamaker.” I thought it might have been the version served at the famous Philadelphia department store, first opened by John Wanamaker in 1876 on Market Street, complete with an in-store restaurant. It was originally referred to as his “Grand Depot” store, which Wanamaker cleverly set up in an abandoned railway station. That structure was replaced in 1910 with the beautiful neo-Renaissance style building that today houses Macy’s. Hand carved columns and intricate crystal chandeliers were special details of the store’s lavish restaurant, the “Grand Crystal Tea Room,” which served breakfast, luncheon and afternoon tea.  A 1914 menu from Wanamakers’ sister store in New York does list sponge cake and cream sponge cake – each costing just 14 cents. So although I was unable to confirm the source of the recipe, it is possible it was the version served in the Tea Room.


I looked at a number of different Hot Water Sponge Cake recipes from other sources to get comparisons and more exact instructions, and ended up using Fannie Farmer’s version from the Boston Cooking School Cookbook as a guide. Fannie’s recipe uses only two eggs (versus 4 for Anna’s), only 1 cup of flour compared to 1 ½, and slightly less sugar. So I split the difference and used three eggs, but kept the flour and sugar amounts the same as Anna’s recipe.  The only other difference was that Fannie added lemon extract, but I decided to leave it out to stay truer to Anna’s version.


So the recipe I followed ended up looking like this:


Hot Water Sponge CakeHot water sponge cake

3 eggs, separated

1 ¼ cups sugar

1 ½ cups flour

2 small teaspoons baking powder

4 tablespoons boiling water

Pinch of salt


Preheat oven to 350. Sift the flour with the baking powder and salt and set aside. Beat egg whites until stiff and set aside. Beat yolks of eggs until thick and lemon-colored. Gradually add half the sugar and continue beating, then add the water, remaining sugar, egg whites and sifted flour, baking powder and salt. Bake 25 minutes in a shallow buttered and floured pan (I lined mine with parchment paper).  Remove cake from oven and allow it to cool for several minutes, then run a butter knife around the edges and turn the pan upside down to cool completely.


Neither recipe gives any instructions about garnishing or decorating the cake, so I just sprinkled confectioners sugar on top and rimmed the edges of the cake plate with fresh berries, then served with whipped cream. It was very good and looked fabulous, but not as “light” as I would have expected. My taste tasters said the same. Perhaps it baked a little too long, or I should have used less flour, as Fannie did. Next time I think I will try cutting the flour a bit and see what happens.

My next attempt was Cream Sponge Cake. Here’s the version from Anna’s journal:

Cream Sponge Cake

6 eggs. 2 cups sugar. 2 ½  flour. 2 teaspoonsfull Cream tartar in the Flour, stir the eggs, sugar, & flour one minute, and when ready to bake add a teaspoonful of soda dissolved in two spoonfuls of milk.   Make a Cream of Corn starch, flavored, split-the-cake and pour on the mixture.


Cream sponge cake (1)This recipe took me awhile to figure out. I found any number of Cream Sponge Cake recipes in various period cookbooks, but they were often quite different. And I had no idea what “Cream of Corn starch” was. Finally I found what I was looking for in Mrs. Rorer’s Philadelphia Cook Book – which makes sense as other recipes from Anna’s journal were from Mrs. Rorer, who ran the Philadelphia Cooking School in the late 1800’s.  Mrs. Rorer’s recipe was almost exactly like Anna’s, except it included explicit instructions, including explaining how to make the Cream of Corn starch filling. The main difference is that Mrs. Rorer uses the weight of the eggs to balance the flour and sugar – I just used the amounts that Anna listed. Mrs. Rorer also says to dissolve the baking soda in vinegar, whereas Anna’s calls for milk – I ended up going with the vinegar. Note the filling needs to cool down so it should be made before the cake.

Here’s my version:

Cream Sponge Cake

6 eggs

2 cups sugar

2 ½ cups flour

¼ teaspoon baking soda

1 tablespoon vinegar

Break and separate the eggs carefully. Beat the yolks and sugar until very, very light, then add the whites, which have been beaten to a stiff froth, mix carefully, and slowly sift in the flour. Dissolve the baking soda in the vinegar and stir quickly into the cake. Mix thoroughly and carefully, turn into a well-greased large shallow pan (I used a 13 x 9 inch rectangular, but you could also use a springform if you prefer a round cake), and bake at 350 for about 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.


The (Cream of Cornstarch) Filling

1/2 pint of milk

1 1/2 tablespoonfuls cornstarch

2 tablespoonfuls sugar

Grated rind of half an orange

2 tablespoonfuls orange juice

Yolks of 3 eggs

Heat the milk in a saucepan. Beat the cornstarch, sugar, and eggs together until light, then stir into the boiling milk, and stir until it thickens; take off the burner and add the juice and rind of the orange. Stand away to cool. This should be made before the cake. When the cake is done, turn it carefully from the pan, bottom upwards, and spread it, while warm, with the filling. Cut the cake in halves, and fold the bottoms together, thus having two layers of cake with a thick layer of filling between. Cover the top with Orange Icing.


Orange Icing

1/2 pound of powdered sugar

1 tablespoonful of boiling water

Grated rind of one orange

Sufficient orange juice to moisten

Put the sugar in a bowl, add the rind and then the water and juice. The icing should be very stiff, and used immediately.

This cake was delicious! I was not surprised as all the cakes I have made from Mrs. Rorer’s recipes have been outstanding, always imparting fresh, subtle flavors – different from many modern recipes which tend to be bolder and more over the top. My taste testers loved this cake. Anna Maxwell and Mrs. Rorer would have been pleased – one out of town guest even requested some to take home. Perfect for any springtime celebration, give this cake a try and help usher in the season!



Mrs. Goodfellow – The Story of America’s First Cooking School by Becky Diamond

Baking in America by Greg Patent

The Boston Cooking-school Cook Book By Fannie Merritt Farmer, 1906

The Department Store Museum Blog –

Fannie’ Last Supper by Chris Kimball

The Food Timeline –

Historic Food Blog –

The imperial and royal cook By Frederic Nutt

Mrs. Rorer’s Philadelphia Cook Book: A Manual of Home Economics By Sarah Tyson Heston Rorer

Vrq Level 2 Certificate in Professional edited by Pam Rabone

What’s on the Menu? –

Who Made America? –


Learn more about America’s first cooking school –

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Sherlock3Our annual series of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes has become one of our most popular programs at the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion. We began with the very first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, in 2012, and last year we presented probably the scariest story: The Speckled Band. This April, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson return to the Mansion with a new adaptation of A Scandal in Bohemia, one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s personal favorites.

Unlike our first two Holmes plays, there is no murder to solve. The master detective is hired by a masked king to retrieve a compromising photograph, and in this simple task he meets one of his greatest adversaries: Irene Adler. Holmes is quick to outsmart most of the villains he encounters, but Irene Adler is something more. Dr. Watson begins the tale by telling us that Sherlock Holmes always refers to her as “The Woman.” What his true feelings are towards Irene we don’t know for sure, it’s up to you to decide.

The Speckled Band is almost like a ghost story with a grisly ending of death by snake bite. A Scandal in Bohemia is a much lighter affair. Years have passed since we last saw Holmes and Watson together, and they renew their adventurous friendship before your eyes. We also get to see Sherlock Holmes in disguise for the very first time.

Playing Sherlock in these plays has been an incredibly rewarding experience. It’s the first time I’ve ever been able to return to the same character in different plays, and grow with the role as time goes by. To be honest, during A Study in Scarlet I was probably as terrified as I have ever been doing a show. There are so many great and famous actors who have played the part, so what could I possibly do that was different? Thankfully my Watson is played by Jason Graboski, who has been my friend ever since we were students at Arcadia University.

Something extraordinary happened to me last year when we were doing The Speckled Band. It was during the second performance, and I was sitting in a chair listening to Jessica Graboski’s monologue about her sister’s strange death. I looked around me at the walls of the Parlor, and all of a sudden I felt absolutely that I was that man, in that time period. Being in the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion can seem like traveling back in time, and it really sparked my imagination that day. In that moment, I was Sherlock Holmes at Baker Street in 1883. I’ll never forget it. That’s why I love doing theater in this place.

Coming back this time to A Scandal in Bohemia, I feel much more relaxed about playing Holmes. That doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly challenging, I’m taking a break from memorizing a two page monologue to write this post. But we’re all having so much fun doing this play, and I think the audience is going to have a lot of fun too. It’s a wonderful way to start the spring, and I hope you’ll join us at Baker Street once more.

Click here to purchase your tickets online for this special event.

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Plum Pudding

Plum Pudding photoCookies, cakes and pies are the desserts most Americans associate with Christmas today, but back in the Victorian era, plum pudding was the highlight of the holiday feast. Even the poor Cratchit family in the Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol had one on their holiday table.

We have the British to thank for bringing their love of puddings to America, particularly plum pudding, which can be traced back to the 15th century. It originated as plum pottage (sometimes called plum porridge), which was more liquidly, like a soup, and served at the beginning of a meal. Like most puddings of the time, it was meat-based, so the ingredients included chopped beef or mutton, onions and sometimes other root vegetables, as well as dried fruit, breadcrumbs as a thickener, and copious amounts of wine, herbs and spices for flavor.

This rich dish was a favorite for feast days such as All Saints Day, Christmas and New Years Day, but it wasn’t until the 1600s when it became specifically associated with Christmas, and began to be referred to as the more luxurious sounding plum pudding or even Christmas pudding. Around this time it also evolved into the larger, more solid consistency of a “boiled pudding” due to the creation of the pudding-cloth. The ingredients would be mixed together, then tied up into a tidy bundle inside the cloth and boiled in a kettle over an open fire. Sometimes the pudding was even cooked directly over a simmering stew.

So where are the plums in the ingredient list? Well, ironically, there aren’t actually any plums in plum pudding. The name comes from the use of dried plums (prunes), which were commonly used in medieval times. Later, when other dried fruits such as raisins were introduced into England, these were substituted or added, but the “plum pudding” name stuck. Over the years, the meat was replaced by suet (the protective fat around the kidneys of beef or mutton) and the vegetables were gradually phased out, although some cooks still include a token carrot in their version.

By the time of the Victorian era, plum pudding had evolved into a sumptuous dessert with a more varied ingredient list. Suet, dried fruit (typically raisins, sultanas and currants) and spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves were mainstays, but any combination of nuts, lemon or orange peel, chopped apple, flour, eggs, sugar, milk and liquor were also commonly added. The Godey’s Lady’s Book of Receipts and Household Hints by Sarah Annie Frost (1870) lists nine different versions of plum pudding, with interesting titles and ingredient combinations such as Soyer’s New Christmas pudding (with powdered white sugar, candied citron and blanched bitter almonds), Barbara’s plum pudding (includes apples and molasses), Rich plum pudding without flour (uses breadcrumbs instead, as well as eight or nine eggs and brandy), and Unrivalled plum pudding (incorporates an incredible two pounds each of suet, breadcrumbs and sugar, two and a half pounds of raisins and 16 eggs). A rich sauce made from rum or brandy butter (sometimes called hard sauce) added right before serving also became customary.

The Christmas pudding became even more beloved with the establishment of Stir-Up Sunday, which took place on the last Sunday before Advent – sometime during the second half of November. The name actually originated from the collect (prayer) of the day heard in church that morning: “Stir-up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people.” Over time it also became associated with the stirring of the Christmas pudding, which began that same week.

On this day, all the ingredients for the Christmas pudding were gathered and mixed together, and each family member would take a turn stirring the pudding – from the oldest on down to the youngest. It was believed that anyone who made a wish while stirring the pudding would have the wish come true. The pudding was supposed to be stirred with a wooden spoon in a clockwise direction with eyes closed or the wish would not be granted. Sometimes the cook would add charms and trinkets while the pudding was being stirred. When the pudding was later served on Christmas day, whoever got the piece of pudding with a charm would have good luck for the year. Examples ranged from a ring (meaning the recipient would soon be married), a coin (coming into wealth), and a thimble (either a blessed life or spinsterhood, depending on how it was interpreted).

Once all the family members had their turn stirring and making a wish, the pudding was placed in the pudding cloth and hung up until Christmas Day. Letting the pudding mature over the weeks until Christmas was beneficial as it allowed the flavors to blend and deepen. In fact, many people would make two Christmas puddings at a time, preserving one for the following year. Before serving, it was boiled for 4-5 hours, and then turned out onto a dish where the warm brandy sauce was poured over it. The pudding was then lit up and the flaming dish, garnished with a sprig of holly, was proudly brought to the table to close out the celebratory meal.

It would be fun to go back in time to see the delighted faces of those experiencing this exciting ritual at the Ebenezer Maxwell home as part of their Victorian holiday festivities. Three different plum pudding recipes are included in Anna Maxwell’s journal – one traditionally fancy and the other two more suitable for everyday dinners.

The first is described as “The orthodox English recipe:”
One pound of raisins, half a pound of currants, half a pound of sugar, half a pound of flour, half a pound of bread crumbs, three-quarters of a pound of suet, a quarter of a pound of mixed candied peel, a small nutmeg, grated, a teaspoonful of ground cinnamon, ditto of pudding spice; the juice of one lemon and one peel grated, one orange ditto, six bitter almonds blanched and pounded, and a pinch of salt; mix the day or even longer before the pudding is needed, with six well-beaten eggs, a glass of cider or milk to moisten it, and boil for ten hours.

The second is simply called “A plainer pudding:”

One pound of bread crumbs, half a pound of chopped suet, four eggs, half a pound of raisins, half a pound of sultanas, two ounces of candied peel, half a pound of sugar, a little nutmeg and spice mixed with milk or cider, and boiled for four hours.

The sauce to accompany either pudding is made as follows:
Two teaspoonfuls of corn starch, two tablespoonfuls of water, half a pint of milk, two ounces of lump sugar, the yelks [yolks] of two fresh eggs, a small pinch of nutmeg, a tablespoonful of fruit jelly; mix the cornstarch smooth with the water, and beat the eggs up thoroughly with it; dissolve the sugar in the milk, and make it boiling hot, pour it gently into the eggs and cornstarch, then stir the whole over the fire until it has the thickness of cream; take it off and mix in the cider, stirring all the time; serve in a butter boat.

The third is the most basic of all, and seems almost “Americanized,” with its inclusion of molasses:
Poor Man’s Plum Pudding

1 cup of molasses –
1 cup milk
1 cup raisins
1 cup suet chopped fine
3 cups flour
1 teaspoonful of soda
Pinch salt

I decided to make the traditional, fancy, “orthodox English recipe.” As I started gathering the ingredients, I realized suet was not going to be easy to find. I went to a number of stores, including specialty groceries, and nobody had it. Most folks have heard of suet referenced as a bird food, and it is still available for purchase in this way, just not for human consumption. One butcher did give me some beef fat for free, but unfortunately this was not what I needed – suet is solid (like Crisco). I looked at other recipes and saw that lard could be a substitute, which I thought would be easier to find, but this was also difficult (I guess folks really are more health-conscious these days). Finally I found some Goya brand in my grocery’s Spanish section. Yeah – the plum pudding was a go!

I had no problem finding the rest of the ingredients. The recipe for plum pudding in the new cookbook by City Tavern chef Walter Staib, A Sweet Taste of History, suggested using stale egg bread for the breadcrumbs so I picked up a French brioche for this purpose. I think this made a difference by producing a richer batter. I followed the recipe in Anna’s journal, mixing all the ingredients together. I then covered the bowl with plastic wrap and left it in the refrigerator overnight to allow the flavors to blend and the mixture to thicken since it was kind of liquidy. This worked on both counts – the next day it was thicker and richer looking. I went ahead and buttered a molded baking pan and spooned it in. However, instead of boiling it, I decided to steam it in my crockpot. I covered the pan with foil, added some water to the pot, put the mold inside and closed the lid. I let the pudding steam for 4-5 hours on high, then took it out and let it cool for an hour. While baking, it gave off rich aromas – savory (almost a bacon smell) from the lard, mixed with the spicy scent of the nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves.

However, when I tried to get the pudding out of the mold, I realized it was stuck pretty well. I ran a knife around the edges and banged the pan but it wasn’t budging. Finally my husband gave it a few whacks and it came out, just not all in one piece. Since we were on our way to dinner with friends we decided to bring it anyway to get their opinions on the taste. I even made a brandy sauce to go with it that I found in the White House Cook Book (1889) By Fanny Lemira Gillette:
Stir a heaping teaspoonful of corn-starch in a little cold water to a smooth paste (or instead use a tablespoonful of sifted flour); add to it a cupful of boiling water, with one cupful of sugar, a piece of butter as large as an egg, boil all together ten minutes. Remove from the fire, and when cool, stir into it half of a cupful of brandy or wine. It should be about as thick as thin syrup.
The verdict: It was delicious! Everyone loved the flavors and commented that it was similar to a fruitcake but more delicious and moist. I did want to make one that looked better, so I used the remaining batter to try again the next day. This time, however, I sprayed the pan with cooking spray and then lined it with parchment paper. Voilà! No sticking this time – it turned out perfectly, as shown by the accompanying photo. And bonus – I froze it and will now bring it out to share with my family on Christmas Day! Maybe we’ll start a new tradition….

Sources: The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink Ed. by Andrew F. Smith; The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson; The Book of Christmas: Descriptive of the Customs, Ceremonies, Traditions By Thomas Kibble Hervey; Godey’s Lady’s Book Receipts and Household Hints; The Victorian Christmas by Anna Selby; China Bayles’ Book of Days by Susan Wittig Albert; Victorian Christmas by Bobbie Kalman and Barbara Bedell; A Sweet Taste of History by Walter Staib

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Thanksgiving on Tulpehocken Street in 1886

Cornelius and Lucy Weygandt hosted the Weygandt family for Thanksgiving Day in 1886.  The families of Cornelius’ brother George and sisters Sophie, Bessie and Tilda were all there as well as his mother and aunt, everyone coming out on the nearly opened Pennsylvania Railroad line to Chestnut Hill.  The large group of grandchildren ranged in age from 3 to 20.  One grandchild, Jesse Godley, whom Weygandt mentions talking to was, in 1886, a student at the Philadelphia Academy Fine Arts who studied under Thomas Eakins later became a sculptor.

Thursday, 25 November 1886
Christmas Hamper - editThanksgiving DayA legal holiday – the bank closed.  I awoke before seven o’clock, but did not rise until near eight, napping, chatting, etc. in the interval.  To breakfast at 8.10.  This will be a busy day with us.  We are to entertain our family at dinner, and for the rest of the day.  The weather is cloudy dark and dull, this morning; and rain, at any moment, would not surprise me.  We have a colored cook with us, a woman named Bannister, who was also on hand yesterday, and is to be our “Chef” today.  I believe she is a thoroughly good cook.  She gave us a nice oyster omelette for breakfast, which all of us liked except Corney.  After breakfast, I wrote a few lines in this diary; having to use a lamp in the library, as the daylight there was very weak.  Absurdly enough, our library is the darkest room in our house.  Afterwards I read “Miss Defarge” for a short time.  It is an interesting novelette, by Mrs. Burnett, published in the December “Lippincotts.”  My Mother turned up in the morning along with her granddaughter, Annie Peace, the first arrivals of our Thanksgiving guests.  Grandma is always son hand early on these occasions; so much so, that last year, at Godley’s, she was warned by Sophie not to come so soon!  All of the grandchildren were at our house today, sixteen in number; and were placed in a row in our parlor according to their ages, Emily Godley at the head, Jesse next, etc.  Walter Godley was the tallest of them, and is the tallest of his family – out topping his father and mother!  Our guests were as follows Sophie and Harry Godley with their three children, Emily Jesse and Walter; Bessie Peace and her three children, George, Annie and Sophie; Tilda and Sammy Behm, with their four children Harry, Edith, Albert and John William; George & Maggie Weygandt, with their four children, Lillie, Daisy, George and Helen; and Aunt Mary and “Grandma.”  We had them all at dinner in our dining room, at two tables, along with Lucy and me and Rachel, and Sophie & Corney – 28. In all, of which sixteen were grandchildren, all that my Mother has.  There have been four deaths among the grandchildren, viz. Susy and Ally Godley, our Lucy, and Sammy Behm, Jr.  We were very closely crowded; so much so that the waitresses, Mary Costello, and a colored woman, Margaret Coverdale, found it quite difficult to get around to us.  We ought to have had the small table for the youngsters set in the hall.  The dinner passed off well.  It included three roast turkies with oyster sauce and vegetables, with plum pudding, pies, fruit, nuts & raisins, coffee, four bottles of champagne (one, “Veuve Clicquot: and three “Rommery Sec”) olives, etc. etc.  I gave the smokers segars after dinner.  Showed my lately purchased rugs – especially, to Sophie & Harry.  Had some talked with Jesse, upon art topics, during the afternoon.  The supper was late and light; tongue, pickled oysters, etc.  I took only the latter.  The juniors played at “Yellow Dwarf” during the latter part of the afternoon, and in the evening; and afterwards they went to singing part music, assisted by Sophie & Harry Godley & Besse Peace – solo & chorus pieces, African Scotch, etc.  Behm & Tilda went home with their two younger children by the 9.16 train; and the two younger, little, Weygandts were called for by a maid; before supper.  The rest of the company, except Grandma and Aunt Mary, went home by the 10.25 train; we sending two carriage loads of the gentler sex down in our wagon, while the remainder walked to the station.  “Grandma” and Aunt Mary remain over night with us.  After the folks had gone to the train, and our remaining visitors had retired for the night, Lucy and I, with Rachel and the children (Sophie & Corney), sat up late, talking over the events of the day, and the peculiarities of our relatives.  We think that the entertainment passed off well, all seeming to enjoy themselves.  I told the elders of our guests about the conversation which I heard in the cars, a few days ago, between the Revd. Mr. Hoffman & his successor; including H’s estimate of Harry Godley’s wealth, etc. etc. as a member of Miss Benson’s Reformed Episcopal church.  The day was a stormy one; rain nearly all day, and very heavy while we were at dinner in the afternoon; and blowing hard, in the evening and at bed time.  I cleared up however before twelve, and became quite cold by the time that we got to bed – at about half past twelve.  Temperature then 32; and the sky full of stars.

Friday, 26 November 1886
I rose this morning at half past seven.  Lucy and I had been awakened much earlier by the chattering of the two old ladies, in the spare room, which is just behind ours.  Mother and Aunt Mary talked loudly and right on without a stop.  There was no sleep for Lucy and me after they began!. …

Posted in: Life in Victorian Germantown

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Dickens at Ebenezer Maxwell MansionI’ve loved the board game Clue ever since I was a child.  When I played it, I always imagined myself as Professor Plum (usually) moving through the darkened rooms and secret passageways of Boddy Mansion, trying to solve a murder.  When I first came to work at the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion in 2008, you can imagine my joy at being hired to write and direct an interactive murder mystery where the audience actually did get to move through a mansion, collecting clues and meeting suspects.

The annual murder mystery at the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion has become a favorite program, people of all ages love playing detective so much that the event sells out completely every year.  Hundreds of people walk through the Mansion’s doors that perhaps never would have otherwise, and they are usually captivated (as I was) at the house’s beauty and history.  They usually come back for a tour, and start attending our other Victorian Theatre events.

Those of us that work at the Mansion always look forward to the mystery.  Our technical director Jay Efran has a seemingly infinite library of special effects and magic up his sleeve to enhance the performance, and there are many actors who perform in the murder mystery every year in wildly different roles.  One thing that I’m tremendously proud of is that each mystery is related to a period of Victorian history, very often local history.  We’ve done mysteries about Charlotte Cardeza, a Titanic survivor who lived in Germantown, the beginnings of the Civil War, and the Lizzie Borden case, among others.

When we decided to do a murder mystery centered around Charles Dickens this year, I decided I wanted to take a step back from writing and directing the show.  The perfect man to write this mystery was Edward G. Pettit, an incredible Victorian scholar also known as the Philly Poe Guy and the city’s Dickens Ambassador.  Ed has written a hugely entertaining script called Twisted: A Dickensian Mystery.  The basic premise is that Oliver Twist, now all grown up with an inheritance, is bumped off by one of Dickens’ other immortal characters, and the audience has to deduce who killed him, with what weapon, in what room.  Was it the mad Miss Havisham, the untrustworthy Fagin, or even Tiny Tim?

After five years of being behind the scenes, I decided I wanted to act in the mystery this year.  I filled in for one of the actors for one day last year, and had an incredibly fun time.  You get to perform for a large amount of people in small groups throughout the evening, and each time it’s a little different, tailored to the people in the room.  I’ll be playing Charles Dickens himself, a role I’m sharing with Ed Pettit (who looks like he could actually be Dickens).

The cast, directed by Jay Efran, is having a wonderful time diving into Dickens’ rich characters, and of course I can’t reveal who killed Oliver Twist.  You’ll have to buy a ticket and pay a visit to the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion to find out.

Posted in: Victorian Theatre - Behind the Curtain

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