Marble Cake

emm-marble-cupcakes-frostedMarble cake typically conjures up images of a beautifully swirled vanilla and chocolate cake, similar to the look of vanilla fudge ice cream. However, throughout most of the nineteenth century, the swirls in marble cake got their lovely chestnut color from molasses and rich spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves, not chocolate.

As I mentioned in a previous post, chocolate as a cake flavoring in America didn’t start appearing in cookbooks until the latter part of the nineteenth century. Prior to this, chocolate was consumed mainly as a beverage. In fact, the earliest recipes labeled “chocolate cake” were meant to be eaten with hot chocolate and actually contain no chocolate at all. In the late 1870s improvements in cocoa processing created a much smoother, more delicious tasting chocolate, which better translated to cake baking.

So when Anna Maxwell of the Ebenezer Maxell Mansion began compiling a journal of recipes in the mid-nineteenth century, molasses was still the ingredient of choice for two-toned marble cakes. In fact, in addition to the marble cake, her journal has several other recipes featuring molasses, including gingerbread, gingersnaps, molasses cake and Dolly Varden cake (comprised of colorful multi-hued layers).

Molasses was an extremely important food ingredient in America’s early days. It first made its way to the colonies from the Caribbean as a by-product of the lucrative sugarcane industry. The British had began cultivating sugarcane in Barbados in the mid-1600s, and by the 1670s, there was a booming trade between Barbados and Rhode Island.  The New England colonists would receive sugar, molasses, cotton and rum in return for products such as pork, beef, butter and cider. Since it was less expensive than refined sugar, thick, gooey molasses became the sweetener of choice throughout much of America. The rich liquid was incorporated into many recipes and used to brew birch and molasses beer and distill rum. When the price of refined sugar dropped at the end of the nineteenth century, the role of molasses diminished.

emm-marble-cake-slicedNot surprisingly, this is right around the time molasses and brown sugar in marble cake recipes began to be replaced by chocolate. For several years, both types of marble cake were often listed in cookbooks, but by the early twentieth century, chocolate had pretty much taken over, evolving into the extremely popular flavor that it is today. Either type of marble cake is excellent, but I highly recommend trying Anna’s version, especially in the fall or winter when heartier baked goods are appreciated. It would be a lovely addition to your Thanksgiving or holiday table!


The original recipe from Anna’s diary:


MARBLE CAKE-Light part-Two cups of white sugar, one cup of butter, a half-cup of sweet milk, whites of four eggs, two and one-half teaspoons of baking powder, two cups of flour. Dark part-One cup of brown sugar, a half cup of molasses, one cup of butter, one-fourth of a cup of sour milk, half a teaspoon of soda, yolks of four eggs, flour to thicken, and flavor.


emm-marble-cake-cupcakesMy adapted version (this recipe makes enough batter for two round cakes two loaf cakes, two dozen cupcakes or a Bundt cake):


Marble Cake


Light part:

  • 4 egg whites
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 stick butter, softened
  • ½ cup milk
  • 1 ½ tsp baking powder
  • 2 cups sifted cake flour


Dark part:

  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • ½ cup molasses
  • 1 stick butter, softened
  • ¼ cup sour cream
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 2 cups sifted cake flour
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • ½ tsp allspice
  • ¼ tsp cloves


  1. emm-marble-cake-batterPreheat oven to 350F. Butter pan(s) and dust with flour or line with parchment paper or cupcake papers.
  2. Beat egg whites until foamy, about 1-2 min. Set aside.
  3. Beat butter until light, about 1 minute. Add sugar ¼ cup at a time, beating 20 to 30 seconds after each addition. Slowly add milk and eggs and mix well.
  4. Add flour and baking powder a little at a time until thoroughly incorporated. Set aside.
  5. In a separate bowl, beat brown sugar, molasses and butter together, then add sour cream and egg yolks. Mix well. Sift flour with spices and baking soda and slowly add to mixture.
  6. Add light and dark batter to pan(s) in alternate intervals. When done, run a knife through the batter a few times to create a swirly pattern.
  7. Bake for 50-60 min if using a Bundt pan; 20-25 for cupcakes and 30 min for 8-in circular cake pans, or until a toothpick inserted into top comes out clean.
  8. Cool on wire racks and ice with sugary glaze if desired (1 cup confectioners sugar, 3 tbsp cream and 1 tsp vanilla).


(Sources: Baking in America by Greg Patent; The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink edited by Andrew F. Smith

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Chocolate Puffs

Chocolate Puffs2Deliciously chewy with a slightly crispy coating, chocolate puffs are delightful meringue cookies reminiscent of a baked chocolate mousse. Very simple to make, they require only four ingredients: egg whites, powdered sugar, cornstarch and unsweetened chocolate.

A sweet blend of stiffly beaten egg whites and sugar, meringue dates back to the sixteenth century. European cooks realized that whisking egg whites with birch twigs (for the lack of a better utensil), created a light, frothy mixture. They used this method to make what they called “snow,” a velvety combination of whipped beaten egg whites and cream.

It was eventually discovered that meringue hardens when baked at a low temperature (or simply left out in the air to dry), changing the texture from silky to one that is pleasantly airy and crispy. In the seventeenth century this was often called “sugar puff,” which was sometimes flavored with caraway seeds, a tradition that continued to evolve with other flavorings, creating a large number of taste combinations. In addition to sugar puffs, nineteenth century cookbooks feature recipes for lemon puffs, orange puffs, almond puffs, curd puffs and chocolate puffs, which I adapted from a recipe found in Anna Maxwell’s journal.

The recipe calls for grated baking chocolate, which gives the cookies a pretty speckled look and really boosts the flavor. However, later recipes often call for unsweetened cocoa, which is a perfectly fine substitution. This is a result of improvements in cocoa processing that occurred throughout the nineteenth century. In 1828 a Dutchman by the name of van Houten patented a way to simplify cacao processing by pressing out most of the fat and alkalizing the dry cocoa that remained. This revolutionized the manufacturing of chocolate, allowing it to assume solid, liquid, and powdered form, paving the way for all kinds of chocolate dessert possibilities. In the decades that followed, recipes for chocolate blancmanges, mousses, creams, cream pies, custards, puddings, soufflés, and syrups began appearing more frequently in period cookbooks. Chocolate puffs are actually one of the earliest chocolate recipes, dating back to the 1700s, featured in cookbooks by Elizabeth Raffald (1769) and Richard Briggs (1792).

Anna’s recipe also contains an ubiquitous nineteenth century measurement – “teacup.” This is one of the challenges in interpreting and adapting historic recipes. Before “standardized” measuring units, cooks used various types of measures. In addition to teacup as a measure, wineglass, dessertspoonful and saltspoonful were often listed as measuring devices in recipes. (We can thank Fannie Farmer for finally standardizing culinary measurements). Since we don’t know what size Anna’s teacups were, I had to improvise by looking at other recipes from the time and similar modern ones. I was able to determine that a teacup is typically about a half a cup in today’s measurements, so I went with one cup of powdered sugar to equal the “2 teacups” in Anna’s recipe, which worked great.

The recipe also says that chocolate puffs are “nice to mix with cake in the basket,” so it is likely Anna served them for tea, perhaps in a silver basket covered with lace, arranged alongside golden sponge and dark, rich fruitcake. The contrasting shades of these treats would have been a lovely presentation.

Here’s Anna’s original recipe:

CHOCOLATE PUFFS, that are nice to mix with cake in the basket, are made by beating to a stiff froth the whites of two eggs; stir in with them, gradually, two teacupfuls of powdered sugar and two tablespoonfuls of corn starch; mix two ounces of chocolate, which you have grated, with the corn starch. Bake these on buttered tins for fifteen minutes in a moderate oven. They should be dropped on the tins from a large spoon.

And here’s my adapted version (I used a stand mixer but feel free to used a hand mixer or mix by hand if you’d like a workout!)


Chocolate Puffs



  • 2 egg whites (room temperature eggs will whip easier, so for best results separate when cold and then let come to room temperature, about 30 minutes).grated baking chocolate
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 2 ounces baking chocolate
  • Pinch of cream of tartar (optional)


  1. Preheat the oven to 350F.  (or 300 for 30-40 min?)
  2. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
  3. Grate chocolate and mix with cornstarch, set aside.
  4. Beat egg whites in a stainless steel or glass bowl at a low to medium speed. When the egg white foam increases in volume with smaller bubbles, add the cream of tartar at the side of the bowl if desired (cream of tartar helps to stabilize the eggs and prevent overbeating).
  5. Increase mixer speed to medium. When the bubbles become smaller and more even in size, increase the mixer speed to medium-high.
  6. Add sugar slowly in a steady stream at the side of the bowl.
  7. chocolate puff mixtureIncrease mixer speed to high and continue beating until the mixture is white, fluffy, firm and still very glossy, like white cake icing.
  8. Add the chocolate/cornstarch mixture slowly and blend well.
  9. Drop spoonfuls of meringue on the baking sheets (I use a cookie scoop)
  10. Bake at 350F for 15 minutes. (Or bake at 300 for 30-40 min). Cool on baking sheets for about 30 minutes and then transfer to a wire rack.

Sources:  “How to beat Egg Whites,” Baking Bites website; “Beating Egg Whites”, Good Housekeeping website; The Kitchn guide to Beating Egg Whites;; Savory Suppers and Fashionable Feasts by Susan Williams; Mrs. Goodfellow: The Story of America’s First Cooking School by Becky Diamond; Seven Centuries of English Cooking By Maxime de La Falaise and Arabella Boxer

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Charlotte Russe

By Becky Diamond

Charlote RuseIn the Victorian era it was especially fashionable to name foods after famous people and places. Naming a dish after a geographical location lent a mysterious element to a meal, summoning up images of distant horizons and alluring travel possibilities. Dishes named for people were either a favorite of that famous person or created in their honor, as is the case with charlotte russe, which was technically named after two people.

“Charlotte” desserts originated in England at the end of the eighteenth century and are essentially puddings poured into a mold that has been lined with bread or sponge fingers. They can be served baked or unbaked. The most famous baked version is an apple charlotte, which incorporates buttered bread, stewed apples and a breadcrumb topping. The name charlotte is thought to be in honor of Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III of England. Charlotte russe came a few years later. A luscious chilled dessert of vanilla Bavarian cream set in a mold lined with ladyfingers, it was created by French chef Carême at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Carême originally called the dish charlotte à la parisienne, but it is believed he changed it to charlotte russe in honor of Russian Tsar Alexander I.

Variations of the popular dessert quickly emerged, including making the pudding as individual servings, and adding gelatin or isinglass (gelatin made from the swimming bladder of certain fish) to help “set” the pudding, and make it easier to turn out in one piece, which was a common American adaptation. Victorian Americans were undoubtedly taking advantage of the newfangled powdered, unflavored gelatin that became available in the 1880s and is now recognizable as packets of Knox® Unflavoured Gelatine, sold in a little orange box. (Prior to this, gelatin was created via a lengthy process that involved making a thick, gelatinous stock from animal products rich in natural gelatin such as veal knuckle, calves feet, bacon hock and rind, poultry bones, and fish trimmings.) The charlotte russe recipe from Anna Maxwell’s journal embraced this new culinary innovation, calling for boxed gelatin:

Charlotte Russe.
Pour ½ pint of Cold water in a box of gelatine, and stand until the whole is dissolved. Make a custard of 3 eggs to a pint of milk and flavor, while hot pour the gelatine in it, + let it stand until cool, stir in the custard before quite-cold a qt of sweetened and flavored cream, line a mould bottom + sides with split-Lady fingers, and fill it with-the custard when it begins to form.

Here’s the adapted version I created:

Charlotte Russe

• 2 packets unflavored gelatin (such as Knox®)
• 3 eggs
• ½ cup sugar
• ¼ tsp salt
• 2 cups milk
• 1 tbsp vanilla extract
• Ladyfingers (one or two packages depending on the size)
• 1 pint heavy cream
• 1/4 cup powdered sugar
• 1 tsp vanilla

1. Place a metal mixing bowl and whisk(s) from an electric mixer in the freezer.
2. In a mixing bowl, sprinkle 2 packets unflavored gelatin over 1/2 cup cold water. Let stand for 1 minute, then add 1/2 cup boiling water, stirring constantly until granules are completely dissolved.
3. Combine eggs, sugar, and salt in a large bowl; stir well with a whisk.
4. Cook milk in a large, heavy saucepan over medium-high heat to 180° or until tiny bubbles form around edge (do not boil). Remove milk from heat, and gradually add to the egg mixture, stirring constantly with a whisk. Stir in vanilla.
5. While still warm, pour in the gelatin and let cool for 20 minutes.
6. Remove chilled bowl and whisk from freezer. Place cream, powered sugar and vanilla in bowl and whip using an electric mixer on medium speed for about 7-8 min. or until firm peaks form.
7. Grease a spring form pan (or spray with cooking spray) and then line bottom and sides with ladyfingers, using whipped cream to “glue” them together to form a solid bottom.
8. Fold remaining whipped cream into custard mixture and then pour over ladyfingers.
9. Place in the freezer for an hour and then take out and carefully unmold onto a plate.
10. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Just prior to serving, garnish as desired – with strawberries or other fruit, more whipped cream, and/or powdered or colored sugar.

To learn more and try a taste of this luscious dessert as well as Dolly Varden Cake, another 19th century favorite, join me at the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion on March 20 for a 19th Century Food Tasting and Demo. CLICK HERE FOR RESERVATIONS



Sources: The Thousand Dollar Dinner by Becky Libourel Diamond; The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink by Andrew F. Smith)

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Life in Victorian Germantown – Christmas 1881

The entries here from the Weygandt diary for  Christmas 1881 offer an interesting glimpse into holiday customs and basic family dynamics, which don’t change much over time, as well as some of the hard facts of life during the Gilded Age.

The Weygandt family’s large home on Tulpehocken Street was one of the major gathering spots for both Lucy and Cornelius’s families on the holidays.  In the year described here, Lucy’s older unmarried brother Pliny Valerian Thomas (1831-1889) and sister Rachel Davis Thomas (1825-1888) came from Chester County to join them along with her 15-year-old niece “Bessie” (Elizabeth Denny) Culbertson (1865-1900) from West Philadelphia.  The Oberholtzers, from Chester County, were relatives too.  “Mrs. Oberholtzer” was Sarah Lewis (Vickers) Oberholtzer (1841-1930) http://, whose mother was Lucy’s first cousin.  Sarah Oberholtzer was writer and poet as well as activist in women’s issues.  Her teenage son, Ellis P. (1868-1936), whom Weygandt refers to, later became a well-known historian, earning his PhD the University of Pennsylvania in 1893 and following a career path similar to “Cornie” Weygandt, starting out as newspaper writer.

The “Mrs. Nichols” Weygandt mentions is Martha A. Nichols, who lived at 125 W. Walnut Lane.  Martha’s husband, George, who was a bookkeeper for the banking firm of E.W. Clark & Son, died in March of 1881.  One of the principals of the firm, Edward White Clark, was a Unitarian and lived in Germantown at “Cloverly,” the corner of School House Lane and Wissahickon Avenue.  The death must have been sudden and left Martha and her four teenage children in a precarious financial situation.  Though the Nichols probably lived a relatively comfortable middle-class life for the period, in the era before pension plans and social security, the early death of the income earner in a family could easily place a family in precarious circumstances.

The reference to Prang’s Christmas cards refers to Louis Prang who is often called the father of the American Christmas card.  Prang, who was based in Boston, began started producing Christmas cards in 1875 and in 1880 started a design contest for the cards that lasted for four years.  The “Christmas pieces” Weygandt purchased would have been from the first year of the competition.  The artist, Ellen Thayer Fisher, http:// lived in New York and was known for her botanical painting.

Saturday, December 24, 1881

Whtiman's…The weather beautifully clear, this morning; and cold.   Thermometer at 26. To town by the 8½ train. Rode down to bank; wishing to get there soon. Called on Gibson, Shaw & Co., and saw Mr. Shaw, in relation to cutting off a portion of the length of our new chandelier – seven inches. He contends to do it, today, although he says that his people are excessively busy, on account of Christmas. … Comegys & Watson came to see Patterson, by appointment, today; in relation to taking measures to facilitate the repeal of U.S. taxation on bank deposits and capital. Shortly after they had gone, W.D. Kelley came in, and had a talk with Patterson upon the same business. Kelley is to have $2,000., today, from Drexel, as a loan, for his services as agent for the banks, in the business. If the repeal of the tax is accomplished, he is to receive a round some from the banks and bankers – say $10,000. or $20,000. I had cold slaw and cold roast beef for dinner; both dressed by myself in a salad mixture. … Went out shopping, in the afternoon; mostly for confectionery; and was obliged to wait a good while (at Whitman’s & Knappel’s) to secure what I required. Back again to bank for my parcels, and then home by the 5½ train. Pliny came out, this evening, to remain over Christmas with us. We had some whist; five games, in which the rubber was won by Pliny & Rachel from Lucy and me.

Sunday, December 25, 1881

Went to bed quite late last night; and did not feel like rising early this morning; especially as I was obliged to get up again, shortly after going to bed, to put hot salt bags on my face which was very painful from neuralgia. I was up a good while, before the pain was moderated sufficiently for me to get to sleep, again. Lucy and Sophie to church in the morning. After they had gone, I got out the two water colors, which I brought home, on Thursday last, and hung them in the spare room – for a surprise for Lucy. They are “Christmas pieces,” painted as competitions for Prang’s Christmas cards, by Mrs. Ellen Thayer Fisher, more than a year ago. I have had them lying at bank more about a year, and had them framed only a short time since by Earle. They look very pretty, in their new places, on the wall of our spare room. Rachel thinks them pretty too. I had Pliny and Corney to look at them as soon as they were hung. Lucy came home from church with Sophie; and began to scold me, at once, for not having hung the evergreens in the dining room, while she was at church. She changed her note, when she got up stairs, and saw the water colors; and felt rather ashamed of her scold of me, who had been busy to please her while she was away. I told her she was served quite right for her crossness. We had roast beef and vegetables for dinner; our own garden spinach among the vegetables. Took my bath, shortly after three o’clock; and dressed and shaved immediately afterwards. While I was shaving Mrs. Oberholtzer and her two boys, Ellis & Vickers, were driven to our place, by Lawrence, whom we has sent to the Depot to meet them, with our wagon. They are to make a short visit at our house. I spent the rest of the day, principally, in entertaining Mrs. O. She has improved. I presume from the travel: having been out West, as far as Denver & Colorado Springs; and also to Boston and vicinity, to visit Whittier & Longfellow. She too has drunk of the “Castalian fountain”! And she thinks herself a poetess! She has brought another volume of poems (her own), for Lucy to read. I believe this was, however at Lucy’s request. A former volume of her poems was very amusing to me, from its many effusions of bathos: and I remember one or two evenings spent in reading aloud selections, which were found very funny by Lucy, Rachel & Mrs. Nichols. Her husband is, perhaps, largely responsible for her conceit; as he spoils her by his absurd estimate of her ability. He looks like the figure head of a vessel; having a most stolid, inexpressive countenance. The elder boy, Ellis, has an oddly sly looking face; and is fond, it is said, of going off by himself to Quaker meeting, on First Day. He is probably a born Quaker. The younger boy is good looking and lively; and a good laugher. The father is a Lutheran and attends a church of that seat.

Monday, December 26, 1881

Today is a holiday – for the observance of Christmas, which comes this year on Sunday. Our bank closed. I went to town by the 8½. train; and to Helmbold’s, to see Aunt Mary, to learn by what train she was coming out to us this morning. And I found, that she was not coming at all; having received and accepted an invitation from Henry Kellogg, after she had invited herself to come to us on Christmas, and suggested that we should give her champagne on the occasion. I told her to come, of course, and agreed to the “liquor.” I feel quite disgusted with her conduct; and am conscious that she tried to make use of us, when she and no invitation elsewhere. She says now, that she will come out to see us on Friday next. I came home in the 9.55 train, and found Pliny, Sophie, Corney & Ellis O. deep in playing “Go Bang,” on a kind of checker board. Lucy took Mrs. O. and Vickers out, to call on Mrs. Ross at a boarding house in Germantown. They came back in time for dinner; Lucy first, having left Sally and her son with Mrs. R. I saw Lucy, standing a long time at our gate, talking to Mrs. Nichols, who would not come in. She found Mrs. N. in good spirits, upon her Christmas presents. Mrs. N. had received $1,000. from E.W. Clark & Co. and $300. from her Unitarian Church. Both tributes to her deceased husband; who was a clerk for Clarks, and did a great deal of work for the church. I am very glad her good fortune. She has abundant need of money. She has also received many other smaller gifts and kind remembrances. We had a large table for our Christmas dinner. Our guests were Pliny Thomas and Mrs. Oberholtzer and her two boys. We had a roast turkey and a pair of roast ducks, oyster sauce for the turkey, vegetables, cold slaw, pear cider; and Darlington pudding, mince piece, fruit, nuts and raisins, coffee, etc. Lucy being unable to get her cooking brandy to burn, around the pudding, I was obliged to produce some of my old Scotch whisky, which flame up fiercely enough, and burned up most of the holly sprigs, which decorated the pudding. I ate rather too much; and felt uncomfortable on account of doing so. Talked awhile, in the library, with Mrs. O., after dinner; and then to the dining room, and wrote out Saturday’s diary. Bessie Culbertson came out, just before tea; and remains overnight with us, by invitation. Her twin brothers, Harry & Morgan, were also invited but were unable to come, on account of a prior engagement. Bess makes an additional person at our supper table. We had pickled oysters for supper tonight; and also last night. And I ate some preserved Canton ginger on both nights. I am fond of it. Had a little headache and slight neuralgia, his evening, which I spent in the library, reading the Decr. Number of the Nineteenth Century. The children and grown folks, too, played games in the parlor. After the rest had gone to bed, Lucy, Mrs. Oberholtzer and I sat up quite late in the library, talking. To bed about twelve.

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turkey imageThe turkey is one of the most quintessential American foods, through its association with Thanksgiving and its reputation as one of the bounteous foods that Europeans encountered in the New World. But our modern feast actually bears little resemblance to the 1621 Pilgrim harvest celebration commonly known as the “first Thanksgiving,” or the Puritan tradition of observing holy days of thanksgiving.

Days of thanksgiving were common in many colonial American communities throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, typically declared by ministers or governors in response to specific occasions, such as a military victory, a plentiful harvest, or beneficial rainfall, but no specific Thanksgiving Day was celebrated on a yearly basis. For both the Pilgrims and Puritans, days of fasting and thanksgiving, like the Sabbath, were serious occasions marked by long sermons, prayer, and time off from work and play.

Thanksgiving_Day_-_The_dinner_Boston_Public_LibraryEventually the idea of feasting as part of a day of thanksgiving evolved as an alternative to the fall harvest festivals that were part of the British culture, particularly in the New England area where many people missed these traditions from their homeland. Turkeys (along with other food and drink) were included in these celebrations. The gathering of extended family as part of these events became more significant during the late eighteenth century, and the foods associated with the New World, such as turkey, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, and cranberries were increasingly integrated. Thanksgiving as we now know it began to emerge.

The relationship between Pilgrims and Thanksgiving can be linked back to Rev. Alexander Young’s Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers, published in 1841. In the book, Young included a copy of a letter dated December 11, 1621 from Edward Winslow, one of the Plymouth colony leaders, describing a three-day feast enjoyed by the colonists and a large group of Native American guests held after the crops were harvested. Winslow did not specifically mention wild turkey in his letter—only that four men went hunting and brought back large amounts of fowl, which could have been any type of birds, such as ducks, geese, or even swans. On his own accord, Reverend Young added a footnote stating, “This was the first Thanksgiving, the harvest festival of New England. On this occasion they no doubt feasted on the wild turkey as well as venison.” In order to substantiate his turkey reference, Young cited Governor William Bradford’s 1650 manuscript, “Of Plymouth Plantation,” which states that in the fall of 1621 “a great store of wild turkeys” was available at the colony. So while it was a real possibility that turkey was one of the birds served at this feast, it was essentially Young’s statement that secured a place for turkey on the Thanksgiving menu.

SarahJosephaHaleBy the 1850s, almost every state and territory celebrated Thanksgiving, but it didn’t become a national holiday until President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation in 1863, the result of a seventeen-year campaign by Godey’s Lady’s Book editor Sarah Josepha Hale. She was able to convince President Lincoln that a national Thanksgiving might help heal the nation after the devastating Civil War. Soon after, with the Victorian era and all its opulence, Thanksgiving dinner became the one of the most carefully planned menus of the year for most families, with roast turkey the main feature.

Preparations for this highly anticipated meal were done well in advance. Homes were colorfully decorated with seasonal autumn leaves, chrysanthemums, asters, palms, ferns, dried grasses and grains. Mince pies and plum pudding were baked at least a week or two ahead. The dinner table was set with pretty china dishes, crystal glasses and silver flatware. Tapered candles illuminated the dining room with a soft, mellow glow, and fireplaces blazed with a cozy light. Children had their own attractively set table adored with brightly colored flowers, fruit and candy.

Oyster soup or consommé started the meal, and then came the roast turkey along with boiled onions, squash, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce or jelly, pickles, catsup, celery and apple sauce. Sherbet was served after the turkey to cleanse the palate and make room for chicken pie or another rich savory dish such as quail or roast duck. Desserts included treats such as pumpkin pie, sponge cake, cranberry tart, Thanksgiving (plum) pudding, fruits, nuts and ice cream. After enjoying all these delicious foods, guests would typically top off this festive dinner by retiring to the parlor to sip coffee and liquors.

(Sources: Excerpt from The Thousand Dollar Dinner (Westholme, 2105) by Becky Diamond; Table Talk Magazine, Volume 14, Nov 1899)

Don’t miss Becky Diamond’s illustrated talk about the 1851 culinary duel between Delmonico’s, NYC, and Parkinson’s, Philadelphia. Click here for tickets

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Lady Cake

lady cake recipeBrowse through any Victorian era cookbook and you will be rewarded with pages and pages of luscious cake recipes. Some names are familiar, such as Sponge Cake, Lemon Cake or Pound Cake, but many have long been forgotten – Election Cake, Queen Cake, Composition Cake, Taylor Cake and Black Cake (also known as plum cake). Several cakes were known by more than one name, such as the Lady Cake featured in Anna Maxwell’s diary (also called Silver Cake or White Lady Cake).


Anna’s diary actually includes two recipes for Lady Cake, a rich pound cake flavored with bitter almonds and rosewater, made snowy white by using only egg whites. In order not to waste the leftover egg yolks, “Gold or Golden” Cake was often made at the same time. This rich yellow cake with a sunny hue was a similar cake made with egg yolks. Slices of these two cakes were often alternately placed in a silver cake basket for the tea table, the contrasting colors creating a pretty striped or checkerboard pattern.


According to nineteenth century cookbook writer Eliza Leslie, Lady Cake “must be flavored highly with bitter almonds; without them, sweet almonds have little or no taste, and are useless in lady cake.” Bitter almonds (which are actually poisonous in large amounts) needed to be properly prepared prior to baking – the use of heat would safely extract their strong, bitter taste. This rather tedious process was done by blanching shelled bitter almonds in scalding water, and then placing them in a bowl of very cold water. They were then wiped dry and pounded (one at a time,) to a smooth paste in a clean marble mortar, along with a bit of rose water to improve the flavor and prevent them from becoming oily, heavy and dark. Miss Leslie suggests blanching and pounding the almonds the day before to achieve better flavor and a lighter color, thus enhancing both the taste and whiteness of the cake.


The white color and delicate texture of Lady Cake was considered so exquisite and elegant that it was often used as a wedding cake in the nineteenth century, frosted with pure white icing and decorated with white flowers. As Leslie raved, “this cake is beautifully white, and (if the receipt is strictly followed) will be found delicious. If well made, and quite fresh, there is no cake better liked.” Leslie’s recipe is apparently for a large wedding-type cake since she stipulates using “the whites only of sixteen eggs, three quarters of a pound of sifted flour, half a pound of fresh butter and a pound of powdered white sugar.”


The versions from Anna Maxwell’s diary are smaller-scale, calling for ingredients equal to half that amount. Only one of the recipes lists almond as a flavoring (and this is rather vague – it says to just “flavor with almond”) and neither mentions the use of rosewater. So, to create a present-day Lady Cake, I took bits of Anna’s two recipes along with tips from Eliza Leslie’s recipe as well as those found in Greg Patent’s Baking in America and James Beard’s American Cookery.


I felt the most important thing was imparting the almond flavor. I wasn’t sure how or if I could get bitter almonds, so I decided to blanch some almonds and crush them in the food processor along with some rose water as per Greg Patent’s recipe. However, I thought that even after the almonds were ground/pounded to a paste they might make the cake texture less tender. Since both of Anna’s recipes called for a cup of milk as an ingredient, I decided to steep the crushed almonds in milk and then pour the milk through a sieve before adding to the other ingredients. I also added some almond extract for extra almond flavor. This seemed to work fine. Another modern update I took advantage of was the use of cake flour instead of regular all-purpose flour. The lower protein content produced a finer-grained cake, and one that was whiter in color too, sticking with the pure white theme.

lady cake slice

Neither of Anna’s recipes calls for any kind of icing, so I also left my cake un-iced, Instead I gave it a liberal sprinkling of confectioners sugar and paired it with a few raspberries for a pretty pop of color. Some whipped cream would be also be a nice embellishment. An authentic icing could be made using egg white, powdered sugar, and lemon or rose water for flavoring, as per Miss Leslie’s recipe.


The two recipes from Anna’s diary are as follows:


Lady Cake.                       Houghs

The whites of 8 eggs- 4 cups flour-2 sugar-1 butter-1 milk-1 saluatus* [sic] tea spoonful-flavor with almond-gold cake made same-way by using the yolks.

* The precursor to baking soda, saleratus is sodium bicarbonate, an early chemical leavening agent that produced carbon dioxide gas in dough and made it rise.


Lady Cake

One cup of milk               Tablespoon of Butter

2 ‘’ ‘’ Sugar           one two 2 spoonsfull Baking powder

3 ‘’ ‘’ Flour                           Whites of 3 eggs


Modernized version:


Lady Cake


2 sticks butter

1 1/2 cups sugar

3 cups cake flour (or 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour)

2 tsp baking powder

¼ tsp salt

½ cup unblanched almonds

2 tbsp rose water

1 tsp almond extract

1 cup milk


  1. Butter a 10-inch Bundt pan, dust the inside with flour and set aside.
  2. Place the almonds in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Let stand for 15 to 20 minutes. When cool enough to handle, slip off the almond skins a few at a time and then pat dry.
  3. Put the almonds in the work bowl of a food processor and pulse a few times to coarsely chop. Add the rose water and pulse 4 or 5 more times. Scrape the bowl and continue pulsing until the mixture is a pasty texture. Add the almond extract and pulse to blend. (Alternatively, the almonds can be crushed with a mortar and pestle – pound 3 to 4 at a time along with a bit of the rose water to form a paste and then mix in the almond extract).
  4. Place the almonds in the cup of milk to steep.
  5. Adjust the oven rack to the lower position and preheat to 350F.
  6. Cream the butter until very fluffy. Slowly add the sugar, about ¼ cup at a time until the mixture is the texture of whipped cream.
  7. Beat the egg whites until stiff.
  8. Sift the flour with the dry ingredients. Add a little to the butter mixture, and then add a little milk, making sure you hold a sieve over the mixing bowl to catch the almond paste. Continuing alternating in the way, ending with the flour (if using a mixer, make sure it is set to lowest speed). Scrape the batter down and then gently fold in the egg whites (best done by hand).
  9. Spoon mixture into Bundt pan and smooth the top. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack for 20 minutes and then run a sharp knife around the edges to loosen and invert on a plate to cool completely.
  10. Sprinkle with confectioners sugar and serve with fresh fruit and/or whipped cream. Or to frost with an egg-white icing as Eliza Leslie used, take 3 oz fresh or pasteurized egg whites at room temperature, 1 pound of sifted confectioners sugar and ½ tsp lemon juice or 1 tablespoon rose water. Lightly whip the egg whites on medium speed until they form soft peaks, about 3 minutes. Lower the speed and gradually add the sugar a cup at a time. Add flavoring and beat on medium speed for 5 to 8 minutes or until the icing forms medium to stiff peaks.

NOTE: This icing should be used within one day. For those leery of using egg whites, you can substitute ¼ meringue powder and ½ cup cold water for the fresh egg whites.


Sources: Baking in America by Greg Patent; American Cookery by James Beard; Seventy-five receipts for pastry, cakes and sweetmeats by Eliza Leslie; Miss Leslie’s New Cookery Book by Eliza Leslie; The Well-Decorated Cake by Toba Garrett; Savory Suppers and Fashionable Feasts by Susan Williams



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Bryn Mawr Grad

Sunday, 19 May 1889

Sophie left us soon after breakfast, to take the 10.14 train on her way back to Bryn Mawr, to continue her preparations for the final examination there. She is looking rather pale and worn, and I wish that the struggle was over. …


Sunday, 26 May 1889

Herbert Morris called to see Sophie this evening, but she is not at tome this Sunday. I believe that Sophie at Cathy Bean’s request, asked him to go with her to Shipley’s, new West Chester, to Cathy’s parting tea to the graduating class of Bryn Mawr. … Corney is undergoing the throes of examination at the University now. And Sophie’s final examinations at Bryn Mawr are to begin next week.


Thursday, 30 May 1889

Decoration Day. A legal holiday. Bank closed.

…I rose late, this morning – at 7.22 – having overslept myself. Breakfast at about 8. as usual. Sophie with us. Having come from Bryn Mawr this morning to go to the dressmaker, Mary Dwyer. I had to give her $15. For her special expenses; and we expect to give her graduating class a breakfast on next Monday that may cost about $100! Trower is to furnish the food and J. Welsh Young, the cut flowers. ….


Monday, 3 June 1889

I awoke several times last night, on account of the pain of the rheumatism in my shoulder (the left shoulder blade at the back). And I do not feel well this morning. Rose before seven. Shaved after dressing. To breakfast before 8. Trower’s waiters were at our house, before breakfast, beginning their preparations for Sophie’s breakfast to her class at Bryn Mawr (the graduating class). It will probably cost me $100. at least. … Went out in the 2. o’clock train; and found only two of Sophie’s classmates at our house; the others had gone before my arrival. These two were Margaret Thomas and Louise Elder. The former is quite pretty; a noble face with a deep voice. I have not seen her before. Louise is a quaintly bright looking as ever. These two went away at 2.50 for the 2.54 train, and had to run for it. There were 25. Girls at the breakfast, including Sophie, and the affair is said to have passed off satisfactorily. The whole troop went over the house and seemed to admire it. … Nothing of the feast was kept for me, except some sweets that I could not eat and some fruit that is almost equally dangerous. The waiters ate everything that was left by the guests – not being looked after properly. …


Thursday, 6 June 1889

Sophie’s Graduation Day

Rose before seven this morning. A cool cloudy morning clearing up later in the day. Breakfast before eight. Lucy and I went to the 97 train, staring for Bryn Mawr, but Lucy sent me home for our invitations to the graduating exercise; which we had forgotten. So I made another start alone in the 924 train, and afterwards went to Bryn Mawr by the 10.15 train, to see Sophie graduate after her four years course at Bryn Mawr College. Gertrude Houston joined me after I had left the train and we walked to Taylor Hall together. We had seats in the front gallery, at first; but afterwards were beckoned down by our party to seats on the main floor near one of the large windows of the assembly room; and went. Our party consisted of Lucy, Miss Grew, Miss Zell, Theora, Lizzie Thomas, Emily Godley and Thalia Dobson. I, however, could not stay on account of a draft that came down upon my perspiring head. And so I went up to the gallery at the rear of the room; where I found Corney, Stuart Wood, Prof. [Morris] Jastrow, etc., and looked from a step ladder over the heads of those seated in the gallery. My perch was in the lobby, and I looked through a door from it to the gallery; having a good view of the stage, and more than half of the hall, and hearing very well. The exercise opened with an introductory statement by Francis T. King, President of the Board of Trustees, followed by a Psalm read by John B. Garrett and a prayer by Doctor James Carey Thomas. Doctor Rhoads, President of the Faculty then made quite a long address, reviewing the work of the college, etc. And the Dean, Miss M. Carey Thomas presented the candidates for the degree of B.A. – after describing what they had done – and Doctor Rhoads handed them their diplomas, in a set form of words; each “Group” of candidates being spoken to separately; the Greek & Latin Group, first, in which Sophie was. Doctor Paul Shorey closed with an address on the part of the faculty, which was very original and able, full of poetry, brightness, sentiment and humor. As Corney and I waited in the lobby, on the first floor of the hall, for our party to come out, I saw and greeted many acquaintances including some of the new B.A.’s, whom I congratulated. Afterwards came the collation in the Gymnasium; where I had an opportunity of speaking to many friends and of thanking Dean Thomas and President Rhoads for their kindness to Sophie, etc. We then went to Sophie’s room in Merion Hall and spent some time there. Corney and Miss Grew left at about 3. P.M. for the City; and Corney took Miss G. to her home in Filbert St. Lucy, Sophie & I went afterwards to a tea given by Miss Emily Balch, in her room, where I made the acquaintance of her father (a Boston lawyer of a most forlorn appearance) and had a pleasant talk with him; about Howells, Tolstoi, Turgeneiff [sic, Turgenev], Kennan, etc. Sophie walked with us towards the station, and levied upon me for more money, before going back to college. After which Lucy and I made calls upon the Goffs & Kellogs. The former were not at home; but we found the latter in, and spent some time there. We saw first Mrs. Kellog & Lizzie, and just as we were leaving, George Kellogg, who came out from town. Home in the 5.48 train from Bryn Mawr; getting off at Powelton, and taking the 6.10 from the city for Germantown. Corney was at home when we arrived; and we had supper soon afterwards. The beef steak was not good, on account, probably, of being basted with lead butter. I tried to write a few lines of diary during the evening, but had to give it up on account of Lucy’s and Corney’s talk about the events of the day. …


Saturday, 8 June 1889

Henry C. Lea called to notify me that he would soon draw upon us for about $40,000. To pay his taxes! And I got him talking about his literary work, and describing to me his methods in writing. He is now working upon the History of the Spanish Inquisition, and he may add several volumes to the three published already upon the Inquisition. …

Sunday, 9 June 1889

…Sophie looks badly from her recent “examinations & receptions;” s they were cleverly put together by Shorey in his address. Her eyes look swollen from want of sleep. Lawrence and Corney brought over her effects from Bryn Mawr on Friday – in a light wagon borrowed from Glassey & Fowler, drawn by our mare Nelly. …


Wednesday, 12 June 1889

Clam soup and peas from our own garden for supper; and both good. My arm quite painful after supper. Corney made a fire in the library grate of cannel coal, which warmed the room, and was agreeable to all of us, both to feel and to see. I chatted with Lucy, Sophie and Corney, for a good while, with only the light of the fire for illumination. And, afterwards, I spent sometime in looking at two groups of Bryn Mawr girls, photographs, which Sophie brought home from college; commenting on the appearance of the more striking faces. One group is the Senior Class that has just graduate, and the other is the whole four classes at the time of Sophie’s graduation. They are good photographs. Sophie played a little on the piano. I went to bet about eleven o’clock. …


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Twitter Recap – Women in History

The next Upstairs, Downstairs event is less than a week away. Let’s take a look back at past tweets about some of the greatest women during the Victorian Era.

ARTICLE – The Royal Society’s Lost Women Scientists by Richard Holmes via The Guardian

VIDEO – Women of Philadelphia: A Sit-In by Philadelphia: The Great Experiment and The Women of Philadelphia: A Documentary

ARTICLE – Louisa May Alcott and the American Civil War by History in an Hour

QUIZ – Can You Name the First Woman To Do (Or Be) the Following? via Sporcle



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Jelly Rolls

jelly roll 2A perfect springtime treat, pretty, dainty Jelly Rolls conjure up images of ladies tea parties, bridal showers and fancy brunches. A Victorian era creation, these delicious confections are made from very thin layers of sponge cake spread with fruit preserves or jelly, rolled up into a neat cylinder, and then sliced into elegant spirals.

Light and delicate, Jelly Rolls are not to be confused with Jelly Cake (also known as Washington Cake, Washington Pie or Lafayette Cake), a popular 19th century dessert made with thin layers of rich cake that had been baked in round shallow pans (called jelly cake tins) and stacked one on top of each other, with the jelly spread in between. Similar to pancakes, some recipes even suggest making the thin cakes on a griddle, such as Eliza Leslie’s 1828 Jelly Cake recipe from Seventy-five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes and Sweetmeats: “Have ready a flat circular plate of tin, which must be laid on your griddle, or in the oven of your stove, and well greased with butter. Pour on it a large ladle-full of the batter, and bake it as you would a buck-wheat cake, taking care to have it of a good shape.” However, unlike a pancake, “It will not require turning,” she says.

Different from the airy sponge cake used in a Jelly Roll, these thin cakes were rich and substantial (like a pound cake), made with copious amounts of butter, sugar and eggs, as well as flour, nutmeg, and rose-water. Leslie’s instructions call for baking “as many of these cakes as you want, laying each on a separate plate.” She says to spread each one with jelly or marmalade, and then stack them until the pile is five or six cakes high. The top was also spread with jelly, then sprinkled with powdered sugar or iced and decorated in a triangular pattern with nonpareils or sugar-sand (colored sugar). To serve, it was cut in three-cornered slices like a pie. These Jelly Cakes were actually the descendants of today’s layer cakes – as baking power and other rising agents became available, cakes got fluffier and fewer layers were used.

According to the Betty Crocker Cookbook, the Jelly Roll is a product of the Depression era – a relatively inexpensive indulgence during that timeframe with its lower-cost homemade jelly filling. But while the delicate cakes might have been a popular, economical treat during the 1930s, they actually began showing up in cookbooks way before that – right after the Civil War.

Some food historians surmise that Jelly Rolls evolved from Genoise sponge, a light sponge cake named for the city of Genoa, Italy that became popular in the mid-19th century. Unlike typical sponge cake where the egg yolks and whites are beaten separately, Genoise sponge calls for beating whole eggs with sugar until thick, and then folding in the flour, which is also the case with jelly roll cake. And like a Jelly Roll, Genoise sponge is traditionally paired with a jelly, cream, or fruit puree filling.


jelly roll_smIronically, the first Jelly Roll recipes were also called Jelly Cake. The earliest one I found was in an 1864 issue of American Agriculturist (contributed by Lizzie Davis of Venango Co., PA). The ingredient list is short and sweet: 1 cup of sugar, 4 eggs, 1 cup of flour, 4 teaspoons baking soda dissolved in a tablespoon of milk, and 1 teaspoon cream of tartar. The instructions are to mix these ingredients and “bake in one long tin, then spread with jelly, roll up, and cut in slices.”

A slightly later recipe from The Godey’s Lady’s Book Receipts and Household Hints (1870) is a little more detailed as to the mixing process: “To three well beaten eggs add one cup of powdered sugar, one of flour; stir well, and add one teaspoonful of cream of tartar, half a teaspoonful of saleratus (an early form of baking soda) dissolved in three teaspoonfuls of water. Bake in two pie-pans; spread as even as possible. Have ready a towel, and as soon as done, turn the cake on it, bottom side up; then spread evenly with jelly, roll up quickly, and wrap in a towel.”

This recipe specifies the importance of getting the cake out of the pan as quickly as possible, a real necessity with Jelly Rolls due to their extreme thinness (unlike thicker cakes which need to cool in the pan a bit before inverting). One odd thing about this recipe is that it suggests pie pans (similar to the stacked Jelly Cake recipes) instead of the long shallow pan that is key to a successful Jelly Roll. As Jelly Rolls gained in popularity, special pans (called jelly roll pans) evolved. These low, elongated pans, measuring 15 ½ x 10 ½ x 1, are basically baking sheets with 1-in straight sides, perfect for baking the thin sheets of cake. The batter for Jelly Rolls is rather sticky, so today’s recipes (and some of the more detailed 19th century ones) recommend lining the pan with parchment or wax paper to prevent sticking to the pan, then inverting it immediately on a towel.

The Jelly Roll recipe I tried from Anna Maxwell’s diary was actually called Sponge Jelly. As with many recipes of the time, it was simply written and not very instructive:

SPONGE JELLY. One cup sugar, 1 cup flour, 3 eggs, 1 tablespoonful milk, 1 teaspoonful baking powder mixed in the flour; bake in thin sheets; when cool spread jelly and roll it.

This single sentence doesn’t indicate what temperature oven, how long to cook the cake, what kind of jelly, how to line the pan, etc. Luckily I had been looking at other Jelly Roll recipes from various timeframes so I was able to decipher specific directions. After cobbling together different versions, here is the final recipe for Jelly Roll I came up with based on Anna Maxwell’s.

SPONGE JELLY (based on Anna’s Maxwell’s recipe)

  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • 1 cup flour (I used cake flour)
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 2/3 cup jelly (I used raspberry for one cake and apricot for the other)

Preheat oven to 375. Line a jelly roll pan with parchment paper (I didn’t have the specific sized pan, so I used two smaller pans – which worked fine and then I was able to use two different types of jelly for a nice contrast on the plate); grease paper generously. Beat eggs on high speed for 5 minutes until thick and lemon colored. Gradually beat in sugar, then milk. Gradually add flour and baking powder, beating just until batter is smooth. Pour into pan, spreading to the corners.

Bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Immediately loosen cake from the edges of pan and invert onto a clean towel generously sprinkled with powdered sugar. Carefully remove paper. Trim off stiff edges of cake if necessary. While hot, carefully roll cake and towel from narrow end. Cool on wire rack at least 30 minutes. Unroll cake and remove towel. Beat jelly slightly with fork to soften and spread over cake. Roll up and sprinkle with powdered sugar.


Sources: Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson; Betty Crocker’s 40th Anniversary Edition Cookbook; Seventy-five receipts for pastry, cakes and sweetmeats by Eliza Leslie; Baking in America by Greg Patent; Larousse Gastronomique; American Agriculturist, Volume 23 (1864); The Godey’s Lady’s Book Receipts and Household Hints By Sarah Annie Frost; American Cookery by James Beard; Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, ed. by Andrew F. Smith

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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.

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