02 January 2010

A Victorian Christmas Feast

Well, I tried to update my blog a few weeks ago, even in a reasonable amount of time since my feast, but I ran into a number of technical difficulties. But then we both know how quick I am to update.

For my Victorian Literature class this semester, my professor and I decided that instead of having me write a second paper for the class, that I would plan and execute a Victorian Christmas Feast. We decided this sometime in mid-October, and I spent much of the next nearly two months planning this meal (and for all that planning my logistics were awful). I did a lot of research, consulted a number of period cookbooks, and even attempted some of the recipes. In order to convert from mid-eighteen hundreds cooking style to present day can be a challenge. Many recipes I looked at instructed you to boil the food over a “clear fire” for 8 hours. How hot exactly does a “clear fire” burn anyways? All I really know about clear fires is that it must be a fire that isn’t smoky. But that doesn’t help me much since I cook on an electric range. And 8 hours? Really? Or how about the recipes that say “add the weight of two and one half eggs of flour”? How much does an egg weigh? How much is half an egg? And why not give me a measure of flour in cups and tablespoons? After some trial and error, and some decisions to go with my perhaps more modern recipes, but nonetheless tasty and authentic ones, I formulated a menu.

Now, Victorians like to eat a lot of meat, and so a traditional meal for them would often feature six or more different kinds of meat, however mine only included three (which was still costly enough). I started us off with a nice carrot soup. Of course a more traditional Christmas soup would have been a clear gravy soup featuring veal, but I neither know how to prepare veal nor know really where to buy it; so I went with the less traditional Christmas soup in favor of one that is perfectly acceptable in December. After the soup we settled in for our meat. A nice sirloin roast complete with horseradish sauce and Yorkshire pudding (one of which even came out of the pan perfectly), some cold boiled ham, and turkey with sausage stuffing. The turkey was quite an experience. I bought a turkey breast thinking that it would be something along the lines of a chicken breast (and therefore easier to deal with than a whole turkey), little did I know that while a chicken breast is about the size of your fist a turkey breast is about the size of your head (and definitely complete with bones). The turkey and I had a bit of a contest, but I won hands down—though I certainly wouldn’t say that I’m ready to carve the next thanksgiving bird.

Dessert is one of the most important parts of a meal, and not only would there be the big, large desserts served, but there would be a number of smaller dishes like nuts and fruit to sort of fill in the gaps and make everything look absolutely heavenly. Naturally I chose to make a classic, Christmas pudding in addition to the mince meat pies, orange jelly, Charlotte Russe, and gateaux de pomme. The Christmas pudding ought to have been doused in brandy and then set aflame as it was being brought in; however, as I told my class, the university frowns on open flames in the buildings—though the class reminded me that they also frown on food in classrooms. Puddings take forever to make. The recipe said that it should boil for about six hours. I didn’t really believe them, but it does in fact boil for about five. The pudding mold that I used wasn’t particularly large, and so I ended up having to boil two of them. Ten hours later when I was done with the puddings, my apartment was not only quite warm but also very humid and a little foggy. The desserts turned out very well, and were even well received. I was glad that my class took the time to set aside their prejudices and give the mince meat pies and Christmas pudding a chance.

For reasons I don’t understand the English have a reputation for rather awful food. I am here to dispel this rumor. Nearly all of your favorite Christmas and Thanksgiving foods are English. And besides, mince meat has no meat in it, it hasn’t for hundreds of years. Its really just apples, raisins, and spices—in a pie crust. How is that not delicious?

Well, this meal was certainly an adventure, I learned a ton, and enjoyed every minute of it. But then I always have enjoyed moldy, dusty books, sometimes even more than their non-moldy counterparts—so the research was a blast. The cooking took quite a long time. One thing I can say for the Victorian cook is that she had help. I had only myself, and consequently I would have been terminated as an employee of anyone since about half the food I served, I served quite cold. But I think that we spent probably comparable amounts of time in the kitchen, nearly 15 hours (not including the foods I prepared a day or two in advance). Since you likely didn’t get to enjoy the food, enjoy the pictures, though I warn you that some of them are a little blurry.

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