Category Archives: Ingredients

To Make Muske Cakes

By Casey Mitchell

From a cultural perspective, odd foods are a common occurrence in the world today. Individuals from America might be horrified to eat something as foreign as monkey brains–a delicacy in Africa and India–or haggis, the Scots’ age-old recipe for beef-in-a-sheep’s bladder/stomach/what you will. Jane Baber’s Book of Receipts, compiled in 1625, contains several recipes that are, well, interesting, to say the least. Most of them have medicinal qualities of some sort, and, while nutritious, may be pungent or downright aromatic in their own way. One such recipe is “To Make Muske Cakes.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Musk? Like the really smelly ‘perfume’?” Yes, indeed. The very thought of including a glandular secretion from an animal into a recipe sounds fairly disgusting, right? The important part is not in its smell or taste, but its purpose, as musk grain, like most smelly ingredients, is used as “a remedy for very grave diseases known to all antique pharmacopeias”.[1]

The process of obtaining the musk itself is worth mentioning, as it can be long. During the period in which Jane Baber was collecting recipes, musk had been an international commodity for about 300 years. Marco Polo’s journey to the Orient in the late thirteenth century yielded the West’s first real encounter with the identity of the musk deer, the animal responsible for the big stink (pun intended). The animal itself, native to Kashmir, was hunted once a year for the two musk pods contained under the belly of the males, which gave off the odious secretions we’re so familiar with today. Once the secretions congealed, they became very much like coffee grounds, filling the glands with musk grain. According to a modern Kashmiri perfumer, “3 small grains of one gram are sufficient to make a liter of alcoholic perfume”.[1] Taking into account the offensiveness of the musk itself and the amount used in making perfume, Baber’s recipe calls for “2 grains of Muske,” making this a very smelly cake.

musk 1
Contents of a Musk Deer’s Gland. Source: Abdes Attar, www. profumo.it.

Other ingredients include, at the very start of the recipe, “gum dragon” or Tragacanth, to be laid “3 days in Bee water.” The plant itself is used in foods and pharmaceuticals as a binding agent, like flour and eggs in baking, and can be administered medicinally to treat both constipation and diarrhea.[2] The “Bee water” remains something of a mystery, being a possible reference to another early modern recipe entitled, “An aproued medesen for them that have ther water stoped with the stone or Strangrel them & it will make them make water in tow hours”.[3] The recipe itself involves the pulverizing of bees using a wooden mortar and pestle, straining the resulting juice, and drinking it to cure urinary blockages, which plays into the waste-managing qualities of the remaining ingredients of the Muske Cakes. Alternatively, it might refer to the syrupy sugar water used by beekeepers to supplement the diets of bees during late winter and early spring when honey and pollen are scarce. This particular concoction in its modern form is made of a heated combination of water, cane or beet sugar–and a small amount of apple cider vinegar to prevent the sugar from caramelizing, which can harm the bees.[4]

The inclusion of caraway seeds in the recipe fulfills the role of an added spice to the cake itself, which is also comprised of “one new laid eg” and “double refine sugar,” mixed in a mortar and pestle. Because this particular recipe doesn’t call for flour, yeast, or any other composite for making a bread-based cake, one would assume that the gum dragon would render the “cake” into something resembling a flan or Jell-O mold. The recipe calls for “the stuffe” to be laid on “wafers” before being put into the oven, to be made “as hott as you can that they maye bee well bakt.” Because I was so interested in what the final product of this oddity might look like, I searched for and found an image that might closely resemble it.

Musk Cakes 2
Pink Musk Cake Pop Bite. Source: Bubble and Sweet’s flickr photostream, http://www.flickr.com/photos/bubbleandsweet/5037947115/in/photostream.

The differences between this version of what the description referred to as a “Pink Musk Cake Pop Bite” and Jane Baber’s version are many.[5] The main one, however, is that the ingredient of true musk grain is now very difficult to find, given that the musk deer has been hunted almost to extinction. Therefore, the musk utilized in the recipe pictured above is very likely taken from the derivative of a musk plant, which serves the same aromatic purpose, though not the medicinal one. The texture of the cake’s interior, however, appears to be pretty close to what I pictured as that of Baber’s.

While the medicinal purpose of Jane Baber’s musk cake is yet unknown, having possibly some connection with the digestive and laxative properties of gum dragon, its composition remains fairly simple. Its ingredients thereof, including artificial musk, can be found in most markets and health food stores. Buyers beware, however, as the smell of musk in a kitchen may be enough to put off the appetites of others! In short, I would only recommend this recipe to those who have no problem in adopting their own special fragrance.

[1.] AbdesSalaam Attar, “Moschus Moschiferus, The Kashmiri Musk Deer”, www.profumo.it, March 2006. Date accessed, 6 April 2013.

[2.] “Tragacanth”, www.webmd.com. Date accessed, 6 April 2013.

[3.] “An aproued medesen for them that have ther water stoped with the stone or Strangrel them & it will make them make water in tow hours.” British Library, Egerton MS 2608.

[4.] Tammy Curry, “How to Make Sugar Water for Bees” www.ehow.com15 August 2012. Dates accessed, 6 April 2013.

[5.] Linda V. “Pink Musk Cake Pop Bite”, Bubble and Sweet’s Photostream, 29 July 2010. Date accessed, 6 April 2013.

Casey Mitchell is an undergraduate student at the University of Texas, Arlington. Casey was involved in a class project to transcribe Jane Baber’s recipe book, led by Amy Tigner.

Liquorice: “The Spoonful of Sugar that Helps the Medicine Go Down”

By Sandra Jergensen

Licorice 1If you wish “To make Juise of Liquorish in the beginning of Maye” à la Jane Baber you need to do some advance planning.[i] Chances of finding suitable fresh liquorice root are slim; you will most likely need to grow your own. By starting prep work immediately you should be ready for juicing, roughly three years from now. While recipes often have many steps and tedious wait periods, just acquiring the ingredient list for “Juise of Liquorish” makes a month-aged fruitcake appear as petty convenience food.  Even though growing proper liquorice, a small leguminous plant, takes “three summers for the roots to grow to full size,” it is worth the investment.[ii] Good, fresh liquorice tastes as good as it is for you. In fact, it may just be the “spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down” that Mary Poppins advocated.

Liquorice has been cultivated on a large scale in England beginning in Pontefract, Yorkshire in the seventeenth century. Even before the Reformation, the region’s monastery popularised liquorice, turning this area into what is still the center of English liquorice tradition as the home of the ever-beloved Pontefract cakes. These coin-sized disks of candied black liquorice stamped with a castle and an owl may have been made as early as 1614.[iii]  While I am unaware of the location where Jane Baber’s seventeenth-century Book of Receipts was written, her use of the “juise of licquorish” is strikingly similar to a recipe for making Pontefract cakes.[iv] The inclusion of such a similar recipe at the time of her manuscript production in 1625 seems downright trendy including considering the fashionable status of liquorice at that time in England. The connection is not just the use of liquorice, but an almost identical preparation of the ubiquitous confection.

While I realized that while neither recipe advertises candy, they both produce it. Baber’s technique, like the recipe for Pontefract cakes, direct the cook to make a combined liquorice root, water and sugar to be cooked and thickened, and shaped into rolls. The Baber recipe also calls for the addition of hyssop, rosemary and colesfoot for added flavor or medicinal use. Even without the precision of a candy thermometer, Baber’s candy-making instruction is spot-on for reaching a “soft-ball” stage of candy making where the liquid has boiled out and the sugars have begun to harden into a tacky, sticky consistency that would allow you to “see the bottome of the bason [while you are] stirringe it very still.” If you follow the directions as written, you should end up with the classic chewy sweet we expect liquorice to be, and the ever-popular Pontefract cakes still are.

Licorice 3In its purest form, Glycyrrhiza glabra, or liquorice, trumps cane sugar’s sweetness fifty times over. Yet the foil is in the bitter flavor it also possesses, which inhibits some tasters from recognizing the intensity of the plant’s sweet flavor. Oddly enough, the sweetness also depends on the way in which liquorice root is cut. The thicker the cut, the sweeter the root seems, while a thinner cut tastes saltier and a bit bitter. Unfortunately I don’t know the result of stamping them all together in a mortar as Baber directs in the recipe. Even so, she covers her bases, calling for the addition of the “three or fower ounces of redd suger Candy.” Although sweet with candy, and perhaps sweet like candy, the classic English treat (Allsorts, anyone?) had more value than a pleasing, sugary sweetness on the tongue: it was most likely intended as medicine.

While liquorice was also a frequent flavoring for stout and gingerbread in early modern England, liquorice was primarily used medicinally. It was a common remedy to treat ailments such as inflammation, mild constipation and the “rume” (excessive mucousal secretions), as Baber’s recipe recommends. Liquorice’s popularity rose, becoming a go-to flavoring for medicine rather than just the medicine itself. Cough lozenges, teas, tonics and ticcatares could be infused with liquorice to cover up less pleasant tastes.

It was most likely in that shift from medicine to medicinal flavoring and candy-like medicine to candy that the original usage was largely forgotten. Yet, all those who enjoyed the flavor du jour, may have not be cognizant of the benefits–that the “spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, in a most delightful way.”  Jane Baber’s medicinal receipt “To make Juise of Liquorish in the beginning of Maye” may have not been a recipe for her favorite candy, but it yielded dry noses, happy bowels, and surprisingly eager recipients.

 


[i] Baber, Jane. Book of Receipts, 1635. MS 108. Wellcome Library, London, f. 21v.

[ii] “Liquorice”, The Oxford Companion to Family and Local History, ed. David Hey, (Oxford University Press, 2008;  Oxford Reference, 2009), date Accessed 8 Apr. 2013 <http://www.oxfordreference.com.ezproxy.uta.edu/view/10.1093/acref/9780199532988.001.0001/acref-9780199532988-e-1128>.

[iii] Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 455.

[iv] http://www.wakefield.gov.uk/CultureAndLeisure/HistoricWakefield/Liquorice/recipe.htm

Sandra Jergensen is an undergraduate student at the University of Texas, Arlington. She was involved in a class project to transcribe Jane Baber’s recipe book, led by Amy Tigner.

Teaching Recipes

Nearly every year, I teach a senior seminar in the English department at the University of Texas, Arlington (near Dallas) that changes thematically each time.  With the recent proliferation of both cookbooks and books about cooking, I decided this spring to try out a class that focused on literature that features recipes as a major component, and, as a kind of juxtaposition to the literature, I also wanted to consider recipes as a literary pursuit.  Students would delve into texts that exhibit literary, lyrical, and aesthetic sensibilities about recipe-writing and recipe-execution, and that mark particular cultural shifts in food praxis and politics. At the same time, students would study how recipe writing calls upon a host of literary and cultural practices.

The literature that we read was primarily contemporary novels, including Annia Ciezadlo’s Day of Honey, Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate and Nicole Mones’s The Last Chinese Chef, though we also read M.F.K. Fisher’s classic work, How to Cook a Wolf.   For the recipe side, we read Hervé This’s Molecular Gastronomy and Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse Café Cookbook. But, as I am an early modernist by training, I also wanted the students to be exposed to earlier recipes to understand how recipes have developed and changed in the last four hundred years.

Here the class intersected with my own research interest in women’s manuscript receipt book writing of sixteenth and seventeenth century England and with my involvement with the newly formed digital humanities group, Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC), many of whose members write for this blog.  I was inspired by Lisa Smith’s autumn class, “Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe,” who had worked on transcribing Johanna St. John’s recipe book. (See her blog post “An Experiment in Teaching Recipe Transcription,” April 12, 2013.)  I was also working in tandem with Rebecca Laroche, who teaches at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, as we decided that we would have our students transcribe the same seventeenth-century recipe book, so that the text could be double-keyed.  Rebecca and I chose Jane Baber’s receipt book, available in digitized form from the Wellcome Library, because it was short, only twenty-six pages, and in a hand, we thought, that was not too difficult.  Our students would code their transcriptions in XML on the Textual Communities crowd-sourcing transcription platform, run by the University of Saskatchewan.

With a couple of exceptions, the students in the class were senior English majors so they were used to reading and writing about literature. Reading and transcribing early modern writing, however, was something that they had never encountered before–and the task seemed at first quite daunting.  To teach the skill of transcribing, Rebecca and I had students utilize the online Cambridge handwriting course, which moves progressively through more and more difficult early modern handwriting.  My class met on Thursdays in a computer classroom, and we devoted the class period to transcription.  What I noticed was that students started working collectively on the transcriptions, and such communal learning made all the parties stronger transcribers.

So when it finally came to transcribing Baber’s receipt book, I decided to have them work in groups.  What we all noticed was that the group work allowed everyone a safety net to have the confidence to do difficult work, with as much accuracy as possible. I also learned a lot about transcribing from the students as they experimented with various techniques, such as using a tablet or large T.V. to look at the recipe while writing the transcription on a laptop. Students became tenacious in figuring out what words could be, looking them up in the Oxford English Dictionary or in a Google search.  They also struggled to learn to code in XML and to make everything work correctly on the Textual Communities site.

Throughout the semester, students had to write short, researched analytical commentaries, and in the next few days some students from the class will be posting their discoveries about Jane Baber’s recipes.  I am sure you will enjoy their discoveries, and it is exciting to see such keen interest in these receipt book manuscripts.

 

Jane Baber 1r                              Jane Baber 6r

Because she is worth it

By Laurence Totelin

Recently, I started experimenting with Greek, Roman and Byzantine recipes for pharmacological and cosmetic concoctions. My most adventurous attempt so far was recreating the ‘soap used by the Patrician Pelagia’, a recipe preserved in the writings of Aetius of Amida (sixth century CE):

Soap the Patrician [i.e. noble] Pelagia used to make her face shine: Gallic soap, 6 ounces; starch, 1½ ounce; white lead, 1½ ounce; mastic, ½ ounce; deer marrow, 1 ounce; white native sodium carbonate, 4 pastilles; white wax, 3 ounces. Soak the soap beforehand in water in a small jar for five days, changing the rain water every day and filtering the soap. After that, on the sixth day, put the soap in a new cooking pot with the rain water; place on coals, on a low heat, until the soap has melted. Then sprinkle with the wax and the marrow, and when they are dissolved, take the frying pan and stir well with a spittle and sprinkle the mastic and the starch, ground beforehand. Then add the white lead (ground beforehand in some water) in a small dish and beat up with the hand vigorously. Then place in a new jar and use generously. [Aetius 8.6]

My re-creation of Pelagia's soap. Note the snow-whiteness
My re-creation of Pelagia’s soap. Note the snow-whiteness

I have recounted my experiments with this foundation face-cream on my blog ‘concocting history. Here I would like to focus on the attribution to the Patrician Pelagia. Ancient medical authors often claimed someone famous had used their preparations, and in the case of gynaecological remedies and cosmetics, they sometimes called upon the authority of women. Among these women, one can mention Cleopatra (the name of the most famous queen of antiquity) and Thais (the name of a famous courtesan). Of course it is possible that Queen Cleopatra and the courtesan Thais endorsed cosmetic products, but I think it is more likely their names were chosen for their connotations: sexual appeal, luxury, pleasure…

So what about our Patrician Pelagia? Was Aetius referring to a historical character, a noble Pelagia, or was he calling upon the connotations attached to that name. And what might those connotations have been? ‘Pelagia’ was the name of various Saints, the most famous of which was undoubtedly the – perhaps fictional – Pelagia the Harlot, who started her life as a famous ‘actress’ from Antioch, and converted to Christianity under the influence of the bishop Nonnus. The story of her life, written in the fifth century, became extremely popular. (See here for a translation).

Now, beauty, ornaments and smell play an important role in that story.[1] When Nonnus first encountered the prostitute Pelagia, she was going through the streets of Antioch, sat on a donkey, covered in pearls and gold (but nothing else), and ‘as she went past, the air was filled with the sweet scent of musk and other perfumes.’ The sight and scent of the harlot led the poor Nonnus into temptation, for which he repented through prayer. The night of the following Sunday, Nonnus had a dream in which a dove covered in filth passed by the altar during Mass, its ‘stink so strong as to be difficult to bear’. After Mass, the dream went on, Nonnus plunged the dove in a pool in front of the church. It came out ‘as white as snow’. That dream spurred Nonnus to give the most inspiring sermon in Church that day and, as it happened, Pelagia the harlot was in attendance. Awed by the power of the bishop’s words, she converted–and went on to lead a life of repentance, disguised as the eunuch Pelagius.

Saint Pelagia surrounded by her admirers; Nonnus prays. 14th century French Manuscript Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Français 185, Fol. 264v
Saint Pelagia surrounded by her admirers; Nonnus prays. 14th century French Manuscript: Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Français 185, Fol. 264v

Thus Pelagia goes from a journey from  over-sexualised, artificial beauty redolent of perfumes masking the stink of filth to resplendent, gender-neutral, god-inspired beauty. Interestingly, one striking feature of Pelagia’s soap is its snow-whiteness, which may perhaps have recalled Nonnus’ white dove. It also has no added scent: its odour is that of tallow soap, which may appear unpleasant to the unaccustomed modern nose, but is by no means overpowering. Finally, this concoction contains none of the luxurious, exotic ingredients that so commonly feature in ancient recipes. This simple, bland-smelling, snow-white preparation may perhaps have brought to mind the tale of the repentant courtesan.

It may seem odd to use the name of Saint to advertise a cosmetic product, but the name ‘Pelagia’ would have lent the recipe the right balance of ‘naughtiness’ and ‘sanctity’. A product whose name evoked a repentant harlot would have been a ‘safe’ choice for an honourable, Christian woman who still wanted to look her best. After all, she was worth it!

[1] I wish to thank my former student, Caroline Musgrove, for drawing my attention to this fact.