Observing Textures in Recipes

By Elaine Leong

I have held a long fascination with how textures are represented in recipes. As we all know, then as now, producing medicines and food often involves a multi-step process, and careful observation of changes in textures is often the key to success.

Classic White Sauce

Take, for example, the classic white sauce. It all seems simple enough – we mix and heat together butter and flour and then add milk (hot or cold, depending on where you stand on this issue), simmer and whisk away and, voilà, we should have a silky-smooth sauce, ready for some posh mac and cheese, or baked endive, and much more. Now readers, I know what you’re thinking. It sounds so easy on paper but, if we were honest, we all have stories of failed batches of béchamel. The sauce can taste raw (classic mistake of not cooking the flour enough) or be lumpy (the blender trick never works for me) or end up too thin or thick.

Mixing Flour and Butter

A few years ago, I finally found the perfect recipe for me from Annie Bell’s In my Kitchen. However, though Annie provides the perfect ingredient proportions for my family’s taste of white sauce, for the crucial step – cooking the butter and flour together – I rely on Martha Schulman’s description. The mixture needs to be heat for around 5 minutes until it looks like ‘wet sand.’ The monitoring and observing of textures, particularly any changes, is key to making the perfect white sauce and many other dishes besides.

The early modern recipe archive is also filled with similar sets of instructions where changes in texture were used as markers for the completion of a particular step in production. In my recent book Recipes and Everyday Knowledge, I discuss some of these examples in a chapter on “Recipes Trials.” Due to the generosity of friends and colleagues and the enthusiasm of groups such as the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC) and Before Farm to Table, new examples emerge all the time. Today, I wanted to share a particularly intriguing recipe, which came to light at the EMROC transcribathon last fall.

Dawson’s Recipe for Lemon Wafers

The recipe is for making lemon wafers and is part of the recipe collection of a seventeenth-century English gentlewoman named Jane Dawson. The instructions are brief but detailed. We are told to dry, sift and beat double-refined sugar and mix with the juice of a lemon until it becomes the consistency of honey.[1] Then, scooping some of the mixture in a spoon, we should heat the spoon over a chafing dish of hot coals until the surface of the mixture touching the spoon is “crisp” – that is (according to the OED) rippling, folding or wrinkling. Taking care that the mixture does not boil, we should then spread the melted mixture onto a square piece of paper, pinning the two corners of the paper together in order to curl or bend the wafer and let it dry in this configuration. When we are ready to eat or serve the lemon wafer, we should wet the “wrong” side of the paper with water to release the candy.

As with making béchamel, key to this recipe are the practices of observing and interpreting changes in texture. Two points are of particular importance here – ensuring that the sugar and lemon juice mix achieves the ‘consistency of honey’ and that the mixture heats until it crisps or ripples on the hot spoon.

After the transcribathon, some EMROC members were so intrigued by this recipe that they tried their hands at re-creating it. Lisa Smith, Maggie Simon, and their various assistants spent afternoons mixing and tasting lemony sugar syrup and heating it using a variety of methods from plate warmers to electric hobs. I’ll leave you to read about their adventures here and here, but it is telling that both ended their posts with a reflection about the assumed knowledge required for this recipe. One particular texture was picked up for comment – the consistency of honey. Both Lisa and Maggie were stymied by the instructions to mix fine sugar and lemon juice to the “right” consistency of honey. After all, as a natural product, honey can come in many guises. Our intrepid makers tried to reproduce the thickness of raw honey, runny honey, and crystalized honey and each resulted in a different product with varying degrees of success.

Maggie’s Sugar and Lemon Juice Mixture (Photo taken by Maggie Simon)

Observing textures or changes in textures is clearly a key part of following recipes. Yet, it turns out that it is hard to convey hands-on experiential knowledge on paper, particularly across time and space. Often times, descriptions of textures are made using analogies (e.g. consistency of honey) or metaphors (e.g. wet sand) requiring the recipe writer and reader to work within a similar frame of reference. Further focus on reading or interpreting representations of “textures” in past and present thus seems a fruitful way to shed light on histories of observation, sensorial and experiential knowledge.


[1] Folger v.b. 14, p. 47.

Textures: a Thematic Series

By Amanda E. Herbert and Marissa Nicosia

In a casual conversation about hippocras recipes over a year ago, we realized we had a shared interest in the many ways that texture was represented in recipes, and we wanted to explore this interest in a Recipes Project series. Hippocras, a spiced wine that was popular in Europe and the Americas c. 1400-1800, offers an excellent example of the ways that textures were and can be expressed and experienced in recipes. Making hippocras seems straightforward, if strange. After infusing wine with spices and sweetening it with sugar, hippocras recipes then often call for adding cream or milk. The dairy curdles for over an hour, with creamy lumps slowly coagulating within the wine. The milk solids are then strained out using cheesecloth, sieves, or “jelly bags.” The straining process clarifies the beverage, leaving the dairy’s sweetness behind. But for both of us, the intervening minutes when our precious infused wine was swimming with undesirable curdled matter was absolutely abject. (And we weren’t the only ones who found this process to be fascinating and unsettling: later this month, you’ll see how Emily Brandt undertook a similar project in her piece on “Milk Punch.”)

 

Elisabeth Hawar, Culinary and medical recipe book, c. 1687, f MS.1975.003, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, UCLA.
Elisabeth Hawar, Culinary and medical recipe book, c. 1687, f MS.1975.003, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, UCLA.

For us, the curdled dairy in the hippocras was off-putting: clumpy, soft, squishy, the curds sent us messages about rottenness, wrongness.  But for early modern Euro-American eaters and drinkers, these curdles would have sent very different, desirable messages. Curdles were essential elements of many premodern dishes. In possets, such as this “London Possett” (excerpted above, see the full image here): eggs, cream, alcohol, and seasonings are combined and heated for the express purpose of forming a curdled layer.  

And of course, curdled dairy is a central component of many modern dishes made around the world: Dulce de Leche Cortada, featuring milk curdled with lime and then mixed with egg, cinnamon, and sugar; paneer or chhena, essential to dishes in east Asia.

By Sonja Pauen - Stanhopea - Own work, CC BY 2.0 de, https///commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4140434
By Sonja Pauen – Stanhopea – Own work, CC BY 2.0 de, https///commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4140434

People who work on recipes from the past are used to thinking about taste as subjective, malleable, and changeable in the ways it signifies. We should remind ourselves that texture works this way, too.  It informs what we believe to be edible or inedible, whether that assessment is based on logic, experience, or cultural norms. We experience texture through other senses: touch, taste, and sight. And recipes reveal how texture was considered both in the process and in the product of medicinal and culinary preparations.

In this series, we approach texture from the perspectives of food and medicine, materials and sensations. Over the course of this month at The Recipes Project, we will learn about textures from many different times, spaces, and cultures.  Jack Bouchard will discuss methods of preservation and preparation that transform ingredients in his post on stockfish. Susan Brandt will teach us about the textures of medical preparations and their application to the body in her post on “musk julep.” Jennie Egloff and Andrea Crow will write about pleasurable and abject mouth-feel in their posts on a premodern vegetarian diet, and on an early pressure cooker: the “digester of bones.” We’ll learn about encounters with new spices and foods through trade in Emily’s Brandt’s post on “Alcohol’s Empire,” and Elaine Leong will discuss the meaning and feeling of sweetness in her post on honey. A Tales from the Archive Post by He Bian will allow us to consider human milk – warmed by the body, like and yet unlike other animal milks in its consistency, color, and taste – as medicine in Imperial China. And RP Community Editor Sarah Kernan will bring us an Around the Table post from Helen Davies and Alex Zawacki of The Lazarus Project. Sarah, Helen, and Alex will discuss the “texture” of recipes via the materiality of texts, as they talk about their work with multispectral imaging and manuscripts

This is a processed spectral image of David Livingstone's 1870 Field Diary. The original manuscript page is held by the National Library of Scotland. This image is copyright National Library of Scotland and, as relevant, copyright Dr. Neil Imray Livingstone Wilson. The image has been released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported license.
This is a processed spectral image of David Livingstone’s 1870 Field Diary. The original manuscript page is held by the National Library of Scotland. This image is copyright National Library of Scotland and, as relevant, copyright Dr. Neil Imray Livingstone Wilson. The image has been released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported license.

A sticky substance on a kitchen floor, the jammy center of a hardboiled egg, the weave of a luxe brocade, the slipperiness of a rice noodle, the smooth surface of a metal spoon: the world of recipes is replete with texture, and this month, we’re delighted to explore all of these things with you.