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cheesey man cookieOver the last few cold weeks, I’ve had a touch of the munchies, which of course, can lead you to scoff too many cakes and crisps.  These tasty little nibbles, have been keeping me going, and without overloading on the baddies, as well as being a good excuse to use my gingerbread men cutter!

Cheeseyman Cookies

225g (8oz) wholemeal spelt flour (or regular wholemeal flour)
175g (6oz) butter
175g (6oz) grated cheddar cheese
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon English Mustard

Set the oven to 220 C and grease a baking tray.

Rub the butter into the flour, then add the cheese, pepper and mustard.  Bring together into a ball of dough.

Flour the surface and roll out the dough quite thinly and cut out using a gingerbread men cutter (or any other shape!).  Place on the baking tray and prick with a fork.

Bake in the oven for 15 minutes, or until just browning.  Once cooked leave the cookies to cool on the tray and start to crisp up before moving them to a cooling rack.  These keep well in an airtight container for a few days.

The food writer Nicholas Clee has written an article on the Guardian blog, saying the idea that recipes can be followed to the letter and result in a perfect dish is a modern myth.  I’m not sure this makes recipes a swindle exactly, but it is undoubtedly true that they all need a degree of interpretation, and that you won’t be able to follow a recipe until you’ve learnt some basics about how cooking works.  In Clee’s book Don’t Sweat the Aubergine, he therefore provides ‘why you do it’ sections and information in the belief that understanding how a dish works is more important than a set of instructions.  His blog The Sceptical Cook has extracts from the book, including a brilliant piece on how to cook aubergines.

When preparing ‘Early Vegetarian Recipes’, which re-produces recipes from as early as 1690, exactly as they first appeared, I was very aware that the instructions often made no sense to the modern chef, since there were no stoves and pans had to be placed ‘on the fire’ for hours at a time to cook the dishes.  And whenever I talk to people about the book there are some who say the book would not be for them as they would be unable to interpret the recipes.

Nonetheless some of the recipes do contain very detailed instructions and one of my favourite recipes in the book is not a favourite because I use the recipe, but because it is a lovely piece of historical food writing.  It is an 1866 recipe for Toast in ‘Vegetarian Cookery by a Lady’:

Procure a nice square loaf that has been baked one or two days previously, and with a sharp knife, cut the requisite number of slices, about a quarter of an inch in thickness; place a slice of the bread on a toasting-fork, about an inch from one of the sides; hold it a minute before the fire; then turn it, hold it before the fire another minute; by which time the bread will be thoroughly hot; then begin to move it gradually till the whole surface has assumed a yellowish brown colour; turn it again, toasting the other side in the same manner; then lay it upon a hot plate, spread rather less than an ounce of butter over, and cut it into four or six pieces; if three or four slices are required, cut each slice into pieces as soon as buttered, and pile them lightly upon the hot plate on which they are to be served, as often in cutting through several slices with a bad knife all butter is squeezed out of the upper slice, and the lower one is found swimming in butter.

Warming the bread gradually on both sides, greatly improves the quality of the toast, and makes it much lighter.

The butter used should not be too hard, as pressing it upon the toast would make it heavy.

Dry stale bread may be dipped in warm water, and toasted gradually before being buttered.

Another of my favourites from the book is a recipe I do use a lot, but which I am constantly re-interpreting, so that it turns out differently each time I do it!  It’s a recipe for Lancashire Spice Nuts, biscuits flavoured with ginger, treacle and caraway seeds.  Sometimes they come out hard, the texture of ginger nuts, which I guess is how they were intended, but sometimes I get something similar to German Lebkuchen with a soft, cakey interior, which suits the spices and which I rather like.  One of these days I’ll come up with my own definitive version, but in the meantime, here’s the original, by Charles Walter Forward from 1891:

1 ½ lbs flour
½ lb treacle
¼ lb butter
¼ raw sugar
1 ½ oz ground ginger
½ oz caraway seeds
½ oz carbonate of soda
3 oz orange peel

Warm the treacle, add to it the butter melted, the sugar, spices, soda and orange peel minced fine.  Pour the mixture into the flour, knead into a dough, roll it out and cut into rounds with a small cutter.  Bake on greased tins in a slow oven for about 10 minutes.

It seems that even in the 18th and 19th Centuries, the world of cookery books was dominated by celebrity chefs, when cooks employed by royalty or those who ran famous eating houses were the main beneficiaries of the boom in the publishing of cookbooks.  There was also a rise in the number of vegetarian cookbooks published during the 19th Century and the writers of those were often already known too.  Mrs Bowdich for example, who published ‘New Vegetarian Recipes’ in 1892, was the owner of a vegetarian restaurant on Gray’s Inn Road in London.

To celebrate all this, the Keats House Museum in London has been showing an exhibition of the period’s celebrity cookbooks, from the collection at the Guildhall Library.  This coming weekend is the last chance to see the exhibition as it closes on 26th February.

This is a recipe from one of the featured books ‘The Complete Confectioner’ by Frederick Nutt, and what I love about this is the instruction to include carraway seeds, ‘as many as you think proper’!

Judges Biscuits by Frederick Nutt, 1819

Take six eggs and break them into copper pan, yolks and whites together, whisk them well for above five minutes, mix half a pound of powdered sugar with the eggs, and whisk them for ten minutes, put as many carraway seeds as you think proper, and half a pound of sifted flour, mix it well with a wooden spoon, and put three papers on your plates; then take a spoon and drop them on papers about the size of a crown-piece, sift some powdered sugar over them, let them be rather thick in the middle, and the oven rather sharp, and when they come out, cut them off the paper while hot.

Keats House Museum

Regency ‘Celebrity’ Cookbooks
Keats House Museum 
until 26th February 2012
Keats Grove, Hampstead, London NW3 2RR UK

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