Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Not Jelly

A couple of weeks back I posted about a batch of cormary I made up where the broth unexpectedly turned into jelly.  Of course, being of the geek persuasion, I had to try to make meat jelly the same way ... but intentionally this time.  Naturally, it didn't work.

What I did was to put a 4 pound pork loin into the slow-cooker with 4 cups of white wine, and cooked it all until the meat fell apart. I think I put in a bit of salt too. I thought that this was the same proportions of meat-to-wine as I used in the aforementioned incident.

What I ended up with (aside from the meat which was used for barbecued pork sandwiches) was a quart of really nice soup stock. Excellent flavor, nice body, beautiful color and clarity, but still not jelly.


So now I need to figure out what went wrong and try again (and again ... and again). It could be that I misremembered the proportions and got too much wine in there - diluting the jelly to the point where it won't ... um ... jelly. It might also be an issue of having used white wine instead of red. Lastly, I used the slow-cooker this time instead of a covered dish in the oven.

I think I'll try using less wine and baking the pork in the oven - that'll take less time and materials, if nothing else. I hate it when an experiment fails! Good think I'm not a TV chef. I can just hear the hushed voice-over, "Now chef Myers is dumping the contents down the garbage disposal and starting all over again."

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Waffle! Waffle! Waffle!

My family and I spent the week after Easter on vacation, and the house we stayed in had full cable. This of course led me to watch many many hours of Food Network programming, including several episodes of Good Eats. Now I like this show - it's entertaining and educational, and most of all it's about food. How cool is that?

However, every now and then Alton Brown's food historian would let loose with some bit of absolute, unsupportable nonsense. 

For example in the episode on waffles, the food historian stated something to the effect that waffles developed from the sacramental wafers of the middle ages. This caused me to pass root beer out my nose and to say something rude to the television.  Let's just say that didn't sound right to me.  So now I'm compelled to look into the history of waffles.

I'll start off with a nice painting ...

waffles, ca. 1567

Click on the link and take a closer look. See those things in the lower-left corner? Waffles. Very modern looking waffles for that matter.

There are a handful of medieval recipes for things called "waffles", "wafers", and even "guaffres", but they all describe something that sounds like the thing above. Some of them call for a slice of cheese to be encased in the batter before waffling, others have ground-up fish parts mixed into the batter ("Mmmm ... fish waffles").

There is one reference in Menager de Paris (France, 15th c.) that describes something less waffle-like, but it sounds more like a pizzelle than a wafer, and another from The English Housewife (England, 17th c.) that is definitely a pizzelle. Neither really supports the claim that waffles came from wafers though.

medieval waffle iron
(looks like a pizzelle maker to me)

What about medieval sacramental wafers? Well in medieval England and France sacramental wafers were called "obleys", not "wafers" (the word "obley" comes from the same source as "obligation"). So it appears at the time that waffles (by any name) and sacramental wafers were already two distinctly different things.  

Interestingly, Mayhew and Skeat's Concise Dictionary of Middle English defines "wafer" as "a thin small cake" and notes that it comes from the Old High German "waba" meaning "honey-comb".

So I'll accept that the terms "waffle" and "wafer" were used indiscriminately throughout much of the middle ages, and even that sometime in the late middle ages the meaning of "wafer" evolved to include sacramental wafers. But saying that one of these two items is derived from the other is bunk.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Discworld Cake

Ok, this isn't at all medieval - even back then they knew the world was round - but this has to be one of the most incredible cakes I've ever seen.

Of course they did use marzipan and sugar paste to make edible sculptures in the middle ages. Such sculptures were often referred to as "sotlties" or "entrements". Unfortunately I've seen very few attempts by medieval re-creationists that approach this level of intricacy or artistic skill (and the tree of butterflies I made some time back out of sugar paste pales in comparison).

I am so in awe of this artist.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Accidental Jelly

A good while back, Kristen (my apprentice) managed to get a hold of some cow's feet and tried making meat jelly.  She used a recipe from Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books (included at the end of this article), however her project never quite ... well ... gelled.  That is, it didn't set.  What she ended up with was a large amount of cow-foot soup.

Fast-forward to last Friday when I was preparing food for a royalty lunch.  One of the recipes I made was Cormarye - a sort of marinated, roast pork.  I had a lot of dishes to make, so I cut a few corners, tweaked the recipe a bit, and stuffed it into the oven for a couple of hours.  It smelled absolutely yummy when it came out, so I let it cool, sliced it up, and put it in a sealed container in the fridge overnight.

The next morning I discovered something weird had happened.  As it sat overnight, the wine broth that the pork cooked in had turned to a dark red jelly. Funky. It hasn't done that before. So what had I done differently this time? This is something that I need to figure out if I'm going to intentionally make meat jelly.

The key was in the short cut I took. I used a 4 pound pork loin in a roasting pan that was just big enough to hold the pork and the wine - and therefore left out the broth. I'd figured there was enough liquid to keep it from burning and keep things moist, so what the heck.

Wine is often used when cooking meats since it helps break down connective tissues, and thus makes the meat more tender. This same connective tissue is one of the sources of gelatin (along with bones, hooves, cartilage, hides, and all sorts of other parts that the corporations who sell fruit-flavored gelatin don't want you to think about). Now normally when I make Cormarye I add in some broth. I hadn't realized it, but that broth dilutes the gelatin and keeps it from setting properly. This time when I left it out the gelatin remained un-diluted and could set. Neat.

So all that remains now is to see if I can duplicate this process using white wine instead of the red (which will allow me to color it bright yellow with saffron) and to leave out the seasonings used in Cormarye (so I can flavor it as desired). If so, then I'll have an easy way to consistently make medieval meat jelly and won't need to resort to unflavored gelatin packets - or for that matter cow feet (yeah, you try to find cow feet at the corner grocery).

Medieval Jelly Recipe 
from Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books

Cix - Gelye de chare. Take caluys fete, and skalde hem in fayre water, an make hem alle the whyte. Also take howhys of Vele, and ley hem on water to soke out the blode; then take hem vppe, an lay hem on a fayre lynen clothe, and lat the water rennyn out of hem; than Skore a potte, and putte the Fete and the Howhys ther-on; than take Whyte Wyne that wolle hold coloure, and cast ther-to a porcyon, an non other lycoure, that the Fleysshe be ouer-wewyd withalle, and sette it on the fyre, and boyle it, and Skeme it clene; an whan it is tendyr and boylid y-now, take vppe the Fleyshe in-to a fayre bolle, and saue the lycoure wyl; and loke that thow haue fayre sydys of Pyggys, and fayre smal Chykenys wyl and clene skladdyd and drawe, and lat the leggys an the fete on, an waysshe hem in fayre water, and caste hem in the fyrste brothe, an sethe it a-3en ouer the fyre, and skeme it clene; lat a man euermore kepe it, an blow of the grauy. An in cas the lycoure wast a-way, caste more of the same wyne ther-to, and put thin honde ther-on; and 3if thin hond waxe clammy, it is a syne of godenesse, an let not the Fleyshe be moche sothe, that it may bere kyttyng; than take it vppe, and ley it on a fayre clothe, and sette owt the lycoure fro the fyre, and put a few colys vnder-nethe the vesselle that the lycoure is yn; than take pouder of Pepir, a gode quantyte, and Safron, that it haue a fayre Laumbere coloure, and a gode quantyte of Vynegre, and loke that it be sauery of Salt and of Vynegre, fayre of coloure of Safroun, and putte it on fayre lynen clothe, and sette it vndernethe a fayre pewter dysshe, and lat it renne thorw the clothe so ofte tylle it renne clere: kytte fayre Rybbys of the syde of the Pygge, and lay ham on a dysshe, an pulle of the lemys of the Chykenys, eche fro other, and do a-way the Skynne, and ley sum in a dysshe fayre y-chowchyd, and pore thin gelye ther-on, and lay Almaundys ther-on, an Clowys, and paryd Gyngere, and serue forth.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Medieval Cookery at GenCon

It's official. I will once again be giving a seminar on medieval cooking at the GenCon gaming convention in Indianapolis. This year's topic is Medieval Food Preservation. Here's the seminar description:

SEM00064 - One for the Road: Medieval Food Preservation
D&D characters have their "hard rations" and Tolkein's elves had "lembas", what are your characters going to eat while traveling? Find out about real traveling food in the middle ages: what foods kept well, what foods didn't, and what was the best way to keep meat from spoiling. 8/14/08, 8:00 PM

I gear these seminars towards writers and game designers who want to add more historical accuracy to the worlds they create. The ones I've done in the past have been great fun - I get lots of good questions from the audience. I'm still researching the topic but from what I've learned so far, I think a lot of people will be very surprised.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Sugar is sweet ...

Quite a while back I put some notes on the website about medieval sugar. They're all extracts from cookbooks and such detailing the types of sugar available - the color (white, brown, black) and the form (loaf, cone, powder). My main reason for digging up these references was in part to counter a statement I'd often heard that they didn't have powdered sugar in the middle ages.

Of course I couldn't directly prove that they did have powdered sugar - that seems to be an impossible task. What I could show is that they had something they referred to as powdered sugar, and that given the common kitchen tools and processes of the time it is trivial to grind sugar into a powdered form (interestingly enough, I did find an early 17th century source that says to add starch to powdered sugar to keep it from clumping - which is done modernly). While this isn't positive proof, it does make the case strongly enough to be reasonably certain.

One question about sugar that I couldn't answer this way was about its color. While they did referr to some sugar as being "white", there is no way to know if they really meant white, or if they just meant "light colored". Now to my rescue come a couple of illuminated manuscripts which actually depict sugar!

One comes from a book called Tacuinum Sanitatis - a sort of medieval book on health and wellness. It was originally an 11th century Arabic manuscript, and was translated and copied all over Europe throughout the middle ages. In the picture below from one edition from Italy in the late 14th century, there is a depiction of a sugar merchant selling white chunks.

Theatrum sanitatis, codice 4182 della R. Biblioteca Casanatense. Rome

Pretty conclusive, but it's nice to have a second opinion. So here is a market scene from a different manuscript. In the lower right is a spice merchant with a large white cone of sugar.

La rue marchande, Le Livre du gouvernement des princes
Paris, BnF, Arsenal, manuscrit 5062

Again, it seems pretty clear. The artists chose white paint for the sugar instead of just letting the beige background color to show through. If sugar were commonly brown or black or beige then they would have used those colors instead. Is this positive proof? Well ... no, these could be exceptions, but taken with the textual evidence it becomes very very compelling. Time to update my sugar notes.