Recently I purchased a time machine. It was humble to look at: a recipe book, printed in 1893, called Cakes and Confections à la mode by Mrs de Salis.
You know how scent and taste can transport you to a moment in your past? Take you right back to that first bite, and to everything that happened around it? This book represented someone else’s food memories (Mrs de Salis’ food memories), and I knew that her words on the page, if I followed them, had the power to carry me backwards 123 years in time.
Mrs de Salis was a famous home-cook, the Nigella Lawson of her time, with a best-selling range of “à la mode” titles covering everything from “Dressed Game and Poultry à la mode” to “National viands à la mode” and even “Floral decorations à la mode,” among many more.
But that was a long time ago, and her techniques are foreign to me, and some of her ingredients even more-so (angelica? alum? greengage? ammonia!? pyrogallic acid!?). How were these cakes supposed to taste? I have no idea. What did they look like? Again, no idea. Mrs de Salis leaves no hints, assuming that her readers are already familiar with these types of dishes.
But if I attempt these recipes, and follow them faithfully, I will be stepping into a late-Victorian kitchen. Cooking by the light of the window, squinting over the words on the page as the afternoon shadows gather, by candle-light or maybe, if I am lucky, gaslight. The fire burning in the cast-iron AGA stove keeps me warm. There must be hens in my yard because many of these recipes call for copious numbers of eggs. For the same reason, I imagine I will be serving up smaller slices to my family than my 21st-century counterpart might do; these recipes read heavy! Victorian-era Naomi will have wonderful muscles in her arms, patiently grinding almonds or pistachios into meal to be used in place of flour.
In the process, lost flavours are rediscovered, forgotten meal-times reignited. This is time travel.
Pistachio Cake (Mrs de Salis, 1893)
Blanche a pound of pistachio nuts and pound them in a mortar with a little orange-flower water. Then add the beaten white of an egg and a little grated lemon-peel, six ounces of castor sugar, the yolks of ten eggs beaten lightly, and the whites of eight beaten to snow. Mix all the ingredients thoroughly, have ready a buttered mould, and bake for an hour in a moderate oven. When cold, ice it with pistachio-nut icing.
Ten eggs, my friends! Yeesh! Also, as far as I can see in my book, Mrs de Salis doesn’t actually supply a recipe for pistachio-nut icing. She does however provide a general icing recipe, which I have copied out for you here:
Icing for Cakes (Mrs de Salis, 1893)
Take some icing sugar, mix twelve ounces of it, and mix it in gradually to the whites of four eggs whisked to a stiff froth, beating it well to make it smooth; mix in the strained juice of a lemon and two drops of
pyrogallic acid*, and lay the preparation on the cake with a very broad knife. Put it in a cool oven to harden, but be careful it is not hot enough to discolour it.
Let me know if you bake this. I’d love to know how you go.
* NOTE: Please skip the pyrogallic acid if you try this recipe, as it is apparently poisonous!