Friday, February 25, 2011

Chocolate Mousse with Szechuan Peppercorn Sabayon

Sometimes when you try to get to the bottom of things, you find you can’t!  Take chocolate mousse (not hard to take by any means), for example.

I decided to do a favorite recipe for chocolate mousse with a Szechwan peppercorn sabayon as part of the Marx Food’s Ridiculously Delicious Challenge (we were given a box of ingredients to use to make a dish with… I chose the peppercorns and coconut sugar…mmm).  Coming up with the recipe was easy… it’s based on my favorite Julia Child mousse recipe from her 1989 The Way to Cook.   Julia’s is a never-fail recipe… but not her first effort at chocolate mousse.  Her original in Mastering the Art of French Cooking was more in the style of a chocolate pot de crème -- without cream -- all rich eggy goodness with butter supplying the necessary oleaginous component for that luxurious mouth-feel we all crave.   As I whipped up my divine chocolate cloud I got to thinking -- who made the first chocolate mousse, where did it come from? 

Chocolate dessert only goes back to the mid 19th century as far as I can see.  Originally, chocolate was a very hot spicy drink from the New World made with water and not milk.  This continued through the 18th century with cream and other additives coming into the mix (like jasmine and ambergris!).

I found this gorgeous innovation for drinking hot chocolate called the mancerina on the blog Potsdecreme.  It was invented in the mid-17th century by the Marques de Mancera,Viceroy of Peru from 1639-48 (said The Oxford Companion to Food).  The stationary cup holder kept the hot beverage from tipping over and scalding the guest. I can see why it was so popular for so long (you can see more chocolate cups and history HERE and HERE ) with such gorgeous vessels to carry your chocolate in... why mess with success? Aren't we glad they did??

The blog Extreme Chocolate  said “The first written record of chocolate mousse in the United States comes from a food Exposition held at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1892. A "Housekeeper's Column" in the Boston Daily Globe of 1897 published one of the first recipes for chocolate mousse. The recipe yielded a chocolate pudding-type dish, instead of today's stiff, but fluffy, mousse.”

I’d like to believe the legend that the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1854-1901) invented chocolate mousse.  He was a great cook and gourmet and after his untimely death at only 36, his boyhood friend, art dealer and tireless supporter, Maurice Joyant, collected his recipes in a cookbook in the early 20th century (translated into English in a 1966 edition).  Included was ‘Mayonnaise au chocolat’*… evidently his creative take on the newly popular savory mousses of the day.  Luckily the name didn't stick even though the mousse went on to be nearly as famous as its creator (don’t worry, I will revisit this cookbook again).  It has been said that Lautrec created the chocolate mousse and the cocktail snack (he loved the American cocktail), now that is brilliant!

 Perhaps if he had stayed with food and away from absinthe, he might have stayed around longer.

Like Julia’s original, the first recipes had no cream (although hers is served with a creamy sauce).  I read Robert Carrier had the first cream version in the 1960’s and by the 1980’s chocolate mousse was ubiquitous, although often little more than chocolate flavored whipped cream.  My version is far more than that -- good chocolate is the key and the rum, coffee, star anise and orange add warm, spicy notes (and Aftelier’s Petitgrain or bitter orange essence if you are lucky!). The Szechuan peppercorn sabayon I’ve had for 20 years in my ratty handwritten recipe book so I can’t tell you where it came from.  I do recommend using good eggs... pasture raised are my favs (from my pals at Grazin Angus Acres.  Remember you don't cook them so the fresher the better

Chocolate Mousse with Coconut and Szechuan Peppercorn Sabayon

Chocolate Mousse inspired by Julia Child

8 oz bittersweet chocolate
2 T strong coffee
2 T dark rum
finely grated zest of 1 orange (microplane is best for this)*
1 star anise, crushed into pieces (from Marx Foods)
3 oz softened unsalted butter
3 egg yolks
1 c heavy cream
3 egg whites
¼ cup ground fine coconut sugar from Marx Foods
*for special flavor you could add a drop of Aftelier’s Petitgrain (from the leaves of bitter orange) or bitter orange essence 

Soak the star anise in the rum and coffee for a few hours till it has released its scent in the liquid then strain, reserving the liquid.  Melt the chocolate with the coffee, butter, rum and zest.  When chocolate is melted, add the yolks… whisking constantly (if you add the butter to the chocolate too soon it could separate).  Allow it to cool a little then beat. Whip the egg whites and when stiffened add the sugar slowly.  Fold this into the chocolate.  Whip the cream till stiff and fold into the mousse and add the drop of orange oil now if you wish.  Chill

Szechuan Sabayon

3 T water
1 T honey
4 egg yolks
16 toasted Szechuan peppercorns from Marx Foods

Whisk the yolks, water, honey and peppercorns (I used a hand mixer for maximum volume) over a low heat till creamy and foamy.  Add the cream and chill.  Strain the peppercorns after they have perfumed the sabayon if you would like, pressing on the solids.  If you really like the peppercorns, as I do, toast them and grind them in a spice grinder and add to the sauce… it leave a wonderful tingling sensation on your tongue that is delightful and a contrast to the richness.

Plate the mousse and spoon the sabayon around it… add extra orange zest if you would like… I love the bitter orange flavor!

*Toulouse-Lautrec's Mayonnaise au Chocolat

In a saucepan put 4 bars of chocolate with very little water and let them melt on a very gentle fire. 
Add 4 large spoons of granulated sugar, half a pound of good butter, 4 yolks of eggs and mix carefully.

Let cool and you will have a smooth paste.  Beat the whites of eggs to a snow and mix them, while stirring, into the paste

Thanks to Gollum for hosting Foodie Friday.... having an anniversary today!!!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Beggar's Purses with Bacon and Cheese

Barry Wine of the Quilted Giraffe, 1990’s (?)

When you are known by friends and acquaintances as a “food person”, there are a few questions that get asked regularly.  One of the most frequent would have to be, “What is the best thing you’ve ever eaten?”

My answer?  There are a few… and that’s not hedging my bets.  Perhaps 5 on my list, but hey, I’ve been around a while now and eaten a lot of great food.  Place, company, event… all contributed to the reason they were best dishes and the top spot changes from time to time even if the list rarely does.

I’ll let you know about one that’s been at the top for 20-odd years that came from Barry Wine’s The Quilted Giraffe in NYC.  The food was all over the place, eccentric and full of hits and misses but creative and fun… this guy was pushing the envelope.  The dish that made me want to genuflect to the diminutive Mr. Wine?  Beggar’s Purses… crepes filled with beluga caviar, crème fraiche tied with a chive.  You popped them in your mouth… I think there were 3 on a plate.  I believe I was such a glutton we had to get another plate and that threw the service off but I didn’t care… I was in love.

New York Magazine, Nov 7, 1983 – that’s Clerc with the moustache!

Mr Wine was inspired to make them after a visit to another great self-taught chef (like himself) in France, François Clerc at La Vielle Fontaine outside of Paris.  Clerc’s Aumônière (that means a little draw-string bag/pouch) became Wine’s beggar’s purses and reading about Clerc I can see why…he and Wine shared the same wild souls when it came to food (although the mad moustache was all Clerc).
Wine was a University of Chicago-schooled lawyer with very little training in the cooking arts (he took a few classes at The Culinary Institute in Hyde Park) but it was probably the fact that he had no preconceived notions that drove him from “chicken cordon bleu and a salad with canned mandarin oranges” to really inventive cuisine.  The NYT wrote “ By the early 80's, Mr. Wine was drizzling red-pepper oil around portions of grilled swordfish, serving sea urchins from Maine and thickening a sauce with mashed potatoes, all strikingly new concepts at the time. David Burke... said Mr. Wine "was the first chef who showed me how creative and whimsical you can be." Don’t forget Wine was the guy who introduced tuna and wasabi pizza and hazelnut-coated sweetbreads! 

The Quilted Giraffe was also a veritable breeding ground for great chefs.   Aside from David Burke, David Kinch of Manresa  spent 4 years there and considered Wine a mentor, Tom Colicchio (Craft and Gramercy Tavern) another self-taught chef, also cooked for Wine – leaving a gig at Alfred Portale’s Gotham  to take the plum opportunity to work with the mercurial Wine.  They (and so many others) remember the experience fondly.  Collicchio remembers making those beggar’s purses all day long!

For years at my New Year's house parties in the country, my great friend Diana would bring a tub of good caviar as her offering.  We all would pig out on caviar and whatever the main course and desserts were that year and drink champagne… normal New Year's behavior.  But New Year’s morning, I would get up late and as the sleepy guests made their way downstairs I would begin making beggar’s purses and a line with plates would form and reform and reform as people returned for 2nds and 3rds and 4ths.  Warm crepe, cool caviar and crème fraiche with a tiny bit of lemon… it was worth not being piggish with the stuff the night before so we could indulge in these beauties for a great beginning to a New Year, with the rest of the champagne of course!

Since then I have done them with salmon caviar, smoked salmon, foie gras even once with whipped cream and raspberries (sans chives!) and they are always wonderful.

The remarkably generous and creative bloggers Natasha and Lazaro (of 5 Star Foodie and Lazaro Cooks) invited me to be part of a great group asked to come up with something fun using bacon and eggs... I was thrilled with the challenge.   I thought I would do something Mr. Wine would appreciate… throw a concept on it’s ear and make something different.

I decided to make the crepes -- but instead of fancy caviar -- fill them with chopped bacon in a creamy cheese sauce.  The idea of popping them in my mouth at brunch appealed to me utterly. I think they would also be fun with a piece of grilled fish, chicken or pork for dinner.  They can be made ahead and warmed gently in the microwave for a few seconds…. They are very rich and 1 or 2 should be plenty (Dr. Lostpast said 3!).  PS, I had chives in a box… bad idea… get full length so they are easy to tie!!!

The recipe for the beggar's purse crepes comes from The New Basics… the classic 80’s Silver Palate cookbook.  They are nearly foolproof.

Bacon and Cheese Beggar’s Purses, makes 10-12


¾ c milk
2 eggs
½ c  flour
¼ t salt
butter for pan

Throw the milk eggs flour and salt into the blender and let ‘er rip for a minute or 2.  Strain the mixture through a fine sieve.

Use a stick of butter to coat your pan with butter like a magic marker…be especially generous the first few and use the butter before each pour of batter.  Swirl batter around the pan and flip once set... do not allow to brown too much!

Use 2 T of batter per crepe.

Bacon Cheese Sauce

2 T Butter
1 clove garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced
½ c cream
pinch of nutmeg
1/8 to ¼ t chipotle pepper, ground
1/8 t pepper
3 T grated parmesan
¼ cup finely grated cheddar
1 t cognac or armagnac

4 strips smoky bacon, chopped and cooked till crisp
12 chives, put in salted boiling water for 5 seconds and drained

Sauté the garlic and shallot in the butter till softened…. I like the butter to brown for an added nutty flavor.

Add the cream and warm, reduce a little and add the cheeses and cognac. 

Lay out a crepe, fill with about ½ T bacon cheese sauce (it is rich).  Tie with a chive into a purse… should your chives not be long enough… tie them together and cut off the excess… makes it easier!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Dinner on Horseback and Trout with Green Sauce

One of the most iconic images for conspicuous consumption has to be the 1903 Dinner on Horseback given at Sherry’s Restaurant in NYC by new Equestrian Club president, CKG Billings for 36 members of the club.  Each new president was to outdo the one before with their parties, and Billings topped them all. 

I had always been curious about what they were eating at the Dinner on Horseback but had never seen the menu!

Enter David Solmonson who runs a great blog called 12 Bottle Bar. It is the only drink blog I read regularly because it’s full of history and humor and he is a great storyteller… he also mixes great drinks! We hit it off and started corresponding about our mutual interests and came up with the idea of complementary posts -- David suggested a sports theme.  I proposed Billings’ Dinner on Horseback (giving me an excuse to find the menu). This was our first (and hopefully not our last) effort.  Honestly, I thought it was going to be a breeze to do yet the same sketchy details were repeated again and again…but no menu (more on that later).  David gets to choose next time!

What do we know?  For the dinner, Sherry’s Rococo ballroom was transformed from this…

to a horse drive-in!  The New Zealand Newspaper, The Star , called the event “a costly freak” and reported “The 36 guests were booted and spurred and wore riding coats.  A bed of roses was laid as a centre-piece in the open court of the establishment, and a broad border of greensward garnished the bed of roses.” “On white satin saddlecloths, bearing the monogram of The Equestrian Club, specially upholstered saddles rested. The trappings and the bridles were of heavy gold cord.  There were individual tables for the guests 2 feet square, and fastened securely to the saddle.” “A groom stood at the head of each horse to remind him of his table manners”.


Former NYT’s restaurant reviewer, William Grimes, in his book Appetite City ( a magnificent book, by the way) wrote about the event:

“Billings guests gathered in a small banquet room, where, a stuffed horse making up the centerpiece, they enjoyed oysters and caviar.  Unsuspecting, they were then led to a larger dining room, where the evening’s equestrian theme unfolded in full splendor.  The room had been transformed into an English country estate, with imitation grass on the floor and burbling brooks flowing through lush meadows. Vine covered cottages struck a picturesque note.”

Word was the event set Billings back $50,000…. a drop in the bucket for Billings who had just paid $200,000 for his new, state-of-the-art stable that was to be christened by a luncheon at the stable following the famous dinner. He spent nearly $200,000 a year to keep his horses at his many stables (Madison Avenue, Lake Geneva, Chicago, Memphis and Cleveland in addition to expenditures for a famous yacht and a garage full of his new passion—cars!).

It was said a riot of press caused the event to be moved, secretly, from the stable to Sherry’s (the NYT’s article reports a luncheon did take place in the stable following the dinner at Sherry’s). The reason for the confusion was that Louis Sherry was having food deliveries made and had service staff arriving Saturday to fool the press so they would stay away from the restaurant on Saturday night! It turns out Billings was a very private person and abhorred publicity… who would have imagined??

There is also contradictory reporting as to whether the dining horses belonged to Billings or had been taken from a riding academy as the NYT’s wrote (one report had his horses, with hooves in cloth bags for stealth, being taken to Sherry’s under cover of night, another version had them running like mad downtown to tire them so they wouldn’t fuss—but who would want smelly, over-heated horses as dinner companions??).

As noted in the article above, the stables were built with well-appointed personal apartments (lined in Flemish oak) above the horse accommodations so Billings and could spend time there comfortably and not have to troop all the way downtown to his 27-room apartment on 5th Avenue and 53rd Street (for which he paid a staggering $25,000 a year!!!) to relax after playing with his horses.  After all, he built the stables so he could be closer to the Harlem Raceway at the top of Manhattan (used for amateurs to run their horses).  The palatial house came 4 years later.


Who was Billings??? He was a Saratoga born millionaire who grew up in Chicago.  His father made his money from his stake in Peoples Gas Light and Coke Company and was also a racing buff.  CKG inherited a truckload of money and doubled his inheritance by 1905 by investing wisely and used his money to indulge his passion for horses.  He retired from business at 40 but wrote “capitalist at large” as his occupation on his tax return in 1910 said the NYT
The only picture of Billing's face I could find.  NYT article June 25, 1905 

In his lifetime he was called the “Grand Marshal” of matinee racing (what we now call harness racing) and owned many champion horses like Lou Dillon…he was very good at his hobby.  There is still a harness race named after him, The CKG Billings Amateur Driving Series.

The 25,000 sq. ft stables may be the building on the far right….

Tryon House around 196th Street in Manhattan—26 servants to take care of 4 people

In addition to the stables, he built a magnificent $2 million (that would be 40-plus million today) house called Tryon Hall in 1907 at the northern end of Manhattan (with a commanding view of all of New York City) that he sold with his surrounding land holdings to Rockefeller when he moved to Santa Barbara in 1917 (for $35,000 an acre).  His land was turned into Ft Tryon Park in 1935.  Rockefeller wanted to tear the house down but neighbors and design professionals rioted at the idea so it was allowed to remain and was rented out.  Rockefeller got his wish when the house was leveled by fire in 1926 (reports had it that the turret ''spouted fire and smoke like a volcano” and the NYT’s said hundreds of thousands watched it burn 

Tryon Hall Arch and Driveway from Washington Heights, Inwood and Marble Hill by James Renner

There are vestiges of his estate still there… the gatehouse, his $250,000 chamfered-brick driveway  and those wonderful arches that you can still see from the Henry Hudson Parkway.  A NYT's article from 1917 said that the brilliantly engineered driveway (he wasn’t satisfied with the easy entrance from Ft. Washington Avenue and wanted a Riverside Drive entrance for his four-in-hand carriage) had a singular and simple inspiration.  When deciding how best to get up the hill to his house, a neighbor recommended sending a cow up the hill, “… she would soon trace out the easiest and best way to the top of the hill…”  “The advice was followed, and the road built at a large cost on the path which the cow followed. "

But there was no information to be found on Billings’ menus at his house or the famous Sherry’s Dinner on Horseback menu -- he was notoriously shy of the spotlight and tightlipped with the society press (when his daughter got married they did release the details of her fabulous lace dress and that of her mother but that was it).  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find a menu from the event.  Strange, right?  The dinner was one of the most famous dinners of the 20th century and no menus extant to commemorate the event???  Go figure.

I went through a stack of Sherry’s menus from the New York Public Library’s collection (they saved everything but the “Dinner on Horseback” menu for gosh sake –from one for the Gas Light Association to one for a dinner for the Hardware and Metal Trades) and found nothing.  I even contacted a Billing’s relative and someone who owns one of Billing’s houses in California… I was obsessed but came up short.   Then my brilliant partner in this endeavor, David Solmonson, found the lost treasure in a 40-year old racing book, Their Turf.  The book’s author, one Bernard Livingston, found the order for the dinner in the Louis Sherry Co. archive!!!   The real menus were done in sterling silver in the shape of a horseshoe and that is probably why they weren’t in menu collections.   Guests also got solid gold matchboxes and gold-initialed leather cigar cases to commemorate the event.

Dinner on Horseback Menu

There were lovely things on the menu – lamb, guinea hen and flaming peaches but I decided on Truite au Bleu the minute I saw it. It was and is a dish to impress. I knew about truite au bleu because the food goddess, MFK Fisher, told the tale of this dish in The Gastronomical Me.  Many years later I still remember her portrayal of the apparently hapless waitress who turned out to be a food sorceress in disguise.  She had MFK completely in her thrall by the end of the lunch and this dish was one of the reasons.  Here the waitress sells the dish to MFK:

“Any trout is glad, truly glad, to be prepared by Monsieur Paul.  His little gills are pinched, with one flash of the knife he is empty, and then he curls in agony in the bouillon and all is over.  And it is the curl you must judge, Madame.  A false truite au bleu cannot curl.”

And for the sauce vert??

“Ah, she sighed at last… isn’t it the most beautiful sauce in the world with the flesh of the trout?”

“She wore the exalted look of a believer describing a miracle at Lourdes as she told me, in a rush, how Monsieur Paul threw chopped chives in to hot sweet butter and then poured the butter off, how he added another nut of butter and a tablespoonful of thick cream for each person, stirred the mixture for a few minutes over a slow fire and then rushed it to the table…

So simple, Madame!  But she shrugged, you know with a master ---“

I imagine the crowd at the Dinner on Horseback felt the same way... it is spectacularly good.

My sauce verte is a wee bit more complicated but ever so delicious.  There is something about the green flavor and the sweet flesh of the trout that is like spring. Watercress grows next to trout streams and they are delicious together.  If you want to simplify the choices for the sauce… I would say watercress and tarragon with parsley would do you well.  Oh, yes, I didn’t scrub my trout (I read that was the secret) and it did turn a lovely violet blue—that’s not photoshop!  I put them in a large saucepan and pushed them against the sides of the pan to mimic the curl of the true truite au bleu… mine was fresh but not alive just before I cooked it.  It needs to be just-killed to curl naturally.  Don’t cook it too much or it will not come out of the pan in one piece!

Potatoes are a classic accompaniment with this dish… and, well, I love purple with green!

Truite au Bleu

 2 very fresh small trout (I got mine butterflied from Whole Foods)
1 quart court bouillon*
¼ c white wine vinegar

Sauce Verte

Few sprigs tarragon
Few sprigs basil
small handful chervil
8 chives
4-5 sprigs of parsley
4-5 sprigs watercress
1 shallot, chopped
½ c white wine
2 Tb. White wine vinegar or verjus (the verjus is especially lovely with this if you have it)
4 Tb butter
2 T heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste
extra herbs for garnish
boiled potatoes, sliced

Warm up the court bouillon and vinegar and poach the fish on medium boil, covered for 5-10 minutes (depending on size of trout and whether it was boned or not).

While that is cooking, Sauté the shallot in 1 T butter. Add the white wine and vinegar and reduce a little. Roughly chop the herbs (it’s around 1-1 ½ cups) and throw them into the pan with a little salt to wilt.  Put the herbs and a little of the liquid in a blender with the remaining butter and the cream.  Add some of the liquid to get a good consistency.  Strain this through a fine strainer and add more liquid if necessary and check for seasoning.  Put aside and keep warm.

Put some of the sauce on the plates. Add the trout and potatoes and sprinkle with herbs.

Court Bouillon

1 small carrot
1 small leek or onion
2 cups white wine
1 stalk celery
2 sprigs parsley
1 bay leaf
1 sprig thyme

Chop the herbs and vegetables and add wine and 6 cups water  Simmer for 30 minutes.

When you are done cooking the fish with it, freeze it and use it again… it just gets better.  Add a little more wine and water when you use it again.

Bouchées Montglas were on many of the Sherry’s party menus that I found and they piqued my interest.  They are little puff pastry shells stuffed with chicken or duck liver, tongue or ham and mushrooms bound together with a rich, creamy meat reduction—a rough paté.  My recipe is a combination of many that I found… there was a lot of variety and no one iconic recipe.  It’s a savory bite you could wash down with saddle-straw sips of good champagne… like an 1898 Krug!

Bouchées Montglas

10 small patty shells either pre-made or cut from puff pastry

You can make the puff pastry from scratch using my recipe HERE or buy them.  Cut them into the appropriate bite-size or remove the patty shells.  Bake 10 minutes at 425º covered with a piece of parchment paper.  Turn oven down to 375º, remove the paper and cook for another 7-10 minutes.  Turn the oven off and crack the door open and leave for a few minutes.

Montglas Filling

1 small shallot, chopped fine
½ c roughly chopped mushrooms
2 tb chopped leek
3 T butter (truffle butter would be great)
½ c smoked tongue or ham, chopped to a small dice
½ c chopped raw chicken or duck liver
1 T Madeira
1 t worchestershire sauce
½ t mustard
 2 t chopped marjoram or thyme
s & p to taste
2-3 T cream
truffle oil to taste

Sauté the shallot, leek and mushroom in the butter until softened.  Remove. Saute the tongue/ham on a low heat and remove. 

Saute the liver until cooked through.  Add the Madeira, mustard, worchestershire sauce, herb and stir.  Add the cream and demiglace.  Put liver in a blender of food processor for a few moments to make a liver mousse or leave as is for a rougher (and more authentic) texture.

Remove and add the cooked tongue/ham and mushroom mixture and taste for seasonings and add the truffle oil.  Spoon into shells and top with herbs and slivers of the green of the leek.  Serve warm or cold.

Thanks to Gollum for hosting Foodie Friday

Don't forget to stop by 12 bottle Bar for the rest of the story!!!!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Winter Queen, a Love Story and Raspberries in Port Syrup with Rose Cream


In honor of Valentines Day, I thought I’d share a heartwarming story of love and devotion that I stumbled upon when Ashdown House was in the news last fall (and share a diabolically simple dessert to compliment their story and the holiday).

Legend has it that the Dutch-style manor, Ashdown House, was built for William, Lord Craven to serve as an exquisite bower for his beloved Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James I and Queen of Bohemia for one short winter in 1619 before she and her husband, Frederick V were expelled and forced into exile (Bohemia was the old name for the Czech Republic).

Frederick V died in 1632 after fathering 13 children with his much loved queen. It was a tragic ending to a marriage that had begun with enormous promise (to bind a faction of the Protestant world together) and pomp (Shakespeare and his players performed a special Tempest just for them to celebrate their betrothal in late 1612) -- their English wedding was one of the grandest ever seen.  Frances Yates in her brilliant book The Rosecrucian Enlightenment wrote: “ … all the treasures of the English Renaissance were outpoured, and London went wild with joy at what seemed a continuation of the Elizabethan age in this alliance of a new young Elizabeth with the leader of the German Protestants…The court bankrupted itself through the vast expenditures in clothes, jewelry, entertainments and feasting for their marriage."

It is from this brief monarchy that the title “Winter Queen” was born. Also called “England’s Pearl” and “The Queen of Hearts”, Elizabeth was a contemporary romantic heroine, renowned for her beauty, grace and wit yet buffeted by tragic circumstances in a turbulent age (she was only 9 when she was made an unwitting pawn of the infamous “Gunpowder Plot”  to unseat her father, King James I).

Elizabeth and her family barely escaped Prague with their lives, leaving most of their possessions behind and forced to live in penury while exiled in The Hague.  She lost most of her jewelry to pawnbrokers just to be able to live, yet pride would never let her part with the priceless Medici pearls that were her trademark. She would pawn them then retrieve them when she could.  She and her daughters can be seen wearing them in most portraits.  

All the while she worked tirelessly though a prodigious letter writing campaign to enlist the great and powerful in her cause (you can read about that HERE) as the 30 Years War (1618-48)  raged on (a war precipitated by her husband’s crowning as King of Bohemia).

Fascinating as this may be, where is the love story, you may ask?  This is a Valentine’s post! Here you go, gentle readers...

There was another part of Elizabeth’s life, a theme that played quietly throughout. Amid these crashing waves of history there was a precious, touching love story of unrequited love and devotion.

You see, William, the first Earl of Craven was in love with Elizabeth Stuart for most of his life. As far as anyone can tell, this love was never consummated. He fell for her as a lad of 16 (she was 28) and worked tirelessly to help her for the rest of her life behind the scenes,  even though she referred to him as “the Little Man” or “Little Craven” because of his small stature. This was possible because although he was nouveau riche… there was a whole lot of riche.  His father had moved stratospherically upward in society from poverty to great success in the rag trade and used his position and his wits to amass an enormous fortune, eventually becoming Lord Mayor of London and moneylender to the crown. 

William, Lord Craven had a good ‘back-story’ of his own.  At novelist and historian Nicola Cornick's fine blog Ashdown House, I found a biography of this forgotten cavalier. Today he is most famous for his enduring, unrequited love for Elizabeth, but there is so much more to him.  The Earl of Craven was one of the 9 richest men in Stuart England.  He served bravely in the army of Maurice of Orange while still in his teens and remained on the continent during the Commonwealth (much of the time hovering around Elizabeth).

Craven put large chunks of his wealth at the disposal of Elizabeth, her ill-fated brother Charles I and her nephew Charles II when he could  -- to the tune of £50,000 (perhaps 100 million today!!!) even with most of his money tied up and most of his lands confiscated.  

When Charles II was restored to the throne (April 23, 1661), Craven came back to England … with a 65 year old Elizabeth. Craven’s generosity increased with his fortune that was to become even larger than before when he was richly rewarded by the crown for his loyalty.

Her former residence in The Hague was a renowned gathering-place for the great minds and talents of the age and she wielded a remarkably powerful influence on the arts. It was a testament to her charms as the place was run-down, full of tattered upholstery,  her beloved ‘viol-brown’ silk draperies hung in shreds and all of her best plate had been pawned for bills. She sometimes wanted for enough food for the household and could not entertain lavishly-- still they came.

After the poverty of her exile in The Hague, Craven set Elizabeth up in his own well-appointed house in Drury Lane, London. Now, for the first time in years, she wanted for nothing.  Craven went so far as to fill the London house with items from Coombe Abbey, a childhood haunt of hers that he had acquired so that she would be feel at home.  Craven, forever faithful, began to construct a country house for her when she complained about the noise and crowding in London... Ashdown House. Tragically, she died suddenly, barely a year after her return at age 66 before the house was finished.

After the death of his beloved, Craven showed enormous courage during the Great Plague of 1665 by remaining in London when the rest of the aristocracy fled, working to restore order -- even going so far as to give up some of his own land to use as burial grounds for the plague dead (15% of the population of London died in the summer of ’65).

In the end, Elizabeth acknowledged her faithful friend by willing him all of her papers and pictures.  He lived to be nearly 90, surrounded by enumerable portraits of his love and her family.   The painting “Allegory of Love” by Peter Lely was commissioned after her death but is reputedly an idealized Craven and his Elizabeth -- oil-painted avatars blissfully bound together on canvas as they could never be in life.

Cornelia, Countess of Craven gave Ashdown House to the National Trust in 1956.  The National Trust then took to leasing out the much-aggrieved property (it had been badly abused during WWII). The most recent holders of the lease hunted down and returned to Ashdown House the paintings of Craven, Elizabeth and her family that had been scattered over the 300 odd years since the First Earl of Craven died. They took over a burnt-out shell of a place in 1984.  Over 26 years they restored both the collection and the house to its former glory.

Yet after all that effort to bring the collection back to Ashdown, the contents were sold in fall 2010 in a grand sale (the notice of the sale was how I discovered the story) and the 41 year lease for the house was sold to The Who’s Pete Townsend for a song… a £4.5 million song.  Townsend said that he based many of the songs in Tommy and Quadrophenia on the music of baroque master Henry Purcell so he must have a fondness for the period in which the house was built.  One hopes he will be happy there.

It was a pity all the glorious portraits were dispersed, but the story lives on.  Elizabeth lived a full life playing a dramatic and principal role during extraordinary times. Being a woman of quality and taste (if not always sufficient funds to support those tastes), she paid attention to her surroundings and her table in the best and the worst of times.

Marie Hay wrote The Winter Queen (that you can read HERE) in 1911.  Although a romance, Hay did an enormous amount of research -- using period letters and documents (including snagging access to Lord Craven’s papers) -- even traveling to Prague and Heidelberg to get a better sense of her  “well-beloved, sweet, undaunted lady”.  Hay does paint a well-rounded, if extremely flowery portrait of her heroine and ably points out the changes in style that were occurring during these turbulent times in England and the continent.

At table, the simple Tudor pewter and pottery were replaced by more elaborate silver, pewter and glass during Elizabeth’s lifetime. Food historian Peter Brears wrote in his little book, Food & Cooking in 17th Century Britain, “In 1670, for example, Prince Rupert [Craven administered his estate as well as Elizabeth his mothers’] purchased five dozen silver plates from Alderman Blackwell, each plate weighing 17 ó ounces at 5s 8d per ounce, the whole set costing almost £300.”  “Since solid silver was extremely expensive, many households used pewter as a substitute [pewter cost 1s to 1s 2d per pound]”.

 The BYO knife and spoon (even aristocratic tables were not set with cutlery… you had to bring your own) gave way later in the 16th century to the host providing eating implements.  The hand was no longer the preeminent dining tool.  Hay’s book had a fine description of a banquet for Elizabeth and Frederick in Heidelberg in 1617, mentioning very specifically the unusual refinement of having individual knives, spoons and goblets and clean silver and gold platters (the custom had been to reuse them without washing between uses at table) in addition to some of the 160 glorious feast dishes:

This was radical behavior.  During this same time period in the court of Louis XIII, they still had their goblets or tankards off the table at grand banquets.  Goblets were passed to diners by servants when the diner was thirsty.  I imagine glass became more popular when goblets were left on the table and not carried back and forth by servants as became common later on in the century. Neither were napkins set to each placesetting.  It was an honor to hand napkins to royalty when needed since they didn’t hold them themselves (according to Katharine Alexandra Patmore in her 1909 book on Louis XIII)

This period also saw the beginnings of the more intimate dining room as opposed to the enormous banquet hall. Old houses were retro-fitted and new houses were built with them.

Hay also wrote about less formal occasions and the way Elizabeth brought her English habits with her – especially the snowy white tablecloth (Hay said the Germans preferred Oak and fancy velvet coverings).  Their morning meal with soups and roast chickens, pasties, game, possets cakes and sweetmeats sounds more like a huge dinner than a breakfast.

You can see below the type of table dressing that may have appeared at Elizabeth’s table.  I don’t know about you but I am crazy about the damask.  What gorgeous tables they must have had!

Ceramics masters like Thomas Toft operated in Burslem at Staffordshire potteries making slipware that was the popular ceramic form toward the end of the 16th century. Brears suggests that the pottery became more popular since pewter was so soft that it scarred dreadfully… the glazed slipware held up to the ravages of cutlery.

Can you believe that there were even glass plates in the 17th century... looks Victorian, doesn't it?

I wanted my dessert to have the taste and romance of this history for Valentines to honor Craven’s love and devotion.   I went to Robert May whose cookbook, The Accomplisht Cook, was new when Elizabeth of Bohemia was alive. May’s rosewater and ambergris cream (or boiled cream as he called it) would be perfect, but what with it?  Raspberries, yes voluptuous, red and sweet -- blood-red raspberries -- warm and yielding in ambergris-scented wine… yes, yes, yes and easy as could be to make. 

People think of ice cream or whipped cream with fruit… but an old-fashioned creamy rose-scented sauce is really elegant and lovely with the berries. And the ambergris?  I know I’ve said it before HERE and it is precious, but unlike, say, a truffle, you need so very little to do so very much and it has Olympic staying power… it stays fragrant for years!  It is sublime stuff with a reputation as an aphrodisiac that goes back thousands of years.  Perfect for Valentine’s Day, don’t you think?

 Thanks to Aftelier  (for their rose essence) and Ambergris NZ  (for their ambergris) -- supplying special magic for Valentine’s Day…. May you all have a great one.

Raspberry Sauce with Port for 2

11/2 cups frozen raspberries
½ c port or  banyuls
1/2 c water
2 T sugar
1 drop Aftelier rose essence  or 1 t rosewater
grating of ambergris  (optional)

 Cream Sauce

1 cup cream
1 egg yolk
2 T sugar
pinch of mace
1 drop Aftelier rose essence  or 1 t rosewater
grating of ambergris or ¼ t vanilla

1 c fresh ripe raspberries

Cook the frozen raspberries with the port and sugar for ½ hour over low heat until liquid becomes thickened.  Strain the sauce pressing hard on the solids.  You should have about 1/3 - 1/2 c.

Heat the cream, sugar and mace with the egg yolk over a low heat until slightly thickened.  Cool… it will have a sauce-like consistency… not custardy.  Add the rose essence and grated ambergris now and cover and chill – it is best cool or warm, not cold.

Warm the fresh raspberries in the sauce.  Add the rose essence (or rosewater) to the warm raspberries and grate the ambergris over it at this point or add the vanilla.  Heat melts the ambergris and releases the perfume.

Place the raspberries in the center of the plate, spoon some sauce over the berries, spoon a thin layer of cream and then put dots of sauce in the cream.  Drag a toothpick through the dots and you have hearts!  It is very easy to do.  I think they are more stable when the cream is cool and the sauce is warm…

Just for Valentine’s Day, I give you a lovely drink.  It’s sweet, and full of amazing flavors with a color you will just love.   Hard cider has lovely bubbles at a fraction of the cost of champagne!  The jasmine leaves your mouth perfumed for kissing on Valentines Day!

Red Dusk for 2
½ c sparkling hard cider (I used Crispins)
2 T blueberry syrup*
1 t lemon juice (up to 1 T if you find the drink too sweet)
1 T Liqueur de Poete  (this is a 23 year old pear brandy base that has had gorgeous botanicals added to the mix including sandalwood… a really special liqueur available online and at fine liquor stores)
-- pear brandy or cognac if you can’t get it in time.

Combine all and stir.  Pour into champagne glasses and serve;
*Blueberry Syrup

2 cups blueberries
sugar to taste (2 T to ¼ c)
pinch cinnamon
½ c water

Put all into saucepan and allow to simmer for ½ hour.  Strain, pressing on solids

You have just enough time to get some of Aftelier's divine essences to add to your cooking, or her perfumes to pamper yourself or a loved one for Valentine's Day by pressing HERE