Thursday, September 27, 2012

Dennis Sever’s House, London and Victorian Apple Fritters with Caramel Ice Cream

Living Room of the Dennis Sever’s House, London, James Brittain photo
The Presidential election is still weeks away and I am drowning in political posturing and unpleasantness.  Honestly, I am sick to death of the tenor of the discourse and wish the candidates, their campaigns and the media would act with some grace and dignity so it wouldn’t feel like I’m watching a feeding frenzy in the piranha pool 24/7. 

When I get sick to death of the world, my imagination looks for an escape and mine came as if by magic when I found a handwritten yellow post-it that a lovely British producer had given me a few months ago.  It had 3 words ––  “Dennis Sever’s House”.  As she wrote she asked if I knew of it and said it was right up my alley –– it certainly was. This was the second time Sever’s House had knocked at my door and the time was right for sharing it with you.  Dennis Sever’s House  is a cure for the gashlycrumb times if ever there was one.

Dennis Severs was born in California, but as a child he had a vision; "Down deep I always believed that one day I would travel past picture frames and into the marinated glow of a warmer, more mellow and more romantic light. There was one such light in particular, one that I saw in the combination of old varnish and paint, and that appealed to me as my ideal. By the age of 11, it was identified as English."

Photos from the Gentle Author of Spitalfields Life 1977

Severs moved to England in 1967 after he graduated from High School and began his immersion into the Victorian lifestyle by buying himself a landau and a much loved horse named Meklenburgh to drive lucky folks around London.  This lasted until his stable was bought out to make way for new construction.  Undaunted he bought the house on Folgate Street in Spitalfields  and never looked back.

A wonderful 1999 obituary in the Guardian quoted Severs saying he didn’t just want to renovate the Spitalfields house but wanted “to bring it to life as my home. With a candle, a chamber pot and a bedroll, I began sleeping in each of the house's 10 rooms so that I might arouse my intuition in the quest for each room's soul.

"Then, having neared it, I worked inside out from there to create what turned out to be a collection of atmospheres: moods that harbour the light and the spirit of various ages in Time."

I knew I’d found a kindred spirit in Mr. Severs when I read in the Guardian article that Severs  “… felt able to summon up past eras not through history books, but through empathy with objects and places, to tell a fictional, true story "aimed at those who want to make sense of the whole picture of being alive".

Photos from James Brittain

The result?  A historian said a walk through the door began  "a magical mystery tour which dazzles the visitor with a succession of scenes more crowded with memorable incident than the mere facsimile of what passes in the museums as a period room". Painter David Hockney described the house as one of the world's greatest works of opera.

The motto of the house is Aut Visum Aut Non (You either see it or you don't).

18 Folgate Street was a decayed 1724 terrace house when Severs found it in a rather notorious part of East London known for Jack the Ripper and Sweeney Todd.  Spitalfields (short for hospital fields) had a short renaissance in the 18th century with an influx of the silk trade to the neighborhood – this where all these great houses were built (the area had had its ups and downs for hundreds of years, Christopher Marlowe had lived there in the 16th century).  When the silk trade waned, the neighborhood became notorious for filth, poverty, debauchery and crime.  Part of Spitalfields was leveled after the Jack the Ripper affair in an attempt to clean the suppurating wound it had become.  It really didn’t help. The plague of poverty continued till recently when again a renaissance has taken over the neighborhood.

Slowly but surely and with enormous creativity and passion, Severs built up the rooms of his house.

Photos from The Gentle Author of Spitalfield's Life
I had forgotten that I had seen bits of the house before in an amazing blog called Spitalfield’s Life  that wrote about and showed the tile work in the house that had been done by the late Simon Pettets.  The tiles looked ancient but were newly made and full of whimsy since they captured the local personalities of the neighborhood, often anachronistically.  When I read this blog I sent links to a million friends because I thought it was so wonderful –– friends sent it out to other friends and I actually got notes from people I didn’t know to thank me for sharing it!  That’s the magic of Dennis Severs house.  I discovered the tiles are only a part of the story when I went to their website and read articles about the place.  

This is the same passion for the drama of place that gave us the screamingly innovative Sleep No More version of Macbeth –– an interactive play performed in a decoratively nuanced, multi-roomed space in which the audience walks through the rooms to take part in the scenes instead of sitting in a seat –– it was a huge hit because the audience became one with the story.  Dennis Severs House draws you in in much the same way.  I think we all want to step through the looking glass every once in a while.

To share his delight in his home with others Severs opened his treasure to the public and even invented a family to occupy it to make people feel the experience more profoundly as they related to the “inhabitants’ within their home.  Although never seen, the Jervis family of silk merchants seem as if they just left the room one enters, their perfume lingers in the air and the food on the table is still warm and fragrant.  Tasks have just been finished or are in the midst of being accomplished.

The house charts the trajectory of the inhabitants from the well-polished and provisioned golden days of the 18th century to the grim lives of poor attic tenants in the mid-19th century ––  complete with dust, ragged clothes, broken crockery, holes in the ceiling and a note explaining the family has gone to William IV’s 1837 funeral accompanied by the faint sound of church bells ringing (there is a delicate soundtrack to the house –– silent viewing is encouraged that you may hear it).  There is a fire in the kitchen and food and flowers on the table, there are scents and sounds in the house. Windows are closed to the outside world and candles and fireplaces provide light so the magic of being transported to the past is preserved.

GoLondon explained,  “It is difficult to describe but you do feel you are in a different time inside the House. There are ten rooms to explore and each looks like a real home, with full domestic trappings. You need to be willing to meet it halfway as a visit here is about using all of your senses and discovering for yourself. No one tells you which room you are in but you need to look around and work out who lives there. It's dark inside - remember it is only lit by candlelight - but there are plenty of clues to help you find out more about the family.”

Photos from James Brittain

Since the house uses food to help tell the story of the Jervis family, I thought I would offer a recently discovered dish that might have been served there. 

When I wrote about Edith Wharton, I enjoyed reading her mother’s favorite Francatelli cookbook and found some gorgeous recipes.  Francatelli learned to cook with no less than Carême in France, was Queen Victoria’s chef, cooked at the legendary Reform Club kitchen and wrote some fine cookbooks (I’ll write more about him soon). 

A recipe caught my eye because it was so unusual and sounded amazing.  It was a fritter batter with ale and orange liqueur coating apples marinated in cognac and orange rind and it sounded divine and perfect for apple dunking.  I served it with my new favorite ice cream recipe (that I have made many, many times since I first shared it with you as a layer of an ice cream bombe HERE–– I am crazy about this ice cream) but they would be great with cheese or even as a side to a pork roast. The fritters are  boozy, wonderfully so.  You will love snacking on them.  Although best hot, they are good at room temperature.  I couldn’t help but rename them tipsy fritters because when they are fresh they pack quite an alcoholic punch.

Tipsy Apple Fritters

1 large crisp apple (like Granny Smith), sliced, cored and peeled ( I had about 16 pieces)
2 oz brandy
2 T sugar
rind of 1 orange, grated


1 c flour, sifted
2 1/2 to 3 T curacao or grand marnier or triple sec (to your taste)
pinch of salt
1 oz melted butter
1/3 c bitter ale
1 egg white, beaten till stiff

oil or lard for deep frying.
Powder sugar or sanding sugar for dusting

Take the sliced apples and marinate them for a few hours in the brandy, sugar and orange rind, stirring occasionally.

Combine the flour, grand marnier, salt, butter and ale.  Stir well to combine.   Fold the egg white into the batter.

Dry the apple slices* and then dunk the apple pieces into the batter one by one and put into the oil (2 forks seem to work best for this –– drip off as much batter as possible while keeping them covered, this takes a few practice pieces but then it goes fairly easily).  Fry till crisp and golden and put on paper towels.  Sprinkle with sugar and serve with caramel ice cream.

PS I made my first batch with more Grand Marnier and in lard and the second batch with less liqueur and in oil... both were great.  The lard version was gutsier.

*If you don't dry the apples they are boozier and make wild creatures since the batter slips and slides on them

Caramel Benedictine Ice Cream  (with a little help from Epicurious)

1 ¼ c sugar
2 ¼ c heavy cream
½ to 1 t flaky sea salt
½ t vanilla
1 c whole milk
3 large eggs.
1-2 T Benedictine

Heat 1 c sugar in skillet, stirring till it melts.  Then stop and let it turn to dark amber… do not overcook, it turns quickly.  If you are using a cast iron skillet it will retain heat.  Add  1 ¼ c cream slowly, stirring.  Add the salt and vanilla.

Bring milk, the rest of the cream and ¼ cup sugar just to a boil. Whisk eggs and pour the hot milk in a stream.  Pour back into a saucepan and heat to 170º over low heat.  Strain.  Add to cooled caramel and Benedictine and chill 3 hours. Put in an ice cream maker… it will still be a soft ice cream.

This time I cooked the caramel a bit less than usual.  I liked the darker one better... slightly bitter, but that is up to you.

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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Kerylos –– One of the Most Beautiful Places in the World and Cato’s Cheesecake

Villa Kerylos, House & Garden, 2001

There are those who rail against the 1% and their excesses (please explain Spelling Manor to me –– 56,000 square feet of UGLY), but there is a lot to be said for old family money and an eye for art and style.  Without them, there may never have been Villa Kerylos, one of my favorite places in the world.  Reading about Greek art a few weeks ago set me to thinking about the house again after it had been too long out of my thoughts.  I love this house.

The Ephrussis were seriously 1% (their great wealth came from banking and oil) and responsible for some glorious buildings in the late 19th and early 20th century.  They are at the heart of Edmund de Waal’s  incandescent book, The Hare with Amber Eyes. The Ephrussi’s built the Palais Ephrussi in Vienna, the Hotel Ephrussi in Paris and a marriage into the Rothchild family produced the very pink Villa Ephrusi de Rothchild on Côte d'Azur.  They are all spectacular but to me, none compare to the quiet elegance of Villa Kerylos.

Théodore Reinach
The man that built Villa Kerylos was not born into the Ephrussi family but married into it when he took Fanny Ephrussi Kann as his wife.  His name was Théodore Reinach. He came from a family of terribly brilliant men.

‘Polymath’ would be an appropriate descriptor for him since he was an “archeologist, a mathematician, lawyer, papyrologist, philologist, epigrapher, historian, numismatist, musicologist, professor and politician.”  After losing his first wife in 1889, he married Fanny in 1891.

Emmanuel Pontremoli
When it came time to build a home the Reinachs decided on the French Riviera as the place to do it (in the town of Beaulieu sur Mer). In 1902, they hired Emmanuel Pontremoli to build it and it was a perfect choice.  Pontremoli was an architect but also an archeologist and fellow Hellenist and that conjunction of talents is what made Kerylos such an extraordinary place (the design was loosely based on aristocratic homes on Delos –– archeological excavations of the tiny island began in 1872 and its art and architecture was much appreciated at the time).
Pontremoli created amazing murals, mosaics and furnishings for the house that are inspired and in some cases, directly copied from antique sources.  It was a complete immersion into the graceful style of ancient Greece with some sampling of the best of Rome, impeccably researched and finely crafted using the finest materials available.  Because I work closely with craftspeople in my job, I think I should mention a few of the rarely sung heroes of Kerylos. 
The striking textiles are from Ecochard Lyon:

The murals were painted by Karbowsky and Jaulmes (students of the great Pierre Cécile Puvis de Chavannes )

 Kerylos gallery

 Kerylos gallery
 The furniture was designed by Pontremoli but built by cabinetmaker Louis-François Bettenfeld. 
The Kerylos KLISMOS –– my favorite chair in the world
The spectacular oak cabinets were based on those found at Herculaneum in 1762.

Photographs can’t do justice to the way light and the views animate the rooms during the day–– they are alive.


Reinach lived in the house until his death in 1928 but then the story takes a terrible turn.  Although he bequeathed the house to the Institut de France his son lived in the house with his wife and children till the Nazis infested France and Kerylos.  The paintings, books and construction records were lost.  Worst of all, Reinach’s son, wife and children were sent to Auschwitz where they were murdered.  It’s hard to believe something so tragic could happen in a place so full of light and grace.
I can’t recommend a visit to the house enough.  It doesn’t impress from the outside.  Once within, the views and the serenity of the interior are pure magic.  Needless to say, it is best when seen off-season when there are not many tourists.  You will feel the magic of the place more deeply in quiet.

Also, this wonderful book is out Aug 18th, 2020

It tells the story of the man who built the house - and the house being a reflection of the soul of the creator - a genius polymath who revealed, as many of us do, our inner selves with our collections of art and objects.  I loved the book and will write about it soon

What would be a fitting dish to enjoy in such a place?  I was going to cook something from Reinach’s time at the house at first –– but that seemed wrong. Kerylos needed food from the ancient world.

When I wrote about the Greeks a few months ago I used my favorite book on the food of ancient Greece and Rome, The Classical Cookbook by Sally Grainger.  I was intrigued by the ancient cheesecake that was mentioned throughout the book and appears in classical literature, Homer to Ovid.  These cakes were offerings to the gods and go far back into history. This recipe comes from antiquity, courtesy of no less than Cato the Elder around 160 BCE. Dripping with honey and perfumed with bay leaves, they are seductive with their soft centers and ever so slightly crisp exterior with the barest hint of layers.  They are amazing but more like a pastry than the cheesecake we are familiar with today –– much lighter.  I can imagine having them whilst lying on one of the Kerylos couches, gazing at the vast blue Mediterranean stretching below.  It would be heaven.

I made these with homemade ricotta from a recipe I found on Smitten Kitchen.  It is easy as could be to make.  This time I used raw milk and cream to make the ricotta and was knocked over by the result.  It’s the best ricotta I ever had and nothing like what you’re used to.  It may not be true ricotta but it is truly delicious. Ricotta is traditionally made with leftovers from cheese-making and without much fat. This ricotta is exactly the opposite, creamy instead of dry and grainy. I think the cheesecake will be best with homemade ricotta, fine with fresh ricotta if you can find it and good with the tub variety.  You will sacrifice some of the subtle texture of the cake using the tub but it will still be delicious.  Also, I really recommend a single source honey for this (aside from the possibility your honey bear is not all honey or comes from honey bees fed corn syrup or even polluted Chinese Honey) it is best with a honey with personality.  I loved Acacia honey with mine.  They are really simple to make and so worth it.

You do eat the cooked bay leaves on the bottom... they are crisp and delicious!

Sweet Cheesecake from The Classical Cookbook (based on Cato)

1 c (4 oz) AP flour
8 oz ricotta cheese (homemade or purchased –recipe follows) DO NOT USE LOW FAT
1 egg, beaten
¼ t salt
olive oil to oil pan
bay leaves (they have them fresh at Whole Foods -  dry leaves could work too but I haven’t tried them)
½ c (4 oz) honey, warmed

Heat the oven, a  baking dish and fitted cover or dutch oven to 425º for 20 minutes (the book recommends an upturned clay pot for the top but an oven-proof lid will work). **I originally used a metal pie plate and an unglazed tile placed directly on the dough and frankly liked the texture better... it was flakey and crisp.  In a dutch oven, the texture is like a flakey biscuit... so your choice).

Sift flour into a bowl.  Beat the cheese until it is soft and stir the egg into it.  Add the flour and salt.

Divide the dough into 4 or 6 balls (I made 6) although the original says it is one large cake.  Make them into buns. 

Remove the baking pan and cover from the oven.  Coat the dish with a little olive oil (put a little oil on the unglazed tile if that is the route you are taking).

Lay down 1 or 2 bay leaves for each bun, then place the buns on the leaves.

Place the top over the buns and put in the oven.

Cook for 20- 30 minutes, turning the pan halfway and checking on doneness.  They should be a gorgeous golden brown.

Remove from the oven and remove top.  Put on a warm platter and warmed honey all over them.  Serve warm.

PS.  I originally put an oiled tile directly on the dough. Then food historian Ken Albala told me the translation of brick was a domed clay dish (called a testum), so I had the technique wrong. If you use a covered dish the result will be a bit puffier like the photo below –– I liked the texture of the weighted version better but it is not authentic).

this is a picture of the cakes cooked in a covered dish

Original recipe from 160 BCE:

Libum to be made as follows: 2 lb cheese well crushed in a mortar, when it is well crushed, add in 1 lb bread-wheat flour or, if you want it to be lighter, just half a pound, to be mixed well with the cheese.  Add one egg and mix all together well.   Make a loaf of this, with leaves under it, and cook slowly in a hot fire under a brick. 

CATO the Elder De Agri Cultura

picture of cakes cooked directly under a tile

Ricotta Cheese from Smitten Kitchen (via Tasting Table)

3 cups whole milk

1 cup heavy cream 
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt

3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Pour the milk, cream and salt into a 3-quart nonreactive saucepan. Attach a candy or deep-fry thermometer. Heat the milk to 190°F, stirring it occasionally to keep it from scorching on the bottom. Turn off the heat [Updated] Remove from heat and add the lemon juice, then stir it once or twice, gently and slowly. Let the pot sit undisturbed for 5 minutes.

Line a colander with a few layers of cheesecloth (I was out of cheesecloth and used a paper towel!) and place it over a large bowl (to catch the whey). Pour the curds and whey into the colander and let the curds strain for at least an hour. At an hour, you’ll have a tender, spreadable ricotta. At two hours, it will be spreadable but a bit firmer, almost like cream cheese. (It will firm as it cools, so do not judge its final texture by what you have in your cheesecloth.)

NOTE: I kept the whey and was glad I did.  I let my ricotta drain for 2 hours and that seemed perfect when I took it out but after refrigerating it, it seemed dry so I added some of the whey back into it. 

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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Dining with Edith Wharton, Turkey with Oysters and Corn Soufflé

This year is the 150th anniversary of the birth of writer Edith Wharton (1862-1937) and she is having quite a year.

The Mount, built in 1902
 There’s a a new book out, Edith Wharton at Home: Life at the Mount,  celebrating her home and her taste in decoration and architecture and a huge spread in the September Vogue inspired by her style with well-known actors dressing up as Edith and her friends.  

She has quietly worked her way into the hearts and minds of readers everywhere with the same kind of passionate fan base that Jane Austen inspires and for many of the same reasons. Wharton works small and gets big results. 

The scion of old, Knickerbocker  New York, she was an American fusion of English and Dutch culture.  I think the Dutch side of the family contributed a powerful talent for observing and celebrating the intricate threads of life ––  it’s the same DNA  that glorified the small details of life in centuries past as seen in great Dutch still life paintings.  In Wharton’s case her gimlet eye was often trained on the table, dress and the rules of society. Scrupulously detailed, these elements create a picture of life that we can identify with today because it’s so real and complete.

Dining Room at Wharton’s Park Avenue House, 1890’s

Some New York social etiquette does seem severe 100-odd years later –– Wharton and her circle had very particular signifiers.  In the matter of manners, the rules for ‘who sat where’ were as strict and rigid as those of a State Department dealing with foreign potentates. Diplomatic gaffes in society were to be avoided at all costs for “ resentment may rankle for years in the bosom of a guest whose claims have been disregarded.”  

Even carriage traffic had a pecking order.  The way was always to be given to the elder matriarchs and patriarchs on the road.   A young person passing a slow-moving carriage was a scandal.

Worth and Boberg  gown, 1861

Worth Evening Dress, 1870
Worth Day Dress, 1875
 In Wharton’s time even one’s wardrobe had rules and traditions. Imported designer gowns were never worn immediately. Designer Frederick Worth’s dresses were brought from France and stored for a year before being worn –– anything less made you terribly parvenue.  A speech by Miss Jackson from The Age of Innocence is revealing, “In my youth… it was considered vulgar to dress in the newest fashions…. Old Mrs. Baxter Pennilow, who did everything handsomely, used to import twelve a year, two velvet, two satin, two silk and the other six of poplin and the finest cashmere.  It was a standing order, and as she was ill for two years before she died, they found forty-eight Worth dresses that had never been taken out of tissue paper…. I think it’s a safe rule for a lady to lay aside her French dresses for one season.” Can you imagine having gorgeous new Paris fashions and not wearing them for a year?

Hierarchy at the table or at an event does strike modern chords.  Getting past Wharton’s invisible velvet rope was tougher than getting court-side seats or entry into VIP-only events these days ––you can’t change your pedigree. Clothes and personal style can still make or break a girl in society.

Today, if you hear someone is mad for Austen or Shades of Gray, wearing Chanel or Kmart blue-light specials, watching a blockbuster or an indie, vacationing in the Hamptons or Jersey Shore –– you have some insight into who they are after learning something of their lifestyle. Her characters move with or are moved by or against their structured society. All of Wharton’s keen observations are in her writing, fleshing out her characters.  If you pay attention, you’ll see a finely-wrought framework of accoutrements and appurtenances that is nonpareil.

Edith Wharton, 1907

In her memoir, A Backward Glance, Wharton remembers Henry James telling a story:

“Then he began, forgetting us, forgetting the place, forgetting everything but the vision of his lost youth that the question had evoked, the long train of ghosts flung with his enchanter's wand across the wide stage of the summer night…. and then, suddenly, by some miracle of shifted lights and accumulated strokes, there they stood before us as they lived, drawn with a million filament-like lines, yet sharp as an Ingres, dense as a
Rembrandt; or, to call upon his own art for an analogy, minute and massive as the people of Balzac.

"I often saw the trick repeated; saw figures obscure or famous summoned to the white square of his magic-lantern, flickering and wavering there, and slowly solidifying under the turn of his lens; but never perhaps anything so ample, so sustained, as that summoning to life of dead-and-gone Emmets and Temples [James’ ancestors], old lovelinesses, old follies, old failures, all long laid away and forgotten under old crumbling grave-stones.” (194)

I see Wharton reflected in her admiration for James.   Old New York comes alive through her eyes and recollections.  

Morse-Libby House, mid-19th c Dining room

 Wharton’s old New York society ate at home and entertained at home and rarely at restaurants (until Wharton had her debut in the 1870’s) and what was served was matched to the occasion. Canvasback duck and Roman Punch (that I wrote about HERE) meant that it was a grand event.

Wharton recalls:

“Their most frequent distraction was dining out or dinner giving. Sometimes the dinners were stately and ceremonious (with engraved invitations issued three weeks in advance, soups, "thick" and "clear," and a Roman punch half way through the menu), but more often they were intimate and sociable, though always the occasion of much excellent food and old wine being admirably served, and discussed with suitable gravity.”

When the occasion demanded, the display was something to see.  Wharton was very specific about the tableware at a dinner and all the freight of tradition it implied. In The Age of Innocence she detailed the table setting for a grand dinner at the van der Luydens ––the most respected members of old New York society:

“The van der Luydens had done their best to emphasize the importance of the occasion.  The du Lac Sévres and the Trevenna George II plate were out; so was the van der Luyden “Lowestoft” (East India Company) and the Dagonet Crown Derby.”

Sevres Porcelain, 1768
The Leister Service, George II, 1745-1756 (this is over 1 Million dollars worth of silver)

Lowestoft, Late18th C, Service for DeWitt Clinton
Royal Crown Derby, 1800
The dishes may be different but the structure is familiar. Just like those of us who love food know a person’s life style by dishes they use, the restaurants they frequent and the cookbooks they favor –– flea market finds, Pottery Barn or grand family heirlooms, Per Se, French Bistro or Olive Garden, Rachel Ray, Barefoot Contessa or Grant Achatz,  –– our tumblers start clicking into place and forming our picture of the person through their tastes.  It’s another one of those signifiers that round out a character in life and in fiction ––Wharton has a fierce memory of the delights and disappointments of the table. 

“My mother, if left to herself, would probably not have been much interested in the pleasures of the table. My father's Dutch blood accounted for his gastronomic enthusiasm; his mother, who was a Schermerhorn, was reputed to have the best cook in New York.”

Wharton was particularly generous about the artistry of her mother’s cooks in A Backward Glance (if not about her mother herself) and took pride in the quality of her family’s table:

“But to know about good cooking was a part of every young wife's equipment, and my mother's favourite cookery books (Francatelli's and Miss Leslie's) are thickly interleaved with sheets of yellowing note paper, on which, in a script of ethereal elegance, she records the making of "Mrs. Joshua Jones's scalloped oysters with cream," "Aunt Fanny Gallatin's fried chicken," "William Edgar's punch," and the special recipes of our two famous negro cooks, Mary Johnson and Susan Minneman.”

“Ah, what artists they were! How simple yet sure were their methods--the
mere perfection of broiling, roasting and basting--and what an
unexampled wealth of material, vegetable and animal, their genius had to
draw upon! Who will ever again taste anything in the whole range of
gastronomy to equal their corned beef, their boiled turkeys with stewed
celery and oyster sauce, their fried chickens, broiled red-heads [ducks], corn
fritters, stewed tomatoes, rice griddle cakes, strawberry short-cake and
vanilla ices? I am now enumerating only our daily fare, that from which
even my tender years did not exclude me; but when my parents "gave a
dinner," and terrapin and canvas-back ducks, or (in their season)
broiled Spanish mackerel, soft-shelled crabs with a mayonnaise of
celery, and peach-fed Virginia hams cooked in champagne (I am no doubt
confusing all the seasons in this allegoric evocation of their riches),
lima-beans in cream, corn souffles and salads of oyster-crabs, poured in
varied succulence from Mary Johnson's lifted cornucopia--ah, then, the
gourmet of that long-lost day, when cream was cream and butter butter
and coffee coffee, and meat fresh every day, and game hung just for the
proper number of hours, might lean back in his chair and murmur "Fate
cannot harm me" over his cup of Moka and his glass of authentic

I had a hard time choosing what to make from her list.  Both the fancy and the homely fare sound remarkably good.  What could not be on my menu are those oyster crabs ––they are tiny little crabs that live inside the oyster shell and rare as hen’s teeth.  The peach-fed ham caught my eye as well and I found one guy in the North West that sells them… but too far to go for an East Coast girl!

I decided the corn soufflé and the turkey with oyster sauce was the way to go to share the flavors of Edith Wharton’s memories of old New York.  The turkey recipe was in both of her mother’s favorite cookbooks and they were very similar.  I thought I would mix it up a little and use some lovely turkey thigh I have on hand instead of whole bird.  I stuffed the oysters in a pocket in the meat instead of in the cavity of the bird and baked it instead of boiling it as in the original recipe.  Turkey breast could be used instead of the thigh.  I used my only piece of old Crown Derby for the photo to give a nod to the van der Luydens… a sweetmeat dish repurposed for my turkey (I know Edith, naughty of me!).

The corn soufflé wasn’t quite so simple to locate. The earliest recipe I could find was one from 1910.  It had none of the cheesiness I think of when I think of savory soufflés, but it had a touch of sweetness and an ethereal texture, was terribly elegant and fabulous with the turkey (it also reheated in a microwave quite well –even slightly deflated it had a good texture).

As you sit down to enjoy the meal, put yourself in a Wharton frame of mind:

“My parents' guests ate well, and drank good wine with discernment; but a
more fastidious taste had shortened the enormous repasts and deep
bumpers of colonial days, and in twenty minutes the whiskered gentlemen
had joined the flounced ladies on the purple settees for another half
hour of amiable chat, accompanied by the cup of tea which always rounded
off the evening. How mild and leisurely it all seems in the glare of our
new century!”


 Turkey stuffed with Oysters with an Oyster sauce, serves 2 (or 4 for breast)

1 turkey thigh (bone in) or breast*
3 oysters, chopped and their liquor
1 stick celery, minced
2 T butter
1 T flour
½ cup stock
2 T madeira
pinch of celery seed, nutmeg and mace
S & P

Preheat oven to 375º.   Take the oysters and their liquor and heat for 5 minutes.
Put the liquid into the roasting dish.  Add celery, spices to the oysters.
Slit the thigh to make a pocket and insert the oyster mixture.  Massage 1 T butter into the flour and add to the pocket.  Use kitchen thread and secure the meat to close up the stuffing.  Place in the pan with the oyster liquor, the stock and madeira.  Rub the skin with butter and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Roast for 40-50 minutes, basting every 10 -15 minutes for the thigh. 

When the turkey is done, remove from the pan.   Pour off the pan juices and remove some of the fat.  Pour the defatted juices into the oyster sauce and serve.

* If you are using turkey breast, check for doneness as size can be different. Also, since the breast has much more meat, you might want to double the stuffing and oyster sauce recipes.

Oyster Sauce

 7 oysters and their liquor
1T butter
1 T flour
pinch of cayenne
¼ t salt
3 T demi-glace
3 T c cream

Saute the oysters in their liquor.  Remove the oysters.   Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the flour… cook for a few minutes.  Add the demi-glace and stir till thickened.  Add the cream and stir.  Add the oyster liquor and set aside. 

Eliza Leslie Recipe (1840-50’s)

Francatelli recipe (1860’s)

Corn Soufflé for 4

2 c corn
1 c milk
2 eggs
¾ t salt
1 t sugar
2 t butter

Preheat the oven to 375º

Put the corn kernels in the blender with enough milk to puree.  Add the rest of the milk, egg yolks and salt and sugar and blend.

Butter 4 ramekins

Whip the egg white till stiff and blend with the corn mixture.  Pour into the prepared ramekins.  Bake for 20-25 minutes.

Remember, soufflés only last for a moment out of the oven then they sink.  This one was pretty sturdy and the texture was great even after 10 minutes of shooting.

1910 recipe

Please go visit Treasure Hunt,  one of my favorite sites that's full of treasures from the collections branch of The National Trust (run by the inestimable Emile de Bruijn) and see the great piece on 'Silent Companions' (and a mention of Lost Past Remembered).  Its great fun.  Beware, this site is addictive!

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