Saturday, January 11, 2014

Mrs. Beeton's ginger and whiskey apples (1861)

Make a gift of it -- even though it's a little cloudy

I will give you the recipe first, so that you too may gasp at the (I fear, very English) two pounds of sugar required. Please. No.

Mrs. Beeton's Recipe #1424, Ginger Apples (A pretty Supper or Dessert Dish.)

1 and 1/2 ounces whole ginger
1/4 pint (1/2 cup) whiskey
3 pounds (about 6) apples 
2 pounds sugar (No no no -- try about a cup)
juice of two lemons

Bruise the ginger, and place it in a small clean jar. Pour on the whiskey to cover, put the lid on the jar, and let steep three days.

Peel and core the apples, and slice thin. Put them in a large stew pot along with the whiskey, sugar, and lemon juice. (Mrs. Beeton says the juice should be strained, to prevent the finished dish of apples in liquor from looking cloudy. She also does not specify whether one discards the whole ginger before commencing cooking, or simmers it along with everything else. I removed it.) Cook all together "very gently until the apples are transparent but not broken," about 45 minutes. Serve cold, garnished with pieces of candied lemon peel or candied ginger.

The exorbitant amount of sugar in the recipe is a problem. Let's think how to reduce it, shall we? Meanwhile, why not look at a bit of Christmas color?  


I do think it was very wise of the Western world to come up with this odd custom of bearing through the darkest days of winter by reveling in the brightest colors of red and green, and by hauling a pine tree inside the house and decorating it with lights, ornaments, and tinsel. The tradition is on the face of it so absurd -- so pointless -- so much work -- why do we not, in turn, mark the lush warm days of summer by dragging a stove or a bed outside, and decorating that with scarves and mittens, or bare twigs? -- and yet the sheer beauty and determined nonsense of it seems to be an act of defiance which is good for the soul. Maybe, good for the collective Western soul. Yes, the act seems to say, we shall have something pretty and childlike and wondrous in our houses, in our individual houses mind you, while it snows and sleets outside and the daylight lasts all of seven hours. So the universe arranges for bleak winter every year, does it? Be d-----d to you, we say. We'll have a celebratory Christmas tree and throw it in the universe's very teeth

And what Western nation, so historians tell us, first made the Christmas tree really popular? Why, the English, who happen also to have taught us the slow plodding toward individual liberty and the rule of law, a-man's-home-is-his-castle prerogatives (and by Gad I'll have a bedizened tree in it if I want) and this passion for, shall we say, a phantastically sugary addendum to life.

The person specifically to be credited, according to Christopher Hibbert in his Queen Victoria, is the queen's grandmother, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz -- which means we must of course credit a who knows how ancient German winter tradition first. (To place Charlotte, think of her as the wife of our own Revolutionary-era King George III. One of the couple's fifteen children was Victoria's father.) Hibbert gives a footnote to the state housekeeper at Windsor Castle's remembering Queen Charlotte, circa 1800, setting out a fir tree which bore lit candles, strings of almonds and raisins, and little wax dolls and other small presents among its branches. "As a child [circa 1830] Queen Victoria regularly had a Christmas tree." When she was an adult, each Christmas the chandeliers in her Windsor sitting room were taken down and replaced by hanging trees graced with candles and toffees (p. 158). This proximity of fire to pine trees, indoors amid the drapes and tablecloths, carpets and oil paintings, paper-wrapped presents and billowing nineteenth century skirts and the Macassar oil on nineteenth-century gentlemen's hair, is most unnerving. Queen Charlotte at least had the candles put out before the children were allowed to poke among the fir branches for their gifts, but if the point of the hanging pine trees in her granddaughter's sitting room was to give the light of missing chandeliers, then their "small tapers" must have been allowed to burn until God knew when. 

Anyway while admiring bright pretty things and thinking deep winter thoughts, we were talking of Mrs. Beeton's ginger apples, and of all that English sugar. Facing the two pounds of same, I suggest you consider: how much sugar would you need to counter the tartness of the juice of two lemons? Our recipe for classic lemon bars gives a clue. Six tablespoons of juice there, being about two lemons' worth, is balanced by one and a half cups of sugar. Your handy kitchen scale will tell you that that much sugar equals approximately two-thirds of a pound. I can tell you, in turn, that that much sugar is still too much for our ginger and whiskey apples (it might even be too much for our lemon bars), even if you use tart apples along with sweet ones. Try a scant cup, as above, and see if you like your results. Or is it only, in the end, a glorified applesauce?

Would we dare venture any further into the great Mrs.Beeton's sugary-lemony recipes? (Of course there are lots more apple ones, too. One of these days I shall make her "Pretty Dish of Apples and Rice," # 1397. A quarter pound of sugar for this one, to stew the apples which are then placed daintily over a mound of milk-simmered rice.) Or, what about Lemon Wine, #1823, best made in winter "when lemons are best and cheapest"? You'll need fifty lemons, four and a half gallons of water, half an ounce of isinglass, and sixteen pounds of loaf sugar. And a bottle of brandy. Rice, lemons, and apples are all very well, but somehow I can only suspect this one of amounting to a criminal waste of brandy.      

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