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My father loved to fish, his East Coast genes commanding that love. Dad loved camping too but only camping where water was nearby. After all, nothing tasted better than fresh fish frying on a camp stove, unless it was fresh fish accompanied by the wonderful cherry jam he made to go with it.
While Mom set the table and my sister trotted off with her Barbie dolls, Dad’s fishing pole arced and fell, and I caught up with Nancy Drew’s latest mystery. When Dad had enough fish, even Nancy was cast aside for lunch.
While the fish sizzled, he caramelized onions for the cherry jam. How he fell upon this combination I don’t know, but the jam, little more than fresh cherries, green pepper and onions, was tart and sweet, and we slathered it onto the hot fish. With coleslaw and bread, we had a midday feast.
After lunch, we were logy, sluggish in our movements but content in our thoughts. Even Barbie looked ready to stretch out on her lounge chair for a nap.
Fresh cherries open up new possibilities
Before moving to Ontario, Canada, we never ate fresh cherries, the ones arriving at the grocery store already covered with a fuzzy coating of mold. So we contented ourselves with maraschino cherries in canned fruit cocktail or topping an ice cream sundae or the glace cherries in a cake that had been passed down from my Great-Grandmother Hunt.
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I never knew her, but in Dad’s words she was “a corker” (an excellent or astonishing person). All of 4 feet and practically as wide as she was tall, she wore a black apron that fringed her ankles and had a Newfoundland dog, looking more pony than canine, that rarely left her side.
When Dad spent summer holidays with her and his grandfather, she made boiled dinners that were often gray in the pot and roasts of beef that inevitably blackened in her care, but she also made a cherry cake that he and the dog salivated over. The cake was one of the few things that she made — along with poached eggs, fish stew and gingerbread — that was a keeper, he said.
Although really just a pound cake with glace cherries added, it was the beating of butter and sugar until silken and the addition of almond flavoring and orange juice that elevated the cake to something special. She used a wooden spoon and an English mason bowl that she sat in her lap, creaming the butter and sugar with a steady rhythm, while the other ingredients waited to be added. The last thing mixed in was the cherries, which had been sprinkled with flour so they wouldn’t fall to the bottom of the cake as it baked.
Great-Grandmother Hunt hummed while the spoon beat against the bowl, the oil stove undulating in the heat and Dad and the dog sitting close by, waiting.
Later, when she took the cakes out of the oven, they hardly had time to reach the cooling racks before boy and beast were at her elbow, begging for slices that had been tinged pink from the cherries.
Decades later, Dad made those cakes for me and my sister, but by then, we’d also become fresh cherry lovers. The Bing cherries that grew on a tree in the back garden of our new home were fat and glossy, and what a wonder it was to pick a handful whenever we wanted.
I was sometimes sent out with the step stool and a bowl to pick enough cherries for a new dessert Dad discovered in the only cookbook he ever bought, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Later, he found the tall and gangly author of the book, Julia Child, on television by accident and learned to make new, French dishes, but Cherry Clafoutis remained one of his favorites.
It looked like a puffed up pancake as it baked, but it was so much more — light textured and bursting with cherries. Powdered sugar sprinkled on top added an extra touch of sweetness. Cherry Clafoutis became a weekend treat and a camping specialty. Dad even made a metal hood for the camp stove so he could bake the dessert on it.
The aroma of the baking clafoutis lured friends and strangers to our camping spot. Soon, slices were being passed around, powdered sugar was coating lips and cherry juice dribbled down chins. It was hard to imagine life before this dessert and before fresh cherries.
Dad tweaked Child’s clafoutis over the years, adding ingredients and changing amounts, but he always credited her with opening up a whole new direction in cooking and baking for him. His clafoutis is the version I still make.
I stay true to Great-Grandmother Hunt’s cherry cake recipe, though, like he did, and although Bing cherries are still my favorites, I also like light-fleshed Rainiers, the “Princess of cherries,” while the Lapin’s deep red skin and flesh makes a cherry jam that is still perfect slathered on pan fried trout.
Inspired by Julia Child's recipe.
- Pinch of salt
- ½ cup all-purpose flour
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup white sugar, divided
- ½ cup buttermilk
- ½ cup 10% cream
- ¼ cup orange juice
- 2 teaspoons almond extract
- 2 cups cherries, pitted (fresh work best, but frozen cherries, thawed and drained, work well too)
- Powdered sugar
- Preheat the oven to 350 F.
- Sift the salt and flour together in a small bowl.
- In a medium-size bowl, whisk the eggs until frothy. Add ½ cup sugar and whisk until combined, then add the buttermilk, cream, orange juice and almond extract; whisk until smooth.
- Add the sifted flour and salt and blend well.
- Pour half the batter into a greased baking dish (about an 8-cup capacity) and place in the preheated oven. When the batter has started to set around the sides of the pan (about 10 minutes), remove the pan from the oven.
- Sprinkle the cherries and then the additional ½ cup of sugar over the batter. Add the rest of the batter and return the dish to the oven.
- Bake for about 45 minutes (or until the clafoutis has puffed up, is golden and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean).
- Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve warm.
Main photo: Fresh cherries. Credit: Sharon Hunt
I am a cake person. For people who know me, this is as irrefutable a fact as the Earth orbiting the sun. Given that, when I picked up Diana Henry’s new cookbook, “A Change of Appetite” (Mitchell Beazley, 2014), and it fell open to a recipe for Pistachio and Lemon Cake, I felt the book and I were destined to become true friends.
And so we have.
If you read my review of her previous book, “Salt Sugar Smoke,” you know that Henry is one of Britain’s best-loved food writers. She was twice named Cookery Journalist of the Year by The Guild of Food Writers.
I have enjoyed all eight of her books — particularly “Roast Figs Sugar Snow” — filled with winter recipes that make me long for frigid temperatures — and “Crazy Water Pickled Lemons” — for the name of the book and the Middle Eastern Orange Cake, among other things — but “A Change of Appetite: Where Healthy Meets Delicious” is timely because, like her, I have realized a change of appetite is in order.
Although I don’t eat an unhealthy diet (yes, I am a bit too fond of sweets), it could do with some tweaking — less meat, more vegetables and grains and different flavors. Still, I don’t want to sacrifice taste in pursuit of healthier eating, and, as the title attests, I don’t have to.
‘A Change of Appetite’ suggests seasonal eating
The book is divided into seasons, and the Pistachio and Lemon Cake is one of the spring recipes. About eating in spring Henry notes, “We find we want different foods: greener, cleaner, sprightlier flavors.”
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A Feta and Orange Salad with Honeyed Almonds certainly provides sprightlier flavors, as does White Fish, Saffron and Dill Couscous Pilaf, a dinner that takes 15 minutes to prepare and is a delicious reward at the end of the day.
In summer the “appetite is fickle,” but even the most fickle will likely find something to enjoy here. Two summer recipes stood out for me.
The first, Turkish Spoon Salad with Haydari (a yogurt dip), involves much chopping of chilies, tomatoes, cucumbers and other ingredients, but you are rewarded with a lovely looking salad that is also delicious. For me, fine dicing promotes patience. It also reminds me of my father, who had abundant patience and always diced vegetables in this precise manner for his soups and salads, and they always tasted better because of the care he took in preparing the ingredients.
The second summer recipe, Shaken Currants with Yogurt and Rye Crumbs, was a lovely surprise. Given the addition of rye crumbs, I wasn’t sure I would appreciate this dish. Happily, I was wrong. Although other summer berries can be substituted, I loved the currants’ tartness, which complemented the earthy rye. I grew up eating currants because my maternal grandmother picked them from her garden and fed them to me with thick, fresh cream. When I complained that raspberries and blueberries, also abundant in her garden, were sweeter, she reminded me that life was not made up of sweetness only, so I should set my mind to other flavors too. I was 5 at the time, but the lesson must have taken hold because I’ve always relished other flavors, almost as much as sweetness.
“I love the pull toward the kitchen that cooler weather engenders,” Henry writes about fall. For me, that pull is a pull toward soup, and her Eastern Broth with Shallots, Lime and Cilantro will be a great addition to my fall lineup. A lovely broth on its own, it becomes a soothing and filling meal with the addition of tofu or chicken and vegetables.
Roasted Tomatoes, Hummus, and Spinach on Toast is filling as well, especially when a quick Watercress and Carrot Salad is added. Spiced Pork Chops with Ginger and Mango Relish are hearty, while Citrus Compote with Ginger Snow is a light and refreshing end to any fall meal.
Like her previous books, “A Change of Appetite” is stylish. Interesting food essays (“Japanese Lessons,” especially so) are interspersed with clear and easy-to-follow recipes, often accompanied by gorgeous photographs that inspire rather than intimidate. They draw you into the kitchen.
Cool weather cooking and sweet treats
When winter descends, the instinct to eat for survival, carried with us over eons, takes hold despite the fact that many of us are now blessed with the certainty of our next meal. Winter cooking, perhaps more than cooking in any other season, is for sharing, and a dish like Georgian Chicken with Walnut Sauce and Hot Grated Beet offers warmth and comfort against the harshness beyond our windows.
The recipes in “A Change of Appetite” reinforce the truth that healthy eating does not require depriving yourself of flavor and pleasure at the table. Far from it. And although cutting back on sugar is never a bad idea, you can still have dessert. When it is made a special treat, it will be enjoyed even more.
Returning to the special treat that began my friendship with this cookbook, Pistachio and Lemon Cake may well be a “perfect cake for spring,” but I won’t limit it to this season. It’s made with olive oil instead of the butter I so liberally use in my cakes, stale breadcrumbs instead of flour, and finished with lemon syrup that makes the cake even more moist and delicious.
My grandmother may have taught me that life will not be made up of sweetness only, but at times there will and must be some, so I will slice the Pistachio and Lemon Cake just a little thinner. Delicious.
Main composite photo: “A Change of Appetite” by Diana Henry. Credits: Book cover image courtesy of publisher Mitchell Beazley and author photo by Chris Terry
In Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” written in the 14th century, pilgrims on their way to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket lightened their journey with stories. Among the pilgrims was a cook who made “sweet blanc-mange.” This is one of the earliest mentions of a dish we now often think of as an almond-flavored pudding.
Blancmange, which in Chaucer’s time was made with rice, almonds and chicken, has fallen out of favor over the centuries, which is a pity. August Escoffier, whom some consider the patron saint of chefs, believed that “blanc-manger … when well made … can be one of the best sweets served,” which is high praise from a man whose culinary skills were legendary. Because of his love of the dish, he made it a favorite once more — this time in the early 20th century.
From labor-intensive to ‘instant,’ blancmange has evolved
Escoffier’s version required skinning, crushing and straining almonds to make an almond milk base; the results ushered in a new appreciation of blancmange among diners lucky enough to enjoy it. Eventually, though, such a labor-intensive dish gave way to commercial, “instant” versions, which were particularly popular in the 1960s.
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I grew up with the labor-intensive blancmange, introduced to me by my grandmother. She made it in summer, when its cool, creamy flavor soothed the afternoon heat. While it set in the refrigerator, she and I wandered down behind her house in search of tiny nubs of strawberries or raspberries to enjoy with our “ghost pudding,” as we nicknamed it.
By this time, rice and chicken had long been abandoned as ingredients, but milk, cream, sugar and almond flavoring remained. She, my mother and I were devoted to blancmange and couldn’t understand others’ indifference to or hatred of something we thought of as perfect.
Even my grandfather, who loved sweets so much he would settle for a spoonful of jam to finish a meal if no dessert was offered, grimaced at the sight of “that white stuff.” My father was not much better, calling it “mucilage” — the thick glue we used to paste pictures into scrapbooks. Although he couldn’t have been more wrong about the texture of my grandmother’s blancmange, he still turned up his nose at the prospect of eating it.
After a while, we stopped caring because their refusal just meant there was more of it for us.
Our devotion to blancmange was as much a devotion to expanding our world as it was to loving this delicious dessert. We lived on a speck of rock in the Atlantic Ocean (Bell Island, Newfoundland, Canada), hemmed in by grayness and isolation, but we knew there had to be more to the world than what was contained within the perimeter of that place. Food like blancmange (the name couldn’t be pronounced without sounding at least a little sophisticated) allowed us to step onto a path that might lead us somewhere different.
My grandmother did not know the true age of blancmange — later, I would become the one obsessed with food history — but she knew the dessert she made was old because her mother had made it and her grandmother before that.
Despite its French name, blancmange most likely originated in the Middle East, where sweets made from chicken were common in medieval times. With the introduction of rice and almonds to Europe by Arab traders, the dish eventually became popular with the nobility and upper-classes.
While other dishes of the time were well-spiced (spices were thought to help balance the humors of the body as well as help keep food from spoiling), blancmange usually had no spices. Cooks made dazzling presentations for feasts by coloring part of it (red was a popular choice) while leaving the other part white. Sometimes the pudding was scented with roses, another Middle Eastern influence.
King Richard II’s chefs included a recipe for “blank mang” (the Middle English spelling) in their cookbook “Forme of Cury,” written in 1390.
I never saw a recipe for the blancmange my grandmother made. I suspect it was never written down, but passed from mother to daughter and learned by heart as a young girl. (She began working in her mother’s kitchen when she was 4 years old.) Likewise, I never saw her use a cookbook, although she occasionally glimpsed a green notebook in which she had written some recipes — perhaps even the blancmange recipe — but the book disappeared when she went into a nursing home.
After she and my mother died (within months of each other), I started working on my grandmother’s recipe for blancmange. Although I still revise it from time to time, it comes close to what we ate on those summer afternoons as our world expanded with each delicious bite. My world continues to expand, although when I eat blancmange now, it is in the company of ghosts.
This recipe is in memory of my mother and grandmother. Makes six servings.
1 cup blanched ground almonds
1½ cups whole milk
1 teaspoon almond extract
Pinch of salt
2 packages unflavored gelatin
2 tablespoons cold water
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 cup whipping cream (35% milk fat)
1. Brush six half-cup ramekins (or small tube pans) with a neutral-tasting vegetable oil.
2. In a bowl, stir the ground almonds and the milk together until combined.
3. Spread a clean cheesecloth in a sieve set over a bowl and pour the almond mixture into the cheesecloth. Wrap the cheesecloth and squeeze 1 cup of almond milk into the bowl, then discard the almonds.
4. Stir in almond extract and salt.
5. In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over water and let stand for 2 minutes.
6. In a saucepan, combine the almond milk and sugar and cook over medium heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Add a little of the milk mixture to the softened gelatin and stir until smooth, then pour the gelatin into the saucepan and cook, stirring the milk until the gelatin has dissolved.
7. Pour the mixture into a bowl that has been set in a larger bowl of ice and stir constantly until the mixture has cooled and thickened (approximately 3 to 5 minutes). Remove the bowl from the ice.
8. In a large bowl, whip the cream until stiff peaks form, and then gently fold the almond mixture into the cream (in three additions) until well combined.
9. Spoon the pudding into the ramekins. Cover with plastic wrap and chill until set, at least 2 hours.
10. To unmold, gently run a sharp knife around the side of each blancmange and invent it onto a dessert plate. If the dessert doesn’t release, tap the bottom and sides of the ramekin or place a hot cloth on the bottom for 5 seconds.
11. Serve with fresh fruit in season (strawberries, raspberries or cherries are delicious, or for a more tart flavor, try mango or gooseberries).
Note: If you don’t wish to make your own almond milk, you can substitute 1 cup of commercial almond milk.
Main photo: Blancmange. Credit: Sharon Hunt
As children, my sister and I spent Saturdays in the spring as knights-errant, challenging each other to duels with rhubarb stalks. We thrust them at each other, but our swords connected gently, so as not to damage what would later become delicious treats. A neighborhood bully once intruded, threatening to kill us with a touch of his rhubarb leaves. Just one touch would mean instant death, that’s how poisonous the leaves were, he said. I pushed him into a ditch, and when he didn’t die instantly, as the leaves touched his shoulder, I took my sister home for a dish of rhubarb Mom had cooked that morning.
We were rhubarb lovers. Mom and my sister loved it cooked with sugar, slathered on fresh bread and topped with heavy cream. They also loved it as Rhubarb Fool, the pink strands of rhubarb swirling through the whipped cream. Occasionally, rhubarb showed up in a cobbler, which they spooned into their mouths with abandon. Although Dad and I loved rhubarb these ways too, we loved it most in pies, his pies, since he made the best in the world.
“There’s no better pie than rhubarb,” he’d say wherever he got ready to make one.
Rhubarb’s long history started with medicinal uses
Nineteenth-century cooks would have agreed with him in that regard. They dubbed rhubarb the “pie plant” because of its popularity as a filling, but it had been popular for medicinal purposes much longer.
Rhubarb originated in Russia, Siberia and China, and was written about more than 2,700 years ago in “The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic,” an early Chinese text. Its roots were prized near and far as a cure for dysentery, diarrhea and constipation.
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In Tudor England (from the 1400s to 1600s), rhubarb was grown in herb gardens. A century later, in the 1770s, the Duke of Athol grew Turkey rhubarb in Scotland, selling the roots to an Edinburgh druggist.
The rhubarb variety now eaten came to 17th-century England from Italy. Its cultivation spread throughout the 18th century, but it took awhile for rhubarb recipes to appear in English cookbooks — in part because the sugar needed for sweetening was not widely available or affordable. When sugar became more common, recipes for pies, tarts and other desserts followed, in the 19th century.
In 1771, Benjamin Franklin sent Chinese rhubarb seeds to John Bartram, an American botanist, thus introducing the plant to America. Soon, rhubarb was cultivated in Maine and flourished after that in Massachusetts as well. By 1822, rhubarb was sold in New England markets, and later that century, Luther Burbank, a pioneer in agricultural science, developed a variety better suited to California’s climate.
Rhubarb stalks, the parts we eat, are really leaf bases called petioles. They vary in color, from pink to red, green or white, depending on the variety.
The rhubarb that Dad grew was pink. It spread between the fences separating our back garden from our neighbors’, with Dad doing the harvesting and all of us, including our neighbors the Leckies, sharing in his baking.
Dad was a born baker, although six decades of practice certainly helped fine-tune his innate skills. Although he could make anything, his genius was pastry, which demands a gentle touch. He was a gentle man, so the two were made for each other.
He was an orderly baker as well, first laying out all the ingredients: flour, salt, lard, water, vinegar, sugar, cornstarch and rhubarb (without those “murderous” leaves, which, in fact, contain toxic oxalic acid that can be lethal if ingested). Then, measuring cups and spoons, a pastry knife and fork, mixing bowls, a rolling pin, pie pans and cooling racks were assembled. He always made three pies: one for our neighbors and two for us (the second pie was for lingering over a little more because the first barely left the oven before it was devoured).
The worst thing about his pie making was waiting for the pies to bake and then cool. I was not patient when it came to waiting for rhubarb pie, but if you didn’t wait, the slice of pie collapsed into soup on your plate and burned your mouth too. When the pie was cool enough, the sight of that first slice of rosy rhubarb between layers of flaky pastry made me drool.
If that bully hadn’t been a bully, he might have been invited to drool over that sight too, before tasting Dad’s rhubarb pie. Then he would have understood the truly deadly aspect of rhubarb. It wasn’t in the leaves touching you but, rather, in that first perfect bite, when the sweet rhubarb melded with pastry that melted on your tongue. That bite was deadly because you knew how terrible it would be when you could no longer eat such a perfect thing. If he hadn’t been a bully, I might have pitied him for never having had that experience, but, instead, I was just grateful that we did so often.
Dad’s Rhubarb Pie
Makes one 9-inch pie
For the pastry:
2¼ cups all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup cold lard (unsalted butter, if you prefer, or half lard and half butter)
¼ cup cold water
1 tablespoon white vinegar
For the filling:
3½ cups rhubarb, leaves removed; stalks trimmed, washed and dried thoroughly and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 to 1½ cups granulated sugar
¼ cup cornstarch
For the pastry:
1. Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl. Using a pastry knife, cut the lard into the flour until it is in pea-sized pieces.
2. In a measuring cup, stir together the water and vinegar. Using a fork, stir only enough liquid into the flour mixture to bind the ingredients. (Note: You might need more or less water, depending on how the dough comes together. In humid weather, it might require less water because flour, if not stored properly, can absorb water from the air.)
3. Form the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
4. While the dough chills, prepare the rhubarb filling.
For the filling:
1. Combine rhubarb with sugar in a bowl and set aside. (For a more tart pie, use just 1 cup of sugar.)
Assembling the pie:
1. Cut the chilled dough into two equal pieces. On a lightly floured surface, roll one piece into a ⅛-inch thick circle. Gently wrap the circle onto the rolling pin (or lift it) and press into a 9-inch pie pan, trimming any excess from the edges.
2. Spoon the rhubarb mixture into the pastry-lined pie pan. Sprinkle cornstarch evenly over the fruit.
3. Cover the rhubarb with the rolled-out top crust. Seal the pastry edges with your thumb and finger (or press a fork against the edges to seal). Cut slits into the pastry. (Alternatively, cut the top crust into strips and make a latticework design on top of the pie, as show in the accompanying photograph.)
4. Press a thin strip (about 1 inch) of aluminum foil around the edges to keep from burning.
5. Bake the pie in a preheated 450 F oven for 12 to 15 minutes (or until the pastry is golden). Remove the aluminum foil, and reduce heat to 350 F. Bake the pie for an additional 40 to 50 minutes (or until the rhubarb is soft).
6. Cool well before cutting.
Note: You can also add ¼ cup of strawberries (washed, dried and cut into equal-sized pieces) for additional sweetness and flavor. If you choose to use strawberries too, reduce the amount of rhubarb accordingly.
Top photo: Rhubarb pie. Credit: Sharon Hunt
Watercress is one of those greens that goes in and out of popularity with my friends, although I have been devoted to it for 20 years, after discovering a hummus, tomato and watercress sandwich in a cafe close to where I worked at the time.
The peppery taste of the watercress added a final, perfect note to the tanginess of the hummus and the freshness of the tomatoes. That sandwich became my workday treat, eaten religiously, Monday to Friday, for a couple of years.
Later, when I left the corporate world and returned to cooking for myself, I nibbled watercress while tossing it into salads, learned to make Potage Cressionniere (a soup of potatoes and watercress) in winter and a lighter soup (without the potatoes) in spring and summer, and used it in my own version of that long-gone sandwich.
Historically, watercress thought to fortify mind and body
Nasturtium officinale is the botanical name for watercress. The word Nasturtium comes from the Latin nasus tortus, meaning “twisted nose,” a warning about the effect watercress can have on your nasal passages.
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It may be a nose twister, but it is also one of the oldest green vegetables known to man. The ancient Greeks, Romans and Persians loved it. Persian children ate watercress to grow strong, while Persian and Greek soldiers ate it to remain so. Both the Greek general Xenophon and the Persian king Xerxes decreed their troops should eat it for the same reason, with Xenophon once recalling, “How pleasant it is to eat barley cake and some cress when one is hungry by a stream.”
A Greek proverb — “Eat cress and learn more wit” — gave an indication of the vegetable’s contribution to the brain, something Irish monks also understood. They spent months living on watercress and bread to stimulate their brains.
Watercress provides essential vitamins — in particular A and C — as well as calcium, magnesium, folic acid, iodine, sulfur and iron. It is believed to have wonderful cleansing powers and help in curing a variety of ills. (Romans and Anglo-Saxons used it as a treatment for baldness.) It was also eaten to provide courage and character, and as an aphrodisiac.
The Romans put watercress in salads, dressing it with oil and vinegar, much like we do today. When Hippocrates — the Greek physician known as the father of Western medicine — founded the first hospital on the island of Kos, Greece, about 400 B.C., he used watercress to treat blood disorders. Twelve centuries later, English herbalist John Gerard championed it as a cure for scurvy in the 1600s. Watercress may also have been eaten at the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving dinner.
A twist from Dickens
In more modern times, the English raised it to something of an institution in watercress sandwiches served at afternoon and high teas. No less than Charles Dickens wrote of it in “Great Expectations,” with Mr. Pumblechook, a corn merchant with a mouth “like a fish,” ordering watercress sandwiches for Pip, the book’s hero, as a supposed kindness although, in truth, Pip didn’t like them.
Others of that time did, though. Watercress was breakfast for the working classes in Victorian Britain, eaten with bread or alone.
“The first coster cry heard of a morning in the London streets is of ‘Fresh wo-orter-creases,’ ” English social researcher Henry Mayhew wrote in his 1851 survey “London Labour and the London Poor.” Surely one of those coster cries must have come from Eliza James. Nicknamed “The Watercress Queen,” James was a watercress seller in the late 1800s and early 1900s, hawking her wares in her Covent Garden stall for more than half a century. She started selling watercress when she was 5, first at factories in Birmingham, then eventually becoming the sole watercress supplier of most hotels and restaurants in London as well as, reputedly, the biggest owner of watercress farms in the world.
Wild watercress grows in shallow rivers and streams, fading in the dog days of summer and the coldest months of winter. Picking it wild, however, requires great care to ensure the water it grows in is pollution free and the watercress is uncontaminated. Commercially, watercress is cultivated in carefully controlled tanks or water beds.
Although peppery in taste, watercress actually has a cooling effect on the mouth. This is something Taillevent, a 14th-century cook to the Court of France, understood. He included a course of “watercress, served alone, to refresh the mouth” in one of his famous banquet menus.
In North America, watercress is an ingredient in salads, soups and sandwiches. It is a lovely complement to oranges, apples and pears, and also works well with eggs.
When using watercress, leave the stems on because they have the strongest flavor. Try not to overcook it. The leaves are delicate, and long cooking robs them of their flavor. Watercress is best eaten soon after purchasing and should be kept immersed in cold water until it is used. So go ahead, let your nose twist as you enjoy this wonderful green.
A Light Watercress Soup
For the soup:
2½ tablespoons unsalted butter
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 cup whole milk
1 cup low-sodium vegetable stock
¼ teaspoon salt
3 bunches (about 3 cups) watercress, washed, dried and chopped
¼ cup table cream (10%)
Thinly sliced pear
1. Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook until soft. Stir in the flour and cook for 1 minute.
2. Gradually stir in the milk and vegetable stock, then add the salt. When the soup is near boiling, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 5 minutes.
3. While the soup cooks, bring a large pot of water to boil. Add the watercress to blanch until wilted, but still retaining its bright color. Remove it from the water and place in a bowl of ice water.
4. Squeeze the water out of the cooled watercress and add the watercress to the soup.
5. Carefully purée with a hand blender or in a food processor, adding the cream.
6. Reheat if necessary.
7. Garnish with a dollop of crème fraîche and a few slices of pear if you wish. This soup is delicious hot or cold.
Main photo: Watercress soup with bread and pear slices. Credit: Sharon Hunt
I have always had a soft spot for lost things. As a child I brought home lost creatures — cats that were eventually found by their owners, baby birds that were nursed until they were ready to fly and, once, a turtle I found in my garden but had to return to the nearby lake when he bit my sister’s finger.
With food, my soft spot has always been lost desserts, dishes that have fallen out of fashion but were a regular part of the dinners at my grandmother’s house. Gooseberry Fool, Bavarian Cream and the Queen of Puddings were rotated through the Sundays along with other offerings that could be depended upon to strike that perfect end note to a meal.
One lost dessert that she made in spring and summer, when she was focused more on cleaning and getting her gardens back in shape than on baking, was Pain Perdu, or Lost Bread. Like her, I make it when the weather turns warm because I spend less time baking but still like to have something sweet at the end of a Sunday dinner. Pain Perdu is also a great way to rescue stale bread that might otherwise be thrown out and transform it into a rich and delicious treat.
Pain Perdu a dessert with many variations, names
Although it is known as Pain Perdu in places such as France, New Orleans and Canada’s Newfoundland, where I was born, this dish has had many names over the centuries.
In England, it was called Gilded Sippets (small pieces of bread sprinkled with rose water that had been colored by saffron), Eggy Bread and also Poor Knights of Windsor (topped with jam and named for the military order King Edward III created in the 14th century).
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As it turns out, Poor Knights was a popular name in many countries. Sweden, Denmark and Norway all called it this, while in Finland it was Poor Knights when eaten plain but Rich Knights when sprinkled with powdered sugar or garnished with whipped cream.
In Germany, the name “Poor Knights” may have come about through the tradition of the gentry always serving dessert at their tables. Although all knights were part of the gentry, not all were wealthy, and those who weren’t served a dessert of stale bread that had been dipped in eggs and fried. Sometimes it was served with jam, while other times it was made with wine instead of milk and known as a Drunken Virgin.
In the Czech Republic, Lost Bread became Bread in a Little Coat, in Switzerland it was a Rascal’s Slice and in Spain it was Torrijas, often made during the Lenten season and garnished with cinnamon or honey.
A version of Lost Bread is contained in a collection of fourth century Latin recipes attributed to Roman gourmand Marcus Gavius Apicius, who lived in the first century. This recipe, known simply as Another Sweet Dish, uses milk instead of eggs to revive the bread before cooking.
Whatever its name, reclaiming stale bread was important in medieval Europe because cooks were not always sure of their food supply and couldn’t afford to waste anything. After being soaked in milk and eggs, the bread was cooked on a griddle, as it still is today.
This was not just a food for the poor, though, as recipes of the time called for expensive ingredients — white bread (with the crusts removed), spices and almond milk, hardly items found in the pantries of the poor. Also, medieval cookbooks, in which such recipes were found, were of no use to the poor, as only the noble, wealthy and religious classes could read. For the upper classes, those golden slices were served with game meats or exotic birds, such as peacocks.
Today, most of us would forgo such accompaniments and serve this dish as an inexpensive dessert or eat it at breakfast (as French toast), often using white bread, which we have reclaimed from the rich.
My grandmother, who made her own bread, soaked thick slices in egg yolks and cream (leaving aside the egg whites to create a richer coating). When the bread was fried, she served it with heavy cream and preserves from her cold cellar. Sometimes, she substituted pound cake for the bread, but whatever the choice, it was always delicious.
Although this dish has a number of variations, it does not require a lot of ingredients beyond bread, eggs and milk or cream. The garnishes allow you to have fun; whipped cream and strawberry preserves or fresh peaches and powdered sugar are great spring and summertime dessert choices; maple syrup or a brown butter sauce elevate French toast for breakfast; for lunch, you can’t go wrong with a Monte Cristo sandwich (ham and cheese between two slices of bread that are then soaked in the egg and milk mixture and fried).
However and whenever you eat Lost Bread, you are in for a treat that would make the Poor Knights feel like kings.
Pain Perdu (My Grandmother’s Recipe)
4 egg yolks
2 tablespoons white granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon orange zest
½ cup whole milk (or substitute 10% table cream for more richness)
4 slices stale white bread, thickly sliced
Butter for frying
Strawberry or raspberry preserves
Heavy or whipped cream (optional)
1. Beat egg yolks in a shallow dish.
2. Add sugar, vanilla, orange zest and milk (or cream); beat well.
3. Soak each slice of bread well in the egg mixture.
4. Melt butter in a large frying pan and fry the bread until golden on each side, about 2 to 3 minutes.
5. Cut bread into triangles; place two triangles on each plate.
6. Top with a spoonful of preserves and, if you wish, heavy or whipped cream.
Top photo: Poor Knights is a variation on Pain Perdu. Credit: Sharon Hunt