Buttery Muffins in Wet, Wintry London

Did the muffin boy trudging through London’s dark, dank streets ever curse the hot, buttery wares that forced him outdoors? Perhaps, though the thought of going penniless no doubt bedeviled him more. And perhaps as means of consolation his mind would settle on a remark made by Charles Dickens, who found that a cold night did wonders for the streets of London. Such wonder-working happened, he wrote, when “just enough damp” fell from the sky to “make the pavement greasy without cleansing it of any of its impurities.” If that falling damp also made the gaslights glow brighter and the small shops that lined the street “more splendid,” then so much the better.

It’s likely that the muffin boy did not notice this trick of light and vapor, but he was not insensible of the evening’s other, decidedly less oneiric effects. He did his best business on wet, chilly nights. Ensconced in the warm comfort of their homes, customers listened for his bell’s gentle report. Their muffins they preferred warm and slathered with butter. “I only wish good butter was a site cheaper,” one muffin seller complained. “That would make the muffins go. Butter’s half the battle.”

That battle went better in the suburbs, good butter or bad. There frowzy housewives hovered expectantly near doorsteps. Once the muffin boy’s approach was certain, they lit the kitchen fire for tea. His muffins they bought by the dozen to cheer their husbands bone-weary after a “dirty walk” home from the docks. Only for the “nine-o-clock beer man” would they open their door again.

If a cold damp winter’s evening has you hankering for a warm, buttery snack, and there’s no muffin boy in sight, try one of these recipes for the item in question, which appear in Mrs. Clarke’s Cook Book (1899).


Muffins.—Two eggs lightly beaten, one quart of flour, one teaspoonful of salt, three teaspoonfuls of Durkee’s baking-powder, one tablespoonful of melted butter, one pint of milk and two teaspoonfuls of vanilla extract, if liked. Beat up quickly to the consistency of a cake batter; bake in buttered gem-pans in a hot oven.

Muffins, No. 2.—One cup of home-made yeast or half of a compressed yeast cake, one pint of sweet milk, two eggs, two tablespoonfuls of melted butter, two tablespoonfuls of sugar. Beat the butter, sugar and eggs well together; then stir in the milk, slightly warmed, and thicken with flour to the consistency of griddle-cakes. When light, bake in muffin-rings or on a griddle. If wanted for tea, the batter should be mixed immediately after breakfast. Muffins should never be cut with a knife, but be pulled open with the fingers.

Rice Muffins.—Take one quart of sour milk, three well-beaten eggs, a little salt, a teaspoonful of soda, and enough of rice flour to thicken to a stiff batter. Bake in rings.

Hominy Muffins.—Substitute hominy, well cooked and mashed, for the rice, and proceed as above.

Bread Muffins.—Cut the crust off four thick slices of bread; put them in a pan and pour on them just enough boiling water to soak them thoroughly. Let them stand an hour, covered; then drain off the water and stir the bread to a smooth paste. Stir in two tablespoonfuls of flour, a half pint of milk, and three well-beaten eggs. Bake to a delicate brown in well-buttered muffin-rings.

Graham Muffins.—One quart of Graham flour, two teaspoonfuls of baking-powder, a piece of butter the size of a walnut, one egg, one tablespoonful of sugar, one-half teaspoonful of salt, milk enough to make a batter as thick as for griddle-cakes. Bake in gem-pans or muffin-rings in a hot oven.

Corn Muffins.—Mix two cupfuls of corn-meal, two cupfuls of flour, one cupful of sugar, half a cupful of melted butter, two eggs, and one teaspoonful of salt. Dissolve one teaspoonful of soda and two of cream tartar in a little milk, and beat it through. Add milk enough to make a moderately stiff batter, and bake in rings or gem-pans.

Parrot Pie for Paranormal Picnics

Only the pause of a train in their sleepy station lured the inhabitants of Woodend, Australia from their homes to consider the faces of passengers en route to larger cities. Not that Woodend lacked attractions; quite the contrary. Standing some 1,850 feet above sea level, the town enjoyed a climate moderate enough to recommend it as an attractive summer destination. Its eucalyptus forests hid within them health resorts and mineral springs. Its rich volcanic soil, the color of chocolate, made it a thriving agricultural district that trafficked in root vegetables, raspberries and currants. Its winds, which blew wholesome and tranquil, cooled those travelers disembarking at Woodend to eat, rest and recover their nerves.

Many also came to see an unusual prehistoric landmark, Hanging Rock. It sits five miles outside of town and rises 400 feet above the surrounding countryside. Narrow paths winding along slanted sides bring intrepid climbers to a flat summit strewn with huge boulders bearing such names as Whale’s Mouth and Alligator’s Jaw.  The summit affords an excellent view of the rich farmsteads stretching toward distant towns, which no doubt explains why picnicking among the megaliths remains a favorite way of beguiling a lazy summer Sunday.

One such outing serves as the subject of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel, The Picnic at Hanging Rock. A group of girls from exclusive Appleyard College take a trip to this famous formation on the afternoon of Valentine’s Day, 1900. There they nibble sandwiches and sunbathe. After lunch, four of the girls ask to go exploring. Granted permission, they wander off. A few hours later, only one of them returns. Hysterical and dumbstruck, she cannot recall what befell her friends, who have seemingly vanished without a trace. And so the mystery begins….

To discover what happened to those inquisitive young ladies that bright February afternoon, you’ll have to read Lindsay’s book – which you can enjoy with a slice of parrot pie prepared according to a recipe  in The Book of Household Management (1888). This Australian picnic dish does equally well without its main ingredient.

Australian Parrot Pie

Ingredients.—1 dozen paraqueets, a few slices of beef (underdone, cold
beef is best for this purpose), 4 rashers of bacon, 3 hard-boiled eggs, minced parsley and lemon-peel, pepper and salt, stock, puff-paste.

Mode.—Line a pie-dish with the beef cut into slices, over them place 6 of the paraqueets, dredge with flour, fill up the spaces with the egg cut in slices and scatter over the seasoning. Next put the bacon, cut in small strips, then the beef, seasoning all well. Pour in 6 paraqueets and fill up with stock or water to nearly fill the dish, cover with puff-paste, and bake for 1 hour.

Time.—1 hour.
Sufficient for 5 or 6 persons.
Seasonable at any time.

Forest Trump: Hansel and Gretel’s Sweet Trick

South of Stuttgart and north of Basel spreads the Black Forest, so named by ancient Romans for the conifers populating it, which grow thickly enough to block the sun. Copses of white pine jut from rolling hills, and ancient oaks crowd deep valleys, sheltering strange fauna not found elsewhere. The Lumbricus badensis, an earthworm of record-setting girth and length, dwells there, as do rare Hinterwälderberg cattle and the tawny Sperlingskauz, an owl that nightly takes to the sky in search of mice and voles to eat.

The Black Forest also offers a gentler repast than the sort sought by owls. Autumn summons pert armies of golden chanterelles from carpets of emerald moss, and winter conjures a downpour of black chestnuts. Spring and summer are not without their peculiar bounty; earth dark with loamy vegetal decay incubates berries, ramps, and wild onions eager to burst from their seeds and papery bulbs. Indeed, anyone wandering this forest primeval would not want for sustenance.

Unless that wanderer should suffer an insatiable sweet tooth, that is. Two such wanderers are Hansel and Gretel, subjects of one of the Brothers Grimm’s most famous tales. It tells of a pair of children abandoned by their wicked stepmother in the Black Forest. There they tramp aimlessly, growing cold and hungry, until they happen upon a small house made of gingerbread. Tarts and delicate cakes festoon its lintel and roof. A warm light glows through barley-sugar windows. Famished, the children nibble the roof until its owner, a witch, coaxes them inside with promises of even more scrumptious treats. Once inside, the children are plied with fresh milk and pancakes (with sugar), nuts and large rosy apples. The witch observes that the boy and girl are too stuffed to stir, so she imprisons them for a gustatorial purpose of her own: She plans to eat them. 

The witch’s plan is thwarted by her would-be victims’ cleverness, however. Hansel and Gretel escape and find their way home, their pockets stuffed with sweet treasures plundered from their former prison. They learn that the stepmother has died and rejoice, the news sweeter to their ears than the richest of the witch’s pastries ever was to their palates.

Should you wish to trap any wayfaring children (or sweet-toothed adults), the recipes below for barley sugar, which appear in Cookery and Confectionery (1824), lend themselves to the construction of the very sort of windows adorning the witch’s cottage.

Barley Sugar Treats

676. Caromel Sugar, for sticking baskets or pastry tip, and for making covers. Rub the sides of a caromel-pan round with butter; put a quart of clarified sugar, (No. 675.) boil it ten minutes; add a table spoonful of white distilled vinegar, boil it down to caromel, as directed No. 674; when done, stand the pan within another, with cold water to keep it from colouring. The mould must be oiled well over; when the sugar is a little cool, and runs off the spoon as a thread, draw it over the mould what pattern you please; take care to have a good rim round the bottom of the mould to stand on; when done, warm the mould a little, and the cover will slip off; it may be done inside the mould, and ornamented with any dry sweetmeats, comfits, or gum paste flowers.
Note.—This sugar may be kept in a pan, when done with, and is ready on all occasions, as it will heat again repeatedly, and will serve to stick all kinds of pastry up.

677. Lemon Barley Sugar. Boil one pint of syrup (No. 675.) to a caromel;when done add twenty drops of essence of lemon, and pour it out in lengths on a marble slab, oiled; when nearly cold twist it.
Note.—Barley-sugar drops are made by dropping it on the slab, and wrapped up in papers with a little sifted sugar. If made in large quantities, it is poured on a slab made to hold the quantity, and when cold cut in lengths with scissors, and twisted.
Ginger barley-sugar is made the same as this, omitting the lemon, and adding a spoonful of the concentrated essence of ginger, when nearly boiled.

678. Lavender Barley Sugar. Boil a pint of syrup to caromel, (No. 676.) when nearly done add a tea-spoonful of prepared cochineal, to colour, and twenty drops of oil of lavender; let it boil half a minute in it, pour it in lengths on a marble slab, oiled, and twist it.

Bilberries: A Late-Autumn Treat

Variously monikered “the blood month” for the many animals slaughtered during it, the “wind month” for the icy gusts that swept the land, and “the month of blue devils and suicides” for reasons unstated, November was to those who lived before T.S. Eliot the cruelest page of the calendar. Occult influences of the sun’s moving into the house of the constellation Sagittarius were blamed for the merciless turn taken by the weather, which beset London with endless days of leaden skies, torrential rain, and stifling fog. So sharp, in fact, were November’s winds that farmers believed them to suspend “the vegetable powers of nature,” which would resume only with the arrival of spring.

Yet this suspension proved less than total. In 1864 Scottish publisher and geologist Robert Chambers advanced the idea that, rather than arresting the vegetable powers of the year’s final crop of berries, sleet and frost ripened it to perfection. Brambleberries, blueberries, dewberries, cloudberries – all reached maturity in November’s chill embrace.

The fact of this late development proved a real boon for the rural poor, who could brighten the otherwise blear approach of winter with a selection of pies. A particular favorite among them was the bilberry; its smallness and perishability ill-suited it for market, and it grew only in the wild, which meant that anyone who wished could pick them. Austria, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland had (and still have) on their law books provisions for the free gathering of this fruit irrespective of land title, private gardens and nature reserves excepted. The bilberry was, then, truly a common fruit. This democratic character perhaps inspired Abraham Holroyd’s long forgotten poem, “The Bilberry Moors” (1873).

As we march to the bilberry moors.
The wealthy man’s wall bounded not what we call
The common, and bilberry ground;
His broad-acred lot—nay, we covet it not—

Ye wealthy keep all that ye bound!
But the bilberry blue oweth nothing to you—

It groweth for the rich and poor;
Oh! mean were the might that would question the right
To roam on the bilberry moors.

If mean might should happen to question your right to gather bilberries close to home, you can always range the wild, arid places where they like to grow. Your efforts will be amply rewarded; the fruit’s light, tart flavor makes for delicious puddings, jams, and syrups of the sort presented in the recipes below.

Bilberry Pudding, Jam, and Syrup

70. Bilberry Pudding.—Make a suet crust, grease and line basin, half fill it with fresh bilberries, strew 2 tablespoonsful of sugar over them, and continue to fill the basin till it is heaped up. Put the top crust on and flour a cloth, tie it over, and boil for 2 hours. Bilberries in any form, either uncooked, made into pies, puddings, jam, or syrup, are particularly good for people suffering from scrofula, whether of the lungs or however it may be developed.

71. Bilberry Jam.—Gather the berries on a fine dry day, and after the sun has had time to dry the dew or moisture off the berries; weigh the fruit, put into a preserving pan with 1 pint of water, let it boil half an hour, and then add 6 pounds of sugar to every 7 pounds of fruit. Boil for three quarters of an hour; test it at the end of that time by putting a little in a saucer; put it out of doors to cool, and if it sets, it will be found to be sufficiently cooked. If not boiled enough it will not set firmly. Fill dry jam pots in the usual way, and cover down when cold with brown paper.

72. Bilberry Syrup.—Put 2 lbs. of loaf sugar into a saucepan with 1 pint of water; let it boil for a quarter of an hour, stirring all the time. Put on the fire, in a saucepan, 3 lbs. of bilberries; let them boil for half an hour, pass them through a jelly bag, and add the juice to the syrup. Clear with the white and shell of one egg, lightly whipped, and put into the syrup. Put it on the fire again, let it boil well up for three minutes; lift it carefully to one side, skim all the froth off as gently as possible, then pour into bottles and cork for future use. 1 tablespoonful in a tumbler of water before breakfast is considered quite a heal-all by some of the people in the midland counties. It certainly contains some valuable acids, and is a refreshing beverage on a hot summer’s day.

The Napoleon of Preserved Food

Rarely does ingenuity find just reward. The enterprising Nicolas Appert learned this unhappy fact when, in 1795, he hit upon the means by which to preserve meat, fish and vegetables in glass bottles. This découverte came only after a serious of professional failures. Appert began his career as a champagne salesman, and then tried his hand at confections before ending up in a grubby little atelier in the rue de la Folie-Méricourt, immersing in a piping hot bain-marie wide-mouthed glass bottles stuffed with everything from peas to pot roast. Finding that the bath rendered the jars airtight, Appert hit upon an idea that, for a few years at least, would bring him fame and welcome fortune.

Appert’s discovery came at a most opportune moment. Traditional methods of preserving – drying, smoking, salting – yielded unpredictable, often unsatisfactory results. Appert’s method, on the other hand, proved so effective that the Frenchman soon found himself crowned “the Napoleon of preserved food.” It wasn’t long, however, before the Napoleon of world conquest  learned of his culinary counterpart. Looking for a way to feed vast numbers of soldiers, the emperor summarily appointed Appert “official purveyor of the Grand Armée” whose theater of operations was a food bottling factory at Massey. Supervising more than fifty employees, the official purveyor discharged his duty to the Empire with élan, seeing to it that troops marched off well supplied with bottled rations.

Appert’s luck changed in 1814. A pair of English technicians infiltrated the factory and stole his trade secret. Shortly thereafter, the first English canned foods (the clever Britons improved upon Appert’s design by substituting metal for glass) came rolling out of the factories of Donkins-Hall.

Unlike their American cousins, who also learned food preserving, the English failed to credit Appert with his discovery, and this oversight proved fatal. He never recovered from this bit of industrial espionage; his fortunes declined as the popularity of his invention increased. Not even a gift of 12,000 livres and the title of Benefactor of Humanity managed to stave off the mortification of poverty. In 1841 Appert was found dead, half-starved and penniless.

Should you wish to rectify a historical wrong, this recipe for canned apples from the 1906 Book of Choice Recipes will help you to preserve the memory of Appert and his signature innovation.

Canned Apples

Choose ripe, finely flavored apples, only slightly tart. Pare, core, cut into eighths, throw into cold water and after draining, weigh, and put into the preserving kettle with boiling water enough to cover. As soon as the water begins to boil up, place over a slow fire to simmer until tender, but not soft. Into another kettle put one pound of sugar, one quart of boiling water, the juice of one lemon and half its rind, grated, for every five pounds of apples. Stir, and simmer five minutes. Drain the water from the apples carefully, let them slip slowly into the syrup, and simmer until the fruit looks clear and may be pierced with a straw. Lift with a perforated spoon, one or two pieces at a time, slip into jars and cover to overflowing with the boiling syrup. If you have sweet apples canned with pineapples, they are very nice.

Marmalade and Eggs for Cycling Legs

A “girdle around the earth” Thomas Gaskell Allen and William Sachtleben set out to describe the day after they graduated from Washington University. For three years they peddled their bicycles from “Normandy to Paris,” across “the lowlands of western France to Bordeaux,” straining over the Lesser Alps to Marseilles and “along the Riviera into Italy.” Even the seductive climes of the Mediterranean could not waylay them on their journey; after wintering in Athens, they stowed their bikes aboard a sailboat headed for Constantinople.

Some 2,500 photographs bear witness to Allen and Sachtleben’s odyssey. Yet boys weren’t the only ones peddling for glory. In 1896 Elizabeth Robins Pennell became the first woman to bike the Alps, a feat which she subsequently downplayed. “I did not think I was very original, when I set out deliberately to make a record,” she writes in Over the Alps on a Bicycle, her account of her efforts. Indeed, men and women had been riding to strange places for at least a decade before Pennell. In 1887 the 10,000 miles Lyman Hotchkiss Bagg logged on his bicycle he distilled into an 800-page memoir entitled, appropriately enough, Ten Thousand Miles on a Bicycle, which he dedicated to Curl, his beloved bulldog. Like Pennell, Bagg did not have record breaking in mind when he commenced his trek. His chronicle in published form exists “avowedly for no other reason than that [the reader’s] coin may help fill the yawning chasm” of his bank account.

The bicycle owes its existence to an inquisitive German baron, who invented a vehicle he dubbed a Laufmaschine (“running machine”), a contraption by no means easy to operate. Astride a wooden frame supported by two large in-line wheels, the rider pushed his Laufmaschine with his feet and steered it with his hands. Subsequent improvements on the German baron’s design were made by a Scottish blacksmith, who himself made bicycle history by committing the first bicycle-related traffic offense when he knocked over a little girl while riding his “velocipede … of ingenious design” around Glasgow. A fine of five shillings set things to rights.

It wasn’t until 1888, however, that the bicycle came into its own. Another Scotsman added to the design the pneumatic tire. And that same year also added was the rear freewheel, which allowed the rider to coast. These innovations vaulted bicycling into the first rank of weekend pastimes. Clubs devoted to the sport sprang up on both sides of the Atlantic.

These intrepid cyclists’ tales of treks from the Alps to Asia Minor, from Cannes to Constantinople, contain few details as to provisions. Perhaps their sustenance came in the form of  marmalade sandwiches and stuffed eggs, a recipe for which appears in a 1911 edition of Suburban Life.

Stuffed Eggs for a Picnic

Stuffed eggs should be wrapped separately in paraffin paper, and then packed in a box. A delicious manner of fixing the stuffed eggs is to mash the yolks of hardboiled eggs, add mustard, salt and pepper to taste, with enough vinegar to make the mixture moist and, lastly, a little chopped meat. Roll this into balls, and return to the cavity in the whites of the eggs. To vary this, add grated cheese instead of meat, and mayonnaise instead of vinegar.

Automats: Giving Lunch the Impersonal Touch

A machine that could serve milk steaming hot or ice-cold, that never spilled a drop and never needed cleaning – such was the dream of German school administrators who were after an innovative way of meeting their pupils’ nutritional needs. In 1903 that dream became reality with the introduction into schools throughout Berlin of the Milch-Automat, a technological wonder that, as revealed in an issue of The Modern Review, subtracted the human element from the dairy-delivery equation. A coin dropped into the machine sent “a waterproof paper cup … down in an opening” to catch a jet of the “very finest quality milk” with ease and exactness. And, true to its promise, the Milch-Automat proved an exceedingly clean machine, flushing itself every so often by “a mechanical process” that kept it “scientifically sanitary.”

These ingenious machines belonged to three classes – hot-food, cold-food, liquid – each indicating certain differences in operation. Customers worked a hot-food machine, for instance, by dropping a coin into it, in exchange for which they received a metal token. Meanwhile, the coin journeyed down a tube that denoted a particular dish. In some subterranean kitchen, a cook took notice of this coin and prepared the appropriate entree, which he then sent up a dumb waiter and down a conveyor to a glass receptacle. This dish the customer freed by inserting his token into a nearby slot.

Cold-food automats, on the other hand, were decidedly simpler affairs. Prepared in advance and adequately refrigerated, a cold dish could spend all day attracting the attention of some peckish passer-by. Similarly self-sufficient were the liquid machines, which featured the addition of a self-measuring contrivance that ensured each thirsty customer’s cup was filled exactly with the advertised quantity.

Automat fever soon spread beyond central Europe. A passion for these machines came to infect New York and, in fact, touched off a vogue for so-called “Automat parties.”A typical fête of this sort involved the late-night rental of an automatic restaurant. Theater-goers, club-hoppers and other assorted  night owls would make merry in these hired hot-spots, enjoying their mechanized bounty by pumping cocktails and winching up salads with the drop of a coin.

Automats are a rarity nowadays. But you can still recreate an automat meal. An American visitor to one such establishment in Berlin reported enjoying a lunch of “mutton, potatoes, string beans, Swiss cheese sandwich, sardine sandwich and vanilla ice” – all for 20 cents! These inflationary times make it hard to replicate such a meal at such a price. But a few bucks still allows you to enjoy a Swiss cheese sandwich like those featured in The Up-To-Date Sandwich Book (1909).

Swiss Cheese Sandwich

Cut rye bread very thin. Spread lightly with butter. Between the pieces place thin slices of Swiss cheese. Spread with mustard. Garnish with a dill pickle sliced thin.

Swiss Cheese Sandwich No. 2

Butter thin slices of pumpernickel bread. Between slices put a thin layer of Swiss cheese and leaves of watercress. Cut in long narrow strips. Garnish with an olive.