Birch Bark for Bowel Remedies and Other Boons

At eighty feet high and close to two feet thick, the black birch dwarfs its fellow trees. It’s solitary, preferring to make its home on craggy, mountain precipices, where its branches can reach over deep chasms and it roots can burrow between rocks into moist, rich soil. But it’s also handsome, having large oval leaves laced with fine veins that turn yellow in autumn and bark that in youth is a seamless near-black and in maturity becomes cracked and furrowed.

The astute observer of nature knows that this cracking is a most auspicious development. At such a stage the bark, grown redolent of wintergreen and imbued with a spicy flavor, separates easily from the trunk, and can be harvested for a number of products, such as tea, chaw, a nostrum to ease bowel complaints or a salve to cure cankers.

The birch tree’s youngest twigs make the best – and most ecologically sensitive – tea; the thick inner bark, though tasty, leaves the trunk scarred and disfigured when removed. Drying the bark does nothing to diminish the tea’s flavor, which is best enjoyed with sugar, cream and cookies of the sort featured in this recipe from the San Rafael Cook Book (1906).

Economical Cookies

1 cup sugar, 1/2 cup butter, 1/2 cup sour milk, 1 egg, 1/2 teaspoon soda. Flour to make soft dough and flavor to taste.

Bread to Make a Hungarian Rhapsodic

Today’s weight-obsessed gastronomes, ever mindful of carbohydrates and calories, generally demur when dinner rolls are passed their way. Yet history reveals that such reticence is unusual. Centuries ago, the attitude prevailed that a meal without bread was no meal at all. Even kings made a show of their baked goods. When in 1663 Transylvanian Prince Mihály Apafi invited the entire Ottoman army to dine with him after a battle, he rolled out, among other tidbits, two-score enormous boules. So impressed with this display was the Turkish world traveler, Evliya Celebi, that he recorded it in his journal. “The meadows were covered with Hungarian carpets,” he writes, “onto which forty giant loaves were placed.” The king’s means of conveying the loaves to the hungry soldiers Calebi found equally impressive. “Each one had to be drawn on an oxcart,” he continues, for “each … was twenty paces long, and five paces wide, and as high as a full-grown man.”

The bread of Eastern Europe impressed travelers with more than its size. Writing a hundred years later, another adventurer, Robert Towson, praised the bread of Hungary for its toothsomeness. “Nowhere else did I eat bread that was lighter, whiter, and tastier than this,” he declared. Baking such heavenly bread was no easy feat; this chore peasants performed but once a week, on Saturday, so a fresh loaf would be available for the Sabbath. It was an all-day event. Kneading alone took a good two hours and required considerable strength. The dough had to rise overnight, which meant that it wasn’t until the wee hours the next day that it entered the oven.

As difficult as this chore of baking was, Hungarian families considered it anything but. No peasant woman dared neglect her bubbling pot of sourdough, her bread’s leaven. In fact, each new bride was given a small lump of sourdough by her mother, which she used to bake the first loaf for her husband. So dear were these loaves that only the man of the house could slice them. In Catholic households, he would mark them with the sign of the cross before brandishing his bread knife. If any pieces fell to the floor, they were promptly picked up and kissed in apology.

Baking day wasn’t without its charms. A portion of dough was usually kept in reserve to be baked at the front of the oven, close to the flame. This imparted a smoky, tangy flavor to the resulting bread, which Hungarians call lángos. Some Hungarians still prepare this morsel, though they nowadays typically fry it and serve it with anything from chopped fresh dill to ewe’s milk cheese. The traditional recipe for lángos that appears below is taken from Culinaria: Hungary

Lángos

5 oz mealy potatoes
1 3/4 cakes compressed yeast
3 tbsp confectioner’s sugar
1 2/3 cups milk
3 1/3 cups flour
3 1/2 tbsp oil
Salt

Oil for deep frying

Cooks the potatoes in their skins. Dissolve the yeast and the sugar in a scant 1/2 cup of lukewarm milk, and stand in a warm place for 10 minutes. Peel the potatoes and mash while still warm. Sift the flour into a bowl. Make a well in the center, and pour in the milk and yeast mixture. Adds the potatoes and the oil, and knead to a smooth dough with the remaining likewarm milk, adding a little salt. Sprinkle over a little flour, and cover with a dish towel. Leave in a warm place for about 1 hour until the dough has doubled in size.

Pour some oil in a skillet of about 2 1/2 inches height. Tear off a piece of the risen dough, and shape it into a round flat cake about 3/4 inch thick. Fry in the hot oil (do not cover the skillet) until golden, then turn over carefully and fry the cake on the other side.

Season with salt, and eat while still hot. Delicious spread with sour cream or garlic juice.

Of Balloons, Bugles and Apple Butter

Washington Harrison Donaldson performed his greatest feats of derring-do while borne aloft by a large gas balloon. Or so discovered a crowd of curious onlookers one August morning in 1871 when the gymnast and self-styled aeronaut dressed in tights decided to take his big-top routine to the heavens. From the small town of Reading, Pennsylvania he set off at a quarter to ten in the morning. As dozens watched, his balloon, heavy with ballast, rose uncertainly at first, climbing thirty or so feet before its basket lurched against a house roof. Rope, grappling iron, coat, boots, hat and provisions Donaldson jettisoned, and the balloon resumed its ascent. A quarter of a mile above ground, he “skinned the cat” upon the hoop just above the wicker basket to the entertainment of any eyes cast skyward. On that maiden flight he drifted “some eighteen miles,” as M.L. Amick recounts in his 1875 History of Donaldson’s Balloon Ascensions, passing through clouds and over farms before coming to rest in a plow field.

This first journey Donaldson considered such a smashing success that he “resolved to abandon the tight rope forever” for greater heights. But his subsequent stunts, though amusing, were not always benign. He delighted in “trailing the drag rope,” a goof that lashed bushes, scourged sheep, thrashed fences, flailed chickens, and generally visited mayhem on the countryside. On one of these more sportive trips he observed a farmer and his wife stirring a large kettle of apple butter. An impish whim seized him. He resolved to “thicken the apple-butter for them” and did so by emptying a sand bag into the kettle as he passed over it. This promptly caused the farmer’s wife to have a fit. Her panic Donaldson answered with “a few terrible blasts on his bugle,” and some shouts about “Gabriel and the judgement.” The wife, her apoplexy now leavened with divine dread, fell down, rolled over two or three times, and then ran to fetch a broom and a butcher’s knife as her husband shook his ladle and hurled threats at “the man and the balloon.” Donaldson simply laughed as he floated out of hearing “of that man’s ‘chin music.’”
A kettle of ruined apple butter was perhaps a fair price to pay for such an aeronautic display as Donaldson was wont to make. Should you like to prepare a batch yourself, this recipe, which appears in an 1919 issue of the Farmer’s Bulletin, is sure to send your taste buds soaring. Just take care to prepare it indoors, in the event that any puckish balloonist should happen your way.
Apple Butter with Cider

Apple butter with cider.—Either fresh cider or commercial sterilized cider may be used. The usual proportion of peeled and sliced apples and cider is gallon for gallon, but from one-half to three quarters of a gallon of cider to a gallon of peeled and sliced apples will give a rich product if the apples are good cookers. Less than half as much cider as prepared apples is likely to make an apple sauce rather than a butter, unless it is cooked very slowly for four to six hours.

Continue the cooking until the cider and apples do not separate and the butter, when cold, is as thick as good apple sauce. Determine the thickness at frequent intervals by cooling small portions.

If sugar is used, add it after the cooking of cider and apples is about two-thirds done. About a pound of either white or brown sugar is the usual proportion per gallon of apple butter, but more or less (or not any) may be used, to suit the taste.

Apple butter is spiced according to taste, about half a teaspoonful each of ground cinnamon, cloves, and allspice being used for each gallon. These are stirred into it when the cooking is finished.

Vanilla extract added after the spices are stirred in improves the quality and adds to the snappiness of the butter. Use from 2 to 4 teaspoonfuls per gallon of butter, according to taste.