Friday, 10 August 2012

The Victorians: Fine dining and complicated cooking

Today we move from the Regency to the Victorian period – fashions changing from the casually decadent to the lofty and buttoned-up. I’m starting with the rich, and their slightly scary dishes, because (as ever) the richest set the tone for everyone else to follow, and given the increase in travel, industry and fabrication during the years of Victoria’s reign, chefs had more resources to work with than ever. So let’s take a look!

Victorian Dishes created by high-profile chefs were intimidating mainly because of the sheer number of ingredients they used. Most of the savoury dishes in particular relied on complex stock or sauces being ready at hand before the chef could begin – such as this one by Alexis Soyer from 1847, which begins:

The proportions given here are obviously for a much larger number of diners than I’m likely to have when trying something like this – still, several pounds of different meats to make one stock – which was then in turn often used by Soyer to make yet more (and presumably superior) stock – seems excessive, even wasteful. This over-complication seems to be a running theme in Victorian fine dining – the ‘Malaga Tawney’ that I made while looking at the Georgians was based simply on chicken, onion and spices. Soyer’s version went like this:

I was tempted, but didn’t try out the Victorian version, in the end (although I might still – I’d like to compare the finished product). Instead, I started looking at the many, many recipes for desserts that might have been served at a Victorian banquet – at least it wouldn’t require me to make stock from scratch…

Puff-pastry (still known as puff-paste) had been around in British cooking for a while, but was still very difficult to make, needing to be kept as cold as possible while it was folded to create the layers, meaning the chef needed access to ice. The light layers made it popular in more expensive dishes, and gave this dish by Charles Elmé Francatelli its name – (Millefeuille means ‘thousand sheets’ in French – which was still the language of fashionable food). I toyed with the idea of making my own for this recipe, but had to rule it out in the end, out of both time constraint and pity for my hapless taste-testers, who might have ended up with an unpleasant experience of over-handled pastry. Instead, I bought some ready-made, which was convenient and undoubtedly of better quality.

Two 500g packs puff-pastry
Caster sugar, about 250g – accurate measurements are a problem for this one, so I just kept     the packet open and on hand
Whites of two large eggs – again, this depends on what size eggs you have, and how thick a coating you make – two worked for me, but more might give a smoother finish.
Preserve or jam for layering – ‘some preserve’ is one of the more general ingredients I have seen so far, but most large kitchens or households would have had plenty on hand, as it was still a common way to keep excess fruit. I used a strawberry and apple preserve.
Jelly, to decorate – the recipe suggested redcurrant and apple, but I eventually settled on raspberries preserved in jelly, as this was another popular way to serve fruit, and gave the required bright colour.
Whipping cream – half a pint should do.
Liqueur – I used cherry brandy. Another good choice would be an orange liqueur such as Cointreau or Grand Marnier.
Fresh strawberries

Roll out the pastry carefully to about a tenth of an inch thick. Using cutters (or as I did, a bowl for the large circles and a wineglass for the smaller), cut as many discs of around five inches wide, with a hole two or three inches cut in the middle. Dust with caster sugar on both side and bake for about ten minutes in a medium-hot over, or until risen and lightly coloured. As modern ovens do not tend to be nearly as large as the large bread ovens of a wealthy household’s kitchen, you will probably need to do this in batches. Leave to cool. While these are cooking, wash and cut most of your strawberries up, then sprinkle with sugar and a splash of liqueur in a bowl and leave to chill – this improves the flavour of strawberries, which can sometimes be a little sour, and will be mixed with the cream later. Leave a few whole for decorating.

When cold, layer the cutouts on top of one another, spreading the preserve between them. (If your preserve is a little thick, you can add a splash of your liqueur to loosen it up. Well, it’s going into the dessert anyway…) Once done, whisk together your egg white with some fine sugar – two ounces (or 50g) of sugar per egg white is the rule of thumb for meringues, so I stuck with that, but didn’t whisk them completely stiff to make coating the pastry easier. Spread the sugar and egg mix very carefully over the pastry, then put into a very low oven for two to three hours, or until the coating has dried. You can also turn up the heat if you want it done quicker, which gives a caramelised appearance – just don’t let it burn!

 I’m afraid I dispensed with the idea of using a paper ‘cornet’ for decoration, since I have no illusions about my artistic ability and had no intention of holding a banquet. Nevertheless, it is an indication of the fashion for embellishment of food that was hanging on from Georgian times. Whip the cream until it stands in peaks, then stir in a few spoonfuls of your macerated strawberries and a splash of liqueur, and use to fill the centre of your Millefeuille. Decorate with strawberries, jelly, and a dusting of caster or icing sugar. The rest of the cream and strawberries can be served on the side for anyone who want more!

This dessert is a wonderful example of the complexity and luxury of Victorian fine dining. It requires quantities of expensive sugar, fresh cream and strawberries – only available either at certain times of year, or from costly imports – all layered with flaky pastry, which required the finest flour, a very light hand, and a great deal of effort. It’s a little easier these days, but still the most time-consuming recipe I have tried so far – and on tasting a slice, I was convinced it was absolutely worth it. Delicious!

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