Colonial Williamsburg is rediscovering the kitchen of the past -- the skill needed to build a fire that will last overnight, the quiet tick of the clock jack that turns the roasting spit, the back-breaking task of pounding block sugar to powder with mortar and pestle. Just recently the foodways program has been expanded to explore not only the academic side of how our forebears cooked and ate, but also how they achieved it in practice.
A recent display in the Governor's Palace recreated a festive supper, worthy of a ball or a state gathering. Pyramids of candied fruits and heart-shaped gingerbread cookies were flanked by a "rich cake" dark with raisins. A great Savoy sponge cake baked in a kugelhopf mold was filled with sugared fruits. A "coffin pie" filled with meat was festooned with pastry vine leaves.
Roast quail jostled a tower of marzipan candies illustrating the 18th-century habit of mixing dozens of dishes on the table at once, sweet and savory, fruit and vegetable, fish and meat, including a baked pig's head with an apple in its mouth.
The following festive supper is based on recipes taken from 18th-century cookbooks and tested by researchers from the Williamsburg Foundation. What more authentic way could there be to celebrate the Fourth of July?
A white onion soup opens the meal -- this is a recipe rich with butter and cream, quite unlike the familiar brown French version. Main courses I leave to you -- a baked country ham, perhaps, a roast of beef or turkey, or even a pig's head, backed up by whatever salads you prefer. With them come Bath cakes -- yeast rolls flavored with caraway and more than a suspicion of sugar, very much in the old manner.
Sweet things always shine at a feast. Here the centerpiece is the giant Savoy sponge I saw on the governor's table -- a firm-textured cake excellent with the sugared grapes, red currants and strawberries that fill it. The gingerbread cookies, too, are snowy with sugar and with a chewy texture, quite unlike our softer gingerbreads. They would make excellent cookies for the Christmas tree, as well as being piled in pyramids in Williamsburg style.
Syllabub, a frothy fruit dessert based on cream, is a story in itself. When an acid-like lemon juice or white wine is mixed with cream, the mixture thickens and curdles, thus preserving the cream and preventing it from spoiling -- a useful trick in the days before refrigeration.
In Williamsburg, to my delight, syllabub was being made by a time-honored method that I always regarded as a joke -- milking the cow directly into the fruit mixture. But it works. The warmth of the jet of milk, explained our guide, helps achieve a special frothy lightness. Unfortunately with modern standards of hygiene we had to forego testing her assertion.
Timetable A busy day's cooking ahead of the party leaves almost no cooking to be done at the last minute.
Up to 3 weeks ahead: Bake gingerbread cakes and store in airtight container.
Up to 2 days ahead: Make soup and refrigerate. Bake Bath cakes and store in freezer. Bake Savoy cake and freeze. Make syllabubs and refrigerate. Mix rum punch and refrigerate.
In the morning: Take Savoy cake and Bath cakes from freezer. Sugar the fruits and store in an airtight container. Brew lemon or herb tea and chill. Set the table.
Thirty minutes before serving: Sprinkle Savoy cake with sugar and add fruits. Sprinkle gingerbread cakes with confectioners' sugar and pile in a pyramid.
Fifteen minutes before serving: Reheat the soup. Warm Bath cakes in a very low oven. Set syllabubs on the table with roast meats and salads. Transfer punch and tea to punch bowl and pitchers.
WHITE ONION SOUP (12 servings)
Be careful not to let the onions brown in butter and discolor the soup.
3 crisp white bread rolls, sliced
1 cup (2 sticks) butterSTART NOTE cq END NOTE
4 pounds yellow onions, thinly sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons flour
1 quart hot water, more if needed
2 egg yolks
1 1/2 tablespoons vinegar
1 cup whipping cream
Bake the bread rolls until very dry but not browned. Work them to crumbs in a food processor or blender. There should be 1 cup crumbs.
Melt butter in a large saucepan, add onions with a little salt and saute' very gently 30 to 40 minutes until meltingly soft. Note: Do not allow them to brown. Stir in flour and cook 2 minutes longer. Stir in hot water, off the heat, followed by the bread crumbs. Bring soup back to a boil, stirring, and simmer 10 minutes or until quite thick, stirring often. Taste it for seasoning. It can be kept covered in the refrigerator up to 2 days.
To finish: bring soup just back to a boil. Whisk egg yolks with vinegar and add a little of the hot soup. Stir mixture back into the remaining soup with the cream. Reheat almost to boiling and taste again before serving. If the soup has thickened on standing, add a little more hot water.
BATH CAKES (Makes 12 cakes)
These yeast rolls are not kneaded, so the texture is unusually crumbly.
1 tablespoon ( 1/2 ounce) dry yeast or 1 ounce compressed yeast
4 tablespoons warm water
3/4 cup whipping cream, more if needed
3 cups unbleached flour
1/4 cup whole-wheat flour
1/4 cup unflavored wheat germ
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter
Caraway comfits (recipe below)
Sprinkle or crumble yeast over the warm water and leave 5 minutes or until dissolved and the mixture starts to bubble. Scald the cream and let cool to tepid. Mix the 2 flours, wheat germ and salt in a bowl. Cut in the butter with 2 knives, then work with your fingertips to form crumbs, as when making pie pastry. Make a well in the center and add the yeast mixture and warm cream. Work lightly to form a dough that is soft but not sticky, adding more cream if the dough seems dry. Cover with a wet cloth and leave in a warm place to rise until doubled in bulk, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Knead the dough to knock out the air and work in two-thirds of the comfits. Divide the dough in 12 pieces and shape into round cakes. Set them on a greased baking sheet and sprinkle with remaining comfits. Leave rolls to rise in a warm place 30 to 40 minutes. Alternatively, they can be covered and refrigerated overnight.
Bake cakes in a 375-degree oven until browned, 30 to 35 minutes. They are best eaten the day of baking, but can be stored in an airtight container up to 2 days, or frozen.
CARAWAY COMFITS (Makes 3/4 cup)
A "comfit" was a comforter -- a long-lasting candy to suck.
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
3 tablespoons caraway seeds
Heat sugar and water until dissolved. Bring syrup just to a boil and let cool. Spread caraway seeds on a lightly oiled tray or baking dish. Sprinkle seeds with 2 to 3 tablespoons syrup, put in a 140-degree oven with door open and leave to dry 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Repeat with 2 to 3 more tablespoons syrup until all is used, letting the seeds dry between each addition. When finished, the comfit mixture should be dry and sugary.
SAVOY CAKE (12 servings)
Fruit juice or orange flower water is used to flavor this cake as vanilla was not used in the 18th century; the original recipe called for toasted orange flowers. Potato starch is available in the kosher section of supermarkets.
3/4 cup flour
3/4 cup potato starch
6 eggs, separated
1 1/4 cups sugar
Grated rind 2 lemons
2 teaspoons orange flower water
Confectioners' sugar for sprinkling
Sugared fruits for decoration (recipe below)
Generously butter the pan. Sift together the flour and potato starch.
In a bowl, beat the egg yolks until slightly thickened. Gradually beat in two-thirds of the sugar, lemon rind and orange flower water and continue beating until the mixture is very thick and light, about 5 minutes. Stiffly whip the egg whites, add the remaining sugar and beat 30 seconds to make a light meringue. As lightly as possible, fold the meringue into the mixture alternately with the sifted flour.
Pour mixture into prepared pan and bake in a 350-degree oven 45 to 55 minutes or until cake draws away from sides of the pan and the top has formed a firm crust. Loosen sides of cake with a knife. Let it cool in the pan, then turn out onto a rack.
The cake is best eaten the day of baking but it can be kept up to 3 days in an airtight container, or frozen.
Just before serving, sprinkle the cake with confectioners' sugar. Fill the center and decorate edge with sugared fruits.
SUGARED FRUIT (Makes 3 dozen sugared fruits)
Cherries, strawberries, orange segments, red or black currants and grapes can be sugared this way. Leave cherries attached to stems, orange segments unpeeled and grapes in clusters, making sure the skin is unbroken so juice cannot escape.
2 quarts fruit
3 egg whites, beaten until frothy
1 1/2 cups sugar
Line a baking sheet with waxed paper. Wipe or brush fruit to clean it but do not wash.
Dip fruits one by one in beaten egg, then roll them in sugar. Set them well apart on the baking sheet and leave to dry in an airy place until crisp. Note: They will not dry in a humid atmosphere.
If leaving sugared fruits in the open air, serve them within 3 hours. They can be stored in an airtight container up to 24 hours.
GINGERBREAD CAKES (Makes 24 2 1/2-inch cakes)
The flavor of gingerbread cakes matures on keeping.
6 tablespoons molasses
1/4 cup whipping cream, more if needed
3 cups flour
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
2/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
Confectioners' sugar for sprinkling
Butter 2 to 3 baking sheets. In a saucepan, heat molasses with cream, stirring until melted, and leave to cool.
Put flour in a large bowl, add butter and rub in with your fingertips until the mixture forms crumbs. Stir in sugar, ginger and nutmeg. Make a well in center, add molasses mixture and stir, gradually drawing in flour to form a stiff dough. If dough seems dry, add a spoon or 2 more cream. Knead the dough lightly until smooth and chill 15 minutes.
Roll out dough on a floured board until 1/8-inch thick. Stamp out rounds with a 2 1/2-inch round cookie cutter and set on baking sheet. Bake in a 350-degree oven 8 to 10 minutes, until cakes are firm and brown around edges. Transfer them to a rack to cool.
Gingerbread cakes can be stored in an airtight container 2 to 3 weeks. Before serving, sprinkle them generously with confectioners' sugar.
SYLLABUB (12 servings)
On standing, the syllabub will separate into 2 layers: a top layer of lemon-sherry mousse and a bottom layer of clear wine punch.
Grated zest and juice of 4 lemons
1 cup sugar
3 cups whipping cream
1 cup white wine
1/2 cup sherry
12 mint sprigs or 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
In a bowl, stir the lemon juice and sugar until dissolved, then stir in the cream. The mixture should taste like lemon cream and more zest can be added to your taste.
Stir in the wine and sherry and whisk 3 to 5 minutes until the mixture holds a ribbon trail. Spoon it at once into 12 parfait or stemmed glasses and chill at least 6 hours.
The syllabubs can be kept covered in the refrigerator up to 5 days. Top each with a mint sprig or a sprinkling of cinnamon before serving.
RUM PUNCH (Makes 2 1/2 quarts to serve 12)
A powerful brew, resembling a rum sour. If serving the punch over ice, cut the amount of water in the syrup by half.
3 cups dark rum
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 quarts water
3/4 cup orange juice
1/2 cup lemon juice
Thinly pare zest from the orange and lemon. Pour over a 1/2 cup of the rum, cover tightly and leave to soak at least 6 and up to 24 hours.
Heat sugar with water until dissolved and bring just to a boil. Let the syrup cool, then stir in orange and lemon juices. Strain in rum, discarding the fruit zest and add remaining rum. Chill the punch thoroughly. It can be kept, tightly covered, up to a month.
Transfer the punch to a pitcher or punch bowl and serve it very cold.