The only thing more indecipherable than the untidy scrawl in which the recipe for “Potingall Cakes” is written is the instructions themselves.
There’s the unconventional direction to “strew in yr sugar and flower,” the inclusion of two spoonfuls of something called “sack” and the weird final command to “set up the lead.” Not to mention the rather flexible relationship the recipe’s 18th-century author had with spelling: “flower” refers to “flour,” “pretty” is spelled with an “i.”
Not even the recipe’s title is quite what it seems. It’s a mangled version of a common British dessert, Portugal cakes, akin to madeleines studded with currants.
“I still have split seconds when I look at something and think, ‘Oh, it’s in Latin,’ ” says Alyssa Connell, who is reading and reinterpreting this 300-year-old recipe for her Web site.
Even so, the English-literature scholar needs only 15 minutes to translate and transcribe “Potingall Cakes” into a Microsoft Word document. Apparently, terms like “sack” become familiar when you specialize in the domestic culture of early modern Britain. (For the rest of us, it’s a fortified white wine similar to sherry, and it would have come from Portugal, which Connell suspects may explain the dessert’s name.)
Connell, 31, is a sixth-year PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania and half of the team behind “Cooking in the Archives,” a site dedicated to digging up interesting recipes from Penn’s archive of handwritten manuscripts and rewriting them for modern cooks. Her 29-year-old partner, Marissa Nicosia, graduated in the spring and now teaches at Scripps College in Claremont, Calif. Both are specialists in literature from England’s early modern period, which extends from the 16th to 19th centuries.
Funded by a grant from Penn’s graduate program, their project is something of a cross between a cooking blog and a public access television history program. The posts are chatty and informative and fall on just the right side of utter nerdiness. (There are frequent references to the Oxford English Dictionary and at least one foray into Shakespeare.)
Connell and Nicosia select their recipes from a collection of more than 100 cookbooks held by Penn’s Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. Each of the texts was written between 1600 and 1800 and was digitized sometime in the last five years. For philosophical reasons, “Cooking in the Archives” features only handwritten recipes: “In academia, the default is print rather than manuscripts because it’s more accessible,” Connell says. “I like the underdogs of historical literary records. . . . It feels like rescue of some kind.”
Since the site launched in June, the duo has unearthed and modernized more than a dozen recipes, from the familiar (“maccarony cheese”) to the pleasantly peculiar (“my Lady Chanworth’s receipt for Jumballs”) to the unpleasantly bizarre (“fish custard”).
The two recipes Connell is making today, Carrot Pudding and Portugal Cakes, fall somewhere between the first two categories. Despite the former’s ominous-sounding name, it isn’t so different from a crustless pumpkin pie. Connell adds cinnamon and ginger to her version (“because we like them, and why not?” she says) and purees the ingredients with a food processor, rather than a mortar and pestle. Still, for a dessert made of ingredients nearly every modern cook has on hand — carrots, eggs, sugar, cream — the puddings that emerge from Connell’s oven taste satisfyingly antique.
The ingredients for the Portugal Cakes are a bit more obscure: currants, rose water. But it’s the process, not the components, that marks this recipe as decidedly 18th century. The author includes measurements — making her something of an anomaly among her contemporaries — but leaves out several instructions a modern baker might consider critical: what kind of pan to bake the cakes in, what temperature to set the oven. She also instructs cooks to work the butter and rose water in their hands “till it all be very soft,” a step Connell chooses to bypass.
“I started to do that and was like, ‘I have a Kitchen Aid mixer,’ ” she laughs. “Not so authentic, but oh, so helpful.”
Connell and Nicosia are trained in paleography — the study of historic handwriting — and adhere to strict academic standards during transcription. But they allow themselves more flexibility once they get into the kitchen. Usually they have no choice: The lack of 21st-century specificity makes re-creating these dishes more of an intuitive process. For the Portugal Cakes, Connell substitutes sherry for sack and ignores the “set up the lead” instruction entirely.
“At a certain point you have to just let go of precision and see what happens,” Connell says. “If it turns out to be edible, well, then you’ve done something right.”
There are schools of thought in the realm of antique cooking that frown on this blase attitude toward technique — and yes, the historic-recipe trend is big enough to contain schools of thought. But for Connell and Nicosia, the project is less about rigidly reproducing the foods of the 18th century than about bringing them into the 21st. The two are fans of reality cooking shows and baking blogs. They network with other food historians via Facebook and Twitter. And none of their work would be possible without Penn’s online archive of digitized manuscripts; they couldn’t exactly borrow the original texts from the library for home use.
“It’s actually striking to me how much this can only happen through technology,” Connell says. “The handwritten recipe books are the technology by which these were used and preserved, and now it’s Twitter and e-mail that’s maintaining them.”
Indeed, she sees the impulse to painstakingly reproduce centuries-old dishes as a trendy one, the home cook’s corollary to a chef’s garden of heirloom produce or a hipster’s vintage typewriter. “I think there’s a wave of interest in making things yourself — you know, cooking and pickling,” Connell says. “People are more interested now in knowing exactly where things come from.”
But reviving antique recipes is more than just some New Age experiment in authenticity. It’s real social science.
“These are historical documents as well as culinary documents. They’re a window onto a particular moment,” says Rebecca Laroche. She is a professor of English literature at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and a founding member of the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective, which seeks to aggregate the archives and food history research of various universities on one comprehensive Web site.
Laroche’s expertise is in antique remedies, not food, but she has still done her fair share of recipe re-creation (including carefully de-petaling several pounds of flowers for “sirrop of violets,” a supposedly calming tonic used by early-modern herbalists).
“There’s value in actually getting your hands dirty,” Laroche says, “You can learn a lot about what’s at stake, why things were done, what it meant to be in that time.”
For Connell, whose doctoral research is on the travel writing of 18th-century Britain, bringing the transcribed recipes into her kitchen has made her more conscious of the way the world worked 300 years ago. For example, the presence of certain ingredients — spices, exotic citrus — illustrates the extent of trade networks at the time, while the absence of others — baking soda and other modern leavening agents — shows how far science still had to go.
There’s a feminist angle to the project as well. Printed literary works — the kind that are widely available and studied today — were mostly the province of men in the early modern period. For those like Connell and Laroche with an interest in analyzing women’s records, handwritten documents on food and medicine are often the only surviving resource.
Connell carries an awareness of those concerns in her transcribing and her baking. Rather than get wrapped up in trying to figure out who wrote the recipe she’s reading, it’s enough for her to know the academic value of the work.
But while eating the results of her labors, she lets herself indulge in a little romance:
“I love the thought that someone 300 years ago might have been reading a text I’ve read many times before while munching on Portugal cakes,” she says.
After all, the recipe is centuries old, but the pleasure of eating is timeless.
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