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Anecdotes from the Archive

Anecdotes from the Archive


Intriguing finds from Scientific American's past
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Notes and Queries logo

Credit: Scientific American

I love Scientific American‘s archive not only for its record of scientific discovery but also for the surprises I invariably find there. Who knew that beyond covering cutting-edge research, Scientific American of the 1800s offered household hints and even recipes?

A department called “Notes and Queries” offered tips and answers to readers’ questions. Among the useful hints: tin roofs need to be kept well painted; “Ladies may render their gauzy dresses somewhat incombustible by mixing a little pulverized alum in the starch when they are ‘done up’”; artesian well water is healthy for bathing.

One of my favorite finds, though, is “One Hundred Choice Household Receipts,” published February 22, 1879 in Supplement No. 164. The article presents ”practical and economical” recipes, several “published for the first time.” The recipes run the gamut from bread to side dishes to condiments and sauces, but the lion’s share give directions for making sweets.  Naturally, I had to try one.

For modern-day cooks, the recipes pose multiple challenges. They leave out the preferred size and shape of baking pans and the length of time to keep concoction in the oven. They also sometimes measure sugar and milk and such in terms of “teacups,” and mete out butter “the size of an egg” –terms apparently not uncommon at the time.

Directions for “Sally Lunn,” for instance, read:

“One quart of flour, 3 tablespoons yeast, 3 eggs, 1 saltspoon salt, butter the size of an egg. Make up with new milk into a tolerably stiff batter; set it to rise, and when light pour into a mould, and set to rise again as light bread. Bake quickly.”

And for “Plum Pudding”:

“One teacup molasses, one cup of sweet milk, one teaspoon soda, one tablespoon butter, one pint raisins, chopped; flour enough to make as thick as soft gingerbread, one teaspoon of all kinds of spices. Sauce.–One cup powdered sugar, half cup butter, two eggs well beaten; just before served, one tumbler [1/2 pint] boiling currant wine.”

A quick look at Google reveals conflicting measures for a teacup—but it seems to refer to about four or six ounces. Butter-the-size-of-an-egg equals ¼ cup, some sources say. A saltspoon is ¼ teaspoon.

Being a fan of both coffee and cake, I tried my hand at “Coffee Cake”:

“One cup sugar, one cup molasses, one cup butter, one cup strong coffee, one teaspoon cinnamon, a grated nutmeg, one cup seeded raisins, two small teaspoons soda; stir in flour until the mixture will drop from the spoon. This receipt will make two cakes.”

I hit some bumps pretty quickly. I didn’t know how much nutmeg was being called for exactly (I guessed two or three teaspoons). Other unknowns: whether to use sweet or salted butter and what it meant to say “the mixture will drop from the spoon.” The goop seemed to “drop from the spoon” even before I added any flour. Also, what kind of pan was I to use and how long was I to bake the cake and at what temperature?

Meanwhile, I did not want to use a pound of butter, so I halved the recipe. And my tin of nutmeg was probably as old as the article, so I substituted fresher “cake spice”–containing cinnamon, anise, nutmeg, allspice, ginger and cloves–in place of the cinnamon and nutmeg (1½ teaspoons). I also chose salted butter over sweet and mixed in 1½ cups of flour. I stirred the batter until it resembled whipped cake frosting. I poured it into a greased 8- by 8-inch square pan and baked it at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.

cake sunken in the middle

The cake sank in the middle. Credit: Ricki Rusting

The square pan was a bad idea; the cake sunk in the middle. A tube pan would probably have been better.

The cake tasted good to me, but my husband declared it too strongly spiced. The top had a pleasant sweet crunch to it, but the rest of the cake, outside of the sunken part, was dry and crumbly; I must have used too much flour, or maybe I baked the cake for too long, or both. A tester came out clean at 30 minutes, but I was hoping that longer baking would induce the center to rise. It didn’t.

I would love to hear from anyone else who tries the recipe. What works, what doesn’t? Please comment.

Perhaps the most delightful recipe I’ve come across is for lobster salad; the instructions, published in the August 23, 1862 issue, take the form of a poem (below). The editors credit the Rev. Mr. Barham, author of “The Ingolds by Legends,” for the recipe, which they claim works better without the onion and with a little bit of sugar. They also suggest starting with a lobster weighing two pounds in its shell and a large head of lettuce.

Lobster Salad

colored photo of lobster

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“Two large potatoes, passed through kitchen sieve,
Unwonted softness to the salad give;
Of ardent mustard add a single spoon,
Distrust the condiment which bites too soon;
But deem it not, though man of herbs, a fault
To add a double quantity of salt;
Three times the spoon with oil of Lucca crown;
And once with vinegar procured from town;
True flavor needs it, and your poet begs
The powdered yellow of two well-boiled eggs;
Let onion atoms lurk within the bowl,
And scarce suspected, animate the whole;
And lastly, on the flavored compound toss
A magic teaspoon of anchovy sauce;
Then, though green turtle fail, though venisons tough,
And ham and turkey are not boiled enough,
Serenly full the epicure may say,
‘Fate cannot harm me, I have dined to-day.’”





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