Sunday, January 21, 2018

A Knitting Heritage

Part of dealing with a family death is making decisions about possessions - what to keep, what to sell, what to discard.    Depending upon your attitude towards possessions and your sentimentality, the decisions can be very difficult.

After visiting our parents' graves this Christmas, my brother and I made a quick stop at our family home.  There is much to go through, much to sort, much to decide.  I realized one very easy decision would be about my mom's knitting needles.  I have very little sentimentality about them, although I did learn to knit on them.  Knitting needles are tools; I knit, so taking her supply seemed logical.

I was actually looking for Mom's knitting needle roll, but I didn't find it this trip.  To simplify matters, I stuffed all the odds and ends into a shopping bag and brought them back home with me.  I frequently see old knitting needles in thrift store, having been bundled off along with the rest of the unwanted items.  No judgment is meant in that statement: to those who don't knit, the tools are useless clutter.  As a knitter, I always look at the needles, often bringing home things that will fit into my equipment.

Back home, I emptied the bag onto the floor and started sorting into pairs and types.  I knew that the vast majority would be Susan Bates aluminums - these are the needles I always remember seeing in my Mom's hands, and are one of my least favorite types.  Knitting needles are a very personal choice for each knitter, and I dislike the cold feel of aluminum needles.  Since my mother had problems with arthritis,I never understood her preference for aluminum. Mixed in with these were some bamboo (my gifts to her) and German needles (my sister's influence). I hear the needles click in my memory, and see my Mom rocking in her rocking chair, knitting.  Evenings are indelibly associated with Mom knitting or ironing, mainly knitting.

Some of the needles were older, vintage plasics, either celluoid or bakelike, still flexible, but warm to the touch.  Older metal needles went into this grouping  Many of these needles showed shaping to the knitter's hand, a common occurance with thinner needles.

I recognized a selection of small steel crochet hooks as belonging to my grandmother, the most proficient crocheter of the family. These hooks were distinctive from the aluminum ones my Mom used.   My grandmother was a proficient maker of fine doilies and of pillow case lace.  During her last days, she made afghans for all of my family, crocheting stitches on wool squares to make bed-sized blankets for each of us.

The smallest number were the oldest - steel knitting pins, bone and dark wood needles.  These I believe were either my grandmother's or her mother's

None of these needles are valuable in and of themselves - but they represent a tradition of handiwork - of women's domestic arts used to beautify a home or to make clothing.  I could see changes in technology and fashion in the materials used.  Holdng the tools used by women in my family, I felt a sense of a hertitage passed from one to another, an appreciation of a way to busy idle hands with beauty.  

Thursday, January 11, 2018

A Yoked Dress

It was time to make a new dress, something I seldom do.  My reenacting wardrobe is more driven by necessity than stylish desire. 

My mother had passed away in March and I decided to wear second-stage mourning in her honor.  Full mourning, involving all black clothing and a black bonnet with a long black mourning veil would take more time than I had to pull together, having only a month between my mother's death and a national event at Shiloh.    We had obligations to attend the event, so remaining home wasn't an option.     Since reenacting involves a healthy dose of make-believe, there is no way for others, be they reenactors or spectators, to know one is not simply showing a mourning impression (pretending to be in mourning), and women in full mourning are often met with insensitive or callous comments.  For those reasons I decided to wear a lighter stage of mourning, one that involves black and white, gray, and lavender.  

I dug into my stash of fabric for this micro check in black and white cotton. The white is actually more of a cream, but I decided to go with what I already had.   Mourning clothing does not rely on much ornamentation, so I knew I wanted to make something a little more interesting than my normal fitted bodice pattern.  

Looking at original cdvs of women, I decided to use a yoked bodice.  Many reenactors tend to delegate the yoked bodice to youthful styles, but looking closely at a number of images shows the yoke to also be an adult style.   A yoked bodice divides the bodice material horizontally, usually above the bust.  The area above the division is treated normally, but the section below the divide is pleated.  I did not have a commercial pattern for this project - I used my fitted bodice pattern and worked out the rest.

The bottom part of the bodice is either gathered or pleated, but I noticed more pleating.  The pleats take the place of the normal gathers or darts to control fullness at the waist and bust.  (To the best of my knowledge, all these images are from Ebay.  If you are the owner and would like an image removed, please contact me and I will be glad to comply)

Contained neat pleats, top embellishment
Soft gathers with a self-ruffle at the join

What look to be tiny pleats, ruffle at top

  Larger soft, loose pleats

                                                   More constrained pleats, no finish at seam.

As we can see, there are several options available - soft gathers or pleats, a smooth seam joining or a self ruffle, and a plain finish or one with an additional embellishment at the seam joining the top and bottom of the bodice.

I chose the bottom image as my inspiration partly because I was using a check for the fabric.  I tend to like more tailored options, so the unembellished seam and the clean pleats appealed to me.

This is my finished dress.  The skirt is pulled up with skirt lifters since the ground was very uneven (we were camped in a bean field) 

I liked the way the pleated yoke turned out.  Please pardon the oddly shaped collar - I was in a hurry to finish the dress before we left.  I have since replace it with a better collar.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Raspberry Fruit Vinegar, also known as Raspberry Shrub

Shrubs, a drinkable form of fruit flavored vinegar, have been popular in contemporary mixology for a while, but they are far, far older.

Historic Shrub - and Why You Should Drink It!

In the 1700s, "shrub" denoted an alcoholic beverage.  By the nineteenth century, "shrub" has moved to a non-alcoholic version.  Perhaps to keep that distinction clear, the name of the drink has changed to "fruit vinegar,' but the change is not always consistent.  "Shrub" still appears as an interchangeable name, although "fruit vinegar" is more preponderant.

My first encounter with the concept of a drinkable vinegar came from The Kentucky Housewife  of 1839, which is still one of my favorite period cookbooks.  

Important Lessons Learned Along the Way

I first tried making shrub a number of years ago, primarily for historic interest.  I learned several valuable (and rather funny) lessons from my first experience.

1.  Strain the shrub.  Keeping the raspberry pulp does not add interest or additional flavor.  Instead, you have seeds and pulp bobbing against your lips as you drink, which is not a pleasant experience.

2.  When served, shrub is diluted.  Quite a bit.  Taste testing it straight is NOT something that will make you or your friends anxious to have more.

3,  Vinegar based drinks are a learned pleasure.  Sip slowly.  Add more water if you need to. And try the drink more than one time.

Why Should You Even Think of Trying Fruit Vinegar/Shrub?

I now find fruit vinegars to be a pleasant drink in the heat of summer.  I sip them slowly and relish the fact that they are not syrupy sweet, which I find to be somewhat cloying.

Although our forebearers didn't understand the physiology and chemistry of electrolytes, vinegar-based drinks are restorative.  Haymakers' drinks such as switchel are also vinegar based.  

Fruit vinegars are historic.  What better way to fend off the heat at a reenactment than drinking a period-correct drink?  They are equally useful in modern settings.

Making Raspberry Vinegar/Shrub

The recipe for shrub is proportional, which is actually easier when working with berries.  


  • raspberries (although strawberries or blackberries work equally well). Because of the price of seasonal fresh berries, I prefer to use frozen raspberries (sugarless)
  • cider vinegar
  • white sugar   


Put the berries (frozen or fresh) into a large glass container.  A metal container may be reactive with the vinegar, so glass is preferable.

Pour in enough vinegar to cover the berries.  Let sit at room temperature for several days.  I normally place the bowl in my microwave to keep it clean and out of the way.

Line a colander with cheesecloth, place over a bowl or pot.  Pour the raspberry/vinegar mixture into the colander and let it drain into the bowl.  When the liquid slows to a slow drip, gather the cheese cloth together and squeeze the raspberry juice into the bowl.  Discard the raspberry pulp.

Measure the raspberry/vinegar liquid and pour into a saucepan. 

 For every quart of liquid, add half a pound of white sugar.   Bring to a boil and boil for several minutes.

Pour off into clean bottle(s).

To serve, pour a small amount into a glass and fill with water.  The quantity is to taste.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Cider Cake from The Kentucky Housewife

It's been such an incredibly busy and fulfilling summer, so I am far beyond in posting.  Let's swing back into action with a cider cake!

Cider cake just sounds so very autumnal.  Since the recipe calls for sweet cider, there does seem to be a reason for that feeling.

I've had mixed luck with various cider cake recipes.  While they taste nice, the resulting cake is heavy and dense.  Period cakes are much denser than our modern taste expects, but my results were heavier than normal.

Today's version comes from The Kentucky Housewife of 1839

The Recipe

What I Did

I decided to apply what I have learned about period cake baking technique to this recipe and beat the egg whites and yolks separately, rather than adding the eggs in whole, as I usually would.

I have a kitchen scale (highly recommend one!), so I weighed out my sugar.

Separate the whites from the yolks of 6 eggs.  Beat the egg whites until stiff.  

In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks until thick and lemony

In yet another bowl, cream the butter, add the sugar and continue creaming.  Add the egg yolks, cider, and 1 c of flour. Grate in 2 whole nutmegs.  Mix well.      Add "enough flour to make a thick batter."  I added flour a half cup at a time and wound up with a grand total of 3 1/2 c (including that first cup of flour).  The batter is a bit thick, but we are going to fold the egg whites into it, which will lighten it.

Gently fold in the egg whites until just incorporated.  The beaten eggs are the only form of leavening in this cake, so this is an important step!   Turn into a well greased pan (my pan of chose is a bundt pan)

Bake in a 350 degree F oven until done - for me this was 50 minutes.  Test the cake's doneness with a toothpick or cake tester.  As you can see, it looks pale on top., but the sides are clearly golden brown.

Remove from oven, let cool.  Remove from pan.  There is a bit of doming on the top of the cake, so it did rise a bit!


You may ice the cake if you wish.  Previous cakes have taught me that icing in this period is more akin to a glaze and is often fruit juice based.    In this case, cider seemed appropriate.  The sugar is granulated rather than powdered, so there is a grit and crunch to the icing.

1/4 c of cider
1/2 c of sugar

Mix well with a spoon,  Carefully spoon over the cake.

My Version of the Recipe

6 oz of butter
8 oz granulated sugar
2 nutmegs, grated
6 eggs, separated
2 c of sweet cider
3 1/2 c flour

Beat the egg whites until stiff.  In a separate bowl, beat the eggs yolks until thick and lemony.  Set aside.

In a larger bowl, cream the butter, add the sugar and cream together.  Add egg yolks and 1 c flour, Beat.  Add 2 c cider; grate the nutmegs into the mixing bowl.  Mix together.  Add the rest of the flour (2 1/2 c) and beat.  Gently fold in the beaten egg whites.

Turn into a well-greased bundt pan.
Bake in a preheated 350 degree F oven until done (approximately 50 min).  Test doneness with a cake tester.

Remove from oven, let cool in pan.  Turn out ont a rack.  Place on a plate.  Ice if desired.

 1/4 c cider
1/2 c granulated sugar

Mix together.  Spoon carefully over cake.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Rhubarb Marmalade

Continuing with my harvest of rhubarb, I tackled a new type of preserve

Rhubarb Orange Marmalade.  Yes, you heard me right.

The Challenge
Historical Food Fortnighly Challege 12. In A Jam...or Jelly, or Pickle (June 3 - June 16) In a world before refrigeration, preserving food was an important task. For this challenge, make your favorite preserved food - bonus points if it’s seasonal!

I have discovered how much I enjoy period jams and jellies made without pectin gelling agents.  They are so easy to make and so delicious!  Strawberries would be the logical seasonal fruit in early June in northern Illinois, but I still have a surplus of the last strawberry jam I made.  Since my rhubarb was still hardy, I thought I should take advantage of its abundance.  And, I have loved rhubarb since my childhood.

The Recipe

Rhubarb is not the normal stuff of jams and jellies, modern or period.  As I researched, I did start finding recipes for a combination that sounded unusual - rhubarb and orange.  In true Victorian fashion, I found the same recipe copied from one cookbook to another.

The Wives's Own Cookery Book (1856, London), by Frederick Bishop may be the originator of the recipe.  One American instance is in The Family, Farm, and Garden and the Domestic Animals (1859, Auburn, NY,)  The name of this treat varies from rhubarb preserve to rhubarb jam to rhubarb marmalade.

I like rhubarb a lot. How bad could this be, since so many cookbooks recommend it?  Plus, I wanted to be seasonal - rhubarb is in my garden and the oranges were the last of my winter box and were starting to look a little softer. So, we combine the end of our winter fruit with a nice new seasonal vegetable (because rhubarb really is a vegetable).  

Time to Cook!   (Or What I Did)


1 quart of rhubarb, finely chopped
6 naval oranges
1.4 lb of white sugar (I used up all the sugar I had left in the house.  I suppose I should mention that I have a kitchen scale)

I picked the rhubarb, removed the leaves, and cleaned off any garden dirt.  I scrubbed the outsides of my oranges.

Knowing that rhubarb stews into fibers if left long, I chopped it finely and put it into a 6-qt pot.

I peeled the oranges and, using a thin spoon, scraped off much of the white pith.  I didn't attempt to be meticulous about it because much of the pectin is in the pith and I did want this to gel.  Naval oranges are seedless, so that wasn't a problem.

Scraped oranges peels

I chopped the oranges up on a cutting board with raised sides to retain the orange juice.  At a particular point, the orange just starts pulping.  Add pulped chopped orange and juice to pot with rhubarb.

Chopped orange and juice

I then sliced the orange peel finely and decided to chop the slices, thinking about what size of peel I would wish to find on my bread.  All the chopped peel was then added to the pot.

Slivered chopped orange peel

I had a choice of a range of 1 - 1.5 lb of white sugar.  Knowing sugar helps the gelling process and also knowing that both ingredients are tart, I opted for the higher range.  I weighed it out and added it to the pot and stirred well.

Looking very pretty and colorful

Over medium heat, I cooked for about 40-45 minutes, stirring occasionally.  I had no idea how this should turn out, never having seen such a preserve before, but I did not want it to be soupy.  The rhubarb broke down during the cooking, as did the orange pulp.  I also feared overcooking and having the marmalade set up into a cake (it's happened before....).  I tested by placing dollops on a ironstone plate and watching to see how it set up.  Around 45 min, the preserves held a long drip from the spoon and sat nicely on the plate.  I called it done and spooned it into preserved canning jars.

Yield - 7 cups

At the point I stopped cooking.  You can see the color from the rhubarb is gone, but it makes the preserves opaque


rhubarb - from the garden
sugar - a about a third of the bag, so around $1.00?
oranges - we bought them at least a month ago.  Perhaps $3.00?  At this point they were leftovers
canning jelly jars - in the basement.

Total- in the neighborhood of $4.00, assuming you don't need to buy canning jars.

How Authentic Is It?

Other than cooking it on a wood or coal stove or using a more period orange, I don't see how it could be anymore authentic.

How Successful Was It?

Because of the rhubarb, the marmalade doesn't have the clarity I would expect from orange marmalade.  The opaque nature is not a failure, just something different.  It actually has more of a look of applesauce - with oranges in it.

Seasonal?  Yes, very!

The rhubarb marmalade really does have a strong orange marmalade taste - with a bit of an "other tang," which is the rhubarb.  There is no stringiness in the finished preserve. The oranges pieces are thoroughly suspended in the marmalade, which is a sign of success.  It tastes really good!  

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Asparagus Omelet

A Historical Food Fortnightly Challenge 

Having missed a couple of challenges, it's time to catch up.  For this challenge, I made Asparagus Omelet

The Challenge: 

Breakfast Foods (May 6 - May 19)

It’s simple - make a breakfast dish. Get creative, but make sure to provide your documentation for its place at the breakfast table!

"A Good Breakfast" by George Goodwin Clonney

  I set myself some additional criteria for this challenge: I knew that I would be making it at a reenactment (Greenfield Village's Civil War Remembrance weekend), so it had to be something I could prepare over an open fire. I wanted something on the simpler side, without a large number of specialized ingredients.    Surrounding myself with food and material culture appropriate to the time and season is important to me, so whatever I made had to use seasonal ingredients appropriate to late May in the upper Midwest.    The third additional criterion was that the breakfast had to be something my husband would really enjoy, since the day I planned on making it would be his birthday.

An egg-based food seemed the logical choice, since eggs are available in abundance in the spring.  Not many fruits or vegetables are ripe yet in this area, but asparagus is. 

The Recipe

I chose Asparagus Omelet from The Lady's Receipt Book of 1847 (Philadelphia), by Miss Eliza Leslie.  

The challenge asked for documentation that the food would have been served at the breakfast table.  I turned to the book Cookery as It Should Be, by A Practical Housekeeper (1856, Philadelphia) to find some suggested menus.




The ingredients were easy to obtain; the difficult thing was calculating the quantity indicated by "two bunches" of asparagus.  I discussed the question with a number of reenactors, and we determined a half a cup of cooked, chopped asparagus was the desired quantity

How I Made It
4 eggs
evaporated milk (half a small can)  A period source equated a small wine glass as half a gill, which makes it 1/4c.
half a bunch of asparagus
cayenne....well, I forgot it at home

butter for the pan - I substituted bacon grease

Since I only had one cast iron spider, I had to organize my cooking.  First I set the asparagus to simmer in some water.

I cooked the asparagus for a longer time than I normally would.  In this case I wanted the asparagus to be soft, so it would chop well.

Before cooking the omelet, I fried some slab bacon to grease the skillet.  The bacon was quite lean, so there wasn't a lot of grease.

To make the omelet, I whisked 4 eggs with a serving fork and mixed in half a small can of evaporated milk.  I chose the evaporated milk for two reasons - it is easier to transport than cream and it is my usual lower fat replacement for heavy cream. I whisked until light and bubbly.  

 I added the asparagus and mixed again.  There should have been a pinch of cayenne, but I forgot it at home.  I did ask at the neighboring tents, but no one had any.

I poured the egg/milk/asparagus mixture into the hot cast iron pan, using the bacon grease to keep it oiled.  Watching the eggs carefully, I gently lifted the sides to let some of the raw egg flow under and cook.

The problem came when I tried to remove the omelet.  My spider has very steep sides and there was no way I could carefully manipulate it.  The omelet broke as I removed it from the pan.  Add salt to taste.

Bacon and asparagus omelet on the serving plate.


4 eggs cost about 50 cents
one small can of evaporated milk - 99 cents
one bunch of asparagus - $3.00 (it was expensive that week)

Total - $4.50   (not counting the bacon)

How Accurate Was It?

First, I forgot the cayenne, but I'm not sure everyone would have added it in the time period.  I substituted evaporated milk for the cream, which made the omelet less rich.  Overall I have found evaporated milk to be a fairly good substitute for cream.  The result is not 100% accurate, but I would estimate about 90%.  Considering the fact that I cooked in a field, I think I gained bonus points.

How Successful Was It?

Tremendously! My beloved and I enjoyed it very much and I will gladly make it again.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Rhubarb Pie from 1850

Rhubarb is full and lush in my garden, and the reenacting season is starting here in the North, so it's time to harvest some and bake a rhubarb pie! And my need for a pie ties in nicely with Historical Food Fortnightly Challenge #11: Picnic Foods

I have fallen behind on the challenges, but with every intent to catch back up, I thought I would get a head start on this challenge.

The Challenge
Picnic Foods (May 20 - June 2) Some foods are just meant to be eaten in the outdoors! Concoct a dish that is documented for al fresco dining, or foods that might particularly lend themselves to eating at a picnic. Bonus points for putting it to the test!

A pie might not seem like the logical thing to bring to a picnic, used as we are to paper plates, sandwiches, and disposable ease.  But picnics in the antebellum period were often far more elaborate.  

"The Pic-Nic" by Thomas Cole, 1846, in the Brooklyn Museum of Art.  My photograph of work in the museum

I love the ability to go out into my garden and harvest what I need - organic and fresh.  Of course, it's one of the few food plants I can get to grow successfully in my yard.

Rhubarb was prized for medicinal qualities and also valued as a food.  Most commonly used in pie, it was commonly called "pie plant," so ubiquitous was the use.

From The Western Farmer and Gardener, Jan or Feb 1850

The Recipe and Location

I chose recipes for the pie and the crust from Mrs. Crowen's American Lady's System of Cookery, published in New York (1860).

Rhubarb Pie. --  Cut the large stalks off where the leaves commence; strip off the outside skin, then cut the stalks in pieces half an inch long; line a pie dish with paste rolled rather thicker than a dollar piece, put in a layer of rhubarb nearly an inch deep; to a quart bowl of cut rhubarb, put a large teacup of sugar, strew it over with a salt-spoonful of salt, and half a nutmeg grated; cover with a rich pie crush, cut a slit in the centre, trim off the edge with a sharp knife, and bake in a quick oven, until the pie loosens from the dish.  Rhubarb pies made in this way are altogether superior to those made of fruit stewed.

For the pie crust I selected "Family Pie Crust" from the same cookbook.

What I Did

First I went out to the garden to cut some rhubarb.  After removing the top leaves and washing it, I cut it into small pieces, around 1/2" in length.

The pie crust went together easily; I used lard with half a teaspoon of salt to the pound of flour
I cut the lard into the flour/salt mixture with two knives until crumbly (fat the size of a pea).  I needed a bit more than 11 T of water to make a pliable dough.  The recipe makes enough for 2 crusts

Since I am using a deep period-style pie dish, I needed about 5 c of rhubarb to give me the proper amount of filling.  I used 1 1/4 c of white sugar, mixing it through the cut rhubarb, then grating half a nutmeg and mixing that in too.  I layered the sugar/nutmeg/ rhubarb in the pie pan (forgot the salt), covered with the top crust, crimped the edges and cut the vent slits.   I set in the preheated oven at 375 degrees F for roughly an hour (until the rhubarb juice bubbled through the slits.

The finished pie!  


I used half of a small container of lard, which cost me $3.00 total.  Flour and sugar were in my pantry, as are whole nutmegs.  The rhubarb came from my garden.  Estimating costs for the flour and sugar, the entire pie cost me less than $5.00

How Accurate Is It?

Aside from leaving out the salt in the filling and using a measuring cup rather than a teacup, which would make this pie a bit sweeter, the end result is quite accurate.

How Successful Was It? 

We will be trying this out this weekend, so the results are still to be determined.  I'll report back!

 Updated Postscript (May 23, 2016)

We did indeed try the pie over the weekend at a reenactment as part of our Saturday lunch.  Since we ate al fresco, I believe it counts as a picnic, since picnics are not limited to sitting on the ground.

Tables covered with the detritus of lunch (and children's toys)  A seed cake sits in the front waiting to be cut.

The taste was very bright and sweet-sour, with a very clean clear rhubarb taste.  I don't regret addignt the amount of sugar that I did.  The crust has lovely and flaky.  Two things had worried me about the pie - without the addition of cornstarch to the filling, would the juices run and overwhelm the pie and the crust?  Modern rhubarb pies are flavored frequently flavored with lemon - this was flavored with nutmeg.  How would it taste?

I am happy to report that the rhubarb set up quite nicely, without excess amounts of juice.  I also realized that most modern rhubarb pies must contain stewed rhubarb, since I normally don't see the individual pieces in the filling.  The hour baking time seemed just right - the rhubarb was soft, with no crunch to it.  As for the nutmeg, there was no pronounced nutmeg taste.  I was very pleasantly surprised with how the nutmeg enhanced the brightness of the taste.