Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Here's an easy one... Cambric Tea

Whaddya know, two posts in a week! I gotta slow down or I'll spill all the beans before my book is even published. I was speaking to a guy from the "Mormon Times" page of the DesNews and he wanted to write a piece about Mormon Food, so I told him about Cambric tea. But then in the parting moments of the conversation, I mentioned the previous blog post about Brigham's Doughnuts, and of course that sounded so much more sexy. So I'm writing about Cambric tea here. If any of you find this site because of the Mormon Times link, I hope you'll drop a note and say "hi".

So as I was plugging away at the "beverages" chapter of my book, I stumbled upon a quote from Mrs. Mary Steerforth of Nephi, Utah. Elizabeth Kane had asked her if the early days in Utah were terrible starving times. She replied, "No, not exactly. We always had something to eat, though the poor children used to long for the time when they might eat as hearty a meal as they wanted. We had to reckon so closely how much we could allow for each meal, that we never rose up from one with our hunger satisfied... With a little milk we could make cambric tea, which was found to be one of the best remedies for hunger-- taken hot, and with a little spice or aromatic herbs to flavor it."

Growing up Mormon, I had been trained to think all things "tea" were of the devil, so I had no idea what "cambric tea" might be. Those of you who grew up reading of Laura Ingals and the Little House on the Prairie probably remember her recounting of cambric tea. Cambric of course refers to a delicate white fabric, as in "Tell her to make me a cambric shirt (parsley sage, rosemary and thyme), without a seam or needlework." In most contexts this is a tea made primarily of hot milk and used for childrens' tea parties or for feeble older people whose constitution won't tolerate stronger stuff. Traditional preparation would have a spoonful of sugar in a tea cup, over which was poured a bit of hot water, and the remainder of the cup filled with hot milk. Sometimes a shot of stiffly-brewed black tea is added.

In the case of Mary Steerforth however, the tea was used by adults and children to stave off hunger. As such, milk would have offered more nourishment than tea. In the early days of Utah settlement, sugar was uncommon and expensive; Mrs. Steerforth's sweetener would have been molasses made from beets, parsnips or sorghum cane. Nutmeg, as we learned in the previous post about Brigham's doughnuts, was the common spice of the era. Mrs. Steerforth would have a pierced tin nutmeg grater, and a small stash of whole nutmegs.

So there you are my dears-- a legitimate Mormon tea from the pioneer days. Its delicious, its nutritious, and very refreshing. Try a cup on the next cold night before jumping into bed with your sweetie. Cheers!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Brigham's Doughnuts-- regressing a recipe

As we learned from the previous post, Brigham Young's diet was not always typical of other early Mormon settlers. For this reason, his daughter Clarissa preferred to eat breakfast with him, since breakfast usually meant doughnuts. Other wives in the Lion House were not so fortunate. Likewise, we might imagine doughnuts were a rare treat in many more common homes. In the Lion House Cook Book we find the recipe for Brigham's buttermilk doughnuts, attributed to Emily Dow Partridge Young. The same recipe is also found in Winifred Jardine's Famous Mormon Recipes:

5 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
2 cups buttermilk
2 eggs
1 cup sugar
1/4 melted butter
Combine flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and nutmeg and sift together. Set aside. In large bowl Combine buttermilk, eggs, and sugar. Beat in sifted ingredients until well blended. Stir in butter.Roll or pat dough on floured board about 1/4 inch thick and cut with 2 1/2 inch doughnut cutter. Fry in hot fat until golden brown on both sides. Drain and sprinkle with powdered sugar.

The recipe carries several hallmarks of the settlement era: nutmeg was the common go-to spice for all occasions, much as the modern chef might use cinnamon today. Also, the use of soda and buttermilk suits the period. When chemical leavening was called for, it was soda or saleratus, activated with an acid agent, such as buttermilk. On the other hand, baking powder would not likely have been used in Brigham's era. Although baking powder (soda pre-mixed with tartaric acid and corn starch as a drying agent) was invented England in 1843, it was not widely produced or sold in America until the late 19th century. Further, with buttermilk and soda already in the recipe, the inclusion of baking powder is redundant. Jardine admits in a note to the recipe that it has been "modernized". We doubt that the modernization made this doughnut any more enjoyable.

To this end, we present for your gastronomical pleasure two doughnut recipes from original cookbooks of the era:

1 pint of flour,
1/2 a pint of sugar,
3 eggs,
1 oz. of butter,
1 cup of buttermilk,
1 large teaspoon of saleratus.

Beat the eggs and sugar well together, warm the buttermilk, stir while warming, to prevent a separation, rub down fine the saleratus, and stir into the buttermilk; mix whilst in a foam. If lard is used, use salt. [From The Housekeeper's Assistant, Boston 1845. The original text does not specify a cooking method, e.g. frying in lard.]

And here's another: "Three cups of sugar, three eggs, one cup of butter, one pint of buttermilk, one cup of cream, one nutmeg, saleratus sufficient for the buttermilk; mould with flour." [From The New England Economical Housekeeper, Cincinatti 1845. Again, no cooking method specified.]

We need not debate whether Brigham Young ate doughnuts, or whether doughnuts were a common food item during the Mormon settlement era. Instead, we might find a more interesting discussion about the technology represented in leavening from soda and buttermilk, or the even more pressing question as to why Winifred Jardine would feel compelled to "modernize" a classic recipe that would serve as a vital document of history. Please, share your thoughts!