Cooking (and Contemplating) New England

"Fricasseed Rabbits" by Eliza Leslie, a dish from 1840

March 14, 2012

Tags: Eliza Leslie, rabbit, fricassee, flour, butter, thickened stock, cream, gill

Rabbit simmered in a cream sauce, courtesy of Eliza Leslie (1840)

The Historic Setting
As we discuss in Northern Hospitality, game was neither as prominent in cooking sources nor as prestigious among the upper classes in New England as it had been among the aristocracy in England. Perhaps the difference in valuation can be attributed to the desire of the English colonists to distance themselves from the Indians' ways of obtaining food. For many settlers, too, hunting was a time-consuming activity of uncertain outcome that took the men of the household away from the important tasks associated with farming. Finally, we speculate, the plenitude of the resource in New England from the earliest years of settlement through most of the nineteenth century made wild game an important supplement to the diet but kept it from becoming the locus of leisure which it had been for the highest classes in England, where by law only the aristocracy could hunt it.

Now, however, among the gentry of our own day, game dishes have risen to the top of the fancy food pyramid. Game has become a favorite main course at dinner parties and a highlight of the menus in elegant restaurants. But that doesn't mean we average folk can't have a taste. Rabbit, especially, is quite reasonably priced relative to other meat. It's also rich in protein and poor in fat, music to the dietary ears of most modern Americans. Eliza Leslie's "Fricasseed Rabbits" ranks high among the most captivating recipes for game that we found in nineteenth-century cookbooks. So we encourage you to follow along as we cook our own version of this delightful dish.

Rabbit Hunting
At this time of year, wild rabbit season has concluded in most of New England and further south. But with a bit of effort, those of us who hunt butcher shops, farmer's markets, and grocery stores more often than we stalk our food outdoors can find fresh or frozen rabbit, both wild and domesticated. It is generally agreed that hutch rabbits are less lean and gamey-flavored than wild. However, we prepared the following dish using farmed rabbit and it was chock-full of flavor. In buying rabbit, take care to get a relatively small, young animal, though it should be substantial enough to supply meat for four servings. Older, larger rabbits, which some say are more flavorful than the younger variety, are naturally also tougher. The quick-cooking method of the fricassee (see below) works best with more tender meat. We found that a rabbit weighing a bit under 2 lbs. provided pleasant meat.

What's a Rabbit and What Isn't
The family Leporidae includes species of both hare and rabbit. Alan Davidson, the great encyclopedist of food, begins his entry on rabbit in the Oxford Companion to Food (1999) by pointing out the nomenclatural confusion of the terms used in North America to distinguish between rabbits and hares. Davidson tells us that Europeans would consider the American cottontail rabbit and marsh hare to be rabbits; the jackrabbit would be a hare. Ever the pragmatist, Davidson also points out that the main difference is that "the flesh of rabbit is pale and mildly flavoured," that of hare is "dark and often very strong." In Northern Hospitality, we also give a recipe for hare. It's by Englishwoman Susannah Carter and it appears in a colonial edition.

What the Fr__c is a Fricassee?
Fricassees aren’t made that often nowadays, but they were quite popular right through to the end of the nineteenth century. They were one of the many French dishes that the English had begun imitating and adapting in the seventeenth century. Although at first egg yolks were a basic ingredient, in the eighteenth century variations were developed substituting flour-thickened broth, cream, or combinations of these. Also fricassees were usually fried and then simmered, but later on recipes began to appear in which the initial frying was omitted. Leslie’s “Fricasseed Rabbits” is of this latter-day, simmered-only, thickened-broth-and-cream persuasion.

The Ingredients
Serves 4-6

1 1¾ lb. rabbit
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground mace
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
2 cups beef stock, warmed
1 tablespoon flour
1½ tablespoons butter, cut into six pats
1 gill (½ cup) light cream
¼ teaspoon nutmeg (about)

Our Version of Eliza Leslie’s Fricasseed Rabbit
First we made our rabbit multiply like, or rather into, rabbit pieces—9 in all, 2 legs, including thighs, 2 halves of the loin or saddle, 5 pieces of rib meat, with bone (the forelegs, head, and offal had been removed previously at the butcher shop).

Then we sprinkled the salt, mace, cayenne pepper, and parsley over the pieces,

put them in a deep skillet,

poured the warmed beef stock over them,

and simmered them, turning them over several times as we did so:

When they were half done (after about 20 minutes),

it was time to coat the six pats of butter in the flour,

add them to the skillet, mix them in with the stock and rabbit pieces, and continue simmering until the pieces were tender, about 20 minutes longer. Then we put the cream and grated nutmeg in our gill measure (optional!—a plain old measuring cup will do just fine)

and mixed it into the liquid in the skillet:

Our fricasseed rabbit was now ready to be enjoyed—a tasty alternative to simmered or fricasseed chicken!

Eliza Leslie’s original recipe, with commentary, can be found in Northern Hospitality, p. 210.

“Of Baking Manchets,” from Gervase Markham’s The English Hus-wife (1615)

October 21, 2011

Tags: Gervase Markham, bread, flour, yeast

Manchet bread, a 1615 light wheat loaf

This recipe dates from a time when wheat was scarce and the bread made with it was therefore regarded almost with awe. Manchets are the name for the finest type of wheat bread. In his discourse on brewing and baking, Markham also offers "cheate" bread, the next level down from manchet in terms of the coarseness of the grains used. The lowest of all is not given a name, but Markham describes it as "bread for your hinde servants which is the coursest bread for mans use."

Certainly Markham, like many aristocrats of his day, had no compunctions about asserting a social—and a bread--hierarchy! Nevertheless, he was on to something as to the excellent taste and texture of the manchet. And he wasn't alone in his preferences. As one sixteenth-century Englishman exclaimed, “I do love manchet breade, and great [loaves] the whiche be well mowlded and thorowe baken, the [bran] abstracted and abjected [i.e., removed]; and that is good for all ages.” Young and old, had they the means, could enjoy their manchets.

In New England, settled by English people shortly after the publication of Markham’s book,

the region’s proverbially rocky soil, along with periodic destructive fungus infestations, called "the blast," made for disappointing wheat harvests. So on this side of the Atlantic as on the other, manchet bread continued to be a rare and precious treat. In our age of wheat abundance, light wheat bread may no longer seem so special. But we’re here to tell you that a “well mowlded and thorowe baken” manchet loaf is still, almost four hundred years later, worth the effort to make it. Its texture strikes a perfect balance between the lightness of white bread and the firmness of whole wheat. We can testify that its aroma as it bakes and cools is virtually irresistible!

The Ingredients
We followed the recommendations of the editors of an eighteenth-century English manuscript cookbook, cited in our commentary on this recipe in Northern Hospitality, to create the wholemeal base for our manchets. To get this light but still sturdy whole wheat mixture, we combined 60% all-purpose flour with 40% whole wheat flour. This produced a blend from which about 17% of the bran had been removed. In other words, the whitest bread of those earlier times when white bread was esteemed above all other types wasn’t really (from our point of view in a world of mechanized milling) white at all!

3/5 lb. (272 grams) all-purpose flour
2/5 lb. (182 grams) whole wheat flour
½ heaping tsp. ground sea salt
1 pkg. or 5/16 oz. (8.75 grams) Hodgson Mill active-dry yeast
½ heaping tsp. brown sugar
1 cup warm water

The Flour Mixture
We sifted and weighed the all-purpose flour, weighed the whole wheat flour, mixed them together, and then mixed the salt into the flour blend.

The Yeast
We dissolved the yeast and sugar in half of the warm water.

After the yeast had been sufficiently activated, in about 8 minutes, we added the remaining water.

The Dough
We made an indentation in the flour/salt mixture and poured in our barm (activated yeast),

proceeding first to work the barm and flour/salt together by hand,

then to knead it with our standing mixer’s dough hook for 7 minutes.

Now that the dough was “well mowlded” into the rounded form that manchets took, it was time to let it rise. We placed it in a lightly floured mixing bowl and covered it with a dish towel.

After 2¼ hours, we gave our dough a good punch,

rekneaded it for 2 minutes, and returned it covered to the mixing bowl for 1¾ hours additional rising.

About 20 minutes before the rising time was to be completed, we preheated our oven to 450º. At the conclusion of rising,

there were two more steps to be taken before the loaf was ready to be “thorowe baken.”

Markham says that to assist further rising while in the oven, the dough should be “scorcht about the wast”; that is, lightly cut all around the circumference with a sharp knife.

He adds that the baker should also “prick it with your knife in the top”; that is, make several small slits in the top with the same sharp knife.

The sharpest knife we had was a box cutter, so that's what we used.

The Baking
Upon placing our manchet loaf in the oven,

we immediately reduced the temperature to 375º and left it to bake, checking every once in a while to be sure that the crust was not burning. After 50 minutes, the loaf looked ready, so we took it out of the oven and tested it for doneness by tapping its bottom. Hearing the telltale hollow sound that means the bread is thoroughly baked, we placed it on a wire rack to cool for 30 minutes.

The Results
Then we helped ourselves to a slice or two.

With a slightly nutty, wholemeal taste and a subtly balanced texture, this bread makes it onto our own personal best recipes list. Three hundred and ninety-six years after first appearing in print, Markham's directions for baking manchet bread produce a beautiful loaf.

The original recipe, with commentary, can be found in Northern Hospitality, p. 351.