Things to do with spring flowers

I finished off a thesis chapter recently and took a week off to clear my head, which meant that I had plenty of time to, uh, do research and look for ideas in various on- and offline sources. Spring, long time coming, also finally arrived properly, and we had some lovely sunny days. This meant that fields, woods and roadsides suddenly flared up with flowers: dandelions, coltfoots (coltfeet?) primroses, violets, anemones, cowslips. They arrive earlier than leaves in trees, and they were a very welcome sight after the late winter. I thought about how our ancestors would have delighted in them as well, and how they might have wanted to use the beautiful flowers not only as decorations to look at, but also as pleasing edible treats. You could put them in salads, use on top of cakes, or you could use them to make sweets of sorts.

I found a recipe for candied flowers in a modern foraging book, but a quick peek at Stefan’s Florilegium confirmed that I could consider them reasonably period. One of the best known historical sources for them is Sir Hugh Plat’s Delights for Ladies (a wonderful work in general). Its first edition admittedly dates from 1602, but while it’s possible the good Sir might have possibly invented some of the recipes himself, I’m positive that he, like any cookery writer ever, also just writes down what has been known and done for a while. Sir Hugh was born in 1552 and died in 1608, so most of his life and experience belongs to the SCA period.

In various recipes concerning edible flowers, Sir Hugh lists rose, violet, gillyflower, marigold, rosemary and borage. He also includes the significant ‘&c’, which gives leeway to anyone to use whatever non-poisonous flowers they might like.  I was attracted by the notion of candied primroses and violets in my modern recipe, and as they were also very easy for me to obtain, I decided to go for them. I set off with my faithful hound and picked a bunch of these flowers from sites well removed from motor traffic.


At the same time, I gathered dandelion flowers. I had found a book on brewing ciders and country wines in my local library, and its recipe for dandelion wine looked both doable and interesting. I ended up with four litres of dandelion flowers and the pleasure of extracting all the yellow petals off them at home. It ended up taking several hours.


I appeared to have unending energy that day, so besides gathering the flowers, plucking the dandelion petals off and setting the wine to ferment, I also started out the candying process. Sir Hugh makes a syrup out of the sugar and dips the flowers into it. I followed the modern recipe, which suggested that you paint the flowers in egg white and then paint them again with caster sugar. I found that with some patience and nimble fingers, dipping the flowers first in egg white and then in mounds of sugar worked fine.


The outcome was perhaps coarser and less sophisticated than when done by painting, but somehow it felt right to me nonetheless. I’ll try the syrup method at some point in the future, perhaps when summer flowers arrive.


The flowers needed to dry out for quite some time, 24+ hours, before they could be packed away. I found that a seasoned baking sheet was the best surface for them. The recipe recommended a grid, but when I placed some of the flowers in the gaps of metal implements, they got stuck very easily and were ruined when pulled off. I was, however, able to neatly pack most of them in a box, with baking paper protecting the layers, and bring them over to an event to be consumed there. They mostly tasted of sugar – Sir Hugh makes his syrup with rosewater, which is probably a good idea, to add flavour – with a very subtle taste of flower afterward, almost like a sigh.


Wyborg Pretzels

Thea asked for the recipe for the pretzels I made for the Festival of Fools. Before the event, I knew that pretzels were period, but I wondered whether they were primarily sweet or savoury, soft or hard. I did some research and found various suggestions for both modern and period versions. In the end I settled for a generic yeast dough, enriched by several eggs and a good bit of sugar.

This recipe is from a Finnish cookery book, Perinnemakuja Maakunnista, by Riitta Pojanluoma, which is one of my favourite sources of material. It’s intended for modern audience, but the recipes are traditional regional specialities from various parts of the country. Many of them could very well go back centuries. Tradition has it that pretzels were made in Vyborg in the Middle Ages, so I figured that this was as good a recipe as any.

3 eggs
c. 170 g sugar
500 ml warm milk – make sure not to heat it too much or the yeast will die
2 sachets of dried yeast (I used fast action)
2 tsp ground cardamom
0.5 tsp ground nutmeg
1.5 tsp salt
150-200 g soft butter
c. 1 kg flour (I used a mixture of strong white and plain flour – the strong flour will make the handling and proving of the yeast dough easier, but it’ll make the pretzels more bread-ey)

For decoration, more egg and sugar

Beat the eggs and sugar together. Add the warm milk and the spices. Start stirring flour into the mixture using a wooden spoon. When it gets too hard, start kneading the flour into the dough with your hand. You may find it easier to tip the dough out onto a floured worktop and knead it on that. Add the butter and knead it in as well. Keep kneading until the dough no longer sticks to your hands or the worktop and has become pleasantly solid, but still flexible. If you’re not familiar with kneading yeast dough, consult guides online.

If your yeast is not fast action, it will need to be proved twice. Once at this point, before it’s shaped, and again when you have shaped the pretzels. If the yeas is fast action, it only needs one proving, so you can shape the pretzels now and let them rise under a clean dishcloth in a warm place until they’re approximately doubled in size. It’s easiest if you shaped them on the baking sheet you intend to bake them on, because they’re quite hard to move when shaped.

When they have risen, glaze them with egg, once or twice, and sprinkle lots of sugar over them. Bake in 225 C for about 20 minutes.

Let them cool under a clean dishcloth again, or they will develop more crust than is ideal.

On breadmaking in 16th-century England

A fabulous blog post by Alexander Devine on:

Two manuscripts in the Lawrence J. Schoenberg Collection at Penn, LJS 238, The Statute of Wynchestre, a record of the regulations for breadmaking in 16th-century England and LJS 61, a Register of Writs and Formulary from 28 January of the 13th year of the reign of Richard II (1390) to 28 April in the 8th year of the reign of Henry IV (1407)a legal register of royal chancery writs

Via @erik_kwakkel on Twitter.

Recipes from the Festival of Fools

Rice porridge

This is not, as many thought at first glance, creamed rice or rice pudding as understood in the Isles. It doesn’t involve cream or eggs and it’s not sweet, so you could perfectly well eat it savoury as well. I normally eat it with butter and sugar, some eat it with a little cinnamon, and at the feast I served it with a dried fruit soup (see below) as traveller’s fare. It occurred to me later that outside an event, you could try it with bacon and maple syrup! The porridge requires quite a lot of liquid. I used cow’s milk throughout, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t experiment with replacing all or some of it with almond milk. This recipe serves 4-5.

500 ml water
1 American cup of pudding rice (measure out 250 ml)
1 l milk
1.5 – 2 tsp salt
Bring the water to boil, add the rice and boil for about 5 minutes, until the rice has absorbed most of the water. Add the milk and simmer for 40-50 minutes until thickened. Stir occasionally as milk burns very easily. Add salt at the end; I also like to add a generous dollop of butter.

Dried fruit soup

You could also call it stewed fruit, or compote, it doesn’t matter. This sweet soup works as a dessert, breakfast or snack. Also for 4.

150 – 200 g of dried fruit of your choosing (prunes, figs, apples, raisins, sultanas work well)
1 l water
3 – 4 tbsps of sugar
3 tbsps of cornflour
Spices according to your taste – I like a bit of cinnamon and nutmeg

If the fruit mix is very hard and dry, soak them in water for a few hours. Otherwise, simply boil them with sugar and any spices you may be using in the water for about 20 minutes until the fruit pieces have swollen up and softened. Mix corn flour with a little bit of cold water until smooth. Add the mix into the soup in a very thin stream, stirring continuously. Let the soup bubble a few times – if you boil it too hard you’ll lose the thickening agent – and when it has thickened, take it off the heat and pour it into a serving bowl to cool. Sprinkle some sugar on the surface to prevent the formation of skin. You can serve the soup on its own, with any kind of porridge, or with ice cream, custard or cream, if you’re serving this outside an event.

Pashka (Easter cheese)

This is a very traditional Russian Easter dessert and it’s popular in Finland as well. There are two varieties of it; unheated one, in which you just mix together the ingredients, and a heated one. I used the latter form in order to make sure that raw eggs wouldn’t cause any issues and to increase its shelf life.

500 g quark or fromage frais (I’d use quark in preference although the difference is minimal)
4 egg yolks
200 ml cream
130 g sugar
100 g butter
c. 60 g raisins
candied cherries if you like them
c. 60 g chopped almonds
4 tbsps freshly squeezed lemon juice
A clean medium-sized flower pot with a hole in the bottom

Put the egg yolks, cream and sugar in a saucepan. Heat the mixture, stirring all the time, until it thickens into custard but do not let it boil! Remove the pan from the heat and cool a bit, for instance in a sink filled with cold water – the mixture will thicken further. Add the butter while the mixture is still warm and let it melt in. Drain the quark/fromage frais from excess liquid, and then stir all the ingredients together.

Line the carefully cleaned flower pot with dampened muslin and pour the mixture into it. Put the pot in a bowl and cover with a plate, on which you can put a weight to aid the process. Keep in a fridge for 1-2 days. During this time, the whey will drain out into the bowl and the cheese solidifies inside the pot. When you are ready to serve the dessert, carefully turn the pot upside down on a plate. Remove the pot and muslin. You can decorate the cheese with fruit or in any way you wish.

[ETA] Spinach/vegetable/fruit pancakes

You can just use an ordinary pancake batter, into which you mix canned or frozen (and defrosted!) spinach. If you’re hardcore, you can of course also prepare fresh spinach yourself – trim the stalks and boil the leaves. You can experiment with any fruit or vegetables: carrot, berries or apple go all well. Here’s one version of the batter, for 1-2 people – double for more.

1 egg
250 ml milk
c. 85 g plain flour
1/4 tsp salt
0.5 tbsp butter
veg or fruit according to your liking

Whisk the egg and half the milk. Mix in the flour and stir until smooth. Add the rest of the milk and stir again, add the vegetables or fruit and salt (you may want to replace the salt with an equivalent amount of sugar if you are making sweet fruit pancakes) and finally the melted butter. Fry on a frying pan as you like them. Om nom nom. Spinach pancakes go well with lingonberry jam (available in Ikea) or you could try cranberry, or any other slightly sour fruit.

Keeping the event kitchen safe

Two weeks ago: That thing when you cook your first feast and a large number of people fall ill in the next couple of days.

We established that since the first couple of cases of people throwing up had taken place on the first morning of the weekend event, before the feast, and since only (only!) three people actually started to throw up during the night following the feast, with the rest of the casualties occurring in the next three days, it was probably not anything I cooked. There is a particularly unpleasant norovirus going around at the moment, which had already wreaked havoc at Eplaheimr’s shire meeting some weeks ago. It was also reported that at an event in Nordmark at the same weekend, a lot of people had fallen ill as well. So evidence suggests that my cooking was not responsible, and people have been adamant that there was nothing wrong with the food.

I myself was among the second wave of casualties, with my husband following suit some hours later, but the still-healthy helped us marvelously and did all the packing and cleaning on our behalf. I had a lot of time to be anxious and also to think about the importance of kitchen hygiene in the SCA context.

Few SCA cooks are professional. We tend to be enthusiastic amateurs, mostly used to cooking at home or for friends. Our main aim, when cooking feasts and the like, is to create a wonderful experience for our guests. But we may treat this event as another supper party for friends, when we should, in fact, be thinking about it as a formal catering event for customers. The eaters may be your friends; but if your cooking makes them ill, they are unlikely to ask you to cook for them again. Treating the feast, and the rest of the event, as a professional gig, means that you are a little bit more likely to sharpen up and to keep an eye on the efficient and safe running of things. You’re not simply responsible for the enjoyment and health of your own family and the closest friends, but those of a large number of people, at least some of whom may not even know you. If you’re lucky, you’re feeding peers or royals of your kingdom. Giving the king the runs is bad form at the best of times. This means that while you may be more relaxed at home, and more prepared to take risks, at an event you should be very strict, even if this ends up involving you having to throw a lot of food away and you are usually reluctant to waste food.

I suspect that when I return to being the head cook, I’m going to be extremely annoying with my insistence of Proper Modern Conduct in the kitchen. From my experience, it seems that kitchen helpers are typically trusted to know, in terms of hygiene, what to do and what not to do. Most probably do know the basics, at least, but I wonder how much of that happens in the rush to get the meals ready. Indeed, it may be that even the head cook may forget the Rules, particularly if pressure mounts.

Here is a list of a few things that I, at least, will strive to observe at future events. In no particular order – they are all important.

1. If possible, use separate cold storage for cooked and uncooked dishes. If this is not possible, at least use separate shelves, ensuring that no liquids from uncooked dishes can drip down on top of the cooked ones.

2. If in doubt, store it in the cold. If you need to reheat things, make sure they are heated through and emerge hot.

3. Particular offenders: eggs, fish, shellfish, chicken, rice (!). If a dish contains raw egg, you should inform the guests about this and let them (hopefully!) make their own informed decisions about whether to eat it or not. Cool all leftovers of these quickly and store in the cold.

4. Use separate preparation surfaces for plant matter and animal matter, and for cooked and uncooked food. [Edit:] Estevana points out, absolutely rightly, that cross-contamination is an issue that should be considered when serving as well. It’s unlikely that there ever is a feast, or other event meal, with no conflicting diets or allergies. Therefore each dish should be served from its own container with its own utensils, and the container should be thoroughly washed before used for something else.

5. Wash your hands when: entering the kitchen, after handling raw egg or uncooked animal matter, switching from preparing one dish to another, before working on pastry or anything that requires a literal hands-on approach. You can’t wash your hands too often. Use antibacterial handsoap and make sure you have enough warm water. Designate a specific hand washing area.

6. Personal cleanliness. If you have long hair, tie it up, better still, cover it with a cap. Sneezing is best done outside the kitchen (followed by a hand wash). If you need to blow your nose, unless you’ve been cutting onions, you probably shouldn’t be in the kitchen in the first place (see 7). I’m considering machine sewing simple sets of hair coverings and loose smocks for my future kitchen staff to use. Modern hairnets intended for hygiene purposes should be reasonably inexpensive to acquire.

7. If you’ve been unwell in the past week, you should not be helping in the kitchen.

8. Keep your working surfaces tidy and clean. If the kitchen doesn’t come with a disinfectant, buy some. Use it. Regularly.

9. If you’ve no official business in the kitchen, you shouldn’t come in. Not only will you distract the cooks, you also risk bringing germs in as you’re unlikely to follow the same cleanliness regime as the kitchen staff are doing. This means that the children of the kitchen staff, too, should stay outside as far as possible, and pets – well, I’ll let you figure that one out yourself.

10. Arrange an efficient rota of dishwashing, and make sure that pots and pans are thoroughly cleaned between different dishes. Make sure to use hot water.

11. Hot water, hot water, hot water. If you think you might run out of it, keep a large saucepan simmering on the stove. It’ll eat up some of your cooking space, but you won’t be sorry.

12. Be careful about your use of dishcloths. They gather bacteria like mad. Bring enough to the event site that you can either wash some in between, or reserve different cloths for drying dishes and wiping of surfaces. You will not, of course, use dish cloths for mopping up the floor.

‘But we’re there to have fun!’ some might cry. Yes; and part of that fun is to ensure that in a confined place, among people who are close friends or otherwise come into contact a lot, nobody gets sick because someone in the kitchen was too distracted/couldn’t be bothered to keep the food safe. I was already sick at our own event, and I can tell you, ‘fun’ is very far removed from that.

Dutch cheese biscuits, surprisingly familiar…

Those blue cheese biscuits from this entry? The ones I said were made from a recipe by Nigella Lawson, but I didn’t particularly care? This morning I was reading Wel ende edelike spijse (Good and Noble Food), or UB Gent 1035, as transcribed and translated by Christianne Muusers over on Coquinaria, when I came across recipe 1.21, Deegh om pypesen te makene, dough to make pipes. 

‘Take cheese from Gouda and eggs. Grind together with white flour. Lay it on dry flour and make small biscuits of it.’

Compare this with Nigella’s (paraphrased, abbreviated and innuendo removed):

Mix the cheese, butter and egg yolk together and work in the flour (and the optional cornmeal and salt which I didn’t use) just enough to form a soft dough. Let rest in the fridge, dust a surface with flour, roll out the pastry and cut whatever shapes you like. (Domestic Goddess p.64)

Granted, the cheeses used are different, the latter recipe is enriched with butter and yolks rather than whole eggs, but otherwise the recipe is basically the same. This really illustrates my own cooking philosophy. According to it, even if we do use a modern recipe, provided that we use period ingredients and period methods, someone somewhere probably already made it in Period.

Ordinary dishes with period echoes

My husband says that the Finns and the rest of the Nordic types just never stopped eating Medieval. He may have something going on here. Trouble with Finnish cooking in particular is that the earliest surviving cookery book in Finnish comes from the early 19th century. I haven’t researched Swedish (which used to be the language of the rulers) materials, so it’s possible that actual period recipes exist, which may have been used also by the high-ups in Eastland. Otherwise, however, we are rather dependent on the archaeological record. So we’ll know what they ate and, based on the evidence of the cooking equipment, roughly how they cooked it, but we don’t know the exact procedures. Yet, by far most and most of Finland would have been inhabited by illiterate peasants, so they would not have read or written cookery books anyway.

At some point I’ll have to write a blog post on the history of the traditional massive multi-oven/fireplace system that is a feature of most older farmhouses. Baked and roasted dishes would have been usual, particularly in the East, contrary to the situation elsewhere in Europe, where peasant houses did not tend to have ovens. 

This lengthy musing attempted to provide some background to why I think the dishes I cooked at the weekend may have their roots far in history, or, at the very least, why they could be included in SCA menus. All the things that I made are very common day-to-day dishes in Finland, and I grew up eating them regularly.

Baked barley porridge. Frumenty by any other name. Apparently ‘frumenty’ comes from the word for ‘grain’, so although most recipes for it today use wheat, there’s no reason why you couldn’t use barley. The Finnish ones would be made using full fat cow’s milk; but as an experiment I decided to use Alpro’s ‘New!’ (um) almond milk available at my local supermarket. I washed pearl barley and soaked it in water for two hours, although this was probably unnecessary; then boiled it for about half another in water and in some of the almond milk. Finally I tipped the puffed up grains into an oven dish and poured the rest of the almond milk in. Here I used too little liquid. Next time I will use closer to two litres of almond milk. I cooked it in 150 C degrees for two hours and a bit. The overall result was very good, although, as I implied, a little bit too dry for the dish to be called porridgy. The skin, which should be the best part, was greyer and looked less appetising than when the porridge is cooked using cow’s milk. It tasted fine, though, although not as delicious as in the traditional version. You could eat this dish sweet or savoury.

To go with the barley, I made some fruit soup. We always hear how fruit and other plant matter in Period were either considered totally harmful or harmful when uncooked, but I cannot believe that they wouldn’t have been used. For a start, you don’t write dietary advice against the eating of something if that something isn’t being eaten. Also, berries in particular are so deeply rooted in the Nordic psyche, that I’m gonna argue that they’ve been eaten with gusto as long as Scandinavia has had human habitation. For this soup, I used a frozen supermarket summer fruit mix tipped into blackcurrant juice and some sugar. I thickened it a little with cornflour. I should really look into Period thickeners, assuming any existed. The texture of the barley porridge goes beautifully with this. It also works very nicely as a cool, thick beverage or a cold soup. I’ve a mind to make a vat of this for some event and leave it in the hall for people’s consumption as they wish. 

Yesterday I made stuffed cabbage rolls. Stuffed vegetables seem to originate in the area of the Eastern Mediterranean, and I seem to recall I read somewhere that as an idea of a dish these arrived in Finland quite late. For Finland, they might be non-period, but certainly not so elsewhere. I boiled a cabbage upside down in a saucepan until they leaves softened and plucked them off. I made a mixture of fried small cabbage leaves, onion, beef mince, some of the cooked barley from the porridge (typical recipes use cooked rice) and various spices (some recipes include an egg for coherency, I didn’t use it), placed a little in the middle of each large cabbage leaf and folded the leaves into cushions. I placed a knob of butter on top of each cushion, drizzled treacle over the whole lot, and baked them also in 150 C for just over two hours. They came out very good, although next time I’ll use white cabbage instead of green. These should be eaten with red currant or lingonberry jam; we went for the former. 

Finally, today I cooked grated roots to go with the rest of the cabbage rolls. I prepared and grated some carrots, a small turnip and a parsnip, tossed them in a large amount of butter in a saucepan until they’d softened for a bit, and then simmered them in chicken stock for a few minutes. Added salt and pepper, as they seemed to be necessary. 

A satisfying selection of dishes, although my contentment is somewhat marred by the fact that our hob seems to be giving up the ghost.