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August 4th, 2009:

Apologies for the silence; planning August’s cooking

My apologies for the lag between postings. I’ve had to turn my attention to a few other things in the past week, and am now in the process of figuring out what to cook from the August slate of cookbooks. Some books offer many good options (Smoothies has a lot of encouraging candidates, as does Mediterranean Fresh), while others offer just a few, making the choice even easier. (500 Delicious Salads produced a whopping two non-discouraging possibilities.) Some will make good weeknight options once I’m over this cold I’ve started, and some will be longer projects during my vacation the week of the 17th.

And then there’s Miss Leslie’s Secrets, a facsimile reprint of an 1854 classic. Eliza Leslie was one of mid-19th-century America’s leading cookbook and etiquette authors, and this book offers a wide range of recipes. Miss Leslie’s method of organization is, shall we say, idiosyncratic. Oh, the book starts off promisingly with groupings such as “Soups, &c,” “Meats, &c,” and “Cakes, &c.,” but eventually even the “&c” isn’t sufficient to envelop the breadth of recipes and instructions Miss Leslie has to offer. Later chapters find instructions on writing letters jumbled closely with those for upholstering a stool and organizing a sea-crossing.

I expected certain recipes to rule themselves out at once; I do not have a hearth at which to roast a whole kid, nor can I bring myself to do anything that begins “take four calves’ feet,” nor do I think it counts to make any of the non-food items such as a potato-water solution for use in cleaning silks. But I had not considered the other challenges these recipes pose. Most do not have separate ingredient lists, which means I need to read or at least skim through the whole thing before I can tell if there are ingredients I’ll have trouble finding. Some things require a bit of translation; is “a half-pint cup of powdered loaf-sugar” actually granulated sugar or powdered sugar? And forget about temperature recommendations for baking; Victorian kitchens did not have the precise temperature gauges that we now enjoy, but Miss Leslie doesn’t usually even bother to note if a given item should be baked in a fast or slow oven.

So it’s going to take me a while to figure out if I’ll actually be able to make flummery (maybe) or blanc-mange (probably not), or Boston cake (of which Miss Leslie says, after vague directions such as “bake it thoroughly…at the end of the first hour, increase the heat of the oven, and also at the second,” that it will be good “if properly made, and well-baked, (following exactly the above directions).” Right). But the final decision will have to wait until I am well.