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Miss Leslie’s Secrets: My First Real Failure

sunderlands or jelly puffs

I first learned of Miss Eliza Leslie when I was in graduate school, doing some research on American 19th century etiquette guides. Miss Leslie had written a popular one, full of advice on matters such as dining at table, writing letters, paying visits, and navigating crowded sidewalks. In one section about proper behavior at a party, Miss Leslie went on at great length about the fact that if you are meeting a cookbook author, you should refrain from saying things like “I tried that recipe and it did not work” unless you really did follow the instructions scrupulously. When I read this, I laughed, but after a morning spent wrestling with a Miss Leslie cookbook I am beginning to understand why she found herself in these conversations.

This is the moment you’ve all been waiting for, isn’t it? My first major failure. I searched through Miss Leslie’s Secrets, a facsimile reprint of the 1854 New Receipts for Cooking by Miss Leslie, trying to find something I would be able to make in a 2009 kitchen, and I failed.

To be sure, Miss Leslie didn’t give me a lot to work with. Many of the recipes proved unsuitable because I was unable or unwilling to find the right ingredients; I was stopped cold by lines such as “Having roasted some reed-birds, larks, plovers or any other small birds, such as are usually eaten…” and “Have ready an ounce of the best Russia isinglass boiled to a thick jelly in half a pint of water.” (I will not relate the instructions for killing a turtle.) I had also decided I needed to make food, not home cleaning supplies or physick, so I could not avail myself of offerings such as “cure for prickly heat” (bathing with wheat bran), red lip salve (involving suet, lard and alkanet), or gum-arabic paste.

Techniques were another challenge. I knew that if I baked, determining oven temperature would be tricky since Miss Leslie is rather vague on this head; I knew that vegetables were an unlikely choice because of my principled refusal to boil the life out of them. I knew that measurements would vary among weights, size estimates (“take of the prepared rice a portion about the size of an egg”) and odd volumes (“a wine-glass of strong, fresh yeast”). I knew that all these things might work against me, and yet I pressed on.

After ruling out meat-pies, puddings and blancmange, I settled on “sunderlands, or jelly puffs.” The recipe looked simple: a pint of milk, half a pound of butter, half a pound of flour, and eight eggs. I halved the recipe, having only two mouths to feed rather than a houseful of children and servants, and even so it looked feasible. Until, that is, I attempted to follow Miss Leslie’s first set of instructions:

Cut up the butter in the milk, and if in cold weather, set it in a warm place, on the stove, or on the hearth near the fire, till the butter is quite soft; but do not allow it to melt or oil; it must be merely warmed so as to soften. Then take it off, and with a knife stir the butter well through the milk till thoroughly mixed.

Is this something you have ever tried to do? Let me tell you now, it’s not easy. Even when warmed, soft butter does not want to blend evenly with liquid milk. Soft butter wants to lump back together in a soft buttery mass. I don’t know if the butter would have blended in more readily if the milk had not been homogenized, but it sure didn’t want to blend here. Mixing with a knife in a cutting motion (trying to break up the butter) got me nowhere; trying to use a spoon was no help. Finally I tried to beat with the knife as if it were a beater blade, and this seemed at least to distribute little bits of butter more evenly through the milk. I would not call this thoroughly mixed, but at least we were somewhat advanced from the stage of large isolated lumps of butter in broad expanses of milk by the time my arm felt like it was going to fall off from all the beating.

Then there was the flour. I don’t have a kitchen scale and so had to estimate using our regular scale (step on with the bowl of flour, step on without it, calculate the difference, add or remove flour as appropriate). I probably didn’t have enough flour. Certainly the batter was thin, but I wasn’t sure if that was because of the flour or because of the failure of the butter to mix well with the milk. Miss Leslie doesn’t mention what the batter should look like.

The eggs were relatively easy: beat “with a whisk until they are very thick and light.” It’s possible I could have beaten the eggs longer — did I mention my arm was tired? — but I did get them thick and light. At this point I was to add the flour alternately with the eggs to the milk and butter mixture, then “stir the whole very hard” and put it into buttered muffin tins. OK, Miss Leslie said buttered tea-cups, but I have muffin tins and I know they’re oven-safe.

I was not too sanguine about the mixture, but put it in the oven. Miss Leslie instructs you to bake the puffs in a “brisk oven,” which I decided was probably somewhere around 375 degrees. “Bake them twenty minutes or more, till they are well browned, and puffed up very light,” she says. I began to recover some of my optimism as they baked; when I turned on the oven light about eight minutes along the batter was definitely rising, and by twelve minutes they were really puffing up. I might have puffs after all, I thought. And I did — until I took the puffs from the oven and they fell flat before I could even set the pans down.

Miss Leslie instructs you to cut a slit in the side of the hot puff and fill it with jelly, but there was no longer any space to fill. So I dabbed peach jam on the tops of the no-longer-puffs instead, then sprinkled them with powdered sugar as instructed. I served them freshly made, though Miss Leslie recommends they be eaten cold. “If properly made they will be found delicious,” she concludes. ([Expletive deleted] you too, Miss Leslie!) I can tell you that although not properly made they still tasted all right — rather eggy, but not bad, and well matched with jam and the sugar.

I think it’s possible that if I had added more flour I would have gotten a more robust puff that would not have fallen. I think it highly probable that if I had used an electric mixer I would have gotten well-mixed milk and butter. (Imagine if Miss Leslie had had a KitchenAid! There would have been no stopping her.) I am highly unlikely to try these again, but if I did want to give this another shot I’d get a scale so I could be more confident of the right amount of flour; I’d use a mixer to cream the butter and then gradually add the milk while beating so that it would be slowly worked in; and I’d dig through some of my other comprehensive cookbooks to see if I should change the temperature up or down from 375.

Verdict: Failure. It had to happen some time, I suppose. My husband just walked past and saw me at work. “Miss Leslie Regrets,” he said. “That’s what you’re having right now.” Too true.

7 Comments

  1. Sally says:

    I’m sorry it didn’t turn out well. Sounds like you were just working with too little information and too many variables. I wouldn’t call it a failure, since they were still edible, puff or no.

  2. No, please DO relate the instructions for killing a turtle. It might come in handy someday, when Gamera attacks.

  3. Shelby says:

    I just finished laughing till I hurt on the Miss Leslie Post. I was a bit behind, and just read it along with the Sneaky one. “([Expletive deleted] you too, Miss Leslie!)” is what set me off. Failure is good, sometimes. Especially if humor comes out of it.

  4. Lacey says:

    I know the feeling working with recipes like Miss Leslie’s. My first trial (which can be found on my website) came out a little better, though not perfect. It was also a much easier recipe for jam-filled meringues. However, I ended up making three batches of Kisses in the same day and fed them to my roommates. I did look up the equivalents for oven temperatures which can be found here:

    http://www.hintsandthings.co.uk/kitchen/oventemp.htm

  5. […] Delineator author Ann Batchelder seems to have studied at the Miss Leslie school of vague instruction. Mock sausage is based on cooked beans, which the recipe says to force […]

  6. […] New Hostess of To-Day dates from 1916, so it’s not quite as impenetrable as Miss Leslie’s work but is still chock full of vague directives and alarming ingredients. Pigeon […]

  7. […] doubt you remember the debacle of Miss Leslie’s Secrets, when the jelly puffs were rather short on puff. Two tomes from Victorian cookbook queen Isabella […]

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