Food for Thought
---- — This column begins with quince, detours into methods for researching historic recipes, and ends in a marmalade cake. The history of marmalade, as I learned from a three-day class on reading historic recipes with Sandy Oliver, begins with quince.
According to Alan Davidson in “The Oxford Companion to Food,” a quince first fell from a branch somewhere in the Caucacus, the chunk of land where Europe ends and Asia begins, thousands of years ago. Davidson says that the Troy-defeating golden apple Paris handed to Aphrodite was a quince.
“Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love” — those solace-making fruits from “The Song of Solomon,” Davidson repeats, were mostly likely not apples but quince.
Quince hopped to Ancient Crete, where sage cooks preserved raw fruits in honey. At some point — again Davidson here — people realized that cooking quince first not only resulted in a softer product when the clay pot was opened a year later, but in a firm, nicely congealed paste. Cretans had opened their urns to the powers of pectin. From this preserve, quince began a long, happy career as the star of the breakfast and dessert table.
D. Eleanor Scully in “Early French Cookery” believes quince preserves probably arrived in France via the Romans, who called it melimelum. That root that leads directly to “marmalade,” or the Portuguese marmelada and the Spanish membrillo, usually unstrained versions of preserved quince with visible fruit.
Karen Hess, in “Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery,” follows quince preserve’s travels from the Middle East to Spain, where in 1492 the sweet departed with confectioners escaping the Inquisition to Genoa.
According to S. Anne Wilson in “The Book of Marmalade,” quince marmalade’s exact arrival in England was recorded on a shipping inventory from Portugal in 1495. The first English citation of marmalade, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is 1524. Marmalade, its popularity riding on this knobby, yellow fruit’s ability to congeal, and probably also its medicinal promises, began with quince, and for about a thousand years remained only a quince product.
There are no native American quince, but by the time Europeans were settling in the Americas the fruit was beloved, and not to be left behind. The quince marmalade in the “Martha Washington Booke of Cookery” dates to 1608, but Hess believes it is probably an English recipe from the 1550s. Hess says she does not know exactly when marmalade stopped being only a quince product, but cites Gervais Markham’s 1615 orange version as the first written example of rogue marmalade.
I assembled this intense marmalade history in a workshop titled, “Every Dish Has A Past: A Workshop in Historic Recipe Research” with Sandy Oliver, one of the country’s leading experts on culinary history. Oliver began a career in culinary history cooking on an open hearth in Mystic Seaport years ago, before she moved to Islesboro, Maine. For years she edited a newsletter called Food History News. Her books on foodways include “Saltwater Foodways: New Englanders and Their Foods at Sea and Ashore in the 19th Century” (1995), which won a Julia Child Award for distinguished scholarship, “The Food of Colonial and Federal America” (2005), “Maine Home Cooking” (2012), and with Kathleen Curtin, co-author, “Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving History and Recipes from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie.”
Oliver’s class was held in Historic Deerfield, in a week when the museum and Deerfield Academy were both closed. We 12 culinary history students and our teacher were the only visible souls walking the street lined in 18th and 19th century homes. And then there was a blizzard. As one participant said, “This would be a great setting for a murder mystery.”
For three days we existed in a bleak, snowy New England familiar to the people who had written the centuries-old cookbooks through which we combed.
Oliver assembled us in a room in the Flynt Museum. We each had our computers, and at the back of the room was a long table piled high with old cookbooks, reprints of old cookbooks, and Oliver’s favorite resource, The Oxford English Dictionary. Thorough research, she dictates, begins there.
We were each to have arrived at the course with a recipe or subject to research; after a morning lecture, we spent the rest of the time heads down. Occasionally someone in the class would look up and say, “Erica, aren’t you doing research on ‘collops?” There’s something here you might want to see —” A lot of that happened; books were passed around as one person researching “wilted salads” came upon a recipe that another person researching “hot water pies” needed. After our research was semi-complete, we were to make a chart of approximately eight to 10 recipes, starting with the oldest, and listing the ingredients and methods in each, thus seeing easily, for example, when rosewater was dropped from a quince marmalade recipe, or in an example Oliver handed us, when squirrel was dropped from Brunswick Stew, and chicken added.
From our charted recipes, we were to assemble a final recipe that we thought would be best. The last afternoon, we assembled in a kitchen in Historic Deerfield to prepare our recipes in an open hearth. Historic Deerfield attendants had already lit a blazing fire in the beehive oven where students would bake their apple and hot water pies. A fire roared in the fireplace where a student’s apple pudding would boil in a pot of water that hung from the crane, and beef collops would fry in a pan over a mounded pile of hot coals.
When all was prepared, there was supper.
Once I was home I serendipitously received three jars of marmalade from the great produce grower — a favorite of Julia Child’s — Frog Hollow Farm. With all I now knew about marmalade, I followed Oliver’s research, and charted some excellent recipes for marmalade cake. I never would have thought to use olive oil, which makes a sublimely moist, dense, and soft crumb, but Essex antique dealer Andrew Spindler said this was how he made his marmalade cake. With that clue, I tracked an olive oil and marmalade cake to Portugal. Olive oil, a little anise, a marmalade glaze with star anise and vanilla bean, this cake is my effort to take the best of a few marmalade cake recipes. Some research comes from the OED; some is inspired by friends.
This is a sweet, dense cake accented with the slightly bitter taste of marmalade from the topping, which may catch some people by surprise. I recommend using a high quality marmalade; the bitterness is bright but less edgy.
Heather’s Olive Oil and Marmalade Cake
Make two 10-inch round cakes.
3 large eggs, room temperature
11/4 cups whole milk
2 cups sugar
1/4 cup orange liqueur or orange juice
11/2 cups extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for oiling pans
1/4 cup orange marmalade
1 tablespoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon ground anise seed or 2 teaspoons whole anise seed
2 cups cake flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
6 tablespoons lemon or orange marmalade — for topping
Vanilla bean, scraped
2 tablespoons orange liqueur or orange juice
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Wipe two 10-inch round cake pans with olive oil.
Lightly beat eggs with paddle attachment in standing mixer on high for 1 minute until frothy. Add milk, sugar, liqueur, olive oil, orange marmalade, lemon zest, and anise. Mix for 1 minute until well blended. Mix in the flour, baking soda and baking powder until well blended and smooth.
Pour half of the mixture into each oiled cake pan. Bake for 1 hour. Place on a rack to cool. Run a knife around the edges and place it on a plate.
To make the topping, put 6 tablespoons of marmalade into a small saucepan with the anise, vanilla, and orange liquor. Heat to a simmer and cook for 3 to 4 minutes.
While the cakes are still warm, poke holes with a toothpick or skewer into them, and pour the divided topping over each. Cut each cake into wedges and serve.
Rockport resident Heather Atwood writes the Food for Thought weekly. Questions and comments may be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her blog at HeatherAtwood.com.