Almacks

Almacks (also Almack’s and Almack) is one of many recipes that have originated from people copying dishes they have enjoyed whilst eating out. Almack’s was a Georgian/Regency London club where the great and the good could socialise during ‘the season’, Pontacks is another such establishment, now equally long gone, whose reputation remains only in the names of recipes they have inspired.

By the end of the 18th century, being presented at the Royal court was deemed old fashioned for the up and coming ladies in society, so Almacks provided a setting whereby  socialising and marriage alliances could be conducted amongst the ‘Ton’. As an example of the importance of Almack’s in the social life of the capital, when Lady Caroline Lamb published ‘Glenarvon’, with a thinly-fictionalised Lord Byron as the main character, Sarah Villiers, Lady Jersey, was so incensed at the way she had been satirised, she barred Lady Caroline from Almacks in 1816, thereby making her a social outcast *gasps and clutches pearls*. Although Lady Caroline eventually managed to regain membership three years later, thanks mainly to the assistance of her cousin, Emily Lamb (Countess Cowper), her reputation never recovered.

Almacks provided refreshments to its member and this thick fruit ‘cheese’ would have been ideal as it has great keeping qualities and is easy to serve at short notice. It can be eaten a number of ways: as a sweet, with cream or as a savoury, with biscuits and cheese. It is also versatile in its preparation as it can be varied by type of apple, pear and plum, thus giving it subtle changes in flavour with each batch. It is an ideal way to use up gluts of fruit, or to waste-not-want-not with windfalls.

Almack recipe (1785-1825) from MS1827, Wellcome Collection.

This is the earliest recipe I have found, coming from a household manuscript dated 1785-1825. The quantities are huge, even allowing for a loss of volume during the cooking. A peck of apples is roughly 6 kg, so it calls for a total of 18kg of prepared fruit, although it’s probably going to be closer to 20 kg by the time you factor in weight loss due to peeling/coring/chopping.

Almack recipe, (1800-1822) from MS1830, Wellcome Collection

This is a recipe with slightly more reasonable quantities – 3 quarts of each fruit = 7.5kg, but in the end I thought the recipe from Elizabeth Pease (below) was both the simplest and most reasonable in terms of batch size.

Elizabeth Pease’s recipe for Almacks (1802-1871) in MS3824, Wellcome Collection.

Admittedly, it does take a few things for granted such as expecting readers to know the method and how to prepare the fruit, but I’ll be filling you in on those in the recipe below.

So how much Almacks you make is really up to you and what you have to hand. As a guide, I used 750g of prepared apples and pears and 800g damsons (to allow for the stones) and it made 8 generous portions as seen in the photo above, and about 400g in a box for more casual use. The damsons add a real tang to the paste, and the low quantity of sugar means it sits right on the edge between sweet and savoury. Serve (small) portions with a drizzle of cream and a biscuit (ratafias, macaroons, etc) for crunch as a dessert, or with your favourite cheese and crackers.

Almacks

I’ve reduced the quantities, so you can make a small batch to try, but you can scale it up quite easily if you have it in mind to pot and gift it for Christmas.

500g peeled, cored and chopped apples
500g peeled, cored and chopped pears
500g plums/damsons, stones removed if possible
500g demerera sugar.

  • Cook the fruit. You want it soft enough so that it can be sieved easily. This can be done a couple of ways:
    • layer the fruit and sugar into a large casserole  (preferably ceramic or enamelled) and put it in the oven, uncovered, at 150°C, 130°C Fan for 45 minutes to an hour, stirring every 15 minutes to make sure the fruit floating on top of the juice doesn’t dry out.
    • Put the fruit and sugar into a slow cooker and cook on high for 4 hours. This method generates more juice, as it won’t evaporate as much as it does in the oven, but it has the advantage of being able to be left unattended for an extended period of time.
  • Sieve the cooked fruit until nothing is left but skin and (possibly) damson pits.
  • Simmer the puree in a preserving pan until no excess liquid is visible when you draw a spoon across the pan, and it’s just fruit puree. This will take rather a long time, if you used the slow-cooker method, due to the extra juice.
  • You MUST stir the pan, otherwise the puree will burn. Towards the end, it will turn into fruit LAVA< so have a towel cover your arm handy, to avoid the hot splashes.
  • When your puree is ready, spoon it into moulds or hot, sterilised jars as you would for jam. Silicone moulds are great, especially if you’re making Almacks to serve at a special meal – although you don’t need a special occasion to serve some delicious fruit cheese in a pretty shape. The flexibility of the silicone makes it very simple to turn out the paste, once cold.

Pickled Onions

I do love a pickled onion, and not having had any for a while, decided to put to the test some of the old recipes from the Wellcome Insitute Library archives. The methods are a little different from modern recipes and I was curious to see the differences made to the final product, if any.

Some of the pickled onion recipes were too involved for my purposes (and lack of patience), with the brining going on for almost a week before any actual pickling was done. I chose these two recipes because they were both immediate and do-able in a morning, and I liked that they had slightly different aromatics as well as methods.

A lot of pickling recipes take weeks to mature, and originally I hadn’t planned to post these recipes for quite a while. However, after a taste test this morning, the results were so delicious after just 24 hours, here we are.

Pickled Onion manuscript recipe 1

This is the recipe from a manuscript (MS751) that belonged to one Elizabeth Sleigh, with later additions by a Mrs Felicia Whitfield. The manuscript has been dated to from the middle of the seventeenth century (1647) to the early 18th century (1722). The method involves blanching the peeled onions briefly in two changes of salted water, simmering the pickle with some aromatics and combining the two when both are cold.

This recipe is from MS2323, originally owned by Amy Eyton and subsequenty by Mary Eyton and possibly even Mrs Sarah Justice. With a similar date (1691-1738), it is interesting how closely the recipes resemble one another in terms of method. This later recipe calls for initially soaking the peeled onions in two lots of brine, blanching in brine and then cooling in cold brine, and drying. The vinegar and aromatics are simmered for a while, then poured over the onions.

The results for both are deliciously similar: the onions have crunch and tang from the vinegar, but none of the harshness of raw onion nor eye-squinting ‘burn’ that accompanies the use of malt vinegar. The aromatics give subtle flavouring to the vinegar, which I suspect might intensify as time passes. As already mentioned, and by far the best part of this whole experiment, is they can be consumed almost immediately.

Elizabeth Sleigh’s Pickled Onions

1647-1722

I didn’t think I had any black peppercorns, so I used long peppercorns that were in the cupboard.

500-750g small/pickling/baby onions
9tbs table salt (divided)
800ml white wine vinegar
1tbs allspice berries
1tbs black peppercorns
1 thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger
4 blades of mace

clean jar(s)

  • Make a brine with 2 litres of cold water and 4tbs salt.
  • Cut the tops and bottoms off the onions and peel off the brown skin
  • Bring the brine to the boil and drop in the peeled onions and cook for two minutes. Drain.
  • Mix a fresh batch of brine (2 litres water, 4tbs salt).
  • Bring the fresh brine to the boil and drop in the onions and cook for another two minutes. Drain.
  • Cut the ginger into thin slices.
  • Add the aromatics and salt to the vinegar and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to a simmer for 5 minutes.
  • Add the blanched onions and cook for 2 minutes
  • Turn off the heat and use a slotted spoon to remove the onions from the vinegar and set to cool on a baking tray or wire rack. Return any of the flavourings to the pickle.
  • Cover the vinegar pan and allow to cool.
  • When both onions and vinegar are cold, transfer them to your jar(s) and cover. If you’re using more than one jar, make sure the aromatics are divided equally amongst them.
  • Wait 24 hours, then enjoy.

Amy Eyton’s Pickled Onions

1691-1738

This recipe called for alegar – vinegar made from ale – of which I obviously have none, so I used half cider vinegar, half white wine vinegar. Use whatever light vinegar combination you like/have. Oh, and I found the black peppercorns.

500-750g small/pickling/baby onions
15tbs table salt (divided)
400ml white wine vinegar
400ml cider vinegar
1tbs allspice berries
1tsp whole cloves
1tbs black peppercorns
1 thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger
the zest of a lemon, cut in strips
4 bayleaves

clean jar(s)

  • Make a brine with 2 litres of cold water and 4tbs salt.
  • Cut the tops and bottoms off the onions and peel off the brown skin. Drop the peeled onions into the brine.
  • Mix a fresh batch of brine (2 litres water, 4tbs salt).
  • Drain the onions, then add them to the fresh brine for 30 minutes.
  • Make a third brine (2 litres water, 2tbs salt) and bring to the boil.
  • Drain the onions, then add them to the simmering brine for 3 minutes.
  • Mix 2 litres of cold water and 4tbs salt.
  • Drain the onions and drop them into the cold brine for 15  minutes
  • Add the aromatics and 1tbs salt to the vinegars and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to a simmer for 5 minutes.
  • Drain the onions from the brine and dry with a clean cloth. Put the onions in your jar(s).
  • Turn off the heat under the pickle and allow to cool for five minutes,
  • Pour the pickle over your onions and seal. If you’re using more than one jar, make sure the aromatics are divided equally amongst them.
  • Wait 24 hours, then enjoy.

Chutney

I’m going to open this post with a statement:

“There is nothing that can transform a platter of cold meats and/or cheeses more easily than chutney.”

Me, just now.

Bold? Possibly, but with justification. Every chutney, from the lowest of the  low-shelf, supermarket budget jars to the very best of hand-crafted and home-made pots contains a tantalising mix of sweet, salty, sour and spice.

Originating in India, the word was initially translated as  ‘salad’ but was later refined into:

“CHUTNEE, a condiment, compounded of sweets and acids. Strips of ripe fruit, raisins, spices, sour herbs, cayenne, lemon juice, &c, are the ordinary ingredients pounded and boiled together, and then bottled for use. Chutnee is much eaten in India with curries, stews, &c.”¹

Modern recipes are bulky, favouring a consistency closer to marmalade, but early anglicised recipes are much more of a sauce. These three recipes date from the nineteenth century and November is a perfect time to make them, in order to spice up your Christmas table or to give as gifts that can be enjoyed immediately upon unwrapping.

The three recipes I have selected are:

  • Sweet Chutney (top): Similar in flavour and texture to a modern Brown Sauce, but with much more of a spicy, tangy kick. It is the only one of the three that recommends waiting before enjoying, a grand total of 2 weeks.
  • Mrs Belfield’s Bengal Chutney (front left): unusually pale and interesting, this chutney uses sour fruit, gooseberries if you have them in the freezer (I did) or sour apples instead. It’s sharp and tangy with just a hint of mustardy fire.
  • Mr Crawford’s Chetna (front right): my personal favourite. It wakes up your tastebuds with salty, sour, spiciness but doesn’t blow your head off with fire. Goes great with everything.  I’ve even used it as a salad dressing. A taste sensation.

I love all three of these recipes because not only do they offer a delicious taste of times past, they’re eminently practical in that they neither take forever to make nor do they result in vast quantities. Perfect for individual use with 1 or 2 spares in the cupboard to spare, or plenty for half a dozen gift jars.

Sweet Chutney

225g tamarind pulp
225g dates
225g fresh ginger
225g sultanas
225g onions
115g fresh chillies without seeds
4tbs dark muscovado sugar
2tbs salt

malt vinegar

  • Put all of the ingredients into a food processor and blitz until finely chopped.
  • Transfer all to a blender and add sufficient malt vinegar to make a pourable sauce.
  • Rub through a fine sieve – or not, your choice.
  • Pour into sterilised glass bottles and seal.
  • The sauce will be ready in a fortnight.
Sweet Chutney MS1846, Wellcome Library Collection, c1850-1875

Mrs Belfield’s Bengal Chutney

600g green gooseberries or 800g Bramley apples
300ml malt vinegar
115g soft brown sugar
56g salt
30g garlic
30g onions
30g fresh ginger
7g cayenne pepper
50g mustard seed – washed and dried
50g raisins – chopped fine

  • If using apples, peel and remove the cores. Chop.
  • Add the fruit to a pan with the vinegar and simmer until soft. Set aside to cool.
  • Put the cold fruit pulp and vinegar into a blender with the sugar, salt, garlic, onions, ginger, pepper and raisins and puree smooth.
  • Stir through the mustard seeds and bottle in sterilised jars or bottles.
Mrs Belfield’s Bengal Chutney, 1853, MS7733, Wellcome Library Collection.

Mr Crawford’s Chetna

170g green gooseberries or sour apple (peeled, cored and chopped)
115g raisins
115g dark muscovado sugar
30g fresh ginger
30g fresh garlic – peeled & left whole²
56g cayenne pepper OR 1 tsp dried red pepper flakes
56g salt

malt vinegar

  • Put all of the ingredients except the garlic into a food processor and chop finely.
  • Add sufficient malt vinegar to make a pourable sauce.
  • Add the garlic cloves and pot in sterilised glass jars.
Mr Crawford’s Chetna, 19thC, MS5854, Wellcome Library Collection

¹ The oriental interpreter and treasury of East India knowledge, 1848, Stocqueler, J. H. (1800-1885), C.Cox, London, p63.

² When I first made this, the garlic I had was quite large, so I sliced each clove in half. This made the garlic flavour stronger than if the cloves had been left whole, but not overpoweringly so. I decided to keep this modification for my own use, but the recipe above is the original.

New Potato Pie

Pies are frequently seen as the star of a meal, but this new potato pie is a delightful accompaniment to numerous meals. Tender new potatoes are baked beneath a rich buttery crust with a creamy sauce flavoured with parsley.

Not only does the crisp and golden pastry lid keep in all the flavours, it allows the potatoes to finish cooking without fear of them falling to pieces.

Simple and delicious with a gratin of leeks, sprinkled with cheese, or fresh, farmhouse ham and salad.

New Potato Pie

500g new potatoes, scrubbed
2tbs plain flour
1/2tsp salt
1/4tsp ground white pepper
3-4tbs chopped, fresh parsley
80ml double cream or creme fraiche
1 sheet puff pastry
beaten egg to glaze

  • Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan/gas 5.
  • Bring a pan of water to the boil.
  • Boil the potatoes for 5 minutes, then drain.
  • When cool enough to handle, cut the potatoes into slices, 2cm thick.
  • Mix the flour, salt and pepper, sprinkle over the potatoes.
  • Add the parsley and toss to coat.
  • Put potatoes into an oven-proof dish and pour over the cream.
  • Cut some strips of pastry and line the edge of the dish.
  • Dampen the pastry rim and cover with the sheet of pastry, pressing the edges down firmly.
  • Brush wih beaten egg and cut a vent in the middle to let out steam.
  • Bake for 20-30 minutes, depending on the size and shape of your dish until the pastry is crisp and brown and the potatoes cooked through.

Onion Charlotte

In the great pantheon of cookery ingredients, onions tend to get a bit of a raw deal, in my opinion.

Although they are fundamental to the development of flavour in a multitude of savoury casseroles, stews, soups, pies and salads, they are rarely celebrated with starring roles and are usually relegated to the sidelines: always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

This recipe puts onions front and centre – or rather quite the opposite – as a creamy, onion filling is wrapped in a golden, bread casing.

Normally viewed as a pudding dish, there’s no reason why the distinctive features of a fruit charlotte, namely the hot flavourful filling and crisp, buttery bread shell can’t be applied to a savoury dish.

It is a fine accompaniment, or with the addition of some cubes of cheese, mushrooms or bacon, can even become the main attraction.

Random Onion Tip: Include the papery, brown skins in your stock pot. They make for a wonderful colour.

Onion Charlotte

Farmhouse Cookery, 1930s

400g onions
400ml milk
200ml water
¼ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground nutmeg or ½ whole nutmeg, grated
2tbs cornflour mixed with a little cold water.
15g butter
30g softened butter
6-8 slices of stale white bread. If you have none, then cut some bread into slices and arrange on a wire rack to dry a little.
1 x 1.2 litre pudding basin

  • Peel the onions and put into a saucepan
  • Add cold water to cover and bring to the boil.
  • Turn the heat down and allow to simmer for 20 minutes.
  • Strain the liquid off and set aside to use for soup.
  • Chop the cooked onions neatly and return to the pan.
  • Add the milk and water and simmer until the onions are cooked through.
  • Season with salt and pepper and the spices.
  • Add the cornflour mix and heat gently, stirring, until thickened.
  • Add the butter and stir gently until melted.
  • Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.
  • Generously grease the pudding basin with the butter. A pastry brush will make this very easy.
  • Cut a circle of bread to fit into the bottom of the basin and place it there.
    Set one slice of bread aside to make the cover.
  • With the remaining bread, cut it lengthwise into strips about 5cm wide.
  • Line the sides of the bowl with the bread strips, overlapping each one slightly so that there are no gaps for the filling to leak through. Err on the side of caution and use extra bread if necessary to be sure the bowl is fully lined. The pieces of bread will stick out above the bowl rim, and this is fine.
  • Fill the bread-lined bowl with the onion mixture.
  • Butter the remaining bread and lay it, butter side upwards, on top of the onion filling.
  • Wrap the bowl in cling film, gently folding over the pieces of bread sticking up around the edges.
  • Place a saucer with a weight on top and chill in the fridge for at least an hour, or until required.
  • Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C fan/gas 4.
  • Remove the cling film from the pudding bowl, replace the saucer and weight with oven-proof equivalents.
  • Put the bowl on a baking sheet and bake for 1 hour, until the bread is golden brown and crisp.
  • Remove from the oven and allow to rest in the bowl for five minutes, then run a knife around the bowl to loosen it and turn out onto your serving dish.

English Butter Sauce

This is the classic and multi-purpose Butter Sauce much complained-of as being, for many years, the only sauce we British had.

It is perfect for spooning over new potatoes as well as a whole range of freshly-cooked vegetables, and can also be adapted to enhance numerous other dishes merely by changing the liquid and selecting a variety of ingredients as flavourings.

Butter Sauce
5g cornflour
30ml milk
60g salted butter
60ml cold water
salt and pepper to taste

  • Put the cornflour and milk into a small saucepan and whisk to combine.
  • Add the diced butter and stir briskly over a medium heat until the butter has melted.
  • Add the water and continue whisking until the sauce comes to a boil and thickens.
  • Taste and add salt and pepper to your liking. This is plain Butter Sauce

Pickled Cherries

This recipe comes from the manuscript receipt book of Lady Ann Fanshawe at The Wellcome Library – page 292 by Lady Ann’s numbering. It is very quick and straightforward and not that different to the other pickled cherry recipes around, except for the seasonings.

Lady Ann favours mace and dill which were unusual enough to tempt me to try. The recipe also calls for the very best heart cherries, which are cherries that have a soft and rounded heart shape. A bit of research into old varieties reveals that heart cherries could be both dark or pale. I’ve gone with dark, and used a little red wine in place of the original water, in order to help preserve the colour of the fruit. If you can get pale dessert cherries, then swap the red wine for white.

The original recipe contained no sugar, which was a bit much even for a vinegar-lover like myself, so I have tweaked the recipe and added a little brown sugar to soften the flavour.

Original Recipe
Source: MS7113, Wellcome Library Collections

Pickled Cherries

2kg dark purple cherries
540ml light fruit vinegar – I used home-made gooseberry, but you could use whatever you like, as long as it doesn’t overpower the flavour of the fruit. A white balsamic, for example
180ml red wine
6tbs dark muscovado sugar
3 blades of mace
1 tbs dried dill
½ tsp salt

  • Stone the cherries and arrange them neatly in concentric circles in the bottom of a preserving pan. There should be enough to make a full single layer covering the bottom of the pan.
  • Add the sugar, mace, dill and salt.
  • Gently pour in the vinegar and red wine. This should just cover the cherries.  If you need more liquid add it in the proportion of 3 parts vinegar, 1 part wine.
  • Put the pan on medium heat and bring to a gentle simmer.
  • Cook for 10 minutes, until the cherries are just tender but still holding their shape.
  • Gently spoon the cherries into sterilised jars. Pour in the cooking liquid to cover and seal.
  • Can be enjoyed immediately with ham and terrines, as well as fatty meats such as roast lamb, duck and pork.

 

Traditional Stuffing

Here’s something that very often gets neglected next to the flashy stars of the Christmas meal – stuffing. If I could get just one of you this year to refrain from buying a cardboard packet and to try this instead, then I’ll be happy-clappy.

Traditional stuffing is so simple – basic, almost (breadcrumbs, onions, herbs, stock) – yet it can really add to and enhance a main meal more than ingredients costing ten times as much.

When it comes to the traditional roast meal, though – I have a problem with where it goes and how it usually gets served up.

I understand that, packed inside the poultry of your choice, it’s supposed to impart flavour, but what invariably gets dished up is a big glop of solid stodge to eat alongside some dried up old bird (and I’m not just referring to myself here).

In fact, the more I think about it, the more illogical it seems:

We calculate the cooking time for a lump of meat based on its weight, and filling it with stuffing obviously adds to that weight. If you cook a bird according to its ’empty’ weight, then the stuffing remains a thick lump of glop. If you calculate cooking time based on the ‘stuffed’ weight, by the time the stuffing is cooked through, the meat is dried out.

So I say: stuff stuffing the stuffing – cook it separately. That way both the meat and the stuffing can get cooked to perfection and everything is right in the world.

You can bake it in a big slab, or roll it into balls and let it cook around the outside of the meat. Personally, I like to cook it in a bun/ muffin tin, in individual portions: the outside gets crispy and crunchy, and the inside remains moist and juicy. Traditonally, stuffing contains suet – but I prefer to replace it with butter for two reasons: it means vegetarians can enjoy it as well (make sure you use vegetable stock), and it still tastes great when cold. Cold, congealed suet is not a good taste in anything. So today’s handy hint is: Avoid suet if you’d like to continue to enjoy your stuffing cold.

Traditional Stuffing

Makes 12 portions

2 onions
50g butter
225g breadcrumbs (4-5 slices)[1]
1 heaped tsp each of dried parsley, sage, thyme, oregano
1/2-1 tsp dried rosemary
salt & pepper
200ml stock
1 egg

  • Grease your muffin tin well.
  • Chop the onions and cook gently in the butter until softened and translucent.
  • Put all the other ingredients into a bowl.
  • Mix in the softened onions and any butter left in the pan.
  • The mixture should be moist enough to hold its shape when pressed together.
  • Spoon the mixture into the tin and press down gently. I think the crunchy bits on top are the best bits, so I use a fork to just rough up the surface.
  • Bake at 200°C, 180°C Fan for 45 minutes.

[1] Stale/dry breadcrumbs are fine – use a little extra stock if you think the mix is too dry.