Monday, July 30, 2012

Now I'm Cooking

If anyone had asked me even 6 months ago if I thought in the span of a week I'd make pie crust, noodles from scratch, cook up 3 pounds of strawberries, and stew a roast in prunes, well I would not have believed the first bit let alone all the rest. I don't cook at home because both Stephen and Alysa enjoy cooking, and they both hate washing dishes. Usually at home by the time I am hungry enough to want to eat I am too hungry to cook.

But when food is a method to learn about history, I'm finding my appetite for cooking is fairly unbounded! there are 2 houses at Strawbery Banke where cooking takes place: Wheelwright House, where a modern person shows off 18th Century hearth cooking, and Shapiro House where Mrs. Shapiro makes kosher meals on a coal stove that has been converted to gas. I am assigned to both houses at various times over the course of the week, and I always end my week with Saturdays in Shapiro.

One of the ways that the museum saves money on supplies is by asking us cooks to bring raw ingredients in, with the understanding that we can bring home anything we cook. It guarantees the museum a variety of food offerings while Stephen and Alysa get to take a break from cooking to try things like sweet & sour cabbage stew, and Colonial meat pies. I am having so much fun, learning by cooking, and helping teach museum visitors about the seasonality of food or about the rules of koshering. It is a little nerve-wracking trying to plan out menus in advance so I can purchase the ingredients, luckily I build enough time into most mornings that I can stop at the store on the way in to work if necessary. So far I have not had any major failures, I have burnt some fritters when I was too busy chatting with the school children to remember to flip them, and this week it was too hot for my pie crust to hold together, but for the most part I've been very pleased with my undertakings.

In Shapiro I am working from the International Jewish Cookbook. It was published in 1917 and is available online here and my mother found a version printed in 1947 with ration substitutions added in. I started the summer by making a chicken soup (so traditional) and followed it the next week with Cholent, a Jewish dish made up on friday night and stewed all night so it could be eaten on Saturday. Since I was cooking on Saturday and serving on Sunday I made a sweet & sour cabbage soup the week after, stewed beef with prunes & sweet potatoes the week after that.

My biggest cooking accomplishment in Shapiro House came on a day when one of the other Mrs. Shapiros called out sick, and I got to cover in the middle of the week. Since I did not get time to prepare I was dependent on the supplies already in the house. In looking through the little pantry I found plenty of flour and sugar, a box of dried up prunes and a jar of apricot jelly. My mind went instantly to hammentashen, so I used my smartphone to look up a recipe that sounded the most like the way my mom makes them, dug up some yeast and went to town. Before that dy I had never made any recipe with rising dough on my own. But when you have all day and no-one is required to eat what you make it seemed like a good time to take a risk.

I set the prunes to stew in some water and made my dough, went to lunch and when I came back the dough had risen nicely and the prunes were well stewed. I spent the rest of the afternoon making small batches of little triangular pastries that turned out delicious.

Colonial hearth cooking is its own unique experience but this post is long enough. I'll have to tell you all about my wheelwright exploits at a future time.
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