The guessing game I inflicted on my unsuspecting guests was “what would we have eaten on a Sunday night in 1861?”. Blank looks ensued. I thought inviting people over for dinner and preparing a meal straight out of Mrs. Beeton’s “Book of Household Management”, in the interest of finding out if food cooked in the 1860’s could stand the test of time, would be fun and a conversation starter. As the day approached, I wasn’t so sure anymore. Did I have a plan B? Not really and no restaurant delivers where I live. In the back of my mind I decided that a bowl of pasta would be a respectable fallback if all else failed.
I had picked pretty simple recipes that I felt could still be palatable today and the menu read:
French Chicken Cutlets
The appetizers were entirely my own creations – to make sure my guests would indeed eat something I was sure of.
Half the fun of planning the menu was figuring out what sippets were (a piece of toast soaked in gravy) or how much a blade of mace is (half a teaspoon). The gravy I was supposed to make for the chicken required more chicken bones I could muster so I just bought instant vegetable gravy and added the required ingredients. I was fairly certain Mrs. Beeton would have approved.
In my Californian world, the large mushrooms called for in the recipe became Portobello: dotted with butter, roasted in the oven and cut up before serving, they were timeless.
The piece of resistance was definitely the chicken cutlets that came out perfectly, and so tasty everyone reached for seconds. I would like to think of them as a precursor of my mother’s cotolette: the difference was in the breading. Mrs. Beeton calls for dipping the chicken just in egg yolk and melted butter, rather than just whole egg, and the bread crumbs are seasoned with lemon zest, cayenne and mace. Mace, for some reason, was very fashionable at the time and it’s called for in recipe after recipe.
The dessert was the only letdown. I should have followed my (wise) instincts and added sugar to the mixture of milk, flour, apples and nutmeg but, wanting to stay true to the original, I didn’t. The pudding was sprinkled with powder sugar before serving but it was bland at best. Sugar was a pretty pricey commodity up until the 1900’s and I am assuming housewives used it sparingly. In this case, the result was one of those much maligned English puddings in the vein of blancmange.
All in all, though, it was a fun experiment. And it was indeed a conversation opener, with my guests asking over and over “Were they really eating like this in 1860?” Mrs. Beeton says so and I have no reason not to trust her.
INGREDIENTS FOR FRENCH CHICKEN CUTLETS – Serves 6
2 # (1 kilo) of chicken cutlets, pounded thin
12 slices of bread, not crusty (I used challah)
Clarified Butter or Canola oil for frying
4 or 5 egg yolks
2 T melted butter
1 C Bread Crumbs
1/2 ts lemon zest
Salt, cayenne and mace to taste
2 shallots, minced
A few slices of carrots
A small bunch of herbs such as thyme, parsley or tarragon
1/4 pint of gravy
- Make your favourite gravy and, before it thickens, add the shallots, carrots, herbs, peppercorns and a tablespoon of butter. Let thicken and set aside.
- Toast the bread and arrange the slices on a serving platter.
- Mix the egg yolks and melted butter in a small bowl. Set aside.
- In a shallow dish, mix the breadcrumbs with the lemon zest, salt, cayenne and mace to taste.
- Heat the canola oil or clarified butter in a frying pan over med/high heat.
- In the meantime, dip each cutlet in the egg mixture, followed by the breadcrumbs. Shake the excess and fry in the pan, about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Fry in batches if necessary.
- When done, put the fried chicken on a plate covered with a double layer of paper towels. The outside should be crisp and light brown in color.
- Once all the cutlets are fried, arrange them on the toasted bread and pour the gravy on top. Alternatively, serve the gravy on the side and let your diners pour the gravy individually.
If you are curious to see the actual recipes:
If you would like to have some fun of your own, we are opening a competition: pick one of Mrs. Beeton’s recipes (which you will find here) and reinvent it as a modern cook, while staying true to its essence. Make the dish, send us the retooled recipe (together with the title of the original) and one or two photos. We will pick the three most intriguing (or most successful entries) and we will post them, with a link to your blogs. The winning one will get its own blog feature, written by us (and if you do not have blog, we do have another prize for you). You can e-mail your efforts to firstname.lastname@example.org by June 7. Please put Mrs. Beeton in the subject line.
All entries must be received by June 7 – please do make sure to include a visual of the finished dish. Good luck!