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Creating Festive Meal From 18th-Century Cookbooks in Williamsburg

July 02, 1987|ANNE WILLAN | Willan, a cooking teacher and author, is founder and president of La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Paris. She lives in Washington. and

Colonial Williamsburg is rediscovering the kitchen of the past--the skill needed to build a fire that will last overnight, the quiet tick of the clock jack which turns the roasting spit, the back-breaking task of pounding block sugar to powder in a mortar and pestle. Recently the Foodways Program has been expanded to explore not only the academic side of how our forebears cooked and ate, but also how they achieved it in practice.

A recent display in the Governor's Palace re-created a festive supper, worthy of a ball or a state gathering. Pyramids of candied fruits and heart-shaped gingerbread cookies were flanked by a "rich cake" dark with raisins. A great savoy spongecake baked in a kugelhopf mold was filled with sugared fruits. A "coffin pie" filled with meat was festooned with pastry vine leaves.

Roast quail jostled a tower of marzipan candies illustrating the 18th-Century habit of mixing dozens of dishes on the table at once--sweet and savory, fish, meat, fruit and vegetable. The effect was heartwarming.

The following festive supper is based on recipes taken from 18th-Century cookbooks and tested by researchers from the Williamsburg Foundation. What more authentic way could there be to celebrate the Fourth of July?

SUPPER IN COLONIAL WILLIAMSBURG FOR 12 White Onion Soup Baked Country Ham Roast Turkey or Beef Vegetable Salads Bath Cakes Savoy Spongecake Gingerbread Cakes Syllabubs WHITE ONION SOUP

3 crisp white bread rolls, sliced

1 cup butter

4 pounds onions, thinly sliced

Salt, pepper

3 tablespoons flour

1 quart hot water, about

2 egg yolks

1 1/2 tablespoons vinegar

1 cup whipping cream

Bake rolls at 300 degrees until very dry but not browned. Work to crumbs in food processor or blender. There should be 1 cup crumbs.

Melt butter in large saucepan. Add onions with salt and pepper to taste. Saute very gently 30 to 40 minutes until soft. Do not allow to brown. Stir in flour and cook 2 minutes longer. Remove from heat. Stir in hot water and bread crumbs. Bring soup back to boil, stirring. Simmer 10 minutes or until quite thick, stirring often. Taste for seasoning. It can be stored, covered, in refrigerator up to 2 days.

To finish, bring soup just back to boil. Whisk egg yolks with vinegar and add a little hot soup. Stir mixture back into remaining soup with cream. Reheat almost to boiling. Taste again before serving. If soup has thickened on standing, add a little more hot water. Makes 12 servings.

Note: Be careful not to let onions brown in butter and discolor soup.


1 tablespoon dry yeast or 1 ounce compressed yeast

1/4 cup warm water

3/4 cup whipping cream, about

3 cups unbleached flour

1/4 cup whole-wheat flour

1/4 cup unflavored wheat germ

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup butter

Caraway Comfits

Sprinkle or crumble yeast over warm water. Let stand 5 minutes or until dissolved and mixture starts to bubble. Scald cream. Let cool to tepid.

Mix flours, wheat germ and salt in large bowl. Cut in butter with 2 knives, then work with fingers to form crumbs. Make well in center. Add yeast mixture and tepid cream. Work lightly to form dough that is soft but not sticky, adding more cream if dough seems dry. Cover with wet cloth and leave in warm place to rise until doubled, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

Knead dough to knock out air. Work in 2/3 of Caraway Comfits. Divide dough into 12 pieces and shape into round cakes. Place on greased baking sheet and sprinkle with remaining comfits. Let rolls rise in warm place 30 to 40 minutes, or cover and refrigerate overnight.

Bake at 375 degrees until browned, 30 to 35 minutes. They are best eaten the day of baking, but can be stored in airtight container up to 2 days, or frozen. Makes 12 cakes.

Note: These yeast rolls are not kneaded, so exture is usually crumbly.

Caraway Comfits

3/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup water

3 tablespoons caraway seeds

Heat sugar and water in saucepan until dissolved. Bring syrup just to boil, then let cool. Spread caraway seeds on lightly oiled tray or baking dish. Sprinkle seeds with 2 to 3 tablespoons syrup. Place in 140-degree oven with door open. Leave to dry 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Repeat with 2 to 3 more tablespoons syrup until all is used, letting seeds dry between each addition. When finished, comfit mixture should be dry and sugary. Makes 3/4 cup comfits.


6 tablespoons molasses

1/4 cup whipping cream, about

3 cups flour

1/2 cup butter

2/3 cup sugar

1 tablespoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Powdered sugar

Butter 2 or 3 baking sheets. Heat molasses with cream in saucepan, stirring until melted. Let cool.

Place flour in large mixing bowl. Rub in butter with fingers until mixture forms crumbs. Stir in sugar, ginger and nutmeg. Make well in center, then add molasses mixture. Stir, gradually drawing in flour to form stiff dough. If dough seems dry, add 1 or 2 spoonfuls more cream. Knead dough lightly until smooth. Chill 15 minutes.

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