A Very English Dessert: Trifally Speaking

Hello Hello! Happy Mother’s Day weekend to all the moms out there. Welcome to week 15 of the International Vintage Recipe Tour 2020. This week finds us in England via the kitchen, making a dessert that dates all the way back to the 1750’s.

It was a time when women dressed like this…

An embroidered muslin dress dating from 1730-1769 from the Victoria and Albert Museum collection

and men dressed like this…

Men’s fashionable suit made in England circa 1765. Courtesy of the Victoria & Albert museum collection.

and housing looked like this…

An engraving of Marble Hill, circa 1749 courtesy of english-heritage.org

and dessert looked like this…

In the kitchens of castles and cottages and country houses across the rolling hills and bucolic landscapes of England, big bowls filled with fruit and cream and custard and cake decorated tables and delighted diners.

The fun of this week’s vintage recipe starts with the adjectives that most often describe it… tipsy, whimsical, drunken, inconsequential, foolish, scrapy, flurried. It was first made in the 1500’s, but really became part of the popular dessert vernacular in the 1700’s, and was one of the few sweet treats of its day that appealed to practically every type of eater, from the thrifty homemaker to the flamboyant palace chef. Legend states that its origin may have originally sprouted in Spain or Italy, but once the British embraced it, it became a wholly English dessert. And it came complete with cute nicknames – The Tipsy Parson, The Tipsy Hedgehog, The Tipsy Squire. All an homage to the alcohol cleverly disguised inside the cake and custard that held the whole assemblage together.

Today in the Kitchen, I’m pleased to announce that we are making English Trifle, a piled up assortment of boozy cake, jam, fruit, custard and cream. Like any 500 year old recipe, lots of variations have emerged since it was first created, but the fundamental hallmarks of the recipe (cream, cake, alcohol, fruit, custard, jelly) haven’t changed in five centuries. That makes it one of the most authentic desserts in the history of baking.

The first cookbook to print a recipe for trifle with jelly was Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, which was published in 1751.

Eight years ago, my friend Diana gave me a trifle dish. I loved it immediately for its big shape, but up until now never actually made the food that it’s named for. Instead, over the past almost-decade, I’ve used my trifle dish for all sorts of non-related kitchen jobs – a flower vase, a holder for various miscellanies (wine corks, napkins, kitchen tools, flatware), a container to corral foodstuffs (bread, cookies, nuts), a fruit bowl, an ice bucket, a table centerpiece for candles and crafts, an organizer for pantry odds and ends, and most recently a punch bowl. It’s overall handiness is ironic considering that this dish was made for one very specific type of dessert.

The trifle dish turned punch bowl was featured in Week 4 of the International Vintage Recipe Tour 2020 when we visited Barbados via the kitchen. Read more about that here.

Anyway, its exciting to think that this much loved glass container is not only making it’s trifle debut here on the Recipe Tour but also serving up the oldest historical food we have made on the blog yet. That means it is older than  Election Cake (1700’s) and older than Sally Lunn Cake (1600’s)

The recipe we are following for this English Trifle is from the 1970’s New York Times International Cookbook, but it is pretty faithful to the 16th-18th century versions. The only adjustment I had to make with this specific recipe was exchanging the current jelly for raspberry preserves, since I couldn’t find current jelly at the grocery store.  Some vintage recipes for trifle feature other fruits like cherries, apricots, strawberries or peaches so really you could use any type of jam that you prefer best and still keep the historical integrity of true English Trifle completely intact.

A two part process, this was no quick whip up in the kitchen, but it’s not complicated to make.  Since it contains two recipes in one, I wound up breaking up the steps into two parts over two days – one day for the homemade sponge cake and the other day for the homemade custard and assembly. Over the years, especially in the mid-to late 20th century, many short-cut variations have been substituted for these two steps – including store bought pound cake, prepackaged ladyfingers, instant pudding mixes, prepackaged cake mixes and ready made whip cream. But I recommend making the whole dessert from scratch even though it takes a good chunk of time to prepare.

The process of making this over the course of two days worked well, because the longer the sponge cake rests in the fridge, the easier it is to slice for presentation in the trifle dish. It is also ideal to refrigerate the entire finished (and decorated) trifle overnight to allow the cake time to soak up the Madeira,  and to allow the rum to blend into the custard.

There’s a fun step in the sponge cake making process which involves a clean kitchen towel and the act of rolling the cake up inside it. If you are familiar with jelly roll cakes, this won’t be a new or unusual task for you, but if you’ve never rolled up a hot cake just out of the oven in a kitchen cloth before, it will feel a little strange and unnatural. Almost like something you’ve been trained not to do as a kid – like writing in a book or coloring on a wall. But persevere anyway. It all works out wonderfully in the end.

Sponge Jelly Roll

3 tablespoons butter, melted

4 eggs

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

3/4 cup sifted all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons confectioner’s sugar

3/4 cup tart current jelly ( I used 50% less sugar organic raspberry preserves)

2 tablespoons Madeira

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Brush an 8×12 jelly roll pan (or a standard cake pan) with half the melted butter. Line the pan with a large sheet of parchment paper, letting a little of the paper hang over the sides. Then brush the parchment paper with the remaining butter.

Break the eggs into a medium size bowl. Add the salt and three quarters cup sugar.

Beat with an electric mixer until stiff or until the batter forms a thick ribbon and fall back onto itself when the beaters are lifted from the bowl. Carefully fold in the flour and vanilla. Pour this mixture into the prepared pan. Spread smooth with a ribber spatula. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes.

While the cake is baking, lay your clean kitchen towel flat on the counter. In a small bowl, sift together the remaining two tablespoons sugar with the confectioners’ sugar. Sprinkle the sugar mixture on the clean towel. Watch this step over on Instagram in the Week 15 video here.

After you pull the cake from the oven, grab all four corners of the parchment paper and immediately remove the cake from the pan. Carefully flip the cake onto the sugared towel and peel away the parchment paper.  Adjust the cake so that it lines up with the edge of the towel and then quickly roll it up. Watch a video of this step here.

Let the cake rest for 15 minutes wrapped in the towel. Then unroll the towel and spread the cake with a thin, even layer of jelly.

Then roll the cake up once more, except this time don’t roll it up into the cloth.

Transfer the roll carefully to a sheet of waxed paper or parchment paper,  and wrap it and place it in the fridge to chill. (Note: You can leave it in the fridge up to 24 hours. The longer it sits in the fridge the easier it will be to cut and arrange in the dish).

After the cake has chilled, remove it from the fridge and place it on a cutting board. Cut the entire jelly roll into 1/2″ inch thick slices.

Next line the bottom of the trifle dish with as many slices as will fit to cover the bottom and then line the sides of the dish. You should have a few slices left over after you’ve lined the dish. Set those remaining slices aside for use after the custard is ready.

Sprinkle the cake slices with the two tablespoons of Madeira and then cover and refrigerate the dish while you make Part Two of the recipe.

English Trifle

Serves 10-12

Sponge Jelly Roll slices

4 eggs, seperated

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/2 tablespoon unflavored gelatin

1 1/4 cups light cream

2 cups heavy cream

2 tablespoons light rum

1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

Place the egg yolks in a medium bowl and add the sugar.

Beat thoroughly with an electric mixer and add the gelatin. Set aside.

Bring the light cream to a boil in a small saucepan, stirring constantly so that the cream does not scorch. Slowly add it to the egg mixture, stirring constantly with a whisk as you incorporate the milk.

Transfer the egg/milk mixture to a large saucepan. Cook and stir the mixture over low heat until it coats the back of a wooden spoon (about 10 minutes).

Immediately remove the saucepan from the heat and set the pan in a bowl filled with ice cubes to cool. Stir until cooled. {Note: I cooked my custard for about 15 minutes on the stove, which I think turned out to be about 5 minutes too long! Once the custard sits in the ice cubes it thickens even more, so ultimately when you remove the custard from the heat it should be about the consistency of somewhat runny cheese sauce and not quite as thick as loose pudding, which was more like my consistency.}

In a separate mixing bowl add the egg whites and beat until they form soft peaks.

Fold the whites into the cooled custard. {Note as you can see from the photo below my custard became pretty thick once it cooled. If this happens to you, don’t worry, once you fold in the egg whites and the cream you can use a rubber spatula to smooth the custard out. The rum also helps the custard break down a little bit.}

Beat half the heavy cream until stiff…

And then fold the heavy cream into the custard/egg white mixture…

Then fold in the rum…

Spoon all the custard into the trifle dish, covering the bottom slices and spreading the custard evenly with a spatula.

Cover the top of the custard with the reserved slices of jelly roll.

Beat the remaining cream and sweeten it with confectioners’ sugar and vanilla extract. Using a pastry tube or spoon, garnish the top of the trifle with cream. Now comes the fun part… decorating the top! The recipe’s directions stopped after the whipped cream, so we are now, at this stage,  left up to our own interpretations and creativity from this point forward. Some bakers like to decorate the tops of their trifles with crushed nuts, slivered almonds, shaved chocolate or fruit. I decided to top mine with strawberries, blackberries, raspberries and mint.

And because this recipe hails from England, the land of beautiful gardens, I put a few fresh flowers on top too.

We are enjoying strawberry season this month in the South, so the berries seemed like an ideal companion, and my sweet mint in the garden is growing by leaps and bounds, making me want to add mint to everything in order to keep it under control. But you might have your own fun spin on a trifle topper so I encourage you to get creative.

To serve the trifle, you just need to dive right into it with a big spoon and scoop out a slice of cake from the side and place it on a dessert plate. Then add an extra dollop of custard and whip cream from the interior and add some additional bits of topping for an extra bit of flair.

A truly delicious baking endeavor that tastes of summer and satisfaction, this whole dessert is substantial but not heavy. The custard is pillowy, the whip cream delicate, the berries tangy.  It is no wonder that this recipe has been floating around the dessert world for five hundred years. It’s a timeless classic for sure. No matter how we have evolved as humans from century to century, I don’t think we’ll ever tire of any combination involving fruit and cream, flour and custard, butter and jam. It’s in our history, after all.

P.S. The trifle will keep in the fridge for a few days but not the freezer, as this recipe is meant for sharing not storing. If you are still quarantining like we are in my neck of the woods, and your amount of eaters is small, don’t let the size and scale of this recipe sway you. Perhaps you could surprise your friends or neighbors with a little gift of British baking.

Cheers to England for propelling this dessert through centuries. And cheers to all the moms out there who have made this recipe in the past and will continue to make this recipe in the future!

Join us next week as we island hop over to Fiji for a tropical dinner and a special weather episode that adds audible ambiance to our cooking adventure. See you next time for Week 16 of the Recipe Tour!

Annie’s Wine Baked Brisket and the Multi-Cultural Collaboration That Became a St. Patrick’s Day Tradition

Cows are sacred, salt is expensive, cross the sea trading is prohibited and immigrants had to get to New York. In a nut shell, those are the four substantial situations that had to occur in order to bring brisket to your dining tables today. Happy St. Patrick’s Day dear readers!   Today’s post is all about a traditional Irish food that actually is, in reality, a multi-cultural collaboration between three countries.  While it is certain that many a crock-pot will be simmering away today in honor of the holiday, and the famous corned beef and cabbage that has become associated with it, you might be surprised to learn that the propulsion for this traditional heritage food actually has more to do with New York City than Ireland.

The Kerry cow is considered to be the oldest breed of cattle in Ireland.

It all started back in Ireland’s ancient times when cows were considered sacred animals. Valued for their milk and their strength over anything else, Irish cows were essential components to a working farm and were never considered a viable meat source. But England adored beef, particularly roasts, so much so that by the 1600’s, England couldn’t keep up with their own country’s supply and demand.  So they went to Ireland to see about some cows.

A good revenue stream for the Emerald Isle, and a can’t-live-without-it commodity for England, this cow commerce between countries was mutually beneficial for all.  That is until the Cattle Acts of the 1660’s. In an instant, thanks to the Act, the sale of live cows to England was no longer allowed.  The sudden halt in commerce left Ireland scrambling for a solution and left England grumbly with hungry bellies.  This all came about at a time when salt was also an extremely expensive ingredient in England. Ireland, on the other hand, was not only flush with cattle but also abundant with coastal salt pans. The combination of these two  riches formed a clever way for Ireland to package meat for export that skirted around the law. They created a new method of food preservation called corned beef – a salted meat product that could withstand time and travel to England without spoiling.

Coming from the brisket cut of the cow (located between the front knees and the shoulder area) this salt infused food was named corned beef because of the corn kernal-sized salt crystals used in preserving it.  Generally known as a tougher piece of meat since that area of a cow’s body gets quite a lot of exercise, early corned beef was essentially just a slab of meat that was rumored to taste more like salt than beef.

Commercial Cuts of Beef chart from the Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer, 1967 edition

Because it was shelf stable, easy to prepare and came in bigger portions, corned beef became a popular staple in the diets of 18th century Englanders as well as sailors away at sea for long stretches of time. It even made its way into the diets of Early American colonists who were struggling to produce food for their new country. The only people who were not enjoying this salty slice of protein were the Irish, who, in a terrible twist of irony, couldn’t afford to buy the very product they were exporting.

Newly arrived immigrants at Ellis Island. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

It would take one more century and a move to America before Irish immigrants were able to afford and enjoy the corned beef that made their home country famous. In the mid-late 1800’s, a majority of the butcher shops within the New York metropolitan area were owned and operated by Jewish immigrants.

The Lustgarten family owned a Jewish butcher shop in NYC in the late 1880’s. Photo courtesy of tenement.org

Living in close knit communities, both Irish and Jewish transplants bonded over feelings of displacement and discrimination experienced in their new world. Financial resources were a challenge for most city dwellers, but especially for these two ethnic groups in-particular, as they faced prejudices in work and social environments. Luckily, food brought them together via thrift and necessity and novelty.

Market shopping along NYC’s Mulberry Street in 1900

Upon arriving in America, Irish immigrants were delighted to discover that corned beef was much less expensive in New York then it was back home in Ireland. Likewise,  Jewish immigrants liked brisket because it was one of the least expensive cuts in the butcher shop and could feed a crowd.  Through experimentation in their New York City kitchens,  Jewish and Irish newcomers developed the low, slow cooking methods that eventually evolved brisket from a salty slab of preserved meat into a rich and flavorful meal.  Cabbage was often paired with it since it was the least expensive vegetable. Both cultures developed their own trademark dishes – slow simmered corned beef and cabbage for the Irish and smoked pastrami and sauerkraut for the Jewish community. Each specialty stemmed from the humble brisket cut.

Beef Chart from the Culinary Arts Encyclopedic Cookbook circa 1948

Today’s recipe focuses on the Jewish side of cooking, with a brisket that quickly browns in butter on the stove top before heading into the oven for a slow simmer in red wine. If you are not a fan of the saltiness of traditional corned beef, or are wary of the seasoning packet that comes in most store-bought brisket kits, this recipe is a great alternative, since you can control your own level of spices. It comes from Annie, an avid cook, and a world traveler who lived in New York for most of her life. A dear friend to my father, she’s proud of her Jewish heritage and is famous for many signature dishes including homemade horseradish (more on that in a future post).

Annie sent this recipe to my dad over email 15 years ago while she  was at sea traveling between Buenos Aires and Santiago.  The trip was rough with wild waves and cold temperatures but Annie was more than happy to take a few moments to share her way of making brisket. In our modern age, email letters aren’t quite as pretty as handwritten ones – but the sentiment is there nonetheless. My dad has hung onto her correspondence for over a decade and a half. I discovered it recently, tucked inside one of his favorite cookbooks.

Although it requires two days to make, it is very simple and involves just a few ingredients. I used grass-fed beef from the farmers market and a red wine blend called Sheep Thrills for the fun pun. Also, Annie cooks like James Beard recommends – with your intuition – so she doesn’t specify in her recipe exactly how much seasoning to use. In the directions, I share my method, but you may want to add more or less depending on your preference.

Annie’s Wine Soaked Beef Brisket

4-5lb beef brisket ( I used a 3.5 lb grass-fed beef brisket)

4 tablespoons butter (only necessary if using grass-fed beef)

6-7 onions

4 stalks celery

2 bay leaves

2 cups red wine

Onion Powder

Garlic Powder

Celery Salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Remove the brisket from the packaging and let rest on the counter for 45 minutes to 1 hour. If you are using frozen grass-fed beef make sure that it has completely thawed in the fridge before beginning this recipe. Do not trim the fat from the brisket.

Seasonings with dots of butter on top before the flip to brown the other side.

In an ovenproof pan (preferably one that has a lid) over medium high heat, add the butter (but only if using grass-fed beef, otherwise omit the butter). Generously sprinkle each side of the meat with the onion and garlic powders and the celery salt (I did about five passes on each side with each of these seasonings). Brown the brisket, fat-side down, for 5 minutes on each side.

Roughly chop the onions and the celery and add them to the brisket pan.

Pour in the red wine and add the bay leaves. Cover and bake in oven for 2 to 3 hours or until the brisket reaches an internal temperature of 170 degrees. (Note: Grass-fed beef cooks faster then grain-fed beef, so watch the temperature and time closely.  My 3.5 lb brisket came out exactly at the 2 hour mark.)

Let the brisket cool to room temperature and then refrigerate overnight it in the same pan that you cooked it in so that all the juices can soak back up into the meat.

The next day, remove the pan from the fridge and scoop off the top layer of fat.

Remove the onions and celery to a blender and mix until well combined. This will form a thin au jus style gravy which is delicious for dipping.

Transfer the au jus to a small saucepan and warm over medium heat. Next, thinly slice the brisket and serve cold or at room temperature alongside the au jus and/or with your favorite condiments like mustard, mayo or horseradish.

This style of brisket is perfect for French Dip style sandwiches served on crusty rolls. It also travels well for spring-time picnics and outdoor family gatherings. In Annie’s house it is a staple for many Jewish holiday celebrations.  Simple fare with a collaborative past, that’s the brisket in all its wonderful ways.

There is something lovely about Annie’s recipe that ties all the historical elements of the holiday into one tidy package. With its Irish and Jewish heritage,  its international transmittance and Annie’s New York roots, it feels like this recipe really embraces the spirit of the holiday. The parallels are endless. The recipe was written on a boat in the 2000’s featuring a food that was once eaten by sailors in the 1700’s. Annie lived in New York during the 20th century. The immigrants who helped perfect this style of cooking lived in New York in the 19th century. Annie is Jewish. The butchers who sold brisket cuts to the Irish in NYC were Jewish. Annie uses brisket to feed her family on Jewish holidays. The Irish-American community uses brisket to celebrate their national Catholic holiday.

St. Patrick’s Day isn’t only for the Irish – it’s for everyone in America who hand a hand in building a country where people and food worked together to create new things and new traditions in a new land. Cheers to foods that continue to bring people together in surprising ways. And cheers to Annie for sharing her delicious brisket recipe.  Hope this St. Patrick’s Day is your most festive one yet!

The Story on the Table and the Collections They Inspire

There are sibling rivalries, legendary love affairs, epic business successes and terrible company failures. There are cross-continent travelers, centenarians who never age and homebodies who would never think of leaving. There are the everlasting partiers,  the quiet dignifieds, and the rebel-rousers with battle scars to show. Forget all the drama that’s occurring on your tv screen or on your phone. Compelling, real-life adventures are happening right in front of you, right on your kitchen table. Welcome to the dramatics of the age-old dishes. They carry the stories of what we’ve eaten across our imaginations and over time.

Today we are highlighting some of the stories that make table settings more interesting and conversations more memorable. When we stock plates and curate collections in the shop we are looking for unusual designs and elegant patterns that can easily be incorporated into your everyday routine for a splashy bit of decadence in both the thought and feel department. We like old china to look old because that’s what ignites the imagination. To us, there is nothing more disappointing then standing in front of a dish trying to decide if it’s new-to-look-old or old but so brand-new looking that you just know it’s never ventured out of the china cabinet.  In the Vintage Kitchen, we like dishes that bring some story to the table with an extra added dose of depth and charisma to enhance the food that we prepare.

A few weeks ago on Instagram, we did a before and after photoshoot of a simple yogurt and coffee breakfast to demonstrate the difference and the impact of ordinary vs. extraordinary.  On the left is plain, modern, basic American-made dishware.  On the right is colorful vintage handpainted dishware that is more than 60 years old and comes from another country. Don’t you think the mood of the morning changes dramatically just with a hint of some old time interest?

The dishware on the left are all modern pieces in basic white. The dishware on the left features a 70 year old handpainted saucer and a 60 year old gold rimmed monogrammed teacup.

A plate is a plate, you might say. But it’s really so much more than that too. It’s someone’s artwork. It’s a town’s business and a country’s export. It’s an owner’s style expression and a collector’s pride and joy. It’s a plate but it’s also a passion.

Take this one for example… a 9.25″ inch white ironstone plate with a 10- sided polygon shape. It’s hefty, weighing close to one pound, and its speckled with age spots that resemble the shadowy craters of the moon. There is a long delicate crack that measures almost 7″ inches right across the middle and I fear that any day now, it will split the plate in two. When it touches down on another surface, no matter how gently, it broadcasts a two beat thump like a hollow footstep.  I think that’s the history of the plate trying to talk. A spirit wanting to tell some secrets. This plate carries a lot of those. It’s 183 years old.

If it was used once a day, every day, for 183 years it would have served a total of more than 60,000 meals throughout its life so far. A remarkable feat for any piece of kitchen equipment, let alone one of a fragile, easy-to-break nature. How many times over the course of its life has this plate been set down and picked up? Whose hands touched it and where did they carry it?

Made in England by  C & WK Harvey between 1835-1853, it tells the story of the hustle-bustle days of English pottery making. The Harveys were a father/son team made up of the Charles’ (Sr. & Jr.) and William K.  Their pottery plant was located at the Stafford Street Works in the town of  Longton, Stoke-on Trent, England – a section of town that Charles Sr. built in 1799 to house factories for a number of different pottery makers.

Stafford Street Works then and now.

In the early 1800’s, Stoke-on- Trent was the hub of pottery manufacturing for the entire country of England and employed hundreds of thousands of workers.  Parts of the Works are still there today, although now it is a mixed-use commercial neighborhood, primarily consisting of retail storefronts. Almost all of the potteries once associated with it are now gone.

For things like salads, and cheese and crackers, fruit, scrambled eggs and dessert, the old Harvey plate gets used all the time.  It’s shiny and smooth and substantial under the touch of fingertips. It’s bright white and pale tea and watery grey in color. It’s got so much crazing, you barely even notice all those zillion fine lines running every which way. It’s simple and it’s extraordinary all in one. It appears often in the Vintage Kitchen photo shoots.

Photos clockwise from top-left: The prop behind the pineapple; serving Carrot Risotto, breakfast time with Jessie Hartland’s Crepes, holding onto the frozen figs and behind the stacks of sugar cookies.

Now so rare in availability pieces from this pottery maker are mostly seen only in museum collections.  It’s moved with me four times since I found it more than 10 years ago. With each move, it gets wrapped in a thick sweater and then an even thicker blanket and then transported in the clothes boxes (the best place to pack your most treasured dishes!) to ensure a safe arrival.  The crack hasn’t gotten the best of it yet.  Fingers crossed, that it never does.

Somewhere along the timeline of its long life, the Harvey plate crossed the ocean from England to America and eventually found its way into an antique shop in the rural South where I found it. Exactly how it got from the U.K. to the U.S.A. is where imagination takes off and the topic of conversation begins.  Perhaps it came by boat, packed in someone’s steamer trunk in the late 1800’s. Maybe along with a matching set of dishes destined for a new home in a new country. Or perhaps it embarked on a lengthy 1930’s journey through the mail and then via train where it chugged through cities and states, time zones and territories.  Maybe it sat on a festive dinner table celebrating the end of slavery or the rise of the civil rights movement.  Or maybe it arrived in America much later – in the 1980’s via  airplane – a treasured find from a jet-set vacationer who fell in love with the antique history of England.

We’ll never know the exact story but it is fun to speculate on all the possibilities. Many a dinner party have been enjoyed discussing this very plate’s past. Often times, the more wine poured the better the story gets. Since it is an active worker in the Vintage Kitchen you’ll never see it available in the shop but we do offer many others with equally interesting stories to tell.

Clarice Cliff and her pretty floral plates were designed in the 1930’s for Royal Staffordshire. Clarice was a legend in the English ceramics world from the 1920’s to the 1960’s, designing hundreds of eclectic pieces that were admired by collectors the world over.

Clarice Cliff (1899-1972)

Considered one of the most remarkable ceramic artists of the 20th century, Clarice is revered not only for her artistic merit but also her devotion to finding beauty in unusual shapes, colors and designs that were considered very unorthodox in relation to other kitchenwares produced during her lifetime. She was also a brilliant businesswoman – savvy not in an aggressive sales-driven sense, but intrinsically smart, using her own intuition and infectious love of her craft to guide her career, thus attracting a devoted fan base. Her Dimity pattern plates burst with the bright colors of spring. We paired them in two different mix and match collections combining similar colors and unique shapes to compliment the bright and fun-loving personality of Clarice herself.

The Springtime Bouquet collection on the left and the Gold Meadow Collection on the right.

There is the story of the Willow pattern that has been captivating romantics since the 1850’s. The tale is English in origin but it was based on the original Blue Willow porcelain pattern that was made in China during the 1700’s. The tale involves a wealthy girl who falls in love with her father’s accountant. Her father, who does not approve, forbids the romance and arranges his daughter’s marriage to another man more suited to the family’s prominent social standing. The night before her arranged marriage, as the Willow tree starts shedding its blossoms, romance wins and the accountant and the girl run away together living happily for many years. One day the other suitor finds out where the couple is living and kills them. After death, the young lovers are reunited in the form of birds flying high above the landscape.

All the elements of the story are drawn out on the plate. You’ll notice the palace where the girl grew up, the bridge that takes her and her lover away, the island where they live happily together and the birds they eventually become overhead. Lots of china companies caught onto the fact that this was a popular pattern and an even more popular story and began producing their own versions in different colors. This red willow plate was made by famous American pottery company Homer Laughlin in the 1940’s.  We combined it with two other Asian inspired plates to create our own fabled love story collection…

A three-piece set containing Asian themed dinner plate, bread plate and mini dish.

Similiar to the story of the Harvey plate, the Meakin brothers, Alfred, George and James, ran several potteries in Stoke-on-Trent and Tunstall, England. Alfred,  produced this stunner, the Medway Blue under his own pottery label Alfred Meakin England in 1897. Exquisitely detailed, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could or would part with this beautiful plate, but like the Harvey, it somehow migrated over to America. Its journey wasn’t without fault or flaw – there’s a sign of adventure lurking in a small very old pencil point sized chip near one side of the rim.

Celebrating over 120 years of life, this plate holds all the dinnertime stories. 44,000 of them. When we look at it, we see the pretty pattern but we also see faces. People through history who stared down at its contents. Their hair-dos and their makeup, their tuxedoed bow-ties and their evening gowns, their earrings and their mustaches. We imagine the conversations while they ate their chicken and fish and game meats. Would we be discussing the same dramas of the day if we served a slice of pizza on top of the same plate?

Other patterns on other dishes ignite similar questions and thought process. When we look at this golden-edged Pope-Gosser plate made in Ohio in the 1920’s we see Jay Gatsby written all over it. Funny enough, it’s pottery founder I . Bentley Pope, an English transplant to America,  was a swashbuckler of a salesman and a charming wordsmith. Perhaps he had a bit of the Gatsby or the F. Scott in him too.

Last September, when we discussed the book A Taste of Paris, we learned from author David Downie that the original dinner plate was nothing more than a flattened loaf of bread on which food was piled high. Between that primitive time and now, it is amazing to think how far we have come since the days we ate our dishes. If you are interested in learning more about other plate histories, visit the shop and see which ones spark your heart. We’ve listed both collections and single plates in case you want to mix and match yourself. If you have a favorite from any featured above, share it in the comments section below. We’ll be excited to learn which ones appeal to you and why!

These are some of the other unique stories… feuding brothers, vanishing nature and celebratory statehood. Find them all in the shop here.

To celebrate all the ladies in your life that would appreciate a homemade dinner served on a lovely plate we are having a 20% off sale in the shop which runs now thru May 13th.  The discount is available for all items in the shop and will be applied to your entire order.  Use the coupon code MOTHERSDAY at checkout to receive the discount.

Cheers to all the adventurers out there who keep life interesting, both plates and people! May the stories continue and the memories bloom.

Saturday in the Kitchen: Cheshire Cheese

Ms. Jeannie’s new discovery, crumbly Cheshire cheese

It’s a cool, cloudy, over-cast day in Ms. Jeannie’s world today – the perfect atmosphere to accompany her new blog post all about Cheshire cheese from England.

It was experimentation lunch on Saturday in the Ology household! Always up for a game of  “see-what-you-think-about-this-cheese,” Mr. Jeannie Ology, brought home a package of newly discovered Cheshire cheese from the market. Paired with a few local apples, a baguette and a new bottle of  Italian  il Carnevale di Venezia Pinot Grigio  – it was a feast in the making!

il Carnevale di Venezia Garganega Pinot Grigio from Veneto, Italy

Well, sort of.

Oh dear readers, have you ever tried Cheshire cheese? If so, please comment.

Ms. Jeannie was surprised to find that it was a very dry, dense cheese and very very crumbly. Similar in texture to feta but not as salty and not as moist, it reminded Ms. Jeannie a lot of curds in cottage cheese minus the creaminess.  Mr. Jeannie Ology was not really a fan at all – preferring more the strong pungent textures and consistency of blue cheeses, aged cheddars and smoked goudas.

Very crumbly – this Cheshire cheese was!

Ms. Jeannie had to agree. This cheese was incredibly mellow, so mellow, in fact  she believes it might have actually gotten lost somewhere on its transatlantic journey to America.  Perhaps though, she was at fault. Did she pair it with all the wrong flavors?

The pinot grigio also turned out to be very light in taste – although not bad –  it would have made a far better picnic wine on a hot summer day.  What was really needed now, wine-wise, to go with the cheshire was something that was complex and full-bodied, something overflowing with flavor that might have helped develop the subtly of the cheese. Sorry light Italian wine.

The apples were even a poor match, with their crunchy crispiness. Because the Cheshire was so dry, something more along the lines of an apple chutney would have been lovely. It could have surrounded the cheese like a nice hug.  Or a fruit, drippy with it’s own juices like a mango, or an over-ripe plum or a mixture of crushed berries – that would have been equally delicious. But fruit companions pose their own set of problems – because we are no longer in summer fruit season.

So what to do with this non-chalant little wonder of a cheese?  Ms. Jeannie took to the research department…

Hailing from Cheshire County in North West,  England, as it turns out, Cheshire cheese is one of the oldest cheeses in Britain. It’s crumbly, dense, ultra-firm texture was created purposefully, so that the cheese would remain intact while being transported to market in wagons and carriages. Aha!

At the start it had many many friends, including the Royal Army who stocked only cheshire cheese on their ships. Throughout the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, cheshire cheese reigned supreme. It wasn’t until the mid 1960’s that it began to see a decline in favoritism. Mostly this is accredited to the industrialization of the cheese making process, and now there are only a handful of farms making cheshire cheese the traditional way – which apparently – is the flavorful way.

1903 Map of England – (Cheshire in orange, top middle) from bananastrudel
Cheshire, England. Photo courtesy of oldukphotos.com

Cheshire cheese comes in three colors: red, white and blue (very patriotic!).  The white variation (what Ms. Jeannie sampled above) is the youngest of the three. The red, which is actually a pumpkin color is tinted with annato (a pulpy American tree seed used for dying fabrics and food) and the blue, which is aged with mold, resembles more of a veiny blue cheese. Perhaps Mr. Jeannie Ology would have liked that one better!

As far as recipes, Ms. Jeannie headed to epicurious.com to see how they suggested cooking with this now famous cheese. Surprisingly, there were only two recipes listed! How could this be, with a cheese that has existed since the 1600’s?!

Search results for Cheshire cheese on epicurious.com

One recipe was for Scottish farmhouse eggs, which is  essentially scrambled eggs with cheese and onions; and the other, a crabmeat crostini with chives and creme fraiche. Both, Ms. Jeannie noted, enhanced the cheese with a bit of cream (is this a hint?!)

The latter recipe also recommended a pinot grigio as a wine pairing, which would be lovely considering in addition to crabmeat and cheese, the recipe included tangy lemon and lime juices along with a peppery hot sauce. Sounds delicious!

Further research turned up the British Cheese Board website, which turned out be the equivelant of winning the cheese recipe lottery! There was a bevy of cheshire cheese recipes (organized by season, no less), along with other recipes for wonderfully obscure cheeses like Caerphilly, Cornish Yarg and Wensleydale. Such delightful names – thank you England! Wensleydale, in particular sounds like a new day of the week — as in — “Oh darling, let’s not go Monday or Tuesday – let’s go Wensleydale!”  So now we know – if need a new cheese recipe – stop by and visit the BCB. 

Ms. Jeannie will keep you posted on how some of these new recipes turn out, but in the meantime, if you have any suggestions as to how you like your Cheshire – please let us know!