By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 29 2016 02:00PM
England is a wonderful country. Its history is rich, its democracy is a model for the world, its literature is second to none.
Its food – not so much.
And so it was with some trepidation that I undertook the last assignment in my self-imposed Austen Catch-Up Project, wherein I’ve spent 2016 filling some of the holes in my Janeite education. This month’s assignment: cook a meal from The Jane Austen Cookbook, by Maggie Lane and Deirdre Le Faye. The book adapts and modernizes recipes from several Regency cookbooks, including that of Martha Lloyd, the Austen friend who lived at Chawton cottage with Jane, Cassandra and their mother.
Initially, I considered attempting a Regency supper of the kind described in Le Faye’s introductory pages: three courses with as many as five or ten dishes per course. Then I contemplated the acres of leftovers and thought better of that plan.
Instead, I decided to cook more or less the same amount of food I usually make for a family dinner, choosing recipes based directly on Martha Lloyd’s cookbook, since those are the most likely to have been eaten by Jane Austen herself.
Avoiding exotic ingredients unlikely to show up in a suburban supermarket – no Pigeon Pie or Pheasant à la Braise for me – I planned a menu that seemed both within my modest culinary capabilities and likely to pass muster with my family: for the main course, Jugged Steaks with Potatoes (p. 54); for a vegetable side dish, Fricassee of Turnips Pie (p. 45); and for dessert, Jaune Mange (p. 84) accompanied by Ratafia Cakes (p. 125).
The early signs were not good. Apprised of the menu, my teenage daughter decided to accompany a friend to dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. I hadn’t served a single dish, and already I had lost a quarter of my customers.
Things did not improve from there. The remaining family members were unimpressed by the jugged steaks with potatoes, which cooked in beef broth for a long time at a low temperature, yielding – at least in my hands -- steak that was tough and potatoes that were mushy. The real problem, however, was the lack of any spice more exciting than salt or pepper.
Jugged Steaks with Potatoes
“It’s a classic bland, hearty English dish,” said my husband. (And since he grew up in Lancashire, he should know.) “Thank God for the Raj,” he added. The jugged steaks, we agreed, would have benefited from the magic of Indian spicing. Some cumin, turmeric and garlic could have worked wonders.
The fricassee of turnips pie – cooked turnips dressed with a cream sauce -- fared a bit better, though its pie-ness seemed more notional than real. Perfectly fine, if unexciting, we agreed.
Fricassee of Turnips Pie
I’d hoped for better things for dessert, which is usually my culinary ace in the hole, but my initial foray was a flop: the ratafia cakes, cookies made of ground almonds and egg whites, spread and flattened in the oven and were nearly impossible to peel unbroken off the baking sheet. “They look like macaroons someone stepped on,” my husband remarked uncharitably. “And they taste like macaroons someone stepped on,” my twenty-year-old son added. Ouch!
The one saving grace: the unfortunately named jaune mange, which my husband insisted on pronouncing, not in the correct French style, but as if its second word rhymed with “range.” I’m not usually a fan of gelatinous custardy desserts, but once unmolded and adorned with canned apricots, the dish, composed largely of wine, sugar and orange juice, looked rather lovely. Even better, its flavor proved to be a delicate and refreshing blend of alcohol and citrus.
Jaune Mange (left) and Ratafia Cakes
Jaune Mange again
“It’s just the right combination of tartness and sweetness, like Elizabeth Bennet,” my husband said, helpfully providing just the right quote for an Austen blogger.
On the whole, however, this foray into Regency cooking wasn’t a great success, with no dish earning a grade above B+ from my customers. I might make the jaune mange again, but the rest of the menu seems appropriately consigned to the dustheap of history.
“I think I like Jane Austen’s books better than her cooking,” my son concluded. “Frankly, I prefer Mansfield Park to this dinner. And that’s saying something.”