The Old Cookbook Experiment: Part 4

The Old Cookbook Experiment: Part 4

After a brief digression into the fun time I’m having with audiobooks (did you know Infamous Relations is now available as an audiobook? Check it out on Amazon Audible or even request your local library get it for you via the Overdrive or Libby apps!) I’m returning to my experiments with Regency era cookery. I’m back to Margaret Dods’ wonderful The Cook and Housewife’s Manual again, and this time, I want to try out something I’m pretty sure are meringues… with a slight twist.

That twist being the addition of citrus zest.

Now, before I start, I should point out that I fully and absolutely intended to cheat making this recipe. My arm and shoulder are in no way up to standing at the kitchen counter beating eggs for half an hour straight. And frankly, I think any Regency era cook with an ounce of common sense would have sent for the dairymaid to take care of this particular job for her, that class of servant being well-trained in churning milk for hours on end to make butter and cheese. Beating a few measly eggs would be child’s play. But me? I planned to toss everything in my beloved Kenwood Chef and head off to cook the rest of dinner!

A sugar loaf

Of course, modern conveniences mean I’m already ahead before I even start this recipe, because we don’t buy our sugar in cones any more. I just went to the supermarket and bought a bag of caster sugar (baker’s sugar or superfine sugar I believe it’s called if you’re in the US). But the Regency cook would have started with a sugar cone or sugar loaf.

The British controlled the import of sugar rigidly, and used a series of punitive taxes to make it impossible for the sugar growers in the Caribbean to import refined sugar into Britain. Instead, a dark raw sugar was imported and then refined in factories in England, a process which involved repeatedly boiling and filtering the sugar before pouring it into moulds which were then allowed to stand for several days, treated again to improve the whiteness before being dried and the loaves turned out.

(Now you know where the name of Brazil’s Sugarloaf Mountain comes from!)

Special tools called sugar nips were used to crack off pieces of sugar from the loaf… or it was grated, just as this recipe calls for. Sugar was very expensive and would have been tightly controlled in a household, and the more refined and whiter the sugar, the more expensive it would have been. Considering that oranges imported from Seville were hardly cheap either, and the amount of time and effort used to make this dish, and I think it would have been a very special treat, perhaps one served at a dinner party where you might be trying to impress important guests!

Caroline Bingley would have ordered it served at Netherfield, I’m quite certain, in an effort to impress Mr. Darcy!

I wasn’t trying to impress anyone except the two young wolves I call my sons, though, so I separated my egg whites, dropped them in the Kenwood and beat them for 10 minutes until they were thick and frothy. Three quarters of a pound of sugar equates to 340g (for those of you playing along in metric) and knowing of old that meringues can be tricky, I added this a little at a time, along with grated orange peel (I prefer orange flavours to lemon but might try orange another time). And yes… it still took pretty much half an hour, even in a powerful kitchen machine, to whisk the eggs and sugar up to the thickness I knew I needed, which is SERIOUSLY thick. You want it to be like whipped cream, almost sculptable.

Sieving in a little of the sugar

I could have used a piping bag to make neat shapes, and in fact next time I probably will, but this first time I used a spoon and made ‘dollops’ of the meringue batter. I got 2 dozen out of the recipe – 4 egg whites go a long way!

Not the prettiest of shapes, but boy, did they taste good!

I debated for a while about how long and hot to cook them. It’s been a while since I made meringues, but I do know that you get the best ones with really long and slow cooking… like 2 hours at 90°C kind of long and low (194°F). Or you can cook them hotter and get ones that are browned on top. In the end, I decided to go with the ‘moderate oven’ the Dods recipe calls for, and set mine (non fan forced) to 140°C (284°F).

While it was difficult to tell if they were browning because the orange rind had coloured the mix to a slightly golden shade anyway, I took a risk and pulled them out of the oven after about 30 minutes because they felt just crispy when tapped with a fingernail.

And… they were absolutely PERFECT. Perfectly crisp on the outside with a lightly chewy centre. If you like them crispy all the way through, you could give them another 10 minutes, but I thought these were just delicious. The orange zest was just enough flavour to make them interesting.

I’m not kidding; these are some of the best meringues I’ve ever had. We served them smashed up with whipped cream and they were a HUGE hit with my sons, who are already pestering me to give the lemon version a go.

I reckon this would make a fantastic Pavlova, topped with whipped cream and a tin of drained mandarin slices. Or you could pipe small neat circles and create a nut-free version of macarons – I love the idea of macarons but find the taste of almond meal overwhelming. Sandwich two of these together with orange cream and they would be amazing.

Of all the recipes I’ve tried so far, this was by far the best. Margaret Dods’ Orange Puffs get a big thumbs-up from me – but I’m very, very grateful I don’t have to stand there and beat those blasted eggs by hand!

12 Responses to The Old Cookbook Experiment: Part 4

  1. They sound amazing! Now I want them! They have this thing called the mail… (just kidding). You know, I never thought to look up what a sugar loaf actually was. That’s really fun to see.

    • They seriously were; and they kept for quite a few days in a tight-sealed Tupperware box – meringues are notorious for absorbing moisture and collapsing. We just added cream when we were ready to eat them!

  2. You’re killing me. Dang! They sound and look amazing. Heavy sigh! I swear, my mouth is watering. [chortle] I think I would go along with your sons on the request for lemon. I love anything lemon.

    • Honestly, because I had the Kenwood Chef, they were SUPER easy to make. It would have been one hell of a production in Regency times, but cheaty modern technology meant very little effort had to be expended.

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