Even when you love to cook, there are those times when it would be nice to have just a little help: when you promised to make something for the office potluck but forgot to go shopping; when that dinner party you’re hosting sneaks up on you; when your in-laws you dearly want to impress are in town and all you have in the pantry are the three jars of peanut butter you bought before Hurricane Sandy.
Wouldn’t it be easier to live in Jane Austen’s world, where you could hand off such tasks to a very capable cook? Remember poor Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, who, when asking which of the Bennets had prepared the meal, “was set right by Mrs. Bennet, who assured him with some asperity… that her daughters had nothing to do in the kitchen.”
Like Elizabeth Bennet, Austen wouldn’t be caught dead with a roasting pan—but she did know her way around one. After all, she wrote her novels in the middle of the drawing room, constantly interrupted by household demands. “I carry about the keys of the wine and closet, and twice since I began this letter have had orders to give in the kitchen,” Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra. Maybe that’s why her novels are full of meals: she couldn’t write a few sentences without being asked to approve a dinner menu.
Austen was in charge of sourcing ingredients, preferring to grow fresh produce on the property. “What kind of kitchen garden is there?” she writes anxiously when her family is contemplating a move to Chawton. “I do not fail to spend some part of every day in the kitchen garden.” She also oversaw what was to be planted, and where. “The Border under the Terrace Wall is clearing away to receive Currants & Gooseberry bushes, & a spot is found very proper for Raspberries,” she reports.
Then there was the entertaining: a long parade of tea parties and dinner chats, so elegant in books but exhausting in the offing. After one particularly tiring evening, Austen wrote to her sister, “When you receive this, our guests will be all gone or going; and I shall be left … to ease the mind of the torments of rice pudding and apple dumplings, and probably regret that I did not take more pains to please them all.” Of course, she could always blame the cook if things didn’t work out. But that’s the upside to doing all the cooking yourself: When it’s good, you get to take all the credit.
* * *
Several books have been written about the meals Austen might have eaten, based on the hints from her letters: She mentions legs of mutton, lobster, pea soup, and chows down on more than a few apple pies. But my favorite food moment is when Austen and her nieces take a trip to Devizes, a town in Wiltshire, and order a local specialty: “some cheesecakes, on which the children made so delightful a supper as to endear the town of Devizes to them for a long time.”
But before you break out the cream cheese, Devizes cheesecakes are not what you’re probably expecting. The original recipe was actually a helpful way for cooks to use leftover cake, combining the crumbs with a custard base and pouring it all in a pastry shell. It’s like a smoother, creamier, cake-ier bread pudding—not your typical New York cheesecake, but I’ll take it any day.
You might be asking, “Who has leftover cake?” and to that I say: good point. But this is the perfect recipe to rescue those mistake cakes: the fallen, the dry and the flavorless. Tamar Adler, in the delightful An Everlasting Meal, has a chapter on turning kitchen wrongs into rights, and this takes a page from her book. Brown butter, nutmeg and cinnamon can hide a multitude of pastry sins.
(Lightly adapted from Saveur)
1 sheet (about 1/2 lb.) thawed frozen puff pastry
4 tablespoons butter
1 rennet tablet (**See note)
1 cup milk
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
3/4 cup cake crumbs (angel food or pound cake work well)
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1. Preheat oven to 375°F and grease 6 ramekins (6-ounce size). Roll out 1 sheet thawed frozen puff pastry on a lightly floured surface into a 12” x 15” rectangle. Make 6 circles, about 5” in diameter, on pastry. Cut out circles, press into ramekins, and prick all over with a fork. Refrigerate.
2. In a small pan, stirring constantly, melt butter over medium heat until it is golden brown. Set aside to cool.
3. Dissolve rennet tablet in 2 tablespoons warm water in a small saucepan. Over low heat, add milk and sugar and stir 5 seconds, just long enough to get the sugar off the bottom of the pan. Using a kitchen thermometer, cook without stirring until mixture reaches 98°F. Remove from heat and cool 5 minutes.
4. Remove ramekins from fridge. Stir egg, cake crumbs, nutmeg and cinnamon into milk mixture. Stir in brown butter. Spoon filling into ramekins and bake until pastry is golden, about 25 minutes.
** Rennet is used for cheesemaking and gives this pudding its custardy consistency. You can find it in specialty groceries or most Whole Foods Markets. Check with the cheese counter if you can’t spot it.
19 thoughts on “Jane Austen: Brown Butter Bread Pudding Tarts”
Delightful! You might be interested to know that there is a twice yearly magazine out called “Jane Austen Knits”, published by Interweave. So interest in all things Austen even branches into knitting! Here is a brief description:
“Jane Austen Knits is organized in sections that play to a balance of opposites that are perfectly paired—just like Miss Elizabeth Bennet and her Mr. Darcy. In these pages, you’ll find something for your every knitting moment. Balance the playful with the serious, morning with evening, country with town, the cultivated with the wild, the manor with the garden. Knit something for your quiet bookworm moments to your social butterfly flitterings. Indulge in your Jane Austen fantasies and make something that you can wear today.”
Perhaps I shall make Brown Butter Bread PUdding Tarts for my next knit-night gathering!
Oh my gosh, Jane Austen and knitting – another two of my favorite things! I’ll have to make something, and then wear it while eating these cakes … but my head might explode with too many amazing things.
Delighted to see Austen make an appearance on your blog! I just started Mansfield Park (for the first time, if you can believe it) and have always been a fan of her clever writing.
This recipe fascinates me, since you’re essentially making your own cheese within the recipe. I work at a specialty food store, and we get asked for rennet all the time, though we don’t sell it. I’ve been meaning to source some out for cheesemaking, so when I do, I’ll set a tablet aside to try this recipe, too.
It look me a little while to find it – my favorite market that has everything couldn’t help me, so I had to go on an expedition. I’d love to hear how yours goes … and now I need to do something with all these other tablets I have!
Thank you for the most interesting blog I read and reread!
All the articles you write and the recipes keep inspiring me to seek out authors for further perusal and try your wonderful recipes. Thank you! I also am a master knitter and I’ve knit plenty in the style of Jane Austen’s fashion time as knitting history is also a passion.
You are so sweet – thank you! I love how I can meet fellow knitters here as well. It seems like we all share similar loves.
I just wanted to tell you how excited I am to find this blog. It’s absolutely lovely, and I’ll be following from now on.
Thank you, Anna! So glad you’re enjoying it.
another great post! i’d never heard of these cheesecakes and enjoyed reading about them!
Thanks so much! Apparently the people in Devizes started making them popular again fairly recently – enough so they were mentioned in Saveur. There’s been a little Jane Austen renaissance, I guess!
I’ve been a silent reader on your blog for a while. Books and food are my major loves, but I had to say something when my all time favourite author comes up. Jane has always been a love of mine.
These tarts look delish.
Thank you for this amazing lovely blog.
I’m always excited when someone connects enough with the author/recipe to write – thank you, Mikey! I got to read your blog today and that cake looks delicious – I’m a chocolate fiend and a longtime Lebovitz fan, so I’ll be making it for sure (with the orange!). Thanks for reading.
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I am so much enjoying looking round your truly delightful blog. It’s so refreshing to discover something so well written – and amusing too! (particularly liked: ‘You might be asking, “Who has leftover cake?” and to that I say: good point.’)
Are you familiar with Miss Darcy’s Library? https://missdarcyslibrary.wordpress.com/ – I hear certain resonances in some of your posts to her style.
Looking forward to reading yet more!
Reblogged this on Moulders Lane and commented:
‘You might be asking, “Who has leftover cake?” and to that I say: good point.’
Another delightful discovery – a beautifully presented blog by an American writer, who deftly combines the most delicious recipes with a company of authors and their tastes in food. The well written, gently humorous style reminds me of Miss Darcy’s Library https://missdarcyslibrary.wordpress.com/2012/01/31/the-happy-land-of-tea-and-books/ or The Baker’s Daughter Blog https://bakersdaughterwrites.wordpress.com/2010/05/11/hello-world/: a very pleasant way to while away a late winter’s evening.