Nathaniel Hawthorne: Chocolate Bread Pudding Trifles

Nathaniel Hawthorne: Chocolate Pudding Cake with Roasted Pears

Although it’s conspicuously absent from biology classes and science textbooks, I’m convinced that certain humans (myself included) have developed a rare but necessary extension of the digestive system: the “dessert stomach.” How else to explain our ability to be simultaneously completely full of dinner, but so ready for the final course? Friends with actual medical training tell me it’s all psychological, but I’m going with the two-stomach theory.

After all, the evidence goes back hundreds of years, to the New England table of Nathaniel Hawthorne. When you look at the dinner party guest lists now, they read like a survey of American literature—Emerson, Thoreau and a young Louisa May Alcott might be spotted, digging in—but the food was just as important as the company. “Should we be the more ethereal, if we did not eat?” he wondered in a letter. “I have a most human and earthly appetite.”

Even after those elaborate meals, though, Hawthorne could always find a little extra room when the main courses were cleared. Writing to his son after a particularly overwhelming feast, he admitted, “I had hardly any appetite left.” Nevertheless, “I did manage to eat some currant pudding, and a Banbury cake, and a Victoria cake, and a slice of beautiful Spanish musk-melon, and some plums.” If Hawthorne came to your Thanksgiving, he’d be the guy “testing” every kind of pie on offer (and don’t forget the ice cream).

Fruit was a frequent after-dinner treat, and Hawthorne doted on the orchards on his land (“What is a garden without its currant-bushes and fruit-trees?” he wrote). But, as anyone with a dessert stomach can attest, fruit alone isn’t nearly enough. After his daily walk through the grounds, Hawthorne would eat “a pint bowl of thick chocolate (not cocoa, but the old-fashioned chocolate) crumbed full of bread.” When fruit was in season, he’d add it to the mix—a stealth move to combine two desserts in one.

Chocolate Bread Pudding Trifle recipe hawthorne images

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Stephen King: Cranberry Orange Cheesecake

Stephen King: Cranberry Orange Swirl Cheesecake

This week, the internet has been embroiled in debate about “literary elitism,” but that same highbrow disdain for lowbrow tastes isn’t just confined to the world of words. Whether it’s a bodice-ripping romance or a doughnut dripping with sugary glaze, certain books and dishes are repeatedly (and unfairly) condemned to a lower status on our shared cultural hierarchy. It’s time to redeem the “guilty pleasure.”

For many readers, Stephen King (subject of yet another internet debate) is one of those authors we regard with divided hearts: someone we love to read, but only when no one else is watching. We don’t discuss The Shining in book club or self-consciously read our first edition of It on the subway, hoping someone will notice. It seems natural that King himself would dismiss the entire idea of “high” versus “low.” But, as it turns out, even he buys into the guilty pleasure principle—at least where food is concerned.

After his wife, Tabitha, lost her senses of taste and smell, King became the de facto cook of the house, learning to bake his own bread and devising his own signature dish (baked salmon with brown sugar glaze). But despite his kitchen credentials, King is still sheepish about some of his go-to meals. “My eating habits are horrible,” he wrote on Twitter, as if to anticipate his culinary critics. “Favorite restaurant is Waffle House. How sad is that.”

The same bashfulness appears in King’s quick defense of the microwave: “If you’re sneering, it’s because you think the only things you can do with the microwave are make popcorn and nuke the living shit out of Stouffer’s frozen dinners.” King’s alternative, coating a trout fillet with lemon, olive oil and basil before zapping it for a few minutes, is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s microwaved, yes, but much more virtuous than the helmet-size bowl of cheesy pasta I make on lazy nights, telling myself I am, technically, “cooking.”

King’s favorite food, about which he clearly feels no embarrassment, has the reputation for being the ultimate indulgence: a “monster slice of cheesecake.” Although two slices is his preferred dessert (according to a menu of his ideal meal), King’s taste for cheesecake isn’t limited to post-dinner; he also will have a piece before sitting down to write. “Cheesecake is brain food,” he says, a joking justification for a dessert that doesn’t need any excuse.

Cranberry orange cheesecake recipe

Cranberry orange cheesecake recipe

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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Molasses Pumpkin Pie

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow - Molasses Pumpkin Pie

New Yorkers are rumored to be a cynical bunch—and, for the most part, they don’t disappoint. Moving here from California was like watching Annie Hall in reverse: shedding the golden optimism of the West Coast for the Woody Allen snarkiness of the East. Since sarcasm is my lingua franca, I usually fit right in … until November 1 rolls around. Because when it comes to holiday traditions, I’m an unrepentant sap.

“There is no season which so vividly recalls the endearments of home and so fully awakens the recollections of its blessings as the return of these annual holidays,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote on Thanksgiving Day, 1828. I might put it a little less floridly, but Longfellow and I agree on the main points. We love the family gatherings. We love the familiar traditions. And most of all, we love to eat.

“Talking about Thanksgiving Day puts me in mind of the Pioneers and ten thousand other things,” he wrote to his sister Anne. And those ten thousand things? They’re all food: “geese, turkeys, ducks, chickens, roasted pork, plumb [sic] puddings, sour apples and molasses and pumpkin pies baked in milk pans.” Sure, the Pilgrims are important. But for Longfellow, pie is the priority.

Born and raised in Portland, Maine, Longfellow was particularly proud of pumpkin pie’s New England roots. He summarily dismissed British holiday desserts, saying that their traditional mince pies were “far surpassed by the ‘New England peculiar’ baked pumpkin and pan-dowdy.” When observing Thanksgiving in Venice in 1828, he reassured his father that his dessert needs were being handled. “You must not think … that I am deprived of all your New England comforts. On the contrary: my good landlady has promised me baked-pumpkin and hasty-pudding for dinner to day!” Crisis averted.

But more than pie, Longfellow relished the holiday’s sense of community, and extended an invitation to supper for others who were far from home; Charles Dickens, on his second tour of America in 1867, spent Thanksgiving at the Longfellows’ table. The holidays, Longfellow wrote, were meant to “gather friends and relatives together, and call in from the thoroughfares of the world those that have been thrown out of the family circle, and jostled apart in the crowd.”

Although he was one of the most popular poets of his day, Longfellow’s work is now often criticized for being overly sentimental. You might say the same about his thoughts on Thanksgiving: “At such times,” he wrote, “the heart clings to home, as the dying man clings to life.” Sappy? Sure. But for this cynical New Yorker, ’tis the season for a bit of saccharine, in both our hearts and our desserts.

Molasses Pumpkin Pie from Scratch

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L. Frank Baum: Gingerbread Cake with Butterscotch Sauce

L. Frank Baum: Gingerbread Cake with Butterscotch Sauce

More than leaving home or getting that first job, the defining moment of my adulthood was the realization that I could eat whatever I wanted, no longer restrained by the contents of my family’s pantry or my (nonexistent) allowance. “Growing up” meant learning to make your own menu, in a city of unlimited culinary options. And if you decided dinner will be a bag of discounted Snickers bars bought in a post-Halloween binge … that’s when you learned sometimes adults make bad decisions too.

This freedom, though, is temporary; it ends when you open your kitchen to others—a partner, a spouse, a family—and suddenly your meals are influenced by their presence. Someone else starts writing your menu. In the case of L. Frank Baum, that person was his wife, Maud.

Ten years after the stunning success of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Baum made the down payment on a grand Hollywood estate, which he and Maud dubbed Ozcot. Visiting the Baum household was like entering the Emerald City itself: the elegance, the parties, the three-oven range. Baum was known to order 100 pounds of cheese for a single soiree. Maud’s niece Matilda later remarked that those evenings “represented to me something that I knew nothing about, I was thrilled with the things they did, their food … everything.”

But while Baum chaired the party-planning committee, Maud ran the family kitchen with the efficiency of a train conductor. According to L. Frank Baum: Creator of Oz, the Baums ate three square meals a day, starting with breakfast at 8 a.m. (fruit, eggs, potatoes, “four to five cups of strong coffee with sugar and heavy cream”) and ending with a hearty dinner (“typically a thick cream soup, roast meat with gravy, potatoes and vegetables, and a rich dessert”).

Such regular mealtimes can sound like paradise to anyone who’s ever stared at the fridge, too tired to whip something up after work. But with it came a mandate: Don’t question Maud’s kitchen authority. Baum learned the hard way when he bought a box of jelly doughnuts for breakfast one morning. As punishment for meddling in the menu planning, Maud served the leftover doughnuts every morning for the next week, until they were so stale that Baum tried to bury them in the yard rather than face them again.

Thinking about Baum hiding the offending doughnuts in his napkin, it’s easy to see him as a grown-up child, living in a world where dinner is always served on time, where appetites are never spoiled. It’s a world that is startlingly like Oz, where (in Ozma of Oz) even the King has to be cautioned “not to eat too much cake late at night, or he would be ill.”

Gingerbread Cake with Butterscotch Sauce Recipe

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Roald Dahl: Frozen Homemade Kit-Kat Cake

Roald Dahl: Homemade Frozen Kit-Kat Cake

As I was growing up, no book did more to encourage my incipient interest in dessert than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Willy Wonka’s world offered a blissful alternate universe, where candy was not dangerous, or merely delicious, but magical. How different this is from the food corporations we hear about today—the ones that have conspired to hook us on salt, sugar and fat. There aren’t many Wonkas in the world anymore; we’re in a food world run by Slugworths.

Roald Dahl himself was the industry’s perfect victim, growing up just as large chocolate companies were asserting their influence. When he was born, in 1916, “The chocolate revolution had not begun,” he wrote in the Sunday Magazine. “There were very few delicious chocolate bars to tempt us.” But soon, chocolate was everywhere—and nowhere was it more influential than in Dahl’s own backyard. His boarding school, Repton, was right down the road from the Cadbury chocolate factory, which would frequently enlist the boys to test new creations, mailing them boxes of bars to try.

The golden age, according to Dahl, was from 1930-37; that’s when the world saw the debut of the Mars Bar, Rolos and (Dahl’s personal favorite) the Kit-Kat. Until his death, in 1990, Dahl would eat at least one Kit-Kat every day. (His dog, Chopper, preferred Smarties, eating four after lunch and four after dinner) He would save their silver wrappers, adding them to a giant foil ball on his desk, where visitors to the Dahl house can still see it today.

Dahl was hooked early—but he began to notice the candy industry’s increasing interest in the “bland, almost tasteless” tastes the public preferred. His special disdain was reserved for one of Cadbury’s bestsellers, “the blandest and most disgusting thing of all,” the Crème Egg. These “fondant-filled horrors” didn’t have any of the surprises—the delightful crunch, the bright colors, the sharp flavors—of Dahl’s beloved bars. “Nobody I know eats them. But somebody obviously does, by the bucketful.”

Because it wasn’t sugar that hooked Dahl, after all; it was food’s magical ability to amaze, to astonish, to transform. When Dahl’s first wife fell ill, he would surprise her at breakfast with pink milk, because—why not pink milk? Like Wonka, Dahl saw how food opens us to a world of new sensations, new possibilities, new sensations. With every new taste, childlike, we encounter a bit of wonder.

Frozen Homemade Kit-Kat Cake Recipe

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Katherine Mansfield: Orange Soufflé with Sherry Syrup

Katherine Mansfield: Orange Soufflé with Sherry Syrup

Note: I’ve never had a guest post on P&S belore, but when Aimee Gasston told me about the unpublished recipes she found in Katherine Mansfield’s papers, I couldn’t wait to have her share one here. Plus, I’ll clearly take any opportunity to trot out my ramekins (I’m a sucker for individual-size desserts). Enjoy, and many thanks to Aimee. 

Another Note: If you’re reading this via Google Reader, there are alternatives to get P&S updates after Reader shuts down tomorrow. Plus, you can always find what’s up on Facebook. Okay, back to regularly scheduled programming. 

It’s lucky that Katherine Mansfield, maybe the key innovator of modernist short fiction, had such a hearty appetite, without which her prose would be far less rich. Virginia Woolf described Mansfield as having the finest senses of her generation – so when I heard about newly discovered food-related material of hers acquired by the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, New Zealand, I couldn’t wait to get a look at it.

Plump as a child, Mansfield would be made gaunt by tuberculosis in adulthood, but her hunger for worldly pleasures remained constant throughout her truncated life. Her personal writing is full of daydreams involving food, which she vividly described in letters and journals as she traveled Europe in search of health.

Switzerland was a particular disappointment, as she wrote in a letter to the artist Anne Estelle Rice in 1921: “Curse them. And the FOOD. It’s got no nerves. You know what I mean? It seems to lie down and wait for you; the very steaks are meek.  […]  As to the purée de pommes de terre, you feel inclined to call it ‘uncle.'”

Despite her love of eating, cooking wasn’t the most pressing of Mansfield’s priorities due to her poor health and a fierce dedication to her work. In her excellent biography A Secret Life, Claire Tomalin describes Mansfield and her husband John Middleton Murry’s juvenile culinary tendencies: “Like children, they lived mostly on the junk food of the day, meat pies and the cheapest possible restaurants; Katherine had no time or wish to cook.”

Instead, Mansfield’s cooking would take place largely on the page. Besides the spirited culinary rhymes that she penned amid her account books (including an unpublished poem called “An Escapade Undertaken by a Green Raspberry and a Kidney Bean”), her short fiction was always embroiled with the messy materiality of life, with prose you cannot only see, hear, touch and smell, but really taste.

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Mansfield Orange Souffle Recipe

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Anton Chekhov: Blini Stack with Honey Orange Filling

Anton Chekhov: Crepe Cake with Orange Honey Filling

One month from now, I’m going on a “big trip” – the kind of major vacation you typically put off until the time is right, or the airfare goes down, or your parents hit a major anniversary (which is eventually what happened). There are lots of plans in the works, for luggage, visas, appropriate clothing … which can all be dealt with later. Right now, I’m busy deciding what to eat.

For a dedicated eater, travel plans are really just food plans in disguise. So you can imagine how disappointed Anton Chekhov was by his trip to Siberia, where after a long grueling journey, he found that the food was only aspiring to edibility. Siberian cuisine “is not for the European stomach,” he wrote in 1890, a situation intensified by the notable lack of health codes. “One old lady wiped a teaspoon on her hindside before handing it to me,” he balked.

Chekhov’s put-downs during his Siberian stay have become legendary (“Tomsk is a very dull town. … The inhabitants are very dull, too”), sparking a long and bitter feud between the playwright and his hosts. But he saved his most cutting remarks for the cuisine. For an all-time gastronomic low, he described a dish of duck stomachs, which “haven’t been entirely cleaned of their contents and so, when you bite into them, cause you to think your mouth and your rectum have changed places.” Suddenly, all my worst kitchen failures are looking positively delicious in comparison.

But there was one bright spot on Chekhov’s trip: the baked goods. The residents of Tomsk baked “the most delicious bread … delicious also are the pies and pancakes, the fritters and dinner rolls.” Blinis are a Siberian specialty, and Chekhov marveled at their remarkable thinness. I imagine him bingeing on entire dinners of fritters and blinis, retreating into the culinary safety of carbs. As someone who regularly asks for bread basket refills, this sounds like a perfectly enjoyable solution.

Chekhov immortalizes his love for blinis in the short story “On Mortality,” which opens with a diner “quivering with impatience, await[ing] the moment the blini would appear.” When a stack emerges from the kitchen, they are “crisp, lacy, and as plump as the shoulders of a merchant’s daughter.” A whole lot sexier than duck stomachs, in other words, and maybe even worth a trip. 

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Orange Honey Filling chekhov3

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Marquis de Sade: Molten Chocolate Espresso Cake with Pomegranate

Marquis de Sade - Molten Chocolate Espresso Cake

I have always been semi-mortified about special requests in restaurants. Meg Ryan’s orders in When Harry Met Sally still fill me with third-party embarrassment. When I was in high school, my friends and I decided, instead of going to junior prom, we’d spend our ticket money on a fancy dinner in San Francisco instead. I anticipated it for weeks, poring over the menu in advance like it was some kind of ancient codex. After much deliberation, I picked the black pepper-crusted tuna steak—which, of course, arrived raw. 

What to do? Amazingly (this being California in the 90s), I hadn’t yet eaten raw fish and wasn’t planning to start then. But, determined to be accommodating  I picked at the seared edges of the tuna until a friend noticed, rolled her eyes, and asked our waiter to re-fire it. I watched him parade the plate back to the kitchen, as if announcing to the room, “That girl in the corner table is so uncultured, she didn’t know tuna is served rare, and we are all paying the price.” 

My tolerance for special requests has improved since then (It helps that I’m no longer in high school, when even the wrong nail polish was the apex of embarrassment). And whatever I order, I know it will never compare to the culinary demands of the Marquis de Sade, who showed as much disregard for dining conventions as he did for sexual ones—that is, pretty much none whatsoever.

For one thing, if I were in prison, I assume that I wouldn’t have a lot of input about the food; you get what you get. Not so the Marquis. In one of his many jail stints, he counseled the chef of the Bastille about the daily menu: it had to include a custard (vanilla or coffee flavored only), baked apples, and “an excellent soup (I will not repeat this adjective; soups must always be excellent.” Try this today, and I bet you’d get a big fat of soup in your face. It would not be the excellent kind, either.

I also admit that I’ve never once ordered cookies shaped to specific dimensions. The Marquis was all over this one. His requests to the Bastille are charming compared to the letters he wrote his wife, Renee, from prison, which listed his extensive food needs, including biscuits “six inches long by four inches wide and two inches high.” He was not only particular about his sweets; his appetite for them was insatiable. Another letter to Renee asked for “four dozen meringues; two dozen sponge cakes (large); four dozen chocolate pastille candies, vanillaed, and not that infamous rubbish you sent me in the way of sweets last time.”

And woe unto the person who forgets the chocolate. “The next time you send me a package … try to have some trustworthy person there to see for themselves that some chocolate is put inside,” he snarked. He may have been a libertine in the bedroom, but in the dining room with the Marquis, you don’t fool around.

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Molten chocolate espresso cake with pomegranate recipe

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Jane Austen: Brown Butter Bread Pudding Tarts

Jane Austen - Devizes Cheesecake

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.

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Jane Austen - Devizes Cheesecake Recipe

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George Orwell: Treacle Tart

George Orwell - Treacle Tart

Imagine this: It’s a Sunday night, the end of a long weekend full of gift shopping, cookie baking, and fun-but-exhausting holiday merrymaking. You can’t possibly cook now, you decide, and turn to your trusty takeout-menu drawer. What are you in the mood for, though? Thai? Italian? Indian? Ethiopian?

If there’s one thing I bet you didn’t say, it’s “British.” Despite the U.K.’s recent restaurant renaissance, its meals have been a culinary punchline for nearly a century, ever since World War I hobbled the country’s food culture. George Orwell summed up its characteristics rather bluntly: “simple, rather heavy, perhaps slightly barbarous.”

Orwell was obviously never one to hide his feelings about food; his travel writings slam chefs everywhere from France to Burma. You’d think he’d be a little kinder to his home cuisine, but he savages everything from fish and chips (“definitely nasty, and has been an enemy of home cookery”) to rice puddings (“the kind of thing that one would prefer to pass over in silence”) to pretty much any kind of vegetable (“usually smothered in a tasteless white sauce”).

But Orwell did reserve some praise for what was, in his mind, Britain’s crowning culinary glory: “sweet dishes and confectionery—cakes, puddings, jams, biscuits.” Best of all were the Christmas treats: plum pudding, and treacle tart, “a delicious dish … hardly to be found in other countries.”

So how could a food lover like Orwell explain the U.K.’s mediocre showing in the kitchen? As he tells it, it’s because the best English cooking isn’t at a charming bistro or fancy restaurant, but is made at home, where foreigners don’t have access. That may be bad news for tourists—but it’s a moment for home cooks to shine. When we’re baking scones or Yorkshire puddings, Orwell says, we can be chefs of our own making.

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