Henrik Ibsen: Honningkake (Honey-Cake)

Henrick Ibsen - Honey-cake

Humans are creatures of habit. In our earliest years, we’re taught a routine (school, homework, food, maybe a sibling fight here and there) and it goes largely unchanged, even unremarked upon, as we move into adulthood (work, homework, food, and whatever family drama is still unresolved). The New Year is one of the few times we think about these patterns, and how to change them for the better—which is why this week I thought of Ibsen, whose adherence to a schedule lasted from childhood in Norway until his very last days.

Growing up, Henrik Ibsen’s life centered around annual routines that marked the passage of time: fireworks for the anniversary of Norwegian constitution, bonfires of St. John’s Eve, and the arrival of the fair in February. “We began to save up our skillings six months beforehand,” Ibsen wrote, “… for the purchase of honey-cakes in the fair booths.”

As Ibsen grew, these yearly rituals soon became daily ones—the more codified, more rigorous routines that would launch him to become the most-performed playwright in the world, besides Shakespeare. When he was working, he woke promptly 6:30 and insisted on being entirely alone until 1. After a quick break, he was at it again until 7:30, and was in bed by 10. He also required room to move around; his biographer, Henrik Bernhard Jaeger, observed, “He has to pace back and forth through three or four rooms while writing his plays.” Mental note: Don’t invite Ibsen to write in my studio apartment, otherwise the history of Western drama might be very different.

Eating, however, was no longer a part of the grown-up Ibsen’s routine. “When he sets about the execution of one of plans, he takes only what food is absolutely necessary,” Jaeger wrote. “A small piece of bread and half a cup of black coffee is all that he takes before sitting down to his desk in the morning. He thinks that he would be impeded in his work if he were to eat more.” He wrote to his wife, Susannah, that he was “not drinking any beer. … I am drinking milk, and a little—not much—white wine, with water.”

Even in retirement, Ibsen still stuck to a schedule. From 1:20pm to 2pm, and again from 6 to 7:30, you could invariably find him reading the newspaper at Oslo’s Grand Cafe. (His friend Edvard Munch painted him sitting there, paper in hand.) Although he lightened up on the food restriction of his more productive days, his meal was always the same: a sandwich, a beer and a honey-cake, the same kind he saved up his pennies for as a child at the fair.

This past fall, after 140 years, the Grand Cafe closed its doors, its patrons’ cake-eating afternoon routines forever disrupted. Those daily rituals can make us more productive, helping us feel as secure and at home as Ibsen in his cafe chair. But they can also bind us, blinding us to other possibilities we’ve never explored. For this New Year, may you discover a new Grand Cafe, a place where you’re a little more at ease, and where there is always cake.

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Ibsen Honeycake Recipe

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Edith Wharton: Christmas Pudding

Edith Wharton Christmas Pudding Recipe

Holiday parties usually follow a traditional recipe:

  1. Take several people who know each other either a little too well (friend parties with potential romantic prospects) or not well enough (anything work related).
  2. Add copious alcohol, perhaps with a brief food afterthought—a few Christmas cookies or maybe a random ham if you’re being fancy about it.
  3. Mix well.

The result is frequently uncomfortable, both emotionally and physically. The solution, as Edith Wharton deduced, is simply putting food first.

Wharton “liked rich and choice food and a good deal of it”; her favorite dishes included mock turtle soup, roast chicken, strawberries and cream, and lobster any which way. Dinner parties at the Mount, her estate from 1902 til her move to Europe in 1911, were lavish affairs, requiring a staff of 10 to prepare the elaborate menus.

The same servants were also charged with keeping Wharton’s guests fed throughout the day, including picnics on the grounds and snacks around the clock. “You needn’t bring supplementary apples or candies in your dressing bag,” Henry James wrote to a friend about his stay at the house, adding that as a hostess Wharton was “kindness and hospitality incarnate.”

At holiday time, though, Wharton took it to the next level, food-wise. A few recipes of her household recipes are preserved in Yale’s Beinecke library, including one for “Mrs. Wharton’s Christmas Pudding,” a dish that George Orwell later called “extremely rich, elaborate and expensive.” Maybe the most vocal author advocate of puddings in general, Orwell published his own pudding recipe; Wharton’s version, from across the pond, is very similar—in fact, nearly identical—except for her addition of glace cherries, a special touch for her high society friends.

Picking that perfect group of friends, of course, is the other necessary ingredient for a successful holiday party, another thing Wharton knew well. Her frequent guest Vivienne de Watteville noted that food at the Mount was only rivaled by the stimulating company: “Dinner was a poem to which brains and palate equally combined to bring a fitting appreciation.” Wharton was more blunt about how she settled on a guest list; when asked why her table only sat eight, she retorted, “Because there aren’t more than eight people in New York I care to dine with.”

Edith Wharton's Christmas Pudding Recipe

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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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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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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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Walt Whitman: Cranberry Coffee Cake

For a transcendentalist, Walt Whitman was a bit of a hoarder. Just take a look at his daybooks, and you’ll see a list of the scraps he saved over the years: photos, receipts, weather reports, news articles, classified ads, and dozens of press mentions of Whitman himself. He meticulously monitored the papers, carefully cataloging his presence in the world. If he were around today, you just know he would be a chronic self-Googler, or maybe a habitual lurker in the comments section of New York magazine.

Among Whitman’s collection of papers from the 1880s are the few recipes he liked enough to preserve: one for doughnuts and one for coffee cake, making him a man after my own (pastry-clogged) heart. He regularly gave coffee cakes as gifts, probably because he wanted to receive them himself. In a letter from 1877, he wrote, “I was foolish enough to take a good strong drink, & eat a couple of slices of rich cake late at night – & I shan’t do any thing of the kind again.” Yeah, I’ve heard that one before. It’s what I tell myself before checking to see if the ice cream place down the street delivers (the beauty of New York is that it does).

That year, Whitman was recovering from a stroke and had moved to New Jersey under the care of his brother. “But I am pretty well,” he wrote, “& feel more able & sassy every day.” More than anything in Leaves of Grass, these letters from Whitman have inspired my new personal philosophy: Live every day with sass, and with several slices of cake.

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