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Over the past few years, my interest in food has evolved from something that feeds me to something that tells a story. But what about the food in the books you grew up reading and loving? What stories does the food in these stories tell about the characters, about the stories of those times?
A literary world that has always interested me is the one that Jane Austen created in her books. Austen is so adept at telling the story of her characters, their dialogue, their individuality that everything else fades away. But, after reading books like Jo Baker’s Longbourn, it feels like the blurring goes away, and everyone who spins Austen’s character stories comes into focus.
Among the points that focused on was the food in Austen’s books. Hosting and being hosted played an important role in the progression of Austen’s stories. Most of the dating happened at dinner parties and balls and amid stealing glances at cool refreshments.
So it’s no surprise as I decided to cook through a literary cookbook, I chose a set in Austen’s world.
Jane Austen’s Table: Recipes Inspired by the Works of Jane Austen by Robert Tuesley Anderson
This book is a collection of over 50 recipes from the world of Austen’s novels. The recipes are divided into breakfast, lunch, and dinner sections with little surprise sections in between. Before I dive into the recipes I’ve tried and the ones I wish I’d tried, I want to explain why this cookbook is so fantastic.
This book is first and foremost a cookbook, and it is important to judge it that way. The recipes in the book are wonderfully organized with tons of images for a healthy visual journey. Most quantities are meant to serve four or more people, which seems appropriate, since no one seems to have dined alone in Austen’s world. One element I found missing was the lack of captions under some of the cookbook images. In some cases, especially when playing digitally, it was difficult to place the image with its corresponding recipe. But that’s a minor gripe that I think is probably not even an issue in the physical book.
One of the remarkable things about this cookbook was the background details the author was able to provide. He used detailed quotes and examples from the books to really put the recipes at the center of the world, which made it even more fun. A hot chocolate recipe was not just a hot chocolate recipe, but General Tilney’s Hot Chocolate.
I was surprised by some of the ingredients that were part of the recipe, like anise pods, cardamom, etc. Many of them were ingredients that belonged to the subcontinent and various other colonies of England. But the author also had a context for these. It was a big import item when the East India Company started pushing through these colonies. One thing I missed was the credit that rightfully belonged to different countries (then colonies) but was not talked about more. Curries, for example, are not something traditional in English cuisine, but an imported concept. An acknowledgment of these facts would have elevated the accuracy of the account.
With all of these factors in mind, I started choosing my recipes.
I didn’t have a big blueprint when it came to choosing what to try. Cooking the whole list was going to be tough and narrowing it down was tough. So, I let my pantry dictate what I would end up trying, and thank goodness for well-stocked pantry days.
The Jane Austen Recipes I Tried
Mrs. Cassandra Austen’s scrambled eggs
I like a good egg in the morning. It’s the perfect way to start your day, and so this one was a must-have. What inspired the author to try this one was the practice of keeping poultry on his estate and imagining what breakfast would be like. The creaming of the cream with the egg was a touch of skill. But I took it a step further by separating the white from the yolk and only creaming it with the heavy cream. Results? The fluffiest of fluffy scrambled eggs. The author mentioned it to accompany it with buttered asparagus. Unfortunately I didn’t have any on hand, but it looks like it would have complimented the taste. The slice of brioche was delicious.
Frank Churchill’s Cardamom Coffee
The coffee recipe was a bit of a conundrum, but when you read the author’s background, it makes sense. Coffee, especially at that time, was a drink of gambling halls and places where men gathered. So I imagine the cardamom was to add a kick to the flavor. The methodology was similar to the pour over, and I found the technique lacking a bit of detail. The result, however, was a delicious and aromatic coffee. I didn’t get the froth I needed with the book method, so I used a handheld frother to get the desired froth on top. Accompanied by some sweet cookies, it was the perfect pick-me-up.
General Tilney’s Hot Chocolate
This hot chocolate was delicious! The recipe is inspired by General Tilney of Northanger Abbey, who refuses to share his hot chocolate with the rest of the diners on the table. This is hands down one of the best hot chocolate recipes I’ve tried. He asked to cream the sugar until frothy peaks appear, and that’s what really made the difference. Instead of the traditional hot chocolate powder, the recipe called for melting chunks of chocolate in the cup itself, giving it a more authentic flavor.
Chicken curry came to my surprising rescue one day when I found myself confused as to what to have for dinner. In one of Austen’s sketches, one of the characters writes a letter stating that the curry lacked flavor and so the author was determined to fix it. This was a simple recipe for making chicken curry, but I think it can serve as a staple in someone’s recipe collection. The final taste is delicious, no spice dominates the other. This also leaves room to adjust spice levels as needed.
Other Recipes to Watch
Sure, there were recipes that I tried, but there were others that I couldn’t access but was definitely planning to cook very soon.
Marinated vegetable salad
My utter disregard for vegetables could be seen in how none of the above has any semblance of either. But, in the year I’m trying to fix this, this one looks good to try.
Basically, cheese and herbs: it looks like pizza in a bowl.
Upper Cross Mushroom Pies
Using puff pastry in my dinner or lunch plans is one of my favorite things to do because it makes a complete meal. This recipe sounds like the perfect entrée or take-out side for your host.
Cherry Almond Ice Cream
We have your liquid desserts, now let’s move on to the solid ones.
It was a fun exercise to try these recipes and inhabit the world of characters I hadn’t spent time with in a while. What we eat is such a fundamental part of who we are as people, and having more visibility for what some of the classic characters have eaten adds to the enjoyment these books have provided through the ages. Now I’m going to get my favorite Austen.
If you’re looking for more cookbooks to buy, here’s a list of great cookbook authors and their must-have cookbook.