ABOPublic is excited to welcome Marissa Nicosia and Alyssa Connell of Cooking in the Archives, who’ve prepared a special holiday joint post for our readers. You can also see the recipe here along with all of their other updated early modern recipes. Be sure to check out their site!
What do ladies bake? Ladies bake macaroons, tasty almond macaroons.
This recipe “To make maccarons of valentia Almonds” is from a manuscript containing culinary and medicinal recipes: MS Codex 627, The delights for ladys: to adorne there persons beautyes stillyris banquits perfumes & wators. MS Codex 627 is designed to look like a printed book and includes a title page with the date 1655, a full table of contents, and a running header “The delights” on the verso and “for ladies” on the recto of each opening. We’ve only worked with one other manuscript with these features in this project to date: MS Codex 625, where we found “Shrewsbury Cakes.”
Another important feature of this manuscript is obscured, rather than revealed, by our digital images: its size. It’s very small! It fits in the palm of your hand. It could be easily carried in a pocket. As such, it may have also been somewhat difficult to use in the kitchen. The handwriting is small, if quite clear and neat. Many of the other manuscripts we’ve surveyed have been substantially larger and would be easier to prop open on a table for kitchen use.
Although this manuscript is specifically designed as a book for women, it was likely written by a man. After all, the volume is modeled on Hugh Plat’s Delightes for Ladies (1602) which you can read about in more detail here. The introductory letter, partially missing from the manuscript, is signed by a Jose: Lovett (sic) and the hand is consistent throughout. This led the Penn cataloger to suggest that this may be Lovett’s book and written in his hand. However, the back of this book contains a reverse recipe book in a few hands signed “Mabella Powell Her Booke.”
Regardless of who wrote the bulk of this book, Mabella Powell was an owner, composer, and reader of its recipes.
Cooking in the Archives
My collaborator Alyssa Connell and I are scholars of English literature and avid home cooks. As graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania who frequented Penn’s Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts, we also knew that the collection housed a significant and fully-digitized collection of manuscript recipe books. Whenever we transcribed recipes from the collection at meetings of the Paleography Workshop—a group designed to teach graduate students to read medieval and early modern handwriting in preparation for trips to the archives—we wondered what it would be like to try to cook the recipes we had deciphered. At Penn, we heard scholars like Rebecca LaRoche and Wendy Wall give brilliant talks on early modern recipes, women’s botanical and culinary knowledge, and English literature. Eventually we took the plunge. We wrote a grant application for Penn’s GAPSA-Provost Fellowship in Interdisciplinary Innovation that tentatively laid out the project and were awarded a joint, summer-long fellowship. We launched Cooking in the Archives: Updating Early Modern Recipes (1600-1800) in June 2014.
We see this project as facilitating a different kind of access to an archive than the simple distribution of digital images of an early modern manuscript allows. By transcribing these recipes we’ve made them useful and public to a range of scholars and interested individuals who might struggle to read the old style of handwriting. We add an additional layer of contextual information in our posts by defining terms, locating variant spellings for ingredients, defining quantities, and establishing reasonable cooking times. Furthermore, by updating these narrative recipes into the more familiar ingredients and methods format of a twenty-first-century recipe, we’ve rendered them more easily usable in our own kitchens and the kitchens of our readers.
The process of updating that we engage in is always determined by taste. We’re both drawn to recipes that sound tasty to us. But we also challenge ourselves, and one another, to take risks. Sometimes we’re surprised and delighted by a recipe such as Carrot Pudding; other experiments, Fish Custard comes to mind, were less successful in method and in taste. We are committed to a process of updating, rather than reenacting. And we hope our taste-buds and curiosity will lead us to many more good meals.
To make maccarons
of valentia Almonds
Take one pound of blanched al-
monds and beat them in a marble
mortor with a woden pestill and in
beating of them now and then
about 12 times drop into them
a sponfull of red Rose water and
and when thay are small beaten
put into them one li [pound] of fine suger
well beaten & searsed then take
one grane of muske and a little
amber greece or siuet and dissolue
it in a little Red rose water
and mingled well a mongst it
then take up your past into a faire
Silu[er] or pewter dish and spread
it with a spoone all ouer the
dish and set it in an ouen
when your bread is new drawne &
when it dryes and begines to looke
white upon the topp then stirr it
& spread it againe and soe use it halfe
a dozen times and within one halfe
quarter of an howre it will bee drye
enough then take the whits of halfe
a dozen new layd eggs and straine
them through a fine Cloth and beat
them alittle and then mingle them
with the almonds & suger & soe
with a little slice lay them upon
a sheete of pure whit papor & set
them in the ouen, the ouen being
then in the sme temper it was in
when bread was newly drawne out
of it, and lay under them for feare
of borning some plate or some such
thing and soe bake them and keepe
them for your use in some cobbord
or some box not farr from the
This is a fairly simple recipe and the method for cooking it is explained in great detail. It’s rare to see such specific instructions for the oven heat or cookie storage. Beyond halving the quantity I made very few changes.
1 1/3 C ground almonds (1/2 lb)
rosewater (1-2 T total)
2 T butter
1/2 C sugar
3 egg whites, lightly beaten
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Mix ground almonds with 6 drops rosewater stirring the mix after each drop (approximately 1T total.) Melt butter with a drop of rosewater. Stir aromatic butter into the ground almonds mix. Stir in sugar.
Spread the mixture on a baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes. Check at 5 minutes and stir to ensure the edges do not burn.
Return the fragrant, toasted almond mix to a mixing bowl. Stir in 3 lightly beaten egg whites. A sticky dough should form. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Use a 1 tsp spoon to scoop this sticky mix onto your baking sheet.
Bake for 15-20 minutes or until the bottom of a macaroon is brown and the top is beginning to brown slightly. Allow to cook for 5-10 minutes before eating. Although they will smell incredibly tempting.
Ladies (and gentlemen) these macaroons are delicious. They are fragrant and nutty. When I served them at a holiday party, my guests simply devoured them. But they are just as nice to eat in a more solitary manner with a nice cup of tea.
Since I used store-bought ground almonds, I imagine my mix was much less oily than it would be if ground from fresh almonds. I added 2T of butter to restore that oil and compensate for not using greasy ambergris, suet, or musk as suggested. The recipe talks about slicing, but there was no way I could slice my sticky cookie mix.
While I think that toasting the almond mix deepened the flavor, I think you could skip that step if you were in a hurry or concerned about burning the mix. However, I think either baking parchment or a very well-greased pan is essential to getting these cookies onto a plate in one piece.
Try them with whole almonds or ground, with orange blossom water or other spices.
ABOPublic had a chance to preview the recipe and it was delicious. In addition to the original recipe, I (Alaina Pincus, lead editor) also tried a variation in case some of my taste testers (read: unsuspecting friends and party guests) weren’t keen on the flavor of rose water. So, I substituted the rose water with orange blossom water and added 1T of dried orange peel. Fresh orange zest would make a good alternative to dried, although you will need 2-3 T or the zest of 1 medium sized orange to get the same orange flavor. I also considered a third variation using candied ginger, but didn’t have a chance to try it. As a side note: I ground my own almonds but still used the melted butter and the cookies were quite moist. I also tried to pipe the cookies onto the baking sheet by cutting the corner off a ziploc bag and using it as a pastry bag, which failed epically. Perhaps if my almonds were more finely ground it would have worked better, so if anyone makes this recipe and pipes successfully, be sure to let us know!