Drop biscuit; or, here’s something my indentured cook prepared earlier

Mary Randolph (1762-1828) was born into a notable Virginia family, with roots extending all the way to the union of Pocahontas and John Rolfe. Her father was a politician and her brother married the daughter of Thomas Jefferson. In the time-honoured tradition of notable families, Mary married her cousin, thus ensuring that she remained Mary Randolph after her nuptials too. The couple ran a plantation in Virginia at first, but then built a house in Richmond. Financial difficulties forced them to open a boarding house before finally moving in with one of their children. Throughout all, the Randolph dining room was considered an excellent place to spend time, and shortly before her death Mary Randolph decided to publish her knowledge in “The Virginia Housewife: or, Methodical Cook”. Her cooking may have been so popular because she advised her readers to only cook vegetables until they were crispy, rather than the usual advice of “boil your asparagus for 15 minutes”.

Method is what Mrs. Randolph was all about. In her preface and introduction, Randolph stresses the importance of precise recipes to allow the housewife to plan the cooking economically. The house should be run according to a regular system: “If the mistress of a family, will every morning examine minutely the different departments of her household, she must detect errors in their infant state, when they can be corrected with ease; but a few days’ growth gives them gigantic strenght: and disorder, with all her attendant evils, are introduced.” Rise early, Randolph advises, otherwise your whole day will be out of sorts – in “complete derangement.” I wish she wasn’t so correct on that point, dammit.

Randolph’s introduction to the book offers a fascinating insight into who actually did what in her household. While the servants have breakfast, the mistress of the house arranges the salt cellar, pickle jars, mustard and whatnot, because this way “they are in much better order than they would be if left to the servants.” The cook then cleans up, and the mistress goes in “to give her orders”. Everything intended for dinner is brought for the mistress to inspect and the ingredients are measured out and given to the cook. It’s important, Randolph adds, that the mistress supervises this: “we have no right to expect slaves or hired servants to be more attentive to our interests than we ourselves are.” Attention to detail will create a home where husbands are pleased, sons grow up moral, and daughters learn to run a house equally pleasing to their husbands in the future.

I think it’s fairly safe to say that Mary Randolph, and her intended audience, did not do any of the actual cooking. That would have been left to women like Mrs. Fisher. Randolph’s division of labour is clear – a diligent mistress of the house overseeing the untrustworthy slaves is the ideal situation.

So what is Mrs. Randolph carefully instructing her cook to make today? Well, something rather simple – as simple a biscuit as you can imagine, actually, with only three ingredients. Drop biscuits are, I suppose, any biscuits where you can just drop your batter onto a tin sheet rather than cutting out shapes. Most recipes online have more ingredients, though – this recipe leaves out butter, any and all flavourings, and uses no leavening agent.

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I make that 8 eggs, 450g flour and 340g sugar. I used plain white sugar.

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What you need.

That’s a lot of eggs. Also, I hide my sugar in the green jar and flour in the blue one.

Beating eight eggs until they are very light takes a nice set of arm muscles, or, if you’re me, a handy-dandy electric whisk. I may be recreating old recipes, but there are limits to my dedication. Whisk your eggs however you wish, then add the other ingredients but stop whisking and stir instead. I ended up with a very runny batter, perfectly suitable for dropping. I interpreted “a quick oven” as “very hot”, so went with 225 degrees C. 8-10 minutes did the trick.

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They may not be pretty, but I can always blame my slave cook for that.

What we have here is a quick and simple cookie, very plain in flavour but with an nice chewy texture. I can imagine these being a favourite with the kids on a plantation, something that the cook could stick in their hand and send them on their way. My kids certainly enjoyed them, although for my part I would add something to pep them up a bit. Lemon rind, perhaps, or cinnamon.

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My two-year-old daughter found the cookies. She either didn’t like them but tried them all to be sure, or she liked them so much she decided to reserve them for herself, the only way she knew how.

Poulet à la Marengo; or, butterless Napoleon

Mrs Beeton is the go-to lady when it comes to all things pertaining to Victorian household management. One could say she wrote the book on the subject.

Which you definitely could, because she did.

Isabella Beeton (1836-1865) worked as a journalist for her husband’s publication “The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine”. She wrote a cookery column, publishing recipes garnered from various sources such as friends, readers’ letters and previously published recipe books. Her column proved so popular that she collected her newspaper columns first into monthy supplements for the newspaper, and then into an actual book. “Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management” was published in 1861.

At a whopping 2751 entries Mrs Beeton’s book covers not just recipes but also general information about foodstuffs, how to manage your household economy, how to care and cook for invalids, how to keep your servants in line and even some notes on legal intricacies.

Beeton’s book has been criticised for heavy-handed plagiarism since most of the recipes have been lifted from somewhere else. That notwithstanding, Beeton’s writing is entertaining and very, very thorough. Many of her recipes are embellished with additional information on where the recipe comes from, how the vegetables used are grown, or how to tell if the fish you buy is fresh or not.

Today’s recipe is entry number 949: poulet à la Marengo, or chicken Marengo. Beeton gives us a little story of how Napoleon was preparing for the Battle of Marengo in Italy, in 1800. The supply wagons hadn’t caught up with the French army yet but Napoleon’s cook had a fowl and needed to cook something out of it – “there was no butter at hand, and unluckily none could be found in the neighbourhood”, which would obviously be a disaster for any serious cook. Luckily oil was found to be a decent substitute, and the cook went on to toss in some garlic and mushrooms, along with a dash of wine, and hey presto, a dish worth naming after a battle. Especially since Napoleon won the battle. “Ever since”, Beeton adds, “a fowl à la Marengo is a favourite dish with all lovers of good cheer.”

There are plenty of modern versions of the recipe around, but they differ in many ways from Beeton’s take on the dish. Most modern recipes add tomatos, crab meat, eggs or olives. Beeton’s version is simple, so much so that even though the story includes wine, her recipe does not.

Ingredients – 1 large fowl, 4 tablespoonfuls of salad oil, 1 tablespoonful of flour, 1 pint of stock, or water, about 20 mushroom-buttons, salt and pepper to taste, 1 teaspoonful of powdered sugar, a very small piece of garlic.
Mode – Cut the fowl into 8 or 10 pieces; put them with the oil into a stewpan, and brown them over a moderate fire; dredge in the above proportion of flour; when that is browned, pour in the stock or water; let it simmer very slowly for rather more than ½ hour, and skim off the fat as it rises to the top; add the mushrooms; season with salt, pepper, garlic, and sugar; take out the fowl, which arrange pyramidically on the dish, with the inferior joints at the bottom. Reduce the sauce by boiling it quickly over the fire, keeping it stirred until sufficiently thick to adhere to the back of a spoon; pour over the fowl, and serve.
Time – Altogether 50 minutes. Average cost – 3s, 6d.
Sufficient for 3 or 4 persons.
Seasonable – at any time.

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Chicken fillets instead of a whole bird. I cheat on occasion.

The recipe requires very little modernisation. Whole chickens aren’t easy to find at the local grocery store here so I used pre-cut fillets. I chose stock instead of water, but in hindsight water may have been just as good. I don’t know what the fat content of a 19th century bird was, but I didn’t need to skim off any fat while this was cooking. I cut the mushrooms into smaller pieces and let them simmer for a while too, even though it doesn’ say anything specific in the recipe. Once I took the chicken out I tried to reduce the sauce just by boiling, but the sauce wasn’t cooperating so I had to resort to corn starch.

I stacked the chicken as best I could and poured the sauce on top. It turned out okay, though not very pyramidical.

imagePictured: not a pyramid.

The taste was perfect, though. Very strong in umami thanks to the stock and the mushrooms, so a little sauce went a long way. In honour of Italy and Marengo and all that I served the chicken with pasta, and my 5-year-old (who hates mushrooms) had a second helping. Now our whole family is ready to defeat the Austrians in battle.

 

Old-Time Ginger Cake

A series of weekends with May Day and Mother’s Day has kept Mrs. Hindle very busy and off the blog, but I’m back now and today I’m joined by Mrs. Fisher, a fascinating woman who has sadly vanished almost completely into the mists of history.

According to scetchy census logs, Abby Fisher was born around 1832 in South Carolina. Listed as the daughter of an African-American mother and a French father, it’s fairly safe to assume that she was born a slave. From what I’ve been able to gather her parents’ names are not given, since Abby Fisher’s maiden name is nowhere to be found. Sometime in the 1860s she married Alabama native Alexander C. Fisher, and she gave birth to eleven children – the 160th and final recipe in her book is for “Pap for Infant Diet”, with which Fisher says she nursed all her children. Whether Abby Fisher was emancipated before or after the civil war, and whether her husband was ever a slave at all, is unclear, but certainly after the civil war ended the family chose to move West. In the late 1870s Abby gave birth to one of her children in Missouri, and in a census in 1880 the Fisher family was living in San Francisco. Abby Fisher was still alive for the 1910 census, but in 1920 her husband is listed as a widower. These are dry facts, but there’s so much one could speculate about. How did the family travel West? Train was an available option, but may have been too expensive. Covered wagons?

And did this happen?

In any case, once in San Fransisco Abby Fisher started a business selling pickles, preserves &c. She received medals for her products at the Sacramento State Fair of 1879 and the San Fransisco Mechanics’ Institute Fair of 1880, which encouraged her to publish her best recipes the next year. She seems to have been somewhat hesitant since, according to her own preface, Abby Fisher could neither read nor write. Her husband had also been “without the advantages of an education”, but it’s still implied that he wrote the book at Abby Fisher’s dictation. The resulting work, “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking”, is a slim and concise collection of 160 recipes covering “an experience of upwards of thirty-five years – in the art of cooking Soups, Gumbos, Terrapin [turtle] Stews, Meat Stews, Baked and Roast Meats, Pastries, Pies and Biscuits, making Jellies, Pickles, Sauces, Ice-Creams and Jams, preserving Fruits”.

I’m not quite brave enough for jellies or jams yet, let alone turtle stew, so my first recipe from Mrs. Fisher’s little book is “Old-Time Ginger Cake”. The recipes don’t list the required ingredients at the beginning, so careful study of the recipe is necessary right from the start.

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I make that:

1 pint or 4,7 dl molasses

1 quart or 1,1 liters flour

½ teacup or 5 tblsp brown sugar

1 teacup or 1½dl or 130 g butter

1 tblsp cinnamon

2 tblsp ginger

1 teacup or 1½ dl sour milk

1 tsp soda

3 eggs

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In other words, this.

Molasses are available in Finland, but only at very specialised stores and I just didn’t have a chance to obtain any, but I did some research and decided dark syrup was an adequate replacement. Dark sugar comes in many shapes and forms, too, so I don’t know which type Fisher would have used. I opted for very slightly refined dry dark sugar. The sour milk in the recipe probably refers to milk that has spoiled a bit, whereas I used fermented milk. Shouldn’t make much of a difference to taste. Baking soda requires an acidic catalyst to make it work, so regular sweet milk would not give the desired result.

After that it’s a pretty straightforward recipe. Cream the sugar and butter, then add the other ingredients. Pour into greased pans, or if you’re as lazy as I am, put baking paper in your pans and then pour in the batter.

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Thusly. In hindsight, I could have taken a photo before putting them in the oven.

The recipe doesn’t specify heat or baking time. I improvised with 175 degrees C and an hour or so of baking time.

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It seemed to work.

The resulting cake wasn’t nearly as gingery as I thought it would be, considering I poured in the entire contents of my ginger jar (note to self: restock ginger jar). It was tasty cake and my friend who actually knows stuff about Southern cooking didn’t sneer at it, so I call it a win.

 

Zucchini chicken; or, things to do with chicken that doesn’t involve marzipan

It’s time for something very different this week – although I’m not sure I can get much different than the chicken and marzipan pie. But I digress. This blog is essentially about recreating old recipes, but I also collect a different type of recipe book, and now we are going to venture into movie star territory with one of my many cookbooks written by actors.

I was delighted to notice, this passing week, that a remake is in the works of “The Magnificent Seven“. The original is a personal favourite of mine, partly because it stars the late great Yul Brynner.

Proving once and for all that toupées are for chumps.

In between starring in a range of excellent movies and playing the King of Siam 4625 times on stage (for the musical The King and I), Brynner penned a cookbook. He called it “Food Fit For the King and You”, because of course he did. The book was published in 1983 and was a collaboration between Brynner and Susan Reed(1).

Brynner’s family background was a mixture of Swiss, German, Russian and Mongolian culture. During his formative years he lived in Russia, China and Paris, as well as on the road with Romani people in France, before emigrating to the USA at the age of 20. All of this gave him a hard-to-pin-down accent and a range of interesting recipes to put down in his book. Brynner’s cookbook has chapters for Russian, Japanese, Gypsy, Swiss, Chinese and French cuisine to reflect his background, and a final chapter on Thai food because playing the King of Thailand in 4625 performance had to have an impact.

Today’s recipe is from the chapter on Gypsy food: zucchini chicken.

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I made a double serving, so this is really twice what you need.

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I had to start by figuring out what a broiler was in this context – I just knew it was a sort of chicken. But it turns out a broiler is also called a salamander, and my oven is equipped with one. I’ve even used it a few times. So start by spicing and broiling your chicken. I had a bit too much chicken to get it all done evenly, but a bit of turning and shifting of chicken breasts did the trick. While the chicken is broiling, chop the vegetables.

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Don’t throw onion peel away – you can dye yarn with it! Better yet, bring it to me so I can dye yarn with it.

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This recipe is chock-full of healthy vegetables! It makes up for all the butter and sugar I use while baking.

Spread the vegetables over the chicken, pour over some chicken stock, and pop it back in the oven, heated to 175 C. The recipe says one hour, but I forgot it in there for a bit longer. Not to worry, the finished product was very pretty, especially after I sprinkled some more fresh oregano on it. It was all worth it to hear my older daughter exclaim, “But moooom, I HATE zucchini!”

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“All that’s what’s on top. What’s underneath?”

I opted not to make gravy, although there would have been plenty of liquid to work with. Instead we just ate it with some cooked barley. Appropriately enough, we watched “The Magnificent Seven” with dinner.

(1) Susan Reed is a common enough name and I found at least a singer and a US district attorney by that name. Goodreads lists several books by Susan Reed. I’m going to go ahead and assume that she also wrote “Delicious Recipes: 55 Cast Iron Cooking Recipes For Healthy and Hearty Meals”, but probably not “The Body Snatchers: A Real Alien Conspiracy”. Although now I want to read that cook book.

Kermakakku; or, Cream cake

To continue my slight journalistic theme from the last post, today’s recipe comes from a book called “Good food. A cookbook for modest households”, though the book is in Finnish so obviously the name is too. The original was published in 1910 by major Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat as a “present book”, probably a freebie to those who subscribed to the newspaper. The cover of the book says it’s a modified translation, but I couldn’t find information about what language it was translated from, and who may have originally written it.

Based on the recipes in the book, a modest household 100 years ago could expect to cook with a variety of meats and vegetables, as well as mushrooms and berries. Many recipes, including the one I try here, calls for jam. Indeed, the book contains more recipes for jams, jellies and preserves than it does for meat or fish. Finland has a strong tradition of foraging, and jams and jellies would have been the preferred method of storing produce before freezers showed up to help.

My lovely, lovely roleplaying group was coming over for a game, and since one player had his birthday I decided to try my hand at a 100-year-old cake. Recipe. 100-year-old cake recipe.

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Cream cake

Ingredients:
4 dl cream or sour cream
3 eggs
The rind of 1/4 lemon
2 tblsp powdered sugar
3 sweet and 2 bitter almonds
1 1/2 dl fine wheat flour(1)

Whisk yolks with sugar for 20 minutes. Whisk cream and add to batter with the lemon rind, peeled and ground almonds and flour. Whisk the egg whites until they are hard and add to the batter. Butter a mold and sprinkle with breadcrumbs. Pour the batter into the mold and bake in a good warm oven for 30-40 minutes. Serve warm with jam.

(1) Interesting side-note: the Finnish original uses a now-obsolete word for wheat, “nisu”. It seems, though, that “nisu” is also Estonian for wheat.

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Here’s what you need. Bitter almonds are not easy to find, so I substituted more sweet almonds, and a few drops of essence of bitter almonds.

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I started by doing a whole lot of whisking. One hundred years ago I would either have had some impressive whisking muscles, or, if my household wasn’t too modest, a maid with some impressive whisking muscles. As it is, I have an electric whisk. With impressive muscles.

What interested me in this recipe was the tiny amount of both sugar and flour – not that I object to either, it was just non-professional curiosity. There was an awful lot of cream in comparison to other ingredients.

So anyway, whisk away and mix the batter, finishing off with the beaten egg-whites. When beating egg-whites, make sure all your utensils are clean and dry, and be advised that you’ll get a better result if you use a metallic mixing bowl rather than a plastic one. There’s some sort of chemistry involved, I don’t quite know, I’m not that sort of scientist.

In this cake, it’s the egg-whites that are supposed to make it fluffy, so be sure to carefully fold them into the batter, and when you place your cake mold in the oven do so gently so you don’t jostle the mold and don’t slam the oven door. When you take all these precautions into account, your cake will, like mine, look wonderfully fluffy when it’s baking, and then immediately fall flat when you pull it out.

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No butter and bread crumbs in my cake mold, I use a silicon one.

No, seriously, Mrs. Hindle can not make a egg-white-fluff cake to save her life. But that will not stand in the way of continued efforts! Especially since, despite a certain deflatedness, this cake turned out very tasty indeed. Not overly sweet, since there was so little sugar, with a nice flavour of bitter almond. Perfect when served warm with jam.

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The birthday hero wasn’t actually going to join us, but then I sent him this picture of the cake and he jumped in the car and showed up.

Spanish toast; or, Rôtis à l’Espagnole

A “picayune” was a small Spanish coin, now obviously obsolete. Between 1793 and 1857 it was legal tender in the USA, worth about 6 cents. The coin lent its name to a newspaper published in New Orleans from 1837 to the present day – a newspaper which obviously originally cost one picayune.

At the turn of the century (the 19th to the 20th, that is), the Picayune newspaper published its own collection of New Orleans cuisine, “The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book” (1900). The work was inspired by the thought that traditional creole cookery, a combination of French and Spanish tradition, was disappearing – “soon will the last of the olden negro cooks of ante-bellum days have passed”, the introduction lamented. The book was popular and a second edition, which I am using a reprinted copy of, was published in 1901. The author of the work is never mentioned.

“The Creole Cook Book” is a wonderful repository of recipes and cultural anecdotes and I will certainly be returning to it. This time around, due to a late night with friends and a somewhat shaky day after, I chose to cook something hangover-friendly. Spanish toast is essentially French toast, but with one important difference:

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You can’t go wrong with rum.

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Here’s what you need.

The recipe calls for one cup (2½ dl) milk and one gill (1,4 dl) rum. Now, I know I just said you can’t go wrong with rum, but you can go wrong with too much rum, so I reduced the amount to about a third of the recommended dosage.

It was perfect. Mix the ingredients and soak your bread slices in the mixture. Unless you really do use stale bread you shouldn’t soak for quite so long. We were starving so we didn’t dry the toast, either, we just sprinkled on some cinnamon and nutmeg and ate it.

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It was good.

Tourte de blanc de Chapon; or, Suspicious pie

We change continents for a moment for good old Europe, specifically France. We also change centuries, to the reign of Louis XV (ruled 1715-1774). In 1767 one of the royal chefs, possibly a man by the name of Moutier (or possibly someone else), had his notes on cooking published in Paris as “Dictionnaire Portatif de Cuisine, D’Office, et de Distillation”. Since I unfortunately do not speak French, I am working with an abridged Finnish translation of said opus.

Louis XV, in stark contrast to his predecessor Louis XIV, preferred to eat simple meals in relatively restricted company. The book is directed to a wealthy clientelle, but emphasises simplicity and healthiness in the recipes offered. The book also contains “doctor’s recommendations” on various foods. Cockerel, the main ingredient in my dish, is recommended as “delicious, tasty, healthy, light and easy to digest” and therefore “suitable for convalescents when they are permitted solid food.”

I chose a somewhat unusual recipe as my first effort from this book, as you’ll notice in a moment. A translation of the recipe goes thus: “Loosen the breast meat and mince it fine with preserved lemon peel and marzipan. Add two yolks and some orange-blossom water and spread the filling onto a thin short pastry. Cook uncovered in the oven and glaze with regular sugar. When serving, sprinkle with some more orange-flower water.”

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That made you raise an eyebrow, didn’t it? It made me raise an eyebrow, and I decided it had to be done. At least once.

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What you need. I replaced preserved lemon peel with fresh grated peel.

I used about 400g of chicken (alas, no cockerel to be had at the shop, just broiler), 150g marzipan, the peel from one lemon, and about 2 tablespoons of orange-flower water – although I must admit I just poured some in until I though it smelled strong enough. I put the meat and other ingredients through a blender. I assume you would originally have used a mortar and pestle, but that’s not going to happen in my kitchen. Anyway, I then made the mistake of sniffing the product. Not good. The mixture of raw chicken and orange-blossom water (which gave me a very strong Eau-de-Cologne-flashback) was not pleasant.

But I soldiered on!

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It wasn’t easy.

I spread the meaty filling onto some short pastry, as instructed, and popped it into an oven pre-heated to 220 degrees C. About 20 minutes in I sprinkled the pie liberally with sugar and popped it under the grill for a few minutes to melt the sugar nicely. I’m not sure what the original recipe refers to when it speaks of glazing with sugar, but this was my interpretation and it certainly gave the pie a pretty crust.

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If you squint, you can almost pretend it’s not suspicious.

The finished product smelled quite nice, and I felt momentarily heartened. I splashed some more orange-blossom water onto it and served it up.

We were having a little litterary soiré that evening and I decided to subject my innocent guests to this monstrosity without actually telling them what was in it (apart from warning the vegetarians not to touch it). Many guests commented on the discrepancy between taste and texture. The pie tasted like a sweet pie, although one guest added “more sugar would help“, and many complimented the pleasant cooperation between marzipan and orange-blossom water. The texture, though, was definitely chicken, and more than a little unnerving. Opinions were divided – I couldn’t stomach the pie at all, but others found it “weird and suspicous, but goooood” or at least “not terrible, but still…

Now, Louis XV may well have dined on this. He may have shared a piece with Madame du Barry (probably not Madame Pompadour, she died many years before the book was published). If you want to try making it, you can at least say you’ve eaten something fit for a king. But I wouldn’t recommend it. If I ever revisit this recipe, I’ll be replacing the chicken with something else. I don’t know what. Anything else. The only thing worth salvaging is the orange-blossom-marzipan combo.

I’ll let the final word go to this commentator: “A vivacious clash of flavours with a picaresque [roguish] aftertaste which truly invokes the political cynicism of Antoinette-era France.

 ***

Ingredients:

Short pastry

400 g chicken breast

150 g marzipan

The grated peel of one lemon

2 tbsp orange-blossom water, plus some to serve

2 egg yolks

4 tbsp sugar