Cookbooking with Karl

By Karl Wells for Atlantic Books Today Magazine (2019)

The other day I watched a couple of episodes of an old BBC series called, The Victorian Kitchen. One featured the preparation of a Victorian breakfast, the other, a supper. Victorians favoured meals of volume and variety but, for the most part, ingredients were easy to source and simply prepared. Breakfast included fried mushrooms, boiled eggs, fried bacon and eggs, toast, and grilled lamb kidneys on buttered toast. Supper was chicken soup, boiled ham, beef tongue (Victorians loved offal) salads and fresh raspberry jelly.

Watching The Victorian Kitchen got me thinking about how different things are for home cooks today. Apart from the godsend of electric appliances, we’re swamped by an ocean of choice. It seems every time I visit the supermarket it’s selling yet another variety of fruit or vegetable, a new flavour, new blend of this or that. The same goes for wine, spirits and beer. I nearly fell over the other day when I saw Crown Royal Peach Whiskey at the liquor store. (Peach? Since when does whiskey come in ice cream flavours?)

As much as I enjoy this bounty (apart from bizarrely flavoured things that make me slightly queasy) there’s a lot to be said for keeping things simple, for enjoying the taste of something the way Mother Nature (or Sam Bronfman) made it. That’s the message I take from two new cookbooks: Agnes Ayre’s Notebook – Recipes from Old St. John’s by Roger Pickavance and Agnes Marion Murphy and East Coast Favourite Fishcakes – Plus Baked Beans and Other Great Accompaniments, as collected from cookbooks published by Formac Publishing.

Agnes Ayre was born in St. John’s during the Victorian era. She had many interests. Cooking wasn’t one of them; but she did keep a notebook during the early 20th Century with recipes that appealed to her. The recipes came from various sources, including newspapers and advertising material. Pickavance and Murphy suggest that Mrs. Ayre collected the recipes for her cook to use when preparing meals for the Ayre family. (At that time, it was quite common for the well-heeled to employ a cook and one or two servants.)

Meatloaf was the final recipe in Agnes Ayre’s Notebook, and it was the first one I wanted to try. Unlike most meatloaf recipes, it called for the meat mixture to be steamed and then baked. I was curious to see what the resulting loaf would be like after two hours of steaming and one hour of baking (to brown it.) Would the effort be worth it?

I anticipated that the meatloaf’s juiciness and texture would differ from a standard loaf baked in a moderate oven for an hour, turning out tender enough to be broken effortlessly with a fork. Mrs. Ayre’s meatloaf was indeed different. It was dense and firm and had developed a very dark exterior. (I’d suggest 30 min. of browning is enough.) When cut with a sharp knife, each slice boasted a clean, smooth-as-marble surface. In appearance it looked more like terrine than meatloaf.

Unlike regular meatloaf, Ayre’s loaf could be sliced relatively thinly without difficulty. I tasted it both hot and cold, preferring cold slices. The taste is much improved when served with condiments such as pickles, relish and mustard. Mostly I enjoyed it in cold sandwiches, on fresh white bread, with mustard or mayonnaise. That alone (being a great sandwich filling) made the cooking effort worthwhile.

The curious recipe name, Canada’s War Cake, intrigued me. During WWI, Canadians and pre-confederation Newfoundlanders were encouraged to bake cakes that only contained the few readily available wartime ingredients. Because no eggs or dairy were involved, the cake had the additional quality of lasting longer. This meant it could be shipped overseas to our military personnel. It’s a delicious recipe, so I’m quite sure our boys at the front were delighted with this special treat from home.

While the cake didn’t contain milk or eggs, enough moisture came from water, raisins and lard. It tasted sweet and spicy and went well with tea and coffee. I brought the cake to a social function where it was served afterward with coffee. Canada’s War Cake received rave reviews. One person even asked for the recipe. I did find the cake to be rather flat, only about two inches high. Next time I’ll try the authors’ height remedy: double the recipe for a taller, more eye appealing result.

I tackled another kind of spicy cake when I decided to try Cornmeal Crusted Salmon Cakes from East Coast Favourite Fishcakes. This time I didn’t follow the recipe to the letter. It’s important for home cooks to understand that no recipe is written in stone. Unless tricky chemical reactions are involved, most recipes can be changed. This was a case of my wanting the herbs and spices on the inside of the salmon cakes, as opposed to covering them.

The salmon cakes recipe called for the cake mixture to be salmon, breadcrumbs, green onions, garlic, egg whites and pepper. All accents such as tarragon, cinnamon and cumin were included as part of the cornmeal coating. I instead stirred them into the cake mixture. I wanted those flavours to permeate the flesh of the salmon. You might prefer to follow the recipe as written. I’m simply using my experience as an example of how recipes can be tweaked to appeal to personal taste.

Fishcakes taste better when served with a zesty accompaniment. East Coast Favourite Fishcakes provides a dandy recipe, Apricot and Currant Chutney. I’d never made chutney; but this recipe was as easy as they come. You simply place the fruity, nutty ingredients, including a cup of white wine and 1/2 cup of vinegar in a saucepan. Boil, simmer and cool. A bite of salmon cake with soupçon of chutney left no doubt about why the two recipes appeared on the same page. These two were meant to go together. I recommend making the chutney a day ahead. The flavours will be more developed and it’ll taste twice as good.

There was no elaborate dance involved in making any of these recipes, just a modest handful of steps. Often, it’s the simplest dance, the shortest poem, and the easiest recipe that brings the most enjoyment.