Crayfish Gloucester (1934)

A tasty luncheon dish of crayfish and lobster, courtesy of "Elsie de Wolfe's Recipes for Successful Dining".

The most wonderful thing about reading old cookery books is the social-history aspect. One learns so much about other times: how people lived, how they dined, how they entertained. And very often one comes across a name that is half-forgotten now, at least in some circles, especially so in books peppered with recipes submitted by the author’s friends. Elsie de Wolfe’s Recipes for Successful Dining, published in 1934, is rich with names, from titled European aristocrats to obscure American socialites, names that will send you straight to Google to learn more. Such as Henry Davis Sleeper.

The Golden Step Room at Beauport, in Gloucester Massachusetts, the summer home of Henry Davis Sleeper.

Not long ago my husband and I decided to delve once again into de Wolfe’s famous compendium, and we chose to try Crayfish Gloucester, a recipe given her by Sleeper, who lived in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The name of this influential bachelor aesthete is little know today outside of design-groupie circles but Sleeper (1878—1934) was an antiquarian extraordinaire and an adventuresome decorator to boot, a man whose passion for historic design and architecture informed Beauport, the eccentric and inspiring 56-room house he built on Boston’s North Shore in increasingly elaborate stages between 1907 and 1929. After serving as director of the Paris office of American Field Service during World War One, the energetic Sleeper returned to the United States and became an integral part of the burgeoning historic-preservation movement, advising on landmark sites as well as decorating for clients passionate about America’s past, including museum founder Henry Francis du Pont, millionaire F. Frazier Jelke, and chemicals magnate R. T. Vanderbilt. Sleeper’s incredible story has not been told at book length, however, and further complicating matters is the discreet veil that has been drawn over his personal life. Only last fall, for example, has his homosexuality become part of the public-tour narrative at Beauport. Luckily Philip A. Hayden, an architectural historian and independent scholar, has been labouring away on the first-ever Sleeper biography, a book whose publication I await with bated breath. Until then, click here to read more about Sleeper, his life, and his extraordinary residence.

An oil portrait of Henry Davis Sleeper.

In addition to creating inventive rooms out of recycled materials saved from historic houses slated for demolition, Sleeper was a terrific host, and Crayfish Gloucester was a dish he served frequently at Beauport, where the guest list included Elsie de Wolfe, artist Cecilia Beaux, inventor John Hays Hammond, King Gustav of Sweden, and the redoubtable art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner. It’s easy to see why that particular recipe was popular in Sleeper’s household—it’s creamy, spicy, and refreshingly cool. Unfortunately the recipe is frustratingly vague when it comes to proportions, so you’ll just have to do a bit of guesswork like we did to determine the per-person proportions. The effort will be worth it. FYI: You can also use frozen or otherwise prepared lobster meat to make the preparation easier.

CRAYFISH GLOUCESTER

SOURCE: Elsie de Wolfe’s Recipes for Successful Dining (1934)

DIRECTIONS

Cook crayfish in boiling salted water for 5 minutes. Cook small lobsters in a court bouillon for 12 to 15 minutes or a large one for 25 minutes. When cold cut the lobster meat into pieces and mix with the meat of the crayfish and a mayonnaise dressing to which have been added a teaspoonful of chili sauce and a dash of paprika. Serve in crystal cups garnishing with a circle of lettuce leaves. Decorate the top with the red portions of the crayfish. Serve very cold.

Chicken à la King (Elsie de Wolfe)

A bit messily presented: Chicken à la King from "Elsie de Wolfe's Recipes for Successful Dining" (1934).

Anyone who reads this blog knows I have a weakness for creamy foods. There just something about the texture of a recipe incorporating butter and cream that is terrifically fulfilling, both emotionally and gustatorially—the richness, the aroma, the calories. Since my family doesn’t devour such ingredients every day, I don’t mind serving one extravagant dish a week. Last night it was Chicken à la King from Elsie de Wolfe’s Recipes for Successful Dining (1934).

The origins of this dish are obscure, and numerous stories about its invention abound. Some sources date the creation of this chicken, cream, and sherry concoction to the 1880s or 1890s, either at Claridge’s in London or Delmonico’s in New York City, where it was reportedly known as Chicken à la Keene, after its honoree, a wealthy American. One site states the likeliest genesis story is that it was invented around 1900 at the Brighton Beach Hotel at Brighton Beach, Long Island, New York, and named for the hotel’s owner, E. Clark King (the original recipe from that source is published here, right below de Wolfe’s version). Yet another source, a 1912 advertisement in Good Housekeeping magazine for Purity Cross canned chicken à la king, gives credit to the chef at the Ritz in Paris, who reportedly prepared it for Edward VII of Great Britain, using the monarch’s own recipe.

Whatever the truth, as Calvin Trillin once noted, chicken à la king (or Keene) was eaten a lot by “rich people of the sort who were listed in the social register.” Good Housekeeping, in 1916, called it “a very aristocratic and delectable supper dish.” It didn’t take long, however, for it to become a staple at women’s clubs, mess halls, and board luncheons all across the United States. And for good reason—it’s simple to prepare, is a great use of leftover chicken or turkey, and is one of the world’s finest comfort foods. Somewhere along the way cayenne pepper crept into the ingredients, though usually specified as “a few grains,” which really doesn’t do much. I gave Elsie de Wolfe’s Chicken à la King recipe a couple of healthy shakes of cayenne pepper, which gave it a welcome kick that was deemed acceptable by all, even our usually spice-averse daughter. I did not, however, garnish it with sliced truffles. Alas, I was fresh out of that particular fungi.

CHICKEN A LA KING

SOURCE: Elsie de Wolfe’s Recipes for Successful Dining (1934)

SERVES 4

INGREDIENTS

6 [white] mushrooms

1 green pimento [I used red, since it was all I could find at the grocer]

2 ounces unsalted butter

White meat of a cooked chicken, cut into good-sized dice

2 tablespoons sherry

1/2 pint heavy cream, plus 2 teaspoons

1 egg yolk

Salt

Pepper

Cayenne

4 slices white bread, toasted and buttered

1 truffle, thinly sliced [I didn’t have one of these around for garnish]

DIRECTIONS

Slice the mushrooms and pimento into thin, long strips. Place in sauce-pan with butter. Cover the pan and cook over a low flame for 5 minutes. Add the chicken, sherry, and 1/2 pint of cream. Cook for 5 more minutes. Mix the yolk with the 2 teaspoons cream and add at the last moment of cooking, stirring it in thoroughly. Do not allow the mixture to boil after the egg has been added. Remove from heat, season with salt, pepper, and cayenne to taste, and serve over slices of hot buttered toast.

CHICKEN A LA KING

SOURCE: The New York Times, 14 April 1980, an article by Craig Claiborne citing a circa-1900 brochure from the Brighton Beach Hotel.

“Melt two tablespoons of butter and add one-half of a green pepper shredded and one cup of mushrooms sliced thin. Stir and cook five minutes and then add two level tablespoonfuls of flour and a half teaspoonful of salt. Cook until frothy and then add one pint of cream and stir until the sauce thickens. Put this all in a double boiler, add three cups of chicken cut into pieces and let stand to get very hot. In the meantime, take a quarter of a cup of butter and beat into the yolks of three eggs, one teaspoonful of onion juice, one tablespoonful of lemon juice and one-half teaspoonful of paprika. Stir this mixture until the eggs thicken a little; add a little sherry and finally  shredded pimento before serving on toast.”

Vegetables by Elsie

Fried Tomatoes and Courgettes from the pages of "Elsie de Wolfe's Recipes for Successful Dining". The slightly chipped white platter is vintage ironstone.

Breading vegetables is something I find rather odd. I much prefer vegetables as close to their natural state as possible—simple, direct, and tasting of the garden. The decorator and hostess Elsie de Wolfe seems to have been of similar mind, given the relatively uncomplicated vegetable dishes featured in her cookery book, Elsie de Wolfe’s Recipes for Successful Dining (William-Frederick Press, 1947).

One extremely basic side dish from its pages is Fried Tomatoes and Courgettes (that’s zucchinis to those of us living in the United States). The vegetables are lightly breaded and end up looking a bit messy when cooked as directed but the untidy result is admirable, the bread crumbs adding a satisfying crunchiness that marries well with the tender tomatoes and courgettes. De Wolfe’s cookery book directs that the vegetables be mixed and cooked together; we decided that would be unattractive, so chose to cook them separately and combine them on the plates at serving time. It just looks nicer, I think.

My husband and I enjoyed this side dish immensely. Our daughter, aged eight, was more critical. “Tomatoes and bread crumbs shouldn’t be together,” she said after a moment’s pondering. “But they are good on the courgettes.”

FRIED TOMATOES AND COURGETTES

SOURCE: Elsie de Wolfe’s Recipes for Successful Dining (William-Frederick Press, 1947)

SERVES 4 PERSONS

INGREDIENTS

3 medium courgettes [zucchinis]

3 large tomatoes

Bread crumbs

Salt and pepper

Unsalted butter

DIRECTIONS

First, remove the skins of the tomatoes. Do this by cutting Xs into the bottoms of the tomatoes and then immersing them in a pot of boiling water for 15 seconds. With a slotted spoon transfer them to a bowl of cold water. When cool enough to handle peel off the skins, starting at the X, and slice the tomatoes in pieces the shape of orange sections (not rounds). Set aside.

Peel the courgettes and cut into slices of the same shape as the tomatoes. Set aside.

Roll or gently toss the courgettes and tomatoes in fresh bread crumbs seasoned well with salt and pepper.

Fry in plenty of butter until well done.

The Best Biscuits in Town

Mrs. Alfred Anson's Hot Buttered Biscuits, straight from the pages of Elsie de Wolfe's Recipes for Successful Dining. Try to ignore the lumpy example at the right. The perfection of the center biscuit is what the recipe actually ends up producing.

The 1934 cookery book Elsie de Wolfe’s Recipes for Successful Dining is a sort of Social Register for the kitchen, since its pages incorporate numerous dishes from the American interior decorator’s Café Society friends. Even the most humble recipes can have a grand provenance, such as Hot Buttered Biscuits, courtesy of a Paris-based hostess, the Honourable Mrs Alfred Anson.

An American general’s daughter who married into a Cincinnati real-estate fortune, Lela Alexander Emery Anson (1870-1953) was best known as the mother of two glamorous heiresses: Lela Emery and her younger sister Audrey. The latter sparked headlines in 1926 by becoming the morganatic wife of Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich of Russia, Emperor Nicholas II’s cousin, a dashing Champagne salesman who famously took part in the murder of the monk Rasputin. Lela, for her part, scored a Scottish military officer and later the 7th and last Duc de Talleyrand, eventually setting up housekeeping in Edith Wharton’s former country house, Pavillon Colombe. Before these young women embarked on their marital alliances, however, their widowed mother captured the son of a British earl as her second spouse and made a name as a transatlantic hostess—and presumably delighted family and friends at her homes in New York City, Paris, Bar Harbor, Palm Beach, and Biarritz with her hot buttered biscuits. She evidently had philanthropic interests as well, giving the Metropolitan Museum of Art its first 18th-century French room in 1945.

Mrs. Anson's Hot Buttered Biscuits, hot from the oven. As you can see the eight biscuits I cut first are perfect; the biscuits cut from the combined trimmings are a bit awkward in looks.

Made with lard and about two inches in diameter—we couldn’t find the small round biscuit cutter the recipe specifies so used Catherine’s silver christening cup instead—Lela Anson’s biscuits possess all the standard classic properties. They rise swiftly and split almost on their own in the oven, have a delicately powdery crust, and a moist tender interior made even more delectable thanks to an unusual direction: the dough is meant to be buttered before it is rolled. They are also incredibly pretty, at least the first batch was. After cutting out eight perfect biscuits I combined the trimmings left over to stretch the recipe but the results were a bit lumpen.

“Good old-fashion biscuits are a lost art,” my husband said, reaching for another, adding, “They are the best I ever had, even better than my mother’s.” Our eight-year-old daughter concurred, munching two in rapid succession. “It was soft when I chewed it,” she observed after downing the initial one. “It has the right taste and a nice texture.” In the recipe below our adaptations/comments are placed in brackets.

We would like to thank Josh Kilmer-Purcell and Dr. Brent Ridge of Beekman 1802 for providing the home-rendered lard.

HOT BUTTERED BISCUITS

Recipe by The Hon. Mrs. Alfred Anson, Paris, France

SOURCE: Elsie de Wolfe’s Recipes For Successful Dining

MAKES 12 TO 14 BISCUITS

INGREDIENTS

1 cup milk and [heavy] cream mixed

1/2 cup lard [softened]

2 tablespoons butter [softened]

2-3/4 cups [all-purpose] flour

2-1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon [sea] salt

DIRECTIONS

Mix butter, lard, salt, and baking powder well with fingers. [Have a spatula handy to scrap the lard mixture off your fingers back into the bowl.] Add milk and, last, all but a little of the flour. Do not touch with hands. [Use a wood spoon to mix everything as thoroughly as you can.] Sift biscuit board with flour, place dough on it, and pat as you do pastry. [This means patting, folding into thirds, and gently pressing into a thick rectangle. Do this a couple of times.] Butter [the side facing up] with 1 teaspoon butter and roll with pin. Turn to other side, pat with fingers, and add flour not used. The dough should be about 1 inch thick. Cut with biscuit cutter (small) and prick with fork. [Combine dough trimmings left over and cut more biscuits if you wish, though these will likely not be as pretty as the first batch.] Bake in a very hot [425-degree Fahrenheit] oven [for 10 to 12 minutes, until very lightly browned.] Split, butter, and serve at once.

As the biscuits rise in the oven, they almost split themselves.

Cherries, Elsie Style

Elsie de Wolfe's Flaming Cherries, halfway to completion.

Any recipe involving liquor and a match makes dinner a celebration. One of the easiest desserts involving these two elements is Flaming Cherries from Elsie de Wolfe’s Recipes for Successful Dining. As the ending to an evening meal it is simple, basic, and good, a sophisticated version of nursery food.

Flaming Cherries, ready to eat.

Below is de Wolfe’s recipe. Following that is our seat-of-the-pants adaptation, using E & J brandy (my husband called it “wino quality”), canned Bing cherries, and Nuyens Wisniowka, a cherry cordial we found on the bottom shelf of our bar, hidden so well it had a coating of dust. Feel free to substitute our happenstance ingredients with anything suitable that happens to be hanging around your pantry. Our daughter’s verdict? “I didn’t like the cherries but the cherry sauce with the vanilla ice-cream tasted good.” Oh, and in case anybody’s wondering, her serving of ice cream was topped with three cherries without the cherry-liqueur addition.

FLAMING CHERRIES

SOURCE: Elsie de Wolfe’s Recipes for Successful Dining (The William-Frederick Press, 1947)

Take a bottle of very best conserved red cherries and heat well. Add a large wine glass of brandy and set aflame. When flame has died down, add a small glass of Kirsch liqueur. Serve hot with vanilla ice-cream.

FLAMING CHERRIES

ADAPTED BY THE AESTHETE COOKS

SERVES 6

INGREDIENTS

An 8-ounce can Bing cherries, drained

1 cup E & J brandy

1/4 cup of Nuyens Wisniowka cherry liqueur

Vanilla ice cream

DIRECTIONS

Heat the cherries in a skillet over a medium-high heat. Add the brandy and carefully light. When the flames subside, add the cherry liqueur. Spoon the hot cherries over ice cream and serve.

The Cocktail Hour

Friends chatting, lemons being sliced, the pop of a Champagne cork, the frosty hymn of ice being jostled in a silvery shaker—these are the sounds of pre-prandial conviviality. But one’s cocktail hour needs worthy hors d’oeuvre to round it out, making it a handsome introduction to the meal that follows. Think of hors d’oeuvre as a culinary greeting, the first step in a stylish yet relaxing evening. Which means a bit more than handing ‘round a bowl of cheddar-cheese goldfish crackers and hoping for the best.

Over the Christmas holiday we gave a small dinner party, inviting a couple of close friends and my mother-in-law. As snow fell we gathered in the living room for what Hyacinth Bucket of the uproarious British sitcom “Keeping Up Appearances” doubtless would primly but proudly call “canapés and light refreshments.” In advance of that evening my husband and I thumbed through Elsie de Wolfe’s Recipes for Successful Dining (1934) in search of pleasing period snacks. We settled on Hungarian Cheese Squares and Olives Wrapped in Bacon, for no more compelling reason than that they sounded easy to prepare and appetizing. And, yes, they were, on both counts.

Enlivened with cayenne pepper and paprika (the latter being the only Hungarian characteristic about it, as far as I can tell) and served on bite-size squares of well-toasted bread, the cheese squares were a big hit. The cheesy spread provided a smooth contrast to the crisp toast, and the cayenne (not too much, mind you) brought a tingle to everyone’s lips. The bacon-wrapped olives are a variation on the classic devils-on-horseback—dates wrapped in bacon and grilled in the oven—though intriguingly different. The extra-large olives gave this particular hors d’oeuvre a sharp green undertone and the roasted almonds added a satisfyingly earthy crunch. Devils-on-horseback are still my personal preference (I love the combination of sweet and salt) but I’ll serve Elsie de Wolfe’s version again, since it proved popular with the gentlemen at our table.

Below are the original recipes as given in Elsie de Wolfe’s long-ago book, followed by our adaptations.

OLIVES WRAPPED IN BACON

SOURCE: Elsie de Wolfe’s Recipes for Successful Dining (1934)

Insert roasted almonds in olives from which the stones have been removed. Wrap each olive in a small strip of bacon and secure with a toothpick. Grill in oven until the bacon is a good brown, and serve hot.

OLIVES WRAPPED IN BACON

Adapted by The Aesthete Cooks

Serves 12 (2 per person)

INGREDIENTS

24 extra-large green olives, pitted

24 whole roasted almonds

12 slices of lean bacon, cut in half

The bacon-wrapped olives ready for the oven.

DIRECTIONS

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Stuff each olive with an almond, then wrap with a half-slice of bacon secured with a toothpick. Place the stuffed olives on a baking sheet and place in oven until the bacon is thoroughly cooked but not crisp. Serve immediately.

The baked bacon-wrapped olives, ready to serve.

HUNGARIAN CHEESE SQUARES

SOURCE: Elsie de Wolfe’s Recipes for Successful Dining (1934)

Knead in a bowl the quantity required of cream cheese, mixing it with salt, pepper, finely chopped raw onion, enough mild paprika to bring the mixture to a salmon pink color, olives that have been peeled and finely chopped, and enough cayenne pepper to make it sufficiently hot. Place on two-inch squares of buttered sandwich bread, and garnish with a slice of stuffed olive.

HUNGARIAN CHEESE SQUARES

Adapted by The Aesthete Cooks

Makes 48 hors d’oeuvre

INGREDIENTS

12 slices of sandwich bread, white or whole wheat

1 eight-ounce package Philadelphia cream cheese, softened

1/3 large white onion, minced

12 small green olives, minced

Pimento-stuffed green olives

Paprika

Cayenne pepper

Salt

Pepper

DIRECTIONS

STEP ONE

Toast the bread and trim off and discard the crusts. Cut the toast into quarters. You will have 48 squares, each measuring about 1 inch by 2 inches. Set aside until needed.

STEP TWO

Using a rubber spatula, blend the softened cream cheese with the onion and minced olives until thoroughly mixed. Add enough paprika to turn the mixture salmon pink. Add cayenne pepper with a light hand, enough to give the mixture a pleasing spiciness. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

STEP THREE

Spread the cream-cheese mixture on the toast and garnish each with a single slice of pimento-stuffed green olive. Serve immediately.

The first tray of Hungarian cheese squares, moments before being passed around.