Dem Bones

Roasted Marrow Bones and Parsley Salad, courtesy of British chef Fergus Henderson, via The New York Times.

Some days I feel a bit like a Georgian squire, a fantasy helpfully fueled when (a) you have a Federal Style farmhouse, as we do; (b) a fire is blazing in the wood stove, which is nearly always the case at this time of year, and (c) there’s a bottle of port nearby, resting in an antique glass decanter. To make the most of this picturesque reverie recently I went in search of an historic recipe for roasted marrow bones, a dish I associate with England in the eighteenth century and which I haven’t eaten in years and years. Unfortunately my search for authenticity went awry.

Most of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century recipes I came across seemed utterly wrong, directing one to seal up the ends of the bones with pastry dough and then to roast them for upwards of a hour. The fatty, inner lining of bones, marrow is a delicate, jelly-like substance, and prolonged cooking turns it to little more than hot liquid, or what former Gourmet editor in chief Ruth Reichl accurately describes as “bright yellow crankcase oil” in the book Endless Feasts: Sixty Years of Writing from Gourmet (Random House, 2003). In the end, she boiled marrow bones, wrapped in a dishcloth, for about ten minutes in boiling water, and found them to be perfect softened and ready to spread onto toasted bread.

I went to The New York Times website and found a 2007 recipe for roasted marrow bones that was adapted from one created by Fergus Henderson, chef and founder of St John Bar and Restaurant in London. (The eatery is happily housed, to me, in a modest Georgian former smokehouse near Smithfield Market, which upped the squire fantasy to my mind.) If you like marrow bones, look no further. The dish, which includes a delightful topping made of chopped parsley, sliced shallots, and capers is wholesome, hearty, fresh, and, yes, delicious enough to include a nine-year-old among its fans. Our young daughter raised her eyebrows when she sat before a plate of beef bones and was told that it was dinner, but she enjoyed the rich taste. As for the parsley salad? She hated it.

ROASTED MARROW BONES

SOURCE: The New York Times, 31 October 2007

SERVES 4

TIME: 20 minutes

INGREDIENTS

8 to 12 center-cut beef or veal marrow bones, 3 inches long, 3 to 4 pounds total

1 cup roughly chopped fresh parsley

2 shallots, thinly sliced

2 teaspoons capers

1 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

Coarse sea salt to taste

At least 4 1/2-inch-thick slices of crusty bread, toasted

DIRECTIONS

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Put bones, cut side up, on foil-lined baking sheet or in ovenproof skillet. Cook until marrow is soft and has begun to separate from the bone, about 15 minutes. (Stop before marrow begins to drizzle out.)

The parsley salad in preparation.

2. Meanwhile, combine parsley, shallots and capers in small bowl. Just before bones are ready, whisk together olive oil and lemon juice and drizzle dressing over parsley mixture until leaves are just coated. Put roasted bones, parsley salad, salt and toast on a large plate. To serve, scoop out marrow, spread on toast, sprinkle with salt and top with parsley salad.

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Tea with Miss Marple (4)

Constance Spry, British floral expert and co-author of "The Constance Spry Cookery Book."

Last Saturday evening we were invited to dine at a friend’s house in a nearby village, so my husband baked the fourth in our series of seed cakes to bring as a hostess gift. It looked a little strange, due to a kitchen mishap involving the candied-caraway-seed garnish (more on that below) but despite that, it was terrific. The entire cake was devoured during the cocktail hour by the assembled guests, who included designer Rico Espinet, his wife, and their two children.

The seed-cake recipe came from The Constance Spry Cookery Book (J. M. Dent & Sons, 1956), a book whose very existence might surprise some readers of this blog. Rather than being known for food, Spry (1886—1960) was famous for revolutionizing flower-arranging in the 20th century, thanks to her adventuresome use of weeds, pods, fruiting branches, and other unusual materials, and she gilded that reputation by garlanding the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in 1937 and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. That last event makes the publishing of The Constance Spry Cookery Book more understandable. Another participant in the coronation festivities was Spry’s friend and business partner Rosemary Hume, co-founder of London’s Cordon Bleu Cookery School and inventor of that classic dish served to the newly crowned queen’s honoured guests, Coronation Chicken. At the end of World War II, Spry and Hume reestablished the latter’s cookery school, which had closed due to the international conflict; given Spry’s celebrity it was called the Constance Spry Cordon Bleu School of Cookery. A year later, in 1946, the women also launched a school of domestic science at Winkfield Place. “Little did I realize what was at stake when I went to see her [about this collaboration], for I did not realize, nor do I think did she, what a big part cookery was to play in the lives of women after the war,” Spry wrote. “I was the amateur with homely ideas and limited knowledge, enough perhaps to meet simple war-time demands, but completely inadequate to deal with the overwhelming demand for and need of knowledge which have since become manifest.” (Also associated with the cookery-book project was Major Bruce Shand, better known as father of Camilla Parker-Bowles, the present Duchess of Cornwall; the Army officer turned wine merchant advised on the chapter about wines.)

Spry and Hume’s seed cake is one the authors call “a good old-fashioned seed cake.” It was different from our previous experiments, however. For one it included candied orange peel. For another the top of the cake was supposed to be sprinkled with “a handful of caraway confits.” A footnote explained these are “sugared caraway seeds and may sometimes be bought at the confectioner’s. They may be replaced by roughly crushed lump sugar.” Instead my husband tried to candy the caraway seeds himself, the same way he candies orange peel; the decision was not exactly a success, since the seeds clumped together with the sugar and had to be crumbled. In the oven the crumbles melted and gave the top of the seed cake a sweet but blotchy surface. Oh, well; the taste was wonderful nonetheless.

SEED CAKE (4)

SOURCE: The Constance Spry Cookery Book by Constance Spry and Rosemary Hume (J. M. Dent & Sons, 1967)

INGREDIENTS

8 ounces flour

5 teaspoons flour (keep separate)

8 ounces butter

8 ounces castor sugar

5 eggs

3 ounces candied orange peel

A good pinch of grated nutmeg

1 teaspoon caraway seeds

2 tablespoons brandy

About a handful of caraway comfits [sugared caraway seeds. You can also substitute roughly crushed lump sugar.]

DIRECTIONS

Preheat the oven to 360 degrees Fahrenheit.

Sift the flour and beat into it the butter until it is a creamy consistency. Add the sugar gradually and beat to a fine white cream. Separate the yolks from the whites, beat in the yolks one at a time, with a teaspoon of flour added before each yolk. Add the candied peel, the grated nutmeg, and the caraway seeds. Whisk the egg whites and fold them into the mixture with the remaining flour. Lastly stir in the brandy.

Put the batter into a well-greased loaf tin. Strew over it the comfits and bake for an hour or until a skewer or toothpick poked into the center comes out clean.

Tea with Miss Marple (3)

A caraway-packed seedcake courtesy of James Beard, though the recipe comes via his mother's brilliant Cantonese chef. Overlook the toasty edges; we certainly did. Our vintage oven needs its temperature settings adjusted.

It should come as no surprise that James Beard, that icon of America cookery, would have had a seed cake recipe in one of his books. After all, his mother, the former Elizabeth Jones, was a formidable, occasionally profane Wiltshire lass and tremendously talented in the kitchen. In fact she ran a hotel known for its bill of fare in Portland, Oregon, and later became a successful caterer. (Good thing too, since her second husband, Beard’s father, came to the marriage bed with a mountain of debts.) The seed-cake recipe Beard included in The Armchair James Beard (Globe Pequot, 1999) wasn’t Mrs. Beard’s recipe, however. “Pastries and cakes were not really my mother’s forte,” he wrote. Surprisingly, perhaps, the seed cake he grew up was one of the specialties of Mrs. Beard’s Cantonese business partner and chef, Jue Let. “We nursed one all the time,” Beard recounted in his later years. “It was always there, diminishing, until a brand-new one replaced it. When it was too stale, it was sometimes served toasted and buttered. The soft, strange flavour of caraway left a pleasant taste in the mouth.”

Let’s oh-so-English recipe makes a mighty good seed cake, the best I have ever eaten. And I mean with all the enthusiasm I can muster. It is moist and flavourful and packed with caraway seeds. That being said, a woman friend who tried a slice declared it to be a bit too assertive. Our post-baking male guinea pigs, on the other hand, finished the rest, leaving barely a crumb behind.

A cross section of Beard's seedcake, cut shortly after it cooled. The center top remained a smidgen undercooked, despite the perfectly followed directions. Once again, blame our oven. Nonetheless every bite was fantastic. This one's a keeper.

SEED CAKE (3)

SOURCE: The Armchair James Beard by James Beard and John Ferrone (Globe Pequot, 1999)

INGREDIENTS

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened

1-1/2 cups sugar

4 eggs

2 cups flour

3 tablespoons caraway seeds

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

DIRECTIONS

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Butter an 8-inch round cake pan, cover the bottom with wax paper, and butter the paper.

Thoroughly cream butter with sugar. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Stir in the caraway seeds. Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt, and gently fold into the butter-egg mixture. Spread the batter in the pan and bake in the oven for 1 hour or until it begins to shrink from the sides of the pan and is firm to the touch [and when it tests done with a straw or toothpick]. Let cook in the pan for 2 to 3 minutes, then turn out on a rack, peel off the paper, and let cool completely.