By Louise Beck Brønnum
Have you ever wondered why your grandmother’s stew tastes ten times better than the one you try to make yourself? It’s all bound to tradition, the context of time and place. By making a very simple recipe from two different time periods, a reflection of these influences becomes clear, and even enables us to not only understand how people once ate, but also why and where. As part of the Culinary Laboratory Arts class, we were challenged to find a recipe from two different time periods and cook them. This is my experience of cooking a dish through time and history.
I am an exchange student from Denmark, and the whole new Nordic cuisine movement inspired me to cook something from a Danish cookbook. Many traditional recipes in Danish cuisine require specific ingredients. I wanted to relate an older recipe for cauliflower soup to one found in the new Nordic Cuisine to give a time perspective. From participating in the Culinary Arts Lab course and by looking at different recipes over time, I’ve found that soups have gone through the most remarkable changes, both in cooking techniques and methods.
Finding the Recipe
It all started on a rainy Friday afternoon. My classmate Erica and I decided to visit the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study at Harvard. With help from the librarian, we found cookbooks from the 17th and 18th century. I found cookbooks based on French cuisine that were written by Americans, on Southern food, Chinese food and even Danish food. I could have chosen an American recipe, but I found it harder to understand them from a food-making and cultural perspective, so, I decided on one from a Danish cookbook.
Frøken Jensens Cookbook (1901)
The classic Danish cookbook I found is almost an institution in itself, written by Kristine Marie Jensen. She was a housekeeper and cookbook writer who lived from 1858 to 1923. When she died, her cookbook, “Frøken Jensens kogebog”, had been edited 27 times and sold 15,000 copies during the first year of publication it! It is still one of the most acknowledged cookbooks in Danish food culture and within Danish bourgeois cuisine. Jensen stated that the Danish housewife had forgotten the responsibility of providing a home with tasteful and caring food. She explained and included all the classical and traditional techniques and methods of Danish cooking in the cookbook. Any housewife would be able to use it to cook her husband dinner, says Jensen, “without feeling like it is a huge burden, but a great mission to keep the home with hygge.” Under the white thickened (lier) soups in the second part on supper dishes, I found a cauliflower soup recipe. To complete it, I had to make a standard “savings stock.”
Ny Nordisk Hverdagsmad Cookbook (2011)
An obvious choice for finding a modern recipe was a cookbook based on the manifest of the New Nordic Diet. A huge research project named OPUS was conducted in cooperation between Copenhagen University and Claus Meyer. Meyer is a food entrepreneur who started catering companies, delis, food schools, and food-related projects promoting seasonality, sustainability, and health. He was one of the people behind NOMA, rated the top restaurant in the world, and will soon be opening a huge Nordic store at Grand Central Station in New York City. The New Nordic Diet cookbook is a small cookbook that includes 60 recipes of simple and easy-to-make dishes that follow the principles of the New Nordic diet. The cookbook is divided into parts depending on ingredients, including soups, vegetables, fish, meats, bread and sweets. I found a cauliflower soup under the chapter for soups.
The Shopping and Preparing Process
The biggest difference between the two recipes is the way they are presented. In Frøken Jensen’s cookbook (FJ) the only ingredients listed are two cauliflower heads and five pots (liters) of stock. In the Ny Nordisk Hverdagsmad cookbook (NNH), the ingredient list is very precisely stated — including the salt and pepper used for seasoning. Furthermore, the FJ recipe serves 12 and the NNH serves two, which reflects family size and the norms of eating in different time periods.
The FJ recipe calls for a homemade stock, cauliflower, butter, flour, egg yolks and suggested using grated parmesan cheese. In NNH, the ingredients include cauliflower, onions, garlic, semi-fat milk, salt and pepper, and a blender was needed to puree the soup in the end. I realized that the recipes exemplify two different techniques, one a white, thickened soup and the other a pureed soup. FJ does have pureed soups, but she used a chinoa to mash them. This is a clear indication of the evolution of cooking technology over time; blenders did not exist in the 19th century.
When shopping for ingredients, the garnish for the NNH recipe (a wild herb from the Danish forest and whole hazelnuts) where the most difficult to find. Though they suggested tarragon instead of the wild herb if it was not available, it seemed contradictory to the concept of easy-to-make. This also shows how cooking a dish from a different cuisine in another country can include constraints, especially in terms of finding the exact ingredients.
The Cooking Process
I started off with preparing the stock for the FJ recipe, which is described as “savings stock.” You basically make it out of leftover meat and vegetables, adding a “visk” (mire poix) and herbs. After boiling you put it in an “høkasse,” an old method of Danish slow cooking which is similar to a low simmer. While making the stock, I boiled the whole cauliflower head in salted water until just tender. Afterwards, I separated the small florets and preserved some of the cooking water for later.
I found a terrine-style pot, which was required for the recipe. This is where I got confused in the cooking process. I needed to bake off butter and flour and then add stock and the preserved cooking liquid, but I wasn’t sure whether I should do it in the terrine with the cauliflower or in a separate pot. Perhaps it’s an indication of culinary wisdom lost in time. I decided to bake the flour and butter first and then add stock, water and the small cauliflower florets all at once to the terrine. Again I was confused about the process. When should I add the egg yolks to thicken the soup? I decided after 15 minutes of slow simmer to lower the heat and add the egg yolks. Stirring it all together, it turned out to be a wonderful and very rustic soup, with a clear taste of cauliflower and texture from the small cauliflower florets. The soup was liquidy, but had structure from the egg yolks and roux. This balanced the mouth feel so it became almost like silk contrasting with the small bites of cauliflower .
The pureed soup from NNH was easy to prepare and took me almost only 10 minutes to mise en place. Following the instructions, I sweated the onions and garlic in oil until tender, then added the cauliflower florets. After that I added milk and set the pot to simmer until the cauliflower was tender. I used an immersion blender to puree the soup and seasoned it with salt and pepper. An additional garnish was made with tarragon, peanuts, scallion and apple cider vinegar, some of which substituted for ingredients I couldn’t find at the supermarket. The texture of the soup was creamy, and the fresh and sour flavor of the tarragon was a great accompaniment. Crunchiness from the nuts was delicious, but a clear flavor of the actually cauliflower was not as pronounced in this soup as in the FJ soup.
The Overall Comparison
Taking into account how I searched for, prepared and the two soups, the most significant difference between them was the expected cooking knowledge of the people preparing them. The cooking methods and equipment were also different, which shows the evolution of technology over the past 110 years. I served both soups to people with gastronomic and non-gastronomic backgrounds, and their preferences were split. Personally, I loved the freshness of the NNH, but on the other hand, I also loved the clear flavor of cauliflower from the FJ recipe. It seemed like one’s general palate and mood at that moment made the greatest influence on taste preferences. Timewise the NNH seemed like it was the easier one in the sense of following the recipe, but for me both were easy and applicable to my level of cooking.