Fonts of Flavor: The resurrection of a 350-year-old cook book

A good recipe is a precise recipe: it gives exact measurements of ingredients, specific instructions and accurate cooking times and temperatures. It’s crafted and tested to yield the best results for anyone who properly follows it; it’s authored to remain timelessly instructional.

The recipes found in “A Booke of Cookerie,” sadly, are not good recipes. Written in 1629, “A Booke of Cookerie” is an amusing culinary relic that, if anything, reveals the spirit of the century in which it was written. But the charm of its recipes is something of note. I know this because I tried to cook something from it.

I came across “A Booke of Cookerie” at the Special Collections Research Center at the Regenstein Library while I was re-shelving some nearby books. I was first attracted to the odd spelling of the title; what could this “booke” be? I leafed through its pages, expecting a volume of unfamiliar recipes, maybe a recipe for cooking sparrows, gruel, or boar. Instead, I discovered rather recognizable recipes: tarts, roast chicken, even macaroons. The recipes were decipherable, in English no less, so I decided it might be a good challenge to try to cook something from it. In my mind, to cook something from a 17th-century cookbook would be a fine and impressive accomplishment. I was determined to make Custard.

The Custard recipe is written simply, if grammatically suspect, composed of one long sentence and marked with a good amount of commas. It’s an effortless narrative, really, of a short list of ingredients:

Breake your Egges into one bowle, and put your Creame in another, then
draine your Egges into the Creame, and put in Saffron, Cloves, Mace, and
a little Sinamon and Ginger, and if you will some Suger and Butter, and
stirre it with salt, and melt your Butter, and stirre it with the Ladle a good
while, and – your custard with Dates or Currants.

The directions seem straightforward enough: break the eggs, add some spices, melt some butter, sprinkle in some chopped dates and currants. But how much of each ingredient? And how was it supposed to be cooked? What would make this combination of eggs, milk and butter turn into a creamy, lightly dense custard? “A Booke of Cookerie” does not explain the measurements or method at all. The recipe forced an improvisational method, informed by previous knowledge of how to cook custard. For example, there should be more egg than cream and a slight amount of spices. In addition, to create an authentic experience, no instruments should be used to measure quantities. But even with these improvisational decisions and explicit following of the original recipe, the consistency of the resulting custard mixture remains soupy and too liquidy, certainly not the desired consistency of good custard. It appears that cooking the mixture in a saucepan over a very low heat is the next logical step in making this “Custard.” Whisking the mixture is also crucial to keeping a smooth consistency. After about seven minutes, the consistency of the custard becomes sufficient enough to stop cooking it.

The result of the first attempt at making the Custard was, in a word, gross. The Custard was lumpy, grayish in color and looked like hardened vomit. But it tasted good, really good. It was rich, and deep in flavor. The cloves and mace intensified the rich creaminess of the eggs. And the plump currants punctuated the custard with tender bites of tart flavor. The Custard was a ramekin full of holiday-flavored cheer. The flavor was pleasant, but the consistency and aesthetic were far from ideal.

The new challenge was to incorporate the flavors and ingredients of “A Booke of Cookerie’s” original recipe into an aesthetically pleasing custard made with modern methods. With the help of Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything,” the recipe was updated and revised so the measurements and method yielded the perfect custard. The cream was heated with saffron, ground cloves, mace, cinnamon, and ground ginger, infusing the flavors into the custard mixture. The chopped dates and currants were added after tempering the egg yolks. Ladled into six-ounce ramekins and baked in a water bath for thirty minutes, the custard resembled a more familiar form of the dessert. The result was creamy custard, with all of the flavors intact from the original recipe. “A Booke of Cookerie,” revised and improved.

Archaic recipes are rather impractical when read, but inspiring when executed. The value of “A Booke of Cookerie” lies in its timeless consideration of perfect combinations of flavors. “A Booke of Cookerie” is like any classic text: a reference. It can be used to enrich modern recipes and inspire new considerations of classic foods. Thumbing through the stacks can yield more than a desperately-sought treatise for a term paper. it can reveal a lost guide to fanciful flavor.