The Victorians were very frugal, yet creative people when it came to stretching their money into the best possible recipes not only for holidays but for everyday meals. A Christmas feast was not that different from the feast I described in my earlier Thanksgiving blog, but on the whole, Christmas was far more of an important holiday. Thanksgiving was exclusive to America whereas Christmas was celebrated throughout all countries with a Christian population. Unlike today, giving and receiving gifts was not the focus of the Christmas season in history. Commercialization of a previously very religious holiday came after World War II with the advent of television and advertising. To the Victorians, although they exchanged a few gifts, Christmas was a religious holiday. Church, charity, family gatherings and food were the focuses of the season. All Victorians were expected to show mercy and love to the needy, especially during Christmas.
Christmas decorating was not unlike what it is today but the materials used were all natural. Garland was hung around houses, dried berries, popcorn strings, colored paper garlands, baked ornaments, and so on. The Christmas tree became all the rage in the 1850s in America after Queen Victoria began having them. She was German, as was her husband, Prince Albert, and he brought the tradition of the Christmas tree with him from Germany. Hanging stockings by the fire in America evolved from Sankt Nikolaus Tag (Saint Nicholas Day) in Germany in which children left their shoes out by the window and if they were good, there would be candy, fruit and treats the next morning, left by Saint Nicholas, who became Santa Claus. He was indeed a real man, so you’re not lying to your children when you tell them Santa is real.
Christmas dinner was probably the biggest meal of the year for the Victorians. There was no widespread refrigeration until the turn of the century, so what was on the dinner table varied from region to region depending on what was available. Most people had a ham and a turkey or some other readily available fowl, both with different types of stuffing/dressing, as well as various side dishes. Mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet potato pie or pudding, seasonal vegetables, oyster soup, mince pie, plum pudding, gingerbread cookies, sugar cookies, candy canes and a myriad of other dishes could be found on the Victorian table.
I have been collecting historic recipes for many years. Some of my oldest recipes go back to the 1750s and range all the way up until the present. Some are my own family recipes but the dishes below are either literally copied from old cookbooks or they are adapted to fit modern kitchens from old recipes. I have recipes from America, Canada and England. Below you will find a list of recipes as options if you want to add an authentic historical flair to your Christmas dinner. “Apple Jonathan” is not technically a Christmas recipe but I saw it in a really old book and thought of all the Jonathan Knight fans out there. A lot of these old recipes came out of Boston too.
HOT BRANDY AND RUM PUNCH
1 qt. rum, dark if possible
1 qt. cognac or brandy
1 lb. sugar, cubes if available
3 qts. boiling water
1 tsp. nutmeg
Rub the sugar [if cubed] over the lemons until it has absorbed all the yellow part of the skins, then put the sugar into a punch bowl. Pour in the boiling water, stirring well. Add the rum, brandy and nutmeg, mix again, and the punch will be ready to serve. As we have said before, it is very important, in making good punch, that all the ingredients are thoroughly incorporated. To insure success, the process of mixing must be diligently attended to. Allow a quart of punch for four persons; but this information must be taken cum grano salis for the capacities of persons for this kind of beverage are generally supposed to vary considerably.
From Bon-Vivant’s Companion by Jerry Thomas, 1862
Comment: Sugar in the 19th century was sold in solid blocks or cubes, from which pieces were chipped off for use in individual recipes or beverages. Thus it made sense to tell readers to “rub the sugar over the lemons,” whereas today it would be more logical to put the sugar in a bowl and rub the lemons in it, rotating the fruit and stirring the sugar, until as much yellow has been transferred as can be. And yes, it was more common in the 19th century for people of average education to be acquainted with Latin, but it was still an act of some snobbery to use the language where it was not exactly needed. “Cum grano salis” means “with a grain of salt,” which is something of an understatement given the amount of liquor in this recipe divided by the number of suggested drinkers.
1 square chocolate
1/4 cup sugar
Dash of salt
2 cups boiling water
1 cup milk & cream, mixed
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups hot coffee
Melt chocolate in top of double boiler. Add sugar, salt and boiling water. Stir for about 5 minutes. Pour in milk and cream. Do not let it boil. Add vanilla and hot coffee. For a cold drink, add a pint of vanilla ice cream. Mix in big bowl with electric mixer. Top with whipped cream and use candy cane for stirrer.
Roast Turkey with Chestnut Stuffing
Clean the turkey and lard the breast. Throw fifty large chestnuts into boiling water for a few minutes; then take them up, and rub off the thin, dark skin. Cover them with boiling water and simmer for an hour; take them up, and mash fine. Chop one pound of veal and half a pound of salt pork very fine. Add half of the chestnuts to this, and add, also, half a teaspoonful of pepper, two table-spoonfuls of salt, and one cupful of stock or water. Stuff the turkey with this. Truss and roast. Serve with a chestnut sauce. The remaining half of the chestnuts are for this sauce.
To Cook A Ham
“To Cook a Ham”: An excellent manner of cooking a ham is the following: Boil it three or four hours, according to size; then skin the whole and fit it for the table; then set in the oven for half an hour, cover it thickly with pounded rusk or bread-crumbs, and set back for half an hour longer. Boiled ham is always improved by setting it in an oven for nearly an hour, until much of the fat dries out, and it also makes it more tender.
The Practical Housekeeper, a Cyclopedia of Domestic Economy by Elizabeth Fries Ellet, 1857.
Lettice Bryant Ham Stuffing #1
Make a stuffing of equal portions of minced onions, bread crumbs and grated ham season it with butter, salt, pepper and sage; make it moist with sweet milk, and work it together till it is well incorporated….
[Gravy]: Having boiled the heart and liver, mince them fine, and put them in the drippings, with a large spoonful of brown flour, and a few minced sage leaves; do not pour it round the goose, but serve it in a boat, and have upon the table apple sauce, or stewed peaches, and green peas or mashed potatoes.
Ham Stuffing a la Bryant #2
Prepare a goose as before directed, fill it with white potatoes, which have been boiled tender, mashed fine, and highly seasoned with salt, pepper, butter and cream.
[Gravy]: In the mean time, take some scraps or trimmings of fresh beef, or veal, stew them in a small quantity of water, till the gravy is extracted, strain the liquid into a clean sauce-pan, add to it two spoonfuls of butter, one of flour, two minced onions, a few minced sage leaves, a tea-spoonful of pepper, a grated nutmeg, a glass of port wine, and the giblets, which should be previously boiled and minced fine. When the goose is well done, serve it with apple-sauce and smoked tongue.
One quart of oysters, one pint of milk, two tablespoonfuls of butter, one teacupful of hot water; pepper, salt. Strain the liquor from the oysters, add the water, and place over a hot fire in a granite kettle. When near the boil, add salt, then the oysters. Cook about five minutes from the time they begin to simmer, until they’ ‘ruffle.” Stir in the butter, let come to a boil and pour into the tureen. Stir in the boiling milk, and send to the table. All water can be used in place of milk if preferred.
When your potatoes are thoroughly boiled, drain them quite dry, pick out every speck, &c., and while hot, rub them through a colander into a clean stew-pan. To a pound of potatoes put about half an ounce of butter, and a table-spoonful of milk: do not make them too moist, ; mix them well together. After Lady-day [note: March 25, one of the traditional “quarter days” of the English calendar], when the potatoes are getting old and specky, and in frosty weather, this is the best way of dressing them. You may put them into shapes or small tea-cups; egg them with yelk of egg, and brown them very slightly before a slow fire.
Potatoes mashed with Onions
Prepare some boiled onions by putting them through a sieve, and mix them with potatoes. In proportioning the onions to the potatoes, you will be guided by your wish to have more or less of their flavour.
Colcannon (mashed potatoes with spinach)
Boil potatoes and greens, or spinage, separately; mash the potatoes, squeeze the greens dry; chop them quite fine and mix them with the potatoes, with a little butter, pepper and salt; put it into a mould, buttering it well first; let it stand in a hot oven for ten minutes.
Mix mashed potatoes with the yelk of an egg; roll them into balls; flour them, or egg and bread-crumb them; and fry them in clean drippings, or brown them in a Dutch oven.
Potato Balls Ragout
Are made by adding to a pound of potatoes a quarter of a pound of grated ham, or some sweet herbs, or chopped parsley, an onion or eschalot, salt, pepper, and a little grated nutmeg or other spice, with the yelk of a couple of eggs: then are then to be dressed as [Potato Balls, above.]
Sweet Potato Pie
Two pounds of potatoes will make two pies. Boil the potatoes soft; peel and mash fine through a cullender while hot; one tablespoonful of butter to be mashed in with the potato. Take five eggs and beat the yelks and whites separate and add one gill of milk; sweeten to taste; squeeze the juice of one orange, and grate one-half of the peel into the liquid. One half teaspoonful of salt in the potatoes. Have only one crust and that at the bottom of the plate. Bake quickly.
Abby Fisher. What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking. Women’s Co-operative Printing Office:San Francisco, 1881
Sweet Potato Pudding
Take half a pound of sweet potatoes, wash them, and put them into a pot with very little water, barely enough to keep them from burning. Let them simmer slowly for about half an hour; they must be only parboiled, otherwise they will be soft, and may make the pudding heavy. When they are half done, take them out, peel them, and when cold, grate them. Stir together to a cream, half a pound of butter and a quarter of a pound and two ounces of powdered sugar, add a grated nutmeg, a large tea-spoonful of powdered cinnamon, and half a tea-spoonful of beaten mace. Also the juice and grated peel of a lemon, a wine glass of rose water, a glass of wine, and a glass of brandy. Stir these ingredients well together. Beat eight eggs very light, and stir them into the mixture in turn with the sweet potato, a little at a time of each. Having stirred the whole very hard at the last, put it into a buttered dish and bake it three quarters of an hour. Eat it cold.
From Miss Leslie’s Complete Cookery: Directions for Cookery by Eliza Leslie, 1851 edition, reprinted 1863, originally published 1837, all in Philadelphia.
Comment: The term “pudding,” despite its nearly-universal reference to a dessert food today, was a meat or vegetable side dish during the Civil War period. As to measurements, Miss Leslie says in her Introduction that “four table-spoonfuls or half a jill, will fill a common wine glass; four wine glasses will fill a half-pint, or common tumbler, or large coffee-cup.” Since a jill (or gill) was half a cup, half a jill is a small quantity indeed. Rose-water, which is water in which vast numbers of rose petals have been soaked, is tedious to make and difficult to buy outside a city large enough to support a Mediterranean or Middle Eastern market. Four tablespoons of plain water with just a drop of vanilla or almond extract would be a creative substitute here. One nutmeg, grated, is anywhere from a teaspoon to a tablespoon of the powdered form so use as much as you think diners are likely to prefer. The “powdered sugar” called for here is not the modern form of this item either, and regular granulated sugar may be used. Mixing the spices into the sugar first assures that they will be evenly distributed through the dish.
A final tip: Let the parboiled potatoes cool a bit before peeling; the skin comes off quite easily but the term “hot potato” is used for dangerous situations for a reason. (Owwww.)
12 oz. sugar
1/4 lb (1 stick) butter
1 lb. flour
2 oz. ginger
1/4 oz. cinnamon
1/4 oz. cloves
Take twelve ounces of pounded loaf sugar, a quarter of a pound of fresh butter, one pound of dried flour, two ounces of pounded ginger, and of cloves and cinnamon a quarter of an ounce each. Mix the ginger and the spice with the flour, put the sugar and a small tea-cup full of water into a saucepan; when it is dissolved, add the butter, and as soon as it is melted, mix it with the flour and other things; work it up, and form the paste into cakes or nuts, and bake them upon tins.
From The Cook’s Own Book by “A Boston Housekeeper” (Mrs. N. K. M. Lee) Boston 1832
Comment: This is an interesting variation on the theme of “gingerbread” but what exactly qualifies it for the name of “Indian” is unclear. It contains neither corn meal, which was known as “Indian meal” in much of the 19th century, nor what we would consider “Indian” spices today such as curry. Certainly cinnamon and cloves come from what was then called the “East Indies” but they were used in vast numbers of products that never had the Indian name attached. Some things just must remain mysteries. This evidently makes a very thick dough and the resulting products would resemble cookies more than anything else.
Line the sides of only a pudding dish with some nice paste, and fill it full of juicy, tender apples, peeled and sliced, with a little water to keep them moist. Cover the top of the dish with paste and bake until the apples are soft, then remove the crust and mash the apples while hot, adding sugar, butter, grated nutmeg and a little flavoring if desired. When cool, serve with rich cream, sweetened, flavored and whipped to a stiff froth, or the cream may be used without whipping. Either way the dish is delicious.
Father Christmas Shortbread
3 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
Candies or dried currants for garnish
In a large bowl, stir together the flour and baking powder. In the large bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar at medium speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add the egg and vanilla. Beat until blended. Gradually beat the dry ingredients into the butter mixture at low speed. Mixing well after each addition and scraping the beaters frequently. Turn the dough out on a lightly floured surface. Using a rubber spatula to lift and turn the dough. Gently knead it until it is smooth and forms a ball. Divide the dough in half. Gather each half into a ball and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for several hours. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. On a lightly floured surface, roll the chilled dough. 1 ball at a time, to a thickness of ½ inch. Cut with 2 ½- or 3-inch cookie cutters. Put the cookies on unbuttered baking sheets. Garnish them with candies or dried currants. Bake on a low rack for 20 to 25 minutes, until the cookies begin to color lightly. They should not brown. Cool them on a rack. Store them in airtight containers.
1 cup butter
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
5 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup sugar (for rolling)
Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs and vanilla. Mix flour and baking powder into mixture. Chill. Roll and cut out Nativity shapes. Sprinkle with colored sugar. Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 12 minutes.
1/4 lb. butter
1/2 pint milk
1/2 c. brandy
Strip of pie crust
Stew a fine sweet pumpkin till soft and dry; rub it through a sieve, mix with the pulp six eggs [beaten] quite light, a quarter of a pound of butter, half a pint of new milk, some pounded ginger and nutmeg, a wine glass of brandy, and sugar to your taste. Should it be too liquid, stew it a little drier, put a paste [strip of pie dough] round the edge, and in the bottom of a shallow dish or plate–pour in the mixture, cut some thin bits of paste, twist them, and lay them across the top, and bake it nicely.
From The Virginia Housewife or, Methodical Cook, by Mary Randolph, 1841
Comment: Canned pumpkin is so universally available, and so cheap, that few indeed are the people who make a pie by starting with a raw fruit of the vine. Since the situation was quite reversed in Mrs. Randolph’s day, she omits a few processing details. These include the detachment of the rind (the hard, thin outside shell) from the edible part of the pumpkin (the soft yellow-orange flesh) and of course the removal of seeds and strings from the very center as you do when making the jack-o-lantern at Halloween. The stewing process is probably best accomplished in a double boiler to avoid scorching, since the intent is to use just barely enough water to cook all the chunks through and then evaporate. The rest of the recipe is quite straightforward, until of course we get to those elaborate cooking instructions: “bake nicely.” The usual directions for pumpkin pie baking say to start at 450 degrees for the first 15 minutes and then reduce to 350 for the remaining 45 or so. The use of any sort of top crust is unusual today but might be considered if this is to be made for an educational or other public setting such as a living history exhibit or fundraising project. We note that this pie called a pudding but is basically a custard. Thus does nomenclature change over time.
French country cake, for high days and holidays
Five eggs to every pound of flour is the rule; when they are dear, you may content. yourself with four; when cheap, you may bestow six or seven on each pound of flour; but the more eggs you put, the drier the cake will be. Put also to the same a quarter of a pound of butter (which rich folk increase to half a pound), and either a quarter of a pound of currants, washed, or the same quantity of raisins, stoned and chopped. The plums will thus be few and far between, as if they had been shot into the cake at a long range. Indeed, you have a fair chance of getting a slice of plum cake without plums. No sugar. Work these into dough with water and yeast, and proceed exactly as with bread, making your cake into a long roll-shaped loaf, to bake the more thoroughly. You may use milk instead of water, but it makes the cake drier. Gâteau is eaten in slices spread with butter, at the end of a repast, or at the usual five o’clock collation. It may also be made plain, i.e., without plums.
BRANDIED CHERRIES OR BERRIES
1 lb. sugar
1/4 c. water
2 lb. fruit
1/2 pint brandy
Make a syrup of a pound of sugar and a half gill of water for every two lbs. of fruit. Heat to boiling, stirring to prevent burning, and pour over the berries while warm–not hot. Let them stand together an hour; put all into a preserving-kettle, and heat slowly; boil five minutes, take out the fruit with a perforated skimmer, and boil the syrup twenty minutes. Add a pint of brandy for every five pounds of fruit; pour over the berries hot, and seal.
Common Sense in the Household by Marion Harland, New York, 1871
Comment: While this is closely related to “Brandied Peaches or Pears,” it is not identical or else neither we nor Mrs. Harland would have gone to the bother of making a separate recipe for it. The main difference between the two–cooling the syrup before pouring it over the fruit, where “Peaches and Pears” calls for it to be boiling at this point–is important if you want to prevent the cherries from popping open in their little canning jars. The larger fruits are made of sturdier stuff and can take the heat. The flimsy skins of the smaller berries cannot.