Sunday, March 29, 2009

Cookies and Lincoln’s Springfield Home

In 1844 successful lawyer Abraham Lincoln moved into the one-and-a-half story home at the corner of 8th and Jackson Streets in Springfield with his wife Mary and their young son, Robert. The family lived there for seventeen years until they left for the White House on February 11, 1861. At that farewell Lincoln spoke eloquently of his years in Illinois and Springfield: “Here I have lived from my youth until now I am an old man. Here the most sacred ties of earth were assumed; here all my children were born; and here one of them lies buried. . . . To you, dear friends, I owe all that I have, all that I am.”

By all accounts the family was a lively one. The Lincolns added a full second story to the home to accommodate the growing family of boys. Eddie, born in 1846, died just before of his fourth birthday in 1850. Two other boys grew up in Springfield. Willie was born in December 1850 and Tad in April 1853. Neighbors spoke of both Abe and Mary spoiling their sons and of the house being overrun with children and pets. Lincoln pulled the boys in a wagon on the streets of Springfield. He read them stories and tussled with them in the White House. Sadly, only Robert Lincoln survived into adulthood. Willie caught typhoid fever and died in Washington on February 20, 1862. Tad died of tuberculosis in Chicago when he was 17.

Neighbor children recall Mary Lincoln making cookies for them. These simple, easily made cookies from 1851 are tasty and suitable for grabbing by the handful by boys rushing through the kitchen on the way out to play. The National Park Service offers a virtual tour of the Lincoln’s Springfield house:

Basic 1851 Cookies
1/3 cup butter
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 egg
1 2/3 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/3 cup milk
2/3 cup chopped nuts, optional

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cream butter and sugar. Add the egg and mix well. Stir in half the flour and the baking soda. Mix until smooth. Gently stir in the milk and when completely blended, add remaining flour. Stir in the nuts, if desired. Drop by teaspoons on lightly greased baking sheet. Bake until tops are a golden brown, 8 to 12 minutes. Cookies puff up while baking and sink a bit as they cool. Yield: about 5 dozen 1 1/2-inch cookies.

Copyright 2009 Rae Katherine Eighmey. All rights reserved.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Mary Todd’s Courting Cake

Mary Todd moved to Springfield, Illinois in October 1839 from Lexington, Kentucky. Two months shy of her twenty-first birthday, Mary was starting a new life in the home of her married sister, and, just maybe, looking for a husband among the politicians, lawyers and strivers in the newly designated state capital. Abraham Lincoln settled in Springfield two and a half years earlier. He arrived in the town of 1,500 in April 1837 riding a horse borrowed from a New Salem friend. He was 28 years old, a lawyer in practice with John Todd Stuart, Mary Todd’s cousin, and a member of the Illinois State Legislature. By the time Mary Todd arrived in town the population had increased to nearly 2,500. The Stuart & Lincoln law practice was busy and he spent his free time in a variety of activities. Lincoln presented serious lectures to the Young Men’s Lyceum. He went fishing in the streams surrounding Springfield with friends and their sons and he escorting their daughters and sisters to concerts, plays and other social events about town. Lincoln encountered Mary Todd at a cotillion in December 1839. “Miss Todd, I want to dance with you in the worst way,” he said asking for a dance. After the evening Mary remarked to a family member. “And he certainly did.”

Todd family tradition suggests Mary made an almond cake similar to this one during their courtship and after they were married. Lincoln is said to have called it “the best cake I ever ate.” There are several versions of this white almond cake. I based my adaptation on an 1828 recipe that said to allow two days to make the cake as the almonds need to be blanched, peeled and pounded into a powder the day before baking. With modern kitchen equipment and ingredients, this cake is ready in an hour or so. The original recipe called for both sweet and bitter almonds. The former are the kind we buy today. Poisonous bitter almonds are no longer sold. However, almond extract is made from those nuts, treated to be safe.

French Almond Cake
4 grade A large eggs, separated
1/2 cup granulated sugar, pulverized
3/4 teaspoon pure almond extract
1/4 teaspoon lemon extract
3 ounces blanched slivered almonds, very finely crushed or chopped
to pieces about 1/16th of an inch
1/4 cup flour, sifted three times

Important Tips: There are a few tricks to making this cake successfully. Nineteenth century white sugar came in a compressed cone. Cooks snipped off what they needed with sugar shears and then pulverized it into fine crystals. I put the half cup of granulated sugar in a plastic bag and pulverize it by pressing my rolling pin over it a few times. The resulting finer sugar blends more easily with the egg yolks. The stiffly beaten egg whites provide this cake’s structure. It is lightest when baked until light brown in an ungreased angel food tube cake pan, then turned upside down until it is completely cool. I have baked it in an antique tube pan with fluted sides. To get it out successfully, I greased just the bottom of the pan (top of cake), turned it upside down to cool completely and then gently pressed against the cake, pulling it away from the sides. You can grease and flour the sides of the baking pan and cool the cake right-side up. But the resulting cake, while delicious, will not be nearly as light.

Instructions: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. In a large (3 quart) bowl whip the egg whites until they stand in stiff peaks. In a medium (2 quart) mixing bowl beat the egg yolks until they are thick and have turned into a light yellow color. This could take as long as five minutes. With the mixer running, begin adding the sugar about a tablespoon at a time. Continue beating until the sugar is fully incorporated and the batter is thick. Stir in the extracts and then the almonds. Stir in the flour. With a flexible rubber spatula, fold about one third of the beaten egg whites into the egg yolk batter to lighten it up. Then gently fold this lightened batter into the remaining egg whites. Bake until the cake is firm and lightly browned on top, about 25 to 30 minutes.

Copyright 2009 Rae Katherine Eighmey. All rights reserved.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Political Barbecue Chicken

Barbecues are the bread and butter of Midwestern politics. Abe Lincoln attended scores. At one, held at the Urbana Agricultural Fair in 1858, Lincoln was met by a committee of ladies and escorted to a seat at the head of the table as honored guest before his speech. The table was filled with an abundance of barbecued food.

As the story goes, he looked around the area and saw a old woman standing not far away looking intently at him. He immediately recognized her as a waiter and dishwasher at the hotel in Urbana whom everybody knew as Granny. He said to her. “Why Granny, have you no place? You must have some dinner. Here, take my place.”

The old lady answered. “No’m, Mr. Lincoln, I just wanted to see you. I don’t want any dinner.” Lincoln rose from his seat at the head of the table and insisted she take his seat. He then took his turkey leg and biscuit and sat at the foot of a nearby tree while Granny Hutchinson filled the place at the head of the table and ate her dinner as he had insisted.

Day long political barbeques featured hogs, turkeys and sides of beef cooked for hours over low coals or even in pits. This recipe uses smaller chicken thighs so the slow cooking is accomplished in an hour or two, depending on the size of the thighs, while keeping the flavor of a mid-1800s barbeque.

Oven-Cooked Slow Barbeque
5 pounds chicken thighs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/3 cup mild molasses
additional 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup warm water
Wash the thighs and pat dry, removing the skin if desired. Mix salt and pepper. Sprinkle lightly over the chicken then brush both sides with a light coating of molasses. Place in a single layer, cover and refrigerate for at least an hour or overnight. When ready to cook, gently wipe the chicken pieces with a damp cloth. Most of the molasses will come off, leaving just the barest layer and that which has soaked into the meat. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with foil for easy clean up. Place a wire cake rack on the sheet to hold the chicken up off the bottom surface. Mix the additional half-teaspoon salt with one cup warm water. Baste the chicken with this salted water and bake, basting and turning about every 20 minutes until chicken is deliciously browned and cooked to an internal temperature of 170 degrees F. You may cook these thighs on a grill with a very low fire as well. Basting, turning and watching carefully as molasses has a tendency to burn.

Copyright 2009 Rae Katherine Eighmey. All rights reserved.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

New Salem Biscuits

Lincoln arrived in New Salem, Illinois in early summer 1831. Denton Offutt, another newcomer to the area, hired him to run a small store and help with the grist mill, powered by the Sangamon River.

In March 1832, Lincoln declared his candidacy for representative to the Illinois General Assembly. In his “Communication to the People of Sangamo County” he addressed the need for “internal improvements” -- roads, cleared waterways and “rail roads.” He drew upon the year’s experiences, making a comprehensive analysis of the situation. “I have given as particular attention to the state of the water in this river, as any other person in the country.” Lincoln, 23 years old, was poised for the possibility of loss. “Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. . . I have no other so great as to be esteemed by my fellow men . . . I am young and unknown to many of you. . . . if the good people in their wisdom shall see fit to keep me in the background, I have been too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined.” Losing this election, he was elected for the next term in 1834.

Offutt ground both corn and wheat at the mill. As pioneering settlements became villages and towns, farmers began growing more wheat. Wheat breads, such as biscuits, took their place on tables where just a few year earlier cornmeal was the only bread ingredient. “Saleratus” is an early form of baking soda and worked with the sour milk to make a light, chewy and delicious biscuit.

Saleratus [baking soda] Biscuit
2 teaspoons vinegar
2/3 cup milk
2 cups flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon butter
1/4 cup boiling water
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Combine vinegar with milk, stir and set aside to sour, about 5 minutes. Mix the flour, salt and baking soda in a medium bowl. Add butter to boiling water to melt and then stir into the flour mixture. Then add the sour milk. Stir with a fork and then knead briefly. You may need to add a bit more milk or flour to make a dough that is firm enough to work and not sticky. Break off pieces about an inch in diameter. Place on lightly greased baking sheets and bake until browned, about 10 to 15 minutes.

Copyright 2009 Rae Katherine Eighmey. All rights reserved.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Chicken Cooked in the Army

The entire Lincoln family moved to Illinois in the spring of 1830. Abe stayed for a year, helping the family clear the new farm. In 1831 he settled by himself in New Salem. Like all young men in the state, Abe was a member of the Illinois militia. When they were called to fight the Indian chief Black Hawk in the spring of 1832, he was elected captain of his unit.

Rations were tight in the wilds of northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin where the militia campaigned. As George Harrison one of the men in the unit related, at one point Lincoln’s men raided the chicken coop on a farm abandoned by the owners who “skedaddled for fear of losing their scalps.” The hungry men tried simply roasting the scrawny hens over their campfire, but then took a notion to fry them in some grease rendered from a hog jowl one of the men had found up in the rafters of the smokehouse. That provided just enough fat and flavor to make the tough fowl as acceptable as “eating saddle bags.”

This adaptation captures the flavor of roasted, then fried, chicken but with today’s well-fed and store-purchased fowl it is considerably more tender and flavorful.

Bacon-Basted Militia Chicken
1 whole chicken
2 slices of bacon, diced
Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Split the chicken along the spine. Flatten and place in a baking pan with at least 1-inch sides. Gently lift skin by sliding your hands between the skin and meat. Place diced bacon evenly over the entire chicken and pat the skin back down. Cook, basting with the pan juices from time to time, until chicken reached internal temperature of 170 degrees – about 25 minutes per pound.

Copyright 2009 Rae Katherine Eighmey. All rights reserved.