I have just returned from a party for a new book, The Cookbook Library: Four Centuries of the Cooks, Writers, and Recipes That Made the Modern Cookbook by Anne Willan with her husband, Mark Cherniavsky. I could almost imagine that this book was written especially for me.

Ever since my college years I have been fascinated by cookbooks, and this book traces their development from antiquity. I also know Anne Willan and Mark Cherniavsky very well and feel a personal connection to them and to their cookbook library. During the years I worked as Willan’s assistant at her cooking school in Paris, Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne, the cookbook library doubled as my office. I loved being there. Acquiring new books for the school was part of my job. I enjoyed visiting specialty book stores with Cherniavsky and discussing whether various volumes would be useful for the research I did for such cookbooks as La Varenne’s Regional French Cooking.

Willan and Cherniavsky’s enthusiasm for good-quality cookbooks was infectious and inspired me to buy many French books for my own cookbook collection. As a good-bye gift just before I left Paris, the couple gave me a three-volume work of one of the most influential chefs in the history of French cuisine, Antonin Careme’s L’Art de la Cuisine Française au Dix-Neuvième Siècle.

AT THE book party, Willan served tastes from the past. French sweet spiced wine from the 15th century reminded me of the kiddush wine I grew up with, and I found it interesting that it was used not only as a drink but also for cooking, including braising fish. I especially liked the buttery seed cake from 18th-century England, flavored with caraway seeds, cinnamon and rose water. (The recipe is below.) I hadn’t realized how important cookbooks were in the history of books in general. “Cookbooks were right there in the first legendary group of printed books that included the Gutenberg Bible and Homer’s Odyssey,” writes Willan.

From cookbooks there is much more to learn than directions for preparing food. They reflect the social structure and customs of their time. Before printing was invented, early European cookbooks were manuscripts, “painstakingly written by hand,” writes Willan, “almost all in Latin, and limited to scholars and the wealthy, created for the nobility and princes of the church who could afford them. Cookbooks served a private world, mainly documenting the feasts enjoyed in noble houses and reflecting the lifestyle of the rich and powerful.”

Religion had a strong influence on the recipes in early cookbooks. “From the very earliest cookbooks, authors made a distinction between fast days and feast days (also called meat days)... Typically, fasting did not mean less eating; it meant the avoidance of meat (and at times products such as butter and eggs as well)... Fast days mandated by the church took up nearly half the year,” which explains the large number of fish recipes in medieval cookbooks.

People were not happy with all those fast days. “Because long fasts were so monotonous,” writes Willan, “believers, at least those in upper-class households, found ingenious ways to circumvent the rules on forbidden foods.”

When I took a trip to Rouen in Normandy, a memorable sight was the splendid Butter Tower of the Gothic cathedral. The tower got its name because, writes Willan, “it was paid for with butter dispensations during Lent.”

Recipes were also affected by politics and nationalism. The most influential Spanish cookbook of the early 1600s was written by Francisco Martinez Montino, who worked in the royal kitchen. “In keeping with the royal determination at this time to rid Spain of Arab and Jewish influence,” writes Willan, “Montino’s recipes use lard, never olive oil.”

Food was similar across Europe in medieval times. In the 16th century, “English cooks became increasingly independent of the rest of Europe.” Their cookbooks had few international recipes. “Clearly, nationalism had entered the kitchen and cooks were increasingly convinced that English cooking was best.”

European medieval dishes were much different from those of today and were characterized by a “love of spices such as pepper, ginger, turmeric, cumin, and saffron, and sweet-sour flavorings of vinegar and honey or figs with wine and mustard,” writes Willan. In fact, these spice mixtures sound more like today’s Middle Eastern cooking.

Faye Levy is the author of the Fresh from France cookbook series.

DUXELLES – MUSHROOM HASH

Duxelles is a classic French preparation of butter-cooked chopped mushrooms flavored with shallots. It is said to have been created by François Pierre de la Varenne. La Varenne’s book, Le Cuisinier Francois (The French cook, 1651), was one of two books that “strongly influenced the evolution of French classical cuisine,” writes Anne Willan in The Cookbook Library. “As a good luck talisman,” she adds, “I kept a copy of Le Cuisinier Francois in my desk drawer when I opened La Varenne Cooking School in Paris in 1975.”

I learned to make duxelles at the cooking school. It is one of those magical mixtures that chefs in traditional kitchens keep on hand to slip into their culinary creations. Duxelles is easy to make and suitable for quick meals as well as special- occasion dishes like mushroom tarts. You can enrich duxelles with cream and serve it as a side dish with vegetables or fish, or use it as a tasty vegetable alternative to ground meat in stuffings and spaghetti sauce.

To vary the flavor, you can add dried thyme or chopped fresh tarragon. Mix duxelles with cooked rice or pasta for a quick entree, with a spoonful of cream or a sprinkling of grated cheese.

Makes about 1 cup.

225 gr. (1⁄2 pound) mushrooms, rinsed, patted dry
11⁄2 tsp. butter or vegetable oil
1 small shallot, minced salt and freshly ground pepper

Chop mushrooms in food processor with pulsing motion so they are chopped in fine pieces but are not pureed. In a medium-size skillet heat butter over low heat. Add shallot and saute about 1⁄2 minute until soft but not brown. Add mushrooms and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook over high heat, stirring, for 3 to 5 minutes or until mixture is dry. Serve hot.

RICH SEED CAKE WITH CARAWAY AND CINNAMON

This recipe is from The Cookbook Library by Anne Willan with Mark Cherniavsky. It is based on a cake in The Compleat Housewife by Eliza Smith, published in London in the 1700s. The caraway seeds give this buttery, not overly sweet cake a pleasant taste and made me wonder why caraway seeds aren’t used in cakes more often. At the book party the cake was accompanied by blueberries and a mixture of whipped cream and mascarpone cheese.

Willan urges the reader to try mixing the batter, which is very similar in proportions to classic pound-cake batter, by hand, as was originally done. “The direct contact with the batter as it develops from a soft cream to a smooth, fluffy batter is an experience not to be missed. If you use an electric mixer, the batter is fluffier but the cake emerges from the oven less moist and with a darker crust.”

The original recipe listed ambergris as an option for flavoring the cake. “Ambergris,” writes Willan, “a waxy secretion from a sperm whale, was once used to perfume foods. As it is now a rare ingredient, I’ve opted for Mrs. Smith’s second suggestion, of cinnamon, which marries unexpectedly well with caraway.”

Makes one 22-cm. (9-inch) cake

450 gr. (1 pound or 31⁄2 cups) flour
330 gr. (12⁄3 cups) sugar
45 gr. (6 Tbsp.) caraway seeds
5 eggs
4 egg yolks
450 gr. (1 pound or 2 cups) butter, more for the pan
11⁄2 Tbsp. rose water or orange-flower water
2 tsp. ground cinnamon

Heat the oven to 160ºC (325ºF). Butter a 22-cm. (9-inch) springform pan. Sift together the flour and sugar into a medium bowl, and stir in the caraway seeds. Separate the whole eggs, putting all the yolks together and straining the whites into a small bowl to remove the threads.

Cream the butter either by hand or with an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the yolks two at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the rose water. Whisk the egg whites just until frothy, then beat them, a little at a time, into the egg yolk mixture. Beat in the cinnamon. Finally, beat in the flour mixture, sprinkling it a little at a time over the batter. This should take at least 15 minutes by hand, 5 minutes with a mixer. The batter will lighten and become fluffier. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan.

Bake until the cake starts to shrink from the sides of the pan and a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean when withdrawn, 11⁄4 to 11⁄2 hours. Let the cake cool in the pan on a rack until tepid, then unmold it and leave it to cool completely on the rack. When carefully wrapped, it keeps well at room temperature for several days and the flavor will mellow.

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