Brain Pickings

Dinner with Mr. Darcy: Recipes from Jane Austen’s Novels and Letters

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Mr. Bingley’s white soup, Lady Middleton’s apricot marmalade, Margaret Dods’s pigeon pie, and more literary treats from Georgian England.

As a hopeless lover of imaginative cookbooks, especially ones with a literary or art bend — from homages like The Alice in Wonderland Cookbook and Modern Art Desserts to conceptual masterpieces like The Futurist Cookbook to actual recipes by Alexandre Dumas, Andy Warhol, Liberace, George Orwell, and Alice B. Toklas, and especially The Artists & Writers’ Cookbook — I was delighted to come across Dinner with Mr. Darcy (public library) — a collection of recipes inspired by the novels and letters of Jane Austen, conceived and compiled by Penguin Great Food series editor Pen Vogler.

From Mr. Bingley’s white soup in Pride and Prejudice to Aunt Norris’s lavish and prolific jellies in Mansfield Park to the everyday edibles Austen discussed in her letters to her sister Cassandra, the recipes capture both the spirit of the era and Austen’s singular sense and sensibility in creating an atmosphere through food.

One recipe comes from Martha Lloyd, Austen’s longtime friend and eventual sister-in-law, who lived with the Austen sisters for the final decade and a half of the author’s life. Lloyd kept a small “household book,” included in which were a number of recipes. One entry reads:

Pease [sic] Soup

Take two quarts of pease. Boil them to a pulp. Strain them. Put ½ lb of butter into a saucepan. Celery, half an onion, and stew them til tender. Then put two anchovies, powdered pepper, salt, mint and parsley (each a small handful) and spinach, and heat of each a small quantity. Half a spoonful of sugar. The soup be boiled as thick as you like it and the whole be ground together, boiled up and dished.

Vogler adapts the recipe into a contemporary version, featuring proper spelling and the use of a blender:

FRESH PEA SOUP

Pea soup was an Austen family favorite: Jane wrote that she was not ashamed to invite an unexpected guest to “our elegant entertainment” of “pease-soup, a spare rib and a pudding” (letter to Cassandra, December 1, 1798.) This was a perfect way of using up the older peas from the garden to produce a fresh, vividly colored soup.

2 celery sticks, finely chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
Scant ½ stick (50g) butter
Few springs of mint and parsley, chopped
3 anchovies or 6–8 anchovy fillets, chopped
Freshly ground white pepper
4 cups (500g) frozen or fresh peas
Generous 1 quart (1 liter) light vegetable or chicken stock
Pinch of sugar
4–5 good handfuls of spinach (you could use lettuce and/or chopped cucumber instead of the spinach)

  1. Gently cook the celery and the onion in butter until it is soft but not browned, then add the mint, parsley, and anchovy, grind in a little white pepper, and cook for a few minutes.
  2. Stir the peas into the mixture, add the stock and a good pinch of sugar, and simmer for 10 minutes.
  3. Add the spinach (or lettuce and/or cucumber) at the end of the cooking time, and cook for a few minutes more. Let it cool, then whizz with a blender. This gives a nice grainy texture, but push it through a sieve if you would like a smooth soup in the Georgian manner. Reheat gently to serve.

Another recipe surmises where Austen’s jam fancies may have come from and turns to The Experienced English Housekeeper, a popular 1769 book by Elizabeth Raffled. Vogler adapts Raffled’s recipe thusly:

APRICOT MARMALADE AND APRICOT “CAKES”

Lady Middleton successfully deploys “apricot marmalade” (which we would now call jam) to stop her daughter’s attention-seeking screams. The apricot cakes are made from thick purée, which is dried in the oven to make delicious, chewy sweets.

Makes 2 quarts (2 liters)

18 oz (500g) fresh apricots or dried apricots, reconstituted overnight in apple juice
1 ¼ cups (250g) preserving sugar for marmalade
1 ¾ cups (350g) preserving sugar for cakes

  1. Pit the fruit and boil it until tender — about 30 minutes. Then rub through a sieve or purée in a blender, stir in the sugar and bring back to a boil. Boil until the sugar has dissolved.
  2. To make apricot cakes, spoon the mixture into oiled muffin cups and smooth down. Leave in a very low oven, 175°F (80°C) to dry out for 5–6 hours, turning them over halfway.

Another recipe cooks up one of England’s most popular specialties from that era:

PIGEON PIE

It was the custom to put “nicely cleaned” pigeon feet in the crust to label the contents (although sensible Margaret Dods says “we confess we see little use and no beauty in the practice”). Georgian recipes for pigeon pie called for whole birds, but I’ve suggested stewing the birds first, so your guests don’t have to pick out the bones.

Serves 6–8 as part of a picnic spread

4 rashers of streaky bacon, chopped
Slice of lean ham, chopped
4 pigeons with their livers tucked inside (the livers are hard to come by, but worth hunting out)
Flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
9 oz (250g) steak, diced (original cooks would have used rump steak, but you could use something cheaper like topside, diced across the grain of the meat)
Butter
Olive oil
Finely chopped parsley
2 white onions, roughly chopped
A bouquet garni of any of the following, tied together: thyme, parsley, marjoram, winter savory, a bay leaf
Beurre manie made with about 2 tsp butter and 2 tsp flour
1 lb (500g) rough puff pastry, chilled
Optional additions: 1 onion, peeled and quartered; 2 carrots, roughly chopped; 1 celery stick, roughly chopped

  1. Brown the bacon and then the ham in a frying pan, then add the onions, if using, and cook until they are translucent. Transfer the mixture to a large saucepan
  2. Flour the pigeons well and brown them all over in butter and olive oil in a frying pan, transferring them to the same large saucepan. Flour and brown the steak in the same way
  3. Put the pigeons in a saucepan, and push the steak, bacon, and onions down all around them (choose a saucepan in which they will be quite tightly packed). Although the original recipe doesn’t include them, you may want to add the carrots and celery stick to improve the stock.

    Add approximately 1 ¼ cups (300ml) water, or enough to just cover the contents. Cover the pan, and simmer slowly until the meat comes off the pigeon bones — at least an hour.

    Do not allow the pan to come to a boil or the beef will toughen. Remove from the heat.

  4. When it is cool enough to handle, remove the steak and pigeons with a slotted spoon, and carefully pull the pigeon meat off the bones, keeping it as chunky as possible, and put it, with the livers from the cavity, with the steak. You should have a good thick sauce; if it is too thin, stir in the beurre manie a little at a time.

    Wait for it to cook the flour, and thicken before adding any more, until you have the right consistency.

  5. Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Roll out two-thirds of the pastry and line a pie dish about 3 inches/8cm deep, keeping a good ¼ inch (5mm) of pastry above the lip of the dish to allow for shrinkage
  6. Prick the bottom of the pastry and bake blind for 12 minutes. Add the meat mixture and pour in enough gravy to come to within an inch of the top.

    Roll out the remaining pastry to cover the top, crimping the edges together. Make a vent in the center, and use the trimmings to decorate.

    You may like to use the point of the knife to make small slash marks in the shape of pigeon footprints — a nod to the “nicely cleaned feet” of the original recipe. Bake for 25–30 minutes until the pastry is lightly golden, and cooked through

  7. To serve, this is a juicier pie than we are used to for picnics, so you will need plates, and knives and forks, in the Georgian manner

Dinner with Mr. Darcy contains many more edible delights inspired by the beloved author’s life and literature. Complement it with some recipes inspired by Lewis Carroll.

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