Praise of Gruel
with Jane Austen
Books, 2004. xvii + 108 pages.
B/W illustrations. Hardcover. $16.95.
Reviewed by Bobbie Gay.
When asked to review
a book for the JASNA News, I
was at first apprehensive that I might not be able to review
effectively an arcane or abstruse book, but agreed upon learning the
topic was “tea.” I decided to review Kim Wilson’s new book as a
cookbook rather than as literary text, and toward that end, planned two
tea parties at my home, both for relative tea neophytes.
When I received
the book, I was a little disappointed at the small number of recipes
included. I was, however, utterly charmed by the collection of so much
information about tea in Jane Austen’s day, including extensive quotes
from the letters and novels, references to other contemporary sources,
and acknowledgments to old friends such as Maggie Lane, Deirdre Le
Faye, Brian Southam, and, a personal favorite, Mark Girouard. Chapters
include “Tea in the Morning,” “Tea and Shopping,” “Tea away from Home,”
“Tea and Health,” “Tea in the Evening,” and of course, “Making the
Perfect Cup”—all generously illustrated in black and white. Wilson’s
personal tone throughout was delightful, and her knowledge of Austen
unimpeachable. As to the recipes, I enjoyed reading the recipes from
1807, but was thankful that Wilson had translated the ingredients and
methods into modern terms; who would not prefer beating cake batter in
an electric mixer for eight minutes, rather than by hand for an hour
and a half!
Now to the tea
parties. At the first party, I made “Water Gruel,” followed by small
sandwiches of my own devising, then scones, and then “Rout Cakes for
Mrs. Elton,” and “Lemon Cheesecakes for Fanny and Edward,” along with
kir royale, as none of us cares for sherry. (Kir royale is champagne
mixed with crème de cassis to taste.) I am an inexperienced
baker, so I followed these recipes exactly as written, weighing the
flour instead of measuring it. The rout cakes, essentially shortbread
cookies, were a bit dry, possibly owing to the low relative humidity
where I live (Tucson) affecting the flour, but the flavor was
outstanding. Half were made with dried currants, half with caraway
seeds; the seed cakes were a rare success! Caraway is, of course,
generally associated with sauerkraut or cole slaw, but as a crunchy
bite in a cookie, it was unusual and tasty, especially as a foil to the
sweeter fare. The lemon cheesecakes, made with the whole peel of lemon
including the white pith, were pleasantly bitter.
At the second
party, I again made gruel followed by sandwiches and scrambled eggs,
then “Plum Cake for an Elegant Breakfast,” and then rout cakes, lemon
cheesecakes, and kir royale. The plum cake was the hit of the party!
Wilson’s book is worth the price for this recipe alone. Not your great
auntie’s “unpleasant dried lump,” this is the lightest, most delicate
fruitcake imaginable. I used real dried fruit—cranberries, blueberries,
cherries, and strawberries—and the result was something I will make
again and again. For the rout cakes, I used less flour and all caraway,
and they were an even bigger success. The lemon cheesecakes were more
bitter this time; using only the yellow part of the lemon peel might
So what about
the gruel? Served in ceramic custard cups to be drunk instead of
spooned up, my guests approached it cautiously, being versed in Dickens
as well as Austen. What an amusement to see the faces light up! “Oh,
it’s oatmeal-water!” “I would drink this again on a cold day!” “Very
soothing!” At the first party, I made it exactly as written and felt it
was too thin for my taste. At the second, I doubled the amount of
oatmeal and it was so thick that I had to thin it with hot water. To
make “a basin of nice smooth gruel, thin, but not too thin,” I
recommend that you increase the amount of oatmeal to four tablespoons,
especially if you plan to thin it later with another liquid.
For those who
wish to try the gruel, here you go:
3 tablespoons quick-cooking oatmeal
Salt and sugar to taste
1 tablespoon butter
Flavorings: pepper to taste, or
Nutmeg and/or wine, sherry, or port (or spirits, recommended for a
A cinnamon stick or a bit of lemon peel boiled with the oatmeal, or
1-2 teaspoons lemon juice squeezed into the finished gruel
Bring the water
to a boil; gradually stir in the oatmeal. Add the lemon peel or
cinnamon stick, if using, at this point. Let the mixture boil gently,
about 5 minutes stirring often. Then strain it through a colander to
catch any big bits—this is supposed to be a drink, more or less. Add
the butter and the sugar to the liquid and stir until smooth. Stir in
any desired flavorings. Serve warm in a basin (a la Mr. Woodhouse) or
in a cup. Makes one large serving.
Go ahead and
try this on the next damp, chilly day. Mr. Woodhouse would be proud.
Gay, the 800-number operator for JASNA, is also the Regional
Coordinator for Southern Arizona and the Associate Coordinator for the
2006 Tucson AGM.
v.21, no. 1, Spring 2005, p. 14
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