Cookbooks & History: Pollo guisado al gusto del país

Students in Cookbooks and History (MET ML 630), directed by Dr. Karen Metheny, researched and recreated a historical recipe to bring in to class. They were instructed to note the challenges they faced, as well as define why they selected their recipe and why it appealed to them. Here is the seventh essay in this series, written by Lyrsa Torres-Velez. 

As a Puerto Rican living in the diaspora, I feel the need to share my culture whenever possible. That’s one of the main reasons I always select Puerto Rican dishes to present in class projects. I feel the closest to my culture and the island while cooking. It’s a way to stay connected and pass the word about us as a group. For this class project, I chose the recipe “Pollo guisado al gusto del país” from El Cocinero Puerto-riqueño (1859: 77 ). El Cocinero Puerto-riqueño was the first published cookbook from Puerto Rico. I have been working on this book for about 2 years and was always compelled to recreate a recipe, so this was a great opportunity to observe if the culinary ways of Puerto Rico today still have any similarity with the ways of the mid 19th century.

Aside from choosing a recipe that could easily represent my culture, I also chose one that was doable, and that was people friendly. Many of the recipes in the book call for the use of pork or by-products, so I knew I had to find something that my classmates would enjoy. I had 3 different recipes that involved chicken, and a similar list of ingredients, but I thought this one would be hard to mess up. One of my favorite Puerto Rican dishes is Carne Guisada o Pollo Guisado, which is something very similar to this recipe (a stew), but using beef instead of chicken, and adding carrots and potatoes. One of my goals was to see how similar in taste and appearance this dish would be to what we currently know as Carne o Pollo Guisado.

The recipe goes as follows:

Desplumados y limpios, se cortan en cuartos y se ponen en una cazuela al fuego con 2 onzas de manteca , tres cebollas partidas en cuartos, cinco dientes de ajo machacados, un poco de orégano, un poco de vinagre, especias finas, un poco de vino seco y sal, cuando esté medio cocido se le echa ajíes encurtidos, y se deja a fuego lento, hasta que esté blando, y entonces se puede servir.

(Defeathered and clean, cut in quarts and put them in a pot with 2 ounces of lard, 3 onions cut in quarts, 5 cloves of garlic smashed, a little of oregano, a little of vinegar, fine spices, a little of dry wine and salt, when it’s half done add peppers, and lower heat, until soft, and then it can be served). (1859: 77 )

The first challenge and the biggest one was to find fresh live chickens to de-feather. I decided to substitute the live chickens with some great Nature’s Promises Chicken Thighs, and used butter instead of the lard . The rest of the ingredients I had available at home since they are basic ingredients in everyday recipes I cook at home. The instructions were simple to me because that’s the way I learned how to cook. That’s what we call “a ojo,” which means that you more or less play with the quantity of ingredients, until you reach the flavor or consistency of whatever dish you are making, but for a person that has no experience in the kitchen, the recipe can be vague because it does not give a time frame. It doesn’t specify how many chickens the recipe calls for. So I calculated the amount of chicken, based on the quantity of onions and garlic that the recipe called for. The fine spices are not identified. What are “fine spices”? Are those spices that only the people with a social status could afford? So I decided that my fine spices were fresh Thyme, Rosemary, and Saffron.

During the process of cooking, I think the most difficult part was that the chicken was colorless. So I added a little bit of tomato sauce because I thought it was too pale. Most of our national food is colorful: habichuelas guisadas, mofongos, arroz mamposteao. The color of the chicken made me a little bit sad.  Call me crazy, but I could not just bring chicken to class. Where have you heard about eating just chicken? Not in Puerto Rico. So I also did a little bit of rice and beans to serve with the chicken.

I really enjoyed this project because it gave me the opportunity to have the hands-on experience with the dishes that the past people of Puerto Rico ate, with the limited technology available at the time. It was also a way not just to connect me with my people in this difficult time for the island, but also a way to present my culture to my fellow classmates.

Bibliographical Reference:

“El Cocinero Puerto-riqueño O Formulario Para Confeccionar Toda Clase De …” Google Books. Accessed October 17, 2017.


Cookbooks & History: Apple Truffles

Students in Cookbooks and History (MET ML 630), directed by Dr. Karen Metheny, researched and recreated a historical recipe to bring in to class. They were instructed to note the challenges they faced, as well as define why they selected their recipe and why it appealed to them. Here is the sixth essay in this series, written by Sarah Critchley.

My historical recipe comes from Mrs. Hattie A Burr’s The Woman Suffrage Cook Book, Containing Thoroughly Tested and Reliable Recipes for Cooking, Directions for the Care of the Sick, and Practical Suggestions, Contributed Especially for This Work, published in Boston in 1886. We were doing community cookbooks as a topic for this week’s class, and I loved the idea of using this local Suffragette cookbook for my source.

After flipping through the book, I landed on Mrs. Alice A Geddes’ recipe for something called “Apple Truffles” (1886 67). She included a list of readily-accessible ingredients at the beginning of the recipe, and called for relatively straight forward actions, and since the whole thing was cooked on a stove it didn’t require me to make a guess about an oven temperature. Her recipe was just vague enough to allow me to put my own cooking knowledge to use, and the fact that I had never heard of this dessert made the whole thing an entertaining challenge. Plus, I live in Cambridge and Mrs. Alice A Geddes also lived in Cambridge, so I thought I would pay honor to a fellow Cantabrigian.

Shopping for the ingredients posed no problem and I was able to buy everything from the grocery store around the corner from my apartment. For apples, I chose a mix of Macouns and Cortlands, and I used organic milk and cream. Some of the equipment she calls for I wasn’t able to use – I’m not sure if anyone these days has a glass jar that is large enough to fit a dozen sliced apples. Instead, I assumed that she just wanted the apples to cook gently in their own juices, so I put them in a dutch oven with a parchment lid on top and stirred regularly to make sure they didn’t color. I essentially ended up with applesauce after mashing them up, and I put that in a dish to cool. She stresses the importance of the apples being cold before proceeding, so I put the whole dish in the refrigerator.

I ran into trouble in the next step, which was making the custard. Since I was unfamiliar with this dessert, I wasn’t sure what kind of consistency she was looking for in the final product other than “thickened.” With a whole quart of milk and four large eggs, I would have expected some kind of cornstarch or flour to act as a thickener that would give a consistency similar to a pastry cream. Instead, forty minutes of gently stirring over a double boiler eventually frustrated me and I took two actions to make sure I would have a transportable dish to bring to class instead of applesauce with a quart of creme anglaise poured on top. I made a cornstarch slurry with one tablespoon of cornstarch to thicken it a little, and I ditched the double-boiler to just put it on medium-low direct heat. Although I’m still not exactly sure how thick she wanted the custard, my actions proved moderately successful and my custard set overnight, but it was a little overcooked. Mrs. Geddes’ directions continue directly into topping the dessert with whipped cream after the custard step, but I knew that the whipped cream would just melt into the still-warm custard, so I topped my dessert the next day with no problems.

Overall, she gave just enough guidance for me to feel confident in attempting her recipe, but she really lost me with the custard. If I had been more familiar with Apple Truffles I think it would have been easier for me to produce a closer result to what was intended. This was definitely an exercise in using my own cooking instincts, but I’m still not sure if they guided me toward the correct final product or not.

Burr, Hattie A. The Woman Suffrage Cook Book, Containing Thoroughly Tested and Reliable Recipes for Cooking, Directions for the Care of the Sick, and Practical Suggestions, Contributed Especially for This Work. Boston: Hattie A Burr, 1886.

Cookbooks & History: Apple Fritters

Students in Cookbooks and History (MET ML 630), directed by Dr. Karen Metheny, researched and recreated a historical recipe to bring in to class. They were instructed to note the challenges they faced, as well as define why they selected their recipe and why it appealed to them. Here is the fifth essay in this series, written by Anastasia Nicolaou.

Why apple fritters? Because apples are in season! With New England’s rich tradition of cider mills and apple orchards that still attract tourists and locals every fall, I thought an attempt at a classic apple fritter was appropriate, even if the weather is currently unsure if it’s fall or summer.

For the recipe, I used Mary Randolph’s The Virginia House-Wife (1838: 129). Mary Randolph, having fallen on hard times, opened a boarding house to support her family in 1808, and first published The Virginia House-Wife in 1824. It went through many reprints over the next 50 years, and is considered one of the first receipt books in American history (Daley 2013).When considering historical recipes, we have to keep some important things in mind. For one, the layout of the recipe may not be what we are used to as the modern readers. As we can see in the image from The Virginia House-Wife, Randolph does not separate out the ingredients, and measurements are used sporadically. When faced with “some apples,” I decided to peel and seed four, which I sliced thinly but did not core.

The sugar was easy enough to understand – 1lb of granulated sugar is two cups. A quarter would be half a cup. For a glassful of brandy, I took out a small wine glass, measured out the brandy, and threw it in the dish with the apples. Some wine proved a little more challenging – I ended up adding enough to get the liquid barely covering the apples in a single layer (since the recipe mentioned one should turn over the apples in the dish periodically, I figured completely submerging was out of the question). A sprinkling of cinnamon, subjective, and the rind of one lemon went into the pan as well.

My entire kitchen smelled like liquor. That was a potent cocktail the apples were soaking in! I let the apples stand for about an hour total, and turned them over frequently as directed. The batter turned out well – the true measurements of everything but the water was helpful. I ended up adding water until it was the consistency of a crepe batter (my own embodied knowledge).

This is where I started mentally fighting with Randolph. Her recipe did not call for the apples to be totally dried before battering, nor did it mention dredging them in flour before putting them in the batter. I felt disaster was imminent, and I was correct. The batter in the first batch slid entirely off the apples, and in the frying pan the apples dissolved immediately because of their high liquid content. There were bits of burned batter and melted apples everywhere.

So I re-worked Randolph’s recipe. I dried the apples with a paper towel, then dipped them in flour before dipping them in the batter. This time, the batter stuck and the frying happened quickly.

Per Randolph, the fritters should have been taken out when they reached a light brown. I did this, sprinkled them with sugar, and voilà! Apple Fritters.

These were great fresh out of the frying pan. They were crispy and warm and still firm because the apple itself was barely cooked in the oil. Unfortunately, as the day went on, the high liquid content in the apples began to seep into the batter, rendering the fritters a mess. In class, people commented that the firmness of the apple somewhat made up for the lack of crisp in the batter, but I wasn’t buying it.

Overall, Randolph’s recipe was a success. As soon as the extra steps were added to prep the apples, they fried up the way I envisioned. Perhaps Randolph assumed the chef reading her book would know to take those steps, or perhaps tastes have changed and melted apples in oil with blobs of fried batter was the way to go (though I doubt it).

Works Cited

Daley, Bill. 2013. “Mary Randolph wrote The Virginia House-Wife cookbook in 1824.” Chicago Tribune, September 18. Accessed October 18, 2017.

Randolph, Mary. 1838. The Virginia House-Wife. Baltimore: Plaskitt & Cugle. PDF e-book.

Cookbooks & History: Shaker Bread

Students in Cookbooks and History (MET ML 630), directed by Dr. Karen Metheny, researched and recreated a historical recipe to bring in to class. They were instructed to note the challenges they faced, as well as define why they selected their recipe and why it appealed to them. Here is the fourth essay in this series, written by Ashley Lopes.

Cookbooks and recipes are more than just ingredients on a list or words on a page. They tell us untold stories about historic communities, social networks, and meal systems. In my Cookbooks and History class, we learn how recipe collections transmit knowledge and reflect the changing practices and food landscape. What does the act of “doing cooking” convey?  To answer this question, I recreated a historical recipe from Caroline Piercy’s The Shaker Cook Book (1953). The Shakers were a religious sect formed in the 18th century. They sought a utopian society where they could develop a spirit of community. In her book, Piercy compiles hundreds of traditional Shaker recipes, from pickles and preserves to breads and cakes.

The Recipe

I chose to recreate “Shaker Daily Loaf” for a number of reasons: 1) I love bread. 2) Bread-making was an integral part of Shaker communities. Women often baked 20 to 30 loaves a day. 3) One of Piercy’s readers has inserted a handwritten loose-leaf paper, with an index of his/her favorite recipes. The Shaker Daily Loaf is included in this list, which suggests that the recipe is as practical as it is delicious.

Many historical cookbooks (e.g. Lydia Maria Child’s The Frugal Housewife, 1830) rely on subjective forms of measurements, such as “butter the size of an egg.” The Shakers, however, were much more precise. Their bread recipe provides a standardized list of ingredients with exact measurements. The actual procedure is organized in paragraph style and specifies the baking time and oven temperature. Evidently, the Shakers demonstrated an understanding of domestic science and applied these methods in their cooking.


The Shakers also relied on intuitive, preexisting knowledge. Some of the steps in their recipe lack instruction or explanation. For example, how do you know when the yeast is activated? How do you scald milk? Do you knead the dough twice? Should you cover the dough as it rises? With over 100 mouths to feed three times daily, Shaker communities were well acquainted with how to make the standard bread loaf. Perhaps this recipe was documented for their record-keeping, rather than for instructing the novice cook.

The main challenge I experienced in this recipe involved the application of yeast. The recipe calls for “1/2 cake compressed yeast,” dissolved in 1/8 cup of warm water. While the recipe specifies the quantity of cake yeast, it does not indicate the size. What’s more, cake yeast is often sold in different sizes, 0.6 oz to 2 oz blocks, at limited locations. This made things difficult for me. How do I accurately convert 1/2 cake yeast to the modern equivalent of dry active yeast? Initially, I dissolved half a packet (1/8 oz) of dry yeast with the 1/8 cup of warm water. The yeast failed to activate. I tried again and it failed once more. On my third try, I decided to follow the directions on the back of the Fleischmann’s dry yeast packet. I dissolved 1/4 oz of yeast with 1/4 cup of warm water and 1 teaspoon of sugar. Success! Within 10 minutes, the yeast began to bubble and form a creamy foam. I used only half of this yeast mixture with my flour and dry ingredients.

Transmission of Knowledge

Apart from the yeast conversion, this Shaker recipe was relatively easy to replicate. The remaining instructions were fairly intuitive: knead the dough, let rise, knead again, let rise a final time, and bake. In all, the recipe assumes a great deal about the skill set of the reader. We may view the instructions as incomplete or lacking, but for the Shakers, this was all implied knowledge.

The Shakers practiced sensory engagement to guide the reader through each step. They relied less on measurable criteria and more on their own experience to determine when a food ingredient reached the correct consistency. For example, the recipe notes how the dough should feel, how it should look when risen, and how the finished loaf should sound: “Gradually add flour until sponge is stiff enough so it does not stick to hands … Let rise to double its bulk … Test loaf by tapping top; if it sounds hollow, the loaf is done.” Altogether, the Shakers demonstrate a utilitarian approach to baking, with writing that is more straightforward than personal. Bread was considered the “staff of life” and bread-making was a communal activity that fed hundreds of mouths daily. This process required nothing more than one’s own self and a loaf pan and oven.


Child, Lydia Maria. 1830. The Frugal Housewife. Second edition. Boston: Carter and Hendee.

Piercy, Caroline B. 1953. The Shaker Cook Book: Not by Bread Alone. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc.

Cookbooks & History: Corn Meal Bread

Students in Cookbooks and History (MET ML 630), directed by Dr. Karen Metheny, researched and recreated a historical recipe to bring in to class. They were instructed to note the challenges they faced, as well as define why they selected their recipe and why it appealed to them. Here is the third essay in this series, written by Laura Kitchings.

Cornbread from “The Virginia Housewife” (1838)

I chose to work with the corn meal bread recipe from Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife (Randolph 1838, 141) because it was gluten-free, which suits my dietary needs, and easily transportable, so I could bring the finished project to our class. I had been working with the cookbook for another assignment, and was curious as to the usability of her recipes. I started by considering the material culture I thought I would need: a whisk, a bowl for mixing, a pint measurement, and a divided cast iron pan. I believed that the divided cast iron pan would replicate the technology available in 1838, and substitute for the little pans from the recipe.

In choosing the ingredients, I tried to find materials as close as possible to what would have been available at the time in Virginia, while completing a weeknight shop at a suburban Massachusetts grocery store. I chose whole milk, unsalted butter, organic eggs, and for the cornmeal, I chose a brand that did not list any additives.

For my first attempt, I decided to light one burner on a gas grill and then put the cornmeal mix on the furthest part of the grill from the lit burner. I then left it for approximately forty minutes. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to activate the yeast, and when I checked on the mixture it had not risen and had started to bake. It had also developed a gas taste, which may be attributed to the newness of the particular gas grill.

For the next attempt, I remembered to activate the yeast and decided to use the oven. I set the oven for 205 degrees Fahrenheit and put the cornmeal mixture in an enabled cast iron pot, similar to the technology of the time. Again, when I checked on the mixture after about forty minutes in the oven, it had started to bake. I tried to save the mixture by putting it into the divided cast iron pan, adding butter to hydrate the mixture. Putting the cast iron pan in a 400 degrees Fahrenheit oven and checking it after ten minutes, it had become a crumbly mess.

I then decided to make cornbread as I usually do. I used a mix with added sugar and baking soda, which served as a leavening agent. I used almond milk for the milk and olive oil for the oil. Following the instructions on the package, the end result looked fluffier and tasted sweeter than the mixture from Randolph’s recipe. This was mainly a result of the added sugar and leavening agents, not from changes in the cornmeal itself.  I also realized that while creating cornbread using the mix superficially appeared to use only a few ingredient, both the almond milk and the cornbread mix contain a multitude of ingredients, far more than Randolph’s recipe.

For my final attempt at Randolph’s recipe, I realized that my kitchen is a more controlled environment than the kitchen envisioned in the recipe. The thermostat in my kitchen read 70 degrees Fahrenheit, which I assumed to be accurate. Randolph could not assume a kitchen with a controlled environment, so she had the user put the cornbread mixture near the fire, as this would allow the yeast to work with the cornbread regardless of the temperature of the kitchen. I ended up putting the mixture in a shallow enameled cast iron pan and left it on my counter for twenty minutes. The mixture did rise a small amount. I then placed the pan into a pre-heated 375 degree Fahrenheit oven, the same temperature I had baked the cornbread from the mix. I kept the mixture in the shallow pan, as I decided that this would mimic the surface area of the little pans required in the recipe. The result was a solid, dense cornbread.

While waiting for the various rounds of cornbread to bake, I had been reading Diane Tye’s Baking as Biography. In this book she discusses the fall of the price of white sugar in the mid-nineteenth century and the corresponding rise in its consumption (Tye 2010). Randolph’s recipe was likely published before the change in sugar prices and to early 19th-century palates the cornbread was likely considered somewhat sweet. In comparison, my 21st-century palate found the bread to lack sufficient sweetness, while the cornbread from the mix tasted only somewhat sweet.  While I do not plan to re-create other recipes from Randolph’s book, the experience did make me examine other historical recipes with more care, and consider the motives behind the provided instructions.


Randolph, Mary. 1838. The Virginia House-Wife. Baltimore: Plaskitt & Cugle. PDF e-book.

Tye, Diane. 2010. Baking as Biography: A Life Story in Recipes. Montreal (Québec): McGill-Queen’s University Press.