History of Food

History of Food

Thursday, January 6, 2011

January 6 is National Shortbread Day

Shortbread is a type of unleavened biscuit (cookie) which is traditionally made from one part white sugar, two parts butter, and three parts oatmeal flour. The use of plain white (wheat) flour is common today, and other ingredients like ground rice or cornflour are sometimes added to alter the texture.

Shortbread is so named because of its crumbly texture (from an old meaning of the word short). The cause of this texture is its high fat content, provided by the butter. The short or crumbly texture is a result of the fact that the fat inhibits the formation of long protein (gluten) strands. The related word “shortening” refers to any fat that may be added to produce a short (crumbly) texture.

History of Shortbread:
Shortbread may have been made as early as the 12th century, but its invention (or at least, the refinement to its current form) is often attributed to Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587) in the 16th century. She had a team of French chefs who had the time, labor and ingredients to perfect the recipes (you’ll read more about that below).  The history of Scottish shortbread is interconnected with the history of dairy farming and butter making in the British Isles during the Medieval Ages:
"As Jean-Louis Flandrin points out, butter consumption is a natural development in regions suitable for cattle-breeding. In such places, popular taste and the local economy had gone right over to butter as a cooking fat within 400 years....Flandrin is speaking about the butter-eating areas of Europe in the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries..."

---History of Food, Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat [Barnes & Noble Books:New York] 1992 (p. 121) [pages 120-124 present the history of butter, including its symbolism]
"Butter was the other principal milk dish [cheese being the other]. The manner of making is had changed little since Pliny's day...In other branches of cookery butter was an enricher, the accompaniment of cheese in herbolaces or with macaroni; of eggs, milk and sugar in the filling for a flathon; of plain or fancy breads in pain perdu or rastons. For short pastry and cakes, it was at first an alternative to fresh cream, but eventually superseded it, for butter had a more highly concentrated fat content, and was more easily stored.  Nevertheless butter appeared in a relatively small proportion of the dishes in medieval recipe books, which were written mainly for and by the cooks of the nobility. It was only in Tudor times that an emerging middle class, which did not despise butter as the food of the poor, began to use it liberally in every possible sphere of cookery, setting a trend that was to last for some two hundred years."

Shortbread recipes first appear in cookbooks of the time, although origination often precedes the first reference in print by a significant number of years. And alas, Queen Mary didn’t enjoy her shortbread with tea, nor did her cousin Queen Elizabeth I [1533-1603], because tea didn’t arrive in England until September of 1658.) It may be difficult for modern folks to imagine a world without a comforting hot cup of coffee, tea or hot chocolate, although herbal infusions have been around since as long as man could boil water, and there was hot cider plus hot spiced wine.

While shortbread is a famous accompaniment to tea (and of course, to coffee, milk and hot chocolate), the cookies are also served with wine and Champagne, and they are terrific accompaniments to ice cream, sorbet, puddings, fruit and other desserts.
Shortbread is different from shortcake, which can be similar to shortbread, but which can be made using vegetable fat instead of butter and always uses a chemical leavening agent such as baking powder, which gives it a different texture.

Shortbread biscuits are often associated with normal egg-based biscuits, but they hold their shape under pressure, making them ideal for packed meals.

Why the Shortbread name?
Why short? There are two different explanations for the name of the cookie. Some sources cite the crumbly or “short” texture of the product. Others attribute the name to its high percentage of shortening, or butter (the word “shortening” refers to any fat).  

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "Short" (definition 20): Of edible substances: Friable, easily crumbled. This describes the process of making shortbread. This is also where the English term "shortening" comes from. According to John Ayto, the term "shortbread" dates back only as far as the early nineteenth century. [An A-Z of Food and Drink, Oxford University Press:Oxford 2002 (p. 310).]

Butteriness is an important quality in shortbread—so much so that in 1921 the British government legislated that a product called shortbread must get at least 51% of its fat from real butter. Outside of the U.K., however, there is no such requirement. Check the label to ensure yourself of an authentic shortbread experience. Hold out for 100% butter cookies.


Saturday, January 1, 2011

January is National Tea Month

Truly Steeped in Tradition…

Yes, that perfect cup of tea is truly steeped in history and tradition. The Emperor of China was the first to enjoy the beverage created by steeping leaves from the herb Camelia Simensis plant nearly 5000 years ago. In colonial days, tea leaves were boiled at length to create a very bitter brew. This concoction of leaves that had been severely overcooked was then salted, buttered, and eaten.

Today tea is the world's second most popular beverage consumed, second only to water. It's easy to make, affordable, and offers variety in its flavors and aroma. Americans drink 50 billion cups of tea each year, 40 billion of which are served as iced tea.
Tea Time Trivia…

The first tea bags were created by Thomas Sullivan in 1904, and made of silk.

The difference between Black, Green, and Oolong tea is a result of the changes that occur during processing of the tea leaves. They are all made from the same type of tea leaves.

Black teas are fermented, left in a cool, dark, and damp place for a time, and then heated to stop the fermentation process.

Oolong teas are semi-fermented.

Green teas are heated after picking…so there is no fermenting process.

Herbal teas are not actually teas, but are concoctions of peels, flower leaves, herbs, and spices, and are caffeine free.

The caffeine content of tea is 40 mg in one cup of tea as compared to 99 mg of caffeine in a cup of coffee.

Black and Green teas contain a certain type of antioxidant called flavenoids.

To be labeled “decaffeinated,” the caffeine content per cup of tea must be approximately 5 mg.

As legend has it, one day in 2737 B.C. the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung was boiling drinking water over an open fire, believing that those who drank boiled water were healthier. Some leaves from a nearby Camellia sinensis plant floated into the pot. The emperor drank the mixture and declared it gave one "vigor of body, contentment of mind, and determination of purpose."

Perhaps as testament to the emperor's assessment, tea--the potion he unwittingly brewed that day--today is second only to water in worldwide consumption. The U.S. population is drinking its fair share of the brew; in 1994, Americans drank 2.25 billion gallons of tea in one form or another--hot, iced, spiced, flavored, with or without sugar, honey, milk, cream, or lemon.

A serving of tea generally contains about 40 milligrams of caffeine (less than half as much caffeine as in coffee), but the actual levels vary depending on the specific blend and the strength of the brew. Decaffeinated tea is also available.

Many tea drinkers find the beverage soothing, and folk medicine has long valued it as a remedy for sore throats and unsettled stomachs. Recent studies have shown that certain chemicals in tea called polyphenols may help reduce the risk of far more serious illnesses, including atherosclerosis and some cancers, although the data are not conclusive.

Tea comes in black, green and oolong varieties, all produced from the leaves of Camellia sinensis, a white-flowered evergreen. The method of processing the leaf distinguishes the three types. (Herbal teas are made from leaves of other plants. FDA requires that herbal tea labels carry the name of the plant the product derives from, such as chamomile. For more on herbal teas, see "Herbal Teas and Toxicity" in the May 1991 FDA Consumer.)

There are as many legends about the origins of tea as there are about corfee. 0nc such tale credics the discovery of the beverage to the Chinese Emperor Chen Nung. He was called "the Divine Healer" and had discovered the healing power of a number of herbs. He also advocated thc boiling of all drinking water to prevent disease and it was this habit that led him to the discovery of tea.

Some legends include:
One night in the year 2737 B.C., the emperor sat before his campfire waiting for his drinking water to boil. As it happened, the fire was made from brandies of thc Camellia sinensis.

Some scorched leaves swirled upwards nn a column of hot air, then slowly subsided. A good many fell into the pot. The emperor might well have thrown the water away, but the delightful scent now coming from the cauldron tempted him to taste it. The flavor was astringent, clean, refreshing. As an advocatc of healthful concoctions it appealed Strongly to him. He began experimenting with more leaves of the same tree.

As a result, tea was added to the emperor's list of herbals.

While this story is speculation, it may not be too far from the truth. It was common for the early Chinese to boil drinking water. The taste of boiled water is singularly unappealing and no doubt many flavoring agents were tried. Tea makes boiled watter not only palatable, but good tasting, and it provides the extra stimulation of caffeine. In combination with the improved protection from disease provided by the boiled water it is not surprising that tea not only became popular, but was also viewed as medicinal.

Tea was cultivated and sold commercially by 780 A.D. when the book Ch'a Ching or Tea Classic was written. The book was sponsored by a group of merchants and its purpose was to promote tea drinking. This has prompted one tea historian to declare "... The affair, in fact, justifies us in adding Public Relations to Gunpowder, Printing and of course Tea on the list of China's anticipations of twentieth century man's profoundest needs." (Tea for the British, Forest D., 1973, London: Chatto & Windus.)