Monday, August 29, 2011

Alice B. Toklas and her cook book - Part One.

Alice B. Toklas, Chartres, October 1949
Carl Van Vechten
Who was Alice B. Toklas?

Alice Babette was the only daughter of Ferdinand and Emma (Levinsky) Toklas, born in San Francisco on 30 April 1877. As a child she lived a comfortable and cultured middle-class existence surrounded by the female members of her mother's family, women interested in flowers, gardens, food, music and fashion. At eight she travelled to Europe with her parents; a few months after her tenth birthday her brother Clarence was born and at sixteen she entered the University of Washington to study music. (Her father's business interests were in Seattle and Olympia and the family was living in Seattle at the time.) She was all set, as her biographer suggests, to 'glide quietly into the coming century, comfortable in the Jewish middle class, a well-trained flower of pale Victorian womanhood'. The wheels started to fall off when her mother became ill and the family returned to San Francisco. Alice, aged eighteen, was required to take on the role of housekeeper. Emma Toklas died in March 1897, just before Alice's twentieth birthday, and Alice, Clarence and Ferdinand moved in with her widowed grandfather, Emma's father, Louis Levinsky.

Although she mixed with musicians (she had the idea of perhaps becoming a concert pianist), artists and writers, went to the theatre and to restaurants, she lived in a male dominated, highly conservative household where she was valued largely for her efficient housekeeping. Like most young women of her class she had been brought up to be a lady and a 'perfect hostess' who would eventually make someone the perfect wife. By 1904 her grandfather was dead, her brother was eighteen and no longer requiring her ministrations and she had given up the idea of a musical career. Alice began to think of escape.

Alice's friend, Harriet Levy, was a friend of Sarah Stein, wife of Michael Stein, the older brother of Leo and Gertrude. In 1903 the Michael Steins had gone to join Leo and Gertrude and settle in Paris, taking with them another of Alice's friends, Annette Rosenshine. At the end of August 1907 Alice and Harriet also left San Francisco to join the Stein circle.

Almost from the moment she meets Gertrude in Paris, Alice and Gertrude become GertrudeandAlice with Alice fulfilling her role as the perfect wife. Gertrude writes and Alice works assiduously nurturing Gertrude's genius. Both of them become popularly well known after the publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas written by Gertrude and published in 1933. Before this date Alice is just plain Alice Toklas. It is Gertrude who chooses the name for the book despite Alice's protestations and she is Alice B. Toklas from then on. Gertrude dies in 1946, when Alice is 69, and she spends the next twenty years maintaining the Gertrude Stein legend and crafting anecdotes about their lives in her own books The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book and What is Remembered.

Why did Alice write a cook book?

By her own admission it was at least in part because she needed some money. Although Gertrude Stein had intended to leave Alice well provided for, after Gertrude died Alice lived in ever more straightened financial circumstances. The idea of writing a cook book however was something she and Gertrude had discussed. According to Linda Simon (Alice's biographer) a plan for a cook book of seven chapters interspersed with recollections had been written on the inside cover of Gertrude's copy of James Fenimore Cooper's The Pilot although there is no indication of when this was done. Simon also references from amongst Stein's papers a note by Gertrude that 'Alice is at work planning a cook book and reading recipes', that 'she is deep in descriptions of cake she will never make', which dates from 1946.
Their friend Carl Van Vechten claimed to have witnessed two occasions when Gertrude had ridiculed Alice about the idea of writing a cook book despite Alice having long wanted to do so (Souhami, p. 260). In a letter to Carl Van Vechten in November 1946, Alice admits to having told Thornton Wilder that she might write a cook book and he had responded 'but Alice have you ever tried to write'. Perhaps those scenes with Gertrude were also in her mind when she wrote her famous final sentence 'As if a cook-book had anything to do with writing'.

Alice had collected recipes from childhood and had a reputation as a good cook but her publishers were probably less interested in her recipes than in her memoirs (Simon p. 217). More particularly they must have been interested in what Alice could tell of the years not covered by Gertrude in The Autobiography. Carl Van Vechten thought that her clashes with Gertrude had made her wary of writing anything and certainly anything about their life together. For her part perhaps Alice was flattered by the attention she was receiving (she was also approached to write articles for Vogue and House Beautiful), perhaps she realised that using food as the basis for her reminiscences meant that she could easily control just how revelatory they were, and, after all, she could do with the money. In the publisher's note to the 1984 edition of The Cook Book it is Alice who suggests to the publisher that she write a cook book full of memories rather than a book about her life with Gertrude Stein.

Where did her recipes come from?

Alice had collected recipes for most of her life. From about the time her mother became ill and she took charge of the household she began copying recipes into 'a grey cloth-covered notebook'. Did she expect when she left San Francisco in 1904 she would never return? Whether she did or not, among the possessions she took with her to Paris were this notebook and her mother's handwritten cook-book, both of which she referred to when it came to writing her own books fifty years later. The recipes she collected were her 'treasures', a way of capturing her memories and recording her experiences. In The Cook Book she says

When treasures are recipes they are less clearly, less distinctly remembered than when they are tangible objects. They evoke however quite a vivid feeling – that is, to some of us who, considering cooking an art, feel that a way of cooking can produce something that approaches an aesthetic emotion. What more can one say? If one had the choice of again hearing Pachmann play the two Chopin sonatas or dining once more at the Café Anglais which would one choose?

Cook books and reading about food and cooking had always 'intrigued and seduced' her. She discussed food with cooks and chefs she met on her travels, experimented to reproduce food she had eaten in restaurants and exchanged ideas with her friends. Amongst her collection she had 'priceless recipes from three chateaux manuscript cook books' from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as well as books which she had received as gifts. Gertrude gave her ' very important' cook books for Christmas (such as Montagne and Salles The Great Book of the Kitchen) and friends regularly sent her the latest publications (such as Wanda Frolov's Katish: Our Russian Cook published in 1947 from W. G. Rogers).
But a recipe collection does not make a cook book, as Alice discovered. She found the process of writing the book a 'grind' and the effort was difficult and tormenting, at least in part because she was now 75 and recovering from jaundice, but she plodded on 'despairfully'. The chapter entitled 'Recipes from Friends' (which included the notorious Hashish Fudge recipe) was a device to make up the short fall of words in what she thought of as a 'deadly dull offering'. Alice had neither the time nor the means to test any of the recipes she included, instead she spent the winter of 1952 bent over an 'imaginary stove'. She was both shocked and furious when told about the hashish fudge, it would appear that she had not even bothered to read the recipe before including it with the rest of the manuscript.  In her foreword to the 1984 edition of The Cook Book M.K.F. Fisher notes that the first edition listed ten errata of which only three were significant. Linda Simon discusses one of these, the amount of milk required for the croissant recipe (p.219) which, when discovered, left Alice 'ashamed and confused'.

After The Cook Book was published (in 1954) she was approached to do more food writing but found she had no more words left, lamenting 'there is nothing but a large cardboard box of recipes. If this is a disappointment to others how much more so is it to me!' However The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book was not the only book of recipes published with Alice as author. Her contract with Harper gave them the option on her next book and to fulfil her obligation she supplied recipes for Aromas and Flavours of Past and Present which was published in 1958. According to Linda Simon the manuscript Alice had submitted for The Cook Book was misspelled and badly typed and had set a record for sloppiness.* For this next effort she was teamed with a professional writer, Poppy Cannon, who would take Alice's recipes and put them into some sort of shape. Who could have thought that the author of The Can-Opener Cookbook would be a good match for Alice?  In Mouth Wide Open John Thorne quotes from The Can-Opener Cookbook,
At one time a badge of shame, hallmark of the lazy lady and the careless wife, today the can opener is fast becoming a magic wand ...We want you to believe just as we do that in this miraculous age it is quite possible - and it's fun - to be a "chef" even before you can really cook.
The result of their collaboration is a sad little book. There are glimpses of Alice such as her comment that 'Chicken Stuffed with Seafood' is a 'mirific way to prepare a chicken' and her note that 'it has been my habit for several years to keep a carafe of good cognac on a kitchen shelf' because 'like salt, it brings out and amalgamates the various flavours of any dish', but the comments throughout by Cannon are at best incongruous and at worst plain silly. Of Braised Capon she says that 'tinned or frozen asparagus tips may be used' and for Onion Soup she suggests the reader 'can use Miss Toklas' ideas even though you resort to tinned or packaged dehydrated onion soup'. Alice scorned processed and prepared food in any form, little wonder then that she disassociated herself from Ms. Cannon's introduction and comments and lashed out at all her editorial corrections. In response to the query 'How many does this recipe serve?' Alice allegedly replied 'How should I know how many it serves? It depends on – their appetites – what else they had for diner - whether they like it or not.'

Alice believed that 'between speed and ease and excellence there could be ... no possible connection'. For her 'a dish … can only have the flavour of what has gone into the making of it', not just the quality of the ingredients, but the care and attention in its preparation, the understanding of its origins and a respect for tradition and seasonality. Perhaps she was being purposely provocative by providing recipes like that for Boeuf A La Mode, which requires the larding of a top round of beef with strips of salt pork, previously soaked in cognac for 4 or 5 hours, and then simmering with a calf's foot to give the sauce the required texture (it must surely be Ms. Cannon's annotation to suggest that 'if you haven't a calf's foot handy, use 2 envelopes of gelatine') and that for Duck in Delicate Aspic which begins 'this was a favourite dish in 1797' (although she admits 'it seems almost irreverent' Ms Cannon cannot resist the suggestion that 'the beef bouillon necessary for the aspic can be made with a bouillon cube'.)

What happened to Alice's library of books and her recipe collection?

In his introduction to Staying on Alone. The Letters of Alice B. Toklas Gilbert Harrison writes 'She was addicted to cook books and could never settle on where her treasures should go. She kept revising her will, leaving them to one beneficiary, then another.' (p.xiv) In the end apart for a few tokens and the royalties from her books, her estate went to her old friend, Louise Taylor (whom she had met when they were music students together) so perhaps she was the final custodian of Emma Levinsky's hand written recipes and Alice's large cardboard box. Louise Taylor died in 1977.

* There is a video of an interview with Leon Katz on YouTube (Katz spent several months interviewing Alice at the time she was writing The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook) in which he claims to have typed the manuscript for the cook book.


Burns, Edward (ed.). Staying on Alone. Letters of Alice B. Toklas, Liveright, New York, 1973.

Malcolm, Janet. Two Lives. Gertrude and Alice, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2007.

Simon, Linda. The Biography of Alice B. Toklas. Doubleday, New York, 1977.

Souhami, Diana. Gertrude and Alice, Phoenix Press, London, 2000.

Stein, Gertrude. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Zephyr Books, Stockholm, 1947.

Thorne, John. Mouth Wide Open. A Cook and His Appetite, North Point Press, New York, 2007.

Toklas, Alice. The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, Harper perennial, New York, 2010 (1984 edition).
                      What is Remembered, Michael Joseph, London, 1963.
                      Aromas and Flavours of Past and Present, Michael Joseph, London, 1959.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

All hail the Victoria Sandwich

Roger Fry
 Still life with chocolate cake
The first cake I learnt to cook was a Victoria Sandwich. For many years it was the only cake I made and it remains the one I make regularly because the recipe is simple (I can remember it without reference to any book), its quick to prepare and pretty much foolproof. The result is a moist, light textured cake which is perfect for afternoon tea and belies its ease of preparation. A friend asked me for the recipe recently and when I explained what was involved she replied -'Oh you mean pound cake'. I was a little taken aback because 'Pound Cake' seems rather a coarse and common name for something dainty to serve for afternoon tea and for some reason I had always thought of 'Pound Cake' as an Americanism. 'Victoria Sandwich' on the other hand comes with connotations of very ladylike behaviour and is indeed, according to The Oxford Companion to Food, named after Queen Victoria but there is no mention of by whom and why. So I was inspired to go off in search of the Victoria Sandwich.

Mrs. Beeton seemed like a good source for a recipe with Victoria in the title but all I could find there (in my 1861 version of The Book of Household Management) was 'Pound Cake' (so named because it calls for a pound each of butter, sugar, flour and eggs) made with currants, candied peel, citron and almonds, a recipe lifted from dear old Eliza Acton. Acton suggests adding a glass of brandy, Mrs. B a glass of wine. A variation to the basic method involves beating the yolks and whites separately and adding separately so that the cake is lighter. Both women call for a round baking tin. This was not quite what I was looking for since this cake was neither a sandwich nor plain but my prejudice against 'Pound Cake' as un-British seemed unjustified.

James Beard's American Cookery claims that 'every homemaker in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century kept a loaf or two of [Pound] cake in the pantry to serve to unexpected guests'. Beard claims that it is customary to use several flavourings for example orange juice and vanilla or rum or brandy with vanilla and that some cooks 'insist that pound cake should also have 1 teaspoon of nutmeg or mace added, which was invariably true of New England pound cakes'. Beard goes on with elaborate instructions to aerate the flour and then beat the egg whites, stabilising them with lemon juice or cream of tartar and adding some of the sugar to them before folding them into the batter. The mixture is then baked in two 23cm loaf tins. Beard also gives a recipe for 'Fruit Cake with Pound Cake Base', very similar to the Acton/Beeton recipe, and this too is baked in a loaf pan.

In English Food Jane Grigson traces 'Pound Cake' back to Hannah Glasse. Her four egg version is also baked in a 23cm loaf tin. She also suggests a number of variations – adding caraway seeds (a Hannah Glasse innovation which Beard also mentions) or chopped nuts, adding walnuts and flavouring with coffee or rum, flavouring with orange rind and juice or a butterscotch version using brown sugar and rum.

The basic premise for the regal sandwich cake is the same as that of the metrically challenged version i.e. equal amounts of all the vital ingredients – eggs, sugar, butter and self-raising flour . In the case of the 'Pound Cake' a pound of each, hence the name. The difference between the substantial Pound Cake and the more sophisticated sandwich appears to lie both in the quantities of ingredients used and in the execution. In all post-Beeton recipes I could find in my collection the 'Pound Cake' is traditionally made in a loaf tin while the sandwich, perhaps not surprisingly, is made in a round tin and usually cut in half. The two halves are then sandwiched together with jam and/or cream. Why it is called 'Victoria' still remains a mystery.*

I only have two books with recipes specifically for 'Victoria Sandwich' both of them owned my mother and dating from 1948 when she was recently married, living in England and coping with rationing and food shortages. In Cooking with Elizabeth Craig the recipe is for a traditional four egg sponge – that is there is no fat in the mix at all. Ms Craig is indifferent as to the the shape or size of the baking tin. My mother's recipe came from the Good Housekeeping Cookery Book where there are two versions. The 'Economical Recipe' calls for only one egg – either fresh or reconstituted egg powder. We always used the 'Standard Recipe' which was more extravagant and required two eggs.

My mother always made two small cakes which were usually sandwiched together with either raspberry or strawberry jam and sometimes with home-made lemon curd. The top was always dusted with icing sugar. This is the recipe which I have always used – cake making doesn't get any easier than this.

Prepare two pans by lining with baking paper. (I use the pans I inherited which are 7" or around 16-17cm.)
Weigh 2 eggs (in the shell) and then weigh out an equal amount of butter, sugar and self raising flour. I don't remember that we ever added baking powder but the official recipe calls for ¼ teaspoon.
Cream the butter and sugar. Beat in the eggs one at a time (if the mixture starts to curdle add a spoonful of flour). Fold in the flour with the baking powder and add a little milk if the batter seems to be very thick (once you have made this a few times you will know when it is right – if unsure then don’t bother with the milk).
Bake at 190ºC for 25 – 30 minutes (longer if only baking in one tin).

Over time I have discovered that you probably don't need any other cake recipe. You can add all the flavourings already mentioned, flavour with spices (1teaspoon mixed spice), replace a tablespoon of the flour with coconut or cocoa, use the mixture as the cake part of an upside down cake (make a four egg version and bake in a 22 or 25cm tin) and even bake the mixture in patty cases (the two egg mixture makes around 16 small cupcakes). But what happens the day the battery in your electronic scales gives out and you are alone in the kitchen with four eggs of indeterminate weight?

I could have done the conversions myself but it is much easier to refer to Jane Grigson's 'Orange Syrup Cake' ('one of the best variations on the pound cake theme'!) in her Fruit Book. Not only has she done all the conversions (for four eggs use ¾ cup sugar, 1 cup butter, although because butter is sold by weight it shouldn't be too hard to at least estimate 250grams, and 2 cups of self raising flour with 1 teaspoon of baking powder) she also introduced me to another excellent idea. The cake is flavoured with orange rind and orange juice or liqueur and then the hot cake is drenched in a syrup made from orange juice and sugar. Using the same technique you can also produce a lemon syrup cake (which is fabulous iced with passion fruit frosting) and a lime version. What's more, emboldened by Ms Grigson, I found that, as she suggests, it isn't really necessary to do all the creaming of butter and sugar followed by carefully adding eggs one at a time. Although the resulting texture isn't quite as good you do get a perfectly acceptable result just bunging all the ingredients into the food processor and whizzing until you have a smooth batter. And I have subsequently discovered for myself that you can produce a reasonable result using plain flour with 1 teaspoon baking powder rather than self-raising flour but that was by accident rather than by necessity.

The most important lesson I've leaned is not to be intimidated by cake recipes. If you read them carefully many of them are just a variation on the 'Pound Cake' theme. So rather than keeping a file of different recipes all you really need is a bit of confidence, the 'Pound Cake' formula and a pinch of common sense.

* Whilst the 1861 Beeton does not include a recipe for 'Victoria Sandwich' the 1874 version does. This time frame neatly fits the period during which Queen Victoria reputedly becomes acquainted with the new vogue for afternoon tea and the custom becomes firmly entrenched amongst the middle classes. It is not difficult to imagine someone making a dainty version of the 'Pound Cake', prettied up with jam and cream, and serving it to Queen Victoria or at least using her name to suggest that it had the royal imprimatur. Nor is it difficult to imagine that this version of a basic cake, probably already known to many cooks, and now with royal connotations would become popular in the kitchens and salons of the nouveau riche.