Thursday, February 11, 2016

Historical Food Fortnightly #3: Plain Muffins

I started out quite stumped on this challenge. The theme was "History Detective," or trying to interpret a vague or confusing historical recipe, but while I have of course read plenty of weird, vague recipes, when the time came for this challenge, everything seemed to (infuriatingly!) make sense. Maybe I have been reading historic cookbooks for too long, and the strange terms for foods and the archaic measurements are now more familiar to me.

I could have just picked a recipe at random and claimed it was vague to me, but that would be cheating! So instead I spent many fruitless hours poring over cookbooks and having dead-end brainstorms, until I finally ran out of time.

I finally just decided I would make some kind of quick bread, and found a pretty vague recipe in the Open Door Cookbook. I went to check the book's publication date and found - AHA! - there was none to be found. Here was my historical food mystery! Not my recipe but the date of my cookbook. I made my muffins and used clues from the book to guess its date.

The Challenge: 3. History Detective (January 29 - February 11) For this challenge, you get to be the detective! Either use clues from multiple recipes to make a composite recipe, or choose a very vague recipe and investigate how it was made.

The Recipe: Plain Muffins, submitted by Mrs. C. R. Parker to the Open Door Cookbook, published by the Open Door Congregational Church. I got this book and a few others at a local garage sale last summer.


The Date/Year and Region: Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. For the date, let's look at some clues from the book.

First we have this Lux advertisement. The hair on this gal looks absolutely like early 19-teens; up-swept, over the ears, but without the full front pompadour of the early 1900s. See an example here. Plus her shirtwaist blouse is very 1905.

Another illustration with a late 19-teens look. The little puffs of hair over the ears are a dead giveaway! See a similar example from 1917 here.

A doughnut recipe in the book calls for Crisco, which was introduced in 1911.

Then there is this great color ad. Without this I would have just said 1918 and left it. The woman's collar has a late 19-teens look, but the shape of her apron is very flat and boxy, with no waist, suggesting a 1920's style.

Also, this is a flour ad, not a high fashion print, so the clothing represented would have to be considered mainstream, not too new or avant-garde. The clothing couldn't be too out-of-date though, or it would look dowdy and old fashioned. As we all know, that's not how you sell flour!

These clues all place this book's date definitely after 1915, and as late as 1925.

How Did You Make It: Only ingredients were given in this recipe, no method or cooking time, so I just mixed the dough like I normally would for muffins. First I beat the eggs in a bowl, then added the melted butter, then stirred in my dry ingredients and milk. I did sub in half a cup of whole wheat flour because I can't leave well enough alone. Given the amount of recipes in this book for "graham" and bran biscuits and muffins, I don't think this is an unreasonably inaccurate change.

The large amount of baking powder in this recipe - 4 teaspoons to 2 cups of flour - made the batter thicken up immediately with a foamy texture. No baking directions were given, so I checked a couple other muffin recipes. All they suggested was "a quick, hot oven," no time given. I gave these about 17 minutes at 400 F.

That thick foamy texture made a bumpy, irregular finished muffin, with little toasty edges everywhere. Yum!

There is no such thing as too much butter.

Time to Complete: 15 minutes of prep, 17 minutes in the oven.

Total Cost: Pretty cheap, just pantry stuff. A couple dollars?

How Successful Was It?: Yummy. The crumb was soft and springy, the exterior slightly crisp like a biscuit. Slathered with butter they were the perfect companion to a cheese and spinach omelet.

How Accurate Is It?: I subbed in some whole wheat flour, and I greased my pan with an organic palm oil shortening, whereas Crisco (hydrogenated cottonseed oil) or lard would have been the more likely choice at the time. Otherwise I followed as written.


  1. Nice sleuth work! What fun, tracking down the year!

    And muffins are always a tasty choice. :-D

    -- Tegan

  2. The drop waist can be seen as early as about 1917 - my guess would be the teen's era for the book. Very cool!

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