Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A Weekend at Netherfield

There's something truly special about the Regency Intensive hosted by the Commonwealth Vintage Dancers in April (this was our second year of the event). Attendees spend all day in dance classes, followed by an evening dance for more practice, with more class on Sunday morning. By the time the grand ball rolls around on Sunday night, all that torture dancing has created a bond among the group, and it makes the evening feel like you're really in the Regency at a house party for the weekend.
This year was smaller than last year, and almost all of the attendees were there last year too, so it was quite the merry and energetic party! There were also some new faces, who were all lovely and a lot of fun to get to know.

waltzing at the Saturday evening dance
After all that class, it was especially fun to take a break on Sunday afternoon with some period card games, tea, and a theatrical! It also ended up being quite period in our gender segregation...there were historical swords on offer (being demonstrated, at least), so we ended up with almost all the ladies at tea and almost all the gents off other places. Totally accidental! Then everyone came back together to watch the more dramatically inclined perform scenes from The Rivals, by Richard Sheridan. Although the comedy premiered in 1775, it remained popular throughout the Regency period, and was later made into a 1930s musical and a 1950s movie.

watching a scene from The Rivals
 It was a truly wonderful (but totally exhausting!) weekend, and I'm glad I was able to be a part of it. Unfortunately I didn't get many pictures, but only because I was too busy dancing! I am totally ok with that trade-off.

But here's what I did take!

Saturday Evening:

Sunday Afternoon:

French playing cards featuring Napoleon and Josephine

We played Commerce for most of the afternoon. Commerce is a regency-era card game where players take turns trying to create the best possible hand (with three of a kind being the highest) by trading cards from the three they hold with the "widow" (the set of cards face-up on the table). It's a lot of fun!

Sunday night reception and ball:

prepping refreshments

Hamilton Hall has a musicians' balcony--so cool!

obligatory artsy refreshments shot!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Night at the Speakeasy

A few weeks ago, I waved my hair (or made an attempt), rolled my stockings down, and kicked up at the White Lightning Ball hosted by the Greater Boston Vintage Society. It was the bee's knees!

The event took place at the carriage house of the Larz Anderson Auto Museum. Originally built in 1888, the space was perfect for a speakeasy! Jason, our gracious host, put in a huge amount of effort to build some pieces to add to the atmosphere, including a 20s-style roulette wheel, microphones, and jiggering an original still to run water. The props added a lot, and it was a lot of fun to explore everything the event had to offer.

The carriage house in its heyday
I wore a new-ish 20s evening dress I haven't posted about yet, mostly because it's not done. I used the same shot taffeta as the regency dress I whipped together in February, and it is still fabulously magical stuff. Rather than the straight-rectangle shapes I used for the seersucker dress I made this summer, I tried a trapezoid skirt and cut the waistband on the bias to make it a little clingier. I'm really happy with how right for the 20s the silhouette turned out, and once it's trimmed I may actually like it...20s are so not my period! But if it means great cocktails and a lot of dancing, I'll put up with it.

my new (totally untrimmed) shot taffeta dress
I also tried something new with my hair, aiming for those iconic flapper waves. I used an electric 3-barrel crimper on the front sections, which you can sort of see in the picture above. Unfortunately, once my unruly curls started frizzing (the band was too good not to dance!) the effect was way less noticeable. I have some thoughts (thanks to some great advice--thanks Emily!) on what to try next, so I may have give that a shot sometime soon.

waved hair, candy cigarettes, and a real 1920s slot machine
The event was also sponsored by Bully Boy Distillers, a local whiskey distillery. They provided lovely cocktails, and I recommend the brand if you live in the area.

So without further ado, step into the speakeasy with me!

A tin sign protesting the amendment that outlawed alcohol

This banner was strung across the dance floor--are you a member of the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment?
The fab cigarette girls were handing out candy cigarettes--I didn't know they still made those!
a crooked cop dealing at the blackjack table

betting at the roulette table

bottles by the still
with a Bully Boy cocktail

our crew, posing with a prop Tommy gun at the "photo booth"--I'm not sure who the gun belonged to, but we (along with a lot of other guests) took turns guarding the moonshine. And it was just as heavy as the real thing, so that took some serious muscle! (which might be why I look ready to 'whack' someone in all the pictures where I'm holding it...)
...yeah...like that.

There were two fun performances by the Chifferobes, and I snapped this just before they started

end-of-the-night announcements on one of the reproduction microphones
What a grand evening! If you're in the Boston area, you definitely shouldn't miss the next one...Check out the site link above for the details, and I'll see you there!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

When Reconstructing History is Delicious

I've been thinking about food a lot lately.

illustrations from a 19th c. cookbook
This is probably because I have been travelling a lot, which makes me both acutely aware of how difficult it is to eat enough vegetables when I can't cook, and excited to explore regional cuisines (breakfast tacos in TX, for example). This is probably also because we just had Returning Heroes, and the Regency Weekend is less than a month away, so there has been a lot of discussion lately about refreshments.

Refreshments vary--some balls have big, lavish refreshments, while other balls are more casual--but when CVD aims for flashy food, it's just as much a chance to crack open some food history as it is to crack some eggs. Or 20 eggs. It happens.

Refreshments from the Pride and Prejudice Ball, February 2013

What we eat has changed a lot throughout history, developing to reflect availability of new ingredients, new technologies for cooking, local tastes, and the developing cultural palette. There will always be old recipes that sound sort of terrible to modern sensibilities, but there are TONS of really delicious-sounding recipes that can be explored for all sorts of entertaining, both intentionally historical (like balls) or modern (let's make syllabub the newest potluck sensation!).

The one problem with 19th century recipes is that the context in which they were written and/or published--the measurement systems, baking technology, etc.--is very different than modern expectations. Sometimes, even the "modern versions" of period recipes don't quite work. As I get ready to bake "Dolley Madison Cookies" for the Regency Weekend, I thought I'd share a little bit about the process of reconstructing recipes for a modern kitchen environment.

Here's an example of a sugar cookie recipe from slightly later than FLOTUS Dolley Madison's cookies, but with a very similar description:

"soft cookies," from The Practical Housekeeper and Young Woman's Friend published in 1855
I could probably get a kitchen scale (I used to use one when I was studying in Scotland), but I'm lazy and then I'd have to figure out pints and things, which I am unwilling to do. So I'd much rather modernize this!

There's an article about cookies in Austen's time on the Jane Austen Centre website, and that's where I stole this modernized recipe for Mrs. Madison's cookies from (based on the recipe just below it):

Sugar Cookies
2 cups butter
¾ cup milk
4 cups sugar
1 tsp baking soda
10 egg yolks, beaten
1 tsp cinnamon
10 egg whites, beaten
Flour to suit

To Make Sugar Cakes
Take 3 ale quarts of fine flowre, & put to it a pound of sugar, beaten & searced; 4 youlks of eggs, strayned thorugh a fine cloth with 12 or 13 spoonfulls of good thick cream; & 5 or 6 spoonfulls of rose water; A pound & a quaeter of butter, washt in rose water & broaken in cold, in bits. knead all these ingredients well together . after, let it ly A while, covered well, to rise. then roule them out & cut them with a glass, & put them on plates (a little buttered) in an oven gently heat. all these kinde of things are best when ye sugar & flower are dryed in an oven before you use ym.

The thing is, after making this recipe several times, one thing became clear: there was no way in hell I was going to be able to ever roll these cookies out. They were sticky, the edges always burned, and there was no way they looked nice enough to serve at a public event. Which is too bad, because they are so very perfect as a vessel for syllabub (a period recipe that is basically whipped cream with wine). So I set out to adjust.

Based on period descriptions, I knew these should be closer to a cakey consistency than a sugar cookie consistency--kind of like modern madeleines. With that in mind, I sought to fix the problems I was having with the proportions without actually changing the consistency of my final result, which seemed right. I also tried to figure out a way to make these happen in one bowl, which I failed at slightly, but oh well.

So here is my final result! If you decide to try making these, please let me know how you do...or you could come sample mine for yourself at the Regency Weekend this April.

Dolley Madison's Sugar Cookies for the Modern Baker

2 c. butter, softened
4 c. granulated sugar
1 tsp. baking soda
10 egg whites, beaten to peaks
10 egg yolks, scrambled with a fork
1 tsp. cinnamon
5 1/2 c. flour

Preheat oven to 375.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat egg whites until they reach medium peaks. (For me, this is slightly before I hit meringue territory, so that the whites appear soft but I can still tip the bowl upside-down and nothing falls out.) Gently transfer beaten whites to another bowl for safekeeping, and then add the butter and sugar to the electric mixer bowl. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg yolks, cinnamon, and baking soda.
With the mixer on the lowest possible speed, begin to slowly start to add the whites back in. Once about half have been incorporated, just fold the rest in with a spatula. The goal is to mix as little as possible here.
Add the flour, about a cup at a time, mixing as slow as possible, as little as possible.

Once all of the flour has been thoroughly combined, spoon batter/dough (it should have a slightly in-between texture) in large tablespoons onto greased cookie sheets. Try to keep the blobs as spherical as possible, as this will make the cookies prettier and rounder after they are baked.
Bake for about 8 minutes, adjusting time as needed so that the cookies are baked through but not burnt on the edges.
Let cool in open air for about an hour before storing in your container of choice. Adding waxed paper between the layers also helps keep the cookies from sticking or getting damaged during transport.