Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Pudding Acheivement

For the last couple of years, my contributions to the Fezziwig's Ball refreshments table has been figgy pudding. Fezziwig's Christmas party is described in A Christmas Carol:

"There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled, and there were mince-pies, and plenty of beer. But the great effect of the evening came after the Roast and Boiled, when the fiddler (an artful dog, mind! The sort of man who knew his business better than you or I could have told it him!) struck up “Sir Roger de Coverley.” Then old Fezziwig stood out to dance with Mrs. Fezziwig. Top couple, too; with a good stiff piece of work cut out for them; three or four and twenty pair of partners; people who were not to be trifled with; people who would dance, and had no notion of walking."

Figgy pudding only plays a tangential role in the festivities, but it is central to the celebration at Bob Cratchit's house. As Scrooge observes,

"In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered—flushed, but smiling proudly—with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top."

And of course, figgy pudding is the dessert called for in the carol "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." We sing carols before the ball (including this one), so it seemed doubly appropriate to have some on offer. It also turns out figgy pudding is pretty delicious!

Mentions of figgy pudding (also known as plum pudding, among other names, which is how it appears in A Christmas Carol) have appeared since the 15th century. It was especially popular in America during the 19th century. Dozens of recipes and interpretations were published in magazines and books throughout the century--I particularly love the article "Plum Pudding: A Christmas Essay" published in The National Magazine in 1857:

"But it is not as a work of art alone that I wish to contemplate a plum pudding. I claim for my theme a higher purpose than the mere gratification of the appetite and propose to treat it not only in a gastronomical, but also in national, commercial, geographical, statistical, social, and moral sense. ...Can there be a more thorough embodiment of sociality and good fellowship? Whoever heard of low spirits and plum pudding? or ill temper and plum pudding? or any thing else in connection with plum pudding but hearty goodwill and kind feeling?"

The pudding itself, topped with a sprig of holly, pine and berries I bought at JoAnn's a couple of years ago
 While it's full of dried fruit (not just figs!) held together by breadcrumbs and fat (suet, traditionally), figgy pudding ends up being fairly cakelike. As Mrs. Cratchit "had her doubts about the quantity of flour," this cakelike consistency is pretty accurate for the mid-19th century. The major difference between figgy pudding and desserts we're more used to is that figgy pudding is boiled. It's also traditionally set aflame (or rather, the pudding is covered in a hard sauce which burns off)--something I have yet to try. Instead, I serve our pudding with custard sauce, which is slightly less accurate but entirely delicious.

While it takes me most of a day to make the quadruple batch required for the ball, a single figgy pudding is easy to put together and offers a variety of serving options (although my favorite is a tiny piece of pudding drowned in a big bowl of custard sauce. I am definitely pro custard sauce). Although it's a little late for a Christmas pudding, here is my recipe! I've adapted it from this original (which is also where my custard sauce comes from), with changes to make it more period. The one modern concession I make is that I bake the pudding in a water bath rather than boil it. That way I can get multiples cooked at the same time, and it seems to work just fine. Someday I do need to boil and set one on fire though!

This recipe makes one figgy pudding, which I recommend baking in a bundt pan for ease. If you want the traditional round look, go for an oven-safe bowl (I use a 2-liter mixing bowl/pitcher like this one). 

Figgy Pudding

1lb dried mission figs (the black ones)
1/2lb pitted dried plums (not labeled as prunes, and a little moister)
3/4 c. whole milk
1/3 c. brandy*
3 eggs
1/2 c. butter (melted)
1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1 c. granulated sugar
2 tbs. baking powder
2 tsp. ground cinnamon*
1 tsp. allspice*
1/2 tsp. nutmeg*
1 tsp. salt
1 tbs. orange zest (if you're using fresh zest, you could also use lemon or a mix)
1 1/2 c. breadcrumbs
1 c. chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350F.
1. In a medium pot, combine chopped figs, plums, milk, orange zest, and brandy. Cook over medium-high heat until milk is bubbling but NOT boiling, then reduce temperature to medium/medium-low, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes. Cool to room temperature.
2. Combine melted butter and eggs (adding one at a time) in a large mixing bowl**. When combined, add breadcrumbs.
3. Add fruit/liquid mixture from the stove and stir until just combined.
[3a. Depending on how much liquid was absorbed by the fruit, the batter may be extremely dry. If needed, add extra milk in small increments alternating with dry ingredients so that final batter is a very thick, but still batter-like, consistency. Be careful not to make it too wet! If the flour is adding in just fine, don't add any extra milk.]
4. Add remaining dry ingredients.
5. Fold in nuts.

6. Pour batter into greased bundt pan or pudding mold. Place pan in a water bath so that the bottom 1/2-2/3 is submerged. 
7. Bake for approximately 1.5-2 hours. Begin checking after the first hour, as the shape of your baking device can change the baking time a lot. A knife should come out cleanly, even if the inside is still quite soft.
8. Let stand in pan for 15 minutes, then flip onto cooling rack. Cool completely before slicing to prevent crumbling.

*Feel free to add to taste. Caveat: if not measuring make sure to stay true to the proportions!
**I make this recipe by hand using a spatula to mix. 

Garnishing the pudding with holly
Enjoy! I ended up with a lot of leftover pudding from the ball, so I crumbled it up and threw it in a casserole dish to turn into bread pudding--pudding squared?--to give the leftovers some new life. The possibilities are endless!

So I will leave you with one last Dickens quote--a final possibility for figgy pudding: murder weapon.

"If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”

You can read more about figgy pudding here:
NPR's All Things Considered
The History Channel's Hungry History
The University of Maine's KHRONIKOS blog

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Mother/Daughter Dress Project: Success!

Earlier in the month, my mother and I wore our new 1870s dresses to Fezziwig's Ball. We were both fully dressed! Success!

obligatory butt shot!
 I do need to admit that with a crazy work month, I didn't actually manage closures or the ties for the inside of my skirt that will bustle the train and make the underskirt an appropriate length for dancing. It worked out, since I was pretty ill the night of the ball and didn't have much of an inclination to dance, but that definitely needs to be in place for next time. I really cannot stress this enough: please do NOT wear a train to a ball. They aren't meant for dancing, and you will trip someone up! I only danced once (I waltzed with my dad), and I made sure the train stayed up the whole time. I really don't recommend it.

Also, dirt. SO MUCH DIRT. That train needed a major bath.
That said, even ill and not dancing much, this was a really lovely evening full of Christmas cheer. Plus. since I wasn't dancing I was able to take pictures!

My parents in the Grand March--don't they look awesome?
Waltzing with my father

My parents during a galop

Decorating the refreshments room
Although both my mother's and my bodices were both made with the same Truly Victorian pattern, we ended up with very different bodices I think. Mom used the puffed sleeves from the pattern, but I decided to forgo sleeves. I also added a 3 inch band of velvet to the bottom of my bodice, similar to fashion plates like this:

The bodice has a contrasting band of plaid and pleats at the bottom
Of course, the most obvious difference is that Mom's bodice and overskirt were the same blue and gold fabric, while my overskirt and bodice were almost inverse (the bodice is plaid silk with velvet trim, and the overskirt is velvet with plaid trim). Mom also trimmed her bodice with gold lace and antique gold buttons she found (which both looked great!).

My overskirt plans had to be toned down a lot due to fabric constraints: I ended up without velvet I liked at the last possible moment, and my heart was absolutely set on I went shopping at JoAnns. I have to admit, I am really spoiled--they are so much more expensive than my local, independent fabric store! I could only justify splurging on two yards in the end, but managed to end up with three because it was the end of the bolt (hooray, a holiday miracle!). With less material than expected, my side panels are smaller than I think I would originally have wanted. I have some plans to improve the overskirt, though, with a plaid silk bow at the back and turning the leftover velvet into a train. In the meantime, this version worked for the ball!

Like many of my fashion plate inspirations, I trimmed the overskirt panels in plaid cut on the bias, as opposed to the bodice which is cut on the grain. I actually really like the contrast there! Figuring out how to make those work turned into quite a headache (I was tired and not thinking well), but I'm really pleased with the final result.

Fashion plate pose!

I have to say, I think I have the 1870s bug. I felt so elegant in this, and I can't wait to make the day bodice so I can swan around some more. It was also really nice to work on this with my mother, and I look forward to future adventures with her...she's already brainstorming for next year!

Happy Holidays, everyone! No matter what you celebrated (if anything), I hope it was wonderful!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Mother/Daughter Dress Project: Some Construction Notes

As you might remember, my mother and I have been making 1870s natural form dresses to wear to the annual Fezziwig's Ball hosted by the Commonwealth Vintage Dancers. I've previously posted about my first real (long-overdue) foray into plaid matching in addition to some background research for the project.

I can happily say that we completed our dresses on time (mostly), and they were quite a success!

Mom and I at the ball, fully clothed
We mostly worked together on these: I would go out to my parents' house for the weekend, and we would take over the dining room to sew. Despite requiring a lot of supply shuttling to and from my own sewing stash, it was awesome to have someone on hand to help with fitting. It made such a difference. It was also really fun to have the company!

two of my three fabrics on the drafting board
In some ways, construction of both dresses was pretty similar. We both needed bustle pads, petticoats, underskirts, bodices, and overskirts. We started with the same pattern (TV416) for the bodice, but made very different bodices in the end, I think.

our mockups in progress: it's kind of amazing what a different just shortening the waist makes
I didn't use a particular pattern for the petticoats or skirt, but I took a look at the 1870s dresses in Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion to figure out how to curve the seams at the top of the skirt panels. Actually, I treated the petticoats as experiments--they're a little wonky (though totally serviceable), but by the time I got to our actual skirts I had the pattern figured out. Hooray!

Unfortunately, the above picture is the only one I took while we were working. When I kept on working at home, I sent a couple of progress pictures to Mom, so I do have this one of my bodice in progress (no darts yet):

hooray plaid matching!

(Ok, I lied, I had two.)
I definitely learned how much easier it is to make things fit well with help during this project. I'm used to trying to do it on my own, or using my dress form, but having my mom pin darts and mark the mockup for adjustments was way easier and ended up with a much better fit. Something I'll have to remember for next time...I'll just start showing up at holidays with projects for her to help me with.

In the end, there are definitely some things for both dresses that need to be adjusted or changed for next year (Mom wants a new overskirt), but we managed to accomplish our goal! Mission accomplished.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

See our German!

"Germans," or cotillions, were evenings (or late nights) of dance games where attendees would shuffle partners, win small party favors, and just generally have hilarious shenanigans until the early hours of the morning. In Rose in Bloom by Louisa May Alcott, Rose (the titular character) describes the aftermath of such an event:
" I'm ashamed of myself when I remember what a romp that was and how sober Uncle looked as he let me in at three in the dress in rags, my head aching, my feet so tired that I could hardly stand, and nothing to show for five hours' hard work but a pocketful of bonbons, artificial flowers, and tissue-paper fool's caps."

As you might imagine, Germans are a lot of fun.

I've been traveling a lot and neglecting my poor blog, but I was able to make it home for the Commonwealth Vintage Dancers' Civil War Weekend, and Sunday we had a daytime German. It was loads of fun with a lot of giggling! I will have a lot more to say about it, but in the meantime one of the other attendees captured one of the games on film. Enjoy!

You can also read more about the history of the "German Cotillion" over at Recreating the 19th century Ballroom.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Taste of Fall

Things have been pretty hectic at work lately, and when I get stressed I bake.

As the leaves started to change colors, I was feeling pretty inspired to make all things New England Fall...unfortunately, the brutal work schedule combined with some pretty terrible weather meant I didn't get to go apple picking during peak season, so I ended up grabbing another autumn staple: pumpkin.

Pumpkin has been a staple of the New England diet for centuries, which makes sense given that it's a native squash and goes well with most other Fall crops. In fact, we know the early residents of Massachusetts Bay Colony picked it up from the Native American people in the area, and it became a pretty common part of their diet. Colonial Williamsburg's blog quotes this poem written in MA in the 1630s:
Stead of pottage and puddings and custards and pies
Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies, 
We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon, 
If it were not for pumpkins we should be undoon.

Pumpkin in the kitchen, 1738
In the 18th and 19th centuries, pumpkin was used for savory dishes such as squash pies and mashed pumpkin (like this one recreated by Townsend and Son), sweet dishes (like this recipe for "pumpkin pudding" from 1820), and even beer. In the 21st century, we add it to just about everything when September hits, from muffins to pies to lattes. I won't complain--I am totally guilty of this. I love pumpkin-flavored things.

pumpkin pancakes with cinnamon cream cheese icing (made last year)--another pumpkin recipe with historical roots

So a couple of weeks ago when I got the twitchy, stressed-out urge to bake, I went pumpkin. I've also been drinking a lot of chai to get through long days (particularly perfect for Fall, although I end up drinking it year-round), so I ended up riding that inspiration and combining the two.

These turned out even better than expected, so I'm sharing it with you! 

Original cookie recipe from Sally's Baking Addiction, doubled and adjusted slightly:

3 c. all-purpose flour
12 tbs. Pumpkin puree (I used canned—but fresh would also be good!)
1 c. melted butter, unsalted
½ c. dark brown sugar
½ c. granulated sugar
1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. (heaping) baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
3 tsp. ground cinnamon
3 tsp. pumpkin pie spice

Chai-Inspired Spice Coat

¼ c. light brown sugar (but you could use dark if you needed to)
1-2 tbs. granulated sugar (to keep the brown sugar from clumping. Start with one and add a second only if you need to)
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. allspice
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. ground cardamom
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350F. Melt butter and beat with sugar. Add pumpkin and vanilla, mix until just combined. Add dry ingredients and mix—dough will be sticky. Refrigerate for 30 minutes (you can leave it longer, but I don’t really recommend letting it sit in the fridge overnight—you want the cookies to rest for at least 6 hours once baked, rather than letting the dough rest). While the dough is chilling, make the spice coating in a bowl or shallow dish.

Roll about tablespoon-size bits of dough into balls. Roll the balls in the spice coat and place on a buttered cookie sheet, then press lightly on the balls to flatten them a little bit. These don’t spread much, so you can place the cookies pretty close together. Bake for about 6 minutes—they should look firm on the edges and still soft in the middle. Leave on the cookie sheet to rest for about 5 minutes, then move to a cooling rack. Let stand for several hours to get a little chewy.

Happy Fall!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Underpinnings: My Achilles Heel

I have a serious sewing problem: I always magically lose motivation as soon as I have to make undergarments. Which is probably why I'm still wearing the same chemises and drawers I acquired in high school (with a few additions over the years). My corsets are all in dire shape (they're only two years old, but they get a lot of wear), and I need new ones. I'm also embarking on a new period for the "Mother/Daughter Dress Project" and I need the proper undergarments for 1870s so I can fit the clothes over them.

So of course, I haven't actually done any sewing in a week. Because I have to sew bustle pads, corsets, and petticoats...and I just feel so "meh" about the prospect. So in an attempt to motivate myself and get my project momentum back, I've been looking at pretty undergarments. Here are a few to motivate you too!

Does anybody else have a particular costuming thing that you always have trouble with? Please share in the comments!

tiered whitework petticoat, 1870s
striped petticoat, late 19th century (via the Met)
petticoat c.1875 (via the Met)--interesting ruffle arrangement
pink petticoat with lace, 1880 (Met)
corset, 1864 (via the V&A)
corset, 1890 (V&A)
corset c.1880s (V&A)
I was looking for tartan drawers, meaning the kind you wear (or did in the 19th century, anyways)...I found this instead!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Growing Up Alcott

"She opens the door of one house, and all find it is their own house which they enter, a visitor once said of Louisa May Alcott"*

When I was little my mother read Little Women to me, and when I got a little older I found the Alcott shelf in the children's section of the library. I was hooked--not just on Alcott's novels, but on the period, the family, and the Orchard House. I went on tour several times as a kid: for programs with my Girl Scout troop, with my church's religious education curriculum, with my mom, and eventually with my sister after I gave her my copy of Little Women. That year I was twelve, at the end of middle school and awkward, but I loved history and its living traditions--Plymouth Plantation, Sturbridge Village, the annual Patriot's Day celebrations. So when we went to a program at Orchard House that winter, I was already wondering when I could get a job there. My mother started talking to the woman at the desk, and by the time I finished eighth grade I was actively researching, writing, and training to do living history programs with a volunteer group affiliated with the house.

chasing a rolling hoop down the hill at the front of the house during a program, sometime between 2006-2008
As soon as I was old enough to legally have a job I applied for a position as staff, and worked as a tour guide, living history educator, and eventually "In-Charge" (the guide in charge of opening/closing, managing the day's schedule, and running the shop) every summer, school vacation, and other assorted days until I graduated college. I spent a lot of time in the Alcotts' home--I did my homework there, read through the guides' room library of Alcott-related books, went on my first date on the same paths Louisa and her family walked by the North Bridge--and going back to the museum feels like coming home again. While a lot of the staff has changed over the years, many of the women are still there, and they have been an incredible wealth of encouragement and faith in me as I grew out of that awkward phase into a young professional.

Orchard House c.1865, with Alcotts in the foreground (via Orchard House)
Over the years as I grew as a researcher and interpreter, I became especially interested in May Alcott. Her enthusiasm for ridiculous adventures with her friends, her passion for making beautiful things, and her complete refusal to let Louisa have all of the family glory (she became quite an accomplished artist in her own right) spoke to me, as did her age--May was the only teenager to live in the house (she was 18 when they moved in in 1858). The ordinary adventures described in the papers of May and her contemporaries (capsizing a rowboat, playing croquet, attending costume parties, pranks with her sisters) brought 1860s Concord to life for me, and perhaps more importantly, these stories became my way of opening a path for visitors less interested in the family or Louisa's work (like middle school boys dragged in on field trips). I ended up spending several days off the last couple of summers at the house in Houghton Library, transcribing May's letters from her time as a young adult in Concord, before she moved to Europe to study art. I also adopted May as my favored Alcott when performing living history programs. May, and May's friends, still feel like my part of my social group (which includes several other former Orchard House employees). We had inside jokes that referenced them, we knew told their anecdotes as our own. I actually went to prom with a friend who also worked at the house and sometimes portrayed Julian Hawthorne to my May (they were friends and next door neighbors in the early 1860s). While I spent the school week in the 21st century, I spent the weekends in the 19th with the Alcotts.

playing May for a living history program, summer 2008
detail from a portrait of May Alcott, 1870s painted by Rose Peckham
showing visitors jacob's ladder (as May), 2008
Right now, Orchard House is running a Kickstarter campaign to make a documentary about the house, and I hope you will take a look at the video and donate if you can. The site has been a museum for over 100 years (the centennial was celebrated in 2012), and the story of how the Alcotts have inspired generations is obviously one that I hold near and dear. It's also really interesting, and the resulting documentary would be well worth watching!

at the house for the centennial celebration (in 1900s clothing), 2012
Possibly (hopefully) all this waxing nostalgic has already convinced you the Orchard House is a very special place, and the campaign is worth checking out. Watching the video (which also happened to hit just as I was reviewing my notes for returning next weekend--I have a couple of dedicated Alcott/Orchard House bookshelves at home) reminded me just how special the Orchard House is and how much it truly is a home to me, along with so many others. If you're not yet convinced, then it's time to let the house do the talking. After all, that's who this is all about.

(By the way, if you want to experience the house in person to let it convince you, I'll be giving the Welcome to Our Home tour Saturday September 27th! Come visit!)

Here are a few more pictures from growing up at Orchard House, and I hope you will all check out the Kickstarter info below!

Prepping for a program in May's bedroom, 2010. The bonnet was my first attempt at trimming/covering a hat; it's based on a description by Louisa of a hat May was making (which she called dreadful)
With a Turner painting in the British National Gallery, London, 2011. I met up with another Orchard House guide while we were both studying in the UK for a reunion and quest to find some of the paintings May studied while she lived there.

In the nursery during my last Christmas program, 2012. Hopefully I'll be back this year!

Some friends from Scotland visited while I was working, 2012.
Here's how you can help!

*From the Orchard House introductory video

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Mother/Daughter Dress Project (or, the most lead time on a project I have given myself in years because my mother is better at planning than I am)

Earlier this week I posted about plaid matching (or not!) in extant garments, and I mentioned that I am currently working on a project that relates. So far my plaids look pretty good (the shoulders, which will be unfortunately lost in the neck facing/trim and sleeve are my favorite), but not perfect, which seems just about right. I'm taking a pause because I need a new corset, and I don't want to take darts over my old one (which has never fit correctly, even though I made it almost three years ago...whoops). I'm also waiting because this is a special project: I am not venturing into a new decade alone, but rather in a joint expedition with my mother, so I'm waiting until our next sewing date to start the next bit.

My earliest experiences with sewing all involve my mom, who made my Halloween costumes every year until I was too cool for it because I wanted to be a "girl from the Civil War" with a dress out of one of those cheesy catalogs (funny how the 1860s stuck and the store-bought outfits didn't! Clearly Mom's influence was in there...). She would insist that she was only ever an "ok" seamstress, but Mom taught me to use a sewing machine, to pick out patterns and follow pattern instructions, and that sometimes making things was just better (those Halloween costumes were killer).

My first grade class Halloween party, dresses as Odette from The Swan Princess (my absolute favorite movie at the time) in her wedding dress, made by Mom...check out my opalescent swan "wings"!
the inspiration (ending scene from The Swan Princess)
Last year my family came to Fezziwig's Ball, hosted by the Commonwealth Vintage Dancers, because we all love Christmas and singing carols and having a lot of holiday cheer. I loaned everyone dresses, which worked out fine, but Mom decided for this year she wanted her own dress.

At the ball last December
I completely used the opportunity as an excuse to make a dress from a period I wouldn't otherwise have an excuse to sew--I proposed either the 1830s or the 1870s, and Mom chose the '70s. We're aiming for mid-lateish in the decade (with slightly padded butts but still in the natural form era), in between bustle eras. I am also taking the opportunity to make a day bodice and a train extension (I don't want a train at the ball) so that I can wear the dress for swanning around museums or something (for some reason natural form 1870s dresses say "swanning around museums" to me).

Mom and I are both using the same base pattern for a bodice, but taking it in different directions. We also have very different fabric, so the dresses won't look "matchy-matchy" even though we're using the same pattern (TV416).

The natural form era/mid 70s is interesting, because while it's missing the back end accentuation of the two bustle period it's sandwiched between, but it still follows a lot of the same lines (overskirts drawn up at the back, bows and gathers over the butt) and mixes the hard suiting/tailored elements that were coming into style with frilly details (layers and layers of ruffles, trim, and bows).

Plaid shows up quite a bit in fashion plates from this period, most commonly in bodices and as trim on skirts (usually bias cut). Another common plaid element is a plaid (sometimes bias, sometimes not) overskirt, often paired with plaid trim on other pieces of the ensemble.

Here are some of my major inspirations; they're almost all day dresses, because I'm planning on this being mostly a day ensemble, since we don't do any 1870s balls besides Fezziwig's (and 70s are sort of late for that).

no plaid trim on this one, but a plaid bodice and overskirt. I particularly like the pleated trim on the lower edge of the bodice
the complete opposite bodice arrangement from the previous! I like the two shapes of bias-cut plaid edging on the skirts

Possibly my favorite of all! Love the double row of bias trim paired with the half-plaid straight cut overskirt
Two words on this one: BUTT. BOW.
I'm definitely pulling from the barely-there sleeves on these two for my evening bodice
And here's a preview of my progress!

my plaid ball bodice from the can see what I mean by "almost" on the plaid matching...(also sorry for the awkward mirror/cell phone pic!)
you probably won't see much (if any) of the shoulder when the bodice is done, but these make me happy anyways