Today is the birthday (1836) of Isabella Beeton, known now universally as Mrs Beeton, whose recipes from her Book of Household Management I have given here many times. There’s no great need to review her life and history of publication of her cookbook, which has gone through multiple editions and is still in print. Of course, the recipes from 1861 have gone the way of all things. Later 20th century editions used metric measures, were very precise in their lists of ingredients, and all the recipes were thoroughly kitchen tested. When I was growing up my mother used a 1939 edition (affectionately known as “Ma Beeton”) which was given to her as a wedding present in 1944, inscribed lovingly by her parents who were born in the Victorian era, and who spent their whole working lives as household servants. This was my first cookbook too when I was a boy, and I inherited it from my mother after she died. I always imagined that Mrs Beeton was a starchy mob-capped old Victorian household cook (hence “Ma Beeton”). It never dawned on me that she was a well-to-do woman who died in her twenties until I started exploring her history. I also never realized the vast difference between her recipes and those in later editions until I bought a facsimile of the first edition. In my oh so humble opinion, the first edition is still the best. You can peruse it here:
In the 20th century the first edition came in for a lot of criticism for being a work of plagiarism and for the assertion that Isabella herself had little knowledge of cooking. Based on my own research I think that this criticism is unfair.
Isabella’s unmarried name was Mayson, and she was born in Marylebone, London. Shortly after Isabella’s birth the family moved to Milk Street, Cheapside, where her father Benjamin traded linen. He died when Isabella was four years old, and her mother, Elizabeth, pregnant and unable to cope with raising the children on her own while maintaining Benjamin’s business, sent her two elder daughters to live with relatives. Isabella went to live with her recently widowed paternal grandfather in Great Orton, Cumberland, though she was back with her mother within the next two years.
Three years after Benjamin’s death Elizabeth married Henry Dorling, a widower with four children. Henry was the Clerk of Epsom Racecourse, and had been granted residence within the racecourse grounds. The family, including Elizabeth’s mother, moved to Surrey and over the next twenty years Henry and Elizabeth had a further 13 children. Isabella was instrumental in her siblings’ upbringing, and collectively referred to them as a “living cargo of children.” The experience gave her a great deal of insight and experience in how to manage a family and its household at an early age.
After a brief education at a boarding school in Islington, in 1851 Isabella was sent to school in Heidelberg, accompanied by her stepsister Jane Dorling. Isabella became proficient in the piano and excelled in French and German. She also gained knowledge and experience in making pastry. She had returned to Epsom by the summer of 1854 and took further lessons in pastry-making from a local baker. All in all, therefore, to accuse her of simply compiling recipes and household advice from others and then copying it is a gross distortion. It’s true that she used recipes from the works of others, but this was (and is) normal practice. Furthermore there is clear evidence that she kitchen tested most, if not all, of her recipes. Isabella’s half-sister, Lucy Smiles, was asked after her death concerning her memories of the book’s development. She recalled:
Different people gave their recipes for the book. That for Baroness pudding (a suet pudding with a plethora of raisins) was given by the Baroness de Tessier, who lived at Epsom. No recipe went into the book without a successful trial, and the home at Pinner was the scene of many experiments and some failures. I remember Isabella coming out of the kitchen one day, ‘This won’t do at all,’ she said, and gave me the cake that had turned out like a biscuit. I thought it very good. It had currants in it.
I don’t see how you can read this and still think that Isabella was just a rank plagiarist. I think that her sister probably overstates the case in asserting that every recipe was tested, but I am sure the majority were. What is more to the point is that her recipes are all clear and relatively easy to follow, unlike those of previous generations. She gives lists of ingredients with exact quantities, straightforward directions, and indications of seasonality and cost per person. Her additional remarks about farming practices, hunting, and the like are a bonus. It is true that you need to have some experience in cooking to follow her recipes, and you need to know something about the Victorian kitchen to make sense of the directions sometimes. If you’re not familiar with cooking on a wood-fired stove (which I am) you can get a little lost from time to time, but experience ought to direct you. The reason I give her recipes here frequently is that they are good recipes, and I applaud her on her birthday.
There is no mention in the first edition of birthday cakes, and very little reference to birthdays at all (only to birthday dinners in ancient Greece). Never mind. Here is her recipe for yeast cake which I think is quite delectable and well suited as her birthday cake.
A NICE YEAST-CAKE.
- INGREDIENTS.—1-1/2 lb. of flour, 1/2 lb. of butter, 1/2 pint of milk, 1-1/2 tablespoonful of good yeast, 3 eggs, 3/4 lb. of currants, 1/2 lb. of white moist sugar, 2 oz. of candied peel.
Mode.—Put the milk and butter into a saucepan, and shake it round over a fire until the butter is melted, but do not allow the milk to get very hot. Put the flour into a basin, stir to it the milk and butter, the yeast, and eggs, which should be well beaten, and form the whole into a smooth dough. Let it stand in a warm place, covered with a cloth, to rise, and, when sufficiently risen, add the currants, sugar, and candied peel cut into thin slices. When all the ingredients are thoroughly mixed, line 2 moderate-sized cake-tins with buttered paper, which should be about six inches higher than the tin; pour in the mixture, let it stand to rise again for another 1/2 hour, and then bake the cakes in a brisk oven for about 1-1/2 hour. If the tops of them become too brown, cover them with paper until they are done through. A few drops of essence of lemon, or a little grated nutmeg, may be added when the flavour is liked.
Time.—From 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 hour. Average cost, 2s.
Sufficient to make 2 moderate-sized cakes.
Seasonable at any time.
If you want to have a sugar fit you can add almond icing; I prefer the cake plain.
ALMOND ICING FOR CAKES.
- INGREDIENTS.—To every lb. of finely-pounded loaf sugar allow 1 lb. of sweet almonds, the whites of 4 eggs, a little rose-water.
Mode.—Blanch the almonds, and pound them (a few at a time) in a mortar to a paste, adding a little rose-water to facilitate the operation. Whisk the whites of the eggs to a strong froth; mix them with the pounded almonds, stir in the sugar, and beat altogether. When the cake is sufficiently baked, lay on the almond icing, and put it into the oven to dry. Before laying this preparation on the cake, great care must be taken that it is nice and smooth, which is easily accomplished by well beating the mixture.