Thursday, 2 January 2014

To Roast a Pound of Butter

Some butter rotates 'a good distance from the fire' on a wooden spit in an abortive attempt to roast a pound of butter according to instructions from William Ellis, The Family Companion (London: 1750). 
From Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (London: 1747)
Don't waste your time with this one. Although if you do try it and actually succeed in making this mysterious dish, please let me know exactly how you did it, as you may have stumbled across the culinary holy grail. Over the past three decades I have tried many times 'to roast a pound of butter'. All my attempts failed. On each occasion, I was convinced I had overlooked (or not understood) some important detail in the recipe. Some time after each frustrating failure, I would foolishly have another go. Over the years I have tried three different recipes - that reproduced above from Hannah Glasse (1747) -  the earliest printed recipe I know from Gervase Markham (1615) - and a so-called Irish method from William Ellis (1750) - recipes below. All have ended in failure and I have tried all these slightly different methods more than once. Yet something tells me that this was not a joke or hoax and it could have been successfully done. Or perhaps I am a gullible fool. So where have I gone wrong?

From Gervase Markham, The English Housewife (London: 1656 edition - first published 1615)
Markham's recipe is different from the others. Sugar and sweet butter (meaning freshly churned and unsalted butter) are beaten up with egg yolks as in the early stages of mixing a cake. This was the first recipe I ever tried. I found that in order to get the mixture onto a spit it was necessary to let it stiffen by putting it in a cold place. I 'clapped' the stiffened butter preparation on an old wrought iron spit, probably made in Markham's lifetime, and since I understood the term 'soft fire' as a low fire I cautiously rotated it about twenty-five inches in front of the flames. Remember that roasting takes place in front of the fire and 'not over the fire' as many who should know much better often say. As the outside softened I dredged it with a mixture of breadcrumbs, currants, sugar and salt as advised by Markham in the previous recipe for roasting a suckling pig - see below. So far so good. The rotating mass was soon covered with a jacket of uncooked breadcrumbs, but when I brought this a little closer to the fire to 'roast it brown' the breadcrumbs started to slide off as the butter below melted. I dredged these 'bald areas', but gradually more globules of butter mixed with the dredging would fall off. Finally, the iron spit got hot and the whole sorry project fell off into the dripping pan below. Failure number one.

From Gervase Markham, The English Housewife (London: 1656 edition - first published 1615)
I realised that using an iron spit was not a good idea. I had noticed that in his 1750 version of the dish, the Hertfordshire farmer William Ellis suggests using a wooden spit. I thought this was a more sensible approach because metal conducts the heat more quickly, resulting in the butter falling off before the process can be completed. The recipe was given to Ellis by 'a certain Irish woman' who claims to have made twenty-seven pounds of roasted butter one Christmas Eve. I first had a go at doing it this way about twenty years ago. Although the butter did not fall off, the dredging of oatmeal did. Failure number two. 

From William Ellis, The Family Companion, (London: 1750).
I eventually attempted Hannah Glasse's 1747 method, but using a wooden spit as advised by Ellis. This time the butter was dredged with breadcrumbs before it was put down to the fire and basted with egg yolks. Again the dredging dropped off as the butter softened. The dripping pan filled with a soft buttery porridge! I am glad I did not waste any oysters, which would have been covered in this unpleasant looking gloop. Failure number three. John Timbs in his Things Not Generally Known (London: 1859) describes Glasse's recipe as 'a culinary folly'.

Just for fun this year, I had another go at Ellis's 'Irish' method. Some Irish friends who turned up on Christmas Eve were intrigued when I told them that roasting a pound of butter could have been an old Irish Christmas Eve tradition. Since I had a fire in the hearth, we had another go at it and the photographs below record that latest attempt. I am always hopeful that I can get this to work, but as you can see it was just another failure.

A pound of butter is put on a wooden spit
Fine oatmeal is dusted on the rotating butter.
The oatmeal crust is shed as the butter underneath melts.
Now all this begs the question - was Markham pulling our leg? If so, he certainly made a gull out of me. So was this just an old culinary joke? If this was the case it does not surprise me that Hannah Glasse was taken in by the ruse. Despite what many others think about her, this particular lady is certainly no kitchen heroine of mine. I agree with her contemporary rival, the Hexham innkeeper Ann Cook, that Glasse was a high-born charlatan who almost certainly did not cook any of the dishes she describes in her book (more on this particular issue one day in another post). Surprisingly Cook does not specifically attack her rival's instructions for roasting a pound of butter in her toxic sixty-eight page critique of Glasse's recipes in Professed Cookery (Newcastle: 1754). However, I doubt very much that Hannah ever had a go at it. 

So how about the Irishwoman who claimed to Ellis that she had roasted 'twenty- seven pounds so' in a day? In my experiments I found that things started to go wrong after about twenty minutes in front of a slow fire. If she succeeded in producing the quantity she claimed, it would have been a long working day on that particular Christmas Eve. Was she feeding Ellis the Blarney? It is obvious from his account that he had not actually witnessed the process or eaten the results. I suspect she may have been lying because I am unaware of any other Irish accounts of this dish. Put me right if you do. 

Now I am aware of various techniques for deep frying butter coated in breadcrumbs or batter, but that is a completely different technique from this particular 'culinary folly'. Alexis Soyer for instance, gives a recipe for Croustades de Beurre in The Gastronomic Regenerator (London: 1846) in which little cylinders of very cold butter are rolled in breadcrumbs three times and then deep fried, resulting in little hollow croustades that can be filled with some savoury preparation. Modern dishes similar to Soyer's Croustades de Beurre (see the link below) instruct us to freeze the butter before it is deep fried. Perhaps the Irish lady put her butter out in the cold to freeze hard before she roasted it. Glasse's instructions to brine the butter before roasting it may have had a minor refrigerant effect, but I think I am clutching at straws here. Even when it is frozen hard the coating still falls of in front of a soft fire and even more rapidly in front of a fierce one. 


10 comments:

  1. If this has fooled even an expert like yourself, then it must have fooled many others. I agree that as nobody ever actually says they've eaten it, that makes it suss. I can't see why you'd want to roast butter anyway, but you can always do the deep fry a la fried ice cream. Not historical, but at least you'd have an idea of the taste.

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  2. It sounds like a bit of trick to see if people are paying attention, like telling a painter's assistant to go and buy some spotted paint, or a builder's apprentice to get a new bubble for the spirit level!

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  3. If it is for real, I'm sure it was roasted only briefly, like fried butter or fried ice cream. Something to be different, or as you said, a trick played on a novice.

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  4. The key line to me is, "when the bread has soaked up all the butter." This implies that the butter on the spit should be just thick enough to be fully absorbed by the crumbs as it melts. One pound could go the whole length of the spit, rather than forming a large block right in the middle. Perhaps the end result was intended to be a mass of butter-saturated bread encased in a hardened egg coating.

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  5. I saw these recipes too, and was wondering how they worked. Knowing that you cannot do it makes me feel better because I just couldn't make them out at all!

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  6. Hello! I think the oyster recipe is the key, reminding me of most delicious baked clams.

    It makes me think, the title "roasted butter" is what makes this so intriguing and that perhaps how this dish was named made it more intriguing and delicious to the people then, as everyone who has ever had a lump of butter near any heat as seen it liquify.

    So it's possible the resulting goop is the point, that it falls on whatever is under it while that item roasts and bastes in butter.

    My guess is, if left long enough, the whole business becomes a savory crunchy buttery mess of dripping yumminess. Who can resist melted butter on anything?

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  7. I do like the idea of it running the entire length of a wooden spit, creating a butter drenched bread. In fact, it sounds quite delicious made that way. (I'm American.)

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  8. I have a recipe in our family cookbook that dates back to the early 1800's that actually sounds similar to this. It's not called roasted butter, though it's called holiday bread. It's a Christmastime recipe and I've never tried to make it but you get the butter as cold as you can then roll it in sugar, spices and old breadcrumbs. You don't cook it for very long - just long enough for the breadcrumbs to toast. It reads more like a dessert - like fried ice cream someone mentioned earlier. The inside is cold and the outside is cooked. I don't know if it's the same thing or not. But the filling is just butter and it doesn't melt - you're eating solid cold butter with a toasted coating.

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  9. I have a question, do you know how it is supposed to be eaten? Are you just eating a block of butter? Or are you then supposed to rub it on something? Because a block of roasted butter doesn't sound tasty.

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  10. I tried the Markham version and it was a failure. We were working outdoors and I thought maybe the butter needed to be colder than the ice chest could make it. It was a pretty spectacular mess in my dripping pan.

    --Morwenna

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