Monday, February 22, 2016

Cooking with the Presidents: Thomas Jefferson's Meat

I posted the other day about the Tilden Cake I made for our Presidents Day Eve/Valentines/My Mom's Birthday celebration. Before we dug into the cake, though, we needed a meal, and since it was Presidents Day and all, I wanted something presidential. Unfortunately, most of the recipes I have are gross. Lots of fish and turtle and stuff.

One of the few appetizing recipes I could find was Thomas Jefferson's Beef a la Mode from The Presidents' Own White House Cookbook, given to me by my aunt.. ("A la mode" in this case meaning "in fashion," not "topped with ice cream.")

Now, my mom is a huge fan of Alexander Hamilton (and has been forever---long before the Hamilton musical became the hottest thing since Hercules Mulligan's pants), ergo she hates Thomas Jefferson. Like, despises him. So her birthday celebration took an ironic turn. (Still, one has to agree that Jefferson's Beef a la Mode is a better option than Zachary Taylor's Coon-and-Squirrel Deep Dish Pie, which is a real recipe from The Presidents' Cookbook.)

Jefferson's Beef a la Mode is basically pot roast. Pot roast with lots of bacon.

Here's the recipe:

4-lb beef pot roast
1 onion, finely chopped
1 sprig parsley, finely chopped
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground pepper
1/8 tsp. grated nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground thyme
12 strips bacon
3 small onions
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 tsp. grated nutmeg
Pinch of ground thyme
4 oz brandy
1 c. white wine

Take four strips of bacon and use them to line the bottom of a Dutch oven.

Next, you're supposed to trim off (but reserve) the fat from the pot roast. Then you mix together the next six ingredients and roll the reserved fat and 4 strips of bacon in it. Now, my pot roast didn't have much fat on it, so there wasn't really anything to remove (at least not without deconstructing the whole thing.) Therefore I rolled the bacon, but no fat, in the mixture.

When you're done rolling your bacon and fat, it's time to lard your meat. I'll admit I didn't actually know what it meant to "lard" my meat. I assumed it meant wrapping the meat with stuff, so that's what I did: I draped the mixture-encrusted bacon on the beef. (More on this momentarily.)

The next step says to lay 4 or 5 more strips of bacon on the meat, which seemed redundant since I'd just done that, but fine: more bacon! Then set the whole thing in the Dutch oven.

Then you cut the onions and carrots and throw them in. Instead of three small onions, I used one large one. I also used six carrots because I love carrots. I added the onions at the beginning, but I waited until the last hour of cooking to add the carrots because otherwise they'd get too mushy, in my opinion.

Add the rest of the ingredients over top, and simmer gently for three hours.

When it's done, strain the liquid through a sieve, and serve.

Let's get back to this larding issue. Once I had my pot roast simmering, I sat down and googled "larding." (Someday I'll learn to research stuff before I start making recipes.) It turns out that larding is the process of adding extra fat to meat using special larding needles, or by making strategic slices and shoving stuff in. The end result is a more tender meat since it has all that extra fat in it. Clearly that's a bit more involved than what I had imagined, and clearly it's not what I had done. Oh well.

The end result was a quite tasty pot roast. The brandy, wine, and bacon made for a savory sauce, and the carrots were perfectly cooked after their mere hour in there. The meat, though, was a bit dry. I probably should have larded it.

No one seemed to mind much, though. My kids ate their meal without complaining, and not just because they knew there was cake waiting.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Cooking with the Presidents: Tilden Cake

My mom's birthday, Valentine's Day, and Presidents Day Eve all coincided this year, so we had a multifaceted celebration. I've been craving James/Dolley Madison Cake, but I'm pretty sure I made that last year, so it was time to try something new.

After perusing the internet and my ancient Presidents' Cookbook, I settled on Tilden Cake, found in the Rutherford B. Hayes section of my cookbook.

Samuel Tilden wasn't a president, of course, though he could have been---and some would argue should have been. Tilden and Hayes ran against each other in the election of 1876. Tilden won the majority of the popular vote, but the electoral votes in four states were disputed. That threw the outcome to Congress, and led to the famous/infamous Compromise of 1877. Essentially Hayes was named the winner of the election in return for an end to Reconstruction in the south. 

Anyway, I didn't choose this cake due to any particular fondness for Tilden or Hayes. Instead I chose it because it sounded good: lemony!

Here's the recipe:

Tilden Cake

1 c. butter
2 c. sugar
4 eggs
3 c. flour
1/2 c. cornstarch (This struck me as a lot of cornstarch, but who am I to judge?)
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 c. milk
2 tsp. lemon extract

(The recipe didn't say to, but I brought all the cold ingredients to room temperature first)

Preheat oven to 350 and prepare two 9-inch cake pans.

Cream the butter and sugar, then slowly add the eggs one at a time.

Set aside, and sift the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, and salt.

Add the flour mixture to the butter/sugar/egg mixture, alternating with the milk.

Mix well, and add the lemon extract

Pour into the cake pans and bake until done, about 30-35 minutes

The cakes wound up smelling wonderful, although they felt pretty dense.

While they were cooling, I googled and found other recipes and references to Tilden cake. Apparently there was a popular cookbook called The Buckeye Cookbook (also known as Buckeye Cookery and Practical Housekeeping) that included recipes for Tilden and Hayes cakes. Women weren't allowed to vote, but they could bake cakes in support of their candidate. (They could also bake in support of particular causes. Apparently the book also includes recipes for "Hard Money Cake" that incorporates "silver" and "gold" batter depending on what metal/metals women wanted backing their currency.) This is an interesting post I found about the history of election cakes.

It appears that the Hayes and Tilden cakes were very similar. Both were flavored with lemon but had slightly different amounts/types of other ingredients. The Tilden cake from the Buckeye book is identical to the one from The Presidents' Cookbook except that the Buckeye recipe calls for pulverized sugar (powdered/confectioners) whereas the recipe I used just said "sugar."

This version of the recipe calls for beating the egg whites separately and then folding them in, which would certainly result in a lighter cake.

In the end, consistency didn't matter much because the cake tasted wonderful, regardless. I spread some lemon curd between the two layers and topped the whole thing with a dusting of powdered sugar. My mom and kids loved it, and even Mr. Presidentressor, who typically doesn't like desserts that aren't chocolate, devoured his slice.

Tilden might not have lost, but his cake was a winner.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Abrahamster Lincoln

Cute animal videos are all the rage, so I figured I'd combine people's love of furry creatures with one of our greatest presidents. It just seemed natural.

So sit back and enjoy Abrahamster Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address. You're welcome.

Special thanks to my cousin Christina and her hamster, Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. No animals were harmed. Humiliated, maybe, but not harmed.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Hands off Lincoln's Nose?

When I was 10, my dad and I drove from Chicago to Disney World. Along the way we made several stops, including Springfield, Illinois, to see Lincoln's tomb. My dad had been there before, but it was new to me, so I was surprised when I saw the bust outside Lincoln's tomb. It looked like any old statue, really, except that the nose was bright and shiny. My dad explained that people rubbed the nose for good luck, so I did, too.

It's unclear how the practice got started. It seems that rubbing statues' noses in general is considered good luck, and Lincoln is a popular guy. It does seem a bit weird, though, as Lincoln wasn't exactly the luckiest guy in the world. Yeah, he won the Civil War (the bloody, devastating Civil War), but he also lost his mother at a young age, buried two children, and, you know, got assassinated, hence the bust outside his tomb.

But whatever. I find it a delightful, if strange, tradition.

This morning my 6-year-old asked me if Lincoln had a shiny nose in real life. (I told her probably not.) She knows all about the nose because we've been to Lincoln's tomb a couple times, and because we live in Illinois where tributes to Lincoln are as common as Starbucks. Many of those Tributes come in statue or plaque form, and if the nose is accessible, it will be rubbed.

We encountered this plaque at a state park nowhere near Springfield a few months ago. You can see that the nose is significantly shinier than the rest of it.

You should never pass up an opportunity to rub Lincoln's nose. Or should you?

Apparently not everyone is happy about the tradition. An angry columnist from Springfield's newspaper is mad that people are leaving pennies at the statue and the tomb. He, and a cemetery worker, find it "tacky." In my four visits there I've never seen any pennies, so maybe it was a short-lived fad (the column is from 2013). But leaving coins on graves---any grave, not just Lincoln's---is something people do, isn't it? This columnist is also up in arms about people rubbing the nose, because apparently you aren't supposed to.

Then I felt bad. Have we been defacing Lincoln's face? Should we stop? So I looked for some warnings online, because there certainly aren't any at the tomb itself. The website for the Lincoln Tomb Monument Association has no warning against rubbing Abe's nose. The Lincoln's Tomb page at Oak Ridge Cemetery's website makes no mention of keeping one's hands off. In fact, the first image on the cemetery's home page is a photo of a person rubbing Lincoln's nose. It doesn't exactly seem like anyone's trying to discourage the rubbing, except Mr. Angry Springfieldian.

I did find some information about how in the 1970s the Illinois State Historical Society worried that the constant rubbing would erode Abe's nose, so they raised the bronze bust to make it harder to reach. Frustrated schoolchildren wrote letters of complaint, and the bust was restored to its regular height shortly thereafter. And apparently today, caretakers have a stepstool available for kids (or short adults) who need a boost to reach the nose. If they're trying to keep people's hands off, they're not doing a very good job communicating it.

I would hope that if the bust truly is in danger of being destroyed, they'll put it off-limits for good. Maybe they can use those pesky pennies and $5 bills being left at the tomb to help fund something.

So, until I'm told otherwise I'll keep rubbing Lincoln's nose whenever I see one. It might not bring me luck, but it brings me a little happiness.

Friday, February 5, 2016

FUN Presidents Day Ideas

It's the mooost wonderful tiiiiiiime of the year.....

Ah, yes, Presidents Day is upon us, and if you're like me, you're gearing up for a huge celebration! I'm here to help you with all of your Presidents Day needs, but first let's clear up a few things.

1. Apostrophes. Those little buggers. You'll see references to Presidents Day, President's Day, and Presidents' Day. I'm going with AP Style on this one: no apostrophe. It's just easier.

2. Whose Holiday is it Anyway? Some people want to nitpick about how Presidents Day isn't really a "thing," and that really it's Washington's birthday we're commemorating, or maybe a Washington-Lincoln mashup, or or or... I say screw that and celebrate it however you want. It's like debating whether Christmas is about the birth of Christ, the Pagan return of the Sun King, or Santa bringing presents down the chimney. Just do whatever works for you.

Now that we've cleared that up.

You might be looking for some exciting Presidents Day activities for yourself or your kids. You might check Google and Pinterest. You might then find some word searches and projects like gluing a penny onto a toilet paper tube and calling it a Lincoln puppet.

No. That's not fun.

I am forever in the process of collecting exciting ideas, but here's what I have so far.

Warhol-esque Presidential Portraits
I found this idea on this site last year. You search the web for a presidential-portrait coloring page of your choice, print out four copies, and then paint/color them in unusual ways. Center each one on a bright background, then place all four together. Yeah, it might just be coloring in presidents, but it's a lot more interesting than the typical coloring page.

Last year my two youngest kids picked William Howard Taft and James Garfield. I was so proud. My oldest refused to participate.

Speaking of Coloring Pages
Yes, usually they're boring, but not when Presidentress makes them. This coloring page allows you to explore Chester A. Arthur's pants. (I realized the other day I should have named this "Chester Drawers," except it's about pants, not underpants.)

Articulated Doll
Another Presidentress original craft, the Woodrow Wilson articulated doll can provide hours of excitement. Full backstory and directions can be found here.

Racing Presidents Dolls
Okay, yeah, it's just gluing stuff onto toilet paper tubes, which I specifically ridiculed up above, but these are far more interesting than the typical stuff you'll find in a teacher's guide. These are dolls based on the Washington Nationals racing presidents. Templates and instructions here.

Jelly Bean Pictures
You might not have enough jelly beans lying around to make a portrait of Ronald Reagan, but you can probably scrounge up enough to make a picture of something. If you do, make sure to share it with me. (To be clear, I did not make that Ronald Reagan portrait.)

Food and Drink
Perhaps you're not the crafty type but would like something to eat? You can always bake up some Dolley Madison Cake or John Quincy Adams Pumpkin Bread. Or just pour yourself a nice cocktail. Teddy Roosevelt's Hat, perhaps?

Do you have any fun projects or plans for Presidents Day? Let me know! Whatever you have is likely better than the one I came up with the other day: Giving the kids cardboard boxes and having them play "Hooverville." Not all ideas are winners.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Groundhogs and Presidents

Happy Groundhog Day, everyone! As with many things, I say that un-ironically. I love Groundhog Day! I even woke up at 5:45 this morning to attend my local groundhog prognostication. (Woodstock Willie says early spring!)

Needless to say, I was overjoyed a few months ago when I came across this t-shirt combining two of my favorite things: marmots and presidents!

Get your own at this Etsy shop.

The Roosevelt in question is Franklin D., and this was a logo created for a button during his 1932 campaign.

Naturally I was curious about these Virginia Groundhogs. I mean, what? I assumed it was some sort of fraternal organization, and that appears to be the case. The group was officially known as the "Ground Hog Club of America," but seems to have existed exclusively in Roanoke, Virginia, at least as far as I've been able to find.

Here's a photo of one of their meetings from Groundhog Day, 1926:

Courtesy of Roanoke Public Libraries

You can see the organization consists entirely of white men (with the exception of the white boy in the front row), which isn't surprising for a fraternal organization in 1926. The "African American" standing in the middle is actually a white man in blackface. So, that happened...

There's not a lot about the Ground Hogs on the web. An old newspaper mentions something about a wedding between two groundhogs (I think actual groundhogs, not members of the organization) in 1921. The group seems to have been active from the 1920s until their meeting hall burned down in 1957. They met again in 1962, but I don't know how long the organization survived after that.

Here's the shirt in action at today's groundhog festivities in Woodstock, Illinois, filming location for the Groundhog Day movie.

In other presidential-groundhog news, last night I was reading the book Groundhog Weather School to my 6-year-old (fantastic book, by the way), and in the section about famous groundhogs, we learned about Buckeye Chuck, Ohio's official groundhog. Where does Buckeye Chuck live? Marion, Ohio, home and burial site of Warren G. Harding! I might need to take a road trip next February...