Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/March 1884/The Chemistry of Cookery X

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643369Popular Science Monthly Volume 24 March 1884 — The Chemistry of Cookery X1884W. Mattieu Williams




SINCE the publication of my last paper, I have learned the proper name of the Swiss compound there described as fondevin, according to my recollection of its pronunciation in Switzerland. In an old edition of Mrs. Rundell's "Domestic Cookery," it is described as fondu. A similar dish is described in that useful book "Cre-Fydd's Family Fare," under the name of cheese soufflé or fondu. I had looked for it in more pretentious works, especially in the most pretentious and the most disappointing one I have yet been tempted to purchase, viz., the twenty-seventh edition of Francatelli's "Modern Cook," a work which I can not recommend to anybody who has less than 20,000 a year and a corresponding luxury of liver.

Amid all the culinary monstrosities of these "high-class" manuals, I fail to find anything concerning the cookery of cheese that is worth the attention of my readers. Francatelli has, under the name of "Eggs à la Swisse," a sort of fondu, but decidedly inferior to the common fondu of the humble Swiss osteria, as he lays the eggs upon slices of cheese, and prescribes especially that the yolks shall not be broken; omits the milk, but substitutes (for high-class extravagance' sake, I suppose) "a gill of double cream," to be poured over the top. Thus the cheese is not intermingled with the egg, lest it should spoil the appearance of the unbroken yolks, its casein is made leathery instead of being dissolved, and the substitution of sixpenny worth of double cream for a halfpenny worth of milk supplies the high-class victim with fivepence halfpenny worth of biliary derangement.

In Gouffe's "Royal Cookery-Book" (the Household Edition of which contains a great deal that is really useful to an English housewife) I find a better recipe under the name of cheese soufflés. He says:

"Put two and one fourth ounces of flour in a stewpan, with one and a half pint of milk; season with salt and pepper; stew over the fire till boiling, and, should there be any lumps, strain the souffle paste through a tammy-cloth; add seven ounces of grated Parmesan cheese, and seven yolks of eggs; whip the whites till they are firm, and add them to the mixture; fill some paper cases with it, and bake in the oven for fifteen minutes."

Cre-Fydd says: "Grate six ounces of rich cheese (Parmesan is the best); put it into an enameled saucepan, with a teaspoonful of flour of mustard, a saltspoonful of white pepper, a grain of cayenne, the sixth part of a nutmeg, grated, two ounces of butter, two tablespoonfuls of baked flour, and a gill of new milk; stir it over a slow fire till it becomes like smooth, thick cream (but it must not boil); add the well-beaten yolks of six eggs, beat for ten minutes, then add the whites of the eggs beaten to a stiff froth; put the mixture into a tin or a cardboard mold, and bake in a quick oven for twenty minutes. Serve immediately."

Here is a true cookery of cheese by solution, and the result is an excellent dish. But there is some unnecesary complication and kitchen pedantry involved. The following is my own simplified recipe:

Take one fourth of a pound of grated cheese; add it to a gill of milk in which is dissolved as much powdered bicarbonate of potash as will stand upon a threepenny-piece; mustard, pepper, etc., as prescribed above by Cre-Fydd.[1] Heat this carefully until the cheese is completely dissolved. Then beat up three eggs, yolk and whites together, and add them to this solution of cheese, stirring the whole. Now take a shallow metal or earthenware dish or tray that will bear heating; put a little butter on this, and heat the butter till it frizzles. Then pour the mixture into this, and bake or fry it until it is nearly solidified.

A cheaper dish may be made by increasing the proportion of cheese—say, six to eight ounces to three eggs, or only one egg to a quarter pound of cheese for a hard-working man with powerful digestion.

The chief difficulty in preparing this dish conveniently is that of obtaining suitable vessels for the final frying or baking, as each portion should be poured into, and fried or baked in, a separate dish, so that each may, as in Switzerland, have his own fondu complete, and eat it from the dish as it comes from the fire. As demand creates supply, our ironmongers, etc., will soon learn to meet this demand if it arises. I am about writing to Messrs. Griffiths & Browett, of Birmingham, large manufacturers of what is technically called "hollow-ware"—i. e., vessels of all kinds knocked up from a single piece of metal without any soldering and have little doubt that they will speedily produce suitable fondu dishes according to my specification, and supply them to the shopkeepers.

The bicarbonate of potash is an original novelty that will possibly alarm some of my non-chemical readers. I advocate its use for two reasons: First, it effects a better solution of the casein by neutralizing the free lactic acid that inevitably exists in milk supplied to towns, and any free acid that may remain in the cheese. At a farm-house where the milk is just drawn from the cow it is unnecessary for this purpose, as such new milk is itself slightly alkaline. My second reason is physiological, and of greater weight. Salts of potash are necessary constituents of human food. They exist in all kinds of wholesome vegetables and fruits, and in the juices of fresh meat, but they are wanting in cheese, having, on account of their great solubility, been left behind in the whey.

This absence of potash appears to me to be the one serious objection to the free use of cheese-diet. The Swiss peasant escapes the mischief by his abundant salads, which eaten raw contain all their potash salts, instead of leaving the greater part in the saucepan, as do cabbages, etc., when cooked in boiling water. In Norway, where salads are scarce, the bonder and his housemen have at times suffered greatly from scurvy, especially in the far north, and would be severely victimized but for special remedies that they use (the mottebeer, cranberry, etc., grown and preserved especially for the purpose. The Laplanders make a broth of scurvy-grass and similar herbs). Mr. Lang attributes their recent immunity from scurvy, which was once a sore plague among them, to the introduction of the potato.

Scurvy on board ship results from eating salt meat, the potash of which has escaped by exosmosis into the brine or pickle. The sailor now escapes it by drinking citrate, of potash in the form of lime-juice, and by alternating salt-junk with rations of tinned meats.

I once lived for six days on bread and cheese only, tasting no other food. I had, in company with C. M. Clayton, son of the Senator of Delaware (who negotiated the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty), taken a passage from Malta to Athens in a little schooner, and expecting a three days' journey we took no other rations than a lump of Cheshire cheese and a supply of bread. Bad weather doubled the expected length of our journey.

We were both young, and, proud of our hardihood in bearing privations, were stanch disciples of Diogenes; but on the last day we succumbed, and bartered the remainder of our bread and cheese for some of the boiled horse-beans and cabbage-broth of the forecastle. The cheese, highly relished at first, had become positively nauseous, and our craving for the vegetable broth was absurd, considering the full view we had of its constituents, and of the dirtiness of its cooks.

I attribute this to the lack of potash salts in the cheese and bread. It was similar to the craving for common salt by cattle that lack necessary chlorides in their food. I am satisfied that cheese can never take the place in an economic dietary otherwise justified by its nutritious composition, unless this deficiency of potash is somehow supplied. My device of using it with milk as a solvent supplies it in a simple and natural manner.


My first acquaintance with the rational cookery of cheese was in the autumn of 1842, when I dined with the monks of St. Bernard. Being the only guest, I was the first to be supplied with soup, and then came a dish of grated cheese. Being young and bashful, I was ashamed to display my ignorance by asking what I was to do with the cheese, but made a bold dash, nevertheless, and sprinkled some of it into my soup. I then learned that my guess was quite correct; the prior and the monks did the same.

On walking on to Italy I learned that there such use of cheese is universal. Minestra without Parmesan would there be regarded as we in England should regard muffins and crumpets without butter. During the forty years that have elapsed since my first sojourn in Italy my sympathies are continually lacerated when I contemplate the melancholy spectacle of human beings eating thin soup without any grated cheese.

Not only in soups, but in many other dishes, it is similarly used. As an example, I may name "Risotto à la Milanese," a delicious, wholesome, and economical dish—a sort of stew composed of rice and the giblets of fowls, usually charged about twopence to threepence per portion at Italian restaurants. This is always served with grated Parmesan. The same with the many varieties of paste, of which macaroni and vermicelli are the best known in this country.

In all these the cheese is sprinkled over, and then stirred into the soup, etc., while it is hot. The cheese being finely divided is fused at once, and, being fused in liquid, is thus delicately cooked. This is quite different from the "macaroni cheese" commonly prepared in England by depositing macaroni in a pie-dish, and then covering it with a stratum of grated cheese, and placing this in an oven or before a fire until the cheese is desiccated, browned, and converted into a horny, caseous form of carbon that would induce chronic dyspepsia in the stomach of a wild-boar if he fed upon it for a week.

In all preparations of Italian pastes, risottos, purées, etc., the cheese is intimately mixed throughout, and softened and diffused thereby in the manner above described.

The Italians themselves imagine that only their own Parmesan cheese is fit for this purpose, and have infected many Englishmen with the same idea. Thus it happens that fancy prices are paid in this country for that particular cheese, which is of the same class as the cheese known in our midland counties as "skim dick," and sold there at about fourpence per pound, or given by the farmers to their laborers. It is cheese "that has sent its butter to market," being made from the skim-milk which remains in the dairy after the pigs have been fully supplied.

I have used this kind of cheese as a substitute for Parmesan, and I find it quite satisfactory, though it has not exactly the same fine flavor as the best qualities of Parmesan, but is equal to that commonly used by the Italian millions. The only fault of our ordinary whole-milk English and American cheeses is that they are too rich, and can not be so finely grated on account of their more unctuous structure, due to the cream they contain.

I note that in the recipes of high-class cookery-books, where Parmesan is prescribed, cream is commonly added. Sensible English cooks, who use Cheshire, Cheddar, or good American cheese, are practically including the Parmesan and the cream in natural combination. By allowing these cheeses to dry, or by setting aside the outer part of the cheese for the purpose, the difficulty of grating is overcome.

I have now to communicate another result of my cheese-cooking researches, viz., a new dish—cheese-porridge—or, I may say, a new class of dishes—cheese-porridges. They are not intended for epicures, not for swine who only live to eat, but for men and women who eat in order to live and work. These combinations of cheese are more especially fitted for those whose work is muscular, and who work in the open air. Sedentary brain-workers like myself should use them carefully, lest they suffer from over-nutrition, which is but a few degrees worse than partial starvation.

Typical cheese-porridge is ordinary oatmeal-porridge made in the usual manner, but to which grated cheese is added, either while in the cookery-pot or after it is taken out, and yet as hot as possible. It should be sprinkled gradually and well stirred in.

Another kind of cheese-porridge or cheese-pudding is made by adding cheese to baked potatoes—the potatoes to be taken out of their skins and well mashed while the grated cheese is sprinkled and intermingled. A little milk may or may not be added, according to taste and convenience. This is better suited for those whose occupations are sedentary, potatoes being less nutritious and more easily digested than oatmeal. They are chiefly composed of starch, which is a heat-giver or fattener, while the cheese is highly nitrogenous, and supplies the elements in which the potato is deficient, the two together forming a fair approach to the theoretically demanded balance of constituents.

I say baked potatoes rather than boiled, and perhaps should explain my reasons, though in doing so I anticipate what I intended to say when on the subject of vegetable food.

Raw potatoes contain potash salts which are easily soluble in water. I find that when the potato is boiled some of the potash comes out into the water, and thus the vegetable is robbed of a very valuable constituent. The baked potato contains all its original saline constituents which, as I have already stated, are specially demanded as an addition to cheese-food.

Hasty-pudding made, as usual, of wheat-flour, may be converted from an insipid to a savory and highly nutritious porridge by the addition of cheese in like manner.

The same with boiled rice, whether whole or ground, also sago, tapioca, and other forms of edible starch. Supposing whole rice is used, and I think this the best, the cheese may be sprinkled among the grains of rice and well stirred or mashed up with them. The addition of a little brown gravy to this gives us an Italian risotto.

Peas-pudding is not improved by cheese. The chemistry of this will come out when I explain the composition of peas, beans, etc.

I might enumerate other methods of cooking cheese by thus adding it in a finely divided state to other kinds of food, but if I were to express my own convictions on the subject I should stir up prejudice by naming some mixtures which some people would denounce. As an example I may refer to a dish which I invented more than twenty years ago viz., fish and cheese pudding, made by taking the remains from a dish of boiled codfish, haddock, or other white fish, mashing it with bread-crumbs, grated cheese, and ketchup, then warming in an oven and serving after the usual manner of scalloped fish. Any remains of oyster-sauce may be advantageously included.

I find this delicious, but others may not. I frequently add grated cheese to boiled fish as ordinarily served, and have lately made a fish sauce by dissolving grated cheese in milk with the aid of a little bicarbonate of potash. I suggest these cheese mixtures to others with some misgiving as regards palatability, after learning the revelations of Darwin on the persistence of heredity. It is quite possible that, being a compound of the Swiss Mattieu with the Welsh Williams, cheese on both sides, I may inherit an abnormal fondness for this staple food of the mountaineers.

Be this as it may, so far as the mere palate is concerned, I have full confidence in the chemistry of all my advocacy of cheese and its cookery. Rendered digestible by simple and suitable cookery, and added, with a little potash salt, to farinaceous food of all kinds, it affords exactly what is required to supply a theoretically complete and a most economical dietary, without the aid of any other kind of animal food. The potash salts may be advantageously supplied by a liberal second course of fruit or salad.—Knowledge.

  1. Before the Adulteration Act was passed, mustard-flour was usually mixed with well-dried wheaten-flour, whereby the redundant oil was absorbed, and the mixture was a dry powder. Now it is different, being pure powdered mustard-seed, and usually rather damp. It not only lies closer, but is much stronger. Therefore, in following any recipe of old cookery-books, only about half the stated quantity should be used.