Monday, January 11, 2010

January Undones! and Recipes from the Past

This past summer, my grandmother shared with me a handwritten cook book, that my great-grandmother had given to her daughters in 1948, in order to share family recipes.  Since she never used recipes, my great-grandmother had to make each of the recipes and write them down.  Along the way, she included many of her own comments and recommendations.  When I read them, it was like catching a glimpse of the woman who died before I was born.  Below, I'm transcribing, word for word, her recipe for Baked Chicken and Dressing so that you can gain a sense of who she was.

Baked Chicken and Dressing

Buy about a five lb. hen—always with white fat if possible.  Old hens have real yellow fat and big pores, so when possible, select the light cream colored fat.  Wash thoroughly, almost cover in water (cold) and boil at gentle heat until wings and thighs will feel loose when pulled from the body.  When the chicken is about half done, salt.

Take out as much broth as needed for the gravy and use the remaining broth to make up the dressing.  Set the chicken aside until you are ready to brown it when the dressing is about half done.


Make a good egg bread—about 1 ½ cups meal, 2 eggs, 3 full Tablespoons melted lard (I use bacon drippings lots).  2 teaspoons baking powder, 1 teaspoon salt and make into fairly soft dough with sweet milk.  Bake in hot oven.  Then crumble up in bowl.  Add about 2 small biscuits or maybe 1 ½ slices light bread, one medium size onion and one small piece garlic (leave off the garlic if you don't like it), 1 cup chopped celery.  Make all this up into right consistency with the broth.  Put in shallow pan and bake.  Stir one time after it has begun to get dry on sides, at this stirring, add 2 Tablespoons sugar—then put the chicken in center of pan and bake to golden brown on both sides.  Call Mary to come eat dinner with you.

What I love about this recipe is that I can almost hear my great-grandmother talking to me.  The last line truly is in the cook book, and it makes me smile. 

I wanted to create a character who loved to cook and who found her refuge in making food for others.  The character of Emily Whitmore, the Accidental Countess, was born.  In the Undone short story "An Accidental Seduction," Emily is reunited with her childhood sweetheart, and she cooks an unconventional meal for him during a winter snow storm.  I've also included some of Emily's true recipes on my website at:

Food is a universal element, bringing families and generations together.  Whenever I browse through old cook books, I feel like I'm stepping into the past where women served love and affection along with their food.  It makes me wonder what sort of people they were and what stories lie untold.

--Michelle Willingham

* * *

“Would you care for a slice of plum cake?” – Mrs. Higgins

Since the recipe that follows is adapted from Beeton’s Book of Household Management, I hoped to quote something from Mrs. Beeton that would relate to my Undone which is out this month, Notorious Eliza.

Nope. Even if Mrs. Beeton had been Eliza’s contemporary (the story takes place in 1800) instead of a starchy Victorian, she wouldn’t have approved of a woman who paints the mistresses of rakes and is hired to disguise the orgies painted on a country house’s ballroom walls.

So instead, the above quote is from the hero’s housekeeper. She’s a motherly sort, and after breaking to Patrick the news that his daughter’s new playmate is the scandalous Eliza’s son, she offers him comfort food in the form of plum cake. Not that that’s the sort of comfort Patrick’s looking for, but fortunately for her peace of mind, Mrs. Higgins (like Mrs. Beeton) has no idea what a man like Patrick really wants!

Luckily, since I needed to try out the recipe, plum cake doesn’t actually contain plums, which aren’t easy to find at this time of year. It may have contained prunes at some time in the distant past, but not in Mrs. Beeton’s time, and likely not in Patrick and Eliza’s day, either.

“A Nice Plum Cake”

3 cups flour
1 cup brown sugar
3 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. soda
½ tsp. salt
1-1/2 cups currants
1/3 cup diced candied lemon peel
1/2 cup butter (1/4 lb.)
1-1/4 cups milk

Bake in a greased loaf pan at 350 degrees F for 45-50 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out more or less clean. It’s good! There was too much batter for one loaf pan, so I made six muffins with the rest, and they were fine, too. You can find this and other recipes I experimented with during historical research at

-- Barbara Monajem


Jane Holland said...

Michlle, how marvellously topical - a 'snowed-in' scene! Do you have a crystal ball to hand or is this just good timing from Harlequin?

I'm joking, of course. Well done on your latest Undone!


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Cheryl St.John said...

I am waiting to hear about The Accidental Princess. Gorgeous cover!