The many scenes of eating in the novels of Charles Dickens (1812-1870) are useful ingredients of Victorian social history, particularly his scenes of the young, who are hungry for food and security and are let down by the well-fed adults and, crucially, the institutions who should be caring for them.
Dickens knew the agony of childhood hunger and loneliness. He loved convivial meals and we know his wife Catherine gave a lot of thought to them, because she published a little book of ‘bills of fare’ called What Shall We Have for Dinner? In their London home, she oversaw the cook sweltering over a coal-burning cast-iron range in a cramped basement kitchen, to produce an impressive variety of dishes for a dinner party. To help balance the books, family menus featured economic and filling puddings.
Dickens’ knowledge of domestic details is unusual in a Victorian man: in A Christmas Carol, he knows that Mrs Cratchit, too poor to have an oven, sends her goose to the baker’s and the washing copper doubles up as a pudding pan; in Martin Chuzzlewit he makes a joke about making a beefsteak pudding pastry with butter. This is all part of a picture he loved to paint – a rosy-cheeked young woman learning to cook for her brother or husband.
Victorian food may have a reputation for being either stodgy or unnecessarily fussy, but recreating the dishes that Dickens and his characters tuck into shows that it can be delicious, savoury and warming, light and elegant – and always best shared. With new book Dinner with Dickens, fans of Victorian cooking can try their hand at recreating more than 60 dishes featured in the author’s work, including ‘charitable soup’, oxtail stew and pineapple rum…
Catherine Dickens’ menu book is most indebted to the recipes of the celebrity chef Alexis Soyer. In 1847, in the midst of the Irish potato famine, he travelled to Dublin to set up a famine-relief kitchen and wrote Soyer’s Charitable Cookery, the proceeds of which he gave to charity. He later travelled to the Crimea to change the diet of soldiers, particularly those in hospital.
- 2 onions, sliced
- a little olive oil, for frying
- 2 leeks, sliced and washed free of grit
- 2 sticks of celery, chopped
- 2 lb 3 oz/1kg shin of beef or neck of lamb, bone in, cut into pieces by your butcher, plus some stock bones
- 2 small turnips, chopped
- bouquet garni or 2 bay leaves and a few sprigs of thyme and curly parsley, tied together
- 8½ cups/2 litres water (or beef stock if you are using meat without bones)
- 6 tablespoons pearl barley
- 3 carrots, chopped
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven, if using, to 325°F/165°C/Gas 3.
Sauté the onions in a little olive oil in a skillet/frying pan until they begin to soften, then add the leeks and celery and continue to soften for 5 minutes.
Tip this into a saucepan. Add a little more oil to the pan and brown the meat lightly on all sides in two batches—don’t let it sweat in the pan—then add it to the onions. Add the turnips, herbs, and either stock or cold water plus the stock bones. Season with salt and pepper, bring to a simmer and simmer on a very low heat, or cover and put it in the preheated oven, for 1½ hours.
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Add the pearl barley and carrots and continue to simmer for 45 minutes, or until the pearl barley is cooked. Toward the end of the cooking time, take the stock bones and herbs out of the pan and discard.
Take the meat out of the broth, pull it off the bones and shred it, then return the meat to the pan.
In The Old Curiosity Shop, Nell, her grandfather, and their eccentric fellow travellers are revived at The Jolly Sandboys with an equally eccentric “stew of tripe… cow-heel… steak… peas, cauliflowers, new potatoes, and sparrow-grass [asparagus] all working up together in one delicious gravy.” Margaret Dods’ dish of oxtail rather than cow-heel, served with peas and root vegetables, is also good for a hungry crowd on a rainy night.
- 1 oxtail, about 3¼ lb/1.5kg, cut into short lengths (your butcher will do this for you)
- 4 slices of unsmoked streaky bacon, chopped
- olive oil, for frying
- 2 onions, peeled and roughly chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- 3 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
- 1 small turnip, peeled and roughly chopped
- a sprig of thyme, a few stalks of parsley, and a bay leaf, tied in a bouquet or in a muslin
- 1 quart/1 litre organic beef stock
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- sauce hachée (see right) or horseradish sauce, to serve
For the sauce hachée
- 2–3 gherkins, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon flat-leaf parsley, leaves only, finely chopped
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
Optional extra flavourings for sauce
- 2 scallions/spring onions, very finely chopped
- or ½ teaspoon grated horseradish
- or a little lemon zest
Rinse the oxtail pieces and then leave to soak in salted cold water for an hour or two.
Drain the oxtail, place in a pan of fresh water and bring to a rolling boil for 10–15 minutes, skimming the scum from the surface (this removes the bitterness).
If you are cooking the stew in the oven, preheat it to 300°F/150°C/Gas 2. Fry the bacon in a very little olive oil in a large flameproof pot. Add the onions and garlic and sweat until they begin to soften, then add the rest of the vegetables.
Add the drained oxtail pieces to the pot, fry them a little in the fat until they start to color, then add the herbs, the beef stock, and enough water to make sure the meat is completely covered. Bring to a simmer, check the seasoning, and add a little salt if necessary. Cover and either keep on a very low heat or put in the oven for 4 hours. Add a little water if the oxtail is becoming dry.
When the meat is falling off the bone, take the stew off the heat or remove from the oven. If the gravy is too thin, remove the meat and vegetables with a slotted spoon and boil it fast to reduce it until it is the depth of intensity you like, then add salt and pepper to taste and return the meat and vegetables.
Serve with peas, mashed carrots, and parsnips. For the sauce hachée, simply mix the ingredients and any extra flavouring you select together and serve separately, along with a bowl of horseradish sauce. Or make horseradish mash by infusing warm milk with grated horseradish root while the potatoes are cooking.
Ruth Pinch’s beefsteak pudding
In Martin Chuzzlewit, Ruth Pinch – the sort of ingénue housekeeper that Dickens loved writing about – is worried that the beefsteak pudding she cooks for her brother Tom will “turn out a stew, or a soup, or something of that sort.” Tom enjoys watching her cook, but later teases her when they realize she should have used suet for the pastry. Eliza Acton gives Ruth the last word by devising “Ruth Pinch’s Beefsteak Pudding,” made with butter and eggs.
For the pastry
- 3½ cups/450g self-rising flour
- a pinch of salt
- 2/3 cup/150g cold butter, cubed, plus extra for greasing
- 3 eggs
For the filling
- 1 lb 2 oz/500g stewing steak, cubed
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 2 teaspoons freshly chopped thyme
- 2 teaspoons freshly chopped parsley
- 3 level tablespoons all-purpose/plain flour
- about 2/3 cup/150ml beef stock (or water plus a tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce or mushroom ketchup)
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
And any of Eliza Acton’s suggested additions:
- a few whole oysters
- or 5½ oz/150g kidney, chopped (Eliza recommended “veal kidneys seasoned with fine herbs”)
- or 6 oz/170g “nicely prepared button mushrooms”
- or a few shavings of fresh truffle
- or 5–7 oz/150–200g sweetbreads, chopped
Start by making the pastry. Sieve the flour and salt into a basin; add the butter and rub it in. Beat the eggs together with a dash of cold water, then stir them into the flour mixture with a wooden spoon. Pull the mixture together with your hands, adding a little more water or flour as necessary. When you have an elastic dough, turn it onto a lightly floured board and roll out into a large disc. Cut a quarter out and put to one side.
Fold the two outer quarters over the middle quarter and put into a well-buttered 2-pint/1.2-litre basin, with the point in the bottom. Unfold the two outer quarters and push the pastry into the sides of the basin, wetting the edges so that they seal together and the whole basin is fully lined. Trim the top edge so there is ½–1 inch/1–2cm of pastry overhanging the edge of the basin.
Roll out the remaining quarter to make a circular lid.
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Mix the meat with the remaining ingredients except the liquid, making sure the flour is well distributed. Turn it into the pastry-lined basin and pour the stock or liquid over. Brush the top edge of the pastry in the basin with water and put the pastry lid on top, pinching it around to seal.
Put a lid of buttered foil or a circle of parchment or greaseproof paper and a cloth on top, adding a pleat to give room for the pudding to puff up.
Place the basin in a saucepan so that the water comes halfway up the side of the pudding. Cover and steam for up to 4 hours, checking and topping up the water level every half hour or so.
Serve straight from the bowl or turn it out and cut it into segments. The butter crust makes this easier to do than the traditional suet one.
The French Plums that Scrooge sees in the greengrocer’s are “blushed in modest tartness from their highly-decorated boxes” (which, if “exceedingly ornamental,” even Mrs. Beeton concedes might be put directly on the dining table). Port and cinnamon turn too-tart plums into a Christmas delight. Candied French plums were Christmas gifts, but should not be confused with “sugar plums,” which are, in fact, sugared nuts or seeds.
Put the water or orange juice, port, sugar, cinnamon stick, and lemon rind in a pan and heat gently until the sugar has dissolved and you have a syrup.
Add the plums, cover, and stew gently for 15 minutes.
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Serve with cream, Italian Cream (see page 157), or custard. Alternatively, make into a plum pie by mixing the ingredients together in a pie dish, adding a pastry lid (see pastry recipe on page 129), and baking at 400°F/200°C/Gas 6 for 30–35 minutes.
- 3 tablespoons water or juice of 1 orange
- 3 tablespoons port
- 1 tablespoon soft brown sugar
- a cinnamon stick
- a small piece of orange or lemon rind
- approx. 1 lb 2 oz/500g French plums, halved and stones removed
Almond cake for Steerforth
The feast of currant wine, biscuits, fruit, and almond cakes that Steerforth persuades David Copperfield to provide feeds David’s infatuation with the charismatic older boy. A subsequent gift from Peggotty, of cake, oranges, and cowslip wine, he lays at the feet of Steerforth for him to dispense. William Kitchiner’s light almond cake pairs well with oranges, berries, or other fruit.
- butter, for greasing
- 5 free-range eggs
- 1 cup minus 1 tablespoon/180g golden superfine/caster sugar (or granulated sugar, if you cannot find golden superfine/caster sugar)
- finely grated zest of 1 lemon or orange
- 1 teaspoon almond extract (optional)
- a pinch of salt
- a pinch of cream of tartar
- 2 cups/200g ground almonds
- ¼ cup/35g all-purpose/plain flour
For the frosting
- 1 tablespoon orange or lemon juice
- ¾ cup/100g confectioners’/icing sugar, sifted
- To serve
- fresh fruit, such as raspberries or cherries, or fruit compôte, such as orange, apricot, or plum (see below)
Preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C/Gas 4. Grease a 9-inch/23-cm bundt pan/tin or ring mold, or a plain springform pan/tin. Separate the eggs and leave the whites to come to room temperature.
Make sure there is no yolk or fat in the whites, which would prevent them from beating properly.
Beat the yolks with ½ cup/100g of the sugar until pale and fluffy, then beat in the lemon or orange zest and the almond extract, if using.
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In a completely clean bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff (you should be able to turn the bowl upside down and they won’t fall out!). Add a quarter of the remaining sugar, the pinch of salt, and the cream of tartar, beat again, then fold in the rest of the sugar.
Fold the whites into the batter, a quarter at a time, followed by the almonds and flour. Scrape the mixture into the mold or pan. Bake in the preheated oven for 35–40 minutes until the cake is shrinking from the sides of the pan.
Remove from the oven and leave the cake to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then turn it out.
To make the frosting, stir the orange or lemon juice into the sifted confectioner’s/icing sugar, then drizzle over the cake. Fill the centre of the cake with fresh fruit such as raspberries or cherries.
Alternatively, keep it plain and serve it with a compôte of fruit such as oranges, apricots, or plums.
Compotes of fruit
Eliza Acton recommends a compôte of fruit as a more elegant dessert than the “common ‘stewed fruit’ of English cookery.” The fruit, being added to a syrup, better retains its structure and taste, and the syrup is beautifully translucent. She recommends serving the redcurrant compôtes with the substantial batter, custard, bread, or ground rice puddings Victorians loved.
The preparation is simple. Gently boil white granulated sugar and water together for 10 minutes to make a syrup, skimming any scum from the surface. Add the fruit and simmer until the fruit is lightly cooked. If the syrup is too runny, remove the fruit with a slotted spoon and arrange it in a serving dish. Reduce the syrup over a medium heat, let it cool slightly, and then pour it over. It may also be served cold, and it keeps for a day or two in the fridge. Cinnamon, cloves, vanilla beans/pods, or a little orange or lemon peel can be used as flavourings when you make the syrup.
Eliza Acton recommends the following proportions and timings:
Rhubarb, gooseberries, cherries, damsons – syrup made from ¾ cup/140g sugar with 1¼ cups/280ml water; add 1 lb/450g fruit and simmer for about 10 minutes. Redcurrants and raspberries – syrup made from ¾ cup/140g sugar with 2/3 cup/140ml water; add 1 lb/450g fruit and simmer for 5–7 minutes.
Mrs. Beeton recommends the following proportions and timings:
Oranges – syrup made from 1½ cups/300g sugar with 21/3 cups/570ml water; add 6 oranges, skin and pith removed, cut into segments. Simmer for 5 minutes. Apples—syrup made from 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons/225g sugar to scant 1¼ cups/280ml water; peel, halve, and core the apples and simmer in the syrup with the juice and rind of a lemon for 15–25 minutes.
Dinner with Dickens: Recipes Inspired by the Life and Work of Charles Dickens by Pen Vogler (CICO Books, £16.99) is on sale now. Pen Vogler is a food historian whose other books include Dinner with Mr Darcy and Tea with Jane Austen.
This article was first published by History Extra in October 2017.