What do we want from our domestic goddesses?

Look at any modern recipe: what do you see? A list of ingredients, in the order in which they are needed; an instruction on the oven temperature so you can get things warming up; and a list of instructions, again in order. You may even get some nice asides like ‘Back to the frosting’, or ‘you can add some more zest here if you like’ just to give the friendly, knowing touch.

These details  – and perhaps more importantly – the logical way in which they are presented, are an invaluable part of baking from a recipe. It wasn’t always so. In baking recipes from the eighteenth century instructions were usually in one block of text, with no separating out of the ingredients at all. Oven instructions were vague to our modern eye – ‘moderate’ or ‘hot’ (the modern Aga user will appreciate this of course, but most of us want a precise number in centigrade, farenheit or gas mark). Instructions like ‘bake until it is done’ were not uncommon, and you get general impression that authors were writing for bakers who already knew what they were aiming for. It wasn’t until Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families (link to free ebook) which was published in 1845, that a nod was given to the way the cook or baker read and used the recipe. Interestingly, the result was the other way round from the one we use today: recipe summary first, then ingredients and cooking times (the thinking being that the cook would want to read through the method first, before needing to know her ingredients).

I decided to try out what this different style felt like for a modern baker. The recipe I selected was the Sponge Gingerbread from Catherine Beecher’s Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book (available here) published in 1846 as a companion to her Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School (I mentioned it previously here). I have to admit that I picked it largely because it looked straightforward and didn’t require any difficult ingredients or baking methods. Here it is:


Sponge Gingerbread

One cup of sour milk

One cup of molasses

A half a cup of butter

Two eggs

One and a half teaspoonful of saleratus

One great spoonful of ginger

Flour to make it thick as pound-cake

Put the butter, molasses, and ginger together, and make them quite warm, then add the milk, flour and saleratus, and bake as soon as possible

Yep, that’s it. Still, I felt confident. Sour milk, I found, could be substituted with buttermilk, or some milk with vinegar or lemon juice added to it to make it curdle. Saleratus was an early raising agent and could be swapped for an equal measure of bicarbonate of soda/baking soda. And I know how thick a pound cake batter is, right?

Well, wrong on several counts. First, I made the mistake of assuming that the ingredients were listed in the order in which I needed them – despite reading through the recipe first as Miss Acton would have instructed. I’d already put the milk in the pan before realising my mistake – luckily an easy one to rectify. Then I had a little uncertainty over the thickness of the batter – despite my prior (over) confidence. And lastly, I had no idea how long to bake it for, or for how long, and had to consult Nigella.

So all in all, quite an instructive experience. Catherine Beecher was writing for women who might NOT have a lot of expertise in the kitchen, and she was keen to teach them scientific rules for the kitchen. But even in this situation, she could assume  that they could make an educated guess as to oven temperature and ‘done-ness’ (though see her other advice here on how to do that). She also clearly had higher expectations as to initiative, memory and common sense than I was able to provide, as she did not feel the need to list her ingredients in the order they were used. The end result though? Well worth it – the closest I have ever come to a home-made Macvities’ Jamaican Ginger Cake. And that’s high praise. But can I find a single photo of it? I cannot. I’ll just have to make another…






Marguerite Patten: Domestic Goddess of the Austerity Era

I’ve been using the term ‘Domestic Goddess’ to mean a whole range of attributes from skill in the home; through a connection with ‘old fashioned’ tasks and activities; to the patina of accomplishment and polish which the likes of Nigella seem to have lent to it. I suspect that’s what many other people who use the term do too, pulling out a positive or a negative angle as suits them. But on any of those more positive measures, Marguerite Patten, who died this month, more than fits the bill.

Marguerite Patten presenting the BBC programme ‘Can You Cook?’ in 1950. Image source, BBC.

Patten was for a time an actress, before becoming a Senior Home Economist for Frigidaire. She is best known, however, for her work during the Second World War, when she was employed as a Senior Home Economist by the Ministry of Food, and after the war, for Harrods department store. Her job was to publicise information about rationing, and to provide demonstrations and talks about what could be done with the limited food on offer. She was undoubtedly accomplished in the arts of cookery, offering a huge repertoire of dishes to her followers, many of whom she realised were regulars and so needed a constant supply of new ideas. At one stage she was giving 11 demonstrations per week in Harrods. But for me, what makes her a positive role model as a Domestic Goddess was her attitude to food and celebration in a time of shortage.

The attitude comes across very clearly in a long interview she recorded in 1996 for the Imperial War Museum’s Sound Archive. Her approach, she says, was not to apologise for the shortage and monotony of ingredients (rations were two ounces of butter, four ounces of margarine or other fats two ounces of cheese, and a tuppenny worth of meat for a week. You could expect to get one single egg per week ‘if you were lucky’, and half a pound of sugar) but instead to cheerfully present her dishes as tasty and wholesome. She also realised that people still needed celebratory food and treats in their lives – possibly more than ever. Christmas was a difficult time, but she says ‘we were determined to celebrate’ – cue recipes for marzipan which substituted soya flour or semolina for the missing ground almonds. She popularised an eggless, tea-soaked fruit cake which used little sugar and no fat, and published countless other recipes for austerity cakes which required little in the way of the prized sugar and butter. She even did her best with dried eggs which were a bit of a Marmite of their time: ‘Some people loved dried eggs. “Oooh, I wish we could have them back”, they say. Other people say “oh, that ghastly dried eggs.” She realised that the trick to palatability was in making sure that they were made up with the correct proportion of water; too much powder and they tasted sulphurous (some said that scrambled powdered eggs also bounced when dropped!). After the war, things (eventually) became easier, and she remembered cooking ‘more frivolous things’ in her demonstrations, like puff pastry and continental buns.

Image source: amazon

But lest we think that Domestic Goddessery is all about promoting women’s subjugation in the kitchen (which certainly isn’t how I used the term),  we should note that Patten was also a prominent and well-loved broadcaster as well as a taste-leader. She appeared on the second day of Woman’s Hour in 1946, and was a regular voice on that program. She also took part in the famous short ‘Kitchen Front’ broadcasts on weekday mornings alongside Dr Charles Hill ‘the Radio Doctor’, whom she remembered with some fondness: ‘He was like Winston Churchill in that it wasn’t what he said sometimes, but how he said it.’ Her more than 170 cookbooks (of which Cookery in Colour published in 1961 stood out in an era of black and white photography) were hugely popular, and she was one of the first cooks to appear on television. She was both an OBE and later a CBE, and in 2007 was awarded the Woman of the Year Elior Lifetime Achievement Award.

Marguerite Patten retired in her seventies but returned to broadcasting in her nineties. Fittingly, Woman’s Hour broadcast an episode-length tribute to her on her death which showed her humour and expertise still as sharp as ever, although she was no longer able to stand to cook comfortably.

The Imperial War Museum interview can be heard here.