Today is New Year’s Day. The first day of 2014 and the first day of another self imposed challenge — to cook everyday from an historic cook book. This time we travel a few years further back in time. We have transported ourselves from the 21st century back to the early 20th via the 1906 Berlin Cook Book and now are in the late 19th century when The Galt Cook Book was published. To ease the transition I’ve selected a recipe which has “German” in its title — German Method of Buckwheat Cakes. This recipe was contributed by Mrs. Hunt of Speedsville. I’m not sure what makes this German, why pancakes appear in the Scone section or how someone in Speedsville is connected to Galt.
My father loves buckwheat pancakes and I’ve grown to like them too. I thought this recipe would be a good way to begin the year. At first I thought I had to start making it last night in 2013 but when I read the recipe more closely it looks like I can make it today. First I put a cup of “tepid” water in a bowl. I chose to use water that was much warmer than tepid in order to help the yeast along. My kitchen was cold and the buttermilk was in my modern fridge so it was cold. I was worried the yeast wouldn’t work if added to a cold liquid. I added a cup of buttermilk. Unless you have a dairy cow to milk, it seems impossible to get real buttermilk. Even if you go to the trouble of turning cream into butter and buttermilk, it still won’t be the real thing. My container of whipping cream lists several other ingredients — not just cream! I chose to use commercial “cultured” buttermilk.
So far my bowl contains one cup of warm water and one cup of modern buttermilk. Next I added yeast. I was fortunate in 2012 to discover a local store EuroFoods that carries fresh compressed yeast. I’m fortunate to have worked with Fleischman’s compressed yeast cakes years ago as they aren’t available any more. I contacted Fleischman and they explained they no longer distribute them in Canada. Instead they gave the following equivalency: “Active dry yeast is an excellent substitute for fresh yeast. One small (.6-ounce) cake of fresh yeast is equivalent to one envelope dry yeast. One large (2-ounce) cake is equivalent to three envelopes dry yeast. Dissolve active dry yeast in warm water (100° to 110°F) and proceed with the recipe as directed.” Since I’m trying to be as accurate as possible I decided to use the fresh yeast. The next issue was quantity. The recipe doesn’t indicate how much yeast to use. I looked at several other recipes in the cook book to try to get a sense of quantity. I decided to use an amount equivalent to one yeast cake. I stirred a tablespoon of my fresh yeast into the liquid. The yeast was also cold since it also came from my modern fridge. Fresh yeast has a very short shelf life even if it is kept chilled.
Buckwheat pancake batter ready to rise.
I decided to turn on my oven to a very low temperature in order to warm up the batter a little and help the yeast along. The yeast wasn’t well blended in the liquid so I decided to add the flour. This presented another problem. How much flour? The recipe above for Buckwheat Pancakes uses a proportion of one and a half cups of liquid to one cup flour and two cups buckwheat flour. My mixture had another cup of liquid but I decided to use one cup of all purpose flour and two cups of buckwheat flour. This created something a bit like batter bread which I suspected was close to the intended texture. I covered the bowl of batter and left it on top of the stove to keep warm. I plan to check it in an hour and hopefully I’ll be able to make some pancakes.
Buckwheat is not commonly grown in southern Ontario anymore. Although the name makes it sound like it is some version of wheat it is an entirely different plant according to Wikipedia. If you find buckwheat groats in a store you can see that it is a type of seed. When the seed is finely ground you have buckwheat flour which is darker in colour than wheat flour and has a more pronounced taste. Sometimes it is grown near bee hives to produce delicious buckwheat honey. The bees gather the buckwheat pollen and their honey has the flavour of buckwheat. My father’s family had bee hives on their farm and sometimes ended up with buckwheat honey. It is still one of his favourites. Some grocery stores carry buckwheat flour in the specialty flour section and I can often find it in bulk food or natural food stores. Is buckwheat is suitable for people avoiding gluten or wheat?
Thick buckwheat pancakes in the pan.
After an hour and a half I checked on my buckwheat cakes batter. It was bubbly! Success. I put a teaspoon of baking soda in a glass and added at least a tablespoon of warm water. I wanted to dissolve the soda before adding it to the batter. I also sprinkled some salt on top of the batter. I stirred everything together again and watched my bubbly batter go flat. I’ve baked enough bread to know that will happen. I heated some oil in a frying pan and put in two dollops of batter. I don’t like thick pancakes so I also put some batter in a small bowl and added a bit of warm water and buttermilk to it. I stirred and added a dribble of maple syrup. Once the first pancakes were done I used my thinner batter to make some more. This is one of the few times I truly miss having a wood fired cook stove and a cast iron frying pan. I think these pancakes would be even better made with the equipment of 1898.
This edition of the Galt Cook Book was published a few years after most of the recipes were contributed. Does Mrs. Hunt still live in Speedsville in 1898? Was her recipe in the first edition? Speedsville was a small community between Hespeler and Preston and is now part of Cambridge Ontario. It is possible that Mrs. Hunt is Matilda A. Hudson. Matilda was born in England in 1836. The 1851 census shows her future husband 18 year old James Hunt living with his parents in the village of Preston where he works in the family cloth manufacturing business. Matilda was living in Port Hope in 1858 when she married Canadian born James Hunt. By 1861 census, James is listed as a manufacturer and the young couple live in a single family, single story frame house. Mr. and Mrs. Hunt’s religion is Wesleyan Methodist.
The 1891 Canadian census lists Matilda as 53 and John age 55 is a foreman in a woolen mill. The household also includes a 56 year old widow named Emeline Winter. It appears Mrs. Winter might be employed as a nurse or some sort of domestic help for the couple. By 1901, John has died and Matilda lives alone except for her fifteen year old niece Bertha E. H. Hunt. The 1911 census shows Matilda living in the town of Preston as a boarding house keeper with one lodger — a 26 year old public school teacher named Ethel Grimm (or Gimm or Gunn).
But in 1898, Mrs. Hunt’s recipe for German Method of Buckwheat Cakes appears in The New Galt Cook Book. I’m still not sure why this is a German method. Perhaps she learned it from a German neighbour? What she’s creating is a starter – something that be used over and over as the start to another batch of pancakes or perhaps even other baked goods. It must be “fed” after it is used. I’m going to try to keep this going for a little while just to see if it works.
Buckwheat Pancakes — thick ones with butter and thin ones plain.
Mrs. Hunt’s pancakes are good. I should have added a bit more salt to the batter and perhaps a little less yeast. The buckwheat flavour is present but not overwhelming. These are not pancake mix pancakes. Although I liked the crispy edge of my thin pancakes I was surprised that I preferred the thicker ones. I think adding maple syrup to the batter was a mistake. Syrup is marvelous on top of both versions. This recipe won’t appeal to everyone since some people find buckwheat an overpowering taste but there is some scope for a modern cook to experiment with flavour and texture. I have plenty of batter left to feed and keep as a starter so I’ll be able to try making buckwheat pancakes again. I suggest you try it too. Although this recipe required some detection it is a good start to the year of cooking with The New Galt Cook Book.
Let me know if you try the recipe and share your memories of starters. How long did you keep it going? Did it ever overflow? Do you have memories of buckwheat pancakes or buckwheat honey?
GERMAN METHOD OF BUCKWHEAT CAKES
Mrs. Hunt, Speedsville
Make a batter in the usual way of equal parts of buttermilk and tepid water, add yeast sufficient to raise it; when light add just enough soda to correct the acid in the buttermilk, also a little salt; when through baking put in some buttermilk and water, stir in flour and set in a cool place. They will be light by next morning. The writer has kept batter in this way for three months without renewing. It will renew itself and never sour unless kept too warm. To help brown, add a little syrup or cornmeal.