“Through these various phases, only to live has been the great object of mankind; but, by-and-by, comforts are multiplied, and accumulating riches create new wants. The object, then, is not only to live, but to live economically, agreeably, tastefully, and well.” Mrs Beeton, Book of Household Management. Find this pictured recipe for her Curate’s Pudding below.
It seems quite timely that we’re celebrating VE Day during a time of national crisis. While the challenges of Covid-19 and those of the world wars are fundamentally very different, there are parallels we can draw between them. One is that both have led to food shortages and widespread stock-piling. As during the world wars, so again we’re encouraged to exercise restraint so that frontline workers and those more vulnerable still have access to food and at reasonable prices. One thing I’ve noticed most keenly is the lack of flour and yeast. Suddenly everyone wants to make their own bread, my harassed grocer tells me, rolling his eyes.
This is not the first time we’ve stock-piled flour. By April 2016, during the first world war, Britain had just six weeks of grain supply left, bread and flour were becoming increasingly scarce and the public were encouraged to cut their flour and bread-intake by a quarter. There was even a campaign launched in which householders were given a badge printed I EAT LESS BREAD to show their allegiance to the war effort. Imagine that! Apparently it didn’t work.
In the US, similar flour shortages meant people were again implored to use substitutes. Oats, cornmeal, rice, barley, potato and buckwheat were used in place of flour, which I’m guessing was similar in the UK.
“When you cook such things as rice, or potatoes or spaghetti or any of the starches, cook enough for two meals instead of one”, says MFK Fisher in her wartime cookbook, How to Cook a Wolf. It makes sense. Leftover mashed potato can replace flour to make bread and even desserts. Actually, it provides a moist texture that means you can also use less fat – another precious commodity. Even now, it’s useful knowledge to help us cook more from our fridges and cupboards, and waste less – flour shortages or not!
MFK Fisher also provides a recipe (alongside a more dubious Tomato Soup Cake) for Sweet Potato Pudding. “Another hearty dessert, which can be made of sweet potatoes or yams left from the day before yesterday’s supper”, she says. Cooked or baked sweet potatoes are mashed and combined with melted butter, brown sugar, lemon zest and juice and cinnamon, and baked in a buttered casserole lined with sliced bananas.
Chrys Blanchard, a homecook I interviewed not so long ago, grew up in post-war Liverpool. She remembers a pot of mash always on the stove, her nan turning the leftovers into savoury potato cakes. Eaten with lots of butter fresh off a hot pan, the recipe for these simple and very moreish cakes can be found here.
Now, as flourless cake and bread recipes abound online, it got me thinking. What can we find in the old cookbooks of that time? In Germany, I’m told of a world war two baking pamphlet published by Dr Oetker with similar recipes to sub in potato. There’s even one for potato frangipane. I haven’t tried it but a kind person on Insta translated it for me. Here it is: “replace up to half the flour with cooked potatoes. This is used in a sort of pound cake as well as a semolina cake. The potato frangipane is like this: 200g cooked unsalted potatoes, 125g sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 7-12 drops almond essence. Put the potatoes through a fine sieve and mix with remaining ingredients. Tastes like marzipan”.
Curate’s Pudding pictured below is another (albeit pre-wartime) recipe in Mrs Beeton’s 1861 Book of Household Management. A lemony dessert that combines a few tablespoons of leftover mash with the usual baking staples. It’s zesty and moist with caramelly edges. It is a recipe that most definitely stands the test of time. I include the recipe below.
“Frugality and economy are home virtues without which no household can prosper” says Mrs Beeton in this famous cookbook and it seems this sentiment is still as relevant today. I would argue, even more so. To learn to cook in a more waste-free way is not to be miserly. Nor is it to eat badly. Quite the opposite. When food is scarce or hard to access, it can help us also to reevaluate what we so often take for granted. It is a way to eat that puts a greater value on our food and a recognition of the effort, water, land use and energy it takes to get to our tables. To cook, eat and use food with this in mind is to enjoy it all the more.
Mrs Beeton’s Curate’s Pudding:
Preheat the oven to 180ºC (fan)/gas 6 and grease a 20cm greased pie dish.
Cream 60g butter and 120g sugar together until thick and smooth. Crack in 2 eggs and beat well. Stir in 6 tablespoons of cooled mashed potato, the juice and grated rind of 1 lemon, a pinch of salt and 2 to 3 tablespoons of milk.
Pour into the pie dish, then bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until golden with lovely caramelised edges. See original recipe below: