Learning Victorian Baking at Dundurn National Historic Site – Hamilton, Ontario

< It is the Christmas of 1855 at Sir Allan Mac Nab’s seventy- two room mansion known as Dundurn Castle in Hamilton. Sir Allan, his wife Mary Stuart and their two daughters Sophie and Minnie will be entertaining many guests over the season. The cooks and servants in the downstairs kitchen are very busy with preparations and the aroma of the baked delicacies is wafting throughout the halls.
Fast forward to the Christmas of 2013 and I have joined the servants in the basement kitchen to learn how to cook Victorian delicacies as they did in the past. Our eager group of fifteen participants are taking part in the Victorian Delights baking course to learn the cooking techniques and tastes of 1855.
The basement kitchen was dark to our modern eyes, with small windows that let in limited light in the morning. Candles and a ceiling oil lamp provided light and the cast iron woodstove set into the brick wall radiated heat to make the room feel cozy. We would make three Christmas delights: Cayenne Cheeses, Orange Gingerbread cookies and Lemon and Custard Tarts – the old way.
The cook of the past, we learned, would have so much food to prepare daily, that baking these goodies would have been a small minute in her day. MacNab entertained frequently and the kitchen was a busy place. The recipes used for both simple and elaborate meals came from British, American and Canadian cookbooks.
I was lucky to be in a small baking group with two enthusiastic young couples. We had to throw our modern desire for exact measurements out the window, as our measuring cup was on old teacup with no handle. A metal spoon was our teaspoon and tablespoon. A pinch of this and that was frequently written in the recipe.

Julia and Slavo Osokin work with Fredrick Adlhoch to mix  dough for tarts
Julia and Slavo Osokin work with Fredrick Adlhoch to mix dough for tarts

Our group would begin with Custard Tarts, so we started with the crust, mixing butter with the flour using forks – no hands as body heat would melt the butter and toughen the crust.
Cream for the custard filling was cooked in a copper pot over the woodstove.
“Turn your body to the side” our18th century cooks taught us, “You’ll stay cooler.”

Frederick Adlhoch stirs the custard sauce for tarts over the woodstove.
Frederick Adlhoch stirs the custard sauce for tarts over the woodstove.

We took turns stirring to thicken the cream, and I could see the benefits of long wool skirts and aprons providing protection from the heat. After rolling out the pastry we used a glass to cut circles and pressed them into the tart pans. We filled the shells with custard, and egg whites were beaten with three forks and lots of muscle power whipping the frothy meringue.
To make the Cayenne Cheeses, we mixed the dough with our warm hands, as melting would not affect this pastry. The butter, flour, sharp cheese and cayenne mixture formed a ball and we rolled it into finger sized shapes to put on the cookie sheet. Into the woodstove it went for cooking. (See recipe section of blog)

Julia Baird is ready to put Orange Gingerbread cookies into the oven while Nancy Di Federico watches on.
Julia Baird is ready to put Orange Gingerbread cookies into the oven while Nancy Di Federico watches on.

To mix Gingerbread Orange Cookies, we finely grated the orange rind and drizzled the molasses into the flour and butter mixture adding the ginger and other ingredients, kneading it all into a ball. Little balls were formed and dropped onto the cookie sheet for a few minutes in the woodstove. (See recipe section of the blog.)
By now we were all dreaming of tasting the goodies we had created.
Off we went for a tour to see the castle that was decorated for Christmas. Natural green branches, berries, dried flowers and plants were used to make festive urns and garlands, much as the style is today. The smells of our baking spread throughout the castle.
The four foot Christmas tree was set on a table in the parlour. The tree candles were lit on Christmas Eve and the children were brought into the room to see the tree for the first time. Toys were under the tree and there were numbers on the tree to choose to match with gifts as an extra surprise. The family enjoyed special Christmas games. A plate of raisins drizzled with brandy was set afire and as the raisins popped up in the heat the children reached into the warm flame to grab raisins to see who could collect the most. Another popular game involved taking turns making cuts into a bowl shaped heap of flour with a bean hidden inside. The person that cut to reveal the bean had to pick it up with their teeth resulting in a face covered in flour.
The dining room was set for a large feast and was truly grand. Under the massive chandelier were place settings for twenty guests. Food was served plated to ensure all was hot when the meal began. The most elaborate dinners consisted of 3 to 4 soup courses, 12 types of vegetable dishes, 20 main meat dishes, including beef and goose and 20 kinds of dessert. It was popular to have a large bowl of oranges on display on the dessert buffet, as a show of wealth.
In the extensive downstairs kitchen, a table was set for the servants who were well treated by Sir Allan MacNab.
After our tour, we arrived back in the kitchen to find our finished baked goods arranged on large platters. We helped ourselves to samples of our baking and tea and took home the leftovers in paper bags.
I wondered what little Sophie Mac Nab’s favorite cookies were and was sure I could hear her footsteps above me on her way down to join the festivities in the downstairs kitchen.

Cooking Workshops offered by Dundurn National Historic Site
The heritage of Dundurn Castle continues through living history workshops. A kitchen garden of heritage fruits and vegetables tells the story of gardens of the past. Now local school children are involved in learning about gardening techniques and vegetables grown in the past.
Here are some upcoming workshops being offered at Dundurn Castle:

Christmas Evening Tours: Tours with carol singing and tastings of traditional Christmas food in the historic kitchen. Fridays, December 6, 13, 20, 2013 and Saturday, December 7, 2013, and Sunday, December 15, and 22, 2013, 7 – 9 pm. Pre-registration required. Cost is $25.00 per person.
Dough-Re-Me: This event is sold out for this year, but information given will excite you to register early for the 2014 Christmas event. Parents and children can bake Victorian Christmas goodies together with costumed interpreters and take a tour of the home. Pre-registration is required. Cost is $55.00 for an adult and child.
Ring in the New Year: A tour of the home, musical entertainment and tastes of delicacies of the past show us how the Mac Nab family rang in the New Year. Pre-registration is required. Cost is $25.00 per person.
History is Served: Dundurn Castle cooks are eager to give individualized cooking courses to groups of fifteen or more participants. Theme suggestions and cost can be seen on the below link.
For more information here is the link:
Telephone: (905) 546-2872

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