Cabbage – A Victorian Vegetable Rediscovered.

There are quite a few cabbage recipes in Great Aunt Lillian’s cookbook. It’s the end of the “spring” season cabbage weather here in the south and we won’t get any more in our local Farmer’s Market’s (I’m partial to the Five Points Market that takes place right outside my museum door!) until fall.

Antique Wood Stove

Antique Wood Stove

I’ve been meaning to make the interesting sounding Cabbage and Cheese Scallop in Lillian’s cook book for quite some time, but I hadn’t found the time, or assembled the right ingredients until today – the 4th of July. And boy do I mean time! This recipe, which gave me no directions, times, or temperatures, really illustrates the difference between cooking c. 1900 – 1945 when this cookbook was created and cooking today. From start to finish this side dish took me two grueling hours over a hot stove. Hot because it was a comparatively cool day for the south and we’d turned off the air conditioner, but once I was standing over the stove stirring a white sauce for 15 minutes I had a small appreciation (small) for Aunt Lillian cooking over a wood stove in the middle of the summer. How the heck did they do this?

I researched a bit on line to try to find the answer. If you want to take the time to read an interesting first-person account of using a wood stove in just the exact same period Aunt Lillian was using her’s (early 20th century), check out this historical society newsletter. From this account, I learned that in the summer, women would do all their cooking for the day in the early morning when it was cooler and then let the stove die out. Which would mean your main meals of the day in the summer were always cold. Interesting, but sensible as I can’t imagine cooking in the heat over those monsters. The times they did keep the stove going were wash day on Monday and when they were canning preserves.

But I digress. Let’s start with the simple recipe in the cookbook:

  • 5 cups shredded cabbage (I used an heirloom cabbage from Barking Dog Farm in Benton!)
  • 1 cup finely cut cheese
  • 4 tablespoons flour
  • 4 tablespoons fat
  • 2 cups milk
  • 2 cups buttered crumbs
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper, 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon grated cheese

Make white sauce of the flour, fat, and milk.

With those hand written instructions I began looking for similar recipes in my cookbooks and didn’t have far to look. I guess this was a popular recipe. Fanny Farmer’s 1924 cookbook had Escalloped Cabbage which gave me the hint that the cabbage must be cut into pieces and boiled, put into a buttered baking dish, and that the white sauce and seasoning should be mixed in. Then the buttered bread crumbs should be placed on top and the whole thing baked until brown.

Making Bread Crumbs -- in the Bag Ready to Be Crushed

Making Bread Crumbs -- in the Bag Ready to Be Crushed

I had no idea how to “make” bread crumbs. Like all good modern cooks I buy them in a can. So I started there by making my own bread crumbs. The 1942 Fanny Farmer (which also had a Scalloped Cabbage recipe) has directions for making bread crumbs from scratch. I’ve included this link that shows a more modern way with a cuisinart which I think is cheating. But it gives you a good picture of what they should look like when finished. I followed the 1942 Fanny Farmer recipe for making the bread crumbs.

Now to me, making bread crumbs was a total pain. Here’s a tip – you really need to have your bread be several days old and already stale. Mine was not and it was soft and moist. So it took 45 minutes in a 210 degree oven to get to a stage where I could put the cubes in a bag and start whacking away with a rolling pin. Even then, they weren’t dry enough so for the most part they didn’t get small enough. But I had to make do with not perfect bread crumbs to which I added 1 tablespoon of melted butter and the 1 tablespoon of grated cheese. I mixed this all together and created a bread crumb topping. This was saved for when the casserole was ready.

Cabbage Ready to Go into the Oven

Cabbage Ready to Go into the Oven

After making the breadcrumbs here’s the recipe I used merging Aunt Lillian’s amounts with the Fanny Farmer directions:

  • Core and shred 5 cups of cabbage
  • Boil the cabbage for 10 minutes, strain and place in a buttered casserole dish
  • Add 1 tsp. salt and 1/2 tsp. pepper to the cabbage
  • Make a white sauce in a double boiler
  • Melt 4 tbs. butter
  • Add the 4 tbs. of flour, whisking as you add it to create a smooth paste
  • Slowly add the 2 cups of milk, whisking the sauce until it thickens for about 15 minutes
  • Add the white sauce to the casserole dish
  • Add 1 cup finely cut cheese to the casserole and mix everything together
  • Sprinkle the breadcrumbs on top
  • Put in a 350 degree oven and cook for 45 minutes or until top is brown.

The whole thing from start to finish took about 2 hours and I had dirtied just about every pan in the house. The result? Again heaven. Cooking from scratch makes everything taste so much better and of course the addition of the heirloom cabbage is a plus! Our milk and butter is organic and the bread was made at a bakery.

Cabbage Ready to Eat

Cabbage Ready to Eat

Would I cook this again. No way! It was far too much work although maybe now that I know how to make the breadcrumbs they won’t seem so daunting. But when you throw in the shredding of the cabbage and the making of the white sauce. Nah. And Dan didn’t like it finding the consistency weird. And when reheated the next day it did not hold up well at all. This is a recipe that must be eaten the day it was made.

But the recipe did teach me quite a few new things and gave me an appreciation for the difficulty of cooking some recipes from scratch and a small hint at cooking over a wood stove in the heat.

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