Louisa May Alcott published Little Women, her bestselling novel about the four March sisters and how they overcame adversity, back in the late 1860s. The first printing—some 2000 books—sold out in two weeks and had never been out of print since. Translated into more than 50 languages, sales figures indicate that it is still the second most popular book among Japanese girls.
Women readers in particular like being whisked back 150 years ago to read about the girls as they mature into women, their father serving as a chaplain during the Civil War and the family mired in a genteel poverty–which is basically the kind where you don’t consider working because of your social standing, but really should.
Both Jenne Bergstrom and Miko Osada love to eat, love to read, attended the same college (Oberlin) albeit nine years apart and work at the same library. Because they always wondered what the foods in the childhood books they read would taste like, they started the blog 36eggs. The name, they tell me, came about because they both pondered, when young, what the pound cake in the book Anne of Windy Poplars tasted like. The recipe called for 36 eggs.
So it was a natural fit when Ulysses Press asked the two to write a cookbook to coincide with the release of the Little Women movie last December. The result, The Little Women Cookbook: Novel Takes on Classic Recipes from Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy and Friends, is a charming look at the way the characters of the book would have eaten back then.
“We actually had made Little Women recipes before,” says Bergstrom, in a joint phone call with Osada. “All the things in the book are what people would have eaten during that time. Having historically accurate food is almost a way to time travel.”
It was a division of labor undertaken with a huge deadline with the movie’s release. It didn’t help that the two still had full-time jobs. It meant researching and cooking all weekend long and having Friday night dinners to test what they made on friends.
“I’m kind of the researcher and Jenney’s more the chef,” says Osada. “As soon as we got the deal, I wrote down every single food that’s mentioned in the book and made a food and drink index. To make sure I had everything, I read the book twice. That added up to a lot of Excel sheets. I’d done this before for our Harry Potter book and the Anne of Green Gables books.”
Not surprisingly, many of the foods eaten 160 years ago were seasonal.
“They had great instructions such as gather cucumbers while there’s still dew on them and soak them in cold water,” says Bergstrom. “I think a lot of the preparations were simple and really did showcase the food such as yellow squash. We have a recipe in there that’s very simple and really brings out the flavor.”
Using seasonal as a guide when recipes were vague (as they tended to be in old cookbooks) helped in deciding what ingredients would have been use.
“Strawberries wouldn’t have been in season when Amy had her midsummer party,” says Osada. “But raspberries would have been so that’s what we used for the Elegant Raspberry Ice Cream recipe.”
If they could go back in time and eat any of those meals, which one?
“Amy and Laurie attend supper in a hotel in France and I enlisted the help of culinarian historians there about what they would have eaten,” says Bergstrom about chapter on Amy’s “Christmas Ball Supper in Nice.” “The food was very complicated with recipes saying takes as many truffles as you can and it meant making basic sauces that were the building blocks of other sauces, so we had to make sauces within sauces. It would be amazing to go to that hotel supper.”
The book is divided into chapters named after the characters and then sub-divided into their activities and events that included food. For Jo’s chapter we get recipes for “Mrs. Kirk’s Five O’Clock Dinner” and “Jo’s Standing Joke of a Dinner.” We celebrate “Amy’s Little Artistic Fete,” Laurie’s “Jolly Picnic Lunch at Camp Laurence” and the “March Family’s Happy Surprise Tea” and “Apple-Picking Holiday.” The cookbook is illustrated with delicate line drawings and photos of many of the dishes.
“Being nerd paid off, making lists and having these super specific hobbies,” says Osada. “When we were making all these dinners, we didn’t know there would be a huge blockbuster of a movie.”
The following recipes are courtesy of The Little Women Cookbook.
Makes 6 servings
2 pounds butternut squash, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 tablespoons salt
3 tablespoons butter, divided
2 cups whole milk
3 tablespoons brown sugar, divided
½ teaspoon nutmeg, plus a pinch more
30 crumbled saltine crackers (about 1½ cups crumbs), divided
Boil the squash with the salt in a large pot of water until soft, 15 to 20 minutes.
Drain the water and mash the squash with 2 tablespoons of the butter.
Preheat the oven to 375°F and butter a heatproof dish that holds at least 2 quarts.
Whisk the milk and eggs together in a medium bowl and add to the squash.
Add 2 tablespoons of the sugar, ½ teaspoon nutmeg, 1 cup cracker crumbs, and more salt if needed.
Melt the remaining 1 tablespoon butter and mix in a small bowl with the remaining cracker crumbs, sugar, and nutmeg.
Put the squash in the prepared dish and sprinkle the top with the crumb mixture.
Bake until heated through and browned on top, 30 to 45 minutes. It should be puffed and slightly set in the middle.
Proper Roast Chicken
Makes 3 to 4 servings
1 whole roasting chicken, skin on, about 4 pounds
1½ teaspoons sea salt
2 teaspoons pepper, plus about 1 teaspoon more for the butter
6 tablespoons (¾ stick) butter, divided
⅓ cup flour, sifted
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
Sprinkle the chicken all over, inside and out, with the salt and pepper, rubbing it into the skin.
Take 2 tablespoons of butter, coat it in about 1 teaspoon of pepper, and put it in the chicken cavity.
Dredge the chicken in the flour, shaking off any extra.
Melt the remaining 4 tablespoons butter. Use it to butter the roasting pan a little, then baste the chicken all over with a basting brush.
Place the chicken in the pan, breast-up, and put it in the oven.
Have the melted butter on hand. Every 20 minutes, take out the chicken, close the oven door, and baste the meat all over with melted butter. Return the chicken to the oven as quickly as possible.
Roast 20 minutes for every pound of chicken. Check the internal temperature after an hour of roasting by inserting a meat thermometer through the thickest part of the thigh, avoiding the bone, and check the temperature gauge after 10 seconds. The internal temperature of the thigh should be 165°F.
Let the chicken rest for 10 minutes while you make the drawn butter sauce.
Carve and serve.
Makes 8 servings
For the ladyfingers (note you can also use store bought ladyfingers:
3 large eggs
⅔ cup white sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
powdered sugar, for dusting
For the Bavarian cream:
1 cup fruit purée (strawberry, raspberry, peach, anything you like—the more exotic, the better!)
¼ to 1 cup sugar (adjust depending on the sweetness of the fruit—only something very tart like passionfruit would need the full amount)
1 to 2 teaspoons lemon juice (optional; use this if your fruit isn’t very tart, or has a dull flavor)
1 (¼-ounce) envelope plain powdered gelatin
3 cups heavy whipping cream
fresh fruit, for garnishing
Prepare the ladyfingers:
Put about 2 inches of water in a medium saucepan and bring it to a boil.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. In a heatproof bowl (the bowl of your stand mixer is perfect if you’re using one), combine the eggs, sugar, and salt. Set in the top of the pan with the boiling water. The bottom of the bowl should not be in the water—if it is, take some water out, or make a ring of aluminum foil to boost it up.
Heat while stirring until the mixture is quite warm, but not bubbling, about 5 minutes.
Remove from heat and whip on high speed with the whisk attachment for 5 to 10 minutes until it is very
light and foamy yellow. It will nearly quadruple in volume and should hold soft peaks.
Meanwhile, line two sheet pans with parchment paper.
Sift the flour and cornstarch over the egg mixture, and gently fold it in with a spatula, only stirring until the flour is just combined.
Spoon the batter into a piping bag fitted with a ½-inch tip (or a sandwich bag with a corner cut off) and pipe 3-inch-long strips onto the baking sheets. They should be about 1 inch wide.
Sift a generous amount of powdered sugar over the piped batter.
Bake one pan at a time for 10 to 12 minutes, until puffed and set. Allow to cool on the baking sheets.
If you are making the ladyfingers ahead, store them in an airtight container so they don’t soften.
Prepare the Bavarian cream:
While the ladyfingers are cooling: In a small saucepan, combine the fruit purée and sugar to taste, and lemon juice if using. Add the gelatin and and heat until the gelatin is dissolved. Allow to cool.
Whip the cream to stiff peaks, then gently fold in the fruit purée.
Assemble the charlotte russe:
Lightly oil an 8- or 9-inch springform pan, then line the edges with the most attractive of the ladyfingers, bottom sides pointing in. Use the less attractive ones to line the bottom—you may have to break them up a bit to get good coverage.
Spoon half of the Bavarian cream into the pan, and smooth it out nicely.
Add another layer of ladyfingers, if you have some left. You can also add a layer of chopped fruit if it’s not too juicy.
Add the rest of the Bavarian cream, and smooth it out.
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