"Hunger is good discipline." -Ernest Hemingway
Today, we’re going to take a trip back in time. We’re also going to do a little role play. You might want to do some background research to really get into character. Okay, close your eyes. Actually – don’t do that. You won’t be able to read this if you do. Just strap on your imagination boots. All set? The year is 1862. Your name is Charles Dodgson and you’re rowing a boat down the River Thames with your friend and his three daughters. One of them, 10-year-old Alice, asks you to entertain her and her sisters with a story. Your story delights the girls so much that Alice asks you to write a copy down for her. You do, slap the pen name “Lewis Carroll” onto it, and by some twist of fate combined with the work of your superb illustrator, your manuscript goes on to become one of the most beloved children’s tales worldwide.
Fast-forward 150 years. Your story withstood the test of time, and if you’re being a good sport and still playing along with my little game, you’re probably not too happy about this. Your story has been over-thought, overwrought, and interpreted beyond the reach of any rabbit hole. Sure, I can see how the story might seem a bit trippy to modern readers. But must we really psychoanalyze the story and confabulate meaning in the silly poems crafted to entertain children? If you really demand an explanation, I have an answer straight from the pen of Carroll himself: “Enquiries have been so often addressed to me, as to whether any answer to the Hatter’s Riddle can be imagined, that I may as well put on record here what seems to me to be a fairly appropriate answer, viz. ‘Because it can produce a few notes, though they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front!’ This, however, is merely an after-thought: the Riddle, as originally invented, had no answer at all. (To the Eighty-Sixth Thousand)”
Now I’m not arguing that Carroll’s answer should be taken at face value. I’m sure his wordplay has some inherent meaning. After all: “Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.” Seriously though, whimsy isn’t any fun if your brain is in the way any more than a magic show is fun if you figure out how they do all the tricks.
Thankfully though, your stomach can’t get in the way of whimsical appreciation. There have been postmodern takes on Alice’s food, but remember: we’re on a temporal vacation, and it wouldn’t really suit the theme of the trip if we didn’t eat food from the 19th century, now would it? The first dish pays homage to that sad, confused anthropomorphic bovine/chelonian hybrid: Mock Turtle Soup. I used a recipe from 1840 found in Directions for Cookery, in its Various Branches. If my fate were to be made into this soup, honestly, I’d probably be as melancholy as the Mock Turtle. Granted, this soup didn’t taste bad, it was just nothing special. And nobody wants to be destined for mediocrity.
The soup would be improved without the egg yolk balls, which I found bland and quite texturally displeasing. They were somehow simultaneously chalky and rubbery. The lemon zest in the meatballs was my favorite part of the soup. The flavor was reminiscent of avgolemono, and I will certainly be using lemon zest as a secret ingredient in my future meatballs. I added mahi mahi to the soup because it just seemed like a better substitute for turtle meat than veal. I wanted to use alligator, but couldn’t find any anywhere. The soup was exponentially better with a dollop of crème fraiche on top mixed, with a little Madeira if you desire. I can’t say I understand why this soup was so popular in the Victorian Era, unless people just wanted an excuse to eat raw Madeira in their food. Personally, I’d rather just drink the wine.
I also made some tarts for the Queen of Hearts to replace the ones stolen by that wily little Knave, and let me tell you, I’d feel comfortable serving them to any royalty, anywhere, any day. Bakewell Tart, a descendent of Bakewell Pudding, is a traditional English dessert originating in the 19th century. Here, I made a hybrid of the two, using a tart shell recipe from Smitten Kitchen and the Bakewell Pudding filling from Mrs. Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management. The crust was perfect. Not too crumbly, not too hard, and buttery without being greasy or too rich. The filling was no disappointment either: not too tart, not too sweet, not too light and not too dense, and the perfect gooey and creamy textural contrast to the crunchy crust.
Imagine the best jelly doughnut you’ve ever had nestled in a perfect shortbread crust. That, my friends, is the Bakewell tart, and a plateful could easily be used as a bargaining chip to save someone’s head.
And now, just because I can, a few fun pop culture Alice videos.
Watch Alice sell jello:
Watch Meryl Streep sing “Beautiful Soup”:
And, behold Ringo Starr as the Mock Turtle:
Partially Baked Sweet Tart Crust (recipe below)
5 eggs, separated
¾ c. sugar, sifted
¼ lb. butter (1 stick), melted
2 T. ground almonds or almond meal
½ c. jam
1. Prepare partially baked tart crust. Preheat oven to 350°F.
2. Combine 5 egg yolks and 1 egg white and beat well. Add the sifted sugar, the melted butter, and the almonds. Mix well.
3. Spread jam over prepared crust. Pour egg mixture over jam.
4. Bake for 30-45 minutes, until a knife or toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
Sweet Tart Crust (from Smitten Kitchen)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick plus 1 tablespoon (9 tablespoons; 4 1/2 ounces) very cold (or frozen) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 large egg, beaten
1. Pulse the flour, sugar and salt together in the bowl of a food processor. Scatter the pieces of butter over the dry ingredients and pulse until the butter is coarsely cut in. (You’re looking for some pieces the size of oatmeal flakes and some the size of peas.) Add the egg a little at a time, pulsing after each addition. Once the whole egg is in, process in long pulses–about 10 seconds each–until the dough, which will look granular soon after the egg is added, forms clumps and curds. Just before you reach this stage, the sound of the machine working the dough will change–heads up. Turn the dough out onto a work surface and, very lightly and sparingly, knead the dough just to incorporate any dry ingredients that might have escaped mixing. Chill the dough, wrapped in plastic, for about 2 hours before rolling.
2. To roll the dough: Butter a 9-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom. Roll out chilled dough on floured sheet of parchment paper to 12-inch round, lifting and turning dough occasionally to free from paper. (Alternately, you can roll this out between two pieces of plastic, though flour the dough a bit anyway.) Using paper as aid, turn dough into 9-inch-diameter tart pan with removable bottom; peel off paper. Seal any cracks in dough. Trim overhang to 1/2 inch. Fold overhang in, making double-thick sides. Pierce crust all over with fork.
Alternately, you can press the dough in as soon as it is processed: Press it evenly across the bottom and up the sides of the tart shell. You want to press hard enough that the pieces cling to one another, but not so hard that it loses its crumbly texture. [This is what I did, and it’s easier this way. Cover with aluminum foil before freezing.]
3. Freeze the crust for at least 30 minutes, preferably longer, before baking.
4. To fully or partially bake the crust: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Butter the shiny side of a piece of aluminum foil (or use nonstick foil) and fit the foil, buttered side down, tightly against the crust. And here is the very best part: Since you froze the crust, you can bake it without weights. Put the tart pan on a baking sheet and bake the crust for 20 to 25 minutes.
5. Carefully remove the foil. If the crust has puffed, press it down gently with the back of a spoon. Bake the crust about 10 minutes longer to fully bake it, or until it is firm and golden brown, brown being the important word: a pale crust doesn’t have a lot of flavor. (To partially bake it, only an additional 5 minutes is needed.) Transfer the pan to a rack and cool the crust to room temperature, and proceed with the rest of your recipe.