Toronto’s Gibson House ‘All About Chocolate’ Workshop, hosted by the Gibson House Museum, was an informative, interactive historical baking workshop, teaching 19th century baking techniques that were challenging, eye opening and well worth the effort. What an experience and, fortunately, there are lots more workshops to come!
There were no convectional ovens, stove tops or even measuring spoons for that matter in the everyday home of the late 19th century. Hearth cooking was still common practice – ovens did not really become a standard in the kitchen until the early 20th century – and most ingredients were ‘eyeballed’ with no exact measurements. For baking, an oven built into the hearth was filled with coals hours before our arrival to get warm enough for a decent bake (when the coals were removed for cooking by the hearth it was estimated the oven was at 750 degrees Fahrenheit). During the workshop, we were provided with mugs for estimating cups of sugar and flour and a large and small spoon for estimating teaspoon and tablespoon measurements. My favourite – ahem – was the ‘hand mixer’ which consisted of our arms, a copper bowl and a whisk. Boy, do you appreciate modern conveniences after that!
What We Made
This session, all about chocolate, happened to be timed perfectly for Valentines Day. I expected to do about 3 recipes, but we actually made 9. The workshop offered great insight into historical baking with all the challenges posed due to limited technology in the kitchen.
The Chocolate Pastils recipe was the easiest of the day, although creating a double boiler with no stove was not so simple. The recipe was developed in 1833 and was made with unsweetened chocolate, icing sugar and water, melted and mixed together to form a dough-like form before cutting the sweets into desired shapes. They were perhaps similar to today’s Hershey Kiss. You can also add flavouring like peppermint for a little something extra.
I can only imagine that these Chocolate Biscuits were made on very special occasions due to the hard work required by whipping the egg whites. Were people just stronger back then? The dessert was more like a meringue than a biscuit, made from egg whites, cream of tartar, caster sugar and cocoa. A copper bowl was used to whip the egg whites as a chemical reaction occurs between copper and eggs whites to help the process along. Everyone in the class took a turn whipping as it didn’t take much for our arms to tire. The other very challenging part of this recipe was making caster sugar as sugar, back in the day, came in a large brick form where you would break off a piece and use a mortar and pestle to grind it more finely. I have to say, the end result was delicious and the whole process made me REALLY appreciate my electric hand mixer and store bought refined sugar!
Chocolate Tart & Common Pie Crust
This recipe consisted of two major parts…the filling and the crust. The crust component was fairly easy and straight forward despite the lack of modern kitchen gadgets. Even today when I make a crust or dough, I prefer to do things by hand to get a sense of the proper texture. The filling was a whole other story as it involved stirring the chocolate mixture right in the hearth. We had to switch out regularly as it got so hot and it was tricky to mix egg yolks into hot liquid (think scrambled eggs). Did I mention that we pretty much had no control over the temperature? This was a huge challenge to say the least. The ingredients, however, were simple enough to come by including corn starch, icing sugar, egg yolks, milk, whipping cream, unsweetened chocolate and, of course, the pie shell that was made separately. Overall the pie came out well and was by no means too sweet.
Chocolate Cream Pots
I particularly liked this recipe as it called for sweet white wine, which gave an interesting balance to the chocolate (more acidic). The most challenging part again was whisking and thickening the mixture right by the hearth (sooo hot!), so I swapped out with some others cooks in the kitchen to cool myself down. Again, you appreciate the modern stove as you don’t have to a) sit bent over by the fire place and b) feel the heat of a raging fire. This recipe did need to be chilled, but luckily our amazing leader, Mackenzie from the Gibson House, made some prior to the workshop so we could enjoy a taste and take our creation home.
I have to say I was very impressed with how this recipe turned out and will try to make it again myself. The ingredients consisted of unsweetened chocolate, water, eggs, milk, vanilla, butter, sugar, baking powder, salt and flour…basic ingredients still used today. Once more, challenges came from having to melt ingredients like the chocolate or butter where no microwave was a step or two away, but we triumphed by utilizing the hearth and boiling the water in a kettle to help with the process. Like the Chocolate Tart, we had to overcome an oven with no temperature control. Ok, our cake came out a little darker on top than intended, but we then got a lesson on where the phrase “upper crust” came from and also how icing sugar can not only be decorative, but a great hider of mistakes as well!
Batter Pudding with Duchess Sauce
Hands down, this recipe was the big winner of the day. Everyone of us agreed that it was the favourite and many went for seconds. This recipe would also be one of the more difficult ones to replicate at home as it does involve more technique due to the nature of how it is cooked/steamed. Unfortunately I missed the lesson on the parchment paper folding technique (used to allow the cake to expand), but I plan on trying to youtube some similar recipes to try it again. The Duchess sauce, of course, made the already moist and flavourful cake that much more mouthwatering. Again, simple ingredients were used (chocolate, milk, white sugar, egg yolks and vanilla), but the real test came from melting and whisking egg yolks into a hot liquid. Under the watchful eye of Mackenzie, it ended up turning out great.
After 2 hours of slaving away in the kitchen, we all sat down in the Gibson House dining room to enjoy the fruits of our labor. China was laid out and hot tea was ready for the taking. We all tucked in quickly, enjoying every chocolaty bite. There were a few leftovers and we were offered ziplock bags to take the treats home. Overall a delightful way to end the informative, fun session.
This was my second workshop at the Gibson House and, like the first, I had an absolute blast. I was astounded by the number of recipes we made, how hands-on the experience was (if you aren’t afraid, go ahead and interact with the hearth while cooking) and, of course, how inexpensive it was (only $25). The Gibson House Museum is running workshops approximately every month so make sure to follow them on Facebook to keep up to date on the latest ones. You can also visit their events page HERE to purchase tickets and see upcoming workshops/events. If you love history and cooking then you will definitely enjoy your experience at a Gibson House Museum workshop like I did.