Enjoy a unique experience in Toronto, Canada by attending one of the Gibson House Historical Cooking Workshops. Fun, hands-on, educational and delicious!
Built in 1851, the Georgian Revival farmhouse was owned by the Gibson family (originally from Scottish decent) and offers a inside peek at what rural life was like for people living in North York (north of Toronto), in the late 19th century. In 1971, the house was converted into a heritage museum and fully restored to its former glory, giving a very experiential opportunity to explore family life during a time past for visiting guests. Very recently, the museum began a new workshop program, allowing interested patrons a chance to cook in their fully operational historical kitchen and make recipes typical of the original time period. I was lucky enough to try out their Quick Breads class in early October.
To sign up for one of the classes, there is a simple, convenient online portal (click here) and it is incredibly affordable! For only $25 I got to visit the museum, spend 2 hours learning to cook 4 recipes in a historic kitchen and also sit down and enjoy the meal we made. We even got to take home leftovers and receipted a copy of the recipes (adapted to the modern kitchen).
The two women who ran the class were clearly knowledgeable about the history of the place and domestic life during that time. They came up with a great menu for us to try which allowed us to really get a sense of the many cooking techniques used in the kitchen during this time period. The class was very hands on and was small enough to allow us all to take part in the processes (as much or as little as you wanted). Overall, this was one of my most favourite cooking classes I have ever taken.
What We Made
This particular class focused on quick breads, which really meant breads that required no yeast and therefore no rising time. We ended up doing Irish Soda Bread, Cheese Biscuits, Potato Cakes, Hot Tea Cakes and even butter from scratch – all cooked in the kitchen’s hearth (aka fire place), only using tools present during the 1800s.
Irish Soda Bread
I probably did the most work on this bread and I absolutely loved how it turned out! When I first started measuring out my ingredients, I noticed there were no measuring cups or spoons present. “They didn’t use those back in the 1800s. You will have to eyeball with regular spoons and teacups” I was told. I had always thought of baking as such a precise science, particularly if you want consistency, but this was a lesson in history and precision was not a concern in the rural house of the 1850’s.
The ingredients were very simple (flour, baking soda, butter, buttermilk, eggs, and oats) and the dough came together quickly with a few easy steps. For this bread we placed it in a large cast iron dutch oven next to the open fire and coals were placed on top to give it the surrounding heat it needed. The result was a hearty bread that was also beautiful to look at.
I am always excited whenever cheese is involved so I was thrilled to see this on the menu. Our chef thought it would be fun to make them into cheese sticks like the ones you see in the store so, once the dough was prepared (again very simple ingredients like flour, baking powder, dry mustard, butter, cheese and eggs), we began slicing. For this recipe we used a very flat cast iron surface for cooking that was hung over the fire. I believe butter was put on beforehand to prevent them from sticking. This was probably my least favourite of the day as I felt it could have used more cheese and mustard to enhance the flavour.
This recipe required far more prep work as we needed to peel and cook the potatoes beforehand in order to make the cakes. Once those were ready, the potatoes were then mashed and incorporated with flour, butter and cream to form a loose dough. Using a buttered skillet over the fire we plopped the triangle formed cakes into the skillet to let them cook. Soft and delicious, these potato cakes will definitely be made again in my house!
Hot Tea Cakes
Last but certainly not least were our tea cakes. Again the dough was very easy to put together and made from simple ingredients (flour, butter, cream of tartar, baking soda, milk and sugar). For this cooking technique, we used a make-shift oven made from tin that formed into a reflector to capture the heat. This device was apparently quite common in the kitchen. It even had a little window on the back where one could check to see how the cakes were doing. This recipe was definitely my husband’s favourite (brought him home leftovers) and would make a great biscuit to serve at tea time with some nice jams and butter.
In addition to the breads, one girl sat for quite a while with a churn and made homemade butter for us! Obviously most people nowadays don’t have a churn in their home, but you can improvise, as I have, by putting cream into a mason jar and shaking it around for 20 minutes. Don’t forget to wash your butter before you enjoy!
Enjoying the “Breads” of our Labour
After all was said and done, we got to sit down to a delicious meal of our breads, butter, tea and jam (that the museum staff make and sell in their gift shop by the way) in the beautiful dining room of the house. While savouring each bite we discussed the many artifacts and some of the other historic facts of the time. Perfect for the history nerds like myself!
November 4th, 2017 will be the “On The Trail” workshop (sold out)
December 2nd, 2017 will be the “Sweet Tooth” workshop (still available)
Best way to find out when more workshops will be available is to follow the Gibson House Museum on Facebook