The Ladies' Tea Guild

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The culinary uses of violets.

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The Victorians used floral flavorings much more than we do in the 21st century. Rose, orange flower and violet were very popular flavorings, and with almond and lemon, were more popular than vanilla for flavoring cakes, sauces, and custards. If you are lucky enough to have access to sweet violets, which are clean and not contaminated by auto exhaust, animal or human waste, or other substances, you can use them in a variety of tasty treats for the tea table. Below are some basic instructions for creating violet blossom garnishes, candied violets, and even violet water for flavoring tea.

"Violet leaves and flowers are often used as garnishes in chilled soups and for a festive touch in punches. The petals can be candied and used to garnish cakes, fruits, and pastries. The leaves are tasty enough to be eaten alone, but also work well when added to green salads.

To make candied Violet flowers, pick a large number of flowers and let dry on a paper towel for a couple of hours. Beat an egg white to a froth, and color it with food coloring, if desired. Using a fine brush, carefully coat each flower with the egg white, then pour fine sugar over each. Blend the sugar in your blender to make it a finer consistency, if desired. Lay each flower on wax paper to dry, then use as a decoration for your confections when the flowers are stiff enough to move.

Violet water is made by steeping leaves and flowers in water until it becomes fragrant. The water can then be used in teas and in puddings and for flavoring ice cubes."

Friday, February 20, 2009

Celebrate Black History, and other things!

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Beginning before the Victorian era, people attached symbolism and meaning to many things, including flowers and months of the year. We follow that tradition in our own way in the 21st century, by remembering and celebrating holidays and special people every year.

According to some people, each month is represented by its own flower, and each flower was given a meaning, especially for the purpose of sending discreet messages to loved ones. February's flower is the violet, and the February gem (or birthstone, as is most familiar today) is the amethyst. Blue and white violets each had their own meaning; the blue violet signifies faithfulness, and the white violet means modesty. Amethysts have stood for several ideas over the years: royalty (because of their purple color), safety from poison or drunkenness (and therefore peace of mind), piety, celibacy and dignity.

There are many events and people that we can remember, in the spirit of the Victorian era, because of their faithfulness, nobility of character, piety, and other virtues this month. February 1st, Freedom Day, celebrates President Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1864, abolishing slavery. February 4th is Rosa Parks’ b-day, February 12th is Abraham Lincoln's birthday, February 15th is Susan B. Anthony's birthday, and George Washington was born on the 22nd. The Boy Scouts of America was founded on February 8, 1910. Other famous people who were born in February include Charles Dickens (Feb. 7, 1812), Thomas Edison (Feb. 11, 1847), and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Feb. 27, 1807).

February is also African American History Month and American History Month. We should also remember our history as a nation and as a part of Western Civilization, including the not-so-pleasant parts, so that we can learn from our mistakes and the mistakes of those who've gone before us; the month includes Japanese-American Internment Day of Remembrance (Feb. 19), as well as Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, and the beginning of Lent.

Let's take a few moments this month to remember these things and re-establish our bond with history, learning from the past as well as celebrating it!

Sources of information:
"Birthdays -- Information, Fun Facts, Tips, Humor, Links, and More"
Boy Scouts of America website,
"February 19: A Day of Remembrance,"
"Gemstones and their meaning",
"The history and language of flowers and herbs -- origins and meanings",
Rosa Parks' website,
Charles Dickens museum website,

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Happy Valentine's Day!

With the continuing popularity of Victorian style ornaments and home decor, and the paper crafts such as scrap-booking, it is easier than ever for the less skilled among us to create attractive Valentine cards and other Victorian-style items. Look for paper doilies, ribbons, romantic stickers and "scrap" art, along with undecorated cards, boxes, frames, and bookmarks to decorate. Group the different images by theme, such as "birds", "flowers," "pretty women," "children", and "clothing and accessories" (this includes hats, fans, gloves, and shoes). Collect tissue paper and wrapping paper in solid colors that coordinate with the other items you've assembled, and make sure you have a pair of scissors and some glue (preferably a glue stick rather than liquid glue), and you are ready to begin! Use the solid colored paper as a background for your design, or not; layer stickers and ribbons on top of doilies and scrap art, or not, and finish with glitter or tinsel or stick-on tiny rhinestones if you like. It is helpful to have some pictures of real Victorian valentines to look at, for inspiration; the current issue of Victoria magazine has a short article on the subject, so you might want to check the website at to see the photos.

The finishing touch to a Valentine card is the text. Copy some lines from original Victorian cards, use the tried-and-true phrases such as "be mine", or write your own. Here are some words of wisdom from 1850 that you may want to keep in mind:

Be cautious in yielding up the heart to a worthless object.
Do not choose a partner of a weak capacity.
Look not at a handsome exterior, and an assumed splendour, but regard the general deportment of the person on whom you fix your choice.
If you discover the inward weakness and incapacity of the individual, sever the connection, ere it be too late!"

"The requisites most essential in a lover are:
An agreeable person.
Accomplished manners.
Sweetness of temper and disposition.
Free from levity and anything bordering on the ridiculous.
An unblemished reputation.
A mind stored with virtuous principles."

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Make your own Victorian Valentine's Day cards!

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Although love letters have been written and sent for centuries, Valentine's Day cards, like Christmas cards, originated in England in the 19th century. Sending Valentines to friends and loved ones was almost immediately popular in England and Europe, especially when cheaper postal fees were introduced, and Valentine cards made the trip to America with relative ease. Until the 19th century, all Valentines -- whether sent on Valentine's Day or as a love token during the rest of the year -- were hand-made individually by their sender. Homemade valentine cards were made from paper doilies, red paper, ribbon, bits of lace, and pictures cut from magazines and newspapers.

Although many people still preferred to make them at home, valentines were available commercially in the early 1800s. Early Valentine's Day greeting cards could double as Christmas greeting cards, with a simple change of printed text. Both homemade and purchased cards often featured scenes and verses about brokenhearted lovers, unrequited love, and lovers kept apart by unsympathetic parents, long distances or, in the 1860s, the Civil War. One of the first American Valentine’s Day card manufacturers was a woman named Esther A. Howland, who, in 1847, began to copy an English card she had seen. She made samples of different designs, took orders from stores, hired local women to make them assembly-line style for sale, and built a business that eventually brought in $100,000 per year.

With the growing popularity of scrapbooking, there are a myriad of wonderful stamps, stickers, and decorative "scrap" paper in a Victorian style, featuring flowers, children, angels, pretty women, and other appropriate motifs. These, combined with red, pink, and white paper, white, red and gold lace and doilies, and ribbons, can be glued and arranged into delightful Victorian decorations for the home, and even used as their predecessors were: as love tokens.

-- Sources include The World Book Encyclopedia, From Your Valentine: Valentines from the Past, by Roselynn Ederer, The Etiquette of Love and Courtship, by Copper Beech Publishing, edited by Julie Lessels, and Manners & Morals of Yesterday, by Sam Tuttle.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The (brief) history of Valentine's Day.

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Valentine's Day has been celebrated in most Western countries for hundreds of years; like many Western traditions it has both a religious and secular side. Late winter and spring celebrations, including activities related to marriage and fertility, have been part of many cultures throughout time. Birds and animals choose their mates in the springtime, and with the brightening days and the approach of warmer weather, a general spirit of celebration and renewal seems natural to humans, as well.

In the ancient Roman and Celtic cultures, the season invoked some promiscuous sexual behaviors, especially among the young men and women. The Roman Saturnalia is said to have been accompanied by games in which the men and women would choose sexual partners for the next 12 months, to be changed again the next year. These orgies and activities were supposed to be scheduled as part of the worship of various Roman and other deities, especially those associated with fertility and the home. Cupid or Eros, as the son of the goddess Venus or Aphrodite, is a remnant of that era still remembered today.

The Valentine's Day holiday has become especially associated with the Victorian era. According to tradition, the holiday is named after at least two ancient Roman citizens. One story tells of the Roman Emperor Claudius II who thought that single men made more loyal, willing soldiers, and he forbade all the young men to marry, so that nothing would keep them from joining the army. A priest named Valentine defied the Emperor by performing secret marriage ceremonies for young couples, and was beheaded for his disobedience when he was finally caught. Because of his kindness and self-sacrifice, the local people petitioned to have him declared a saint, the patron saint of lovers.

Another story tells of another priest named Valentine who made friends with everyone he met, especially the local children. The Roman Emperor wanted to be worshipped as the god of the Roman Empire and Valentine was imprisoned because he wouldn’t comply with this order. While in prison, he remained the friend of children, even miraculously healing the jailer’s blind daughter. His young friends from town missed him and wrote love notes to him, tossing them through the window of his jail cell, and he wrote notes back to them, signing them (according to tradition), "from your Valentine". He was also later beheaded, and declared a saint, and the local people remembered his kindness and his miraculous healing of the jailer's daughter.

The date of February 14th became associated with St. Valentine and the older traditions in the year 496 A.D., when it was declared St. Valentine's Day by the Church. Religious activities marked this day, as with all other saints' days. A secular layer was added on February 14, 1415, when Charles, the Duke of Orleans, sent a rhymed love letter to his wife in France, from his cell in the Tower of London, where he was imprisoned after the Battle of Agincourt. Even William Shakespeare mentioned St. Valentine's Day, among Ophelia's lines in Hamlet.

By the Victorian era, the older Valentine's Day traditions associated with fertility and sexuality had been "gentrified" into more child-friendly, romantic, sentimental, and even spiritual activities. Many traditions involved fortune-telling, specifically to help young women find out who they would marry; potions to make him appear in dreams, curious items that represented his initials, and any number of cosmetics to attract him, were all associated with this holiday.
-- Sources: The World Book Encyclopedia, and From Your Valentine: Valentines from the Past, by Roselynn Ederer.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Italian wine cookie update

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I put together the dough for version 1 of my Italian wine cookie recipe, using a variation of the antique Cinnamon Biscuit recipe, and although I haven't baked the cookies yet, I can tell the recipe needs more work. Here is the composition of the dough that's hopefully going to be baked today:

4 cups flour
1 1/3 cups white sugar
2/3 cup honey
1 pound unsalted butter, softened
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
zest of 1 orange
1 tablespoon orange flower water
1/4 cup marsala wine
The dough ended up being really soft; I was aiming for a stiff dough that I could roll out and cut with cookie cutters. I started out with only 2 cups of flour with the rest of the ingredients, but I got more of a batter than a dough; the addition of 2 more cups of flour, 1/2 cup at a time, resulted in a soft dough that would work for drop cookies. I chilled the dough overnight and now it is very stiff, like a shortbread dough. I have let the bowl of dough sit on the counter all morning, hoping to soften it enough to roll out, but I'm not sure if the flavor is going to be right when baked. Too bad I made the whole recipe instead of halving or quartering it! I'm almost out of flour now, so it will be a few days before I can get some more flour and try another batch ... And I'm still looking for the right cookie cutters ... Oh well.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

"How To Keep Warm In Winter": Bake Cinnamon Biscuits.

image from Grandma's Graphics.
I have been wanting to experiment with some Italian cookie recipes -- using wine as a flavoring -- and create a cookie in between the hard and crunchy cookies meant for dunking in coffee (as Italian cookies tend to be), and spicy gingerbread. A cookie that is slightly spicy and firm enough to roll and cut into shapes, but not tooth-breakingly hard and dry. Below is a vintage recipe that I found in the May or June 1860 issues of Godey's Lady's book, that I will be working with.

Cinnamon Biscuits
"Half a pound of dry flour, one pound of lump sugar finely sifted, one pound of butter, powdered cinnamon to taste; the whole to be mixed with a glass of brandy or rum, then rolled very thin, and baked in a quick oven." Original wording from Godey’s.

2 cups white flour
2 cups granulated sugar
1 lb. butter
powdered cinnamon to taste
¼ to ½ cup brandy or rum
Mix all ingredients except brandy or rum; add liquor gradually to make a stiff dough. Roll the dough thinly, then bake at around 450 degrees F.
-- from Godey’s Lady’s Book, June or May 1860.

I will be using honey for half of the sweetening, and hopefully it will help soften the texture. I will also be dividing the spices between cinnamon, ground anise seed, and orange zest, and I'll be using marsala wine and orange flower water for the liquid. I hope it works!
Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
-- William Cowper (1731-1800)
"The Winter Evening" (Book Four), _The Task_ (1784)