The Ladies' Tea Guild

Monday, July 27, 2009

Vintage Sicilian family recipe: Fried squash blossoms.

Zucchini flower image from Wikipedia.
My family is largely of Sicilian heritage, and some of our most treasured heirlooms are family recipes. This afternoon, I was able, finally, to taste one of the dishes that my great-grandmother used to make: fried squash blossoms! My mom and aunt have told me that they used to eat them for breakfast or lunch, either alone, or in sandwiches when they were at their grandmothers' house.

I never see squash blossoms in the supermarkets, and until last Friday, had never seen them at a farmers' market, either. The only way I knew to get squash blossoms is to plant pumpkins or zucchini in your garden, because you have to thin out the blossoms anyway or you'll stress the plant out. Imagine my excitement when I saw squash blossoms for sale at the San Pedro Square farmer's market last week! I bought a bag of them and brought them home to try and re-create my great-grandmother's recipe:

"pick and wash fresh squash blossoms of any kind. Dip in egg batter and pan fry in olive oil."

Of course, I didn't know exactly what she meant by "egg batter" -- was it egg with milk and flour, or some other mixture? I ended up bringing them to my mom's house and it turns out that she had seen her mother make them; the "egg batter" is only beaten egg. My mom showed me how to fry the blossoms and we cooked and ate my bag of squash blossoms for an early lunch. Easy! Here's what you do:

Try to use squash blossoms the same day that you pick them (mine were 3 days old and I think that's about the limit). Gently tear off the stem and cap of the squash blossom, along with the stamen and pistil, leaving only the petals, which will be attached to each other in a "cone" shape. If you do it right, you can keep the stem and cap in one piece with the stamen and pistil. Discard everything but the petals (the stamen and pistil are full of pollen which stains everything!), rinse the petals thoroughly and pat them dry on paper towels.

Heat some oil in a large frying pan, on medium to medium-high heat, and get out some eggs, flour, and salt. I think some dried or minced fresh herbs would be a good addition, too, but we didn't use them today. Break some eggs into a bowl and beat them with a fork. Put some flour on a plate and mix in a pinch of salt; if you're adding herbs, add them to the plate of flour. When your oil is hot, make sure each blossom is dry, then dip each blossom in the beaten egg, and dredge in the flour until lightly coated. Put the blossom directly into the hot oil in the pan, and do the same with a couple more blossoms (they shouldn't touch while cooking or they'll stick together). Turn the blossoms after 1 or 2 minutes, or when golden on the underside, and let them cook and brown on the other side. Remove to a plate lined with paper towels (to catch the extra oil) and egg, flour, and fry a few more blossoms. Continue until all the blossoms have been cooked.

The amounts of egg and flour depend on the number of blossoms you have to fry. I had about 12, and we used 4 to 5 eggs and 1 to 1 1/2 cups of flour. My mom ate hers with some tomato and garlic hummus and I ate mine with some whole-milk ricotta cheese. The flavor of the blossoms is very mild, but reminiscent of zucchini and slightly bitter, which was delicious with the fried egg and flour coating. I could see how this would be good in a sandwich with a slice of ripe heirloom tomato! I'll have to make this again when my tomato plants start producing ...

Friday, July 24, 2009

A ball at Chawton, Jane Austen's home!

image from
The founder of Cisco Systems, Sandy Lerner, is a Jane Austen fan, and she bought Chawton Cottage -- a rather large and beautiful country home, I think -- which was Jane Austen's home. Lerner has restored the home and filled the library with a collection of 18th and 19th century books written by women. On Saturday, July 18, the anniversary of Jane Austen's death, Lerner gave a Regency ball at Chawton. Here is the BBC video report of the event:

Makes me wish I was in England!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Another use for rose petals: rose vinegar.

image from
"Rose vinegar is a novelty in salads, and, by some, thought very desirable. To every quarter of a pound of rose leaves, add two quarts of good vinegar; put it in a large jar, cover it firmly, and leave it to infuse, till a fine tincture is obtained, when strain for use." From Godey's Lady's Book, 1852.

I've never had rose vinegar, but it sounds really good! I have to contact my friends who have old roses, and collect some rose petals from them for the upcoming Rose Water Tea and Workshop (Saturday, August 8), but I think I'll use some of the petals to make some rose vinegar, too. It sounds really easy, which is a plus ...

Saturday, July 18, 2009

This just in: _Cranford_ will be broadcast again!

The makers of the Cranford series, based on Elizabeth Gaskell's novels, are making a Christmas special, scheduled to be broadcast in December 2009!

Victorian cosmetics: uses for rose water.

homemade rose water.
I was able to make about a cup of rose water earlier this week, and I plan to make some more once I get more suitable rose petals! Rose water has been touted for many cosmetic uses, from the Renaissance era to today. It is useful as a perfume, but also as a skin toner or mild astringent, and a hair rinse. Here are some Victorian recipes that use rose water in combination with other ingredients, for cosmetic preparations:

From Inquire Within for Anything You Want To Know, 1858:

TO REMOVE FRECKLES.—Dissolve, in half an ounce of lemon-juice, one ounce of Venice soap, and add a quarter of an ounce each of oil of bitter almonds, and deliquated [sic] oil of tartar. Place this mixture in the sun till it acquires the consistency of ointment. When in this state add three drops of the oil of rhodium, and keep it for use. Apply it to the face and hands in the manner following: wash the parts at night with elder-flower water, then anoint with the ointment. In the morning cleanse the skin from its oily adhesion by washing it copiously in rose-water.

From Godey's Lady's Book, 1860:

An excellent soap may be made by scraping and melting down some white curd soap, and adding to it some almond paste. The almonds should first be bleached, and then beaten into a smooth paste, with a small portion of white of egg, and as much rose-water and half its quantity of spirits of wine as will give the paste a proper consistency. Mix this with the melted soap in a proportion of one-fourth.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Make your own rose water!

image from
The South Bay Ladies' Tea Guild is planning another Victorian workshop soon: Making Rose Water the Victorian Way! A rose-themed tea party, and some of the home made rose water, is also included. The tea and workshop will be held at a private home in San Jose, CA, on Saturday, August 8. Tickets are $20 per person; e-mail to R.S.V.P. or for details of location, menu, etc. Older girls are welcome to attend, if accompanied by an adult!

For some history behind this activity:

The Victorians and Edwardians were known for their love of roses, and used them for everything from decoration, to perfume, to flavoring for desserts. They were not the first ones to do this, however; they were following several centuries of history and tradition in their culinary and cosmetic use of fragrant flowers.

By the 19th century there were a few simple methods for making rose water. The simplest method is to obtain a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid, fill it with fresh, clean rose petals, cover the petals with water, and fasten on the lid to the jar. Then, set the jar in the sun for several hours, strain out the rose petals at the end of the day, and use the scented water immediately or keep it in a cold place for a few days. To preserve it for a few weeks, you would have to add some spirits of wine or even some white wine vinegar, and make sure to keep it in a tightly closed glass container in the cellar, away from the sun and heat.

Another simple method involves making a rose infusion: fresh rose petals were washed and patted dry with a towel, then added to a pan of boiling water and allowed to boil for a short time; then the pan was removed from the fire, covered, and the rose petals were allowed to steep in the hot water for 20 to 30 minutes or more. When the water was colored, scented and flavored enough, the rose petals were strained out and the liquid was transferred to sealed, clean bottles or jars, and kept in a cool, dark place. Vinegar or spirits of wine would have been added to aid in preservation.

Some old recipes call for attar of roses, spirits of wine and various chemicals whose names are unfamiliar to us today. Attar of roses is, by the way, just rose essential oil, and spirits of wine is vodka, but some other items, like sugar of lead, might not be advisable to use even if it were available! Some recipes called for making rose water by distillation, using beakers, tubes, and other specialized equipment, practical only if you were part of a commercial rose water manufacturing effort back then, but doable today with minor modifications.

However you make it, homemade rose water should be kept in the refrigerator for best results, and will last from a few days up to a couple of months if prepared and stored properly. It can also be frozen and kept for several months, as ice cubes, sealed in a freezer bag. Use and enjoy your rose water the way our ancestors did!

How to make rosewater (distilling instructions)
How to make your own rose water (distilling instructions), by Annie Bond
How to make rosewater and living potpourri (infusing instructions)
How to make herbal cosmetics

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Why not throw a Tour de France tea party?

French macarons. Image from
The Tour de France: beginning in Monaco last Saturday, international cycling teams will race through France, Spain, the small principality of Andorra, Switzerland and part of the Italian Alps, before they return to France for the final section, ending in Paris on the 26th of July. While San Jose’s bicycling and cycle racing scene is not what it once was – it was a wildly popular sport in the late 1889, when San Jose’s first bicycle club was founded – there are still a good number of cyclists and bicycle clubs in the city.

While I’m not a cyclist I know people who are, whose eyes are glued to the Tour de France reports on the television! In honor of my favorite cyclists, I’ve come up with a tea party menu, featuring foods from all of the countries that the Tour de France participants will ride through, as a way of celebrating their effort and the dedication it’s taken them to get this far! While many of these countries don’t have a long-standing tea tradition, they all have traditional appetizers, desserts, and other dishes that can be added to a tea party menu, and be accompanied by a nice cup of tea. So here it is -- my (American-style) Tour de France Tea menu:

Lapsang Souchong black tea
Green tea with mint and honey (Spain)
Tila tisane (Spain)
Verbena tisane (France)

Earl Grey-scented jelly (France and Italy)
Maria galletas (Spain)
Croissants with Creme Fraiche (France)

Barbagiuans (Monaco -- pan-fried vegetable-filled pastry)
Beignets de Sauge (Swiss sage fritters)
Bread with Mushrooms and Alioli (Spain)
Pa amb tomaquet (Andorra -- toast with tomato)
Petite Crustless Quiches with Fines Herbes and Chevre (France)

Getränker Zitronencake (Switzerland -- lemon cake)
Les zestes d’orange confites (France -- candied orange peel)
Prince Albert Millefeuille Pastry with Strawberries and Pastry Cream (Monaco)
Macarons (France)
Madeleines (France)
Spitzbuben (Switzerland -- jam cookie)
Sorbet au champagne (France)
Tea Cake with Pignoli and Almonds (Italy)

Of course, the cyclists will be working out in hot summer weather and will need lots of cold beverages to keep them going. You can sympathize with them and drink your tea iced! I wonder which team and which cyclist will win?

“Mariage Freres: charming tea in Paris”
Laduree’s “Story of the Macaroon”

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

California State Park System to be closed!

Countryside. Image from
I just received word of this situation: beginning today, if all goes as Governor Schwarzenegger has planned, the California Legislature will cut the State Park system completely out of the California state budget by July 2010! This represents our state government's attitude toward California's historic and natural heritage ...

The State Park system receives $143 million -- less than 1/10 of 1% of the budget -- per year to support 279 parks spread throughout California, and the effect of this budget cut would be drastic. Most parks aren't receiving enough funding as it is! Not only would it not return enough money to the state to make a difference in balancing the budget, but it would cause an estimated 80% of state parks to close completely, cutting off the seasonal income that comes with tourists who visit the parks. Every dollar in State Park funding returns more than $2 to the state in the form of taxes and fees! In 2008 the State Park system saw about 80 million visitors, and with the recession shrinking everyone's travel budgets, that number is expected to increase this year.

We forget that many of our beaches and recreational areas, as well as many California missions and areas like Columbia State Historic Park and Candlestick Point are all part of the California State Park system, and will be closed to the public sometime this year. Countless California elementary school students have to travel to the Missions and state parks to complete their studies, and this will be impossible once the missions, Monterey Historic Park, Sutter's Fort State Historic Park, Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, Fort Ross, and even the California State Capitol Museum are closed. Not to mention Big Basin Redwoods, Angel Island, Half Moon Bay State Beach, Hearst San Simeon State Park, Monterey and Natural Bridges State Beaches, and the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. If you want a full list of parks that will close, visit the State Park website at

It looks like there is a letter-writing campaign that began back in May, and I don't know if it's still officially running, but maybe more e-mails, letters and calls will make a difference. Apparently the parks lose half of their funding today, and the rest of it within 12 months; only 20% of the state parks have other sources of revenue and are expected to reduce personnel, hours, and accessibility, but be able to stay open. *sigh* This situation is not the fault of the state giving too much money to the State Parks; it's the fault of big-shot politicians of both parties who sit in their offices in Sacramento and line their own and each others' pockets! Cutting politicians' paychecks and bonuses would go farther towards balancing the budget than cutting the entire State Park system out of the General Fund! I don't like to get into politics too much, but if you'd like to be able to vacation in the state of California this summer, and want to give California politicians a piece of your mind, you can find more information, including their contact info., at this website:

Jane Austen on PBS tonight!

image from
It seems that PBS is replaying the Masterpiece Classic Jane Austen series this year! According to the website, Persuasion will be broadcast tonight at 8 p.m. on KTEH, which is on Channel 9 and 54 in my area.

This will be the new (2008) adaptation with Sally Hawkins as Anne Elliott. Here is the web page for this adaptation:

It's really warm inside right now -- we don't have A.C. -- so I will have the windows open to catch the breezes, and a glass of iced tea at my side, as I watch this tonight!
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)