The Secret to Making the Perfect Tea

Oy, it’s been an age, hasn’t it? Well, life had some unexpected bumps and developments this year, but I think it’s time to reopen the kitchen, hm?

Selected Recipes
Ridiculously good tea
Route Drop Cakes

One of these developments is relevant to this (and likely many future) posts – I am now a Historic Cook at the cozy downtown museum of Mackenzie House ♥ You should visit sometime soon!

Mackenzie house remembers the last house of William Lyon Mackenzie, radical newspaper editor, fierce politician, playful father, Scottish immigrant, failed rebellion leader, first Mayor of Toronto, and Grandfather of Canada’s tenth Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King.

His life, and those of his family, make fascinating stories. Come over for some tea and we can chat around the fire 🙂

The best tea you will ever have:

I kept drinking the tea before taking the photo, until cup after cup, I only had this wee little bit left. This tells you something about the tea, yes?

As someone already known in my day job for my absurdly large consumption of tea, it is hard to imagine that I can drink any more, but I know it gives you great comfort to be reminded that impossible things are indeed achievable with sheer determination (and maybe not a small amount of obsession).

(Disclaimer – this is not a post on the history of tea. Goodness gracious, that’s an undertaking I need to brace myself for. Look for this in a future post, as I can’t very well not, but let me work up to it. It needs to be *worthy*.)

When a recent visitor to our museum pointed to the cast-iron stove and said “This reminds me of the afternoons I spent with my grandfather back in Hungary, he always made the best tea on it. I’ve never had the like since…” I think my brain narrowed in on her statement like a hawk catching sight of prey.

I needed to hear more. How to make tea better than it already is?

This was paramount information for me to have.

“…Oh?” I said, thinking Yes, good, act cool, friendly smile. Hide the eye twitch. Try not to pounce. “I would love to hear that story, please, tell us more…”

And completely unsuspecting (thank goodness) that my eternal happiness was resting in her palms, she sat back in her chair with a contented murmur and proceeded to regale us all with fond memories of her grandfather. She told of a childhood in post-war Hungary, of living in the countryside, where friends and family pop in for afternoon visits and spend hours chatting in the kitchen. Sometimes happy conversations, sometimes nostalgic, sometimes strained and tense. But always with tea.

Her grandfather would prepare a kettle on the stove, let the tea steep, remove the leaves, and let it sit on the fire for hours and hours. The gentle heat added a depth and richness, free from any bitterness of over-steeping.

(This is the magic of kitchens – they make people talk. And when you put a kitchen in a museum? Meaningful connections between strangers, objects, past, and places pour right out.)

Needless to say, of course I had to try this tea. My next volunteer shift was heaven, and highly caffeinated from the copious amounts of tea I had to consume. (For research’s sake, of course.)

The stove at home yielded similar results, so no fear if you have no cast-iron monstrosity in your kitchen, you can do it too! All you need is any black loose leaf tea. No stove-top kettle? Don’t let a little thing like that stop you. Any old pot will do. Add sugar & milk to your own preference.

Try it. If this doesn’t yield the most addictive cup of tea you’ve ever had, I want to try your tea!

Of course I didn’t serve *just* tea (what do you take me for?) I made a double batch of cheddar shorties (remember those?), and also whipped up some equally delicious route drop cakes:

Route Drop Cakes

Cook Not Mad; or Rational Cookery, Kingston, Pub. James Macfarlane, 1831
Adapted Dundurn Delights, Culinary History Cookbook, 19th Century Receipts, 2nd Edition

Mix two pounds of flour, one of butter, one of sugar, one of currants, then wet into a stiff paste with two eggs, rosewater and brandy, drop them on tins floured, a short time bakes them.

Freshly baked! Route Drop Cakes.

4 1/2 cups flour
2 cups butter
1 1/2 cups currants
2 eggs
1 tbsp rosewater
1 tbsp brandy
2 cups brown sugar

In a large mixing bowl cream butter and sugar. Stir in eggs, rosewater and brandy. Blend in currants and flour.

Drop dough by tablespoons onto ungreased cookie sheet. Bake 10-15 minutes at 350F or until lightly browned.

Mackenzie House has a historical kitchen, meaning cast-iron stove and oven, no sink, no water except that which you haul yourself, no fridge (except the secret one, because health & safety yo), and only tools that replicate what they had at the time. (Including, to my dismay, knives that I don’t think have been sharpened since their birth in the forge. Note to self, next mission: acquire knives.)

Have you ever seen Lady in the Water by M Night Shyamalan? An odd movie to be sure, but it inspires a certain affection. Well, as I was creaming my (cold) butter (by hand) (for TWO recipes) (all the while praising the invention of the electric mixer) I couldn’t help but have horrifying flashbacks to the scene of the half buff man running on loop through my mind. (For as long as I am at Mackenzie House, I am now inspired to become an ambidextrous baker. We’ll see how that goes.)

With their gentile poverty, the Mackenzie household would have been adept at the more labourious household tasks to give them the strength that I admit a life of electric conveniences has not afforded me. At their peak, the Mackenzie’s could only ever afford one servant girl (“a good Scotts girl”), and sometimes not even that, so all women in the household pitched in with the chores and tasks of a 19th c. urban household in Canada. This included such things as hauling water for cooking and bathing, washing and hanging laundry, cleaning the house, cooking, preserving, sewing and tailoring clothing, grocery shopping, tightening bed ropes, and numerous other activities.

I chose to cook from Cook Not Mad because it was published right in the middle of Mackenzie’s political career, and speaks to what the food of British Canada would likely have been. Cook Not Mad calls itself “Canada’s First Cookbook”, except, it’s not actually a Canadian cookbook, but rather a plagiarization of a 1830 American cookbook. At the time this was neither uncommon nor the heinous crime it is today. One of the main ways news traveled the continent was newspapers copying (often word for word) articles from each other. Similarly, books were pirated by enterprising publishers with relish. American publishers stole English books, but neither got the last laugh, for Canadian publishers then stole the American copies and sold them at a quarter of the price to the English original. (A shrewd eye would likely find many of Englishwoman Hannah Glass’ recipes in Cook Not Mad.)

Route Drop Cakes would likely not have been eaten in the Mackenzie household. A few clues tell me this. First, it includes French Brandy, which not only would have been extremely expensive (rum was the cheap & popular alcohol of the Americas), but Mackenzie was a prohibitionist in his adult life. (As opposed to his rapscallion youth in which he indulged perhaps a wee bit too much.) Thus, even if Mackenzie could afford such a recipe, he probably would have been morally opposed to it. However, many of the other items such as jumbles, shrewsbury cakes, fish chowder, split pea soup, would have been regular items on the menu.

Well, now that I am well over my word limit, I invite you to try the tea & cakes while I go back to the kitchen to prepare for the next post!


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