Do You Cook from Vintage Recipes?

I love vintage cookbooks! I have a small but growing collection that I've gathered from yard sales, used bookstores and the shelves of specialty bookshops like Omnivore Books in San Francisco. As objects of beauty and curiosity, these books are a treasure. But do those old-timey recipes still work in today's kitchens?

Another source of vintage recipes are the offerings from the British publisher Persephone Books who has released a handful of reprints of cookery books from nineteenth and twentieth century Great Britain. Here's a sample from Agnes Jekyll's Kitchen Essays:

Super-Chocolate Cake. Half a pound fresh butter beaten to a cream, 7 eggs (yolks and whites beaten separately, and the whites stirred in the last thing), 1/2 lb. best vanilla chocolate grated and heated in oven, then beaten up in the butter with 3 oz. dried flour, 1/2 lb. sifted sugar, 4 oz. ground almonds, 1 teaspoonful of sal volatile. Bake in a slack oven, then ice with a thin soft icing flavoured with maraschino. If ingredients are thoroughly beaten up it will be very light.

I actually find this recipe quite delightful and enjoy the prospect of unravelling its mysteries. What is sol volatile and vanilla chocolate? What is a slack oven and can all-purpose flour be substituted for dried flour? Won't beating the flour make the cake tough? My inner Harriet-the-Spy can't wait to get started!

I am planning on testing this and a few other recipes from Kitchen Essays in the coming weeks. But before I start, I would love some advice from our readers on how to approach vintage recipes.

Are there any basic rules to follow? Do you always adhere to the recipe as written, even if it doesn't quite make sense? What have you learned from your experiments? Do you have a favorite vintage recipe or recipe book?

Related: Weekend Inspiration: Early American Cookery

(Image: Dana Velden)

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Dana Velden is a freelance food writer. She lives, eats, plays, and gets lost in Oakland, California where she is in the throes of raising her first tomato plant.

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