Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Felicity's Chocolate Cupcakes

Historically accurate flavor, not quite historically accurate recipe!

I'm making good on a promise I made a couple months ago. Does anyone remember the post I did about Heritage Chocolate? Well, I finally got around to baking with some of the chocolate I brought home from Williamsburg, and it turned out to make very tasty cupcakes. So tasty that even people who don't like the chocolate sticks on their own liked them! I figure that's a good sign - or maybe they just need to give the sticks themselves another chance!

You may notice that Felicity definitely isn't posing in my kitchen or somewhere around my house, and the truth is, she's not! Obviously, I think you probably would have seen any giant statues I've got sitting around in my front lawn by now. We'll get to our field trip after I tell you a little about the cupcakes.

Heritage Chocolate's official website features many recipes to make using their products. Most of them are not authentically historical recipes, but some seem to at least throw back to dishes people like Felicity or Caroline might have eaten, and it looks like fans and historic societies can submit their own creations for publication! This one is their recipe for chocolate cupcakes, which includes written instructions and a video to show you how to make them yourself. I'm saying it up front that this isn't a truly authentic cake recipe, but the resulting cupcakes were still tasty and definitely worth trying out if you're a fan of Heritage Chocolate.

Like all cake recipes, you start by sifting your dry ingredients together. This one calls for two cups of flour, two teaspoons each of baking soda and baking powder, a teaspoon of salt, and an eighth of a teaspoon of ground ginger. The baking soda and powder is where the historical accuracy goes out the window, as baking soda wasn't really available to cooks until the 1850's and people relied on far less consistent leavening agents to make their baked goods rise.

After sifting those together, set them aside and get to work on the key part of this recipe - the chocolate!

 Six tablespoons of butter, two cups of buttermilk (or whole milk, but we used buttermilk) and one cup of sugar get brought to a simmer on the stove until the butter and sugar is all dissolved. After taking this off the stove, you add in two thirds of a cup of Heritage Chocolate drink mix and stir until it's dissolved. You could grate down a chocolate stick or baking block if you'd prefer! But since I had the drink mix, I decided to use it since it would melt down faster.

(And if you don't have Heritage Chocolate at all, you can substitute with semisweet chocolate, but you really won't be getting the same flavor profile at all.)

This isn't going to be a completely dark, gooey chocolate mix. Even when it's dissolved, it'll be more cloudy than deep brown through and through, so don't worry you've done something wrong here.

This gets added into your dry ingredients until everything's well incorporated.

(Something about this next picture reminded me of the episode of the Magic School Bus where they learn how cakes are baked.)

Once the batter's mixed together, add in two eggs and a teaspoon of vanilla and mix those in as well. It's a pretty normal seeming cake batter in terms of consistency - a little wet, but not too runny.

Cupcakes in the colonial and revolutionary period were literally cakes cooked in small cups, but we don't have any oven safe teacups to try this out on. In lieu of those, the batter supposed to be poured into a prepared cupcake tin, but I had something better.

Since starting the blog, my friends and family members have been great at introducing me to cool new gadgets and tools for the kitchen, and for my birthday this year, my godmother got me these neat little silicone cupcake cups from Crate & Barrel. They're reusable, dishwasher safe as long as you don't try to wash them when they're stacked together and don't require any greasing agent to get your cupcakes out.

You fill them up about two thirds of the way... 

And pop them in the oven for about sixteen minutes. Once they've cooled enough for yout to handle them you just carefully turn them over, peel the sides back while pushing on the bottom of the cup, and they should pop right out! These were a breeze to use and I'll definitely be doing it again. There was very little cake stuck on the walls of the cups so you weren't wasting any cake, and they made nice sized little cupcakes - not too big, not too small.

Thanks, Kathy!

I think my cups are a little smaller than your average cupcake pan, so they made a little more than two dozen cupcakes. I say a "little more than" because I ate a few and gave them out as samples before doing a head count. What can I say? They looked good.

But the cupcakes by themselves weren't exactly sweet enough for me, or for my taste testers. They needed something a little extra, so I quickly whipped up a basic butter cream frosting with powdered sugar, butter, milk, vanilla and more Heritage Chocolate drink mix. The official website and the recipe I used both link to a recipe for frosting they recommend serving with the cupcakes, but I decided to just use our own basic recipe.

I piped it onto the cupcakes and they were all set to go!

And boy, these were tasty! I will say I think I enjoy eating the chocolate straight more than eating it in these cupcakes. I didn't get as much of the usual spicy, occasionally salty flavors that comes along with munching or sucking on one of the chocolate sticks, but these were moist, chocolatey cupcakes that had a very unusual flavor of their own. The frosting really complimented the cakes. Sometimes, a cake itself is so sweet that frosting just seems kind of unnecessary, and this definitely isn't the case here. The cake has good flavor on its own, but tasted a little more like a chocolate muffin than a true cupcake, and the frosting makes it just sweet enough to really make this feel like a dessert.

My only complaint was that when these were allowed to sit around for too long, they felt kind of... sweaty. They were super moist to begin with, but they started getting unpleasantly moist by day three. I'd recommend eating these quickly or maybe storing them in the fridge overnight if you're going to be serving them the next day. So if you're looking for a moist cupcake that's a great vessel for frosting, look no further! But if you want the unique spicy flavors of Heritage Chocolate, you might be better off eating one of the sticks by itself. Oh well! These were still good.

So, where did we take these wonderful cupcakes?

Quincy, Massachusetts!

Quincy (which used to be considered a part of Braintree, Massachusetts) is the birthplace of two American presidents - John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams. Three of the family's homes are preserved as historic sites, and the town has statues of John, John Quincy and John's wife Abigail near the visitor's center for the Adams National Historic Park. I've been wanting to visit the park since I first got into the history of the American Revolution (one of my early introductions to the subject might have been 1776, which is probably part of why I got attached to the Adamses, aside from the fact that they're just genuinely interesting, admirable people), and my mother, her childhood friend Leslie and her daughter Caitlin came with me to have a look around!

Because the houses are strict about bringing in food, we had our cupcakes while taking a look around town, and stopping to look at the statutes.

Abigail Adams is one of the most well known and talked about First Ladies of the United States, largely because of her personal correspondence with her husband during his time on the Second Continental Congress and throughout his political career. Abigail was self taught and highly intelligent, proving in many ways that she was her husband's intellectual equal even without a formal education, and the two of them shared a relationship that was not only affectionate and loving, but as genuine a partnership as there could be between a man and woman before women became seen as true equals to men.

Because John spent a lot of time away from home during the early days of his political career, Abigail was often effectively a single mother caring for four young children and trying to run a working farm. It wasn't easy for her, but she was proud of being a tough New England woman who could handle anything that was placed in front of her, something she worried John Quincy's English born and pampered bride to be wouldn't be able to live up to when she moved from Europe to New England.

Abigail is perhaps most well known for asking her husband to "remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors" while helping design the future of the American colonies. While John did genuinely respect his wife and wasn't necessarily entirely against the idea of better rights for women, he thought that pushing for that when the independence movement itself was on shaky ground would endanger the movement as a whole, and decided to focus on other issues. Which, while fair enough, is still something of a bummer.

John Adams himself is one of my favorite figures in American history, mostly because of his work in advocating independence from Great Britain. Our second president, he's often overlooked in discussions of pre-revolutionary and revolutionary America (with exceptions in the musical 1776 and the HBO documentary John Adams) for two reasons: his accomplishments aren't easily summarized by "leader of the Continental army" or "wrote the Deceleration of Independence", and because he wasn't a very popular president, who only got to serve one term in office.

This has always been disappointing to me because in my mind, John Adams is one of the key figures in so many parts of our early history that it's a shame to leave him largely forgotten. A lawyer before he went into politics, Adams - despite already being frustrated by and with the British government - successfully defended the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre in court, believing that they deserved the right to a fair trial not only because he believed in everyone's right to counsel and the protection of innocence, but also because it would prove to the British that America wasn't a society ruled by its emotions and incapable of acting with logic or reason. After Lexington and Concord, Adams advocated very strongly for breaking away from Great Britain entirely during the Second Continental Congress. He was the man to nominate George Washington to lead the army and Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence. Afterward, he traveled to France where he had a largely unsuccessful career as a statesman and ambassador before he was relocated to the Netherlands, where he had more success in securing more funds for the new American nation.

He also helped write the peace treaty with Great Britain, and in 1780 wrote the Massachusetts constitution, which would provide a template for the future US Constitution. Although Adams said he didn't intend on this to happen, one of the sentences in the constitution he wrote eventually led to slavery being outlawed in Massachusetts, which delighted him! Adams was very opposed to slavery, had never owned a slave and was very proud of this fact.

After the revolution, Adams served as the country's first minister to Great Britain, and served as George Washington's Vice President, which was far and away one of his least favorite jobs. Adams liked nothing more than to make his voice be heard, and hated that as Vice President, he wasn't allowed to get in the thick of things and argue with congress. Another thing he gets very little credit for is how smoothly power was transferred from him to Washington, and then him to Jefferson - no man tried to cling on to the country or make themselves a new tyrant, even if each had their personal and political flaws.

Although not a popular president after coming into conflict with Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton and their respective political parties, Adams is considered retrospectively to be a decent president largely for resolving the "qausi war" with France peacefully. Getting the fledgling United States involved in European wars would have endangered the country's stability and economy, so Adams advocated peace and generally keeping their noses out of the European conflict. After losing the re-election to his former friend Thomas Jefferson, Adams retired to Massachusetts to live out the rest of his days at his country home. Adams and Jefferson would later reconcile thanks to mutual friend Benjamin Rush, and exchanged letters up until they both passed away - on the same day, July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the date the Declaration of Independence had been adopted.

When visiting the Adams National Historic Park, the visitor's center offers a tour that requires trolley ride further into town to visit John Adams' birthplace and John Quincy Adams' birth place, which then later travels to the family's larger home, where future generations lived with their families until 1927. It was acquired by the National Parks Service in 1947, when the sites were designated the Adams National Historic Park. The visitor's center also includes a well made video discussing the history of the Adams family using the voices of Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney and Tom Hanks.

The tours are seasonal and the rangers generally try to keep the groups small, as the homes weren't designed to accommodate giant hordes of visitors and display historic artifacts. The trolley ride isn't long, but it doesn't have seat belts and we were definitely jostled around a lot.

Our first stops were at John Adams' birthplace and the house where John and Abigail raised their children. Below is Felicity with the house John was born in. His father was a deacon, but at that point in history, most Americans in New England ran farms while having other careers as well. It was another way to support and provide for your family in addition to your legal, religious, crafting or intellectual career.

John originally went to Harvard to study to be a minister like his father, but realized relatively quickly that he liked arguing too much to be in the ministry and decided to become a lawyer instead. His parents gave him the house right next door to the house he grew up in when he started a family, which is a very traditional saltbox style house. It actually looked almost identical to the layout of one of the historic homes I used to intern with, which was pretty cool!

Both homes are fairly small, and they're literally thirty feet away from each other. I don't think most people want to live that close to their parents or in-laws! One of the other interesting things is that because the town developed around these houses - which were basically abandoned while still being owned by the family until they were sold to a historical society which then gave them to the Parks Service - there's almost no land around them that's been preserved! They're just these two historic homes plopped in the middle of a town with a CVS and a funeral home right near them. It's definitely not the impression you get from the HBO show! 

Both homes were touched up and repaired by the Parks Service and are maintained by them, but they had fallen into disrepair in the decades after the Adamses had moved to their larger houses, so while the home John and Abigail lived in is more or less original, John's father's home is only about 20% original, and has just been refurbished to what it would have looked like.

Unfortunately, you can't take pictures inside the houses, and you're also not given too much time to really explore them or the grounds of any of the properties. Admittedly, there's not much to explore at the first two houses, but it still would have been nice to get a chance to take some decent pictures, instead of just being hustled back onto the trolley as quickly as possible.

This is why the only picture we got of the house that John and Abigail raised their family in is a little blurry, awkwardly cropped, and features Felicity's apron pulled a little askew as I tried to snap a picture before the trolley left without me. They also wouldn't let you see the upstairs of the house because they worry the second floors aren't structurally sound!

The next and final stop was the larger Adams home which was inhabited by the family until 1927. After John and Abigail returned home from Europe, they realized they wanted a larger house with more of the luxury they'd become accustomed to abroad, so they bought this house to be their new home when they returned to the US almost sight unseen. Abigail apparently cried when she saw it, surprised that it was smaller than she remembered it being, and spent a lot of time refurbishing it. Future generations added their own personal touches and updated parts of the house to meet changing technology and needs, but the home is furnished with authentic furniture owned by John, Abigail and their ancestors. They apparently didn't get rid of anything!

This was especially fun to see because there wasn't a lot of furniture in the other houses, which I assume has a lot to do with the fact that Peacefield has more room to move around in even with certain parts fenced off for exhibit space. We got to see the bed John and Abigail slept in, John's favorite chair, and a lot of John Quincy's books.

My favorite artifacts belong to John Quincy and his wife Louisa. John Quincy really liked trees and was fascinated by their growth. He would occasionally "borrow" his wife's best glass bowls to plant saplings in so he could watch the roots grow. Apparently, he would leave these saplings in for long enough that the roots would crack the bowls, no doubt infuriating his wife for ruining her nice dishware! They have two examples of these bowls that have been basically stapled back together after being destroyed during the former president's science experiments.

As Peacefield was inhabited up until the 1920's, more of the land has been preserved, including a carriage house and a stone library built right next to the house. The library was built in 1870, fulfilling the wish in John Quincy's will for a structure that would protect the family's collection of books and papers in the event of the house ever being struck by lightning. Since the library is made of stone, if it's hit, the building won't catch fire and destroy the collection.

While you can't see or handle any of the books (obviously), the collection includes the personal collections of John, John Quincy and several of their ancestors, including a Bible gifted to John Quincy Adams by the Mendi people after he successfully defended the mutineers of the slave ship Amistad before the US Supreme Court.

My favorite part might have been the garden, though. Next to the house and in front of the library is a garden that was probably designed and installed in the late 1880's, which was in full bloom with poppies (my favorite flower!), irises, and peonies, just to name a few.

Long story short, if you happen to be in the area, you really should stop by the Adams National Historic Park. It's a short ride there from Boston, and you could actually probably get there using the T if you wanted, and it was definitely a fun way to spend the day, even if the whole tour felt a little rushed. We're pretty sure you can just walk up to Peacefield and park at a parking lot nearby if you'd rather only see the larger house and take your time looking around, but they won't let you wander the house unsupervised! The visitor's center also boasted a nice collection of books and historically inspired gifts - surprisingly, no Heritage Chocolate, but glass from Jamestown and a lot of good books. I picked one up about Abigail's relationships with her two sisters and I'm really looking forward to reading it.

Many thanks to my mom, Leslie and Caitlin for coming with me, and especially to Caitlin and Mom for helping me take some of these pictures. I had a very nice time and am already looking forward to our next historically inspired field trip!

Why don't my poppies look this nice?


  1. The cupcakes look delicious, especially with that frosting!

    Since becoming obsessed with the Hamilton musical (and already being kind of obsessed with the musical 1776), I read your bit about John and Abigal Adams and I couldn't help but giggle the whole time. Cause where 1776 is about him (them), Hamilton, as you can imagine, takes a quite dimmer view of him considering it's based on the Chernow biography and Hamilton's extensive writings. If it wasn't peppered with bad words, I'd link you to a video of a cut song. Maybe I'll PM it to you over on AGC.

    1. I definitely want to check that out! I'm always looking for more period/period inspired pieces to enjoy. c:

  2. This was a really nice outing and I'm glad I got to be a part of your photography crew. As for the cupcakes, they were tasty, but I was disappointed that the true taste of the Heritage Chocolate wasn't a stand out. The chocolate has such an unusual flavor that I hoped it would come out in the cupcakes. Alas, it did not. Still tasty though!

    1. I'm with you, I wish they tasted more like the chocolate sticks! Oh well.

  3. What an interesting post! I enjoyed reading about your visit to the Adams' houses.
    Felicity looks so interested in everything--love the photo where she is posing like Abigail.


    1. Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it. :)