Sunday, October 13, 2013

Felicity's Brunswick Stew, Spoon Bread and Apple Pie, straight from Colonial Williamsburg!

A great fall meal that will definitely feed a crowd!

One of the things that's really encouraged me to keep up with this blog and make sure I'm doing a couple posts a month is how enthusiastic my friends and family have been in wanting to try out another cool new recipe. Case in point, my aunt and uncle were stopping by for the day on their way back home, and when I asked if they were interested in trying something that would be featured on the blog, they responded with an enthusiastic yes! As it turned out, we were also joined by my grandparents, my mother's brother and his family, plus my cousin's friend, so I had a full house to feed and have been cooking almost all day. I definitely have a greater appreciation for how difficult it is to organize a big dinner after starting this blog!

My uncle's favorite historical period is the colonial and revolutionary era, and as I've mentioned before, that's definitely the period I have the most cookbooks and recipe ideas for. My mom and I tossed around a few ideas before we decided to turn to The Williamsburg Cookbook, one of the many books my grandmother had lent to me when the blog got started. My grandfather bought it for her in 1972 while they were on vacation in Williamsburg, and gave it to her after they got home. My mom's family has always really loved visiting Colonial Williamsburg, and went at least three times when my mom was a kid, so it's got a special place in most of our hearts. Getting a little bit of family history while working on the dishes was pretty cool, too!

This book is still in publication today if you're interested in checking it out yourself!

We decided to try making the Chowning's Taven Brunswick Stew, Christina Campbell's Spoon Bread, and the recipe for apple pie, and started off with the stew because it would take the longest time to make and actually taste good. It's tradition - and just good cooking sense - to never eat the soup the day you make it. Instead, you cook it the night before and let it sit overnight to really get the right flavor and texture.

Brunswick Stew is a dish that basically anywhere with the name "Brunswick" has at one point tried to claim as their own, but according to this cookbook, the place with the best claim to the dish is Brunswick, Virginia. According to legend, a hunting party in Brunswick County left one man behind to have dinner for them when they returned. Apparently irritated by this decision, the man threw squirrel (the only protein he could find within range of the camp) in a pot with all the vegetables the party been provisioned with, and everyone agreed that the squirrel was actually what made the stew really incredible and tasty.

Although plenty of jokes were made about sending one of our cats out to catch a squirrel for us, we decided to use the modern squirrel substitute: chicken. It's probably for the best. Our cats are all indoor cats, and although two of them have a lot of interest in the chipmunks they see outside our windows, sometimes I wonder if they'd be too excited to actually know what to do if they actually came face to face with a live one.

Rather than getting a whole chicken, we bought a couple of pieces of breast and thigh meat on the bone, and threw it in the pot to cook with some water.

The recipe told us that if you wanted a thick soup, we needed to use only two quarts of water, but there was less than half an inch of liquid left in the pot when the chicken finished cooking. We decided to throw in some chicken stock just to be safe - we knew we'd need to feed a lot of people, and having thin soup is better than having no soup when you're faced with a lot of excited, hungry guests.

The rest of the preparation was pretty straight forward. My mom helped by deboning the chicken and shredding it, while I got the vegetables ready.

Once again, I could barely finish chopping the first onion, although my eyes felt okay once I stepped away from it and let my mom take over. I'm very curious to know specifically why this is. Several of my friends and acquaintances have offered various theories and explanations, as well as suggestions on how to alleviate the pain, but I'm mostly just curious to know the exact reason.

It turns out we shouldn't have been worried about not having enough soup for everyone. As soon as all the ingredients started going in the pot, my mom was actually a little worried that we wouldn't have enough room to fit everything we needed in! It worked out perfectly though - there was obviously enough stew to feed a large crowd, but there was enough room in the pot to put the lid on and not worry about it completely bubbling over while it was simmering on the stove.

I left it on the stove until I went to bed last night, so all told, it cooked for about six hours on the stove before I put it in the fridge. It was extremely thick, and we let it simmer on a very low heat for a while before dinner started to keep it warm. The recipe doesn't call for a lot of seasoning, especially compared to how much stuff is actually in it, so I worried that when I tried it, it would seem like something that needed a lot more salt and pepper, but it turned out to be pretty much a non issue. Honestly, I didn't think it needed any extra seasoning at all, but it's definitely something that can have stuff added to if you want a little something extra. It had a really nice vegetable-y flavor, and the chicken was incredibly tender. It was something you could eat pretty easily with a fork or a spoon, and we had enough that people could take some home with them, while still leaving us with enough for leftovers tomorrow.

Now, I actually haven't had the Brunswick Stew at Williamsburg, but my mom had it for lunch at the Raleigh Tavern while we were there last spring break, and she said that theirs tasted a lot saltier, and that ours seemed healthier. I'm not really surprised by that, because since this isn't too seasoned, I could see where commercializing it might mean putting more seasoning in. I'd be interested to compare it to one of the versions of the stew at one of the more formal taverns in the city.

Next up came the pie. I've never made a pie before, and I'm (still) under the impression that they're pretty hard to get right. I was especially a little confused by the recipe for the pie crust, as the instructions were for about double the amount of pie crust the recipe for the pie said I needed, and I'm always hesitant to mess around with recipes too much in fear that I'll mess something up.

Then again, I've made a tart and fried pork chops, so maybe I shouldn't be so cautious.

The one thing I did discover was that shortening is a million times easier to work with than butter is at room temperature. In the past, my attempts to cut butter into my flour and other dry ingredients has felt like an actual work out, because the butter is usually just so inflexible even when it's had a chance to warm up. The shortening actually surprised me with how easy it was to work with, and pretty quickly, I had a nice, crumbly dough.

I chilled it in the fridge for about half an hour, and then retrieved it and got ready to mix in the ice water. This was a little bit trickier, because the recipe doesn't really specify how much water you need to work in to get a good pastry crust dough going, and you need to play it a little by ear. I think mine was actually a little too wet at one point, but working the flour in while I rolled it out helped get it nice and smooth instead of sticky and awful.

Getting the filling done was pretty easy, although I had moments of panic over not getting the dry ingredients right, not having enough apples, and then having too many apples. The end result, though, was one of my favorite things I've ever made with food, because seriously, taking the time to neatly arrange your apple slices makes a pretty impressive looking flower pattern in your pie pan, and that was pretty much the moment when I decided that this pie was the prettiest thing I've ever made.

I mean, look at that!

We got the rest of the pie assembled pretty quickly, and had a decent amount of extra crust dough left over. Not as much as I assumed we would, though, so I guess that's probably a good thing in the future. My mom actually passed on a fun way to get rid of your extra pie dough, but more about that later. For now, here are some pictures of the last steps of making the pie:

My slashes were a little off center, but I still kept looking at it and thinking I did that! It's so pretty! I kept impatiently checking on it while it was in the oven to make sure that it was cooking okay and nothing horribly wrong was happening to it, but when I pulled it out of the oven, it looked pretty much perfect.

Still so pretty!

As you might have gathered by now, I was so unbelievably proud of this pie, so it was a little bit of a disappointment when we cut into it and discovered that the insides were full of liquid from the apples. We're pretty sure it's because of the type of apples we used, and that if we did this in the future, we should get ones that were firmer and a little tarter. My aunt also recommended baking the pie in advance to give a time for the liquids to get a little more gummy and less wet, but obviously I didn't know about this in time to do anything about it, so for a while, I was pretty crushed. I know it's silly, because the point of this is supposed to be learning to cook, and not just me talking about all the amazing things I know how to cook, but it's still a bummer when you have twelve people all expecting a really great meal from you and you discover your dessert might be a disaster.

So I was pretty disheartened until I was convinced to try a piece, and discovered that even though there was a ton of juice, which made the pie pretty structurally unsound, it still tasted pretty good. Admittedly, I'm not really an apple pie connoisseur, but the apples were tender and well seasoned, and the juice was really more like a sugar gravy than just runny, disgusting apple run off. The crust wasn't bad, either, for a first try, and my grandfather - who is famous around here for loving pies basically more than any other dessert item - even said it was very good. I'm not sure if that's just because he's never met a pie he hasn't liked, or if the pie was actually any good, but I'm trying to hope it's the latter, and that everyone wasn't just trying to spare my feelings.

Before we get to the spoon bread, here's the aside I promised earlier. My mom learned this little trick from her mom and her grandma, and thought it would be a fun way to use the rest of the pie dough we had left over. You roll out the dough, and sprinkle on a combination of spices and sugar - my mom used cinnamon and nutmeg, both powdered and freshly ground. You then roll the dough into a spiral tube, and slice it into thin little cookies before putting them on a baking tray and sticking them in the oven for a few minutes. Just keep an eye on them - they're ready when they're golden brown.

They're crunchy, don't spread out much on the pan, and bite sized. My brother and I were devouring them pretty quickly once they came out of the oven, and I needed to finally put my foot down and say we needed to save some for when my grandma got to the house. They're not complicated at all, and they're really easy to customize based on your own preferences in this little extra treat.

Now, spoon bread is probably not something most people are familiar with - or, at least, that's the impression I got when I told everyone we were having it, and several members of our party were a little confused about what that actually meant. It's called spoon bread because it's not quite bread, but not quite pudding, and requires a spoon to scoop it out of the pan. The recipe was apparently discovered by accident, and has been a staple of Virginia cooking at some point in the seventeen or eighteen hundreds. You can get this version of it at Christina Campbell's Tavern in Williamsburg, and I can say with utmost confidence that this recipe tastes almost exactly the same as the spoon bread you'll get there.

Once we got to this stage (and paired with the fact that the recipe is next to a recipe for grits souffle), my aunt got worried that this was going to be something like grits. It really isn't. It's definitely more like a gooey cornbread, and actually seems pretty identical to cornbread when you're first mixing up the ingredients.

This is where things sort of got weird. The batter was extremely runny, and I was a little worried for a while that something was wrong. I was expecting it to have more of a cake batter consistency for some reason, probably just because that's about the wateriest batter I've had experience with up until this point, but instead, it was just really, really liquid and runny.

Still, we'd come this far, and so I dumped the batter into the casserole dish, got the water bath ready and stuck it in the oven.

Fortunately, it came out looking more or less like it was supposed to. I was a little worried at first that it wouldn't taste good - I snitched some of the batter and was worried it would be too salty, or maybe even sour, but when I finally got to eat my piece of it hot out of the pan, I realized it tasted pretty much exactly like the stuff I've had in Williamsburg. It's got a really interesting texture, which might be off putting to some people, because it's definitely a lot gooier and runnier than a cornbread, but doesn't have a nice, silky texture like a pudding, or even a chocolate souffle because of the corn meal. I definitely enjoyed it, but it's not something I feel like I need a ton of to be satisfied with, and I wasn't in a rush to get seconds.

Overall, this was a really long, tiring process, and I definitely think I'm going to be calling it an early night tonight. But I'm not disappointed: I'm mostly pretty pleased with how things turned out! It's a good feeling to know that you can make something that people will enjoy and look forward to eating, and that you won't disappoint them even when your pie is runny and kind of collapses on itself when you try to get it out of the pan. The general consensus was that everything was really good, and that they would definitely have it again if I ever felt like making it down the line.

Of course, part of the problem with this blog is that even if you might want repeats, you're excited to try new things, too! But considering how tasty the stew was, I definitely would not be opposed to making it again when we're in the mood for something hot, filling, and full of tasty vegetables and chicken!

Maybe I'll figure out how to fix the pie next time, too!


  1. The reason onion vapors are irritating is because the juice contains sulfuric acid. In a more concentrated form, sulfuric acid will severely irritate the respiratory tract and chemically cook the whites of your eyes. Really the only way to help yourself is to turn on the range top vent fan if your kitchen has one and work under it, and wear a pair of indirectly-vented or non-vented safety goggles. Whether or not this is something you want to do is your decision.

    1. Oh, I know all that, haha, I mean I'm curious because my eyes seem particularly sensitive to them. Most people seem to only be bothered by it for a little while, but sometimes I've had sore eyes for the rest of the night with an onion that my mom can chop with barely any trouble. It's been suggested that I might just be more sensitive to sulfur than the average person, but again, it's something I don't know how to test or prove or anything.

      Thanks for the tip, though. I'm definitely looking into getting a pair of goggles. :|b