From the Hearth: Hot Cross Buns


Hot Cross Buns grace the Colonel’s table at the 1820 Stephenson House in Edwardsville, IL

  One of my favorite songs from childhood that is also the quintessential early tunes a beginning piano or band student learns to play is Hot Cross Buns. Containing only 3 stepwise notes, it is easy to learn as well as catchy enough to get stuck in one’s head for the rest of the day.

But what exactly are these strange treats that could be bought for a mere penny or two, as the song states: “One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns”? The silly children’s rhyme appears to hearken back to a street vendor song, much like our TV commercial jingles are used today, and likely English in origin. But is there more to the rhyme than a baker hawking his wares and vying for customers? I determined to find out and when I learned the significance behind the crossed buns, I decided March would be a fitting time to try these early American hearth cooking style at the 1820 Colonel Benjamin Stephenson House kitchen.

Ingredients list

All set to bake1 cup milk (scalded)                                   1/4 cup currents
2 1/2 cups white flour (sifted)                  1 egg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sugar                                               Frosting:
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon                1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg                     1 – 2 tablespoons milk

There are many variations on recipes for Hot Cross Buns; some use more spices, some have citron along with currents. I did not have citron available on my pantry shelf and actually substituted golden raisins for currents, which are very close cousins of each other. In other similar bread recipes, I’ve successfully interchanged these dried fruits with little difference in taste or texture. I am more familiar with buns using frosting crosses on them, which is what I chose for my baking today. However, more traditional recipes call for alternate colored dough baked across the tops of the buns. It always baffled me how to serve these “hot” without melting off the frosting crosses. The baked in cross makes so much more sense and someday I will try these as well. But this has been a busy month, so I defaulted to what I knew best and went for the more modern frosted versions.

IMG_8576It was a busy Saturday at the Stephenson House with four other young volunteers in the midst of starting their own baking project when I arrived. A nice fire was already on its way to making a bed of coals and I set the cup of milk boiling, which took much longer than it would have on my modern range top.

But scalding the milk and then letting it cool just to “blood warm” temperature (101 – 105 ° F) While this step may seem a little strange, the point is not to kill bacteria from  a long ago time before pasteurization (as I was once told) and therefore unnecessary to modern bread baking.

Scalding milk in a copper saucepan balanced on the Dutch oven.

Actually, by scalding the milk it creates a chemical reaction that makes the bread lighter and fluffier by eliminating the protein in milk, allowing the gluten to work and also helps in dissolving the sugars and yeast resulting in a more refined texture.


Sifting the Flour

This also may seem like a putzy and tedious thing to do, but actually, it is not to be

Sifting flour the old-fashioned way

skipped. I admit to having done this when in a hurry to throw together a batch of rolls or bread for dinner. But it is well worth taking the time to do so. I had Molly help, after she showed a curiosity for the vintage sifter, a family heirloom from my husband’s grandmother. It is very much like one I remember my own mom using. Sifting flour was one of my favorite things to do as a child.

“But what exactly does sifting do?” Molly wanted to know.

Good question! Flour long ago was not as well milled before our modern high powered machinery. Also, it was sold in large cloth sacks of at least ten or twenty-five pounds. People did a lot more home baking in those days and stocked up! Regular flour might be fine for denser breads or biscuits, but for something like sweet breads or cakes, a finer milling makes all the difference between a heavy lumpy roll and a light airy cake. Even today, it helps to take that extra step to sift all purpose flour and is really the only difference between that and more expensive cake flour.

Once the milk was processed and cooled enough, I added the yeast and sugar mixed with spices and then mixed in the egg.  I’m getting pretty handy at nipping sugar from the cone with those antique nippers. After sifting the flour, I added the currents (golden raisins) and mixed them in until they were evenly distributed and lightly coated. Next step was to mix wet and dry ingredients together and knead them into a soft dough. I added the yeast mixture in small doses to the center of the flour, making a “well” and folding in the edged toward the center. This is my favorite part when it all starts coming together and I can actually get my hands in the dough. Yes, that pun was intentional. LOL!

Dough rolls risen and ready to bake!

The dough rises twice, once as a solid mass and then then is reworked again to be formed into small round balls, which rise again until doubled and then baked. The fire must have been extra hot today. The buns baked in record time, just under an hour, which is about the length of time it takes in my home oven at about 350 degrees F.

When they were slightly cooled I mixed the powdered sugar with the milk, adding just a few drops at a time until the consistency was soft and drip-able (is that a word?) but not too runny. It needs to set up and actually look like a cross, or it won’t be a hot cross bun. Right? OK. Maybe they weren’t actually “hot” when served, but I’m still calling them hot cross buns. Don’t they look pretty sitting on Ben’s table all set for dinner? I doubt if he would have served them in Edwardsville, but who knows? Maybe the Stephenson kids ran around the house singing the song and asked for these baked treats. Perhaps if they were not aware of the origin, they might have enjoyed this old English sweet bun, brought to the New World. However, staunch Presbyterians, like the Stephenson family, would likely not have abided such “Romanish” practices. More’s the pity for them, missing this charming and delicious spring treat. IMG_8592

Historical Context

No one really know how far back these sweet bread treats go, but its origins appear rooted in England sometime in the Middle Ages and may be descended from an even earlier tradition dating back to Roman paganism. In honor of Eostre, the goddess of spring and the dawn, spiced bread dough, studded with fruit, was baked for her feast day.

Later, with the spread of Christianity, the crosses were added as a reminder of penance and faith. It was also an assurance the buns had been “blessed” and therefore could ward off evil spirits or at least was guaranteed not to mold. By the late 1600s, these early fruited breads became known as “Good Friday Buns” to be served for breakfast on the fifth day of Holy Week, the day Christians commemorate Christ’s crucifixion. Today, hot cross buns are often stocked on grocery store and bakery shelves all during the Lenten season. Some Christians eat them on Ash Wednesday as a tradition to kick off the Lenten season and others partake of them anytime during the forty day season. According to one of my fellow kitchen volunteers, his grandmother serves these as dinner rolls at their Easter feast, a hearkening back to the ancient origins.

Whatever the reason or the season, these buns are one tasty delicacy that are not all that hard to master, for any dedicated bread baker. Whether baked in a modern gas or electric oven or over an early 19th century hearth, the experience of baking, serving and eating a treat that has a history well over a thousand years old and immortalized in a children’s song, make these not only a treat for the stomach, but food for the soul, a just plain old time fun!Hot Cross Buns


Blog Tour: Death Comes Before Coffee

I’m pleased to be participating in a blog tour to help support the growing indie author market and share new and upcoming authors from a variety of genre. When I’m not reading or writing historical fiction, I do indulge in the occasional crime novel. Desmond P. Ryan’s series is one I’m happy to have brought to my attention. More on my review later. Here’s a bit about Death Before Coffee.


About the Story

thumbnail_DeathBeforeCoffeeCoverBy 2:27 on a Thursday afternoon, the one-legged man from Room 8 at 147 Loxitor Avenue has been beaten to death with a lead pipe. Twenty-eight minutes later, Detective Mike O’Shea is testifying in a stuffy courtroom, unaware that, within an hour, he will be standing in an alleyway littered with beer cans and condoms while his new partner—the man who saved his life thirteen years ago—flicks bugs off of a battered corpse with a ballpoint pen. When a rogue undercover copper prematurely hauls in the prime suspect, Mike blows a fuse, resulting in an unlikely rapport developing between him and the lead homicide detective sergeant, a woman known for her stilettos and razor sharp investigative skills. At the end of his seventy-two-hour shift, three men are dead and Mike O’Shea is floating in and out of consciousness in an emergency room hallway, two women by his side. Death Before Coffee, the second book in the Mike O’Shea Crime Fiction Series, weaves a homicide investigation through the life of an inner-city police detective intent on balancing his responsibilities as a son, brother, and newly single father with his sworn oath of duty. When faced with death, Mike is forced to make decisions that stir up old memories, compelling him to confront his demons while fighting the good fight.

Author Bio

thumbnail_IMG_1467(1)For almost thirty years, Desmond P. Ryan began every day of his working life with either a victim waiting in a hospital emergency room, or a call to a street corner or a blood-soaked room where someone had been left for dead. Murder, assaults on a level that defied humanity, sexual violations intended to demean, shame, and haunt the individuals who were no more than objects to the offenders: all in a day’s work. It was exhilarating, exhausting, and often heartbreaking.

As a Detective with the Toronto Police Service, Desmond P. Ryan wrote thousands of reports detailing the people, places, and events that led up to the moment he came along. He investigated the crimes and wrote synopses for guilty pleas detailing the circumstances that brought the accused individuals before the Courts. He also wrote a number of files to have individuals deemed either Not Criminally Responsible due to mental incapacity, or Dangerous Offenders to be held in custody indefinitely.

Now, as a retired investigator with three decades of research opportunities under his belt, Desmond P. Ryan writes crime fiction.

Real Detective. Real Crime. Fiction.


My Review    4.5-Stars

First off, the title and cover completely drew me in. Put the words “death” and “coffee” on a mocha colored cover stained with coffee rings and blood stains, and I’m all set for an intriguing afternoon’s read with my favorite cup of joe. And this book certainly did not disappoint. Although this was book 2 of a series, I felt completely pulled in and right at home with the story and character. Mike O’Shea awakens from a nightmare, reliving a harrowing event from his past. While this is usually the type of novel opening frowned on these days, I found it a compelling way to bring me into the scene and deliver a powerful punch of characterization, setting and even a bit of backstory without tedious overwriting. That is never a problem for this author, who uses an economy of words with a gritty, hard bitten voice, bringing us fully into the character’s head. I was soon racing across every page from Mike’s harried morning to a violent crime scene of a badly beaten and murdered one-legged man.

As Mike continues his investigation, he is paired with Detective Sergeant Amanda Black and soon he has his work cut out for him as the case escalates to more murders and a tangle of clues to unlock along with fighting for his life amidst his own personal demons.

Aside from some formatting issues with my e-book version, this story is a clean, smooth read and would make for a great addition to weekend travel plans or an entertaining beach book or even a cozy curl by the fire or at a favorite cafe with, of course, a cup of coffee. For those who enjoy crime novels on par with Michael Connally or Robert B. Parker, this is one author to add to their list.


February Book Discussion: The Library Book

The Library BookIt seemed at first such an ordinary title for a book about an obscure event so many years ago. A massive fire in Los Angeles took no human lives, nor did it level the building to the ground. Yet the damage recounted in this non-fiction book reads like a true crime, detective novel, leaving a casualty count, not in human lives, but in the devastating loss of books. Beloved books that contained stories, ideas, knowledge and archived information that was not easily replaceable. Rare, irreplaceable books and historical archived documents that could never be replaced. Not quite the same as human loss, but for those who are book lovers, the pain is almost as keenly felt.

Susan Orlean does more than merely give a bare-bones recounting of an event, overshadowed by the more sensational and globally impacted Chernobyl nuclear accident in April 1986. The chapter describing the day of the fire puts the reader center stage of the happenings from the opening of the library to the first hint of smoke to every lick of flame hitting the spiral of stacks deep within the library’s storage system and worming its way through the upper floors. She doesn’t stop with the incident, rather, Orlean also gives us the full history of the library, almost as a sort of requiem to this loss and a tribute to all those who helped build the library through all it’s various eras to today, where the library is compelled to be more than just a place to house books and shush noisy patrons into silence. Today’s LA Central Library has become a haven for the homeless and a community meeting place, full of all sorts of activities beyond reading and loaning books.

But that’s the LA library, thousands of miles away from where our local book club met in the heartland of the US on a cold February Wednesday evening. As it turned out, none of us at the meeting remembered hearing of this terrible event, and some barely recalled much in the news about Chernobyl, me included. In April 1986, I was still living in Michigan, finishing up my second year of teaching and contemplating a move back to Illinois. If there was any mention of this event in the news, I didn’t pay attention. But I do remember checking out the local library in the small town I later moved to. It was one of the focal points I remember seeing when I first moved to town and I made every opportunity to visit it after I settled in to my new home.

At our Wednesday meeting, Karen opened the discussion with the question about our earliest memories of visiting the library. After reading The Library Book, my mind was filled with so many memories over the course of a lifetime. I hardly remember a time the library wasn’t an important part of my life. In my family, it was a biweekly event to venture across town on an evening and wander through the stacks of the St. Louis County Library Branch and select a book or two to read. My Dad always chose a sci-fi or suspense novel. My sister picked a nurse romance or classic novel and Mom would dutifully guide me through the picture book selections.

As I grew older, so did my taste in books, with fewer pictures, more words and thicker spines. There were multiple branches in the St. Louis County area and we changed it up from time to time, visiting other libraries, so I became well acquainted with them all. Then there were the book mobiles that brought books to our school and to our neighborhood throughout the summer. But those were the advantages of living in a larger urban area.

For some of the other book club members, they only recalled ever visiting one main library in town, which in many ways, sounded far more personal and special than living in a city full of library branches with a different librarian at every visit. Still, somehow, I came to know the library as a place of wonder, full of books that would take me anywhere I wished to go.

As I read Orlean’s book, I gleaned a few quotes that stood out. that summarized, not only the essence of her work, but also my own feelings about the library and reading in general.

“The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library we can live forever.”

“Writing a book, just like building a library, is an act of sheer defiance. It is a declaration that you believe in the persistence of memory.”

In Stephen King’s book, On Writing, he describes the same kind of immortality for writers in that they can continue to live on and bring to life characters, places and events in our minds in full detail, as much as if it really happened, and all this through their words printed on a page. He calls this “telepathy”, the ability to send these signals from one mind to another, even beyond the grave.

It is truly a powerful thing to contemplate as is the Senegal quote that Orlean mentions and our discussion leader, Karen also brought to our attention as her favorite from the book. “When a person dies, it is said their library has burnt down.” Their stories, their memories, wisdom and ideas about life and the world around them are no more. They say there is a book inside everyone. What a tragedy it is when that story, housed in one individual soul is lost forever. Perhaps it is indeed worse than losing thousands of books from one library fire that could eventually be replaced. As much as we love and value books, people are still the irreplaceable library.

Discussion Questions:
1. Had anyone heard of the Central Library fire before reading this book? And did you realilze that this event took place the same day as the Chernobyl nuclear accident?

2. What are your earliest memories of the library? When do you think you got your first library card?

3. Libraries today are more than just a building to house books. Can you give me an example of how libraries have evolved from just book lending?

4. The Library Book confronts the issue of street people inhabiting the library. Is this an issue in your town or local library? How do you feel about how Los Angeles’s Central Library handles the problem?

5. Andrew Carnegie is perhaps the most famous supporter and benefactor of libraries. Can you name a modern equivalent to Andrew Carnegie? Can you name any Carnegie libraries in our area?

6. My favorite phrase in the book was the one from Senegal, when it referred to dying as having “Your library burnt down.” How did this quote resonate with you? What other favorite quotes stood out to you?

7. What did you think about Harry Peak? Guilty or innocent? What about all his alibis? And what about the civil suit he filed against the city for 15 million and the city’s counter suit for 23.6 million? And about trying to get him found guilty in a civil case, but not in a court case?

From the Hearth: Beef Barley Soup, Southern Spoon Bread & Fried Apples

Returning to the 1820 kitchen this month also meant returning to my roots for a selection of recipes straight from my ancestral recipe box.  Southern spoon bread was a family favorite handed down from my third great-grandmother, Lydia Jane Rutledge, who migrated to Missouri from Virginia in 1838 in a covered wagon when she was a small child. The ingredients are simple but the process to make this dish resembles more a soufflé than frontier johnny cake or cornbread. At the request of one reader, I’m listing the ingredients first for each recipe and will discuss the cooking process below.

Southern Spoon Bread

1 cup yellow cornmeal                3 eggs, separated
2 cups milk                                    1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar

Spoon bread is a fluffier form of cornbread served as a side dish and dished up with a spoon rather than cut into squares or baked as muffins. It makes a fine pairing with soup or stew, which led me to dig out another of my heritage cookbooks to find a recipe for Beef Barley Soup. I love making soups, especially on a cold winter day, which is what we’ve seen plenty of this winter, and hearty soups were a staple of early American life, given the flexibility and economy soups offer. Anyone who remembers hearing the tale of Stone Soup, where a couple of soldiers wander into village and teach the residents the art of sharing by mixing an assortment of vegetables, meat, stock and seasonings with a mere pot of boiling water and a stone, will understand the kind of fare that kept our ancestors thriving during long hard winters. For my recipe of choice, I adapted a recipe from a local historic site cookbook by using ingredients I had on hand.

Beef Barley Soup

1 lb beef stew meat                      1/2 lb barley
1 stick butter                                 6 cups beef broth
1 onion, diced                                Salt & Pepper
1 stalk celery, diced
1 – 2 carrots, diced

I had all the ingredients to bring from home except for the stew meat and barley, which I dashed over to our local Market Basket, a block away from the Stephenson House. Unfortunately, they did not have chopped stew meat, so I purchased a beef roast and chopped it up myself in the kitchen. This would be more in keeping with what an 1820 woman or the kitchen servant would have done too. There were butchers in Edwardsville at the time the Stephenson’s lived there and household receipts show us the family did purchase a significant amount of beef from town, disproving the myth that all early Americans on the frontier hunted for their food or raised it all themselves. The market did not have barley, although they had every other grain available like quinoa, rice, couscous, etc, but, unfortunately, those would not have been familiar to our favorite early Edwardsville family. Lucky for me, a few doors down from the Market Basket is my favorite health food store, Green Earth, which has a bulk food selection of spices, teas and all sorts of grains. Sure enough, they had exactly what I needed – raw, cracked barley perfect for an early American soup.

While I was at the Market Basket I also noticed some fine apples, perfect for frying as an added touch to what was now becoming a full meal deal, early American style. Since I had all day to cook, I decided to go for broke and make this a perfect opportunity to double up on some recipes. As an unexpected bonus, I found I would not be cooking alone! One of our newest volunteers, Josh Smith, who happens to also be one of my talented piano students, joined me in the kitchen to make quick work of all that vegetable chopping.

Josh set to work chopping carrots and onions while I worked on preparing the stew meat and frying it in a skillet over the hearth fire, which had been prepared for us beforehand by the assistant director, Jeff. For the broth, I cheated a little using powdered broth from the Green Earth that I mixed with water and added to the cooked meat. Next was to add the chopped vegetables and barley and let it simmer over the fire. Now, onto the spoon bread.

It had been years since I tried this recipe and never before on an actual hearth. But since this recipe dates back in my family to at least the 1830’s, this had to be possible. As I said before, the ingredients are few and the process deceptively simple, but can go awry at any stage to leave nothing but a flat, lumpy, tasteless mess of goo or a charred pot of cornmeal cardboard. I wasn’t about to let either happen, so holding my breath with a wish and a prayer, I set Josh to work eagerly helping me.

Mixing boiled milk into the cornmeal

The first step is to boil the milk and then add it to the cornmeal, almost more like a version of hasty pudding than traditional cornbread. Hasty pudding was a common side dish made by cooking milk or water into grains, making a sort of porridge.

Today we might think of it more as Quaker oatmeal, but our Southern Illinois ancestors often used cornmeal as a replacement for the oats or barley common to England and New England. Hasty pudding is referenced in a verse of the ever popular, Yankee Doodle, dating back to the Revolutionary War.

My pa and I went down to camp
Along with Captain Goodwin
And there we saw the men and boys
As thick as hasty pudding

Mixing the cornmeal with boiled milk was the easy part. Now for one of the more demanding aspect of early American cooking – beating egg whites by hand without a mixer. Three eggs separated yielded egg yokes to be mixed into the pudding mixture while the three egg whites were laboriously beaten by hand using whatever tool I could find in the kitchen for this purpose. In my circa 1990 Kitchen Aid mixer, this task is a breeze! But not so much for the 1820 woman who had no such electronic gadgets or modern conveniences. I have read enough references to how detestable this task was for 18th and 19th century women, who must have had some nice upper arm definition, if done very often.

Whip it good!

When Laura Ingalls Wilder prepared her own bride’s cake for her wedding, she used this same method to create the sort of fluffy white cake we take for granted today.

That afternoon the finished black cashmere was carefully pressed and then Ma made a big, white cake. Laura helped her by beating the egg whites on a platter with a fork, until Ma said they were stiff enough. 

“My arm is stiffer,” Laura ruefully laughed, rubbing her aching right arm.

 ~ Laura Ingalls Wilder, THESE   HAPPY GOLDEN YEARS

For proper spoon bread, I would need the same sort of fluffy stiff egg whites, but I would also use a variety of tools to experiment with, as indicated in the pictures below. The kitchen has a few cooking forks with two tines, sometimes today called “granny” forks. There is also a few wooden spoons and beaters that could work as well. More intriguing were the small churns. One is designed for making small batches of butter and the other

Small Butter Churn

is known as a syllabub churn, used to whip cream or possibly egg whites for fancy drinks and desserts. Our syllabub maker is very old and kept more for display purposes, but I did give the small butter churn a try after exhausting my fork and wooden spoon method. I did make some progress and actually seemed to go a bit faster in the butter churn but still not full stiff peaks. I think the butter churn would have worked better with a larger batch of egg whites, perhaps something to try later. But that will mean either making an inordinately larger batch of spoon bread or paring the recipe with another that requires a lot of whipped egg whites. Maybe I’ll try baking Laura Ingalls Wilder’s wedding cake recipe sometime soon.

In the end, whipping only three egg whites in a large bowl did not get the momentum and centrifugal force needed to create the whipping action and stiffening, even with a hard labor effort. Or I just need to work out at the gym more before trying my next egg white beating attempt. Those 19th century ladies certainly were no shrinking violets when it came to hearth cooking. I finally got my egg whites to a semi fluffy state and, since the day was waning, needed to get this on

As good as it gets!

the fire for baking.  Pat, our gift shop clerk, peeked in before leaving for the day and gave her assessment of my efforts. “Keep working! You’ve got a long way to go.” Maybe so, but I didn’t have all day either, so it was what it was, a sort of half-whipped, murky colored egg whites. Maybe another day we’ll get them to those nice white peeks.

While I was busy whipping egg whites, Josh went to work slicing apples and onions to fry together, which he tended and then proudly served to our two directors. After the appetizer of apples, they also got to sample a bowl of beef barley soup and spoon bread. “I’m so full of food!” RoxAnn, our site director lamented by the end of the day as I was cleaning up. But they all declared it a well done meal and I even had a few leftovers to send home with Josh and also to take home to enjoy later. The rich smoky taste is what makes all the difference in bringing out the flavors in the soup and spoon bread, even without much seasoning added.  Even the spoon bread puffed up into a smooth, light tasting cornbread, not as fluffy as I remember my mom making, but maybe more like what my Great-great-great Grandmother, Lydia Jane remembered her mother making over the homestead hearth in Missouri, circa 1840. It left me with a well connected feeling to the past and all those early American cooks as I set about cleaning up the 1820 kitchen at the end of a busy baking day; the scent of a fine cooked meal permeated the bricks, just as it might have some two-hundred years before and would again someday soon.


Find out more about events at the 1820 Colonel Benjamin Stephenson House or to book a tour:

Read about the adventures of Ben and Lucy Stephenson in my book series available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and local book sellers in the metro St. Louis area.

The Stephenson House Chronicles:

Across Unstill Waters
Ben’s Christmas Treasury
Papa’s Portrait

Two Men From Illinois

Men of Illinois portrait
Who is a 19th century frontiersman who rose from obscurity to hold a place in early Illinois politics and whose family home currently stands as a historic landmark? If you were to ask any average Illinois grade school child, you would most certainly receive the answer, Abraham Lincoln. Yet for those who live in and around Edwardsville, Illinois, the answer could equally be our very own Colonel Benjamin Stephenson (whose life and times are recounted in my book series: The Stephenson House Chronicles).

Uncanny you say? Coincidental? Quite possibly they are. Lincoln lore also indicates an uncanny and chilling comparison between the 16th President’s life and John F. Kennedy. But we found some equally uncanny similarities between these two Illinois men that perhaps offers insight into a state that nurtured not only the most famous and highly revered president in American history, but also an obscure statesman and original signer of the Illinois Constitution, whom Lincoln would have known and revered, even before he left his legacy and moniker on our state as “the Land of Lincoln”.

Perhaps it could be said that without Ben Stephenson there may not have been an Abraham Lincoln. It was in 1809 when Ben passed through Kentucky, while Lincoln was still a wee babe, and then crossed the Ohio River into a newly opened territory and laid the foundations for statehood. Years later, Lincoln’s family followed the same path, venturing further north to New Salem settlement, where he would have been very much aware of the “Stephenson” name and the man who laid the foundation for his future legacy.

In honor of Lincoln’s birthday, here are sixteen fun facts linking two famous men from Illinois:

1. Named after an Old Testament Biblical patriarch with three syllables shortened to a one syllable nickname
2. A self-educated, self-made man who ran a short-lived small business that went bankrupt
3. Lived in Kentucky before moving to Illinois
4. Served in an Illinois militia during wartime but probably never saw any action
5. Played a role in early Illinois politics as congressional representative
6. Known for his fine art of diplomacy and easy-going, persuasive manner
7. Married a daughter from a prominent slave holding family and fathered four children
8. Married under suspicious circumstances possibly as a matter of convenience
9. Associated with the Ninian Edwards family (first governor of Illinois)
10. Died in his fifties, suddenly and tragically at the height of his career
11. His death was lamented to the height of martyrdom during a tumultuous time
12. Left a young family behind and a widow who never remarried
13. Controversy and scandal followed his family in the wake of his death
14. Buried in Illinois but grave marker is not in original location
15. Namesake to state counties (Lincoln County, MO; Stephenson County, IL)
16. His stately family home still stands today as a historic landmark in Illinois

(Reprinted from The Volunteer, a newsletter publication of the 1820 Colonel Benjamin Stephenson House)

For further reading on the life and times of Benjamin Stephenson, check out these links below:

The Stephenson House Chronicles by D.L. Andersen

  1. Across Unstill Waters
  2. Ben’s Christmas Treasury
  3. Papa’s Portrait


From the Hearth: Seed Buns

“Nothin’ says lovin’ like something from the oven.”

That old commercial jingle came to mind this past weekend as I returned to the 1820 Colonel Benjamin Stephenson House, the site that inspired my series of the building of Illinois. With the cold temperatures here in Southern Illinois, the idea of spending an afternoon by a roaring hearth fire experimenting with a period recipe, was just too tantalizing to resist.

So, I hauled out my stash of heritage cookbooks to pour over possible recipes to make. This idea had been brewing for a while. Perhaps with the holiday frenzy of baking was now over and the last bit of Christmas goodies a mere memory I yearned for some baking time again. Thus, to banish winter doldrums, and also to find something suitably interesting for blog readers, I devised a plan to try my hand at some archaic “receipt”, as they were called, perhaps one that my book characters, Ben and Lucy Stephenson, might have eaten, or served at table, or even labored themselves over a hearth to cook. What fun would that be!

I love the challenge of cooking over a bed of hot coals, keeping a fire stoked throughout the process and seeing what results. So, putting those Girl Scout and family camping skills to use, I flipped through my stash of pioneer and historical cookbooks and chose a recipe and gathered supplies. Then donning my Federal Era gown, day cap and apron and headed out on a cold January day to bake the way our ancestors did some 200+ years ago, before there was electricity, microwaves, freezer dinners and even box mixes at their disposal. Come along with me to the 1820 kitchen and see what there is to learn from the hearth.

Baking Seed Buns

My most recent heritage cookbook purchase was one featuring English Regency recipes that seemed suitable to the 1820 site that inspired my own book series. Plus, this one had a few references to Jane Austen, and thus, had potential for research in writing Regency/Federal Era historical fiction, as my characters were indeed contemporaries to the 19th century novelist. So, what better way than to begin my new year of blogging than delve into hearth cooking?

My first recipe adventure would be the baking of Seed Buns. Originally, they may have been called Bath Buns, named for the seaside resort town in England where they were first invented by a local doctor and served to tourists at the health spas. Jane Austen is believed to have enjoyed these while visiting with her aunt and uncle on holiday. And fans of Jane Austen novels might imagine Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey nibbling a few during her escapades in Bath. I wondered if Lucy Stephenson might have tasted something similar to this, so I adapted my recipe from a common dinner roll recipe and combined it with one for Bath Buns from a period source cookbook to make a suitable dinner roll or tea bun that may have been served in Jane’s English resort town or possibly, Lucy Stephenson’s Illinois.

Seed Buns Ingredient List

1 cup heavy whipping cream                   1 egg, separated
1 tablespoon active dry yeast                   1 tablespoon of water
2 cups of all purpose flour                         2 tablespoons caraway seeds
1/2 teaspoon salt                                           1/8 cup sugar

Caraway seeds were often an ingredient of choice in breads aptly named “seed cake”. For this recipe we needed to coat them in sugar. “Carraway Comfits”, as they were sometimes called, are just sugar-coated caraway seeds, probably the 19th century version of candy sprinkles. These would be for mixing in the dough as well as creating a pleasing “seeded bun” topping.

                                                  Caramelized Comfits

According to one source, they are a bit tricky to make. An 18th century confectioner would painstakingly coat batches of the tiny seeds in a multi-step process. For my purposes, I found a shortcut method that suited hearth cooking quite nicely. Just 2 tablespoons each of water, sugar and 3 tablespoons of caraway seeds, which I happened to have on my pantry shelf, in addition to all the other ingredients listed above. So, this looked to be a worthy project to start my heath cooking adventure.

hearth fires
Preparing the hearth for baking

As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one scheduled for hearth cooking at Ben’s house that Saturday; so I took my time gathering up the ingredient list at home, hunted down my period clothing (because if I’m going to cook the Early American way, I have to look the part too). It was nearly 1:00 pm by the time I got rolling with cooking, plenty of time for the morning crew to finish up. And a nice hearth fire was already built for me as the two other young bakers were just finishing up their morning bread baking. The kitchen was mine for the rest of the day. However, bread baking can’t be rushed. I had a narrow window of 3 hours to mix, knead, let rise, knead, shape into buns, let rise again and finally bake. Not a problem in my modern kitchen, but with the unstable baking conditions of the hearth, it would be tight. And then there were those tricky caraway comfits to make too.

                                                Rolling in the Dough

preparing dough
Dough mixed by hand and ready for kneading

I am certainly no novice in the way of bread baking and I’m a born multi-tasker. So, first mix the dough and while it’s rising, sugar coat the caraway seeds. All this is to be done over the fire and I was determined to do this the old-fashioned way. No shortcuts of heating the yeast in hot tap water or “nuking” it in the microwave. The yeast was to be warmed in the cream rather than warm water. I used heavy whipping cream heated over the fire till it was about 110 deg. F, or “blood warm” as my Mom used to say. This means it feels comfortably warm to the touch, or just about  the temperature of a nice hot bubble bath. I suppose I have that in common with yeast, because they like a nice warm relaxing soak too! Maybe that’s why bread baking comes so easily to me.

While the yeast was soaking in a luxurious cream bath, I melted the sugar in a cast iron skillet. This was the one ingredient I didn’t take from my modern kitchen. Instead, I used the sugar cones at the site. Sugar came in solid cones in the 18th and 19th centuries, wrapped in blue paper and kept airtight with a wax seal before purchase. This was one item every General Store would have kept on hand, an item imported from the West Indies. White sugar would have been highly prized and more expensive.

1820 sugar cones
Sugar cones came wrapped in blue paper and nippers were a handy way to render the amount needed for sweetening food.

What today we call, “raw sugar” and consider healthier, was more common and less expensive, but would not do for something as elegant as Bath Buns. Nippers were used to scrape off bits of sugar for use. In my case the sugar was already partially shaved down, leaving just enough sugar shavings for my purpose. I find the nippers a bit unwieldy to use, perhaps something I need to practice with more. A serrated knife works equally well in scraping off small amounts of sugar. I wondered if 19th century cooks improvised as well?

The comfits actually turned out rather well, in just one coating of caramelized sugar, despite how they look below. Someday I might attempt the more complicated method as described above.  Some of the comfits went into the dough as it was mixed and the rest were saved for sprinkling on top later before baking.

Caraway seeds caramelized with white sugar in cast iron skillet over hot coals.

The dough took exactly an hour to raise, even with trying to rush it in the Dutch oven near the coals. The clock was ticking and it was now going on 2:30 pm. The house officially “closes” for tours at 3:00 pm but the director stays till 4:00 pm. Since tours take a minimum of 1 to 2 hours (depending on how chatty the tour guide or visitors are) we won’t start any tour after 3:00 pm, or else we’d never go home. Since there had been no tours all day, I was allowed to bake uninterrupted but it meant I still had only 1.5 hours to let the dough rise again, formed into buns, and then bake. It was do-able, but still tight. Baking over the hearth is trickier, being at the mercy of the coals with no way to set the temperature with complete accuracy. No dial to turn up with a consistent heat to flash bake them at say 450 degrees for 20 minutes, like in a modern gas, electric or convection oven. It takes bread about twice as long to bake in the Dutch oven over the coals versus baking in a modern oven. Hence, I figure baking temps over the hearth are no more than 200 to 300 deg. That meant I needed every minute possible to bake before the end of day at 4:00 pm or I’d be heading home with soggy doughy buns (erm…. that doesn’t sound good, but you get my meaning)

With the low temps of the Dutch oven and slow baking time, I decided to combine the last step of letting the buns rise before baking and just let them slow rise and then bake all in the same Dutch oven, since one process leads to the other anyway. So long as the yeast gets time to activate and expand the dough before being baked solid, that’s really all that matters. It might mean they are a little less puffy, but there was always another day to try this again, perhaps in my modern oven at home. By 3: 15, they were sufficiently risen but still a bit too doughy to brush on the egg and water mixture before topping with comfits. The other problem was, the historic kitchen had no pastry brush. Did they have them in the 19th century? The site director didn’t’ seem to know either. Something else to research, perhaps. So, I applied them carefully with the back of a wooden spoon. Not the easiest method, especially when the tops were still a bit doughy and easily damaged. But I got the job done and let them bake for the last 20 minutes by placing the oven to the far back of the hearth where some nice glowing coals were in full glory. That likely increased my “oven” temperature to 350 to 400 degrees and the best way I could “dial” it up. I smiled thinking of one of the house servants possibly needing to hurry along a batch of rolls for a company dinner where Colonel Stephenson might be entertaining Governor and Mrs. Edwards.

buns in oven
Rolls baking in Dutch oven over hot coals. Ashes scooped over the lid help create a full bake oven effect.

At 3:45 pm, I was needing to pack up and head home. Because I cleaned the kitchen as I went along (including cleaning up a mishap of a broken olive oil bottle, we won’t discuss) I had everything put back in order with only the buns in the oven still not quite half baked. Fortunately, they were just done enough they would not “fall” in the frigid temps on the car(riage) ride home. I had to “cheat” and finish browning them once I got home, but hubs and I enjoyed a rare treat with dinner. Regency seed buns are delicious! Named for the resort town of Bath, that was the setting for Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey,  these “tempting concoctions” definitely live up to their reputation as something Jane, is said to have indulged in, to the point of “disordering” her stomach by eating too many on occasion. I found nothing “disordering” about either baking or eating these buns, although I don’t know that I’d want to do either on a regular basis. But I am game to try my hand at another hearth cooking recipe for a future post. Hope you’ll join me then too!

bath buns on woodstove
Baked seed buns with egg coating and topped with comfits.

January Book Club Pick: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

an american marriageThe first book meeting of the year is always an exciting time as we delve into our new list of books. However, in this case, the book pick was a carry over from last November when a lasts minute change in discussion leaders had to be arranged. I had not read the book until after the holidays when last weekend’s snowmageddon offered me the perfect indulgence to sit near a fire and marathon read when all other responsibilities had come to a screeching halt. So, while winter raged outside, I basked in the lovely prose and a warmer clime setting via Ms Jones’ portrait of a marriage in difficult circumstances and how to pick up those broken pieces of our lives to begin again, perhaps not as we had once hoped, but finding fulfillment in who we are now and where that could lead.

Those are themes uncovered in this story where a very modern young couple seemingly has everything going for them. Celestial and Roy know both the disadvantages dealt to them because of their race but also have benefitted from the advantages of growing up in close knit families with parents in stable marriages as examples. For the first year of marriage, Celestial and Roy are happy, successful in their chosen fields and looking to continue on an upwardly mobile path to bliss. There’s talk of children, and they are on the verge of taking that plunge into parenthood themselves, when life turns inexplicably wrong. A carefree romantic weekend at a hotel, chosen for its nostalgic memories, becomes their worst nightmare when Roy is charged with a crime against another woman also staying at the hotel. A speedy trial leads to a sentence of twelve years incarceration where he still never gives up hope he’ll be released and can pick up with his newlywed wife once again.

At our book club meeting on Wednesday, we all were well taken with this book, though, as usual, some more than others and always there are different interpretations on character and the subtle nuances of storytelling and craft.

Most thought the title a bit too general and vague. Does this story show a typical American marriage? But then, what is a typical marriage in America? There was also more than one marriage analyzed, given the story is not just about Celestial and Roy, but also delves into the backstory of both of their parents and the difficulties and sacrifices made along with the legacy they left their children.

I love books with complex flawed characters, especially for a book club read. This one was no exception to many we’ve read over the years. There were things to love and dislike about all three in this tangled love triangle. Roy admits to being a “player” even during the first year of his marriage when Celestial finds business cards with other women’s phone numbers in his coat pocket. Celestial seems more interested in her doll making and business model than in cementing their marriage with a potential child. While she makes a valiant effort to visit Roy during the first two years of his imprisonment, she soon falls away, yet still seems to rely on him and won’t completely let go. Enter Andre, who has worshipped Celestial from afar but now takes his chance while Roy is away. Each chapter alternates with one of these point of views in first person, some are written in epistolary form and others as long internal monologues. It made for a gripping story that certainly kept me turning pages both loving and loving to hate each of them in intervals.

The discussion went on for more than our hourly allotment even with only the following six questions to discuss. For a book to kick off our year of reading, this one was worth the wait. For our whole list of this year’s books click on the tab: Book Club 2019.

Discussion Questions for An American Marriage:

  1.  What did you think about the title of this novel? Does it represent the theme, plot or  characters well? How so?
  2. What did you think about the fact that the race of the woman who accuses Roy of rape is not even mentioned and there is very little information about the trial and how Roy was convicted?
  3. Do you think the three main characters have wobbly moral compasses? What do you think about Celestial, Roy and Andre and their interactions with one another and their justifications for the things they did?
  4. What did you think about Roy going to DaVina’s when he is released from prison
  5. What did you think about Roy setting up Andre to come and pick him up so he could get time alone first with Celestial?
  6. Do you think Roy and Celestial’s marriage would have survived even without the prison sentence?

Our Book Club

Several years ago, when I was new to blogging, I started a blog specifically as a place for my local book club to keep in touch and also talk about books when they couldn’t attend a meeting or even when they simply wanted the discussion to keep going past our hourly in person allotment each month. The other reason for starting the blog was personal. It happened after I read a book I really wanted to discuss but could not make the meeting. In frustration I opened my laptop, brought up a blog post and started writing. That was even before I entertained the notion of writing fiction as a hobby, let alone a serious sideline business venture.

Regrettably, that blog never really took off. Most of the ladies at that time were not savvy to the new and growing internet let along blogging. Since then, social media and blogs have expanded astronomically. Now, as a published author,  I am finding both a need and a desire to resurrect a blog for my writing in conjunction with my other social media, I still find that original interest and desire to write about books and, perhaps, brag a bit about my book club. Whether they choose to join me in this venture, or if any others would like to vicariously or virtually join in on the discussion via the internet, that all remains to be seen, but all are welcome to read and respond to any of my posts, be they about our book club selections and discussions or anything else.

January seemed like a good time to get things rolling, now that our list of books is set for the year. The 2019 list is available in its own tab at the top of the blog. So, please check it out, read along and watch for upcoming posts about our monthly book club selections. If you happen to be in the area, anyone is welcome to join us on the third Wednesday of the month at the VFW in Staunton, Illinois from 6:30 to 8:00 pm.

Worst Holiday Classic Films: Are They Really?

Jack Frost–IHSnSWJw

When it comes to holiday films and specials, I am an unabashed Christmas movie junkie. I have my favorites from childhood, some classics that return every year and then others I recall with a sentimental nostalgia, those I fished out of some dusty $5 discount bin or sought out in some obscure second-hand video shop to have at the ready for holiday viewing. I relish this time of year when I get to snuggle in and escape the holiday madness with a little cheesy fictional world. So, looking over this list of “50 of the Worst Holiday Films of All Time” I strangely find myself fondly remembering some Christmas pasts when my life (and the world) seemed a bit simpler. Some of these I saw in theaters with my own children and a few I recall seeing in my youth and at the time they really didn’t seem so bad. Perhaps it was on a later viewing that the glaring flaws surfaced, but still, are they really all so bad? And if these truly are the “worst 50” of all time, what about all those forgotten ones prior to the 1990s?
Truth is, there have always been cheesy holiday classics that do not stand the test of time well (anyone recall Santa Conquers the Martians circa 1964? No? Well.. you haven’t missed much. Pity that one didn’t make the list) That’s why the truly good ones prevail and the rest are best left going quietly into the Silent Night, or at best, dusted off for a viewing from time to time, perhaps to recall that time you first saw it with your “auld acquaintances” of yore. Isn’t that also what makes the holidays “the most wonderful time of the year?” But still, a few on this list according to Martha Sorren’s article in The Business Insider, did offer a pleasant holiday diversion from the tried and true classics year after year and apparently made someone a bit of income for holiday shopping. As one writer friend proclaimed on seeing this list: “I think I should pursue a third career writing cheesy holiday movies. Clearly anyone can.” I don’t know about writing cheesy holiday scripts but there is definitely room for some new classics to be made, be they retellings of old stories or originals. And don’t just blame the screenwriter. There’s the director to blame as well. It takes more than script writing to make a good and lasting film, be it a holiday classic or otherwise.
And who’s to say the concept doesn’t have merit? There are a few that could have worked. A kid lost in NY and wreaking havoc at holiday time or a desperate dad on a quest for a sold-out gift his kid wants for Christmas (anyone remember that Cabbage Patch craze? It does happen!) True, some of these are just cringe worthy (a dead dad returning as jack Frost? Um.. no) But then, how dumb do some of the enduring holiday classic premises sound (i.e. a green grumpy monster steals Christmas from a town of weirdos) Most ideas are not essentially bad, just the execution in writing and design. This list of 50 “worst” provide a range of suitable prompts for a creative challenge to reinvent them into something new and improved for next year.
Some on the list are tried and true classic stories that just were badly done (i.e. the 2001 Christmas Carol cartoon) As if we really need another from the many stellar versions out there? Perhaps that’s when the producer or art director might be to blame. But once they’re in for a penny they’re in for a pound, perhaps, and bear in mind all these did make money and helped people put Christmas presents under their trees or a roast beast on the holiday table. Hallmark specials really aren’t worth serving up on the list as they are meant for a specific target audience that does like this sort of formulaic tinsel, leaving the author of this article sounding more like the Grinch than a savvy critic.
And then, sometimes a flop can come back as a classic embraced later by a whole new audience. Perhaps a few of those could have made the list some years back but now are well received and Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without them. A Christmas Story didn’t fare well in theaters in 1982 and nearly disappeared into oblivion until it made a comeback on TV and is now a stage play and musical. Even the classic Nutcracker Suite was a total flop and an embarrassment to the great composer, Peter Illych Tchaikovsky, back in 1890s Russia, but today the ballet music is heard everywhere at holiday time, conjuring visions of sugarplums fairies dancing in our heads. Who’s to say that a few of these won’t make an ironic comeback? So be careful who you diss today and be nice or you might just end up on someone’s naughty list tomorrow. In the meantime, take a moment this season to review and reflect on your favorites, perhaps with a cup of your favorite winter beverage and maybe take in a few of the “worst ever” to decide for yourself. You might even be inspired to pen a classic of your own, in the making that just might charm future generations.

Book Review: The 942 Series by J.I. Rogers 4.8 stars


J.I. Rogers has woven together a trilogy of stories set in a future universe that uncannily mirrors our own world. While on the surface these short fiction pieces are typical science fiction/dystopian, in many ways they also could be seen as cautionary tales or parables of how history truly does repeat itself. Fashion and cultures come and go, and governments may change, but underneath it all we are the same human creatures with common struggles, needs, ambitions and, yes, deeply seated flaws. If there is any connecting thread between these three unrelated short – though seemingly straightforward – stories, it is that. Whether this was intentional crafting on the author’s part or merely a subconscious chance pairing, the result is near brilliant storytelling nonetheless. Apart from that, these all are rather simple in structure, short on plot devices, parse on setting detail and character arc while at the same time, abundant in name dropping of titles, rank and unexplained technology and devices. A thorough grounding in the futuristic culture would have been helpful and these very short tales could readily be expanded to bring more of the puzzle pieces together to engage the reader even more.

Story 1: Protocol 9

Set in the futuristic year 2592, presumably in our universe, this first tale in the collection took a bit of effort to completely engage with. A host of names, ranks and situations are systematically dropped without much context or reason to care about the characters. It appears a rescue mission is in operation heading into a dangerous territory known simply as the Seep, apparently in the aftermath of some war or devastation but that isn’t made clear. The team, led by Col. Kael Sunde, is out to rescue a member of the crew who appears missing or has lost all means of communication. As their mission progresses, it takes a turn for the worse before the all too abrupt ending that seemed to merely effectively draw matters to a conclusion rather than an actual satisfying ending. It was almost as if Rogers ran out of steam while trying to keep to a strict word count. The story begs for a longer delve into the themes and characters and felt more like an excerpt from a novel than a complete short on its own. Perhaps this was not the best choice for opening this trilogy, leaving little reason to continue with the other two stories. But the other two are definitely worth reading.

Story 2: Forget-me-not

The year is 2606 and the world appears not much different than today. A young woman, Isolde, from a privileged family, argues with her parents over a need to shirk her comfortable lifestyle for the chance to help the less fortunate and be part of some significant change. If only the two classes divergent classes – the Diasporan and Korlo – could put aside their differences and unite in a peaceful world. That is her idealistic and sincere hope. A familiar trope in literature, if not in real-world politics, but here Rogers brings it to a new, imagined setting, with a chilling reminder of our current world order and where it is possibly headed – history condemned to repeat itself, regardless of how we try to make it otherwise. When Isolde at last defies her parents and sneaks away, she meets a young man, Yul, at a peaceful demonstration that comes under attack by the authorities – another chilling nod to our modern-day life and an emotional ending that smacks of a cautionary tale with thought-provoking ramifications.

Story 3: Bride Price

In a futuristic world, circa 2568, class struggles continue to exist and the desperate need to hang on to family name and fortune still matter, in spite of advanced technology and enlightened views, apparently. Here is where Bride Price unfolds, a very archaic title to be sure for a story set half a millennium into the future. Regina and Edric Maklon’s scheme to restore their family fortune in the wake of their father’s death sounds more like the plot to a Medieval or Victorian-era story than science fiction. Enter the Harlo family, loaded with dough but lacking in rank. Somehow these two families need to get together. But will they? Again, another overused trope but with a fresh twist combining old world charm with futuristic intrigue. This one at least offered a bit more character development and grounding in the social order of this world, making it my favorite of the three and perhaps a better choice to open or end with while Protocol could be sandwiched in the middle.

Whatever the reading order, these three are short enough to devour in one sitting for a quick diversion while waiting for an appointment or over a lunch break. 4.8 stars for this pithy yet provocative collection of tales in The 942 Series.