In Search of an Oven

Kathleen DelaneyKathleen Delaney, author of Murder Half-Baked and other books, retired from real estate to pursue writing full time. She’s here today to ponder the difficulties of baking the good oldfashioned way.

Murder by Syllabub, fifth in the Ellen McKenzie series, was released on July 1st.

I started writing Murder by Syllabub with a vague idea of incorporating facts about life in the eighteenth century into the story. I wanted to describe how people dressed, where they slept, what they ate and how they prepared their food. I wasn’t sure how I was going to do that, mainly because I had no idea how they did any of it. I’d been to Colonial Williamsburg a couple of times and learned a lot, but the small everyday details weren’t one bit clear in my mind. I knew they had cake, pies, bread, but how did they bake them? I’d seen several eighteenth century kitchens and all they seemed to have was a fireplace and a long wood plank table. Not an oven in sight.

I lived in South Carolina then and had extended family in Winston-Salem, a beautiful town. It has a great historic district and, in their museum, they have recreated rooms from homes over the centuries, starting in the seventeenth century. Folks back then didn’t have much. It was the eighteenth century rooms that interested me most, the ones where the kitchen was also the living room, dining room and I’ll bet sometimes the bedroom. The kitchen use was what I wanted to know about, however.  Where did they cook? The fireplace, of course. The hearth was there, the iron bar that held the large iron cooking kettle, the trivets that straddled the coals, the barrels that held food stuffs and water, all there. However, I couldn’t see an oven. The docent was well versed in most things but she couldn’t find one either.  Later that day I met a family member for lunch in the historical district. I had pumpkin muffins, just about the best I’d ever eaten and was told that the recipe is an adaptation of one used in the eighteenth century. Really? I got the recipe but not an answer to my question. In what kind of oven had they baked them and where was it? No one seemed to know.

It was time to fall back on my tried and true method of obtaining information. I needed a book.

I found one full of photos and all kinds of information. It told how-and why- they constructed kitchens away from the house. I learned the dairy was not where they milked the cows but where they let the cream rise on the milk, churned the butter and kept everything cold by filling stone crocks of milk, cream and butter in a stream that ran under the building. That they smoked meat in a specially built “house” where a low, smoky fire burned nonstop for days and weeks after butchering, and where the “necessaries “ (bet you can guess what they are) were placed on the property. I learned that Thomas Jefferson had a brick extension built adjacent to the Monticello kitchen fireplace where all the food for the plantation was prepared. It had round openings that held large kettles that rested just above coals. Stews or soups could simmer all day. The first slow cooker?  Could be. The book talked about biscuits, bread-the colonials ate lots of bread- cakes and pies, but didn’t mention an oven.

Where was the oven?

Murder by SyllabubI finally found it in the Payton Randolph kitchen in Colonial Williamsburg. The very nice lady who was cooking that day was quite generous with her information and showed me the opening inside of the fireplace, covered by a wooden door. You raked the coals under that side of the fireplace, removed the wooden door that covered the opening, and put in your bread. When it was done, you took it out. Just like today. Sort of. Those ovens lacked a thermostat, so how did you know when the oven was hot enough? Or, too hot? How did you know when the bread was done?  Back to another book, one I bought at the wonderful book store in the Visitors Center. Along with a lot of recipes for cakes and bread it finally got specific about how to bake them.  You sprinkle a little flour on the brick bottom of the oven. If the flour burns, the oven’s too hot. If you can hold your hand in the opening while you count to 10, it’s too cold. What it didn’t say was how to change the temperature or how you tell when whatever you are baking is done.

I watched that woman turn out bowls of pudding, pies, biscuits, spinach salad, platters of delicious looking food, all of it in the fireplace. Fascinating.  I wondered if I could do that.

Before you ask, I don’t know. Upon reflection I decided my research didn’t need to extend that far and my fireplace was going to continue to contain nothing but the gas log I had grown fond of. When I returned  home, I paused on my way through the kitchen  to give my self-cleaning oven a pat of appreciation.

However, some of the recipes sound wonderful. Next time I have sixteen eggs and can’t think what to do with them, I just may try one of those cakes. I’ll let you know how it turns out baked in a twenty first century oven. In the meantime, for more information on life in the eighteenth century, liberally mixed with mystery and murder in the twenty first, you might try Murder by Syllabub. By the way, I have a recipe for syllabub here for you. And, yes, I have made it and it’s very good. The unpoisoned variety, that is.


Syllabub:  this is the 21st century version. I am told that in the 18th a cow was milked directly into the punch bowl to get the frothy consistency desired. I’m voting for the 21st version. Syllabub can be made either as a dessert and served in parfait glasses or as a punch. If you  wish to make it as punch simply increase the wine until you have the desired consistency.

1 quart heavy whipping cream, chilled                                  1 5th of dry white wine or dry sherry
1-½ C white sugar                                                                            ¼ tea nutmeg, or to taste
Juice of 3 lemons                                                                             fresh mint leaves or lemon slices for garnish
Juice of 2 oranges


1.    Whip the cream chilled bowl until the cream is thick and fluffy. In another bowl, mix the lemon and orange juices and peels with the sugar and wine until well blended. Pour this mixture into whipped cream and fold just until mixed.  Mixture should be fluffy. Add more sugar if you like a sweeter drink. Cover and chill until serving time. If serving as a dessert, serve with very small spoons for eating.
2.    There are several versions of syllabub. This is the one I was given in Colonial Williamsburg. It serves quite a lot of people so for small parties you might want to cut it in half. Then again, maybe not.
3.    Syllabub was often served as a Christmas drink. So let me conclude our trip back into the 18th century with a little Christmas rhyme.

“Christmas is come, hang on the pot
Let spits turn round and ovens be hot
Beef,  pork and poultry now provide
To feast they neighbors at this tide
Then wash all down with good drink and cheer
And so with mirth conclude the year

Cheers, everyone.