My assistant stood ready with the tools: the time had come to try the recipe for lemon wafers from Jane Dawson’s book. I opted to use my mother-in-law’s plate warmer and a ceramic bowl in place of the chafing dish and coals.
Interpreting the Recipe
When deciding how to intepret the recipe, I imagined the lemon wafer as a candy–what else could sugar and lemon juice be? But there was a lot of assumed knowledge in Dawon’s recipe. To prepare, I looked at similar candy recipes, such Fanny Farmer’s peppermints in Chafing Dish Possibilities (1914), and Frederick Nutt’s wafers in The Complete Confectioner (1807). I also consulted my mother, who–as a child–had regularly made candies with her mother. I hypothesised two things: (1) the paper in Dawson’s recipe was probably wafer paper, which was widely used in confectionary and medicines and easily purchasable in an early modern urban environment; (2) whatever her ambiguous language, Dawson was probably not holding the spoon over the chafing to cook the mixture, but rather using the spoon as a tool to check thickness and doneness.
The assistant squeezed the lemon juice for half a lemon, which came to 2 tbsp. Unfortunately, there was an accidental overturn of the juice. The remaining lemon juice, plus the other half of the lemon came to 2 tbsp. Based on Fanny Farmer’s measurements, I guessed that about 6 tbsp of sugar would be needed. The mix, however, was nowhere near the thickness of raw honey. I added another, which seemed just about right. But as my back was turned, Assistant number 1–a honey connoisseur–took matters into her own hands and added an eighth. She was right: it was a much better honey thickness.
The Assistants Go Missing
By 9:30, it was time to start stirring. It went on for quite a while. Assistant number 1 disappeared under the table after stirring for a few minutes. She also snuck a taste and said it tasted like lemon sorbet. I snuck a taste and agreed. Assistant number 2 took over stirring for about 10 minutes, but grew bored. The assistants disappeared to read The Tiger Who Came to Tea. And I was left alone to the tedious stirring. And more tedious stirring. Every now and then, I observed that the sugar was a little more melted and the mixture a tiny bit thicker. I also decided that turning a bowl to stir was as much to keep me awake as it was to ensure even mixing. But it was a slow business; clearly the warming plate was not as hot as a chafing dish over coals. Dawson’s insistence to ‘let it not boil
And then about a half-hour into stirring, everything happened quickly! The mixture suddenly thickened. It was stiff, sticking to the spoon. On touching the spoon, it was ‘crisp on the side of the spoon’ — as in starting to solidify. It is less visible to the eye than it was to the touch.
For the next step, I had precut a couple squares of wafer paper. ‘4 Square’ was an early modern way of describing a rectangle with four equal sides (i.e. a square), but just in case the four was significant, I cut two pieces 4×4 inches. Although I used only half the recipe, there was too much in the bowl for only two pieces of paper. Assistant 2 was recruited back into action to cut similar sized pieces.
Things were chaotic at this point. Fanny Farmer notes that you need to work rapidly to drop the candies from the tip of the spoon onto buttered paper. Frederick Nutt does not mention speed, but describes putting spoonfuls onto the wafer papers and covering the sheets all over. As Assistant 2 sliced more papers, I tried to drop the wafers. The goal of spreading the mixture all over the paper was a bit optimistic, as the wafers hardened quickly once dropped.
- Did I let it cook slightly too long?
- Was I not working quickly enough?
- Did I have too much in the spoon?
I suspect that it is a combination of them. There was too much in the spoon, as I had underestimated how quickly I’d need to spread it–and how far one spoonful would actually go. It is also possible that it remained too long on the heat when I stopped to take pictures of the crisping on the spoon!
The next step was to pin two corners together to give the wafer some shape. Thinly spread wafers would be pretty, but mine were a bit chunky.
Dawson then instructs us to let the wafers dry. Many of Frederick Nutt’s recipes, however, call for the wafers to be put in a hot stove for a day to curl and to harden. I divided the wafers in half: half to dry naturally and half in a warm stove. Leaving the stove on all day is not an option for me, so I decided to treat three wafers like meringues. I thought this was probably a bad idea, being that the wafers are just sugar and juice. Still, I figured I could pull them out quickly when needed.
Assistant 1, however, required some immediate attention. By the time I made it back to the stove, the kitchen smelled delicious, but all that remained of the wafers was a pile of toffee-esque goo. There were at least three remaining. By 1:00 p.m., they were already hardening, but the bottoms were still a bit soft. When lightly shifting the paper, it looked like a lot of wafer was sticking.
Dawon’s final instruction was to ‘wett the rong side of the papers with watter’ to remove the paper. With wafer paper, this works very well. Sponging the paper helps to dissolve it or at least loosen it from the wafer, ensuring that the wafers (with luck) retain their shape!
But what would you eat these with? They taste a bit like the fizzy sour sugar on gummies, or (as Assistant 1 put it) candied pineapple. Food historian Ivan Day discusses wafers in ‘The Art of Confectionery’ (http://www.historicfood.com/TheArtofConfectionery.pdf), suggesting that they were likely intended to be served with ices (p. 26)–which sounds like a fine flavour pairing! We’ll be having ours with strawberry ice cream.
This recipe, which can be done with a small, portable heat source is a great one for the classroom–or as Hillary Nunn put it on Twitter, ‘Dorm-room Dawson’. Students can discuss the significance of producing a small quantity using a small heat source; the method of production certainly fits with Amanda Herbert’s description of women using moveable candy stoves to make small amounts of confectionary in their bedrooms (pp. 83-84). From start to finish, one batch could be made within an hour–even if it would not be ready for tasting that day.
The recipe also depends on assumed knowledge. Perhaps it could be done by holding one spoon at a time over the heat, but it would be time-consuming–and stirring plays an important role in similar confectionary recipes. Dawson’s insistence to ‘let it not boyle’ also doesn’t make much sense for a single spoon, but does when dealing with an entire bowl. For the paper, I would strongly advise using wafer-paper, which was commonly used for confectionary and dissolves with water, which is important when dealing with delicate wafers. At the very least, buttered greaseproof paper to prevent sticking might be a reasonable substitute, especially if you decided to make small wafers more akin to flat candies.
The sensory and measurement aspects of the recipe are also intriguing. What is the thickness of honey? How warm is a chafing dish of coals? What is crisp on the side of the spoon? Using water to remove the paper also makes a lot more sense when you work with wafer paper, which dissolves, unlike other types of paper. When it comes to measurement, paper size is also important. 4×4 inches is about right–anything larger will create a much larger wafer that falls apart easily and anything too small will make a stubby candy. Dawson is also specific in how to wrap the wafer: pin the two corners together, not sides.
Without filling in the gaps of assumed knowledge, Dawson’s recipe would be very difficult to follow. The results were also mixed. In my mind’s eye, I envisioned a thin, crispy wafer, curled at the edges. That was the one that broke most easily when removing the paper. Fortunately, even broken wafers can also serve a useful purpose as ice cream topping! The smaller (or even broken) wafers, also suit the modern palate better, as the sugar can be overpowering. They are not beautiful, but the small ones are easier to handle and hold their shape best.
Would I make them again? Definitely! I’d cook it on the stove top at home the next time, but the recipe’s portability makes it a useful one for classroom demonstration. It is an easy taste of the past to sample and would be especially fine during summer. Assistant number 1, in any case, has already asked to have them again.
Take the juice of half a lemon (2 tbsp) and add to it 8 tbsp of sugar. It should be the thickness of raw honey. Mix together over a heat source. Keep stirring, but do not let it boil. After a while, it will begin to thicken and stick to the spoon. It should be on the verge of becoming solid and will be clumpy. And it will, if you touch the side of the spoon, even feel slightly crispy! Work quickly to drop the mixture on the papers. Fold corner to corner, so it looks like a taco shell inside. Pin together. Let set.
If using very low heat, such as a plate warmer, it will take more time to cook–perhaps half an hour. It will go very quickly on a stove top.
If half a lemon makes at least six thicker wafers (two good-sized and four smaller ones), I would expect a yield of at least twelve for the full recipe–especially if the wafers were spread a bit more thinly. Have at least twenty pieces of 4×4 inch paper ready, just in case it yields more.