What Wafers?

ingredients laid out for lemon wafers

These are not vanilla wafers. These are not chocolate wafers. These are, I learned as I read the recipe, a different type of sweet. Might Dawson have been using an alternative definition? The Oxford English Dictionary defines wafers as we would today, describing them as “light, crisp cakes” or, in religious contexts, the Eucharistic host (Wafer, 1.a, 2). Dawson’s wafers lack a crucial wafer ingredient: flour. My sous chef and I forged ahead undaunted, but aware that making candy without a thermometer is challenging. More challenging still was our very un-English weather in North Carolina: 78 degrees, 84 percent humidity, and a falling barometer predicting rain. In short, not great candy making weather.

A few things caught my eye as I re-read: removing the wafers from paper using water, and the utter lack of any guidance in terms of the amount of sugar or lemon juice to be used. In the era of parchment paper, Silpats, and any number of nonstick sprays prying items off the pan is generally evidence of our own lack of preparation. For early cooks, however, options likely would have been more limited. Wetting the “rong side” of the paper to release something on its surface seemed like a practical trick that could be applied in other projects. I took the lack of guidelines for amounts as the chance to cook just using my eyes and the feel of the ingredients as we scooped and stirred.

The sugar left me with just a comparison for guidance- “the thickness of hunny.” In the first attempt, I imagined this as runny honey: my first mistake. The ratio of liquid to sugar was far too high. I cooked the juice of a lemon with sugar combined to the “runny honey” consistency in a small, non-stick pan over medium heat on an electric stove. Since I didn’t consider that this might be referring to a butter mint-style candy wafer, I skipped immediately to candy cooked to the hard ball (read: very clear and crisp) state. It is impossible to make this type of candy without boiling the mixture, so after a quick check of the OED to be sure I wasn’t missing some past definition of boil, I chose to ignore that direction. Perhaps she meant not to let it scorch?

This first attempt was a failure, as with the low amount of sugar, the mixture was a thick syrup and would not harden.

Effort two used the same mix but with longer cooking, this time in a metal spoon over the heat (I took Dawson rather literally here, to my peril!). No crisping and still a syrupy mess.

I decided to massively increase the sugar to more of a crystalized honey texture.

Bingo. The third wafer, also made in the spoon, took on some color and had a toffee-like consistency on the paper. Progress. For the next one, I let it go much longer, taking on a distinct golden color. My hope was to judge it to be at the hard ball stage. It’s possible to do this by putting a bit of the mix into cold water to see if a firm ball forms, but I got a bit distracted at this stage and forgot to check. Instead, knowing it takes a while to reach the appropriate temperature, I just let it boil significantly longer, to good effect. The third wafer was truly a crisp caramel sheet, which could be bent and its paper support pinned to give it a curve. This fourth wafer was so nicely crystalized that it slipped rather easily off the parchment lining, though I did paint some water on the back to help it along. This strategy seems promising with sweet foods.

I’m struck, in retrospect, with how much making this recipe today relies on analogy. Because I didn’t have the wafer candy Lisa used as a referent, I ended up with only my knowledge of grain-based wafers to go on, which was completely unhelpful. Since so much is left to prior knowledge, finding the right contemporary model to bridge this lack of period knowledge was crucial. While what I made was edible, tasty even, I think I’d use Lisa’s technique were I to try them again!

Dawson Cooking in the Smith Household

Assistant number 1, reporting for service. She agreed to have the photos made public.

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.

Lemon squeezing.

Honey Thick

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.

Let it be of the thickness of huney.

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

The long stir.


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.

Till it is crisp on the side of the spoon.

Making Wafers

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.

When itt is melted Spred it on a paper out 4 Square.

Lessons learned:

  • 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!

then pin two Corners together that it may bend like other wafers

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.

Some of the dissolving paper.

Dawon’s final instruction was to ‘wett th​e​ 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!

The results!

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.

Modified Instructions

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.

Jane Dawson Cook-Along

During the transcribathon, the Medical Heritage Library came up with a genius idea: would we do a Jane Dawson Cook Along? The answer to that is a resounding YES!

So, here’s what we’re going to do. Over the next week (22-30 September), some members of the EMROC Steering Committee will try out this recipe for Lemon Wafers.

Take duble refined Suger beatt & dryed & sifted and mix with
it Juce of a lemmon let it be of the thickness of huney & take some
of it in a Spoone & heatd it over a chafin-dish of coles till it be
crisp on th​e​ side of the spoone let it not boyle: when itt is melted
Spred it on a paper out 4 Square: & then pin two Corners together
that it may bend like other wafers; & so lett it dry when you take
them of wett th​e​ rong side of the papers with watter

Jane Dawson, V.b.14, p. 47.

Our assignment will be to take notes of how we decide to interpret the recipe, the ingredients we select, the modern tools we use, the weather conditions (temperature, wind, barometric pressure), the altitude… and anything else that might be relevant in how our recipe turns out. We’ll also taste test (of course!). You can follow our experiments on Twitter as we do them (#EMROCcooks), though we’ll also do an easy-to-read round-up for you afterwards.

Would you like to be involved in the Jane Dawson Cook Along?

We’d LOVE for you to join in. There are three ways to participate in our cook along over the next week:

  • try the same recipe for lemon wafers;
  • test out another one of Dawson’s recipes that intrigues you (full book here);
  • join in the discussion of the EMROC community’s cooking experiments.

Let us know about your kitchen project on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, blog comments, or e-mail (lisa.smith@essex.ac.uk). Our hashtag for all Dawson Cook-Along projects will be #EMROCcooks.

We can’t wait to see what you cook up!

“How to make a Mortres good to geue to those​ that be weake.”

As an English major with a passion for cooking, who has worked in restaurants for the past five years, studying this topic interested me instantaneously. I quickly joined Dr. Nicosia’s “What’s in a Recipe?” undergraduate research independent study. We transcribed and researched Mrs. Corlyon’s recipe book from the late 17th century. Excited to cook hundreds-of-years old recipes, possessing the perfect job to fulfill that excitement. Upon joining the project, I asked all my coworkers if they would be interested in trying some of the food I made, with a nearly unanimous willingness. I was ready to cook. I transcribed recipes, hunting for pages that interested me, until I stumbled upon “How to make a Mortres good to geue to those​ that be weake.”

How to make a Mortres good to geue to those​

that be weake​

Take the brawne of a colde Capon or Henn, that hath

been rosted, shridd it very smale, all sauinge the Skinne,

then take a quarter of a Pounde of Almondes, beynge blanched,

grinde them in a Morter very smale, wi​th​ a litle Sacke, if

the partyes stomake be colde, or else wi​th​ white wine, so much

as will serue to make them a litle moiste, and no more, then

putt your meate to them, and so grinde them very smale togea=

ther, then putt thereto the yeolkes of two egges, and 3. or 4.

spoonefulles of redd Rose water, and when you haue tempered

them well togeather, drive it throughe a strayner, then sett

it vppon a chafingdishe of coales, and season it wi​th​ Salte,

and if the partyes stomake be coulde, putt thereto a litle

Sinamonde and Ginger, and so much Sugar, as will make

it pleasant, but if the party be hott, putt onlye Sugar

to it, and so boile it, vntill it be come to be as thicke as

Almonde butter, then geue the party thereof, this will keepe

good three dayes.

The first question that arose was about the word “brawne.” After a quick search on Oxford English Dictionary, I found the word to mean “brain,” usually, however, of a human. I soon after warned my coworkers that they may be agreeing to try highly outlandish ingredients, things that most people do not eat, resulting in mixed feelings. Some grew squeamish at the thought of eating a brain, while others, like myself, became excited, willing to “try anything once.” I scoured the area around me for a week, searching for live-kill poultry shops, butcher shops, delis, and the like, but to no avail; at best, some said “Come in later this week, I might have some,” at worst, a man said in disgusted disdain “Chicken what?! I’ve never heard of using that before.” I was losing hope, unable to find a definite chicken-head-supplier for my mortress. I visited my project advisor, Dr. Marissa Nicosia, to ask for some guidance. Her first step was re-checking OED, which yielded the second definition of “brawne,” which I had not noticed: the body, the meat, the bulk of something. After a swift slap to my head, I laughed, both disappointed and relieved, quick to roast a chicken with my job’s rotisserie, and make the recipe I had been stressed about for a week.

The use of humoral theory is highly significant in this recipe and the act of cooking it. Humoral theory allows for two interpretations of the recipe, two different dishes. It shows people’s dependence on the nuances of recipes, not simply for nutrition, but health. The dish made with red wine for the person with a colder stomach had deeper undertones and aromas, and was consistently rated slightly lower by my coworkers, while the white wine dish was simpler and sharper, and rated slightly higher. Once the chicken was mixed with the almonds, it became extremely doughy, dry, and sticky, so I added more a few more tablespoons of rose water, loosening it and allowing it to have softer formations. Both dishes ended up bland and in need of salt, which was available to and used by all coworkers who tried them.

Roast a chicken.

  1. Season raw with salt and pepper
  2. Place covered in a baking pan for 70 minutes in a 350° F oven, or until the bird’s internal temperature is 185° F.
  1. While the chicken cooks, grind ¼ lb. almonds in a mortar and pestle.
    1. Separate the ¼ lb. into halves, making two piles of ⅛ lb. almonds.
    2. Mix one pile with one tbsp. of red wine, the other with one tbsp of white wine.
      1. If this does not make the almonds paste-like, add more wine.
  2. After cooking, shred the chicken finely, discarding of the skin, bones, and cartilage.
  3. Mix half of the shredded chicken with the red wine almonds, and the other half with the white wine almonds until they are the consistency of dough.
  4. Combine one egg yolk to each pile.
  5. Combine two tbsp. rose water to each pile.
  6. Lightly salt both piles
  7. Add cinnamon, chopped ginger, and sugar to the red wine pile, and only sugar to the white wine pile                                                         .
  8. One may make this dough into any shape preferred—ball, patty, specific shapes—and heat in a pan with a little butter or a fryer.
    1. Since it is already cooked, this heating should be done purely for warmth and not for actual cooking.             

Every person scored every dish in looks, smell, taste, texture, and overall from one to five. The averages were all similar, between high three’s and low four’s for most categories, but the cold stomach’s dish consistently scored lower by less than a full point in every category other than looks, which were equal. When Joie, the shift manager of that night, tasted the cold stomach’s dish, she took an unimaginably slow bite, with her nose subsequently scrunched in near-disgust, eyebrows scowling. Let us remember Walkden’s bonny-clabber, and the “hard-wired” “disgust that feels instinctive.” After registering the actual flavors, her eyebrows perked, eyes widened, face brightened, in shock of the tolerable flavors presented to her. Nobody expected this to be edible, let alone enjoyable. A fellow line-cook, Stephen, genuinely enjoyed it, asking if he could take some home so his wife could try some. He offered no negative comments toward the dish, enjoying both the historical and culinary aspects of it. Everyone who tasted was highly interested in trying food from hundreds of years ago, with not a single negative, unfavorable experience on the whole.

Eric Seamans, a student of Marissa Nicosia at Pennsylvania State University, Abington College