Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Fran's French Beignets

One of my favorite activities at Stephenson House (besides sewing) is cooking in the 1820 kitchen. An easy recipe to make in the hearth is Beignets. It's also a great demonstration that visitors can help prepare. The recipe is pretty simple and produces a tasty treat. 

This recipe was developed by Fran Colbert at Old Fort Madison in the early 1990s. She was the person who sparked my love of open-hearth cooking.

What you'll need:
  • flour
  • baking powder (or pearlash if you're keeping it authentic to the early 19th century. Baking powder wasn't invented until the 1840s).
  • salt
  • milk (or buttermilk. If you're using pearlash then buttermilk will be necessary to activate it).
  • egg
  • fire
  • pot to hold cooking oil
  • cooking oil 
  • towel or cheesecloth to drain beignets on after cooking
  • long-handled slotted spoon


Fran's French Beignets
1 1/3 cups flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder (substitute pearlash if keeping it authentic)
½ tsp salt
2/3 cup milk (if using pearlash, use buttermilk)
1 egg, well beaten

Sift together all the dry ingredients. Add milk and egg gradually to dry ingredients. Turn out the dough onto a floured surface and roll out to ½” thick. Cut dough into 2” x 3” strips and fry into hot oil for 5 minutes or until golden. Remove beignets from oil and drain on a towel. Roll in cinnamon and sugar or sprinkle with powdered sugar. Enjoy!

My dough is mixed and rolled out. Cut dough into strips then into 2"x3" pieces.

One batch cut and ready to go into the hot oil for frying.

Cook the beignets in the hot oil for 5 minutes or until they are golden brown. You may want to turn them over to be sure they cook evenly. Use your long-handled slotted spoon to turn them over.

Remove the beignets from the oil and let them drain on a towel or cheesecloth. Once they've drained a little bit, sprinkle them with powdered sugar or rolled them in cinnamon and sugar. I usually do cinnamon and sugar.

This photo show only a few finished beignets because our site docents descended upon the kitchen and ate most of them before I could get a good shot. They are pretty tasty.

                                       Bon Appetit!

Fran Colbert and I in Old Fort Madison's kitchen, c 1992.

This post is dedicated to the memory of my dear friend Fran Colbert. She taught me how to make this recipe many, many years ago at Old Fort Madison. Through her research, she made cooking demonstrations fun and entertaining for everyone. She spent numerous hours in OFM's kitchen, as well as her own, researching and testing historic recipes.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Sewing a Theorem Painted Reticule

A couple months back, the Stephenson House offered a two-day workshop on painting velvet theorems then turning them into period-style reticules. I'd wanted to learn this stenciling technique for several years. House volunteer and local artist, Janice Camren taught the theorem portion of the workshop while I instructed the sewing of a period-style reticule.

I looked through several museum inventories for inspiration on what type of reticule would typically feature a theorem painting. There was a wide range of shapes and styles. Ultimately, I settled on what I hoped would be a simple bag construction since the workshop participants had varying levels of sewing skills, plus we wanted to be able to complete (or come close) the reticule in an afternoon.

This technique was very easy to learn. Supplies included a piece of 12x12 velvet, oil paints, stencil brushes, matt board, painters tape, stencils, paint knife, and paper towels.
Oil paint sticks made a lot less mess than traditional oil paints and dried very quickly.

One of the paintings completed during the first day of the workshop. Participants picked from four different stencil designs; birds, fruit, flowers, and moths. 

Each painting was completely unique.

The workshop participants, minus me, showing off their lovely theorems.

Once the theorems were dry the sewing could begin. As mentioned above, I decided a simple bag reticule would be the easiest for everyone to sew and very period-appropriate. Supplies needed to complete this project include:

  • 2 - 12 x 12 velvet pieces (one with the painting on it and one for the back)
  • 1 - 13.5” (long)  x 12” (wide) piece of silk cut on a fold (making it 27" long x 12" wide)
  • thread (either matching the silk or in a complementary color)
  • sewing machine (optional)
  • fabric scissors
  • long sewing ruler
  • disappearing fabric marker
  • pins
  • iron and ironing board
  • ribbon for drawcord and something to pull it through casings

Step 1. Place the velvet back and front pieces right sides together. Pin the sides and bottoms together. Sew ½” seam around sides and bottom edges. Leave top edge unsewn. If you have a design on the front panel, be sure it is in the correct location before sewing.

Trim seam allowance to 3/8”, clip corners, and press seam open. A sewing ham will make this easier but is not necessary.

Turn velvet bag right-side out.

Front and back velvet piece pinned together.  Leave the top section open.

Trim the side and bottom seams to 3/8".

Trim the corners.

Press the seams open.

Turn the bag right sides out.

Step 2. Fold the silk lining piece in half (right-sides together) and pin the sides. The bottom of the bag is cut on the fold so it will not need to be sewn. Leave the top of the bag open. Sew a ½” seam down both sides of the bag between the marks. A 1 1/4” section at the top of both sides will be left unsewn, as well as, a 2” section on one of the sides (to be used to turn the bag right-side-out in a later step). Press seams open.

NOTE: If this piece was laid out flat it would measure 27" (long) x 12" wide. When the piece is folded in half it measures 13.5" (long) x 12" (wide). The silk lining is longer then the velvet outer bag. 

Sides are pinned and ready to sew. The bottom is on the fold. Leave a 1 1/4" section unsewn on both top sections as well as a 2" section on one side close to the bottom of the bag. 

Step 3. Press the unsewn sections open too. The photo below shows one of the 1 ¼” sections at the top. A portion of this open section will become the opening for the drawcords later. In Step 5, they will need to be butted up against each other (as if they were sewn) and pinned down.

1 1/4" opening at top edge. There should be two; one on each side of the top.

Step 4. Tassels can now be added to the corners on the outer velvet bag. You can either make your own (like I did) or purchase readymade. Thread one of the long top threads into a needle with a larger eye. Run the thread through the corner of the velvet bag to the inside. Do the same with the other top thread. Tie to the two threads together on the inside of the velvet bag. Repeat with the second tassel and corner.

Tassels I made but store-bought would work just as well.

Thread one of the tassel's top threads through a large eye needle and run it through the corner of the bag to the inside.

Thread the second top tassel through the corner to the inside of the bag.

Tie the two threads together on the inside of the bag.

Finished tassel. Now repeat with the other side.

Step 5. Now take the velvet bag (right-side-out) and slid it into the silk lining bag (the wrong side out)…the bags will be right-sides together. Match the top edges and side seams then pin in place. Sew a 3/8” seam all around the top.

Reminder: the top 1 ¼” of the silk bag sides were not sewn but left open. When you pressed the side seam open in Step 3 it mimicked the fold of the sewn seam. Be sure to fold this portion of the seam back (mimicking the sewn side seam) then butt the two edges together when pinning the tops and sew over them when stitching the top edges together..  

Step 6. Once the top edge is sewn all the way around, pull the velvet bag out of the silk lining. It should look like the image below. Wrong sides are out. Press the top edges (you just stitched) toward the velvet bag section.

Step 7. Time to turn the bags right-side out. Using the 2” unsewn side seam, turn the bags. Once turned you can slip-stitch the 2” hole closed.

2" opening at the bottom is now sewn closed.

Step 8. Now comes the tricky part. The lining bag is longer than the velvet bag. It was done this way so you will have a pretty silk top on the reticule once it’s finished.

Insert the silk lining into the velvet bag, matching up the inside corners. The easiest way to do this is to start sliding the silk inside while placing your index finger in the corner of the lining. Keep your index finger in the silk corner and match it to the velvet corner. Pull gently on the silk lining with your other hand to remove any bunching on the inside. Pin the corner on the outside of the bag (catching all the layers). See the photo below. Repeat with the other corner. Slide your finger along the lining bottom, being sure that the lining is touching the bottom of the velvet section, pin it in place too. Also, be sure to match up the side seams. All of this may take some finessing, but you want to be sure the lining is smooth on the inside with about 1 ½”-2” (depending on the length of your lining silk) protruding out the top of the bag. Everything should be laying smooth. If it’s not smooth, then unpin it and reposition everything.

Once smooth and you’re happy with it, pin the velvet and lining (only two layers per side…not all four together) together all the way around the bag about 1” below the top seam (see second photo below).  Pin the silk top too. All layers must continue to lay smooth with no twisting or bunching.

Pins are holding the bottom lining and outer bag together securely.
This is how the top of the bags should look once they're smoothed and pinned together. 

Step 9. Check that the interior seam, where the silk and velvet join, (Step 6) is still laying pressed toward the velvet body. If it’s not, then manipulate it through the layers with your fingers back into position and pin it in place. Once this seam is pinned, remove the pins placed below the seam (in the previous step) since they were only there to keep everything smooth up to this point.

Step 10. Sew a spaced running stitch through the lining in the ‘ditch’ of the seam. Try not to catch the velvet portion. This stitching will not be visible from the outside. It will also hold the velvet/silk seam toward the body (you don’t want it slipping upward). This will create the bottom seam for the drawcord channel.

Step 11. On the inside of the top silk section, mark a 1/2 “ line from the top edge. Go all the way around the top edge.  This measurement should match up with the side seam openings from Step 5. Use a running stitch to create the top seam for the drawcord channel.

Step 12. Insert your drawcords. I used two ribbons, the same length, for this. Since reticules were not usually worn slung over the shoulder, keep the ribbons short enough that if you held them in your hand the bag would not touch the floor.

Starting at one drawcord opening, run one length of ribbon all the way around the drawcord channel then out the same hole you started at. Tie the ribbon to its end. Repeat with the other opening.

And you're done!