Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Dolley Madison's Wednesday Squeezes

When James Madison and his wife Dolley moved into the President's House, she decided that the place could use some sprucing up and the room that Thomas Jefferson had used as an office soon became the State Dining Room. The adjacent parlor (today’s Red Room) was "redecorated in sunflower yellow, with sofas and chairs to match" and, one room over, the smaller but more formal elliptical salon was "decorated in the Grecian style with elegant cream-colored walls."

Together, these three rooms with their interconnecting doors became the venue for Dolley Madison’s legendary “Drawing Rooms,” or "Wednesday Squeezes," which often attracted as many as three hundreds guests and were the most popular social event in town!

Dressed in brightly colored satins or silks and often donning a feathered headpiece or bejeweled turban, Dolley cheerfully greeted and mingled with guests as they enjoyed a festive evening of refreshments, music, and lively conversation. Mrs. Madison also presided over elaborate dinner parties where she delighted guests with such unusual dessert items as pink pepperment ice cream baked in warm pastries.

The Madisons continued to entertain this way until "their brilliant social whirlwind" went up in flames during the War of 1812. On August 24, 1814, while James was away getting a report on the war, Dolley was supposedly awaiting forty dinner guests. Around three o’clock, word was received that British troops had defeated American forces at nearby Blandensburg and were marching toward the capital.

Before fleeing to safety, Dolley quickly gathered what she could, including important documents of her husband’s and Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of George Washington. When British soldiers entered the Executive Mansion later that day, they supposedly devoured the lavish dinner that had been left behind. They then piled up furniture, scattered oil-soaked rags in all of the rooms, and lit the President’s House afire!

Although the British quickly evacuated the capital, the months that followed weren't happy ones for the Madisons as many Americans criticized them for abandoning the President’s House and “allowing the destruction of the most visible symbol of the young republic.”

At their temporary residence, Dolley eventually hosted her Wednesday Squeezes again, but “the spirit was gone.” Then came word of General Andrew Jackson’s brilliant victory over the British in the Battle of New Orleans and the mood of the country was again jubilant. Although a peace treaty had been signed weeks earlier, the Battle of New Orleans transformed “Mr. Madison’s War” (which had been condemned as an unnecessary folly) into “a glorious reaffirmation of American independence."

Saturday, November 26, 2016

George Washington Cherry Cobbler

An early nineteenth century American book peddler, itinerant preacher and author, "Parson" Mason Locke Weems is best known today as the source of some of the most beloved if apocryphal stories about George Washington. The famous story of George and the Cherry Tree is included in Weems' masterpiece, The Life and Memorable Actions of Washington, which was originally published in 1800 (the year after Washington's death) and was an immediate best-seller.

Reprinted in ever more inventive editions over the next twenty-five years, it contains, according to historian Edward Lengel, "some of the most beloved lies of American history, including the famous cherry tree myth" and other exaggerated or invented anecdotes that extolled Washington’s virtues and provided an entertaining and morally instructive tale for the young republic.

In telling his cherry tree story, Weems attributed it to "an aged lady,” who was reportedly a distant relative of George, and who, as a young girl, supposedly spent much time with him. This is how the fable unfolded:

"When George," said she, "was about six years old, he was made the wealthy master of a hatchet of which, like most little boys, he was immoderately fond, and was constantly going about chopping everything that came in his way. One day, in the garden, where he often amused himself hacking his mother's pea-sticks, he unluckily tried the edge of his hatchet on the body of a beautiful young English cherry-tree, which he barked so terribly, that I don't believe the tree ever got the better of it.

The next morning, [George’s father], finding out what had befallen his tree, which, by the by, was a great favorite, came into the house, and with much warmth asked for the mischievous author, declaring at the same time, that he would not have taken five guineas for his tree.

Nobody could tell him anything about it. Presently George and his hatchet made their appearance. "George," said his father, "do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry-tree yonder in the garden?" This was a tough question; and George staggered under it for a moment; but quickly recovered himself: and looking at his father, with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth, he bravely cried out, "I can't tell a lie, Pa; you know I can't tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet."

“Run to my arms, you dearest boy,” cried his father in transports, “run to my arms; glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son, is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold.”

Although plausible enough, historians generally agree that this quaint story is almost certainly not true. What is true, however, is that George was particularly fond of cherries, and Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery contains several family “receipts” for preserving this sweet and tangy highly versatile fruit.

Of course, then, as today, sweet and sour cherries can be used in all kinds of pies, tarts, jellies, jams, breads, muffins, and soups, as well as in a fabulously wide array of cobblers, like this recipe for cherry cobbler, which George surely would have loved had he had time to try it during his extraordinarily illustrious life:


1 1/4 cups flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons yellow cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and chilled
1 large egg yolk
3 tablespoons cold milk, cream or water


2 cups cherry preserves
1/3 cup sliced almonds
Confectioners' sugar, for dusting

In the workbowl of a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, cornmeal and salt. Pulse to combine. Add the butter, toss carefully with your hands to coat the butter cubes in flour. Pulse in the food processor several times until the mixture resembles coarse oatmeal. Add the egg and 2 tablespoons of milk, cream or water, and pulse until the dough begins to come together in a ball. Add the additional tablespoon of liquid if needed until the dough comes together.

Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead it briefly to shape it into a disk about 5 inches across. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate at least 1 hour or overnight. Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the dough into a shape a ½ inch wider than the tart pan you are using. Loosely fold the dough in half and transfer it to the tart pan.

Line the pan with the dough, being careful not to stretch the dough. Trim any excess dough from the rim of the pan, leaving a blunt neat edge. Gather the trimmings into a ball (it should be about the size of a pingpong ball). Wrap the tart and the ball of dough in plastic and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Heat to 375 degrees. Remove tart pan from refrigerator and spread the marmalade evenly over the crust. Grate the chilled ball of pastry onto the filling, and sprinkle the almonds over the top. Bake on a rack in the center of oven until the pastry is golden, the filling is bubbly and the almonds are toasted, 40 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. When the tart is completely cool, dust with confectioners' sugar. Serve at room temperature.