Tea Review: Path of Cha Da Hong Pao and Golden Monkey

NB: The teas featured here were sent to me in exchange for review. All thoughts are my own.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to win a couple teas from Path of Cha on Instagram, and I was thoroughly enjoying them. About a month or so later, Angie from Path of Cha reached out and asked if I’d be interested in trying more and reviewing them on the blog, so I agreed readily. We discussed a bit and I mentioned how the cooling weather has me craving some darker oolongs and black teas, so they put together a couple of black and oolong teas for me to try. Less than a week later, I had my package in hand (similarly to how quickly my giveaway winnings arrived) and I’ve been enjoying trying them out. I suppose since I’ve finished one and I’m nearly finished with the other, it’s time to offer my review.

First of all, Path of Cha has fantastic service in terms of website and shipping. Their website is full of information for anyone at any point in their tea journey. I’ve enjoyed their blog and YouTube channel for a while, and the individual listings for each tea give a good amount of information, including little stories about each tea. They’re located in Brooklyn, NY, so it’s not surprising that the tea gets to me quite quickly. And shipping is free for orders over $40 and under $4 otherwise. But perhaps my favorite thing is that they obviously personalize the instructions on each package. Each package has a suggested water temperature, and parameters for brewing Western style and gong fu style. They don’t make any judgments on how you enjoy your tea.

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“Golden Monkey” Jin Hou Black Tea: This is a classic Chinese black tea, and the Path of Cha version is a delightful representation of it. I first tried this tea on a morning when I didn’t have time for a full tea session because we were meeting friends for a walk on a Saturday morning and I just needed something warm and caffeinated to put in a flask. It certainly fit that bill. I steeped it Western-style and had to pour it into the flask after just a few sips, and it held beautifully, warming me on an early morning walk around the garden.

When I had more time, I was able to explore it gong fu style and really taste the full development of flavors. I got chocolate and malt from the aroma of the dry leaf, which is curly and flecked with gold tips. The first infusion or so is mellow and delicate, with burnt sugar and honey in the aroma and malt and cereal in the flavor, but it expands into something very rich and round and perfect for cooler weather, with just enough astringency that you know you’re drinking black tea, but not so much that your mouth dries out or you feel the need to add anything to it. As the flavors develop, I get fruitcake and brandy, so I imagine this will work well into winter. It lasted about six steepings before the flavor started to fade, but it faded so slowly that I got another few steepings before it really felt spent.

It’s such a well-balanced tea that it works beautifully steeped grandpa-style. I’ve had plenty of mornings where I get up at 5:30, set the kettle before getting into the shower, and can make tea in less than a minute by chucking a couple grams into a mug and topping with water after I get out. Twenty-five grams of this tea sells for $10 on their website.

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Organic “Big Red Robe” Da Hong Pao Oolong Tea: I first tried Da Hong Pao for my tea sessions inspired by the Crazy Rich Asians series, as it’s infamous as one of the most expensive teas in the world (when it comes from one of the original ancient trees). But non-ancient DHP is a delightful roasted oolong that doesn’t need to cost an arm and a leg. This one is only $14 for twenty-five grams.

I dove right into steeping this one gong fu style and was rewarded for my efforts. I went eight steepings with this and found each one a new experience. The aroma goes from caramel and biscuits on the dry leaf to a mineraly, almost peaty aroma on the wet leaf after a few steepings. The empty cup aroma has intense vanilla and pipe tobacco notes, with the roast and smokiness coming through later on. And the flavor is sweet and bright to begin, with the roast coming through later, but never with that old-coffee-grounds flavor that some over-roasted oolongs get. This stays smoky and with notes of bitter chocolate and sweetness. I don’t normally think of oolong as a tea with a lot of cha qi, but I definitely felt something after several steepings of this.

This one is also beautiful grandpa-style, though the complex flavors all kind of blend together, so I tried to stop myself from using this all up in the early mornings. But it’s rich and satisfying and just feels like sitting in front of a low fire with a soft cashmere blanket when I drink it. In fact, when a colleague offered me some caramel apple tea because she thought it tastes like fall, I decided to offer her some of this because this is what I think fall tastes like. I’ve hoarded it a bit, but I’m likely to finish it off this week, and I’m almost certain to buy some more.

Tea Review: Naoki Matcha Silver Yame Ceremonial Blend

Several weeks ago, one of my favorite tea bloggers posted a review of a matcha from Yame in Fukuoka prefecture. Now, given that I am currently in the process of planning a trip to Fukuoka, I was intrigued, and decided to buy some for myself. You may remember in this Sunday’s historical tea video, I featured this matcha while discussing a well-traveled woman who figured into the history of Japan’s tea culture, and mentioned that I would have to do a more in-depth review later. So here is that review.

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First of all, I purchased the Silver Yame Ceremonial Blend Matcha from Naoki’s own site, though they also sell on Amazon if you absolutely must have your matcha in two days. But my experience on Naoki’s website was pleasant enough not to feel the need to patronize Amazon. I paid $22.99 for 40g, which is actually a bit less than it’s currently listed for on their site (there was apparently a website glitch when I ordered, but they honored the price). It’s currently listed at $24.99 for 40g, which is about $0.62 per gram, and pretty solidly mid-pack for price among the high-quality matchas I drink. They also offer free shipping. I placed my order on a Sunday, it shipped on the Tuesday, and I received it Friday, so less than a week’s turnaround was quite the treat for someone used to waiting for shipping from halfway around the world.

For the video, I decided to pre-sift a few teaspoons of matcha into a clean, reused tin from Ippodo (if you happen to recognize the logo in the picture), instead of sifting it directly into the bowl like I often do. The matcha sifted easily because it’s a nice, soft, fine powder. It whisks well with no residual clumps, even after I’d stored the pre-sifted powder in the fridge for a day or two. I did have a little trouble getting a good froth the first two times I whisked it, but I later got the hang of it. Perhaps I’m just out of practice.

Tasting this matcha for the first time was a revelation. It was sweet, creamy, and mild. It reminded me of the time I ordered a rye and soda and was convinced they’d given me Sprite because the soda added such a pronounced sweetness to the rye. The first sip of this was just so smooth. And then the sweetness and richness develops into an umami aftertaste as you finish your three sips. I’m loathe to overuse the word buttery (Tracy), but, yes, the description “buttery” would apply here. This would be a very nice starter matcha for someone who wants to taste the good stuff and doesn’t want to be hit with really complicated flavors. It’s also really nice for the summer when I’m just too darn hot to have a serious conversation with my tea.

So, once again, Oolong Owl has steered me right. I suppose the dual morals of this story are that you should try Naoki Silver Yame matcha (and that I will likely want to try others of their offerings), and that you should follow Oolong Owl’s blog and allow her to enable you with wild abandon.

NB: I purchased this product with my own money and was given no incentive to feature or review it.

Finding My Roots

Last year, I decided to take a commercial DNA test out of an idle curiosity about my ancestry. I was pregnant and thinking a lot more about family roots and traditions. The results were interesting, though not entirely surprising — mostly British with a little German and Eastern European mixed in — but I was intrigued by the level of Scandinavian ancestry. So this year, I decided to work on exploring my genealogy. And in honor of my efforts, my mother decided to add to my tea cup collection with this cup from Herend Hungary, as a relatively recent part of my heritage is from Hungary.

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Now, I want to pause here and acknowledge two things. The first is that I’m extraordinarily privileged to be able to find records of my ancestors coming over to the States from their birth countries. Not everyone has this luxury, as not all crossings were recorded with details of all travelers’ names, given that not all crossings were by choice. The second is that I fully acknowledge that I am in the grips of an American’s desire to be seen as not American, but somehow connected to my “culture of origin.” I know this is often viewed with amusement by others, and I can see that. But, given that some of my non-American heritage is rather recent, there are still traditions that play into my modern life from some of them. So I wanted to explore it. Plus, a haughty relative once determined that our family is qualified to join the Daughters of the American Revolution, and I was intrigued by that, given what I knew of our more recent immigrant history.

But on to my discoveries. The first is that one of my most recent immigrant ancestors came over in the 20th century, from Yorkshire, England. I had always assumed that my Catholic grandparents were of Irish descent, but it was fascinating to learn something that happened to correspond with my interest in Tudor-era history, given that Yorkshire was a pocket of Catholic recusancy during the Reformation of the English church. I also had ancestors on another side of the family from Derbyshire. And I was already aware of the relatives that emigrated from Hungary in the early 20th century. Interestingly, while my ancestors would now be considered to be from Hungary and Romania, when they were born, the whole of their birthplaces would have been part of the Kingdom of Hungary. It was particularly interesting to see the variations on names as records sprouted spelling errors and the like.

And on the other side, I was able to trace all the lines of the family back to their original crossing and found that the Revolutionary heroes largely traced their origins back to colonies that were founded by Dutch settlers. In fact, one ancestor came over shortly after the original founding of New Amsterdam. Still another line traces back to Denmark. So far, I’ve been able to find three different ancestors who found in the American Revolution, two of whom survived, not including the ancestor claimed by my great grandfather’s stepmother, whose records helped launch my own research.

So this has been a fun project. I’m not entirely sure what to do with it. I suppose I should find a way to make a hard copy to store and pass on to Elliot so he does not have to do the same work, should he be so inclined. I used Ancestry.com for most of the research, which does charge a membership fee to actively look at records, and charges additional to look at international records (hence, only tracing ancestors back as far as their original crossings to the States), but the interface is nice, and you can view your tree for free. Perhaps in the future, I will return to it to collect it into a genalogy book, to go with the book my father-in-law made for my husband’s family.

The Joy of Jars

Last week, I talked a little about some of my sustainability and simplicity efforts, but my most consistent attempt to reduce my footprint has got to be my love of reusing glass jars. Sadly, my husband (who, admittedly, does most of the dishes) does not share my love of jars and has even insisted that I curate my collection a bit in recent years. But I love a good jar, and trying to be more sustainable and low-waste has certainly reignited my desire to keep every jar I come across.

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First of all, I try to find things in glass or metal packaging where possible because the bulk of a jar can be more easily recycled than plastic. I’ve been quietly switching things over to glass packaging where possible in most areas of my life. But the other reason I love buying things in glass is because I love to save jars. Recently, our store started carrying a new brand of French custard, which is delicious (and comes in chocolate, rice, and salted caramel!), but also comes in the most adorable tiny glass jars that are the perfect size for my own homemade pots de creme. Of course, my husband, who does most of our dishes, has a slightly less glowing view of my collection of jars and made me get rid of all but the number of jars that fits one batch of custard.

Jars are so useful, though. Lately, since I’ve been trying to shop in bulk more, I’ve found even more use for my collection of jars. I throw a couple into our reusable bag each week when do the shopping. It’s simple enough to take them to customer service to get a tare weight, and then I can get nuts or pasta or beans or rice or any number of things without any wasted packaging. Our store even has bulk honey, olive oil, and vinegars available, so I can get those (the olive oil goes into a bottle) without having bottles that will need to be thrown out. And since the honey is local, it’s the most sustainable way to sweeten. I’ve been using bulk hazelnuts, bulk salt, and bulk honey (and tap water) to make a milk substitute for my morning beverage lately, without any extra waste.

But jars are also not terribly bulky, especially when I save smaller jars, like the jar I got some beans in a few years back. It’s the perfect size to carry some home-blended tea to work, or pop into the shopping bag to get a treat from the bulk bins instead of a wrapped candy or trail mix. And I even recently used one of my tiny custard jars to bring some loose-leaf decaf Earl Grey to a brunch at a friend’s house because I know my mother prefers that and my friends didn’t have any decaf tea on hand.

The one tip for life with jars that I have is this: Know that standard mason jar lids are not stainless/rust-proof. This was never an issue for years (except for the one time I tried to store vinegar in a mason jar) because we hand-washed everything, but since moving to a house with a dishwasher, we’ve realized that the lids that came with our mason jars have started to rust. So the one new jar-related purchase we’ve made is to buy stainless steel mason jar lids. The fit is a little fiddly, and they’re not appropriate for canning, but it’s nice to not have two pieces of lid when I’m trying to pack up pumped milk or bring a jar of soup to work.

What about you? I’ve started up multiple conversations recently with friends and acquaintances who share my love of jars, so I’d love to hear about your favorite jars in the comments.

On Simplifying and Civilized Sustainability

The other day, while walking out of a meeting, my coworker commented on how “green” I was because I hadn’t printed out the meeting document, in favor of bringing an electronic copy on my tablet, along with my notebook for any notes I needed to take. I showed him one better and showed that I’d also brought my own cloth napkin to have a treat during the meeting (this month’s treat was cupcakes) instead of using a paper plate and napkin. It was nice to have these little efforts recognized because over the last several years, I’ve quietly tried to make small changes towards a less wasteful, more sustainable lifestyle, including bringing cloths with me to work instead of using so many paper towels and napkins.

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Probably the biggest change to my life that I’ve been trying to make, with varying levels of success, is my attempts to reduce my overall consumption. Whether I’m changing my buying habits of new (or new-to-me) clothes, reducing the way I use personal care products, or making small changes to how we eat, simply buying less is always going to be the most sustainable thing a person can do. Rather than buying new linen towels (linen is very eco-friendly, didn’t you know?), we’re using the towels we have until they’re no longer serviceable. Rather than buying new clothes, I’ve bought second-hand or even taken castoffs and loaners from friends. And my beauty routine is slowly creeping towards something very different from the sprawling, globe-circling routine that I’ve shared in the past.

Really, there is something very civilized about simplicity sometimes. I’m not Kon-Mari-ing anything (although we have been doing some of the decluttering that should have happened before we moved), but I’m trying to make steps towards reducing the need for such a chore. And, really, I’d rather wear the same two skirts for work all week than spend more than a little time on the weekend doing laundry or clearing out my closet. People view it as “strong personal style” rather than “wearing the same thing every week.” Plus, I’ve been quietly transitioning my wardrobe towards entirely natural fibers, and then towards more sustainable fibers (like the aforementioned linen). It’s expensive, so the process will be slow anyway. I’m less engaging in minimalism as I am asymptotically approaching it by bringing less into my life.

And that’s the crux of it, and part of why this is a quiet effort and not one that I would really recommend to anyone, because it’s part of a very personal value judgment. For me, I know I can “get away with” wearing as much of my pre-pregnancy wardrobe as possible, and buy a few necessities, so that if I spend more money to buy from a seamstress who makes all her pieces herself and charges accordingly out of sustainably-grown fabric, it doesn’t matter that I can really only afford one new piece of clothing every month or so. Or if I decide to make my own new skirt for the coming cooler months, I can choose to order my fabrics carefully and spend a month sewing it by hand, rather than needing to get a fall and winter wardrobe all at once. But not everyone has that luxury.

Or in the case of my skin care. I’ve already spent years honing my skin care routine and determining my skin’s general likes and dislikes, so I can buy products with relatively confidence online, so when I want to transition from less plastic packaging, I can try a new facial oil or cleanser or hydrating serum without as much of the unknown looming. And it helps that my skin has calmed down incredibly since my pregnancy (touch wood). So far, I’ve transitioned most of my skin care to simpler products that are largely produced by small companies (or people I know somewhat personally, through social media) and are mostly packaged with less plastic. There are a couple things I know I cannot swap out, despite their plastic bottle, but I know where I can recycle those containers now. Once I’ve tested the last new potential product, I’ll do a skincare update, I think.

And I’m fortunate to have the support of my husband, who has made great strides in reducing his use of papers towels and coffee filters. We’ve now almost entirely switched over to using cloth towels instead of paper ones, especially for our napkins. Somehow using cloth paper towels was an easier leap than trying to use our stock of gifted cloth napkins because the napkins seemed fancier. Now we have an eclectic pile of napkins and towels that we use at meals or for small spills. And Dan uses a cloth coffee filter in his coffee cone every morning. It seems very civilized, but really, it’s just a way to make less trash. Like using a fountain pen: I see a way to generate less waste in the form of discarded pens because I can simply refill the cartridge, but also, it’s a fancy pen and I look fancy using it.

Of course, the quintessential civilized sustainability swap for me is my tea. Now, I don’t pretend that my tea is at all a sustainable habit. I get most of it shipped from halfway around the world in single-use packaging, despite my attempts to save tins and reuse them. The fact is that tea has to be sealed to prevent it from going stale. But using loose leaf tea with my tea ware (much of which is either handmade or secondhand) offers a bit of an offset, as I don’t create any additional bits of litter in the form of teabags. And I can have several cups of tea from one serving of leaves, rather than using many teabags per day. Plus, as far as hobbies go, sitting quietly and enjoying the outside with a cup of tea is far simpler than many others, and helps to quiet my mind so that I can find contentment with what I have, which is the ultimate sustainability.

Tea Review: Craftedleaf Teas

NB: This sample set was sent to me for the cost of shipping for review, but all opinions are my own.

Recently, someone from Craftedleaf Teas got in touch with me and offered me a chance to try some of their teas for just the cost of shipping. Honestly, I was on the fence about getting more review samples, but I’d seen a few other friends on Instagram raving about their Bilochun and I was intrigued by their Lapsang Souchong, so I accepted. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve seen me tasting them over the last few weeks, and you may have caught my recent video where I tasted one of their teas, but I thought I should organize my complete thoughts into a longer-form review here.

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First of all, their website is rather gorgeous, and relatively easy to navigate. Every listing gives the full information for the tea, along with instructions for brewing gongfu style and Western style, which is nice, particularly if you’re like me and lose the little packet of instructions that were included in the box! It’s nice because the instructions are obviously tailored to each tea, rather than just giving the same instructions for everything.

I received the Fullhouse Sample Set, which retails for $23 and includes 10 grams each of six different teas, two oolongs, a green, a white, a raw pu’er, and a black. Shipping from Hong Kong to the US was $8, and it arrived twelve calendar days after I placed the order. They also included a 5-gram sample of another dark tea. Looking at the prices, Craftedleaf tea is not as inexpensive as a place like Yunnan Sourcing, but they’re not outrageously expensive, especially for quality tea. Plus, the extra information on the website and the sense of curation suggests a higher-touch experience. Interestingly enough, the founders of the company both come from the two regions of China that lay claim to the origins of gongfu brewing. I particularly appreciate that they are able to use language on their site to express their careful curation, without resorting to calling themselves “luxury.”

When my tea arrived (much sooner than I expected), I broke into the box almost immediately. The seven sleek, white envelopes were carefully packed along with a little book of paper slips containing the information and brewing parameters suggested for each tea. While I jumped on the Bilochun right away, it didn’t take me long to try every tea, sometimes brewing more than one per day (something I haven’t done since before I got pregnant last year). I’ve now tasted all the teas at least once, and some more than that.

Tasting Notes:

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Spring 2019 Dong Ting Lake Bilochun: Because this was the first tea I tasted, I tasted it three ways. I first brewed it gongfu style, using 5g, as suggested; then, I tried it Western style with 3g; finally, I brewed it grandpa-style, by simply putting the remaining 2g into a mug and sipping on it throughout the day. This is a remarkably delicate tea, with a sweet fragrance and mild liquor. It doesn’t get bitter or unpleasant, even brewed for a long time. And I was able to re-steep it even when I brewed it Western style.

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2017 Ba Da Shan Wild Tree Raw Puerh: This tea, I steeped using Marco’s ten-step tasting process that I outlined in my last video. It is a remarkably well-balanced tea, with the aromatic complexity I expect from a sheng, but without the bitterness you might fear from one so young. And, wow, I got some serious energy off this one, even after just one steeping.

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Spring 2019 Wuyi Golden Horse Eyebrow: This was the extra sample that was included in my order and I’m so glad they included it. This was an absolutely fascinating tea. The damp leaves after the first steeping smelled of rich, black pumpernickel bread, and the tea itself had that flavor at first. But then, over later steepings, the most glorious sweet rose scent and flavor came through. Of all the teas I received, this is probably the most likely that I would buy for myself (once I’ve gone through my stash!).

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Spring 2019 Song Dynasty Old Bush Milan Dancong Oolong: This was the most disappointing of the bunch. Despite the description, I found the roast on this to be too heavy. I love Phoenix Oolongs and I was sad that the roast seemed to obscure a lot of the honey and orchid flavors, to my tastes. But it was still enjoyable, especially if you like a smokier tea.

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Spring 2019 Golden Tip Lapsang Souchong: This was the one that both excited me and worried me. My only experience with Lapsang has been the smoked Western-style variety and I am not a fan. I felt a little thrill of contrary joy when a tea sommelier on a podcast I listened to recently called it “bro tea” because I felt somewhat vindicated. But I know that Lapsang, as a category, is well-loved, even among tea connoisseurs. So I was eager to try this one. And it did not disappoint. It has a pronounced caramel sweetness and a rich body, but with bitter notes more akin to really good chocolate than an astringent tea. I even got a bit of pine aroma from the leaves after the last couple of steepings. And I got a bit of energy off it.

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Spring 2019 Organic Wild Baimudan: I may have come to a realization — I don’t think I actually like Baimudan. Now, what does this have to do with this tea? Well, this is probably the most enjoyable Baimudan I’ve ever had. It was a balance of flowers and hay, without too many off flavors, and a pleasant thickness in the mouth without being cloying or syrupy. And yet, I personally found it only okay. But my conclusion is that if I didn’t like this Baimudan, I probably just don’t prefer the tea as a type, because this was a good Baimudan.

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Spring 2019 Premium Anxi Tieguanyin: Tieguanyin is one of my favorite teas, which is why it is odd that I saved this one for last. Perhaps I didn’t want to color my opinion of the rest of the samples if this one turned out to be disappointing. Well, I needn’t have worried. This is an exemplary TGY. It has an unctuous, creamy liquor with a fragrant floral aroma and flavor, the creaminess punctuated by a citrus brightness that is really quite enjoyable. And look at those leaves! They’re huge, and hardly a stem among them.

So those are my honest thoughts on the Fullhouse Sample Set. One thing that struck me throughout my tastings was that every tea seemed very thoughtfully selected. They all had complexity and interest, even those that weren’t my favorites. I’m glad that I had the opportunity to investigate this company that I might not have otherwise found.

Adventures in Historical Baking: Bath Buns

As I mentioned in my “Tea with Jane Austen” video this weekend, one of Austen’s favorite treats was the Bath bun, an enriched, brioche-like bun that has been referenced since at least 1763. Austen wrote in her letters of “disordering [her] stomach” with them. So as part of my video, I wanted to try to recreate them.

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I’ve been able to find many 18th- and 19th-century cookbooks freely available on Google Books, and it’s not only been a boon to my historical series, but also just great fun. So I looked through a book from 1805 called The Housekeeper’s Instructor by W. A. Henderson and I found this recipe for “Bath Cakes or Buns”:

“TAKE a half pound of butter, and one pound of flour; rub the butter well into the flour; add five eggs, and a teacup full of yeast. Set the whole well mixed up before the fire to rise; when sufficiently rose add a quarter of a pound of find powder sugar, an ounce of carraways well mixed in, then roll them out in little cakes and bake them on tins; they may be eat for either breakfast or tea.”

It seemed straightforward enough, and because much of the recipe is given in weight, there was little confusion as to how much of things to use. The one confusion was the “teacup full of yeast.” Of course, it was not calling for a cup of dry powdered yeast, as we use now, but likely meant a cup full of the liquid yeast slurry known as “barm.” James Townsend has a great video about yeast, in which he gives a recipe for an approximate substitute from the barm that would have been used (jump to 3:40 for that). Barm was a by-product of beer brewing and using it in bread-making allowed for the production of sweeter breads, rather than the sourdoughs that would have been produced before. For our sweet Bath buns, “yeast” likely meant barm, which also accounts for the lack of liquid in the dough, apart from the eggs.

As this was considered a relative of modern brioche, which is a milk-based dough, I decided that instead of making barm with beer and yeast, I would simply replace the “yeast” in the recipe with a packet of dry yeast activated in some warm milk. So I warmed a cup of milk, added the yeast, let it sit for 15-20 minutes and then proceeded with the rest of the recipe.

And I was left with an incredibly loose batter, rather than a dough! I ended up having to add much more flour to make it into a dough, which threw off the ratios of the sugar and butter as well. So it seemed the recipe required more sleuthing.

The first thing I realized is that I didn’t actually know how big a “teacup” was in early 19th-century cooking. I simply assumed it meant a cup, but looking at most of my teacups, that seems a rather poor assumption. So I found this list of somewhat obscure cooking measures, which helped. It turns out a teacup is the same as a gill and is equal to two wineglasses (or a half a cup, in modern terms).

Next, I looked at my eggs. I use standard large eggs in my baking, and most recipe I find these days call for large eggs, but in the past, eggs would have been smaller. So I hunted around for references and found that 19th-century chickens probably produced eggs that today would be considered small-to-medium. Now, rather than buy different eggs, I looked up conversions and five small or medium eggs is about four large eggs.

Thus armed with new knowledge, I took up my recipe again. This time, I produced a very loose, sticky dough, but it was cohesive enough to be picked up and formed roughly into blobs, which I baked in a muffin tin. They look a bit like muffins, but inside, they have a fine-crumbed, enriched bread texture, with a lovely sweetness and a good flavor from the caraway seeds. I can see why the caraway seeds fell out of favor in modern incarnations, but I rather like that old-fashioned flavor. They are, indeed, lovely for breakfast or tea, especially slathered with a good bit of soft butter.

Bath Buns
makes a dozen buns

Ingredients:

1 lb. of flour
1/2 lb. (2 sticks) of salted butter, at room temperature
1 packet of dry active yeast
1/2 cup of whole milk, warmed to 100F
4 large eggs
1/4 lb. (4 oz., by weight) of granulated sugar
1 oz., by weight, of caraway seeds

  1. Mix the warm milk and yeast together and set aside for 15 or so minutes.
  2. Rub the butter into the flour well, until it resembles coarse crumbs.
  3. Mix up the eggs and the milk mixture and then add to the flour and butter until a loose dough forms.
  4. Cover with a damp towel and set in a warm place for an hour or so, until it doubles in size.
  5. Preheat your oven to 375F and put paper cases into a 12-cup muffin tin.
  6. Add the sugar and caraway seeds to the dough, and mix well.
  7. With damp hands, to prevent sticking, form the dough into 12 buns and place each in a muffin cup.
  8. Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until risen, brown, and hollow-sounding when tapped (or until a thermometer reads at least 190F).
  9. Enjoy with tea.

A note on the amounts: I kept the ingredients by weight and I mixed the dough by weight, except where specified otherwise in the original recipe, so I don’t know how much I used by volume. I highly recommend you get a kitchen scale for baking, but there are a few sources online of the approximate conversion of weight to volume for each ingredient. Remember that a pound of flour and a pound of sugar will be different volumes, so you will need to look up each separately.

Finding Solitude When You Don’t Live Alone

The inimitable Cathy Hay posted her Costume College vlog/recap last week and it was, of course, unique and brilliant. In it, she talks about attending large conventions as an introvert, someone who finds large groups of people exhausting and needs time alone to recharge. One of the things that stood out to me was when she referenced that fact that she lives alone in the country. I remember my own days living alone with some fondness, particularly when I was in college in a small upstate-NY city, but of course, I no longer live alone.

Anyone who knows me personally probably knows that I am an introvert. This may come as a surprise to people who only know me when I’m “on” — in stage shows or at work in my networking-heavy job — but I thrive on alone time. Of course, I’ve been married twice now and even have a child (plus I had to live with housemates most of the time I spent before moving in with Dan after my divorce), so I no longer live alone and have to find ways to get the solitude I crave. This has been particularly challenging since having Elliot, but it is still possible.

That said, I do think that any commentary on my solitary tendencies would not be complete without my waxing rhapsodic about the solo apartment of my later two years of college. I lived in a town where I could get a large one-bedroom apartment for less than a studio in the area where I currently live, so when my friend was trying to get out of his lease, I jumped at it. I had a large bedroom, living room, bathroom, and kitchen all to myself, along with a giant arched window to let in glorious amounts of natural light. And it was far enough away from campus to avoid much of the weekend partier traffic, while being close enough that walking to class wasn’t onerous. Of course, when finals weeks made my solitude even more profound (I would often go days without speaking), I would occasionally make a point to get breakfast in a cafe to have some interaction, but I was largely happy to exist alone.

Moving for graduate school made living alone financially impossible, and then I eventually moved in with my first husband. Then, the divorce again made living alone impossible, and the apartment I was finally able to rent on my own after that ended up being a poor fit for me. And then, I moved in with Dan, and eventually, we married and had our son.

So over the last more than 10 years since college, I’ve learned how to live with people and still maintain a sense of solitude. I now live in a suburb of a major city and work in the city, so I am almost never alone. Couple that with the fact that a new baby means lots of visitors, and I’ve had to hone my skills at finding alone time.

I think the cornerstone of my solitude practice is rising early. When I went back to work, I started rising between 5:30 and 6 a.m. to shower before Dan woke up, and try to make a cup of tea (or chocolate) and have some time to read before anyone else woke up. This time in the early morning is the only time that I feel truly alone sometimes. And it is especially nice on the weekends, when Dan sleeps in rather late (sometimes until 8am!) and I have a longer time to myself. Those who met me in the last ten years may be surprised to learn that I have not always been a morning person. I forced myself to start rising earlier when I started running in grad school so that I could take advantage of my time before classes started (and cooler weather in the summer). And I will say that training my body to rise earlier has been one of the single best ways for me to retain a sense of solitude, even while growing our family.

This weekend, for example, I woke up naturally around 5:30 a.m., and decided that, rather than trying to go back to sleep, I’d rather make myself some tea and have a quiet morning to myself while Dan slept in with Elliot. I wrote some letters, sipped my tea, and walked to the post box just before Dan and Elliot woke up. It was lovely and calm and let me reconnect with myself and my own interests before jumping into a day of family togetherness.

My Historically-Inspired Morning Routine

I’ve written before about my vintage-inspired routines, but lately, I’ve been finding myself going even further back in history for inspiration. Because the summer always makes me yearn for airy muslin dresses, I’ve been stuck in the Regency period lately. And because I never just limit myself to fashion or beauty, I’ve found the practices of the Regency period bleeding into my morning routine.

Since having a baby, the early morning is often the only time I get entirely to myself, and adding childcare to my morning routine has meant that I have to rise particularly early. While my hours may be more akin to that of a Regency servant, I’ve taken some inspiration from Regency middle and upper classes to carve out a few quiet moments to myself in the morning.

I rise between 5:30 and 6 a.m., and wash up. I shower every morning, although it is often a very quick shower to wash my body and face, while I keep my hair protected in a cap or turban. I spritz my clean skin with rosewater and apply a few drops of facial oil, put on a robe, and go into the kitchen.

One thing I’ve learned is that I no longer wake ravenous, so I don’t need to make a full breakfast immediately upon rising. In true historical fashion, I’ve started eating my breakfast around 10 a.m. in my office. But I need something to get me through my commute, so I’ve been making a cup of drinking chocolate. I’ll share more about my particular recipe a little further on, but while my chocolate boils, I usually have enough time to prepare the few things I need to bring to work for my breakfast and lunch: some sliced bread and cheese, a couple boiled eggs, some fruit, and a salad.

To make my chocolate, I bring water to a boil, add chopped chocolate, spices ground in my mortar and pestle, and sugar. I stir until the chocolate melts, and then bring it to a simmer. Then I remove it from the heat, add cream, and whip it to a froth. This is poured into a cup or mug and enjoyed with a chapter or two of a book. I’ve lately tried to keep myself from opening up my devices too early in the morning (although I often fail to resist temptation), and instead have been reading classic books. I recently finished Jane Eyre and enjoyed it immensely.

By the time I finish my chocolate, Elliot and Dan have usually woken up, so I sit and nurse Elliot while Dan takes his shower. Once both have finished, I can make the final touches to my skin care by applying sunscreen, and then dress my hair, dress my body, and put on a little makeup. Then, I can gather my things and leave for the train station, my little oasis of calm having thoroughly prepared me for the day.

Regency-Inspired Drinking Chocolate
(inspired by this post)

1 oz. unsweetened chocolate
2 cardamom pods
3 allspice berries
1 Tbsp. of sucanat (unrefined sugar)
1 cup of water
2-3 Tbsp. heavy cream

Bring the water to a boil in a small saucepan. Break open the cardamom pods and empty the seeds into a mortar. Add the allspice. Grind the spices to a powder with the pestle. Chop the chocolate. Add the chocolate, spices, and sucanat to the boiling water. Stir until the chocolate has melted and blended with the water, then bring back to a simmer. Remove from the heat and add cream. Whip to a froth and serve. Makes one generous cup.

Hand Sewing the Lila + June Wrap Skirt

I finished my first proper sewing project from a pattern this weekend! I’ve been sharing some little updates along the way as I work on this lovely skirt, but I thought I ought to write a longer post detailing my process, how I deviated from the original pattern, and lessons I’ve learned along the way. Perhaps others who might be interested in sewing this pattern, but who don’t have a sewing machine, might be interested in my thoughts.

So first of all, I chose this skirt because 1.) the pattern is free, 2.) it’s a wrap skirt so sizing is very forgiving, and 3.) I know Kirsten, who owns L+J. Also, I’ve been spending a lot of my time exploring sewing YouTube videos and it’s inspiring me to sew, plus I enjoyed the embroidery project I picked up recently. I find the physical act of stitching to be very relaxing. But my one experience with a sewing machine, when I tried to “help” my mother with my Halloween costume one year, went poorly and I don’t really have a good place to put a machine right now anyway. So I decided to see if I could hand-sew the entire thing. Yes, I’m a little mad. But we’re all mad here, so here we go.

Fabric Choice:

I chose a medium-weight, quilting cotton from Fabric.com because it was inexpensive, solid colored, and machine washable. I didn’t want to break the bank with my first project because there was always a chance I’d fail utterly and have to scrap it, but I wanted something in a color I would wear, and solid so I could pair it with more tops. I also chose some all-cotton green thread.

Of course, when the fabric and thread arrived, I discovered the pitfalls of shopping online, namely that the colors don’t match as well as I’d have liked. But they match well enough and the very little stitching that is visible on the outside of the garment isn’t too jarring. When my fabric arrived, I washed and dried it, and then got ready to go!

Time Commitment:

So from the day I cut out the pattern until the day I tied off the last stitch, it was exactly a month to make this skirt. I did sit on the fabric for a little while because it arrived while we were in the process of moving house, and for a while I didn’t really have any space to lay out fabric. But after the initial move finished, I found myself with the time. But I will say that I only worked on the skirt maybe two days per week because I have a full-time job, a baby, and family and friends who insist on claiming some of my time on the weekend. If I had worked on it for a few hours every day, I might have been able to finish in a week or two. One day, perhaps I will take off a week from work to test this theory.

The biggest time sink was the hem. It’s a circle and then some, so that’s understandable. And I chose not to do the topstitching on the waistband and ties to save some time. Surprisingly, I found the side seams to be relatively quick. I actually cut the back panel of the skirt on a fold to save myself a seam, but in retrospect, one more seam wouldn’t have been that much work, and it would have been nice to have that center back seam to line up the waistband.

Stitches:

When I first started out, I was inordinately grateful for this video from Bernadette Banner on the basic stitches for historical hand-sewing. I found that going to historical practice blogs and YouTube channels was really helpful because they’re the ones using hand sewing to construct garments, rather than just for finishing or decorative work. I also appreciated this page on hand-finishing stitches. I used her Frenched seam finish on my side seams, rather than sewing each seam twice like you would on a machine.

I did my side seams in backstitch, finished the seams with a whip stitch, and felled the hem. I backstitched on the waistband, twice (my pride and joy is the inside waistband seam, which I backstitched without pricking through to the front), and used a slip stitch to close up the rest of the waist ties. As mentioned before, I skipped topstitching the waist band and ties. Those are the only deviations from the printed pattern.

So that’s my skirt process. It’s delightfully twirly and I’m thoroughly enjoying wearing it. Of course I welcome any questions you might have for me! Let me know if you have any sewing projects you’re working on, as I’m definitely planning my next project.