So roast beef ala Hayes it is. Because I'm feeling lazy, the aforementioned potato puffs will have to wait for later. Roasted potatoes will do.
Life is full of hidden challenges. I choose a seemingly unchallenging recipe only to feel the cold snap of Lucy Hayes' teeth on my Achilles tendon. Let's get down to brass tacks: restraint is not one of my more evident qualities as a cook. Although I have learned that moderation in spicing can be a good thing, I tend to make up for any (modest) restraint in that area by using tons of flavorful ingredients: garlic, leeks, scallions, wine, capers, olive oil, Parmesan, bacon grease, chicken stock. Did I mention bacon I rarely cook anything that has fewer than eight ingredients. The ingredients for Lucy Hayes' roast beef? Four. Flour, beef, salt, and pepper. Five if you count hot water.
The bland recipe seems fairly in keeping with the Hayes white house. Although Lucy Hayes was the first college graduate first lady, she wasn't exactly a firecracker. The chapter on the Hayes white house is peppered with phrases such as: "Virtue became fashionable, and Lucy was hailed as its defender", "Then to the blue room for family prayers", and "Every night the family gathered in the Red Room to sing old ballads, hymns, and Stephen Foster songs". Lucy became known as "lemonade Lucy" because the Hayes White House had a strict ban on alcohol.
A number of ingredients spring to mind as I ready the roast. Ingredients I have around that really would add to the recipe...Perhaps a sprinkle of smoked paprika? Some fresh rosemary? Leeks couldn't possibly hurt...Do I really have to put hot water in the bottom of the pan? Wouldn't stock or wine be better?
I heat the oven to 450 degrees. For some reason it has never occurred to me to cook a roast at this high of heat. At first I want to consult other recipes, but as I think about it, it begins to make sense. Steaks are good cooked at high heat for short periods of time, after all. Speaking of short periods of time, the recipe claims that a roast this size (3.5 lbs) should be done in 45 minutes, which seems impossible. I am used to making pot roast, which takes all day.
I resist the temptation to add any spices or additional ingredients and dump the floured and salted lump into a pan, ringed only by the potatoes I'm roasting. I do cheat a little and add a splash of wine, my rationalization being this: Lucy and Rutherford B. were teetotalers, so of course it wouldn't occur to them to add wine to a recipe. But probably anyone else cooking this recipe at that time would have added wine as a matter of course, right? Jefferson's recipe calls for wine. I can't be a slave to their inhibitions. Also, I don't want the potatoes to be too dry...
After 45 minutes, I check the roast. It smells good and the outside sizzles crispy, but I am still suspicious of the timing. I like rare (read: raw) meat myself, but my roommate Cornelius (purchaser of said roast) eschews bloody beef. I plunge the meat thermometer into the roast, and the arrow doesn't waver. According to the thermometer, the meat doesn't even qualify as rare yet. I cook until I get a rare reading, another 45 minutes.
And the results? The roast, like the Hayes administration, is unremarkable. It's tender and juicy enough and doesn't seem to suffer terribly from the lack of spices. However, truth be told, the extremities are overdone. I should have listened to Lucy Hayes.