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Food Historian Savors Washington's Culinary Heritage

Amanda Moniz is thrilled whenever the opportunity arises to showcase her twin loves: baking and history. And she’s been delighted to discover, via the experimental courses she’s developed in conjunction with Hill Center, that others hunger to do so as well.

“It makes cooking more fun,” Moniz said of the distinct pleasure derived from taking knowledge buried in a dusty tome and translating it into a modern-day conversation starter.

To wit, Moniz started down this educational path, not as an academic, but as an aesthete.

After completing college, Moniz said she enrolled in a pastry arts program at the New York Restaurant School (precursor to the Art Institute of New York City). She honed her new craft over half a decade, spending time in kitchens ranging from Mario Batali’s Babbo in NYC to Mark Furstenberg’s Breadline here in D.C. Later, Moniz decided to hang up her toque and turn her attention to graduate school, a decision she figured would mark the end of her flour-filled days.

Until, of course, the longing to sift, measure and whip once again began to consume her.

“Last spring it just dawned on me that the two could be mutually reinforcing,” Moniz said of her plan to mine historical cookbooks for inspiration.

According to Moniz, the resulting blog, historysjustdesserts.com, fed her passion for research. But it wasn’t until she began applying those lessons in a classroom setting that she truly appreciated her time away from the kitchen.

“This is just a fantastic way for me to broaden myself. I’m learning a lot,” she said.

Moniz planted the seed for her newish career last fall, conducting two classes at Hill Center. The first focused on the first African-American cookbook produced in the United States. The second embellished upon President Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 proclamation designating the official observance of Thanksgiving.

She said she decided to dedicate 2014 to the exploration of local history; the resulting curriculum is spread out over six courses to be taught at Hill Center throughout the rest of the year.

This past February, Moniz returned to the Hill Center kitchen to explore other early African-American cookbooks in honor of Black History Month. The class scheduled for April 26 (11 a.m. to 1 p.m.; $40 per person) covers the invaluable contributions former first lady Dolly Madison made to our young nation.

“She played an important role ... in trying to foster national unity at a time when the country was divided,” Moniz asserted. “And she hosted great parties.”

The program for the Madison course, which Moniz said marries recipes from “The Presidents’ Cookbook” by Poppy Cannon and Patricia Brooks with material extracted from “The Virginia House-Wife” by Mary Randolph, is expected to provide colonial-era insights into seed cakes (think caraway seeds and brandy), caramel layer cake and almond macaroons. “No matter your politics, you’ll enjoy these goodies,” Moniz pledges in her class pitch.

Upcoming courses include: June — commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, July — mastering cakes named for revolutionary figures (George Washington, Marquis de Lafayette), September — Sephardic cooking from 17th and 18th century America, November — 19th century Capitol Hill boarding house fare.

Moniz noted that while she attempts to stay as true to the recipes as possible, modernizing the process is sometimes necessary.

“I want these recipes to live and for people to be able to make them,” she said of her pragmatic approach to adapting recipes, adding, “I think if cooks in the early republic would have had a Kitchen Aid blender, they would have used it.”

There are, however, exceptions to the rule.

“The most challenging recipe I’ve made was Abby Fisher’s Maryland Beat Biscuits. The biscuits have to be beaten, with a rolling pin, for at least 15 minutes. It’s hard work,” she said of the painstaking process. “I can’t say I’ve grown to love those biscuits, but I have a little bit more understanding of how hard labor was for the women and men, free and enslaved, who produced food without labor-saving devices.”

Modern conveniences, naturally, made all the difference when she was making her mark in professional kitchens. “Professionally, some of my favorite desserts to make were frozen desserts, like semifreddos and ice creams, that involve fine decision-making and dexterity,” she said of the treats that used to capture her imagination.

After combing through historical texts, Moniz said she’s challenging herself to cook more like our forefathers; she’s currently obsessed with incorporating rose water and caraway seeds into her baking.

Of course, sometimes she prefers to just empty her head and do what comes naturally.

“I like to make cakes — easy and comforting,” Moniz shared.

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