Alcott · Little Women

Sneak Peek: Amy’s Cold Tongue & Ham Sandwiches

     “Our drawing class breaks up next week, and before the girls separate for the summer, I want to ask them out here for a day. They are wild to see the river, sketch the broken bridge, and copy some of the things they admire in my book. They have been very kind to me in many ways, and I am grateful, for they are all rich, and I know I am poor, yet they never made any difference.”
     “Why should they?” and Mrs. March put the question with what the girls called her “Maria Theresa air.”
     “You know as well as I that it does make a difference with nearly every one, so don’t ruffle up, like a dear, motherly hen, when your chickens get pecked by smarter birds; the ugly duckling turned out a swan, you know;” and Amy smiled without bitterness, for she possessed a happy temper and hopeful spirit.
     Mrs. March laughed, and smoothed down her maternal pride as she asked,— “Well, my swan, what is your plan?”
     “I should like to ask the girls out to lunch next week, to take them [for] a drive to the places they want to see, a row on the river, perhaps, and make a little artistic fête for them.”
     “That looks feasible. What do you want for lunch? Cake, sandwiches, fruit, and coffee will be all that is necessary, I suppose?”
     “Oh dear, no! We must have cold tongue and chicken, French chocolate and ice-cream, besides. The girls are used to such things, and I want my lunch to be proper and elegant, though I do work for my living.” (Chapter 26: “Artistic Attempts”)

Have you noticed that in Victorian stories, ladies often have cold tongue on their tea table? If you’ve never tried tongue before, don’t be scared! Prepared this way, it tastes very similar to corned beef. The texture is a little more rubbery than other cuts of beef, but sliced thin it’s very tasty. But if the idea of tongue is really just too much for you, or if you forgot to prepare it 10 days ahead, you can go with the much simpler ham alternative for your sandwiches.

The French rolls are an interesting recipe; we’re not quite sure what the reasoning was for adding the whipped egg whites in this way, but the result is a fine, light bread that makes cute little sandwiches. The method here doesn’t seem especially French, but young Amy’s French is always an approximation anyway …

For the full menu for Amy’s French fête, check out The Little Women Cookbook: Novel Takes on Classic Recipes from Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy.

Makes 9 small sandwiches

When Amy hosts a fancy fête for her wealthy art classmates, she offers sandwiches for lunch. This recipe is based on instructions from 19th-century cookbook author Eliza Leslie.

French Rolls

For 9 small French rolls:

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 pound flour (4 cups)
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 packet active dry or instant yeast (2 teaspoons)
  • 3 egg whites
  • Vegetable oil for greasing the bowl, pan, and rolls

Prepare the rolls:

  1. Put the milk and butter in a small saucepan over medium heat and warm until the butter is mostly melted. Don’t let it get too hot; you should be able to put your finger in without burning yourself.
  2. While the milk is warming, combine the flour, salt, sugar, and yeast in a large bowl.
  3. Add the milk and butter to the flour mixture and stir well.
  4. In a medium bowl, beat the egg whites to soft peaks and fold them into the dough. It may seem too dry at first, but it will soften up.
  5. Knead the dough by hand or in a stand mixer until it feels silky and not too sticky. You should be able to stretch an edge of the dough until it’s translucent without tearing (this is called the “windowpane test”). As you knead, add a little additional flour as needed, but not so much that the dough becomes stiff.
  6. Oil the bowl you were using (no need to wash it) and put the dough in, turning it to coat.
  7. Cover and let rise for about 1 hour in a warm place.
  8. Generously grease a 9 x 9-inch square baking pan with vegetable oil.
  9. Once the dough has grown puffy (if you poke it, it should not spring back) and has nearly doubled in size, gently punch down the dough.
  10. Divide the dough into 9 equal pieces, and form each piece into a tight ball (smooth on top and tucked in tightly underneath). Pour a little oil in your hands and gently roll each ball in your hands to coat it with a light layer of oil.
  11. Place the rolls close together in the baking pan, spacing them evenly. Cover with oiled plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for about an hour, or until doubled in size. They will be touching on all sides.
  12. While the rolls are rising, preheat the oven to 375°F.
  13. Bake the rolls for 20 to 25 minutes, until the tops are golden brown and the internal temperature is about 200°F for the outer rolls and 180°F or so for the middle (they will keep cooking a bit after you take them out).
  14. Let the rolls cool for 5 to 10 minutes in the pan, then remove and separate them.

Tongue For the cold tongue:

  • 8 cups (2 quarts) water
  • 1-1/2 cups salt
  • 2 tablespoons pink curing salt
  • 1/2 cup molasses
  • 1 beef tongue, 3 to 4 pounds
  • 4 cups ice
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 teaspoon peppercorns

Prepare the cold tongue:

  1. Start at least 10 days before you want to eat. Combine the water, salt, pink curing salt, and molasses in a large stock pot that will hold the tongue and will fit in your refrigerator. Heat on high until the salt and molasses are dissolved, then remove from heat and allow to cool.
  2. Rinse off the tongue and trim off some of the gristly part at the back if you like.
  3. Add the ice to the brine in the pot, and stir until the mixture is completely cold.
  4. 4. Put the tongue in the pot, making sure it’s completely submerged. If it floats, place a ceramic bowl or other heavy nonreactive object on top to keep it under the brine.
  5. Put the whole contraption in the refrigerator and leave it for 10 days. Check on it every day or so and flip the meat over so it brines evenly.

Cook the tongue:

  1. Pour off the brine and rinse the tongue well. Wash the pot.
  2. Return the meat to the pot and fill it with enough water to cover the meat by an inch or so. Add the bay leaves and peppercorns.
  3. Simmer over low heat so it’s barely bubbling for about 3 hours, until tender, or 150°F in the center. Check it occasionally and add more water as needed.
  4. Drain the tongue and allow it to cool for a bit.
  5. Peel the skin off the tongue—it should pull off easily. (This is probably the creepiest part of the process, our apologies.)
  6. Slice the tongue thinly and serve in sandwiches or however you like. You’ll find that the part toward the root of the tongue is fattier and more tender.

Friendly Advice: Tongue was often smoked after curing, to further preserve it. Period recipes say to smoke it for several weeks(!) but since we don’t need to worry so much about preservation, we tried smoking it after boiling, at 225°F for 2 to 3 hours, which made a great variation!

For the sandwiches:

  • soft rolls
  • butter, softened
  • mustard (optional)
  • sliced cold tongue or ham
  • parsley sprigs, for garnish

Prepare the sandwiches:

  1. Split some French rolls and butter them. Spread with a little mustard, if you like.
  2. Lay a generous amount of cold tongue or ham slices on the lower half of the bread. If you want to make more space for filling, you can scoop out a little of the inside of the top half.
  3. Press the two halves of the bread together.
  4. Pile the sandwiches in a pyramid on a flat dish, and garnish with sprigs of fresh parsley.


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