Cooking (and Contemplating) New England

50 Things to Know about American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, the first American Cookbook: #3 & #4

May 4, 2017

Tags: Amelia Simmons, American Cookery, Jedidiah Morse, Albany, Wethersfield

Coming November, 2017, from University of Massachusetts Press!
Jedidiah Morse, father of the inventor of the telegraph, Samuel F. B. Morse, complained in his American Geography (1789) that in Albany, New York, all the houses were constructed with projecting "watergutters or spouts," a custom that made it "almost dangerous to walk the streets in a rainy day."

In the 1740s in Wethersfield, Connecticut, a town near Hartford, women were employed to prepare onions for sale by tying them in bunches. Historian Gloria L. Main writes that these women workers were paid not in cash but rather in "store merchandise, mostly luxury imports." One woman's payment took the form of "a copy of Homer's Iliad."

These intimate details about life in the young republic--variations in house design, the specifics of a barter economy--paint a picture of early American society that we don't often see. How do such portraits of ordinary American life help us understand American Cookery by Amelia Simmons? Find out this November in our new book from University of Massachusetts Press, United Tastes: The Making of the First American Cookbook.

Map drawn by Kate Blackmer, Blackmer Maps

50 Things to Know about American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, the first American Cookbook: #1 & #2

April 25, 2017

Tags: Amelia Simmons, American Cookery, William Emerson, Timothy Dwight, George Washington

Coming November, 2017, from University of Massachusetts Press!
In the first decade of the nineteenth century, Ralph Waldo Emerson's father, William Emerson, was the pastor of the prestigious First Church of Boston. "Every Sunday evening," writes historian Phyllis Cole, "the deacons and other friends enjoyed wine and spirits, arrayed in gleaming decanters on the sideboard" in the dining room of the Emerson residence.

According to then-president of Yale Timothy Dwight, in his Travels in New England and New York, sometime in the early years of American independence, a justice of the U. S. Supreme Court told a governor of Connecticut that "when General Washington took the oath of office in the balcony of the assembly house in Philadelphia, the chief justice, who administered it, could scarcely be heard at a distance of ten feet on account of the noise and tumult of the yard below."

These intimate details about life in the young republic--cocktail hour at the parsonage, an unruly audience for Washington's swearing in--paint a picture of early American society that we don't often see. How do such portraits of ordinary American life help us understand American Cookery by Amelia Simmons? Find out this November in our new book from University of Massachusetts Press, United Tastes: The Making of the First American Cookbook.

Map drawn by Kate Blackmer, Blackmer Maps

Of Citrons and Amelia Simmons (with an Aside about Emily Dickinson)

January 26, 2017

Tags: Citron, Amelia Simmons, Emily Dickinson, Catharine Beecher, Hannah Glasse, black cake, fruitcake

How Are These Two Alike? Find Out Below

Black Cake
In working on our next book, due out from University of Massachusetts Press this fall, we had some correspondence with the staff of Harvard's Houghton Library on the subject of citron, a fruit that, in candied form, is included in many fruitcakes. Some of the Houghton staff had gotten together and baked a "black cake,"

from a recipe used by (more…)

"To Smother a Fowl in Oysters," from Amelia Simmons's "American Cookery" (1796)

May 3, 2015

Tags: Amelia Simmons, chicken, oysters

An "Oystered" Fowl That Makes Excellent Fare

The Oyster: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor
In our last post, the oyster had the featured role. As we mention there, the oyster has also performed admirably in historic New England cuisine in supporting parts. This time we offer oysters in such a supporting role from our old friend Amelia Simmons and the book by her that's considered "the first American cookbook." (more…)

"To alamode a round," from Amelia Simmons's American Cookery (1796)

February 11, 2014

Tags: Amelia Simmons, beef, a la mode, pot roast

Not Your Average Pot Roast, from 1796

A La Mode des Francais, Anglais, Américains
The expression "à la mode," as appended to apple pie in modern American English, actually makes no sense: apple pie in the style or fashion of . . . what? Or whom? Have we slovenly Americans yet again, in importing vocabulary and cuisine from France, robbed both of their native clarity and elegance? Not really. It turns out that long before apple pie topped with vanilla ice cream, another "à la mode" dish was so widely loved that there was in that case as well no need to fill in the blank after the "de." This was, in the Anglophone world, "beef a la mode." Nor was the American Amelia Simmons the first to make the usage even more casual by turning the phrase into a verb that served as shorthand for the entire process of cooking the dish: "To alamode a round." The English author Elizabeth Raffald had pulled a similar stunt three decades before: "To a-la-mode beef." (more…)

Amelia (1796) Strikes Again: “To Dress a Bass”

June 27, 2012

Tags: Amelia Simmons, bass, cod, stuffing, gill

Amelia Simmons’s stuffed striped bass, accompanied by Elizabeth Raffald’s stewed oysters

Good Every Way
Along the New England coast, it’s the peak time of year for catching striped bass. Or if like us you’re not that much into fishing, it’s the season when you can be sure to find this delicious species at your local market. Back at the very beginnings of the English settlement of New England, in 1634, William Wood, in his book New Englands Prospect, wrote that “though men are soon wearied with other fish, yet they are never with Basse.” Over two hundred years later, our good friend Catharine Beecher heartily agreed. “Bass are good every way,” she said. Nowadays, one of the ways of cooking bass that people particularly like is grilling it on a cedar plank, as is also popular with salmon, and as we did, using a recipe from Mrs. Bliss, with haddock (see our blog post, “Scrod or Young Cod, Roasted”).

Amelia Simmons offers another superb option for bass—filling it with a lovely bread stuffing and baking it. Unfortunately, last summer we didn’t decide to give Amelia’s recipe a go until a bit late in the season, when bass aren’t as plentiful. Our fish market could only provide us with one small fillet—not enough for four servings. But not to worry. Amelia explains at the end of her recipe that “the same method may be observed with fresh Shad, Codfish, Blackfish and Salmon.” Our market always has lots of codfish, so we brought a couple of cod fillets home along with our bass fillet.

The Ingredients
Serves 4

2 slices salt pork
½ teaspoon savory
½ teaspoon marjoram
1½ teaspoons dry, or 1 tablespoon fresh, parsley
¼ teaspoon salt
10 twists of a pepper mill
¼ teaspoon cayenne
2 slices white whole grain bread
1 egg
1 gill (½ cup) white wine
3 bass or cod fillets (about 1 lb.)
1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter, melted

How We Made It
We preheated the oven to 375°F. We took one of the slices of salt pork and chopped it into small pieces.

The other slice of salt pork we cut into strips, and we cubed the bread.

By the way, we used white whole grain bread because, of the breads readily available in today’s supermarkets, this type most closely approximates the basic wheat bread of Simmons’s time. We mixed together the first (chopped) slice of salt pork, the bread, the egg, the gill of white wine,


and the seasoning. The stuffing for our bass and cod fillets was ready.

We rolled our bass fillet around the stuffing,

whereas with our two cod fillets, we spread stuffing the length of one of them and placed the second on top, mimicking to some extent a whole stuffed fish.

It looks like the preheated oven would be the next destination.

But not so fast. You may be wondering about that second slice of salt pork, cut in strips. Simmons says to lay the salt pork strips on the fish “as it goes into the oven.”

This helps to keep it from getting too dry during baking.

We baked our bass and cod for an hour at 375°F, discarded the salt pork strips, and poured the melted butter over all.

Simmons says to serve your bass or cod with stewed oysters, boiled onions or potatoes, and cranberries. We made all but the boiled onions, using for the oysters an eighteenth-century recipe by Elizabeth Raffald that’s included in Northern Hospitality, p. 155.

The bass lived up to its reputation. And Simmons is correct--the “method” worked equally well with the cod.

It all made for a memorable New England baked fish feed!

Amelia Simmons’s original recipe, with commentary, can be found in Northern Hospitality, p. 149.

"Gingerbread Cakes"—another offering from Amelia Simmons’s “first American cookbook” (1796)

May 5, 2012

Tags: Amelia Simmons, gingerbread, cake, cookies, ginger, dessert

Amelia’s “veddy English” Gingerbread Cakes, enjoyed with a “nice cuppa”

Gingerbread: The History
Simmons’s recipe is closely based on one in an English cookbook, Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (see our blog post on her chowder recipe). Indeed gingerbread had a long history in England before it crossed the Atlantic. The earliest gingerbreads were made with grated crumbs from the finest type of wheat bread, the manchet (see our blog post thereon), were sweetened with honey rather than sugar or molasses, and were often dyed red, violet, or yellow. In the course of the seventeenth century, flour began to replace the manchet crumbs and sugar or treacle (molasses to us Yanks) the honey, while the garish coloring gradually faded away.

Gingerbread was enjoyed on all levels of society. King Charles II was said to particularly favor treacle gingerbread. Here in New England, Samuel Sewall, one of the judges in the Salem Witch Trials (he later publicly repented of his participation in the guilty verdicts), and a man who moved throughout his life on the highest levels of Boston society, was served “Ginger-Bread” by the governor of Massachusetts one day in 1720. Just as people frequently do nowadays when they have dinner in a restaurant, Sewall took some of the governor’s gingerbread home with him. The next day he bestowed it as a token of his esteem, “wrapped in a clean sheet of Paper,” upon a widow woman he was courting. A highly prized piece of gingerbread indeed!

Farther down the social scale, gingerbread was popular among militia soldiers (and children) on colonial muster days. On his famous youthful walk from Boston to Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin nibbled on gingerbread.

Like many other foods, gingerbread didn’t take the form in which we’re familiar with it—a soft cake sweetened always with molasses—until the time of the colonial revival, in the decades around the turn of the twentieth century. A hundred years before that, Simmons offers five recipes for gingerbread. Four are relatively soft, though not as cakey as modern gingerbread; the one made with molasses is dense, almost hard. The one we’re telling you about in this post is a cookie-like “little cake” made with sugar. By the way, it was Simmons who first used the Dutch word “cookey” as the American name for English little cakes. But for some reason she didn’t apply the term to these small, circular gingerbreads, which in our eyes are clearly cookies.

If you’d like to know more about the culinary and cultural history of gingerbread in New England, you'll find several pages devoted to the subject in our earlier book, America’s Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking.

The Ingredients
We cut Simmons's recipe in half and converted her weight measurements to volume. Makes about 4 dozen small-to-medium cookies.

6 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
3 tablespoons ground ginger
1 cup sugar
2 sticks butter
2 large eggs
1½ teaspoons baking powder dissolved in
¼ cup heavy cream


How We Made It
We preheated the oven to 350º. We mixed together the flour, nutmeg, and ginger (we like to use a strong variety such as Frontier), and set aside.

Then we creamed the butter and sugar and mixed in the eggs.

In a measuring cup, we dissolved the baking powder in the cream.

We added the flour mixture to the creamed butter and sugar, then added in the cream/ baking powder and ran the standing mixer just until the dough came together.

You can also mix the dough by hand; do not overmix.

Using a small scoop, we formed the dough into little round cakes (i.e., cookies) and placed them about 2 inches apart on greased or Silpat-lined baking sheets. Then we popped them into the preheated oven

for fifteen minutes.

After fifteen minutes, when the cakes were slightly browned on the edges, we removed them from the oven and allowed them to cool for about 10 minutes. Then we served our rich, spicy gingerbread cakes together with one of the other little cakes that Simmons neglects to call “cookeys,” her caraway-flavored “Tumbles.” (We'll be blogging Tumbles soon.)

Ours wasn’t a high tea, certainly, but it certainly was high time for tea and “cookeys” at our house!

Amelia Simmons’s original recipe, with commentary, can be found in Northern Hospitality, p. 369.

“Plumb Cake," from Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery (1796)

February 16, 2012

Tags: Amelia Simmons, cake, yeast, eggs, plum, dessert

A yeasted "Plumb Cake" from the first American cookbook

We’ve been bringing this cake to our speaking engagements this year, and it’s been a hit every time. It comes from the same cookbook as the “Marlborough Pudding (Pie)” we featured a couple of posts ago. American Cookery by Amelia Simmons was the first cookbook written by an American and published in the United States. Simmons is an interesting—partly because she’s a mysterious—character. For example, she identifies herself on the title page of her book as “an American Orphan.” There are also several quirky aspects to the publication of American Cookery, as there are as well to this cake recipe. Such as, that it’s made with both eggs and yeast, and also with neither butter nor sugar (except a bit in the candied fruit and the sweet wine). If you’d like to know more about Simmons and her cookbook,

and also how we made “plumb cake,”

click over to our column about it on All Things New England.

The original recipe, with commentary, can be found in Northern Hospitality, p. 384.

Marlborough Pudding (Pie) by Amelia Simmons

January 12, 2012

Tags: apples, custard, pudding, pie, dessert, Amelia Simmons

Marlborough Pudding, a custard apple pie from Amelia Simmons (1796)

In Amelia Simmons's day, "pudding in paste" was a common term for custard pie. Her "Marlborough Pudding" is just that, a custardized apple filling in a crust. For this pie, she recommends using her own paste No. 3, lining a deep dish, and filling it with a rich apple custard. Her paste no. 3 is a superb puff paste (we give it in Northern Hospitality, p. 247). But any good homemade pie crust will do nicely. The essence of this apple pie is the filling: luscious fresh apples, cooked down to a thick sauce, mixed with eggs, wine, butter, cream, spices, and sugar. It's a pity that Marlborough Pie is seldom seen on restaurant menus or in cookbooks today.

Marlborough Pie was a New England favorite throughout the nineteenth century. Jane Nylander, in Our Own Snug Fireside (pp. 274-75), describes a Thanksgiving feast enjoyed by the nineteenth-century literary luminary Edward Everett Hale and his wife. The meal featured "mince pie, squash pie, Marlborough pie, cranberry tart, and plum pudding" along with chicken pie and roast turkey.

Our Version of Amelia Simmons's Marlborough Pudding
Makes 2 9-inch pies

8 medium-sized apples
4 large eggs
12 tablespoons sugar
12 tablespoons butter, melted
3/4 cup Madeira (sherry)
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground mace
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 partially-baked 9-inch pie crusts

To make Simmons's "Marlborough Pudding," we used eight Liberty apples (a relative of the Macoun) obtained from an orchard near us in Rhode Island. The Liberty is sweet with firm flesh, perfect for this recipe, but any good, fresh apple can be used.

We peeled, cored, and cut each Liberty into about sixteen pieces.

Then we cooked the pieces down until soft (about 20 minutes). We lightly mashed the cooked apples. This made enough applesauce to fill two 9-inch pie crusts.

We interpreted Simmons's "spoons" as tablespoons, and used 12 tablespoons of beaten egg (4 large eggs). We used 12 tablespoons of sugar dissolved in the same amount of melted butter. We then mixed 3/4 cup (12 tablespoons) of Madeira into the butter and sugar. We added spices (¼ teaspoon each of cinnamon, nutmeg, and mace) to the apple, added the butter-sugar-wine mixture to the apple-spice mixture, then added ¼ cup heavy cream to the beaten eggs.

Finally, we mixed all the ingredients together and poured the custard into the two pie crusts that had been blind-baked at convect 375° F. (roughly 400° F. in a conventional oven) for 15 minutes. We baked the two pies at convect 375° F. for 30 min., then at convect 350° F. for 20 min., then at convect 325° F. for 25 min. (Add about 25° F. to each oven temperature for a conventional oven.)

We cooled the pies on racks for about 30 minutes to allow the custard to set before serving.

What's in a Name?
The name Marlborough might lead us to think that this pie is an English import, perhaps something from the 1st Duke of Marlborough's own kitchen. Indeed, there are similar recipes in English sources. For instance, E. Smith in The Compleat Housewife (1739) gives "An Apple Pudding" that calls for boiling down into apple sauce eight peeled and quartered golden runnets (more often called rennets) or twelve golden pippins. (About pippins, see the blog post on "Beef or Veal Stewed with Apples.") Smith then sweetens her apple sauce with loaf sugar, flavors it with the juice and grated peel of two lemons, and adds eight beaten eggs before covering it with puff paste and baking. We give this recipe in Northern Hospitality, p. 310. Hannah Glasse also has an apple pudding recipe. It's similar to Smith's, but Glasse adds butter and omits the egg whites. (If you're of a mind to pursue apple pudding recipes, this one is also cited in Northern Hospitality, p. 310.)

But the first time the name "Marlborough" is associated with the dish is, as far as we can determine, in an American source, namely Simmons's American Cookery. In other words, the invented name is a nod to the dish's English pedigree. It's also an indication that the American fondness for British aristocracy didn't begin with the first season of Downton Abbey.

Simmons differs from Smith in giving her pie a bottom crust, and omitting Smith's top crust, basically flipping the location of the crust from top to bottom. But this does not settle the matter once and for all, as New Englander Mrs. A. L. Mrs. Webster in The Improved Housewife (1844) gives a recipe for "Marlborough Pudding" with no crust (mentioned in Northern Hospitality, p. 318). Mrs. Webster also has a recipe for "Marlborough Tarts" (NH, p. 318) made with a plain bottom crust and a rim of puff paste around the edge. The filling is stewed tart apples, sugar, wine, melted butter, lemon juice and grated rind, eggs, and nutmeg. Can't get much better than that.

The original recipe for "Marlborough Pudding" by Amelia Simmons, with commentary, can be found in Northern Hospitality, p. 314.