Cooking (and Contemplating) New England

"English Plum Pudding," from Mrs. A. L. Webster's The Improved Housewife (1844)

November 14, 2013

Tags: A. L. Webster, Sarah Josepha Hale, pudding, plum, dessert

For Thanksgiving This Year, Pull Out a Plum

A Classic Yankee Thanksgiving Dish
In her novel Northwood, first published in 1827, Sarah Josepha Hale gives a description of a typical New England Thanksgiving and, as we would expect, turkey and pumpkin pie are duly noted. But along with these dishes, standards of the national feast to this day, Hale includes an array of foods no longer associated with the festival: "surloin of beef, flanked on either side by a leg of pork and joint of mutton . . . a goose and pair of ducklings, . . . [and] that rich burgomaster of the provisions, called a chicken pie." (more…)

"A Pipin Tart," from Gervase Markham's Countrey Contentments (1623)

September 28, 2013

Tags: Gervase Markham, tart, pie, puff pastry, apples, pippins, rosewater, cinnamon, cloves, dessert

A Pip of a Tart from the Seventeenth Century

Piping Up about Pippins
The pippin was introduced into England in the sixteenth century from (where else?) France and quickly became the most popular variety of apple in that apple-loving nation. (The English preference for apples above all other fruits is suggested by the fact that when the English set out to make pies with an unfamiliar New World vegetable such as the pumpkin, they chose to swaddle the sliced pumpkin in sliced apples—see our post on "Pumpion Pye.") Though apples in general became at least as popular in New as in Old England, the pippin never made it into the front rank of New England pomological prestige. One can find occasional references in the historical record to orchards that grew, for example, the "Ribstone Pippin," and in the eighteenth century the American colonies acquired their own pippin, called the Newtown after the Long Island village where it originated. (more…)

"Boston Cream Cakes" from "Miss Beecher's Domestic Receipt Book" (1846)

January 25, 2013

Tags: Catharine Beecher, choux pastry, pastry cream, cream cake, dessert

Catharine Beecher's Take on a “Boston Cream” Dessert That Predates Boston Cream Pie

Let Them Eat Creamy Boston Cakes
Nowadays Americans think the only word that can possibly complete the phrase "Boston Cream" is "Pie." But in fact the BostonCream Pie—a notoriously misnamed yellow sponge cake with cream filling and chocolate icing—did not appear in print until the 1870s, long after Catharine Beecher’s 1846 cookbook made Boston Cream Cakes popular with those of a mind to imitate the dining fashions of New England’s metropolis. To confuse matters further, Beechers’s recipe wasn’t the only one circulating at the time under the stylish name of Boston Cream Cakes. But in our opinion those other recipes, relying on heavier, scone-like dough, aren’t nearly as good as Beecher’s éclair-like concoctions. Her recipe produces a light, flaky pastry, which she suggests filling with cream (meaning pastry cream) or custard. It seems highly likely that she got the idea—and most of the details—for these elegant little cakes from the famous French chef Antonin Carême, who in his Royal Parisian Pastrycook and Confectioner (1834) gives extensive instruction on making choux pastry of this type. Beecher's recipe is to all intents and purposes Carême's recipe, so she might just as well have called hers "Boston Carême Puffs.” (Pardon our punning but we just couldn’t resist that one!)

Beecher doesn’t specify the filling, so we used her own lovely, rosewater-scented pastry cream, which she calls "Mock Cream."

The Pastry Shells


9 cups all-purpose flour
4 sticks butter
4 cups water
12 eggs

How We Made The Pastry Shells
First we preheated the oven to 450° F. Using a stand mixer and paddle attachment, we mixed the butter, cut into about ½-tablespoon size pieces, into 8 cups of the flour.

Then we removed the bowl from the mixer and rubbed the butter into the flour by hand until the mixture resembled coarse meal.

We brought the water to a boil, removed it from the heat, and, working quickly before the water cooled, stirred in the butter/flour mixture.

We allowed the mixture to cool for about 10 minutes before beating in the eggs, one at a time, and adding the remaining cup of flour.

Now the glossy choux pastry dough was ready for baking.

We dropped 12 "teacup-size" scoops of dough onto a lightly greased half baking sheet (aka cookie sheet).

We baked the cakes for 10 minutes, reduced the oven temperature to 400° F., and baked them for an additional 20 minutes or so, until they were slightly puffed up and golden brown.

We resisted the temptation to sit down to the freshly baked cakes (okay, we admit we “tested” one or two hot from the oven) and proceeded to bake the remaining pastry dough, deploying an additional cookie sheet to be able to bake two batches at a time. Beecher’s recipe makes a ton of cream cakes! After a while, our house was filled with the fragrant smell of fresh-baked pastry and we had 5 dozen pastry shells cooling on racks everywhere. In short order they were ready to fill or freeze.

The Cream Filling


3 eggs, beaten well
3 heaping teaspoons all-purpose flour, sifted
3 cups whole milk, scalded
¼ teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon rosewater

These quantities of ingredients made about 3½ cups of pastry cream. Using about a tablespoon per shell, we were able to fill 50-55 of the shells.

How We Made The Filling

Using our stand mixer, we combined the beaten eggs and the sifted flour just until there were no lumps and the mixture was the consistency of a smooth batter.

To prevent the eggs from curdling, we stirred the hot milk constantly as we added the egg/flour batter,

and the salt and sugar.

Over low heat, we whisked the mixture vigorously for two to three minutes until thickened, being sure to whisk to the very bottom of the pot to prevent scorching.

We removed the pastry cream from the stove and allowed it to cool for a minute or so before adding the rosewater. Then we cooled the pastry cream to room temperature. Both the shells and the filling were all set to be turned into luscious cream cakes. We split the shells, filled them with the cream,

and, or et (as the great Carême doubtless many times announced) voilà!

Catharine Beecher’s two original recipes for “Boston Cream Cakes” and “Mock Cream,” with commentaries, can be found in Northern Hospitality, pp. 386 and 323.

Not Your Mother's Pumpkin Pie: "To Make a Pumpion Pye," from The Complete Cook (1658)

October 23, 2012

Tags: Compleat Cook, Queen Henrietta Maria, pie, pumpkins, apples, currants, dessert

Pumpkin Pie Fit for a Queen

Now that we're smack dab in the middle of the fall, New England's best time of year (as we noted in one of our summer posts), it's time to talk about one of the seasonal pies for which New England is best known—pumpkin pie. But the pumpkin pie we have in mind isn't your mother's pumpkin pie. Far from it. That pie—a pumpkin custard, gently spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, and a bit of ginger and allspice, and baked in a crust—didn’t come into existence until the late eighteenth century. A century and a half before that, the early settlers of New England weren't all that keen on pumpkins, or the pies that could be made from them. According to the region's first historian, writing in the 1650s, people ate "Pumpkin Pies" only because they had to, because pumpkins (like corn, another unfamiliar food) grew like weeds in the strange new world in which they found themselves. They came up with ways to cook pumpkins (and corn) so that they could survive, not so that they could enjoy what they were eating.

But their compatriots in England didn't feel the same way. To them, sitting pretty and comfortable back home, pumpkins were intriguing in their novelty, not displeasing. By the middle of the seventeenth century, pumpkins were fashionable enough that instructions on how “To Make a Pumpion Pye” were featured in a cookbook attributed to Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of the deposed and beheaded former King of England, Charles I:

In this queenly pie, the pumpkin is sliced, fried with beaten eggs, sugar, spices, and herbs,

and placed inside a pie crust with alternating layers of apples and currants.

And it was this pie

that New Englanders, as they became more secure and comfortable, adopted as their own for the next hundred years—until that plucky and ever-creative culinary heroine of the new nation, Amelia Simmons, gave us the pumpkin pie that we all know and love today.

We made Queen Henrietta Maria's "Pumpion Pye," along with Amelia's custard-y pumpkin pie, for our family Thanksgiving dinner last year. Everyone around the table pronounced "Pumpion Pye" well worth reviving. So if you'd like to learn more about how we made "Pumpion Pye," click on over to our most recent column on All Things New England.

The original recipe, with commentary, can be found in Northern Hospitality, p. 301.

Summer Pies II: “Peach Pie,” from Mrs. A. L. Webster’s The Improved Housewife (1844)

August 4, 2012

Tags: A. L. Webster, pie, peaches, dessert

A Peach of a Pie from the 1840s

It’s the Pits
Peaches in any form are one of summer’s greatest delights. That goes double for peaches in a pie, and doubled again for the peaches in this particular pie, for which we’re indebted to Mrs. A. L. Webster of Hartford, Connecticut. Webster’s The Improved Housewife first appeared in the 1840s, just as the American publishing industry was getting itself modernized and consolidated and was starting to issue cookbooks at a much faster and more furious rate. Webster’s book was extremely popular and was frequently revised and reissued.

What’s unique, or at least distinctive, about Webster’s recipe is that she says to use whole ripe peaches. In other words, the pie filling includes the peach pits. You can search high and low, but we bet you won’t find nowadays a pie plate deep enough for a bottom crust, whole peaches, and a top crust. We found one that was about a half an inch deeper than the pie plates that are most readily available. In this we could fit two layers of halved peaches-cum-pits.

But why go to such lengths to bake the pits along with the peaches? “The prussic acid of the stone imparts a most agreeable flavor to the pie,” Webster explains. But take care. This “agreeable flavor” is actually imparted by . . . cyanide! Yes, you heard us right—cyanide. One medical authority of Webster’s day informs us that the use “in cookery” of ingredients containing cyanide was becoming “a favorite instrument of suicide.”

No real need to worry though. The agreeable essence from a few measly peach pits isn’t going to kill you. We ourselves dispatched many pieces of peach-and-pit pie with great gusto, although the pits themselves we of course forebore to ingest, pushing them aside as we proceeded. We’re still here to tell the tale, and so are the friends and family members to whom we fed this splendid creation.

Makes 1 9-inch deep(er)-dish pie

2 9-inch pie crusts
7 peaches, washed, halved, and the pits retained
Sugar, enough to strew thickly over two layers of peach halves
2-3 tablespoons water
Flour, enough to sprinkle over two layers of peach halves

How We Made It
We preheated the oven to 450°, then lined our pie plate with one of the crusts.

We put 7 of the 14 peach halves, including the pits, pit side down, all around the bottom crust,

and covered them with a generous amount of sugar and a small amount of water and flour.

Then we put the remaining 7 peach halves, pit cavity side down, on top of the first 7 and covered them as well with a generous amount of sugar and a small amount of water and flour.

We covered our peach halves and pits with the top crust and pinched the bottom and top crusts together with a fork.

No doubt you can see why we sometimes call this our “Tennis Ball Pie.” It was now ready for the oven. We baked it at 450° for 15 minutes, reduced the temperature to 375° and baked it for another 45 minutes, and finally, in order to turn the top crust nice and golden, increased the temperature to 400° and baked it for another 5 minutes.

We cooled the pie for 30 minutes on a wire rack, overcame our fear of cyanide poisoning and helped ourselves to a piece of pie that was a piece of pie to die for.

We urge you to watch for our next post, in which we’ll tell you about the crust we actually made as part of this culinary masterpiece. It’s also from Mrs. Webster’s Improved Housewife.

Webster’s original recipe, with commentary, can be found in Northern Hospitality, p. 317.

Summer Pies I: “Cherry Pie” and “Pie Crust,” from Lydia Maria Child’s American Frugal Housewife (1833)

June 14, 2012

Tags: Lydia Maria Child, cherries, pie, crust, dessert

A Child (Lydia Maria, not Julia) cherry pie from 1829

New England is best known for pumpkin and apple pies, which makes sense since the season of pumpkins and apples, the fall, is considered New England’s best time of year. But the region’s historic cookbooks also offer lots of great recipes for summer fruit pies as well, and we’ll be telling you about some of them in this and upcoming posts.

We’ll start with a simple yet elegant recipe for cherry pie from the second cookbook ever written by a New Englander, The American Frugal Housewife (1829)

by Lydia Maria Child.

Child (no relation to Julia, as far as we know) was one of the most prominent American women of the nineteenth century. She was renowned as an abolitionist and as the author of novels, biographies, essays, histories, and stories and poems for children. Today, she’s remembered primarily as the author of the poem, "The New-England Boy's Song about Thanksgiving Day," which has become our national Thanksgiving song, “Over the River and Through the Woods.” The American Frugal Housewife, written when Child was a young woman, is the only cookbook among her vast output.

If you’d like to learn more about both Child and her cookbook, and also how we made the crust

and the filling

for her cherry pie, click on over to one of our columns on All Things New England.

The original recipe, with commentary, can be found in Northern Hospitality, pp. 314-15.

"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.