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Cooking (and Contemplating) New England

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

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

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

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!)  Read More 

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

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.  Read More 

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

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.  Read More 

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

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


New England is perhaps  best known for pumpkin and apple pies. The fall season, when pumpkins and apples are ready for pie-making, is considered by many to be 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)  Read More 

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

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.  Read More 

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

A yeasted "Plumb Cake" from the first American cookbook


In New England, Christmas didn't become an important holiday until about the middle of the nineteenth century. The Puritans distinctly objected to Christmas celebrations. In time, they became less strict about some of their beliefs, but not their hostility to Christmas. But the Puritans and their descendants weren't nearly as consistent as they liked to think they were. In the eighteenth century, when Thanksgiving began to develop as the most important regional holiday, New Englanders began sneaking Christmas in by the back door, featuring traditional English Christmas foods in their Thanksgiving feasts. That's how turkey became the centerpiece of the American Thanksgiving dinner. It's also how several traditional English Christmas desserts like mince pie and plum pudding found their way onto the festive New England board. The recipe we're going to tell you about in this post, for "Plumb Cake," is an example of an English treat that became popular in New England for Thanksgiving and, later on, for Christmas. Read More 

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Marlborough Pudding (Pie) by 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.  Read More 

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