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Cooking (and Contemplating) New England

A Low-Sugar Springtime (or Anytime) Custard Pie by Mrs. Hale

Mrs. Hale's Custard Pie, as we made it.
Mrs. Hale's Custard Pie, as we made it. 


In New England, as in Old England, creams and custard pies were perennial favorites. Creams, sweetened pudding-like mixtures, have pretty much fallen out of fashion now, though we still think they're quite delicious. But why was cooked cream and custard, with or without pie crust, once so popular?
The answer involves the health concerns of early modern diners as much as taste preferences. In a time before pasteurization, many feared that consuming raw milk or cream would lead to sickness, or worse. Andrew Boorde, the sixteenth-century English physician most famous for writing one of the earliest handbooks of medicine, The Breviary of Health, and a companion cooking and health advice volume, A Compendious Regiment or Dyetary of Health (both first published in the 1540s), related that "raw cream undecocted, eaten with strawberries or hurts [bilberries or blueberries], is a rural man's banquet. I have known such banquets hath put men in jeopardy of their lives."[1] His and like sentiments would make cooked creams and custards the norm for centuries among the well-informed.

In the eighteenth century, custards, like creams, were often served without a crust, and were enriched with ground almonds, lemon peel, wine, and currants. The New England method of making creams and custards descended from the English practice. But other nations, too, loved these dairy delights. The Irish bonny-clabber was made of sweetened curds with cream and cinnamon. Something called "fresh cheese," which may have been a corruption of "French cheese," was a spiced tart of cheese curds, made richer with the addition of eggs and currants. Cheesecakes, long a part of Anglo-American cuisine, were sometimes made without cheese, mixing eggs, butter, flour and sweetened cream, and flavoring with lemons or tart Seville oranges. For more of the history of these dishes, which can be traced back to ancient Rome, as well as recipes for some of the old-fashioned English and New England cheesecakes and custards, you can consult the section on "Cream and Custard Pies" in our book, Northern Hospitality, pp. 320-324.
Today, we focus on one custard pie in particular, a favorite of the renowned nineteenth-century American writer, cookbook author, and magazine editor, Sarah Josepha Hale. It has become a favorite of ours, too. The recipe, with commentary, for Hale's simple but elegant "Custard Pie" can be found in Northern Hospitality on p. 322. For the sake of convenience, we give it here as well:

Beat seven eggs, sweeten a quart of rich milk, that has been boiled and cooled—a stick of cinnamon or a bit of lemon-peel should be boiled in it—sprinkle in a salt-spoon of salt, add the eggs, and a grated nutmeg, stirring the whole together.
     Line two deep plates with a good paste, set them in the oven three minutes to harden the crust; then pour in the custard and bake twenty minutes.

--Hale, Good Housekeeper (1841), p. 84
It used to be that in springtime, when chickens and other birds make their nests and tend to lay more[2], eggs were plentiful and cheap. Culturally, we retain the connection between eggs and spring, of course. But now we have a bunny deliver painted, and even chocolate or candy, eggs in a basket to mark the season. How odd! Although commercial egg production is no longer closely tied to the natural laying rhythms of free-range hens, many of us still turn to eggs to enhance a light, springtime menu. Whatever the season or use, eggs are surely one of the wonders of the kitchen. Mrs. Hale liked this recipe so well that she printed it in two of her cookbooks, The Good Housekeeper (Boston, 1841) and The Ladies' New Book of Cookery (New York, 1852).
Mrs. Hale's Custard Pie (Our Version)
Ingredients for the Crust
Makes 2 9-inch pie crusts

3 sticks (¾ lb.) cold butter, each stick cut into small dice
3½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup ice-cold water
4 tablespoons sugar
Ingredients for the Filling
7 large eggs
1 quart (4 cups) whole milk

1 tablespoon sugar

1 stick cinnamon, or 1 tablespoon lemon peel, diced
½ to ¾ teaspoon ground nutmeg, as preferred
½ to 1 teaspoon salt, as preferred
How We Made It
The Crust
For Mrs. Hale's unspecified "good paste," we chose one we've devised for use with sweet pies. It's pretty standard—you can use another pie crust if you have one you prefer. 
In a large bowl, we whisked the flour with the sugar, then cut in the butter with a pastry cutter (you can use two knives or press the butter through your fingers), until the mixture resembled coarse meal. Then we added the ice-water, a little at a time, mixing the dough with a wooden spoon just until it came together in a shaggy mass.
With hands coated with flour, we gathered up the ball of dough and placed it on a lightly-floured pastry cloth. We cut the ball in half to make two pie crusts, gently forming each half into a ball. Then we rolled each half out to cover the bottom and sides of a 9-inch pie plate, working quickly to be sure the butter in the dough remained cold. (Overworking softens the butter and makes a tougher dough.) We lined our two pie plates with the dough, pierced the bottoms liberally with a fork, and placed them in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to rest and allow the gluten in the dough to relax. (This rest period reduces shrinking when the pie crust is baked.)
The Filling
While the pie crusts rested, we brought a quart of whole milk with a stick of cinnamon in it to a gentle boil. After reaching the boiling point, we removed the milk from the stove and allowed it to cool to room temperature. We discarded the cinnamon stick and added a tablespoon of sugar. (If you are using lemon peel instead of cinnamon, strain out the peel.)
Next, we beat the seven eggs in a medium bowl with a whisk until well blended. When the milk was cooled, we added it to the eggs, along with the ground nutmeg and salt, whisking to blend thoroughly. We set the egg mixture aside.
A word about Mrs. Hale's baking instructions: Mrs. Hale, whose oven must have been hot indeed, only pre-baked her pie crusts for three minutes and baked her custard pies for twenty minutes, though in her 1852 reprint of the recipe she notes that the pies may take up to an hour to bake. Modern ovens vary, so check both the pre-baking crusts and the pies often, and adjust the baking times as needed. Look for the custard to spring back when touched and be just set. The top of the custard should be lightly browned. You're aiming for a pie that's creamy inside but holds together when cut.
We preheated the oven to 425º F.


Baking the Pies
We lined the two pie crusts with aluminum foil and filled the foil with a layer of dried beans. Then we baked the two crusts on the middle rack of the oven for about 10 minutes, until the crusts lost their shiny appearance. We removed the crusts from the oven, removed the bean-filled aluminum foil (you may save the dried beans to use again), filled the crusts with the custard, and returned them to bake at 425º F for 15 minutes. (To minimize oven cleanup from spills, you can place the pies on a baking sheet.) After 15 minutes, we lowered the oven temperature to 350º F and continued baking the pies for about 15 minutes, until the custard was set and the top lightly browned.

We cooled the pies for about 20 minutes on wire racks before serving. Notice that there is ½ tablespoon of sugar in each pie filling and two tablespoons in each crust, making this a low-sugar main course or dessert.

[1] Boorde quoted in C. Anne Wilson, Food and Drink in Britain, (1991, 2003), 157. For a brief synopsis of Boorde's life and works, see Douglas Guthrie, M.D., "The 'Breviary"'and 'Dyetary'of Andrew Boorde (1490-1549), Physician, Priest and Traveller [Synopsis]," Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, Vol. XXXVII, December 1, 1942, 507-509, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/003591574403700913, accessed May 22, 2022.

[2] Katie Ockert, "Decreasing Daylight and Its Effect on Laying Hens," Michigan State University Extension, October 1, 2019, https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/decreasing-daylight-and-its-effect-on-laying-hens, accessed May 22, 2022. As Ockert reports, "The amount of daylight hours affects a chicken's reproductive cycle. Hens will begin laying when the amount of daylight reaches 14 hours per day during early spring. Maximum egg laying will occur when the day length reaches 16 hours per day. This biological marvel is perfectly designed so that chicks hatch in spring and develop and mature during the warmer summer months."


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