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Cooking (and Contemplating) New England

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. 

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.

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.

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