Each time I attempt a new recipe from Randolph’s collection, I always do a bit of googling to see if anyone has attempted the dish before. The experiences of others help me plan my approach to the recipe. In the case of Randolph’s Sweet Potato Buns, I was surprised to find nearly universal disappointing results (please note, I am not maligning my fellow historical recipe testers, this is a summary of their descriptions of the dish). The recipe looks straightforward enough but is deceptively challenging. Randolph’s Sweet Potato Buns provide a good example of two of the primary challenges of using historical recipes: format and assumed knowledge. (Of course, there are numerous other challenges and many rewards, I’ve chosen to focus on just two challenges in this post.)
First, format. Anyone who has perused a recipe collection or published cookbook created before 1900 has noted the differing format of the recipes. In the twenty-first century, we are conditioned to expect recipes to appear in a particular format: a list of ingredients with amounts followed by step-by-step instructions to produce the dish. The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook pioneered this format in an effort to write recipes that could be reliably reproduced by anyone, anywhere. As part of the beginning of the home economics movement, the Boston Cooking School and its leaders, Mary Lincoln and Fannie Merritt Farmer, advocated modifications in measuring, recipe format, and standardized ingredients that transformed the process of cookery. Before the late nineteenth century, recipes, including those in published cookbooks and newspaper columns, appeared in a narrative format with ingredients, amounts, and instructions appearing together. This format made Mary Berry’s famed advice absolutely critical.
The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook also popularized level cup measures. Contrary to popular belief, Fannie Farmer did not invent cup and spoon measures. Recipes using cup and spoon measures appear as early as the 1830s, and Catharine Beecher advised readers to convert their recipes because “it saves much trouble to have your receipt book so arranged that you can measure instead of weighing.” Rather, she created an efficient system for ensuring consistent results by spooning and leveling measured ingredients (of course, all serious bakers realize that weighing ingredients is much more accurate and can be just as efficient). Prior to the widespread acceptance of cup and spoon measures, recipes relied on various methods to convey amounts. A set of scales and weights was a necessary piece of equipment for kitchens, and many recipes relied on weights. Standard units of measure such as pints, gills, bushels, etc. were also common. References to familiar objects such as the size of an egg, a silver dollar, a walnut, or one’s thumb to determine the amount of an ingredient were also common. Finally, many recipes relied on the maker’s experience with instructions to add enough flour, season to taste, and cook until done.
This assumed knowledge, the ability to know from experience how much seasoning to add, the feel of a sufficiently heated oven, the proper amount of flour, or the appearance of “doneness” is the primary challenge of historical recipes. Before the nineteenth century brought tremendous change to how people lived and worked, most women learned to cook by watching and assisting their mothers and other female relatives. Therefore, an experienced hand taught them the feel of bread dough, what sufficiently risen bread looks like, and how long to bake various items. Randolph’s recipe for Sweet Potato Buns assumes a fair amount of experience working with yeast and making bread.
First, Randolph instructs the reader to mix mashed sweet potato with “as much flour as will make it like bread.” This is subjective, to put things mildly, depending on the size of one’s potato and one’s opinion on the texture of bread dough. The instructions to add “a spoonful of yeast” not only does not specify the amount (what size spoonful?) but also obscures the difference between yeast in the past and today. While we purchase our yeast in packages or jars, women carefully saved and cultivated yeast from bread baking and beer brewing in the past. Louis Pasteur’s identification of yeast as living organisms in the 1850s paved the way for commercially produced yeast, with the first cakes of compressed yeast appearing in U.S. markets in the 1860s. Therefore, Randolph does not mean to add a scoop of baker’s yeast but rather a spoonful of a yeast starter. Finally, like nearly all recipes from the period, Randolph does not provide instructions on temperature or length of baking for the practical reason that these measures did not exist. Instead, women relied on their experience to determine how long and in what sort of oven to bake the rolls.
Mary Randolph’s Sweet Potato Buns were delectable! Sweet and tender with a hint of spice, they are perfect alone for breakfast or tea, as Randolph notes. They would also make a delicious sandwich with Thanksgiving leftovers or with pulled pork (I would use ½ teaspoon of spice for these purposes). I used a recipe for Sweet Potato Rolls from King Arthur Flour to guide my adaptation of this recipe. My keys to success were, I believe, proving the yeast with a small amount of water and sugar and melting the butter and adding at the beginning. With a full cup of sweet potato, these are a delicious way to slip vegetables into your baked goods.
Sweet Potato Buns
Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife (1838), p. 141.
Adapted by RA Snell
- 1 sweet potato boiled and mashed (about 1 cup)
- ½ cup warm water (between 100-110°F, 38-43°C)
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1 ½ tablespoons yeast
- 3 tablespoons butter, melted
- ½ – 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice or cinnamon*
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 460 grams (3 2/3 cups) all-purpose flour
* When fresh from the oven, one teaspoon of spice was overpowering. However, the next day the buns were perfectly spiced. If you plan to serve these immediately, I would reduce the spice to ½ teaspoon. If cooling to serve later, use the full teaspoon.
1. Combine the water, yeast, and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Cover and rest for five minutes.
2. To the yeast mixture, add the remaining ingredients and mix well. A stand mixer works ideally for this task, however, the ingredients may also be mixed by hand.
3. If using a stand mixer, beat on low speed with a bread hook for 5-8 minutes until the dough is soft. Or knead by hand until the dough slowly bounces back when poked with the finger.
4. Place the dough in a large bowl lightly greased with olive oil or cooking spray (I like to use the same bowl because I am a firm believer in not creating more dishes than absolutely necessary). Cover and allow to rise until doubled in size, about 60 minutes.
5. Grease a 9×13 baking dish (or other dish that will accommodate your buns). Divide the risen dough into fifteen equal-sized pieces and shape into a ball with your hand. Place the dough into the greased dish, cover, and allow to rise until doubled in size, about 30-45 minutes.
6. When the rising time is nearly finished, preheat your oven to 350°F.
7. Bake buns until golden brown on top and baked through, about 20 minutes.
Yield: fifteen buns
Consulted recipe: Sweet Potato Rolls, King Arthur Flour
 Farmer’s contribution to cup measures was the introduction of the level-cup measure. Her predecessor at the Boston Cooking School, Mary Lincoln, referred to “rounded” and “heaping” spoonfuls and cupfuls. Feeling this method of measure was too open to interpretation and, consequently, could lead to differing results, Farmer instructed her students and readers to use a knife to level-off their cup measures. This, she maintained, allowed students and home cooks to reproduce her recipes.
 Beecher, Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book, 130.
Catharine E. Beecher, Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book: Designed as a Supplement to the Treatise on Domestic Economy (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1848), 131.
Fannie Merritt Farmer, The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1896), 28.
Andrew Smith, ed., Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 652.
Merril D. Smith, History of American Cooking (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO Inc., 2013), 6.
Helen Zoe Veit, Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century (Raleigh, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).