Baking, Fall, Vegetable

Pumpkin Pudding

As with Sweet Potato Pudding, Pumpkin Pudding provides a sense of the evolution of Thanksgiving classics Sweet Potato and Pumpkin Pie from English baked puddings. As I’ve argued before, a more accurate expression for something quintessentially American would be “as American as pumpkin or sweet potato” pie rather than apple. Despite its prominent place in American food culture, there is very little uniquely “American” about apple pie. The popular dessert relies upon the English cookery technique of baking a filling between two crusts as a means of preserving food for a short time. While the sugar is New World, the other ingredients and the means of combining them are traditionally Old World: apples, lemon, and various combinations of spices. The 1852 edition of Sarah J. Hale’s The Ladies’ New Book of Cookery included two recipes for apple pie, one marked as English and the other as American. The two versions are, unsurprisingly, remarkably similar. Differences emerge on the next page, where Hale provides two recipes for pumpkin pie.

American and English Pumpkin Pie Recipes, The Ladies’ New Book of Cookery, Sarah J. Hale, H. Long & Brother, New York, 1852.

Pumpkin pie possibly emerged from early American cooks making do with the ingredients available to them. Since pumpkins have a similar consistency to apples, some food historians have suggested cooks substituted them in traditional apple dishes.[1] In Hale’s cookbook, the English version is reminiscent of the earliest versions of pumpkin pie composed of sweetened and flavored pumpkin baked in a single pie shell. The American version is closer to the item that traditionally graces the Thanksgiving dessert table, a pumpkin custard flavored with molasses, cinnamon, and ginger. In The Female Emigrant’s Guide and Hints on Canadian Housekeeping, Catherine Parr Traill discussed the differences between English and North American versions of pumpkin pie, “Now I must tell you, that an English pumpkin-pie, and a Canadian one, are very differently made, and I must give preference, most decidedly, to the American dish; which is something between a custard and a cheese-cake in taste and appearance.”[2]

This 1903 cover of Puck magazine shows a women preparing a pie, possibly a pumpkin pie as there is a pumpkin on the floor by her feet. Library of Congress.

The pumpkin pie described by Traill was not merely the adaptation of American ingredients to an English dish. It also benefited from the culinary melting pot that brought together numerous world cuisines in North American kitchens. The waves of immigrants of the nineteenth century brought new culinary influences to the United States, and recipes reflected these increasingly multinational influences. The influence of German and French immigrants transformed North American pie making from a pragmatic means of food preservation to the decadent desserts enjoyed today. These immigrants revolutionized pie fillings with their use of spices, sweeteners, and native ingredients to create fillings of fruit, preserves, and custards. French practices notably transformed the dense suet and flour crust of English pies by introducing butter into piecrusts. The pumpkin pie, featuring a New World crop, prized by Native cultures, prepared in an Old World manner influenced by several national cuisines, makes a better candidate for an iconic North American dessert. Further, the inclusion of exotic spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and mace in the filling connects pumpkin pie to the commonly recognized discovery of the Americas, the abortive search for a western route to the East Indies.[3]

Pies wait on the sideboard as a family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner in Ledyard, Connecticut in 1940.

Food and cultural identity are inextricably linked. We are not only what we eat, but how, where, when, and why we eat it. In creating national culture, as many scholars have argued, cookbooks play an essential role in transforming regionalized cuisines and peoples into a unified whole.[4] These texts, compilations of practical receipts, special occasion cooking, and housekeeping advice, “are an expression of the values and aspirations of the people who produced them.”[5] What appears on your Thanksgiving table says a great deal about your family’s identity. As the ongoing pandemic forces us to gather in smaller groups this year, many find ourselves preparing the Thanksgiving feast solo for the first time. While the task of preparing family favorites like mom or grandma is a daunting one, this is also a priceless opportunity to record those recipes and a reminder of all we have to be thankful for this year.

Randolph’s Pumpkin Pudding is a close cousin to present-day recipes. While I prefer brown sugar or molasses in pumpkin pie, granulated white sugar preserves the color of the pumpkin – in my case a deep yellow. The ginger and nutmeg complement the pumpkin flavor but I did miss the usual cinnamon and cloves. Slightly less milk than current recipes results in a texture that preserves the texture of the pumpkin puree (as a opposed to a present-day pumpkin pie that has a more custardy texture). My son gobbled it up and my husband reported he liked it better than my usual recipe.

Pumpkin Pudding

Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife (1838), p. 127.

Adapted by RA Snell

Ingredients

  • 1 pie pumpkin (can substitute one can of pureed pumpkin, skip to step 3)
  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 teaspoon ginger
  • ½ teaspoon nutmeg
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon brandy, optional
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • Pastry for one 9-inch one crust pie

Method

1. Cut the pumpkin in half, scoop out seeds, and peel. Slice the pumpkin into equal sized pieces and place in a saucepan. Add enough water to cover the pumpkin and boil gently, stirring occasionally, for 1.5-2 hours until the water is cooked off and the pumpkin is fully cooked. For the last thirty minutes, be sure to keep a close eye on the pumpkin and stir more frequently to prevent burning.

2. Run the cooked pumpkin through a food mill or puree in a blender or food processor. Place the pureed pumpkin in a fine mesh strainer and allow the liquid to drain for about thirty minutes or until the pumpkin is sufficiently dry (it should resemble canned pumpkin).

3. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and prepare the pastry and place in a 9

4. Add the remaining ingredients except for the eggs. Taste the mixture to ensure it is sweetened and spiced to your taste. Mix in the eggs.

5. Pour the pumpkin mixture into the prepared pie shell. If desired, decorate with strips of twisted pastry across the top.

6. Bake 30-35 minutes until the pumpkin mixture is set and the crust is golden brown.


Sources

[1] Abigail Carroll, Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal (New York: Basic Books, 2013), 17; Sandra L. Oliver, Food in Colonial and Federal America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 23.

[2] Catharine Parr Traill, The Female Emigrant’s Guide and Hints on Canadian Housekeeping (Toronto: MacLear and Co., 1854), 127-8.

[3] Pat Willard, “Pies and Tarts” in Andrew F. Smith, ed., The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, vol. II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 272-3; Carroll, Three Squares, 43.

[4] Arjun Appadurai, “How to Make a National Cuisine: Cookbooks in Contemporary India,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 30 (1988): 5; James E. McWilliams, A Revolution in Eating Habits: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 8-9; Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald, America’s Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 278.

[5] Elizabeth Driver, Culinary Landmarks: A Bibliography of Canadian Cookbooks, 1825-1949 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), xxix.

Baking, Fall

Baked or Boiled Indian Pudding

I’m not looking to lead anyone astray. The picture to the left of steamy Indian Pudding flavored with molasses and spices is not Mary Randolph’s recipe. Rather, it is a version of Indian Pudding I whipped up after Randolph’s recipe failed spectacularly. You see, I have fond memories of Indian Pudding. Growing up, we would almost always visit J.R. Maxwell’s in Bath, Maine, for any and all life cycle commemorations. Of course, by the time my parents moved away from the area, I was rather tired of Maxwell’s offerings. But now I harbor fond memories of the clam chowder, cheese sticks, escargot, prime rib, and other favorites. My first encounter with Indian Pudding was at Maxwell’s when my mother ordered Ed’s Indian Pudding for dessert. I was somewhat perplexed by the idea of a dessert based on cornmeal, but my mom shared a bite, and it was delicious! There was a slight bite from the cornmeal, the eggs and milk combined to form a custard, and the spices and molasses provided sweetness and excitement. Topped with melting vanilla ice cream, Indian Pudding is a tried and true New England staple.

Randolph’s recipe did not meet my expectations, which, admittedly, were high. When I gathered the ingredients (cornmeal, milk, eggs, and molasses), I suspected it would not. I was also nervous about my first foray into boiled pudding. When I unwrapped after the recommended boiling time, clearly a fair amount of water had seeped into the cloth. This wasn’t unexpected; I knew my tying method needed work. However, when I tasted the pudding I knew I would not be improving my method with another attempt at this recipe. The pudding tastes overwhelmingly of cornmeal with the faintest whisper of molasses. Below is the final result.

Attempt at Indian Pudding, The Virginia House-wife.

The result bore little resemblance to the Indian Pudding of my memories. Hence the need to create a different recipe to relieve my hankering for the dessert. Historical recipes don’t always come out. That’s part of the fun and frustration of working with them. While I don’t recommend trying Randolph’s Indian Pudding,* it still provides an opportunity to think more deeply about the dish’s origins.

The name might suggest Indian Pudding derived from Native foodways. Popular histories sometimes describe the dish’s origins as a combination of cornmeal and maple syrup baked in earth ovens and adapted by colonists. This was simply not the case. Rather, Indian Pudding is an example of Native-colonial collaboration. It connects with both British and Native foodways of the pre-colonial and colonial eras. The Indian Pudding contained in Randolph’s cookbook and others of the period and before is clearly an English culinary export: a baked or boiled pudding prepared with cornmeal (called Indian meal by English colonists who still used “corn” as a generic term for any grain) rather than the usual flour, oats, or breadcrumbs. Some nineteenth-century recipes make this origin clear by using the title “Indian Meal Pudding.”

There is a connection between Indian Pudding and Native American foodways. Many tribes produced cornmeal mushes, sometimes sweetened with maple syrup or fortified with fortified with fat, and occasionally baked before the fire. From a Native perspective, Indian Pudding could also be viewed as adapting newly available ingredients like milk, eggs, molasses, spices, and new cooking technology (ovens) to typical Native dishes. Native American cookbooks published in the twentieth century include versions of Indian Pudding combining traditional ingredients and European culinary imports. In truth both colonists and Natives were innovating with new ingredients by incorporating them into familiar dishes.

The addition of finely chopped suet in Howland’s recipe connects with Native American recipes for fortified cornmeal mush. Howland, American Economical Housekeeper (1845), p. 39.

The failure of early wheat crops in the New World forced colonists to embrace corn. While corn was a staple in Chesapeake diets, wheat production developed much earlier in this region of the United States than in New England. Here the prevalence of mildew rust on wheat crops and the expense of transporting wheat meant wheat flour was costly. Sandy Oliver reports that in the Chesapeake region, “the gentry ate wheat bread, and the poor and slaves ate corn in various forms.”[1] Although cornmeal was a cornerstone of American diets during this period, Randolph offers just four recipes to prepare it: baked and boiled Indian Pudding, Corn Meal Bread, and Mush. Randolph’s privileged background could offer an explanation for her flavorless Indian Pudding recipes. It likely was not a dish she frequently served and, therefore, did not take the time to perfect.

Looking at her contemporaries, there appears to be evidence Indian Pudding was already something of a regional dish. Sarah Josepha Hale and Eliza Leslie, two influential cookbook authors of the period, both hailing from Philadelphia, did not include recipes for Indian Pudding in their cookbooks. However, cookbooks published in Boston and Worcester by Lydia Maria Child, Esther Allen Howland, and N.K.M Lee contain versions much closer to the Indian Pudding of my memories. Since wheat was costly in New England, most cooks saved it for fine cakes and pastry for special occasions. Everyday baking relied on proprietary blends of rye flour, Indian (corn) meal, and small amounts of wheat flour. The widespread use of the grain possibly provided greater impetus to turn the simple cornmeal pudding into something delicious, and explains the larger allowance of molasses and the addition of spice in the New England versions.

Baked Indian Pudding, Child, The American Frugal Housewife (1838), p. 61.

In this instance, I have chosen not to modernize Randolph’s recipe since merely updating the ingredients and method would result in a tasteless pudding. Making the pudding flavorful would require too many changes and would not be a modernized version of a historical recipe. Instead, I offer you a modernized version of Indian Pudding from The American Frugal Housewife. This recipe provides a better sense of how Indian Pudding was enjoyed in the nineteenth century. It contains a hefty serving of molasses along with salt and spice to add interest. Try it with melted butter as was the common topping in the nineteenth century, or follow the lead of present-day Indian Pudding lovers and top it with vanilla ice cream.

Baked Indian Pudding

Lydia Maria Child, The American Frugal Housewife (1838), p. 61.

Adapted by RA Snell

Ingredients

  • 4 cups milk
  • 2/3 cup cornmeal
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup molasses
  • 1 ½ teaspoon ground ginger or cinnamon

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 325°F and grease a 1 ½ – 2 quart baking dish.

2. Heat the milk until simmering. Stir in the cornmeal, slowly to prevent lumps.

3. Bring to a boil and, stirring constantly, cook until thick. About five minutes.

4. Add the salt, molasses, and spice. Stir well. (If you would like a custard-like top on your pudding, pour a little cold milk over the pudding before baking.)

5. Turn into the prepared pan and bake until the center is firm (the pudding should still quiver slightly when the dish is shaken).

Serve warm or cold. Historically, it was served with melted butter. I recommend warm with vanilla ice cream.

Yield: 6-8 servings

For a version making use of that modern convenience, the slow cooker, try this recipe from Plimouth Plantation.

* It’s doubtful to me this recipe would work. Perhaps someone with more experience with boiled puddings could get a better result, but I suspect there is too much liquid in the batter. Most other nineteenth-century recipes for boiled pudding call for a much stiffer batter. Equally important, there is too little flavoring for the pudding to taste good. Cornmeal is bland. It needs molasses, spices, and salt to make the dish tasty.


Sources

[1] Sandra L. Oliver, Food in Colonial and Federal America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 145.

Lydia Maria Child, The American Frugal Housewife (New York: Samuel S. and William Wood, 1838).

Mrs. S.J. Hale, The Good Housekeeper, or The Way to Live Well and Be Well While We Live (Boston: Weeks, Jordan and Company, 1839).

Mrs. E.A. Howland, The New England Economical Housekeeper and Family Receipt Book (Worcester: W. Allen, 1845. Worcester: S.A. Howland, 1847).

Miss Eliza Leslie, Directions for Cookery, in Its Various Branches (Philadelphia: E.L. Carey & A. Hart, 1840),

Sandra L. Oliver, Food in Colonial and Federal America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 33, 39-40

Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife, or Methodical Cook, ed. Karen Hess (Washington, D.C., 1824; repr., Columbia: S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1984), 206-7.

Andrew F. Smith, ed., The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 317-318.