Baking, Summer

Pound Cake

“Cake” is a culinary term with a long and varied history. Currently, the definition of cake is a baked flour confection with a porous texture resulting from the mixture rising during baking. It is sweetened with sugar, honey, molasses, or other products, mixed with eggs, and usually milk and fat, often butter or oil. Since their invention in the mid-nineteenth century, chemical leavening agents such as baking soda and baking powder are usually added to assist with the rising process.[1] Mary Randolph’s recipes predate these innovations. Therefore, her cake recipes rely on the leaveners available during her lifetime: yeast, pearlash, and eggs.[2]

The earliest European settlers brought cake to North America in the form of great cake, a lightly sweetened and spiced bread studded with dried fruits and nuts. Early in the eighteenth century, three new varieties of cake joined the repertoires of American bakers. Imported from Europe, plum cake, pound cake, and sponge cake expanded the possibilities for sweet baking. Plum cake, produced by beating air into butter and eggs, made fruitcakes much sweeter and richer than their yeast-raised predecessors and made the cakes popular choices for weddings and other celebrations. Pound cake relied upon the same beating technique to create a rich, light cake. A pound cake was essentially a small plum cake without dried fruit.

Recipes for Pound Cake, Amelia Simmons, American Cookery (Hartford, CT: Hudson & Goodwin, 1796)

In American Cake, Anne Byrn dates the first American reference to Pound Cake to a 1754 recipe from Wicomico Church, Virginia.[3] The first printed reference appears in the first cookbook written and published in the United States, Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery. The name Pound Cake references the amount of each ingredient included. Pound cakes were favored not only for their taste and appearance but also for the ease of measuring ingredients since the basic recipe requires a pound each of flour, butter, eggs, and sugar. The resulting cake was large and dense, able to feed a crowd. Over time, bakers adjusted the proportions to create smaller and lighter cakes. [2]

Randolph’s Pound Cake relies on beaten eggs for leavening, much like Simmons’ first recipe. Since the yolks and whites are not beaten separately in this recipe, the resulting cake is quite dense but still a delicious accompaniment to fresh fruit and whipped cream. Simmons’ second recipe, “Another (called) pound Cake,” using creamed butter and sugar along with whipped egg whites would create a lighter cake more familiar to present-day pound cake enthusiasts, however, with considerably more work to cream the butter and whip the egg whites by hand.


Pound Cake

Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife (1838), p. 133.

Adapted by RA Snell

Ingredients

  • ½ lb unsalted butter (two sticks or one cup)
  • ½ lb flour, sifted
  • ½ lb granulated sugar
  • 6 eggs, beaten until frothy
  • ½ tsp lemon zest
  • ¼ tsp nutmeg
  • 1 tsp vanilla

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 325°.

2. Beat the butter until creamy.

3. Fold into the butter half the flour, half the sugar, and half the eggs. Repeat with the remaining flour, sugar, and eggs.

4. Gently mix in the lemon zest, nutmeg, and vanilla.

5. Pour the batter into a greased loaf pan or bundt pan.

6. Bake 35-45 minutes until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool for ten minutes on a wire rack, remove cake and place on the rack until thoroughly cooled.

Yield: 10-12 servings

To serve: This cake is delicious plain but can also be iced with a simple icing made from confectioner’s sugar, milk, and lemon zest.


Sources

Kate Williams, “How pound cake became a southern classic,” Southern Kitchen 23, Jan. 2018, https://www.southernkitchen.com/articles/eat/heres-how-pound-cake-became-a-classic-cake-that-anyone-can-bake (accessed 19 Aug. 2021).

[1] Alan Davidson, The Penguin Companion to American Food and Drink (New York: The Penguin Group, 1999, 2002), 147.

[2] The first chemical leavener, pearlash, stemmed from the Native American technique of combining potash, produced by leaching wood ashes, with cornmeal. This process, called nixtamalization, created an alkaline solution that released amino acids and niacin in the grain, making the resulting product more nutritious, although this was unknown at the time. Since corn will not react with yeast, the potash provided a small amount of leavening. Innovative American cooks developed a concentrated form of potash called pearlash that, when combined with an acidic substance like sour milk, citrus, or molasses, would create a quick and reliable leavening agent. Simmons’s American Cookery contains the first printed references to this ingredient in two cookie recipes.

[3] Anne Byrn, American Cake (New York: Rodale Press, 2016).

[4] Stephen Schmidt, “Cakes” in Andrew F. Smith, ed., The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 83; Davidson, The Penguin Companion to American Food and Drink, 146-148; Nicola Humble, Cake: A Global History (London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2010), 12-24.

Preserves, Summer

Cherries

Cherries are beginning to appear at the grocery store which means they will soon materialize at farmer’s markets and orchards. There are few things better than a fresh, ripe cherries in summer. Randolph’s instructions reveal the exacting methods and attention to detail required to preserve fruits during her day. She notes, “the process is a tedious one,” but necessary if one wished to serve fruits outside their season. As discussed with the recipe for peach marmalade, during the early modern period preserves, especially those produced with sugar, were luxury items. Rather than preserving a bounty of cherries for later consumption, Randolph’s instructions for preserved cherries results in whole fruits that could be used to decorate a cake or pudding. She begins the recipe with the observation, “the most beautiful cherries to preserve, are the carnation and common light red, with short stems.” In her Directions for Making Preserves, she further specifies, “fruit for preserving should be in full perfection, but not too ripe.” Clearly, appearance is paramount for this recipe.

The Jefferson Memorial surrounded by cherry trees in full blossom. Northern Virginia Magazine.

Randolph spent the last nine years of her life in Washington, D.C. The new capital, formed in 1790 and significantly damaged during the War of 1812, bore little resemblance to today’s thriving seat of government while Randolph resided in the city. Likewise, the cherry tree, had not yet become a symbol of Washington, D.C. although surely cherry trees existed within the District in Randolph’s day. The cherry tree’s association with Washington, D.C. began in the early twentieth century when the Japanese government gifted thousands of flowering cherry trees to the city. The first successfully transplanted cherry trees arrived in 1912 as a gift of friendship to the People of the United States from the People of Japan. The trees transplanted in Washington D.C. are ornamental and do not bear fruit, however, they provide the opportunity to explore the history of strong-minded and innovative women in American history, much like Randolph herself.

Undated portrait of Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore as a young woman. Wisconsin Historical Society.

The idea to plant cherry trees on land reclaimed from the Potomac River originated with an extraordinary woman, Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore (1856-1828). Born in Clinton, Iowa, Scidmore was an author, geographer, photographer, and the first woman to sit on the board of trustees of the National Geographic Society. Eliza accompanied her brother George Hawthorne Scidmore, a career diplomat who served in the Far East from 1884-1922, and fell in love with the history, culture, and natural beauty of Japan, especially the flowering ornamental cherry trees. Anyone who has attended the Cherry Blossom Festival in D.C. will agree with Eliza that “It is “the most ideally, wonderfully beautiful tree that nature has to show.” Upon her return in 1885, Eliza championed Japanese cherry trees in the capital, however, city planners ignored her suggestion. Eliza continued to advocate for planting cherry trees in the capital without success until she found a supported in incoming First Lady Helen Taft in 1909. With the First Lady’s enthusiastic support and gifts of trees from the Japanese government, plans create groves of cherry trees in West Potomac Park and the Tidal Basin began to move forward.

This map from a November 1938 article published in The Washington Herald illustrates the impact of the Jefferson Memorial construction on existing cherry trees along the Tidal Basin. National Park Service.

On November 10, 1938, a National Park Service press conference announcing plans for the memorial insinuated the destruction of “approximately 600 trees of various kinds” to make way for the building. Among these were the famous cherry trees and local women quickly organized to save them. The leader of the Cherry Tree Rebellion, Eleanor “Cissy” Patterson, owner of two Washington newspapers, the Times and the Herald, and longtime critic of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, published front-page articles decrying the destruction of the Japanese cherry trees and criticizing President Roosevelt.

Participants in Patterson’s Cherry Tree Rebellion chained to a cherry tree. National Park Service.

With construction scheduled to begin after Thanksgiving, Patterson had little time to save the trees. On Thursday, November 17, 1938, Patterson rallied D.C. society women opposed to the destruction of the cherry trees at her Dupont Circle mansion. From Patterson’s home, 80 women marched to the White House to deliver a petition to save the trees. The next day, a group of 150 women disrupted efforts to transplant the trees by wrestling shovels away from Civilian Conservation Corps workers and symbolically chaining themselves (and a U.S. Park Police sergeant) to the trees. The women’s efforts temporarily suspended work, however, President Roosevelt, determined to move forward with the memorial, dismissed the women’s actions and opposition faded away. The short-lived Cherry Tree Rebellion failed to halt construction but their efforts were not in vain. In addition to transplanting many trees in the construction zone, more trees were planted along the south side of the Tidal Basin. The resulting springtime view of the Jefferson Memorial framed by flowering cherry trees is one of the most iconic in the Capitol.

Randolph’s preserved cherries is a straightforward recipe calling for sugar, water, and cherries. Preserved whole in a sweet syrup, the cherries are excellent for decorating baked goods and the syrup, reduced slightly to thicken, is a wonderful addition to ice cream.

Cherries

Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife (1838), p. 159.

Adapted by RA Snell using “Cherries in Syrup” from Complete Book of Home Preserving (2006, 2012), p. 148.

Ingredients

  • ½ lb fresh cherries
  • ½ lb sugar
  • 5 cups water

Additional Equipment

  • 1-pint glass canning jar with lid and ring, sterilized
  • Boiling water canner
  • Jar lifter

Method

1. Thoroughly wash your fruit and set aside. Leave the stems and pits intact.

2. Combine the sugar and water in a large stainless steel pot. Heat over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved.

3. Carefully add the cherries and simmer gently in the syrup for 4-5 minutes.

4. Carefully transfer the cherries to the sterilized jar. Add hot syrup to cover the cherries leaving ½ inch headspace.

5. To can: Wipe rims, remove air bubbles, and adjust headspace as necessary. Center lid on jar and screw on ring until secure but not tight. Place jar in canner, be sure the jar is completely covered with water, and bring to a boil. Process for 25 minutes. Remove canner lid and allow the jar to sit for five minutes. Carefully remove the jars, cool, and store.

Yield: 1 pint cherries in syrup

To serve: Use the cherries as decorations for baked goods such as cakes. They could also be a sweet addition to a cheese board.

Notes:

This recipe has been scaled down to make it more approachable. If you are a seasoned home canner and wish to increase the recipe, it can be easily doubled, tripled, etc.

There’s no need to purchase special equipment to create this recipe. If you don’t wish to can the cherries, you may simply allow them to cool in the syrup and store them in the refrigerator. I would expect them to last a couple weeks. If you do wish to can the cherries, you must and I cannot stress this enough purchase jars specifically designed for canning. I’m partial to Ball jars but there are a number of reputable brands available. You do not, however, need to purchase a boiling water canner. A pot big enough to fit your jar(s) with at least an inch of water above the lid and a tight fitting lid may easily be used instead. You will need to find a rack or a substitute to lift the jars off the bottom of the pot to allow the water to fully circulate during the water bath. A cake cooling rack works well for this task.


Sources

“The Cherry Tree Rebellion,” National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/articles/the-cherry-tree-rebellion.htm.

“History of the Cherry Trees,” National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/subjects/cherryblossom/history-of-the-cherry-trees.htm.

Michael E. Reune, “Cherry blossoms’ champion, Eliza Scidmore, led a life of adventure,” The Washington Post (March 13, 2012), https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/cherry-blossoms-champion-eliza-scidmore-led-a-life-of-adventure/2012/02/22/gIQAAzHEAS_story.html.

For more on Eliza Scidmore, visit: https://dianaparsell.com/book-eliza-scidmore-biography/

Soup, Spring, Vegetable

Asparagus Soup

The first recipe in Randolph’s collection is a recipe for Asparagus Soup. This is fitting since asparagus (Asparagus officinalis), a perennial flowering plant, is one of the first spring vegetables. Cultivated since ancient times, asparagus traveled to North America with the earliest colonists. In 1685, Pennsylvania colony founder William Penn included asparagus in a comprehensive list of crops that grew well in the colony. However, asparagus was not widespread in the United States until the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Asparagus frequently appears in both printed and manuscript recipe collections compiled in the eastern U.S. from the first half of the nineteenth century. In The American Frugal Housewife, Lydia Maria Child recommended boiling the vegetable for “fifteen to twenty minutes; half an hour if old.”[1] Eliza Leslie included a recipe for Asparagus Soup very similar to Randolph’s in Directions for Cookery. Based on Leslie’s instructions, it appears a green color to the soup was highly desirable, and Leslie advises adding “a handful of spinach” pounded in a mortar “about a quarter hour before the soup is done boiling.”[2] Catharine Beecher suggested serving boiled asparagus on buttered toast in Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book, still an excellent light, spring supper.[3] I like to serve it with hollandaise.

This design drawing shows asparagus spears as well as the ferny growth with red berries that appears after harvesting. Van Wagnener, G. M., Mrs., Artist. Design for Asparagus Set, 1890. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2004662404/.

Asparagus season in Virginia lasts from April to June. While these first green vegetables are welcome in the early days of spring, the palate longs for variety by the end of often prolific the season. In 1763, Mary Holyoke of Salem, Massachusetts, recorded the first asparagus harvest in her diary as May 10th. By the end of the season in mid-June, she had harvested “1836 heads in all.”[4] Recipes for asparagus soup are the most common in printed and manuscript recipe collections alike. Perhaps as a respite for boiled asparagus on toast.

This recipe, the first from Randolph’s collection I attempted, we enjoyed last spring when we were thoroughly sick of the asparagus that kept appearing in our farm box. It was a welcome respite from our usual methods of preparing asparagus: steamed, roasted, or baked into a frittata. It makes a satisfying light lunch or supper paired with a salad and a bit of good bread if, as hard as it may be to imagine now, we find ourselves inundated with asparagus in the future.

Asparagus Soup

Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife (1838), p. 13.

Adapted by RA Snell

Ingredients

  • One bunch of asparagus
  • Slice of bacon
  • Small onion, diced
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 cup water or broth
  • 1 cup chopped or shredded cooked chicken
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • ½  cup milk

Method

1. Peel the outer layer from your asparagus with a vegetable peeler or knife. Cut one inch off the top of each stalk and place the tops in cool water. Chop the reminder of the asparagus into small pieces.

2. Place a slice of bacon in a small sauce pan, once it has started to cook add the diced onion. Cook together until the onion is soft, remove the bacon and add one cup of water or broth and the chopped asparagus. Simmer together until the asparagus is soft.

3. Place the simmered mixture in a blender and blend until combined. Return to the sauce pan and simmer gently with the asparagus tops and chicken.

4. Melt butter in a small saucepan and add the flour. Mix well and cook together for one minute. Add the milk a little at a time stirring well after each addition. After all the milk is added, combine with the asparagus mixture.

5. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Chop the reserved bacon and use as a garnish.

Serves: 2


[1] Lydia Maria Child, The American Frugal Housewife (New York: Samuel Wood, 1838), 34.

[2] Eliza Leslie, Directions for Cookery (Philadelphia: Cary & Hart, 1840), 35.

[3] Catharine E. Beecher, Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1836), 75.

[4] Mary Holyoke Diary, 58, 59, quoted inSarah F. McMahon, “All Things in Their Proper Season”: Seasonal Rhythms of Diet in Nineteenth Century New England,” Agricultural History, Vol. 63, No. 2, Climate, Agriculture, and History (Spring, 1989), pp. 150.

Sources

https://www.foodtimeline.org/foodfaq.html#asparagus

Baking, Fruit, Winter

To Make Carolina Snow-Balls

For most readers, snowballs likely conjure memories of childhood winter games or, perhaps, the small, rounded cookies covered with shaved coconut or powdered sugar often prepared around the winter holidays. There is also the Sno-Ball snack cake (cream-filled chocolate cakes covered with marshmallow frosting and colored coconut flakes), first introduced to American supermarkets in 1947. We cannot forget the Baltimore Snowball, an iconic concoction of shaved ice and sweet syrup often topped with marshmallow cream. The association between snowball named treats and coconut is a decidedly mid-twentieth century convention, likely due to the increased affordability, availability, and accessibility (dehydrated flakes) of this tropical fruit. In the nineteenth century and today, region determined the form of this dessert.

A pink Hostess Snoballs snack cake. https://www.hostesscakes.com/products/snoballs/pink/

Research into printed and manuscript recipe collections suggests several versions of Snowballs circulated within the Anglo-American world during Mary Randolph’s lifetime. These recipes consisted of apple dumplings served with a sauce or icing. One of the earliest references to Snow-Balls occurs in Elizabeth Raffald’s classic cookery text, The Experienced English Housekeeper, first published in London in 1760. A particularly sumptuous version from Colin Mackenzie’s Five Thousand Receipts, first published in England in 1823 with several expanded American editions between 1829-1860, consisted of whole apples, cored and filled with orange or quince marmalade, covered in pastry and baked. Once removed from the oven, the Snowballs were covered in icing and set near the fire to harden.[1] It is easy to imagine the source of the name; these balls of boiled rice covered with sugar glistening in the candlelight likely bore a striking resemblance to the snowballs manufactured by local children. This recipe’s comparative extravagance is unsurprising considering the middle-class or higher audience for Mackenzie’s recipes.

A Carolina Snow Ball. https://savoringthepast.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/001snowball.jpg

American versions of this recipe, appearing in several sources such as an entry for Snowballs in Caroline Hayward’s manuscript recipe collection and a clipping pasted into an edition of Catharine Beecher’s Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book, alter the recipe to maintain the appearance but reduce the cost of the dish. These variations consist of peeled and cored apples, flavored with lemon peel, cinnamon, and cloves, and tightly wrapped in cooked rice. Hayward’s recipe instructs the cook to tie each apple “up in a cloth like dumplings.”[2] These recipes are sometimes labeled Carolina Snow Balls, a reference to the use of rice. The finished product would resemble Mackenzie’s Snowballs, but with rice in the place of pastry. Since this version did not require the butter and refined wheat flour required for pastry or the costly marmalade, it may have been more economical to produce for family suppers or those with limited means.

Elizabeth Raffald, The Experienced English Housekeeper (London: T. Wilson and R. Spence, 1806), 263.

There is no evidence whether Mary Randolph prepared or enjoyed these apple dumplings. However, the recipe circulated widely during her lifetime and she certainly had access to the ingredients and, as a recipe for rice to serve with curry attests, was familiar with preparing rice. Nineteenth-century cooks used rice for a number of innovative purposes, “they molded the rice in tea-cups, making a cavity in the centre and filling it with brightly coloured jelly; they layered individual rice puddings with cooked fruit, they folded custard or stiffly beaten egg whites into rice puddings before baking them; some topped puddings with meringue.”[3] While Randolph did not include a rice-based dessert recipe in her cookbook, she was likely familiar with these dishes.

Carolina Snowballs are a unique variation on apple dumplings. Naturally gluten-free, these intriguing little dumplings are reminiscent of winter-time fun!

To Make Carolina Snow-Balls

Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (London: 1788)

Adapted by R.A. Snell

Ingredients

Pudding:

Half a pound of medium grain rice

Six apples, peeled and cored

Lemon peel

Sauce:

Quarter pound butter, melted

A glass of white wine or apple juice

Nutmeg and cinnamon, to taste

Sugar, to taste

Special equipment:

Six Pudding cloths (a clean piece of unbleached muslin works well)

Method

1. Place a pot of water to boil, be sure there is sufficient room for six apple-sized dumplings.

2. Divide the rice into six equal parts and place each portion of rice in a pudding cloth.

3. Place one apple on top of the rice in each pudding cloth. Placed finely shredded lemon peel in the core of each apple.

4. Wrap the pudding cloth around each apple so that the rice is evenly distributed around the apple. This is the most challenging part! Once the cloth is tied, gently massage the dumpling until the rice surrounds the apple. Be sure the cloth is firmly noted and there is space for the rice to expand.

5. Boil the puddings for 75 minutes.

6. When the puddings are nearly done (after about one hour of boiling), prepare the sauce by boiling all ingredients together.

7. After 75 minutes, carefully remove the puddings from the boiling water. Before unwrapping, dunk the puddings in cold water and squeeze out any excess water.

8. Carefully remove the pudding cloth and serve alongside the sauce.

Yield: six dumplings


Sources

[1] Colin Mackenzie, Five Thousand Receipts in all the useful and domestic arts (Philadelphia: James Kay, Jun. & Co., 1831), 182.

[1]Caroline Hayward Recipe Book, 1815-1834, Joseph H. Hayward Family Papers, s. N-2368. Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA 02215. 

[1] Jeri Quinzio, Pudding: A Global History (London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2012), 92.

Catharine E. Beecher, Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book, designed as a supplement to her treatise on domestic economy (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1857), Library Company of Philadelphia, Am 1857 Beecher 102993.D;

New England Cookbook 1825-1870 and Jane E. Hassler Cookbook, June 1857, Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts and Cookbooks, The University of Iowa Libraries.

Elizabeth Raffald, The Experienced English Housekeeper (London: T. Wilson and R. Spence, 1806), 263.

Baking, Vegetable, Winter

Sweet Potato Buns

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.[1] 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.”[2]  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 image of the kitchen in the Telfair Academy, restored to c. 1819, provides a sense of the type of workspace Mary Randolph and her enslaved cooks may have used. The cooks at the Telfair home enjoyed the luxury of a large, raised hearth and a double-oven. The other furnishings are simple, marking this space as a strictly utilitarian area. Courtesy of Telfair Academy.

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.

Charles and Maximillian Fleischmann, immigrants from Austria-Hungary, were among the first producers of commercial yeast in the United States. Source: https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/the-healing-power-of-compressed-yeast

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

Ingredients

  • 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.

Method

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


[1] 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.

[2] Beecher, Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book, 130.

Sources

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).

Fish & Seafood, Winter

To Dress Cod Fish

Mary Randolph offers a robust collection of seafood dishes in a chapter simply titled, “Fish.” Her recipes include methods to prepare both fresh and salted, ocean and freshwater fish as well as oysters and eels. Unsurprisingly, recipes for preparing codfish appear with great frequency in Randolph’s collection. Eight recipes for fresh and salted cod compose nearly a quarter of the recipes in the chapter. Randolph’s inclusion of several ways of preparing cod, including baked, boiled, fricasseed, and baked in a pie, speaks to the pivotal role played by cod in North American history.


Drawing of an Atlantic Cod. Penobscot Marine Museum.

Atlantic Cod (Gadus morhua) has a dense, flaky, white flesh and mild flavor. The fish were spectacularly plentiful in the cold, deep waters of the North American coast from Maine to Newfoundland. John Cabot marveled in a report from his 1497 voyage that

The sea there is swarming with fish, which can be taken not only with the net but in baskets let down with a stone, so that it sinks in the water.

John Cabot quoted in Harold Innis, The Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940), 11

Attracted by accounts like Cabot’s, fishermen from France, England, Portugal, and Spain established temporary operations to catch, dry, and salt cod for European Catholics. Permanent settlements in New England also prospered from trading salted cod with European markets, West Indies plantations, and the southern colonies. A wood carving of a codfish, known as the Sacred Cod of Massachusetts, displayed in the State House serves as “a memorial of the importance of the Cod-Fishery to the welfare of this Commonwealth,” and has a fascinating history of its own.

This carving of a cod, made of pine, is the third to hang in the House of Representatives chamber at the Massachusetts State House. Yankee Magazine.

Massachusetts was not the only economy beholden to the codfish. Rather, as Canadian historian Harold Innis argued in his 1940 study, The Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy, the cod fishery produced and relied upon complex international relations. In his work, Innis focused on interrelationships between economics, culture, and technology that marked the codfish industry. First, the large population of observant Catholics in Europe produced a demanding market for fish. References to abstaining from the meat of warm-blooded animals on Fridays in recognition of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for humankind begin in the first century C.E. By the Middle Ages, European Christianity had added many meatless days to the calendar. In addition to Fridays, observant Christians abstained from meat on Wednesdays and Saturdays, during the Lent and Advent seasons, and on other holy days. These observances created an enormous market for fish, so much so that the rumor spread that a pope made a secret pact to sell more fish.

This c. 1857-59 French cod fishing station on Newfoundland provides a sense of the process and scale of dried salted cod production in the nineteenth century. Library and Archives Canada.

Technology also played a role in the ascendency of the cod. The Vikings perfected a method of air-drying fish; Innis argues the English adapted the Viking method to North America’s more humid climate by salting the fish before drying. Consumers preferred salt dried cod to fish packed in brine, allowing the English and then the Americans to dominate and reap monetary rewards from the cod trade. Easy to ship, inexpensive, and tasty (if you knew how to prepare it), dried salted cod perfectly fit the bill for observant Catholic’s tables throughout Europe. Light on the budget, easy to ship, and long-lasting, dried salted cod frequently appeared in enslaved rations on West Indies plantations. In the American South, cod appeared on the tables of all classes. The variety of dishes Randolph offers for the fish suggests it was a staple in her household or she expected it to be in the homes of her audience.

particular recipe presents fresh cod, boiled, and served in a crust of potatoes, onions, and seasonings. At the end of the recipe, Randolph notes, “For change, it may be baked in the form of patties.” I felt my family would be more likely to try and enjoy this recipe in the form of patties. The recipe was simple to make, although I did find it difficult to form and keep the patties in shape. I used a combination of parsnips and potatoes because I didn’t have quite enough potatoes and cut back on the amount of onions because I feared the amount stated in the recipe would be overwhelming. Everyone ate this, from the one-year-old who doesn’t really enjoy fish to the fish-loving five-year-old to my picky husband. My five-year-old declared it “good,” high praise indeed!

To Dress Cod Fish

Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife (1838), p. 64.

Adapted by RA Snell

Ingredients

  • 1 lb cod fish
  • 1 lb white potatoes or parsnips, peeled and chopped into equal sized pieces*
  • ½ cup diced onion**
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 tablespoon white wine (optional)
  • 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
  • salt and pepper
  • milk or cream, as needed

* I used half potatoes and half parsnips.

** Randolph’s recipe stipulates an equal quantity of fish, potatoes or parsnips, and onions. I’ve reduced the amount of onion to suit the taste preferences of my family.

Method

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Boil the fish until cooked through and set aside.

2. While the fish is boiling, boil the potatoes and/or parsnips with the onions until the vegetables are soft.

3. Drain the vegetables and mash with butter, nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste. If your mash is too stiff, add a tablespoon of milk or cream until it can be easily mixed.

4. Break the fish into small pieces and mix into the vegetable mixture. Form the mixture into patties and place on a greased baking sheet. Bake 30 minutes, flipping the patties halfway through the cooking time.

Notes:

My patties did not crisp in the oven the way I hoped they would. I had better results cooking for 2-3 minutes per side on a griddle over medium heat.

I did not need to add any additional liquid to the vegetable mash.

Yield: one dozen patties, about 6 servings


Sources

Harold Innis, The Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940).

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

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

Beverage, Holiday

Orgeat, A Necessary Refreshment at all Parties

If you are a fan of Mai Tais, you may be familiar with Orgeat syrup, a sweet syrup made from almonds, sugar, and rose or orange flower water, a key ingredient in Tiki cocktails. Of course, Randolph lived long before the Tiki craze swept the United States after WWII, and her nonalcoholic recipe likely traces back to the drink’s origins as a cooling beverage, much like Randolph’s raspberry vinegar.

Orgeat, pronounced “or-zsa,” like Zsa Zsa Gabor, has ancient origins. Originally a thin drink of barley and warm water prescribed to fever patients by the 6th Century C.E. Byzantine physician, Anthimus, Orgeat evolved into a refreshing drink to enjoy on a warm day flavored with melon, cucumber, or ground sweet almonds. Over time, the almond flavor became dominate, and, eventually, almonds replaced barley entirely in the recipe.

Display of Tiki drinks at the Trader Vic’s in San Francisco, 1956. Chain founder Victor Jules Bergeron, Jr. is one of two people credited with inventing the Mai Tai. Photographer- Nat Farbman Time Inc Owned Merlin-1199442

In eighteenth century England, orgeat became an elegant drink for social occasions. Like Randolph’s recipe, the mixture was sweetened and served as a punch. Randolph implies this use by labeling the recipe “a necessary refreshment at all parties.” In her research, C. Anne Wilson identified two versions of orgeat (or ozyat to the English). One, composed of ground almonds, sugar, orange flower water, and citrus fruits, could be the predecessor of the Orgeat syrup used in Tiki drinks. Randolph’s recipe appears to be closely related to “milk ozyat” made from boiled spiced milk, cooled, and mixed with ground almonds. Special ozyat glasses with handles developed to serve the drink. Once again, this custom is referenced by Randolph with her suggestion to serve the beverage “in glasses with handles.”

These glass punch cups with handles from the collections of the Metropolitan Museum could be similar to those used by Randolph to serve orgeat. The Sylmaris Collection, Gift of George Coe Graves, 1930.

As Randolph recommended, we sampled her orgeat cold and lukewarm. Unfortunately, we don’t own “glasses with handles” and settled for port glasses. With a splash of bourbon or rum, it would be reminiscent of a milk punch: sweet and creamy with a hint of cinnamon, almond, and rose. I don’t recommend trying Randolph’s Orgeat in a Mai Tai; however, you can easily make your own orgeat syrup, which could be used to make a tropical tasting drink. I found the drink most enjoyable when used to make an Orgeat latte (see below).

Orgeat

Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife (1838), p. 70.

Adapted by RA Snell

Ingredients

  • 4 cups milk*
  • Cinnamon stick
  • 2 ounces raw almonds
  • 1/8 teaspoon rosewater
  • 2 tablespoons sugar

* This recipe can easily be made dairy-free. Simply substitute the milk with the alternative milk of your choice. If using nut milk, I would avoid anything other than almond milk as the flavor of the milk will compete with the delicate flavor of almond in the final product.

Method

1. Place milk and cinnamon stick in a medium sauce-pan over medium-low heat. Stir frequently to prevent burning until the mixture comes to a boil.

2. Once the mixture had boiled, remove the cinnamon stick and leave the milk to cool to room temperature.

3. When the milk is cool, blanch the almonds by pouring boiling water over them in a small bowl. Leave for one minute, then remove the boiling water and plunge the almonds into an ice water bath.

4. Place the milk mixture, almonds, and rosewater in a blender. Blend enough to break the almonds into small pieces.

5. Pour the resulting mixture into a sauce-pan and add sugar (you may wish to add more or less to taste). Bring to a boil, again stirring frequently, and allow to boil for 2-3 minutes.

6. Strain the mixture through a fine mesh strainer into a vessel and allow to cool.

Randolph recommends to “serve it up either cold or lukewarm, in glasses with handles.” Alternatively, this milk punch makes a delicious latte. Simply steam one cup of Randolph’s Orgeat in place of your usual milk and pour over espresso.


Sources

Alan Davidson, The Penguin Companion to Food (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 670.

“Orgeat,” French Country Food: Traditional French Food (accessed 7 Jan. 2021), https://www.frenchcountryfood.com/drinks/orgeat.html.

Marcia Simmons, “Orgeat Recipe,” Serious Eats 11 Nov. 2011 (accessed 7 Jan. 2021), https://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2011/11/how-to-make-orgeat-recipe-almond-syrup-for-cocktails.html.

John F. Mariani, The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 372.

Baking, Holiday, Preserves, Winter

Mincemeat for Pies

Mincemeat, currently firmly associated with the winter holidays, is simultaneously exotic and ordinary. The technique of mincing, chopping food into tiny pieces, has existed since ancient times. Mincing meat was practical on several fronts: it repurposed leftover meat, stretched a potentially limited protein supply, and preserved meat for later consumption. In Britain, mince pie is most often enjoyed around Christmas time and consists of a miniature round pie filled with mincemeat: a mixture of dried fruits, chopped nuts and apples, suet, spices, brandy, and other flavorings.  In North America, mincemeat pie is typically larger, 8-9 inches, and serves a gathering of people. In her 1853 cookbook, Domestic Cookery, Elizabeth Ellicott Lea noted in her recipe for Farmers’ Mince Pies, “Where persons have a large family, and workmen on a farm, these pies are very useful.”[1] Lea’s recipe yield forty pies that could be kept two months in a cold place and placed on the table when the housewife something filling for her family and workers.

Lea’s recipe starts with a beef head and two hog’s heads chopped fine with suet and combined with raisins, chopped apples, molasses, cider, currant wine, brandy, cinnamon, orange peel, mace, and nutmeg. The spices in mincemeat harken to the Crusades when English soldiers encountered the Middle Eastern practice of using spices to produce sweet and savory meat dishes. When they returned home, they brought aspects of this new cuisine with them, including spices. The association between mince pie and Christmas emerged very early as the three spices (typically cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg) represented the Magi’s three gifts to the Christ Child. Early mince pies were oblong intended to cradle a representation of the baby Jesus. It was believed lucky to eat a mince pie on each of the twelve days of Christmas as this 1920 advertisement from Robertson’s, a popular British brand of prepared mincemeat, encourages.

The meat in mincemeat slowly disappeared over time. Gervase Markham’s The English Huswife (1615) called for an entire leg of mutton and three pounds of suet; however, by 1747, Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery Made Easy suggests the meat could be optional. She instructs the reader to blend the sweet components then notes, “If you chuse[sic] meat in your pies parboil a neat’s tongue, peel it, and chop the meat as fine as possible and mix with the rest.” As the price of sugar fell during the nineteenth century, sweet mincemeat pies slowly supplanted the savory version. In 1861, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management provided a meat-filled and a meat-less version. Within a few decades, meat was a rarity in mincemeat.

Today, in the United States, mincemeat pie frequently receives the same derision as fruit cake. However, not too long ago, Americans numbered it among the most popular pies. An editorialist in the Washington Post opined in 1907:

Mince pie is mince pie. There is no other pie to take its place. Custard pie is good and so is apple pie, but neither has the uplifting power and the soothing, gratifying flavor possessed by mince pie when served hot, with a crisp brown crust.

While for most Americans, apple pie has deposed mincemeat as an American culinary institution, in Britain, the enjoyment of mince pies remains firmly associated with Christmas celebrations.

Mary Randolph’s recipe is my first serious foray into mincemeat. Growing up, every Thanksgiving, we traveled from Maine to Massachusetts to celebrate at my grandparents’ home. There was always a huge amount and variety of pies. Apple, pumpkin, squash, cherry, and my great aunt would always bring a mincemeat pie. As a child, mincemeat held no allure. I never sought confirmation but, based on the name and appearance, assumed it was comprised of meat and nondescript lumps. Until attempting this recipe, I had been in the vicinity of mincemeat pie but had never actually sampled it. I was pleasantly surprised.

Randolph’s mincemeat pies are spicy, sweet, and, surprisingly, since I lack food memory connecting the two, Christmasy. Randolph’s recipe is a meat-based pie; however, in order to include the pies in our bags of Christmas goodies for friends and neighbors, I opted to leave out the hog’s feet and substitute vegetable suet. The result is a mincemeat pie ready for sharing.

Mincemeat for Pies

Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife (1838), p. 115-6.

Adapted by RA Snell

Ingredients

  • 2 cups apples, peeled and chopped
  • 2 cups dried currants
  • 2 cups raisins, roughly chopped
  • 2 cups brown sugar
  • 2 cups suet, finely chopped
  • 2 cups cider
  • 1 cup brandy
  • ½ teaspoon of mace, cloves, and nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon salt and pepper, divided

Method

1. Combine the apples, raisins, currants, brown sugar, and cider in a saucepan. Simmer gently until the apple is tender.

2. Remove from the heat and add suet, brandy, mace, clove and nutmeg. Mix well (or as Randolph puts, “intimately”).

3. Divide into two quart jars. To each quart jar add ½ teaspoon salt and pepper. Mix well.

4. Store in the refrigerator until ready to make pies. It’s a good idea to let your mincemeat rest for the flavors to combine. At least 24 hours, but the longer the better.

Yield: two quarts of mincemeat filling

Notes

The easiest method for chopping suet is to freeze and grate using a box grater.

Mincemeat Pie

Ingredients

  • Prepared and rested mincemeat
  • Pastry for 36 mini pies ( I used Nancy Birtwhistle’s recipe, doubled)
  • Candied citron or lemon peel

Method

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Roll out your pastry and cut 9cm rounds to fill the holes of a muffin tin. Tip: Place strips of parchment paper under the pastry to easily remove the baked pies. If using a metal pan, grease well!

3. Fill pastry with mincemeat. Top each pie with a sprinkle of citron or lemon peel.

4. With the remaining pastry, roll out 7cm lids or top your pies with a star or snowflake shape. If lidded, cut a vent hole before baking.

5. Bake until the mincemeat is bubbling and the pastry is golden, about 40-45 minutes.

Yield: 36 miniature pies


Sources

[1] Elizabeth Ellicott Lea, Domestic Cookery: Useful Receipts, and Hints to Young Housekeepers (Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1859, reprint 2008), 86-7.

Isabella Beeton, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861)

Hannah Glasse, Art of Cookery Made Easy (1747)

Gervase Markham, The English Huswife (1615)

 Cliff Doerksen, “The Real American Pie,” Chicago Reader, 17 Dec. 2009 (accessed 11 Dec 2020), https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/mince-pie-the-real-american-pie/Content?oid=1267308.

Food History Timeline: Mincemeat

Veronique Greenwood, “The strange and twisted history of mince pies,” Taste of Tomorrow: BBC, 8 Dec. 2017 (accessed 11 Dec 2020), https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20171208-the-strange-and-twisted-history-of-mince-pies.

Ben Panko, “The History of Mincemeat Pies, from the Crusades to Christmas,” Smithsonian Magazine 22 Oct. 2017 (accessed 11 Dec 2020), https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/crusades-christmas-history-mincemeat-pies-180966981/.

Linda Stradley,“Mincemeat Pie History,” What’s Cooking America (accessed 11 Dec 2020), https://whatscookingamerica.net/History/PieHistory/MincemeatPie.htm.

Baking, Fall, Vegetable

Sweet Potato Pudding

Last week’s recipe for Baked Apple Pudding provides a sense of the evolution of American favorites pumpkin and sweet potato pie. These dishes, frequently enjoyed at Thanksgiving, combine New World ingredients with Old World culinary techniques. Food historians theorize pumpkin pie and sweet potato pie developed when innovative cooks used these ingredients in dishes that typically relied on apples or root vegetables.[1] Pie, defined as a sweet or savory filling encased between pastry, descended from an English cookery practice of baking a filling between two crusts to preserve it for a short time. Also called coffins, these somewhat edible storage containers were a dense combination of suet or lard and flour. Over time, influences from other cuisines transformed pastry into the flaky encasement we enjoy today. Randolph generally uses the term “pudding” in her recipes (except for an apple pie recipe). Still, we would define her dishes as pies today.

Sweet Potato from John Gerard’s Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597). Library of Congress.

There is considerable regional variation in the flavors of pie enjoyed by Americans. Of the many divides between North and South is a preference for pumpkin or sweet potato pie. While both groups appreciate pumpkin pie (Randolph includes a recipe for Pumpkin Pudding), sweet potato is a rare ingredient in northern cookbooks. Sweet potatoes, native to Central and South America, were among the first New World crops embraced in Europe. One reason for the enthusiasm was the purported aphrodisiac qualities of the tuber. Sweet potatoes were grown commercially in Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia beginning in the mid-1600s. Sweet potatoes appeared on the tables of white southerners in various forms; Randolph includes recipes for broiled, stewed, boiled sweet potatoes. However, they were also a vital source of nutrition for enslaved black Americans. The tuber was a typical food and frequently appeared on the tables of the less well-off in the south. The vegetable was a luxury item in the North before 1830. With just a few decades to become a part of northern diets before the establishment of the Thanksgiving holiday, it’s unsurprising the more familiar (and more easily grown) flavors of apple, pumpkin, and squash dominated the dessert table for northerners.

The similarities between Randolph’s Baked Apple Pudding and Sweet Potato Pudding suggest how the tuber was incorporated into Anglo-Southern diets. The recipes are nearly identical. The most significant differences are the pureed sweet potatoes in place of the pureed apples and the addition of a spice, nutmeg. The sweet potato-based pudding also includes more sugar than the apple. In addition to apple pudding, British cuisine imported to North America with the colonists included a variety of root vegetable puddings. Cooks produced these dishes by boiling and mashing the vegetable, mixing it with butter, eggs, sugar, and spices, and baking in an open-faced pie shell. Before the introduction of New World ingredients, English cooks prepared parsnips, carrots, and other root vegetables this way. One interpretation is that lacking apples and familiar with root vegetable puddings cooks substituted sweet potatoes in the recipe and liked the results enough to adapt the seasoning to highlight the tuber’s sweet flavor. Further experimentation produced satisfactory results with pumpkins and sweet potatoes. However, Randolph notes in a postscript to the recipe, “Irish potato pudding is made in the same manner, but is not so good.”

Enslaved workers plant sweet potatoes at Hopkinson’s plantation, Edisto Island, South Carolina, c. 1862. Library of Congress.

An alternative explanation for the origins of sweet potato pie focuses on the similarities between yams and sweet potatoes. Yams, often mistaken for the sweet potato and vice-versa, are an edible, starchy tuber native to Africa, South America, the Caribbean, Asia, and Oceania. Enslaved cooks, familiar with yams from African culinary traditions, may have incorporated sweet potatoes into dishes requested for the master’s table. When cooking for themselves and their families, the sweet potato could serve as a stand-in for the unavailable tropical yam. Adrian Miller, James Beard award-winning author, chronicles the history of the sweet potato and other soul food staples in Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time.  Miller argues the earliest desserts enjoyed by enslaved people were

Roasted sweet potatoes cooked in the embers of the fire or they started eating mashed up sweet potatoes that were spiced. As [they] got access to cooking technology and equipment, like ovens, that’s when they started to add pie shells.

Adrian Miller quoted in Ryan Shepard, “For many African-Americans, sweet potato pie isn’t just a dessert, it’s about family,” Southern Kitchen (October, 29, 2018), accessed 3 Nov. 2020, https://www.southernkitchen.com/articles/eat/african-american-history-sweet-potato-pie.

From these simple origins, sweet potato pie became an essential part of soul food cuisine. From its roots as a mixing pot of American, European, African, and even Asian (source of the nutmeg) culinary techniques and ingredients, the sweet potato pie is a fixture in southern cuisine. With a New England background stretching back generations, I had never sampled sweet potato pie. Although my partner has Southern roots, his dislike of sweet potatoes prevented him from ever digging into a slice. Through preparing Randolph’s recipe, we both discovered sweet potato pie is delicious! My partner even asserted a preference for sweet potato over pumpkin pie (sacrilege!). While I still prefer pumpkin, we’re looking forward to adding a sweet potato pie to our Thanksgiving dessert table this year.

Sweet Potato Pudding

Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife (1838), p. 120-1.

Adapted by RA Snell

Ingredients

  • 1 lb sweet potatoes
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • ¾ teaspoon nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon lemon zest
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 tablespoon brandy, optional

Method

1. Peel and cube sweet potatoes into roughly equal pieces. Boil until tender.

2. While hot, pass the sweet potatoes through a food mill or puree in a blender or food processor.

3. Add sugar, butter, nutmeg, lemon zest, and brandy. This is a good moment to taste the puree and make any adjustments to the seasoning.

4. Cover a 9-inch pie plate with a crust. While preparing the pie crust, allow the apple mixture to cool and preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

5. Add the beaten eggs to the sweet potato mixture and mix well. Pour into the prepared pie crust.

6. Bake 45 minutes. I recommend covering your pie with aluminum foil for the first thirty minutes of baking to prevent burning your pastry.

Serve warm or cold. Whipped cream is an excellent addition!

Note: a can of sweet potatoes may be substituted for the whole sweet potatoes. Skip to step 2 and be sure to have about two cups of pureed sweet potatoes before moving on with the recipe.


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.

Food History Timeline

Adrian Miller, “How sweet potato pie became African Americans’ Thanksgiving dessert” The Washington Post (Nov. 24, 2015), accessed 3 Nov. 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/how-sweet-potato-pie-became-african-americans-favorite-dessert/2015/11/23/11da4216-9201-11e5-b5e4-279b4501e8a6_story.html.

Ryan Shepard, “For many African-Americans, sweet potato pie isn’t just a dessert, it’s about family,” Southern Kitchen (October, 29, 2018), accessed 3 Nov. 2020, https://www.southernkitchen.com/articles/eat/african-american-history-sweet-potato-pie.

Andrew F. Smith, “Sweet Potatoes,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, vol. II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 574-5.

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

Images

Moore, Henry P, photographer. Sweet potato planting, Hopkinson’s Plantation. Edisto Island South Carolina, 1862. [April 8] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2010651644/.

https://blogs.loc.gov/inside_adams/2010/11/a-sweet-potato-history/

Baking, Fall, Fruit

Baked Apple Pudding

Randolph’s recipe for Baked Apple Pudding is reminiscent of an applesauce pie, calling for apples to be baked, pureed, mixed with other ingredients, and baked in a pie shell. At first glance, the recipe appears to include a familiar component: powdered sugar. In Randolph’s day, powdered sugar held a different meaning than it does in today’s recipes.

Until the late nineteenth century, sugar was available as loaf sugar: a cone of concentrated refined white sugar that required special tools to prepare it for baking and other uses. Every well-stocked kitchen included a pair of sugar nips for breaking the sugar cone into smaller pieces and a mortar and pestle for pounding the sugar. If you’ve never touched a sugar loaf, the sugar is rock hard. Before the invention of a vacuum system of evaporation and the centrifuge made the production in the mid-nineteenth century, refining white sugar required a series of boiling and filtering processes. When complete, the sugar mixture and additives like white clay to improve the whiteness of the final product were poured into inverted conical molds. Over a few days, the dark syrup and other matter drained away, leaving a concentrated cone of pure white sugar. Once removed from the mold, the sugar cones were dried, trimmed, and wrapped. The selection of blue paper for wrapping sugar cones emphasized their whiteness.

Sugar refiner c. 1624 (http://www.angelfire.com/ca4/yourturf2/medievallifevob.html

Purchased by the cone, the cone’s size signaled the quality of the sugar: the smaller the cone, the higher the quality. Before using the sugar in recipes, cooks would need to pound their sugar in a mortar with a pedestal. A recipe for preserved apricots in Emma Bloomfield Schreiber’s recipe collection suggests the potentially laborious process of using sugar in a recipe, calling for “1 lb of white sugar pound[ed] in a mortar” for every pound of apricots.[1] In her reference to powdered sugar, Randolph refers to sugar that has already been pounded in a mortar to prepare for baking rather than the confectioner’s sugar that is sometimes called powdered sugar today. By 1871, the granulated sugar we purchase today at the grocery replaced loaf sugar store saving women from the labor of grinding their sugar.

Sugar loaves, nippers, and storage box. (https://livesandlegaciesblog.org/2018/12/13/all-about-sugar-cones/)

For me, apple pie means chunks of apples sweetened with sugar and spices. Randolph’s recipe is a departure from the usual and an enjoyable change of pace. As Thanksgiving nears, Randolph’s Baked Apple Pudding is a good reminder of how fall favorites sweet potato and pumpkin pie evolved from British apple puddings. Stay tuned for those recipes in the coming weeks!  

Baked Apple Pudding

Baked Apple Pudding

Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife (1838), p. 125.

Adapted by RA Snell

Ingredients

  • 1 lb apples (about 4 large apples)
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon lemon zest
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • Pastry for one crust pie (your favorite recipe or store bought)

Note: The recipe requires enough apples to produce one pound of apple puree after cooking the apples. For me, four large apples yielded a sufficient amount for the recipe.

Method

1. Cut the apples into equally sized pieces, about one inch in diameter. Place the apples in an oven-proof container and bake until tender 30-45 minutes. Stir the apples occasionally to check doneness and prevent burning. If you plan to use a blender or food processor to puree your apples, be sure to peel before cooking.

2. Run the apples through a food mill or puree in a blender or food processor.

3. While the apple puree is hot, add butter, sugar, and lemon zest.

4. Cover a 9-inch pie plate with a crust. While preparing the pie crust, allow the apple mixture to cool and preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

5. Add the beaten eggs to the apple mixture and mix well. Pour into the prepared pie crust.

6. Bake 25 minutes. Lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake an additional 30-40 minutes, until the crust is golden brown and the apple mixture jiggles very slightly when gentle shaken. Sift sugar over the filling once removed from the oven.

Notes:

Randolph instructions specify “well flavored apples.” Without any spices to bring out the flavor of the apples, it is essential to select flavorful apples.

The second time I made this recipe, I put my apples in the crockpot to avoid having to carefully watch them in the oven to prevent burning.

I recommend covering your pie with aluminum foil for the first thirty minutes of baking to prevent burning your pastry.


Sources

[1] Recipe book of Emma Blomfield Schreiber, 1856-7, Una Abrahamson Collection, Special Collections, McLaughlin Library, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario.

Elizabeth Abbott, Sugar: A Bittersweet History (London: Duckworth Overlook, 2009).

Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Viking Penguin, Inc., 1985).

Susan Williams, Food in the United States, 1820s-1890 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006).

Wendy A. Woloson, “Sugar” in Andrew W. Smith, ed., The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, 570-571.