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).

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/