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:

First, Randolph instructs the reader to mix mashed sweet potato with “as much flour as will make it like bread.” This is subjective, to put things mildly, depending on the size of one’s potato and one’s opinion on the texture of bread dough. The instructions to add “a spoonful of yeast” not only does not specify the amount (what size spoonful?) but also obscures the difference between yeast in the past and today. While we purchase our yeast in packages or jars, women carefully saved and cultivated yeast from bread baking and beer brewing in the past. Louis Pasteur’s identification of yeast as living organisms in the 1850s paved the way for commercially produced yeast, with the first cakes of compressed yeast appearing in U.S. markets in the 1860s. Therefore, Randolph does not mean to add a scoop of baker’s yeast but rather a spoonful of a yeast starter. Finally, like nearly all recipes from the period, Randolph does not provide instructions on temperature or length of baking for the practical reason that these measures did not exist. Instead, women relied on their experience to determine how long and in what sort of oven to bake the rolls.

Mary Randolph’s Sweet Potato Buns were delectable! Sweet and tender with a hint of spice, they are perfect alone for breakfast or tea, as Randolph notes. They would also make a delicious sandwich with Thanksgiving leftovers or with pulled pork (I would use ½ teaspoon of spice for these purposes). I used a recipe for Sweet Potato Rolls from King Arthur Flour to guide my adaptation of this recipe. My keys to success were, I believe, proving the yeast with a small amount of water and sugar and melting the butter and adding at the beginning. With a full cup of sweet potato, these are a delicious way to slip vegetables into your baked goods.

Sweet Potato Buns

Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife (1838), p. 141.

Adapted by RA Snell


  • 1 sweet potato boiled and mashed (about 1 cup)
  • ½ cup warm water (between 100-110°F, 38-43°C)
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1 ½ tablespoons yeast
  • 3 tablespoons butter, melted
  • ½ – 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice or cinnamon*
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 460 grams (3 2/3 cups) all-purpose flour

* When fresh from the oven, one teaspoon of spice was overpowering. However, the next day the buns were perfectly spiced. If you plan to serve these immediately, I would reduce the spice to ½ teaspoon. If cooling to serve later, use the full teaspoon.


1. Combine the water, yeast, and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Cover and rest for five minutes.

2. To the yeast mixture, add the remaining ingredients and mix well. A stand mixer works ideally for this task, however, the ingredients may also be mixed by hand.

3. If using a stand mixer, beat on low speed with a bread hook for 5-8 minutes until the dough is soft. Or knead by hand until the dough slowly bounces back when poked with the finger.

4. Place the dough in a large bowl lightly greased with olive oil or cooking spray (I like to use the same bowl because I am a firm believer in not creating more dishes than absolutely necessary). Cover and allow to rise until doubled in size, about 60 minutes.

5. Grease a 9×13 baking dish (or other dish that will accommodate your buns). Divide the risen dough into fifteen equal-sized pieces and shape into a ball with your hand. Place the dough into the greased dish, cover, and allow to rise until doubled in size, about 30-45 minutes.

6. When the rising time is nearly finished, preheat your oven to 350°F.

7. Bake buns until golden brown on top and baked through, about 20 minutes.

Yield: fifteen buns

Consulted recipe: Sweet Potato Rolls, King Arthur Flour

[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.


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).


Ginger Wine

In urban areas in the early nineteenth century, many drank beer, cider, and other alcoholic beverages as alternates to water sources that were unreliable, dirty, or harbored disease. Most of these refreshments were homemade, produced by women. In 1825, the year after the publication of Randolph’s recipes, the estimated annual per capita consumption of alcohol in the United States was 5.0 gallons of ninety-proof spirits and 15 gallons of twenty-proof cider per person. Further, many alcoholic beverages were inexpensive. The settlement of fertile lands in the Midwest produced a grain glut that brought whiskey’s price to $.25 a gallon, far cheaper than many other beverages. Pervasive apple orchards in the northeast allowed families to mill and store cider for their own use. Finally, Americans consumed prodigious amounts of intoxicating beverages because they enjoyed the effect. Over the course of the next one hundred years, the Temperance Movement would strive to transform American attitudes about drinking and alcohol.[1]

Nineteenth century wine growing in the Hudson River Valley.

Wine consumption remained low throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many hoped to establish a thriving and profitable wine-making industry in the early days of English colonization. Reports from early explorers, such a this one recorded by historian Robert Beverly buoyed hopes of thriving vineyards in the American south:

“There they also found Grapes so prodigiously large, that they seem’d more like Bullace than Grapes.”

Robert Beverly, The History and Present State of Virginia, In Four Parts (London: R. Parker, 1705), 64.

In Virginia, efforts to establish a winemaking industry were particularly fierce. The Virginia Company, sponsor of the earliest settlements, sought experienced winegrowers to help tame the region’s native grapes. A 1619 law required every householder to

“Yearly plant and maintain ten vines until they have attained to the art and experience of dressing a vineyard either by their own industry or by the instruction of some vigneron.”

S. M. Kingsbury, ed., The Records of the Virginia Company of London (Washington, D.C., 1906-35) 3: 166.
The Norton grape, originally found in Virginia. One of the few native grapes that produces an acceptable red wine.

However, would-be vintners soon discovered the wine produced from native grapes was an acquired taste, to put it kindly. Beverly, a proponent of New World wine-making, kindly described the flavor as “curious” in his account. Gov. De La Warr frankly described wine produced in early Virginia as “sour.” Despite the profusion of native grapes, imported European grapes (V. vinifera) mysteriously would not grow. For two centuries, Americans, including such notable names as Governor William Bradford, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, attempted and failed to establish vineyards. Unbeknownst to the cultivators, New World pests and diseases were lethal to European grape varieties. Not until the early nineteenth century would accidental hybrids of American and European grape varieties allow wine-making to flourish and spread in the United States. Virginia’s present flourish wine industry traces its roots to these discoveries.

Consequently, during Mary Randolph’s day, most wines were imported and expensive. Wine imported from Europe was a luxury reserved for the wealthy. Housewives produced homemade wines from dandelions, blackberries, currants, persimmons, and wild and cultivated grapes. Based on her recipes, Randolph favored cordials produced by steeping fruits and other flavorings in brandy. However, she also provides recipes for fruit-based wines, shrubs, mead, and beer – allowing her readers to supply guests with various bracing beverages. Randolph includes two variations of homemade wines created from ginger and currants.

During Randolph’s time, women practiced home fermentation as a preservation technique to ensure safe refreshments for their families, for extra income, as home remedies, and to serve at social occasions. It is likely Randolph served this wine medicinally. Ginger, available as a powder and root is early America, had an established reputation as a digestive aid. However, Randolph’s Ginger Wine would certainly lubricate a social gathering. It is sweet with just a hint of ginger, effervescent, and strong.

Thoughts on the Recipe

I was lucky to have my partner, a seasoned homebrewer, assist with this recipe. Fortunately, Randolph provides descriptive instructions (not always the case!) to produce this recipe. Race ginger, refers to ginger root, readily available in most grocery stores. The lemons and sugar are also easily obtained, but the yeast will need to be purchased from a homebrew shop or order online.

My partner has been brewing beer and I’ve been enjoying the results for about ten years, this was our first foray into wine. Being familiar with the at-home wine-making process, we appreciated the nearly instant gratification this recipe provides: 2.5 weeks from boil to ready to drink is lightning fast in the homebrew world!

Ginger Wine

Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife (1838), p. 170.

Adapted by RA Snell


  • 1 ½ gallons water
  • 1 ½ pounds sugar
  • 2 oz fresh ginger root
  • 2 small lemons
  • 1 packet of ale yeast


1. Over medium-high heat, combine the water and sugar in a large pot.

2. Peel the ginger and add it to the pot when it reaches a boil.

3. Boil for one hour.

4. When the hour is up, cover the pot and let it sit until it reaches 90-95 degrees.

5. Strain the liquid into a glass carboy or other clear vessel that can be tightly sealed. Add the lemon slices and yeast.

6. Tightly seal the container and leave at room temperature (68-74 degrees) to ferment for one week.

7. After one week, prepare to bottle the wine. Sanitize 6-7 one-pint, glass bottles that can be securely closed (I recommend a flip-top bottle, but any securely fastened glass container, such as a mason jar, will work).

8. Carefully remove your wine from the fermentation container. Since you don’t want the sediment at the bottom of the fermentation container in your final product, you cannot simply pour your wine into the bottles. If you know someone with homebrew equipment, a siphon works quickly and easily. Otherwise, you could carefully ladle the wine from the fermentation container into the bottles.

9. Tightly seal your bottles and leave them in a cool, dry place to condition for at least ten days.

Yield: 6-7 pints


The final product is alcoholic. Enjoy responsibly.

[1] W.J. Rorabaugh, “Estimated U.S. alcoholic beverage consumption, 1790-1860,” Journal of Studies on Alcohol (March 1976), 357-364.


Sandra L. Oliver, Food in Colonial and Federal America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), 80-81; 69.

Thomas Pinney, A History of Wine in America: From the Beginnings to Prohibition (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1989).

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), 110, 267.

Andrew F. Smith, ed., The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 628, 259.

Susan Williams,  Food in the United States, 1820s-1890 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006), 46, 203.