History's Just Desserts

Exploring American History through Desserts and Their Makers


Surveying American History Through Cookbooks

Being a blogger has some perks.  I was recently offered cookbooks from the collection of American Antiquarian Cookbooks published by Andrews McMeel Publishing.  Reproduced in high-quality facsimile and in e-book format from originals held by the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, the cookbooks are beautiful.  The collection spans American history across time, space, race, religion, cultural movements, and more.

The first American cookbook, American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, published in 1796 – a time when citizens of the United States were defining their new nation – is here, of course.  So is the Confederate Receipt Book, produced seven decades after Amelia Simmons’s work, at a time when the limits of the founding generation’s compromises were all too painfully obvious.  The 1881 Canoe and Camp Cookery brings us to the late 1800s when leaders like Theodore Roosevelt were insisting on a vision of the American nation that rested on vigorous white men.

Roosevelt and many other, though not all, Americans favored territorial expansion, and this collection tells the story of that development.  The first regional cookbook, The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph (1824) reminds us that American history, from European settlement to cultural phenomenon like regional cookbooks, does not always begin in New England (sorry, family).  Published a few decades later, Mrs. Owen’s Illinois Cook Book highlights that Americans were moving across the continent and that the growing national economy’s reach had limits that shaped home cooking.  The story of territorial expansion reaches the Pacific with the 1875 California Recipe Book.

Race, ethnicity, and religion, so important to the American story, have their place in the collection too.  There’s Robert Roberts’s The House Servant’s Directory – the first book by an African American with recipes in it – and La Cuisine Creole by Lafcadio Hearn, who embraces the “cosmopolitan” nature of New Orleans.  The city and its food, he explains, “[blend] the characteristics of the American, French, Spanish, Italian, West Indian and Mexican.”  The United States’s religious history shows up here with Esther Levy’s Jewish Cookery Book (1871), and Mary Mann’s Christianity in the Kitchen (1858).  Levy’s work is what the name says: a book of recipes for cooking Jewish – both Sephardic and Ashkenazic – foods.  Mann’s book is something different.

Christianity in the Kitchen is not a book of Christian foods, but a book about how to avoid “unchristian” foods.  Mann sought to discourage “excessive drinking of injurious beverages,” “excessive eating” in general, and, moreover, the eating – whether excessive or not – of “unhealthful foods.”  “Compounds,” she explained, “like wedding cakes, suet plum-puddings, and rich turtle soups are masses of indigestible material, which should never find their way to any Christian table.”  (I feel I’m on safe ground saying that my non-Christian friends generally do not want suet plum-pudding or turtle soup, rich or light, on their tables either.)  Mary Mann – wife of Horace, the educational reformer – wanted to promote the good health that she believed was “one of the indispensable conditions of morality and beneficence.”  Her cookbook, that is, belonged to the Manns’ and many other Americans’ fervent efforts to better people and better the world.  Along with everything else, eating came in for nineteenth-century reformers’ attention, and reform cookbooks are a real strength of the collection.

So, would I like any of these cookbooks to review?  Would I indeed!  I did not choose one of the various reformer cookbooks, though as someone whose first scholarly work is on philanthropy and reform maybe I should have.  I chose more as a cook.  I opted for two greats, Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife, and Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats.  You know my first love in the kitchen is baking so I’ll next be exploring what we can learn about our history from Eliza Leslie. And, yeah, what we can bake from her Seventy-Five Receipts.




The Right Dessert for a New Job

Some months ago, I offered some helpful history about the right dessert for the birth of a royal baby.  This week I’ve been mulling the right dessert for a new job.  Whose new job, you ask?  Why, mine.  I just became the assistant director of the National History Center of the American Historical Association.

I’m very excited about the position.  The National History Center works “to make history an essential part of public conversations about current events and the shared futures of the United States and the wider world,” and I believe strongly in its mission.  Naturally, I’m also a bit nervous – what if I botch things? – and am eager to make a good impression on my new colleagues.  It occurred to me that I should bring a dessert to the office.

But what dessert?  For obvious reasons, it has to have some historic resonance.  As you (and now my father-in-law) know, even Rice Krispy Treats have historic significance, but, good as they are, they don’t relate to the history of the American Historical Association.  The AHA got its start in 1884.  Maybe I should look to a cookbook from that era for the right sweet to share.

As it happens, a notable cookbook, Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book, was published the same year that the AHA launched, and the two developments have much in common.  The American Historical Association was founded during the period that saw the creation of research universities and the emergence of distinct disciplines from earlier, patrician-dominated traditions of leisurely study.  The AHA, like other similar societies formed in the era, was established to set norms and standards for the pursuit of scholarship within the discipline.  (The AHA continues to promote history and historical thinking, today with a broader view of the many places and ways historians work.)

Now what, you’re wondering, does the AHA’s early history have to do with a cookbook?  As it happens, Mary Lincoln was no mere cookbook author, but the president of the Boston Cooking School, founded in 1879 to bring a more professional and scientific approach to cookery and domestic work.  Popular with home cooks, Mrs. Lincoln’s various cookbooks also helped to shape the new field of home economics.  Yes, you’ve got it, home economics as a field of study taught by professionally-trained teachers developed in the same era as the academic discipline of history and its professional society, the AHA.

So Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book is the right cookbook to bake from for my new office-mates.  What’s the right recipe?  I considered some of Mrs. Lincoln’s more elaborate desserts, but decided that calling in sick so I could make cake, jelly, and cream for a Gateau de Princess Louise might be the wrong move.  I opted instead for something that’s simple, yet (I hope) a crowd pleaser – molasses spice cookies.  Mrs. Lincoln’s are made with no granulated sugar, just molasses for the sweetener, and they are very good.  Dear colleagues, I’ll see you in the kitchen tomorrow morning.

Anyone else want to make friends at work?  Here’s the recipe.

Mrs. Lincoln’s Soft Molasses Cookies

With some additional helpful directions from yours truly.

1 cup molasses

1 tablespoonful ginger

1 teaspoonful baking soda

2 tablespoonfuls warm water or milk

½ c. (1 stick) butter, softened

Flour to mix soft (I used 1¾ cups.  You might try 2 cups.)


Mix in the order given, dissolving the soda in the milk.  (Those are Mrs. Lincoln’s directions on making the dough and, really, it’s that simple.)

Flatten the dough into two disks and wrap in plastic wrap.  Chill in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350° on a convection oven or 375° on a conventional oven.

Grease two cookie sheets.

Roll the dough into balls and roll the balls in sugar if you like.  Place on the cookie sheets and press gently on each ball to flatten slightly.

Bake, rotating the trays about midway through baking, about 8-10 minutes, until the cookies aren’t puffed up any more and spring back when touched gently.  Let cool on the trays for a couple minutes and then remove to a rack to cool fully.

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Malinda Russell’s Jumbles Recipe

A couple weeks ago, I mentioned that I will be visiting a fourth-grade class at the Washington Middle School for Girls to do a program about Malinda Russell.  I’m going to make one of Mrs. Russell’s jumbles recipes with the girls and, happily for you, folks, I’m going to share the recipe with you too.

First a little about the school.  The Washington Middle School for Girls is a tuition-free independent, Catholic school in Anacostia with a mission to serve girls at risk of leaving school prematurely.  The school got its start in 1995-96 when a number of women came together to address the educational needs of girls in Anacostia.  A decade later, the school was named one of the DC Area’s best small charities by the Catalogue for Philanthropy.

Now about the jumbles.  A jumble is a cookie or small cake.  John Ayto’s indispensable The Diner’s Dictionary explains that in the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s, these thin, crisp, shaped cookies were often made with rosewater, spices, orange zest, or other fragrant flavorings.  In the 1600s, cooks made the cookies in any shapes that caught their imagination, even baking them as in the shape of letters.  By the 1800s, however, the cookie was typically shaped as a ring.  The word jumble, Ayto tells us, may come from the word gimmal, or two-part ring.  Mrs. Rusell’s version (actually, this is just one of several jumbles recipes in her cookbook) has rosewater, mace, and caraway seeds.  It’s not too sweet and has delicious floral flavor and a nice crunch from caraway seeds.  Keep reading, folks, and the recipe is yours.

How did I choose this recipe to make with the kids?  It was partly based on what is feasible given the space we’ll be working in.  But, more important, Mrs. Russell, the first African American cookbook author, had her own pastry shop.  A cookie recipe reflects her area of expertise.  This cookie also has flavors that were typical in the 1800s, but are unusual today.  We’ll make the recipe together and I’ll tell Mrs. Russell’s story as a resolute free black woman in a society that put a lot of obstacles in her way.

Enough, already, you just want the recipe?  I hear you.

Mrs. Russell’s Recipe

 One lb. flour, 3-4 lb sugar, one half lb butter, five eggs, mace, rose water, and carraway, to your taste.

 What did I do to adapt the recipe?  I added directions, using modern equipment, on how to make the cookies.  I cut the recipe in half (simply because I wanted a smaller yield).  And I reduced the amount of egg the recipe calls for.  Eggs today are typically bigger than they were in the 1800s, so this proportion may be closer to what Mrs. Russell’s customers ate.  I added baking powder to help the cookies last a couple days.  Otherwise, they really are only good the first day and after that they are leaden.  I added salt to help bring out flavor.  I also decided on quantities for the flavorings and seeds.  (You might try adding more mace.)  And, as you’ll see below, I played around with how to shape the cookies and offer suggestions for making them as balls (less historic, but I like them this way) or double-rings.  Finally, I added the glaze based on having seen it in other jumbles recipes.  Feel free, of course, to skip the glaze.  Or try it both ways and tell me what you think.  (Questioning my decision to adapt the recipe? The good folks at American Food Roots gave me a chance to address this issue.)

 Malinda Russell’s Jumbles, Adapted by Amanda Moniz

Preheat the oven to 375° on a convection oven or to 400° on a conventional oven.

Lightly grease two cookie sheets or line them with parchment paper.

2 cups all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon baking powder

1½ teaspoons mace

4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

¾ cup sugar

1 egg

2 tablespoons rosewater

1 tablespoon caraway seeds


For glaze:

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon rosewater


Sift together the flour, salt, baking powder, and mace.  Set aside.

Cream the butter and sugar together in a stand mixer or with a hand-held mixer.

Add the egg and beat until incorporated.  Scrape down.

Add the dry ingredients and mix on low speed until just about combined.

Add the rosewater and caraway seeds and mix on low speed just until everything is combined.

This dough is stiff enough to work with right away.  Or you can wrap it in plastic wrap to refrigerate for up to a couple days before using.  (To wrap it, place the dough on plastic wrap.  Flatten it into a disk.  Wrap fully.)

For balls:

Roll walnut-sized pieces of the dough into balls and place on the cookie sheet.  Press each cookie gently with two fingers.

For double-rings:

Roll pieces of the dough (a bit bigger than walnut-sized) into a snake about 10 inches long.  Bring the two ends towards each other so the snake now looks like a narrow U.  Twist the two strands together and form into a circle.  Press the ends together to close the circle.

Bake, rotating once about halfway through baking, until fragrant and golden brown, about 10-12 minutes.  (If you do balls and rings, just bake them on separate trays because each shape will take a slightly different amount of time to bake.)

While the jumbles are baking, combine the sugar and rosewater for the glaze.  (Most of the sugar won’t dissolve.)  Have ready a pastry brush.

As soon as you take the cookies out of the oven, brush on the glaze.  Let cool.  Enjoy!

N.B.  Rosewater can be found at some supermarkets, Middle Eastern groceries, and online.  (I trust I don’t need to tell you that you want the edible stuff, not the skin toner.)







Guilty Feelings about Tweaking Historic Recipes: A Piece in American Food Roots

Last week I wrote a piece on early African American cookbook authors in NPR’s Kitchen Window.  I included a recipe from each cookbook, and I mentioned that I had adapted the recipes for today’s kitchen.  Readers debated whether we today should change historic recipes.  I’ve been mulling that issue for the last few months, and I reflect on tweaking historic recipes this week in American Food Roots.


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A Piece for Black History Month in NPR’s Kitchen Window

This month is a busy month for me.  I am preparing for my classes at DC’s Hill Center.  I am also getting ready to visit the Washington Middle School for Girls  to do a historic cooking program with fourth-graders.  But don’t think all this means I haven’t had time to write.  I’m pleased to share my piece on early African-American cookbook authors, published in NPR’s Kitchen Window blog.  I hope you’ll agree their stories are moving and their recipes are great.

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A Pastry School in Colonial Boston

This year I’ll be teaching a series of historic cooking and baking classes at DC’s terrific Hill Center.

A while ago I mentioned that my plans to teach my first historic baking class got me curious about culinary education in early America.  A Philadelphia pastry chef, Elizabeth Goodfellow, I learned from Becky Diamond’s fascinating book, ran the first cooking school in the United States, in the first decades of the 1800s.  Working on my new classes got me thinking again about Mrs. Goodfellow and, especially, her predecessors.

I had read that before the 1800s, chefs in America had taught cooking lessons, but Mrs. Goodfellow’s was the first cooking school.  What, I wondered, could I learn about cooking lessons in the 1700s?

Where else to start digging but newspaper ads?  I searched the remarkable digital America’s Historical Newspapers, for the word “pastry” to see what I would find.  (I’ll just pause here to make a public service announcement for any students out there: Digital resources are but one tool in historical research.  Colleagues, no need to thank me.)

What I came upon surprised me.  “The Pastry School and Painting upon Glass, and plain work, Marking, Flowering, and Embroidering, may be learned in the House where Mr. Perkins kept his Dancing-School, right over against Mr. Astin’s the Apothecary, in the South-End,” advertised one Margaret Mackellwen of Boston in November and December of 1736.  In short, there was a school teaching pastry in Boston as early as the 1730s!

Who was Margaret Mackellwen?  Did her school last long?  And did many people plunk down money for classes?  I haven’t yet turned up any more information, but I’m eager to learn more.

Margaret Mackellwen’s ad surprised me, but it did not astonish me.  After all, Mackellwen’s venture belonged to a time when Americans were embracing a consumer culture.  In the 1700s, people throughout the British empire built a global commercial economy.  As a result, many Americans, like their British counterparts, had more money to spend, though others found themselves squeezed harder.  Those who could spend, did.  They increasingly graced their tables with tea sets, decorated their homes with carpets – Persian, Scottish, or Turkish? – and adorned themselves in satins of whatever color they liked.  Americans’ homes were getting more comfortable, and colonists, on the fringes, as many saw it, of civilization, were becoming more genteel.

Margaret Mackellwen’s pastry school – or, better, her cultural center – belonged to this world of consumer choice.  It was a world where she could outfit an operation that would help young ladies (surely they were intended clientele) secure or flaunt their gentility.  Or at least, she hoped she could.  After December 1736, her ads stop showing up.  She was, I suspect, too early, too optimistic about the consumer revolution that would in coming decades transform the colonies.

So, I wasn’t astonished, but I am intrigued.  I see a research trip – hello, Boston – in my future.


Historic Cooking and Baking Series at DC’s Hill Center

I am pleased to announce I will be teaching a series of historic cooking and baking classes at DC’s Hill Center in the Annie Etheridge Hooks Demonstration Kitchen over the coming year.  In these fun hands-on classes, we’ll make historic recipes adapted for modern kitchens while we explore notable people and events from the colonial period to the late 1800s.

The series kicks off in February with Food and Freedom, a class exploring African American cookbook authors, Malinda Russell and Abby Fisher, and their struggles for independence and equality before, during, and after the Civil War.

April features Presidential Parties.  We’ll make some of the sweets that Dolley Madison served at her famous White House shindigs — and discover how she used parties to political ends.

In June, Civil War Sanitary Fair Cookbooks marks the 150th anniversary of the first American charity cookbook, published to raise funds to aid Union troops during the Civil War.  There is no better place to make recipes from the 1864 Poetical Cook-book than the Hill Center’s Civil War-era building, the Old Naval Hospital.

July brings Patriotic Cakes.  In celebration of American Independence, we’ll bake cakes named for the men who won the American Revolutionary War – and probe why Americans in the 1800s were honoring their heroes by naming desserts for them.

September highlights Mediterranean Cooking in Early America.  The first American Jews had roots in Spain and Portugal, and they brought Mediterranean foods to the future United States.  We’ll make some of their classic dishes while we talk about the first Jewish life in early America.

The series ends in November with a look at Abraham Lincoln’s experiences living at a Capitol Hill boardinghouse during his term in Congress.  Meals at Congressional “Messes” explores the day-to-day life and the political importance of Lincoln’s home away from home as we make hearty boardinghouse fare.

For more information and to register, please click here.

I hope to see you in a class!






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