History's Just Desserts

Exploring American History through Desserts and Their Makers


Maple, A Sweetener to Be Thankful For

The other day I had maple pudding for dessert (at Proof, well worth a visit if you’re in DC) and as I savored it, I thought, “Now this a dessert we can be thankful for.”

Was it the smooth, creamy texture?  The deep flavor?  The crunchy Graham cracker crumble and Calvados whipped cream on top?  Nope.  It was that my maple pudding put me in mind of the early antislavery movement.

My fellow early American historians are probably nodding sagely and thinking, “But of course.”  Loyal readers may have an inkling of where this is going.  My new friends, however, may be wondering what the connection between the sweet sap from a maple tree and antislavery could possibly be.

From the 1500s into the 1800s, cane sugar and its by-product, molasses, were produced in the West Indies by enslaved Africans.  A couple weeks ago, I asked whether Indian Pudding should be renamed Atlantic Pudding in recognition of the central role that sugar and molasses played in the creation of the Atlantic world.  Folks, sugar was big business.  The British, Danish, French, and Spanish colonies in the Caribbean all produced sugar – for export to Europe and North America – on plantations that built on earlier Portuguese experience running sugar plantations on Madeira, Sao Tome, and Principe.  To supply labor for the plantations, Europeans developed a sophisticated trade in slaves from Africa:  These poor souls were worked so brutally that they typically died within several years of arriving in the Caribbean.  Sugar cultivation was so profitable, however, that it was more economically rational for planters to import new slaves than to treat their human property better.

Antislavery activists on both sides of the Atlantic well understood that they sweetened their tea and their treats thanks to slave labor.  But prevailing on their compatriots to give up sugar altogether, well, how likely was that to succeed?  Maple sugar might be the answer.  If we could manufacture maple sugar, reasoned Philadelphia philanthropist Benjamin Rush in 1789, we might be able “thereby to lessen or destroy the consumption of West India sugar, and thus indirectly to destroy the negro slavery.”  His fellow humanitarian, John Coakley Lettsom of London, agreed.  “[T]his present pursuit of the Americans, to make sugar from the sugar maple,” Lettsom told a friend, “may promote some change in the Islands.”

Alas, a maple-sugar, consumer-based approach to ending Caribbean slavery failed.  It took government action to dismantle the miserable backbone of the Atlantic economy.  In 1808, the American and British governments banned the transatlantic slave trade and in the 1830s, Britain abolished slavery and emancipated slaves in the West Indies.  Maple sugar was not the answer, but maple desserts always remind me of those early activists who had the audacity to challenge an institution sanctioned by time and Scripture.

My dessert at Proof has given me more history to plumb and a recipe to try to recreate.  One of these days, we’ll get to Sylvester Graham, the nineteenth-century health reformer behind those Graham cracker crumbs.  For now, if you’d like a maple dessert, I can do no better than to point you to my old boss, the supremely talented Gina DePalma’s maple and mascarpone cheesecake.

Happy Thanksgiving!



Twists on Classic Pies from the Mother of Thanksgiving

I hear that folks in Maryland, Michigan, and New York – anywhere else? – will be eating my grandmother’s delicious Indian Pudding at their Thanksgiving dinners.  (Some of them will be calling it Atlantic Pudding – you can still vote on this classic dessert’s name!)  What else, I asked myself, can I add to my loyal readers’ holiday dessert buffet?

Well, it’s pie time of year and I’ll be teaching a historic baking class, Civil War Thanksgiving, at DC’s Hill Center so perhaps I can suggest a couple twists on the holiday’s most popular pies – you got it, apple and pumpkin.

The class I’ll be teaching (twice, in one day! sorry, feet) covers baking basics – most of all, working with pie dough – and commemorates the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s proclamation of a Thanksgiving holiday.  The recipes we’ll be making come from Sarah Josepha Hale’s 1857 New Cook Book.  Why her cookbook?  It was Hale, an influential writer and editor of the day, who pushed Lincoln to proclaim the Thanksgiving holiday.

So, it’s to Hale’s cookbook I’ve looked for some ideas for you and she does not disappoint.  She dedicates a whole chapter to pies, first explaining how to make various versions of puff pastry, tart dough, and pie dough, and then offering all manner of pie fillings.  Hale gives us recipes for pies filled with beef steak (serve it, she suggests, with mushroom catsup), steak and oyster, veal, mutton, chicken, and partridge (either a la francaise or “the ordinary way”), and more.  There are several recipes for mince meat pies – family, plain, rich, or lemon.  Then we get to fruit pies and tarts and here we find true inspiration.  “Gooseberries, currants, cherries, raspberries, plums of many kinds, cranberries, and damsons, are used for making large pies,” she begins, and follows with guidelines so we can indeed make them.

There are more fruit (and vegetable) pies.  Peach, coconut, squash, rhubarb, potato, carrot, and, of course, apple and pumpkin.  American and English versions of apple and of pumpkin.

It’s the English versions I’d like to offer you in case you are looking for something a little different.  (The American recipes could just about have been written today, except that she doesn’t use canned pumpkin.)

Here are Hale’s recipes, with some helpful comments from yours truly.

Apple Pie (English)

Pare, core, and cut into quarters, 8 or 10 russet or other good baking apples; and lay them as close together as you can, in a pie-dish, sprinkling among the apples, 4 cloves, 4 oz. of moist sugar, half the peel of a fresh lemon grated, with a squeeze of the lemon juice, and a little nutmeg.  Add a tablespoon of ale, or water; cover it with puff paste, and put it in the oven.  It will take about an hour and a quarter to bake it; but you must see to it, that it does not burn, and keep your oven of a moderate heat.

My tips: 4 ounces of sugar is approximately half a cup.  I’d set the oven to 350° — and do keep an eye on how it’s baking.  One very nice thing about this pie, is that there is no bottom crust to get soggy.

Pumpkin Pie (English)

Take out the seeds, and grate the pumpkin till you come to the outside skin.  Sweeten the pulp; add a little ground allspice, lemon peel and lemon juice; in short, flavor it to the taste.  Bake without an upper crust.

My tips:  I think you could just as well use butternut squash or any squash that you can cut into a few big chunks to grate.  Use a box grater.  As for sweetening the pulp, white sugar, brown sugar, molasses, maple syrup, or honey would be great.  Here, there’s no top crust, just a bottom crust.  I’d blind bake it (that is, partially bake the crust before filling it).  Bake the pie at 350°.

So, what should we make of the fact that Hale includes English versions of Americans’ favorite pies?  Is it a sign of the cultural insecurity of a still-young nation?

Well into the 1800s, Americans were in Britain’s cultural orbit.  They were anxious about their cultural accomplishments and they were exceedingly sensitive to foreign criticism.  But, deference to a superior culture was not what drove Hale to include the English versions.  Instead, she tells us that, “As our Republic is made up from the people of all lands, so I have gathered the best receipts from the Domestic Economy of the different nations of the Old World.  Emigrants from each country will, in this “New Cook Book,” find the method of preparing their favorite dishes.”  Mrs. Hale wanted, in short, to sell cookbooks.  “The prominent features are, however,” she adds, “American.”  Her cookbook, she assures us, has something for everyone, and based on her pie recipes, I’d say she’s right.

Friends, I should be clear, I haven’t made the English apple or pumpkin pies yet.  I’ve been making pies day in and day out for the last couple weeks.  My family has eaten their fill and my neighbors have done their part too.  We need a pie break until next Thursday.  But making pie is like making a sandwich.  Really.  You can put anything in a crust, bake it, and you will have a pie.  (Okay, true, you will need to have some idea that wetter, custardy fillings – such as the familiar pumpkin pie filling – will need eggs for structure.)

Speaking of crust, if I included instructions on how to make piecrust here, this post would get far too long.  My friends at American Food Roots can help.  They will be holding a Twitter chat about pie Friday, November 22, at 10 a.m. EST.  Or, if you’re in DC, I’d love to see you in my class on Sunday.

Happy baking!


Indian Pudding, or What’s in a Name?

On World Food Day, I wrote about Count Rumford, a forerunner of today’s food philanthropists, and one of the dishes he advocated to alleviate hunger in the 1790s, Indian pudding.

What’s Indian pudding?, a devoted follower asked.

Early New Englanders would have been astonished by the question.  Indian pudding is a custard made with cornmeal, molasses, and milk and was a staple of their diet.  Abigail and John Adams ate it daily, typically before their meat and vegetable course.  Today it is more often served as a dessert, but it’s not an overly sweet dish and, as Saveur magazine suggests, it would make a nice Thanksgiving side dish.  (Certainly, Indian pudding is less sweet than that mainstay of our harvest holiday meal, sweet potatoes with marshmallow.)

Indian pudding is a delicious dish, with a deep molasses flavor.  It’s a perfect warming treat when there’s a nip in the air.  Another plus is that it bakes for about three hours.  That’s great if you are feeling both chilly and guilty for considering turning up the thermostat.  Make Indian pudding and, I assure you, your home will get nice and toasty.

I’m betting you’d like to try this comfort food yourself, so I’ll give you my grandmother’s recipe.  In exchange, I’d like you to vote below on the name.

Bessie Webb Moniz’s Indian Pudding

5 c. milk

2/3 c. dark molasses

1/3 c. sugar

1/2 c. yellow cornmeal

1 tsp. salt

3/4 tsp. cinnamon

3/4 tsp. nutmeg

1/4 c. butter, cut in small pieces

Preheat oven to 300°.

Bring a pot partially filled with water to a simmer.

In a separate small pot, scald 4 c. milk.

Pour scalded milk into a bowl that can be set over the simmering water.  Add remaining ingredients, except the remaining cold milk.

Cook over hot water 20 minutes or until mixture thickens, stirring constantly.

Turn into baking dish.

Add 1 c. cold milk, but do not stir.

Bake at 300 for 3 hours without stirring until the pudding is set.

Serve warm with heavy cream, hard sauce or ice cream.

My grandmother also noted at the bottom of the recipe card she gave my mother, “Better cut recipe in half and also cut cooking time a little.  The top of my double boiler is a bowl, so I get by with only one dish to wash.  You can reheat this over hot water.”  (She’s right, it’s a big recipe.  But it keeps well for a few days and, in spite of what she says about reheating, it’s very good at room temperature too.  Oh, and I served it with apple cider caramel sauce.)

Now about the name.  English colonists in North America called maize – the staple grain of the native diet – “Indian corn,” and the name “Indian pudding” followed.

Is the name insensitive?  Should it be renamed?  I’ll weigh the pros and cons of the traditional name and a few alternatives.  You vote.  (Remember, we made a bargain.)

Indian Pudding

The name doesn’t strike me as offensive in the way that the name of Washington’s professional football does, but the term “Indian” evokes stereotyped images of diverse native peoples.  (Paradoxically, the early European settlers well appreciated the political differences among their native neighbors and used them in forming military alliances.)  On the other hand, the traditional name captures important history.  Europeans did learn about maize and other foods from the first Americans and did develop new dishes based on that cultural exchange.

Native Pudding

Sometimes this name is used in place of the original.  On the plus side, it avoid the term “Indian.”  But it suggests, I think, that native peoples created the pudding, which is not the case.  English colonists, culinary historians believe, adapted their familiar “hasty puddings” – made with flour, oats, or other grains and milk or water  – based on ingredients they encountered in the New World.  Calling it native pudding leaves an inaccurate impression, in my view.

Atlantic Pudding

This name (which I came up with!) has much to recommend it.  Molasses, as central an ingredient to the pudding as the cornmeal, is a product of the Atlantic world.  Indeed, sugar and molasses (a by-product of sugar refining) are the quintessential Atlantic world products.  What’s the Atlantic world, you wonder?  It’s a way that historians understand and explore the interconnected development of the societies around the Atlantic basin in the centuries after Columbus’s voyage.  Sugar was of paramount importance in creating the Atlantic world.  Produced in the French, Spanish, and British West Indies by African slaves, sugar was shipped mainly to European consumers.  North Americans belonged to this Atlantic world too.  New Englanders supplied the West Indian islands with equipment and foodstuffs for the sugar plantations, and they imported molasses – to distill into rum and to sweeten food – in return.  “Atlantic pudding” captures that history.  On the con side, it evokes the brutal slave trade and slavery that made the Atlantic sugar complex possible.  We should remember that history, but perhaps the dessert course isn’t the most palatable time to consider it?

Maize, Molasses, and Milk Pudding

Straightforward, informative, and alliterative.  But this name lacks, oh, I don’t know, any sort of charm.

Your votes, please.  Comments and other suggestions are more than welcome too.