History's Just Desserts

Exploring American History through Desserts and Their Makers

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!

3 thoughts on “Twists on Classic Pies from the Mother of Thanksgiving

  1. Eating Indian/Atlantic pudding in North Carolina, fyi

  2. Pingback: Mincemeat Pie: “Idolatrie in a Crust” | History's Just Desserts

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