History's Just Desserts

Exploring American History through Desserts and Their Makers

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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!






History Belongs to All of Us — A New Year’s Day Tribute

I was reading up on New Year’s customs in early America so I could write something at once insightful and witty for the holiday.  In the 1600s, I learned, Dutch colonists in New Netherland “opened the house” for family and friends on New Year’s Day.  Hosts offered their guests nieuwjaarskoeken – or New Year’s cakes.  Made with caraway, cardamom, coriander, or honey, the little cakes – or koekjes – were stamped with pictures of plants and animals.  After the colony became New York – the Dutch lost the territory to the English in 1664 – English settlers borrowed the tradition and Anglicized the word koekjes to “cookies.”  Well into the nineteenth century, New Yorkers marked New Year’s Day by giving and eating the stamped cookies.

Reading about the Dutch open houses made me want to bake cookies.  But it also put me in mind of my fellow historians.  We are a sociable bunch, happy to accept free food and unlikely to say no to a drink.  Since it’s the time of year for looking both forward and back, my mind wandered to some of the early Americanists who had died during the last twelvemonth.  We lost some of our greats.

In July, one of the best and most influential early American historians, Edmund Morgan – who ranged over topics from the Puritans, to slavery and freedom in colonial Virginia, to the life of Benjamin Franklin – died at 97.  A month later, Pauline Maier – student of popular uprisings and Revolutionary declarations – followed him.  And just a few weeks ago, William Pencak, less famous than Morgan or Maier but a keen scholar of expansive interests and generous spirit, died unexpectedly and too soon.

Oddly, none of these scholars wrote much about dessert.  (Whether they ate much dessert, I can’t say.)  Nonetheless, each shaped my interest in or approach to the history of desserts and food more generally.  Pencak’s Jews and Gentiles in Early America taught me much about early American Jewish communities and made me curious to know more.  It is because of him I plan to teach a cooking class later in the year on Sephardic food in colonial British North America.  For her part, Maier’s insistence that we look to the deeds and words of the less known to understand major events is reflected in my view that the stories people tell through cooking and cookbooks illuminate important chapters in our history.

It is Morgan who had the biggest impact on me.  History belongs to all of us, he said in a public conversation with Annette Gordon-Reed about his approach to writing.  History belongs to all of us and we should not make it obtuse.  That simple statement has guided me since I heard it.  It has shaped my writing.  And it inspired me, finally, to marry my love of history to my love of food – something else that is best, as those New Netherland New Year’s Day hosts knew, when shared.

No stamped cookies for me today, but I’ll raise a glass to the legacies of William Pencak, Pauline Maier, and Edmund Morgan.


Mincemeat Pie: “Idolatrie in a Crust”

 Last week when I wrote about the creation of an American Hanukkah holiday, I mentioned that, like the Jewish festival of lights, Christmas wasn’t always widely celebrated in America.

“Idolatrie in a crust,” Puritans fulminated – or at least their satirists said they did – against the traditional Christmas food of mincemeat pie, and that pretty much captures their attitude to the holiday in general.

How could these committed Christians not like Christmas?  The holiday marks the birth of Jesus, to believers the messiah (or Christ, Greek for anointed) whose coming is foretold by the Old Testament.  Trouble is, nothing in Scripture identifies Christmas Day – December 25 – as Jesus’s birthday.  The Gospel of Luke does tell a story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, without giving a date for the holy infant’s arrival.  So how did we end up celebrating this world-changing event on December 25?  In the fourth century, the Church pragmatically decided on that date since it fell around the winter solstice, an event that was widely celebrated.  With their decision, Church leaders sought to Christianize the popular winter festival.  The flip side was – as Puritans would later point out – that pagan solstice traditions that looked forward to the fertile growing season and long days of light were absorbed into a Christian observance.  Hence today, following our ancestors’ use of greenery and fire to mark the solstice, we put up evergreen trees trimmed with lights to mark Christmas.

Besides the pagan roots of Christmas, Puritans had another objection to the holiday.  It was just too raucous.  Now, when I say raucous, you may think I mean jolly Englishmen were eating (mincemeat pies), drinking, burping, and singing loudly in the village tavern.  Since the Puritans were serious-minded folk, they wouldn’t like that sort of frivolity, would they?

The Puritans’ compatriots were eating and drinking to excess (and presumably therefore also burping.)  Ministers like Cotton Mather frowned upon the “long Eating” and “hard Drinking,” not to mention the gaming and fornicating that often went along with them.  But it was the singing, or rather the culture around it, that the godly really objected to, historian Stephen Nissenbaum tells us.

Christmastime, with the harvest and slaughter over, was a season when those lower on the social scale could vent the tensions and pressures that had built up over the year.  During this short season of plenty and leisure, they escaped their customary roles by dressing like their betters and taunting their social superiors to boot.  But beyond that, the lowly insisted on being treated decently, like they really were somebodies.  At Christmas, rowdy packs of young men had the right, you better know it, to visit their masters’ homes for food, drink, and even gifts of money.  In turn, the youthful visitors regaled their hosts with songs, some with cheery wishes for “a merry New Year” and others with less charming lyrics that promised “if you don’t open up your door/We will lay you flat upon the floor.”  Indulgence of all kind, disorder, indiscipline.  These were what the Puritans – with their quest for an orderly, godly society – disliked and what Christmas represented to them.  And therefore in the Massachusetts Bay colony, the holiday was, from 1659 to 1681, illegal.  (Much the same was true in Dutch New Amsterdam.  The Quakers, once one of the largest denominations in America, also opposed Christmas.)

And what of the mincemeat pie?  Made with minced meat, dried fruits such as raisins and currants, scant sugar (until the 1700s), and spices such as ginger, mace, and cinnamon, the pies were long eaten at Christmastime, though not as a dessert.  Puritans, however, associated the spices in the pie with the lavish gifts given by the three wise men to baby Jesus and therefore with the Catholic Church they saw as opulent and superstitious.  No mincemeat pie for them.  Later, though, when the Puritans’ descendants embraced Christmas, the pie found its rightful place on the holiday table, with Sarah Hale suggesting a version made with Madeira for either Christmas or Thanksgiving.

A true mincemeat pie sound intriguing to you?  Our foodie friends at the Washington Post featured a recipe adapted from an early American recipe a couple years ago.  Enjoy!