dessert


I’d been hoping for opportunity and ability to come together so I could try this one out for a while. It’s an 18th Century recipe for gingerbread cookies (or biscuits…American culture hadn’t diverged far enough from that of Britain for those terms to carry the different meanings they do today) from the cookbook of one Polly Burling, a Quaker resident of Burlington County New Jersey in 1770 whose little book of recipes has been thoughtfully annotated and interpreted by Sue Huesken and Mercy Ingraham under the auspices of the Burlington County Historical Society. I picked the book up at a re-enactment at the Hancock House in the Spring – after all, Polly was using these recipes as Washington and Howe fought their “War of Posts” up and down New Jersey.

Polly’s recipes make a spare little book, with recipes for various dessert items, plus a couple of medicinal cures neither the Historical Society or I was very eager to experiment with. Despite that, it’s an interesting read, and the authors have loaded it with a lot of useful contextual information about what was available in 18th Century New Jersey. 

I’ve been a gingerbread fan since I was a kid, so I naturally gravitated to this recipe, originally set down this way in 1770:

To Make Gingerbread: Nuts: Take 2 pounds of flour 1/2 Pound of Butter 1/2 Pound of Sugar a little Ginger a few seeds Orange or Lemon Peel, and wet it with Molasses

Gingerbread Nuts (from Colonial Burlington Cookery: A Book of Reciepts April 1770, Polly Burling)

  • 4 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tbs ground ginger
  • 1 tbs caraway seeds, crushed
  • 1 tbs dried lemon or orange peel, minced
  • 1 and 1/2 cup molasses (or dark English treacle if you can find it)
  • 1/4 lb melted butter (one stick)

Mix flour, sugar, and spices. Combine molasses and melted butter. Add dry mixture to wet until you get a clay-like dough. Knead for several minutes. Roll balls of dough about 1 inch in diameter, and place on greased baking sheet. Bake at 300 degrees for 20-25 minutes, checking for doneness when baking smell first begins – err on the side of underdone.

The most notable diversion from modern gingerbread recipes is the inclusion of caraway, which was known as “cake seed” in the 18th Century and was apparently the characteristic “dessert spice” in much the same way that nutmeg was the characteristic spice for everything else. This recipe convinced me that I’m not much of a fan, but everyone else I’ve given these cookies to (the recipe makes around 80-90 depending on how big you roll them so I was able to test them on a lot of people) really liked the flavor, so it might just be a personal preference issue. If I made them again for myself, I’d probably add a little less caraway and maybe even put a little period-incorrect frosting on top to bump up the sweetness.

I would venture to say that the single greatest British contribution to the world’s cuisine apart from Chicken Tikka Masala is the suet pudding. The traditional pudding uses beef kidney suet in place of shortening or baking powder (neither of which had been invented yet) as leavening. This works because the chopped suet melts at a relatively low temperature, leaving little holes where it had been and simultaneously enriching the final product. Puddings were usually boiled rather than baked because most 18th Century houses lacked ovens, which needed both space and skill to erect and maintain.

Puddings were and still are a major feature of British cuisine (they don’t call dessert over there “pudding” for nothing), so it was a pretty obvious choice for the sweet remove. I went with an apple-and-currant pudding, which seems to have been a pretty popular choice given that I found a version of it in almost all of my sources, several with celebrity connections.

The highest “Star Factor” appears to be that of William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, whom several sources (Hannah Glasse, John Farley, and an unknown recipe collector of 1818 whose version appears in Michael Barry’s Old English Recipes) appear to have named this pudding in honor of. The Duke was a major fixture in the British military for quite a while despite a notable failure at Fontenoy against the French in 1745. This is probably because his next big performance was against the Jacobites at Culloden the following year, where he ended real hopes of a Stuart restoration forever and ensured that kings named George would be around for two more generations.

Perhaps more recognizably for Americans, Robert W. Pelton’s Early American Cookbook attributes this pudding to John Campbell, 4th Earl of Loudoun. Loudoun is also a fixture in Scottish Jacobite lore as the luckless commander whose Hanoverian loyalist regiment was thrown into total panic by a local blacksmith and four other guys firing off muskets randomly in the night: the famous (if not exactly illustrious) Rout of Moy. Due in part to the Duke of Cumberland’s influence. he went on to become commander-in-chief of British forces in America from 1756 until his famously poor people skills forced his recall in late 1757. A mediocre commander, at best, but a fine judge of a tasty pudding.

I normally have issues with Pelton’s recipe interpretations (too many tomatoes, too much baking powder), but the original recipe he uses is in nifty poetical form; presumably Loudoun was filling some spare minutes between arguing with locals over housing for the troops and denying George Washington a commission in the British Army.    

If you would have a good pudding, observe what you’re taught:

Six pennyworth of eggs, when twelve for the groat

And of the same fruit that Eve had once chosen,

Well pared and chopp’d at least half a dozen;

Six ounces of bread, let your maid eat the crust,

The crumbs must be grated as small as the dust;

Six ounces of currants from stones you must sort,

Lest they brake your teeth, and spoil all your sport;

Five ounces of sugar won’t make it too sweet;

Some salt and some nutmegg will make it compleat,

Three hours let it boyle, without hurry or flutter,

And then serve it up without sugar or butter.

Apple pudding just out of the basin

This makes a really good and rich pudding with a nice apple flavor. If I made it again, I’d probably use Farley’s version, in which the apples are grated rather than chopped.

Taken as a whole, my 18th Century Valentine’s Day meal was a great success. I probably would not do an entire four removes again without some other guests, but I really wanted to go all out for our first V-day meal together. The guy from Crazy Town wrote “Butterfly” and purchased cocaine to pay tribute to the one most important to him. I cooked.

And fish, by the way, worked exactly the way Brillat-Savarin says it’s supposed to. 

The End