Cookbooks & History: Custard Pudding

Students in Cookbooks and History (MET ML 630), directed by Dr. Karen Metheny, researched and recreated a historical recipe to bring in to class. They were instructed to note the challenges they faced, as well as define why they selected their recipe and why it appealed to them. Here is the twelfth essay in this series, written by Danielle Tarpley.

I selected the Custard Pudding recipe from Lydia Maria Child’s The Frugal Housewife (1830: 65) because the nature of this book appealed to me. In my household, I am the modern, frugal housewife. Much like myself, Child came from a middle-class family with moderate income. Even after she was married, her family relied heavily her income. It was necessary for Child to be frugal. I would describe my role as financial manager and waste monitor. I despise food waste and The Frugal Housewife has many admirable time- and money-saving tips. The author writes, “Time is money” (Child 1830:3). Truer words I have never heard.

The book also appealed to my pastry passion. I love how full fat milk products give body and richness to desserts, especially custards. I was also curious to see how the difference in milk affected the outcome of the dessert. Child suggests using boiled skim milk in this recipe as a substitute for a heavier cream. In the 19th century, it is likely skim milk was similar the whole milk we use today. It is likely 1% milk had significantly less fat that the skim milk used two hundred years ago.

Before moving forward with the project I set up my criteria for picking the recipe:

  • Do not purchase anything for the assignment.
  • Modify recipe as little as possible.
  • Make partner (Aaron) a tasty dessert.

Once I set these parameters, choosing the custard recipe was easy. Not only did I have all of the ingredients in my kitchen, I really love custard. Below is the recipe as it is written in the book:

Custard Puddings.

Custard puddings sufficiently good for common use can be made with five eggs to a quart of milk, sweetened with brown sugar, and spiced with cinnamon or nutmeg, and very little salt. It is well to boil your milk, and set it away till it gets cold. Boiling milk enriches it so much that boiled skim-milk is about as good as new milk. A little cinnamon, or lemon peel or peach leaves, if you do not dislike the taste, boiled in the milk and afterwards strained from it, give a pleasant flavor. Bake fifteen or twenty minutes.

First, I modified the recipe for my home kitchen. I made a half batch because the dessert would only feed two people and I did not want waste. I also did not have brown sugar so I substituted white sugar with a little molasses. Because I used medium-sized eggs, I decided three eggs would be appropriate for the recipe. I then identified the challenges: 1) No oven temperature given; 2) No mix method given; 3) No quantity of sugar given. I bake quite a bit at home, custards included. With my cooking knowledge I created the recipe below.


Modified Custard Pudding (1/2x)


  • 3 eggs (medium)
  • ½ qt. milk (1%)
  • ½ c. white sugar
  • 2 tbls. molasses
  • pinch of salt
  • ½ tsp nutmeg
  • 1 tsp cinnamon


  1. Boil milk and cool
  2. Mix all ingredients
  3. Bake for 15-20 min at 325 F

After mixing, I noticed immediately that the batter was very thin, even after boiling the milk to “enrich” it.  Typically, baked custards are cooked in a water bath so they do not overcook. I choose a 325 F temperature because I thought it would be hot enough to cook the custard in 15-20 minutes. This did not happen. After 20 minutes, the batter was barely set. At this point, I raised the temperature of the oven to 375 and baked it for an additional 10-12 minutes. I had a feeling it would over cook and it did.

In the mid-19th century, people’s tastes were probably different then they are today. It is likely middle class families didn’t waste money to prepare well-seasoned dishes. Taste buds were accustomed to less seasoned dishes. Modern American cuisine is very high in sugar, fat and salt. Because our taste is accustomed to high fat, sugar and salt content, it is the reason why I gave this dish a C- grade on flavor, texture and body. The flavor wasn’t terrible. It resembled flan but lacked in sweetness and richness. I felt the custard needed more fat, sugar and perhaps a little more salt. It was also overcooked. Water was leaching out of it the moment it came out of the oven. The overcooked bits were a little chewy and eggy. Once the custard cooled, I served it with preserved strawberries in an attempted in improve the dish.

Because I have formal culinary training, I know what a custard base, cooked and uncooked, should look like. I conclude that this book was meant for an audience with knowledge developed through domestic experience, or perhaps some culinary education; this is suggested by the incomplete instructions, measurements, and quantities. However, on a personal note, had I been living during this time, I would have rather gone without dessert than serve this economical version.

Work Cited:

Child, Lydia Maria. 1830. The Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy. Second ed. Boston: Carter and Hendee.

Cookbooks & History: Syrian Khātūnī Rice

Students in Cookbooks and History (MET ML 630), directed by Dr. Karen Metheny, researched and recreated a historical recipe to bring in to class. They were instructed to note the challenges they faced, as well as define why they selected their recipe and why it appealed to them. Here is the eleventh essay in this series, written by Giselle Lord.

Recreating a historical recipe in my own kitchen is about as good as homework gets and I certainly did not intend to squander the opportunity. I cracked open my brand new book, Scents and Flavors – a recently published translation of a very old book containing recipes that represent the cuisine and aroma mania of 13th-century Syrian Ayyubid rulers (Perry 2017, xxix). The table of contents alone is a fantastic curiosity, essentially broken up into sections or categories that are (usually) further broken up into numbered variations. In the “Section on rice dishes – nine recipes,” there is a “Tenth dish – making khātūnī rice, which is wonderful” (Perry 2017, xiv). Aside from the inclusion of a tenth recipe in a section of nine recipes, the snippet of the unknown author’s voice and relatively unusual revelation of his culinary preference caught my attention. Of the dozen or so recipes that feature a nod to deliciousness from the author, this seemingly simple rice dish with pistachios and sugar seemed my most practicable option. Hence, I procured a bag of pistachios fit for the job and took to my kitchen to attempt to recreate the recipe.

All of the recipes in this volume were extracted from the original paragraph-less manuscripts and broken out into one-part recipes. The recipe for “making khātūnī rice” is translated as follows:

*Tenth dish – making khātūnī  rice, which is wonderful Boil water and add tail fat and chicken fat, both melted without salt. Add rice, and when half-done, let the water reduce till nothing is left but the fat. Take pistachios toasted in sesame oil, crush, and add pounded sugar. Put them in the rice – put plenty – spray with rose water and a little musk, and serve. It is outstanding. (Perry 2017, 121).

I assumed that tail fat and chicken fat were simply the rendered fat of two animals (sheep and chicken, respectively), and substituted pork fat for them, or more specifically, the clean leaf lard I had rendered from the fat of a pig raised by local farmers. I left out the musk – which is “a glandular secretion of the musk deer and certain other animals, [and] has a strong smell… In appropriately discreet quantity or diluted form, musk was formerly used in the kitchen with rosewater to flavor such things as pies but this practice seems to have died out during the 17th century…” (Davidson 2014, 540). I recently spent some time with a 1798 cookbook by Amelia Simmons titled American Cookery wherein she consistently includes rosewater and orange flower water as interchangeable ingredients, so I substituted orange blossom water for the rosewater, since, without the musk, we would not benefit from the apparently lovely combination of musk and rosewater anyhow. All other ingredients, namely rice, pistachios, sesame oil, and sugar, I already had in my kitchen or was able to procure with an easy visit to a local grocer.

Before I describe the cooking process, I will admit a dire fault in the assumption mentioned earlier. Upon further inspection, regrettably conducted after I had recreated the recipe, I discovered tail fat to be a veritable cornucopia of flavors captured in the process of rendering the fat of a sheep’s tail. The fourth chapter of the cookbook, albeit a one-page chapter, is entirely dedicated to instructing the reader “How to Melt the Several Varieties of Tail Fat,” a process which involves quince, Fathi apple, coriander seeds, fresh dill, raw onion, Chinese cinnamon, and salt (2017, 40). While wondering how a recipe with aromatics but no spice could be quite so ‘wonderful’, I missed the simple fact that the spices were in fact captured and given to the dish by the all-important tail fat.

To recreate the recipe, I began with melting the leaf lard in a large dutch oven – a pot I often use for making large quantities of rice. I added twice the amount of water as rice I had soaked and rinsed, and let the water boil before adding the rice to the pot. I then lowered the water to a simmer, covered the pot, and let the rice cook twenty minutes. While the rice cooked, I toasted the pistachios in sesame oil and tossed them in sugar. After twenty minutes of cooking and five minutes of resting, I fluffed the rice and transferred it to a wooden bowl. I then added the pistachio and orange blossom. As you can see, this description of my process does not differ greatly from the book’s recipe, except that I used my experience of cooking rice to adapt the volume and cooking time. I also added a pinch of salt to the toasted pistachios and, ultimately, to the pistachio and rice dish. Aside from the lack of clarity on ingredient volume and cook time, the instructions were easy to follow and resulted in what seemed like a perfectly good, if not entirely wonderful or a marvelous rice dish [1].

The aromatics were fittingly the most notable and arguably the most enjoyable feature of the dish – I first noticed the tantalizing aroma of sesame-oil-toasted pistachios and then basked in the perfume-like, floral scent of the orange blossom water. The inclusion of recipes for incenses, soaps, perfumes, and hand-washing solutions suggests the prevalence of aromatics in the medieval Syrian world, and Charles Perry poetically endorses this evidence in writing, “The medieval banquet was a feast for the nose” (2017, xxix). Aside from emphasizing the importance of aromatics in the flavor spectrum of thirteenth-century Syria, Perry also points out that “The cuisine of this book is definitely banquet food, special-occasion food. Not only is it highly aromatic, it is thoroughly luxurious” and that the book “is organized roughly in parallel with the stages of a banquet” including the pre- and post-meal washing and scenting in which the diners engaged (2017, xxx). Thus, it seems this relatively simple rice dish would have greatly contributed to the aroma feast of any good banquet and likely been accompanied by a variety of other main dishes.

In an attempt to right my wrong, I decided to infuse some leaf lard with the spices and flavors included in the author’s directions on rendering tail fat. I heated the lard and the spices slowly over low heat and tossed the leftover rice into the righteously seasoned animal fat. The takeaway from this simple mistake, and its redemption, is to never underestimate the complexity of a single ingredient. I might also add that the intuitive distrust of a recipe without spices merits further research. The seasoned-fat version was truly wonderful, and I can only imagine how much of a marvel this dish may be when prepared with expertly rendered medieval tail fat. For the time being, I’m quite delighted that this thirteenth-century recipe may very well be my inspiration for a great number of nut and spice flavored rice dishes in my future, “which is wonderful” (Perry 2017, xiv).

Works Cited

Davidson, A., & Jaine, Tom. 2014. The Oxford Companion to Food (3rd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Perry, Charles. 2017. Scents & Flavors: a Syrian cookbook. New York: New York University Press.

Simmons, Amelia. 1798. American Cookery. Hartford: Simeon Butler.

Zaouali, Lilia. 2007. Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World: A concise history with 174 recipes. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[1] In another translation of the same recipe that appears in Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World, the final sentence is translated as “It is a marvel” (Zaouali 2007, 127).

Cookbooks & History: Indian Pudding

Students in Cookbooks and History (MET ML 630), directed by Dr. Karen Metheny, researched and recreated a historical recipe to bring in to class. They were instructed to note the challenges they faced, as well as define why they selected their recipe and why it appealed to them. Here is the tenth essay in this series, written by John Kramer.

Some recipes are written to engender delight and anticipation, to excite the senses, and to deliver upon completion a unique and enjoyable culinary experience. Others rely on their simplicity and relative ubiquity to justify their inclusion in collections of recipes. In this latter context we find the Indian Pudding, courtesy of Lydia Maria Child’s cookbook and prescriptive lifestyle guide The Frugal Housewife (1830).

Child’s Indian Pudding (1830, 63) is by all indications a filler food, something intended to serve as a large and dense store of calories that can fill the hungry stomachs around the table cheaply and with relative ease. Its flavors are subtle to the point of blandness, and its ingredients are relatively common and inexpensive. The time required to produce the pudding represents the only significant hurdle, as the recipe calls for four to five hours of boiling above a hearth. Even with a modern stove, the resulting heat was quite unpleasant.

Her recipe, as with many of the recipes found in The Frugal Housewife, relies on both an inherent understanding of mid-19th-century cooking practices and a comprehensive review of the entire section devoted to puddings. While the recipe for Boiled Indian Pudding did not contain the ratios for milk to corn meal, its immediate predecessor for Baked Indian Pudding had the necessary information (Child 1830, 63). This is common element in many of Child’s recipes, with only one recipe in a given category providing the details of production that many others rely upon. Without a functional index that locates each instance, it seems that Child may have intended for the book to be consumed in its entirety and relied upon as a whole rather than a modular collection of recipes that could be drawn on at will. Thankfully, the instruction for this particular recipe was relatively simple – mix everything together, wrap it in a heavy cloth, and boil until it is ready.

Making this pudding in the modern day is a simple matter, as many of the ingredients are even more commonly encountered than they were in Child’s day. Indeed, I was able to purchase everything I needed at the local market without difficulty. After acquiring the corn meal, milk, ginger, molasses, and apple, the only material challenge I encountered was finding the right cloth to wrap the pudding.  Undyed linen or burlap would have been preferable, no doubt, but because of time and material limitations I settled for many layers of cheesecloth to contain the pudding. This served surprisingly well, though I had initially feared it would remain too permeable for my purposes.  I chose to add two of the three optional inclusions, namely a spoonful of grated ginger and an apple sliced very thin. I opted not to include sweet suet, both as a courtesy to my vegetarian classmates and because suet is a rather less common ingredient.

When compiling the pudding, I discovered to my chagrin that a tablespoon of today did not necessarily equate exactly to a tablespoon of 1830. The mixture that I produced was extremely watery, so I added more cornmeal to achieve the stiff mixture Child calls for (1830, 63). Once the consistency was more manageable, I continued to stir it until the cornmeal began to absorb some of the warm milk, after which I poured it into the prepared cheesecloth bag, tied it off with twine, and submerged it in steadily boiling water. Child’s recipe made no note of a need to replace the water as it boiled away, but I prepared a second pot of boiling water all the same. After approximately an hour and a half, nearly half of my original water had boiled away and the pudding had touched down on the bottom of the pot. I added more boiling water to prevent it from burning, and boiled it for another hour. As the pudding I made incorporated only half of the mixture, I reduced the cooking time to compensate for its smaller size.

After removing the pudding from the boiling water, I found that removing the cheesecloth was also compromising the outer layer of the pudding. I dipped the entire wrapped pudding in cold water, which I found to help immensely. After removing the pudding from the wrapping, I let it stand for approximately 10 minutes before slicing into it and sampling my handiwork. The final product was extremely dense and mostly devoid of flavor. Whether this is a function of the added cornmeal, the taste preferences of mid-19th century Americans, or a combination of the two is unknown. Regardless, the dish would certainly have filled its role as a filler admirably, calorically and texturally dense as it was.

Boiled puddings have largely fallen out of favor in the modern day, in no small part because of the long and involved cooking time for a dish that is ultimately quite unappealing to the modern palate. In its heyday, however, it is easy to see why puddings would have enjoyed a certain popularity.  Combining comparative ease and commonplace ingredients, with room for inclusions and additions that could add some level of culinary interest to the otherwise bland dish, these puddings could occupy the position of both filling staple and an occasional treat to be savored.

Work Cited

Child, Lydia Maria. 1830. The Frugal Housewife. Boston: Carter and Hendee.

Cookbooks & History: Coffee Cream

Students in Cookbooks and History (MET ML 630), directed by Dr. Karen Metheny, researched and recreated a historical recipe to bring in to class. They were instructed to note the challenges they faced, as well as define why they selected their recipe and why it appealed to them. Here is the ninth essay in this series, written by Krysia Villon. 

In seeking out historical recipes to recreate for this class, it was easy to see that much of the material and cultural documents available from which to do my research had a very European or Euro-centric slant and not always much else. I decided, to seek out historical recipes that documented that “something else,” or someone else, to put it simply. While there are a few volumes of African American cookbooks, or books that contain recipes, pre-dating the book I ultimately chose, I landed upon Good Things to Eat: A Collection of Practical Recipes for Preparing Meats, Game, Fowl, Fish, Puddings, Pastries, Etc. by Rufus Estes (1911) because I appreciated the author’s candor and voice in his introduction.

The author opens his book with a brief autobiography, illustrating for the reader his work ethic, professional history and, ultimate, by his expertise as a chef. Estes was a born a slave in Tennessee in 1857. Later, his family moved to Nashville where he was able to obtain some formal education. He mentions his wages and type of work very clearly yet without too much detail, leaving the reader with, in my opinion, loaded facts about the life of a former, and recently freed, slave. He started working in the restaurant industry and by the age of 26 found employment with the prestigious Pullman Car Company. Here he grew professionally and was educated as a chef. This position led to his employment with a private car company where he went on to serve American presidents, dignitaries and the like (1911, 7). While many of the recipes are European in their influence, Estes did manage to include some typical Southern recipes as well as other ethnic dishes, such as “Creole Sauce” (1911, 109) or “Baked Bananas, Porto Rican Fashion” (1911, 120).

This book was written as a standard recipe book and was published by the author himself in Chicago in 1911. As the foreword states, “This book, the child of [the author’s] brain, and experience, extending over a long period of time and varying environment, he frankly admits is not without its faults — is far from perfect; but he is satisfied that, notwithstanding its apparent shortcomings, it will serve in a humble way some useful purpose” (1911, 5). The forward, while written in the third person does appear to have been written by author, goes on to say that the recipes in the book have been “demonstrated, not experimentally, but by actual tests, day by day and month by month” (1911, 5), giving the reader comfort in knowing that a humble yet learned cook has provided accurate information and is educated in his field. This elevates the author and gives him the element of distinction with his breadth of knowledge and experience.

Armed with his history and trust in his expertise I looked through the close to 600 recipes in his book. As a coffee-lover and someone who also loves baked custards, I chose the recipe entitled “Coffee Cream” on page 91.

I also chose this recipe because I already had many of the ingredients in my pantry. The technology and techniques fell within my embodied knowledge of cooking and baking as well.

I began by gathering my ingredients. I bought some things I thought would be “close” to what cooks in 1911 would most likely have used, for instance, organic whole milk and eggs. I supplemented with items already in my kitchen.

Next, I gathered my tools.

Once I gathered all that I needed, I followed the instructions, as prescribed. I found that some details were left to the cook’s embodied knowledge, as is commonplace for historical recipes. The recipe assumed the reader would know what a “double boiler” is and would know how to use it to “thicken” the mixture. It also assumed understanding the nature of whipping egg yolks and whites, and how to achieve certain textures in them to bring the contents of the coffee cream together. Another thing that had not occurred to me until I was struggling a bit to release the finished product from the mold is knowing the various tricks on how to release the custard from a pan or cup. This knowledge would come with experience and a lot of trial and error, perhaps.

After letting the mixture cool and set for about 2 hours in my refrigerator, I de-molded the Coffee Cream and revealed something that looked a lot like flan! (One of my favorite desserts and one that I make often.)

When I tasted it, I was pleasantly surprised by both the texture and the flavor. The gelatin cap was smooth and flavorful, the custard beneath was fluffy, airy and sweet. I could imagine a car attendant serving this after a heavier meal on a dainty plate as seen above, the powdered sugar being dusted on top while the private car passenger looked on with anticipation. On the flip side, this is not a dessert I would associate with the everyday household dessert in the south, the region from which the author hailed, especially because it requires some refrigeration. This imbues the dish with meaning and significance, of ‘have’ and ‘have nots,’ of privilege and access. Knowing who the author of this book is only further imbues it with the message of gaining access even when the odds are against you.

Since I found this dessert so enjoyable and thought-provoking, I felt prompted to search the internet to see if the recipe was still in circulation today. Sadly, I could not find one website that mentioned this delicious dessert, though there are many “coffee creams” out there. Perhaps that works out well for me, then, as I can make something that appears unique to many and comes with a story, too. Yum! Buen provecho!


Estes, Rufus. 1911. Good Things to Eat: A Collection of Practical Recipes for Preparing Meats, Game, Fowl, Fish, Puddings, Pastries, Etc. Chicago, Rufus Estes.

Cookbooks & History: Boston Cream Pie

Students in Cookbooks and History (MET ML 630), directed by Dr. Karen Metheny, researched and recreated a historical recipe to bring in to class. They were instructed to note the challenges they faced, as well as define why they selected their recipe and why it appealed to them. Here is the eighth essay in this series, written by Kaitlin Lee. 

Does Boston have a more iconic dessert than the Boston cream pie? The Parker House Hotel, now the Omni Parker House, claims to have invented the dessert for their opening night in 1856. Today, local icons, including Legal Seafoods, Flour Bakery, and Mike’s Pastry, all offer their take. Jackie O and JFK celebrated their engagement at the Parker House with a Boston Cream Pie. Even Dunkin’ Donuts has a Boston cream donut, and it’s one of their most popular flavors.

Although it’s *technically* a cake, most of us think of Boston cream pie as a vanilla cake and custard sandwich topped with chocolate ganache. I started my recipe recreation with some research. I decided to look through the Boston Globe archives to recreate the first recipe for Boston Cream Pie published for home bakers in Boston. I found several recipes for “Boston Cream Cakes,” which resembled cream puffs or small, cupcake-like pastries filled with a layer of custard from the late nineteenth century. To my surprise, none of the early recipes for “Boston Cream” desserts included the chocolate topping. The earliest recipe for Boston cream pie I found in the Boston Daily Globe was published in 1924:

Here is a nice recipe

Crust – Three eggs beaten separately. 1 cup sugar, 1 ½ cups sifted flour, 2 teaspoons
baking powder, 2 tablespoons milk or water. Divide batter in half and bake on pie tins. When cold, split in half, spread cream between. Sprinkle top with powdered sugar. Cream – Put pint of milk in double boiler, break 2 eggs in dish; add cup sugar and 1/3 cup flour. Beat well, stir into milk, add teaspoon butter. Flavor with vanilla or lemon.

The instructions are sparse, and like other recipes from the era, it omits the chocolate topping. “Here is a nice recipe.” Encouraging. We’re off to a good start. Although it’s listed second, I made the cream the day before class so it could cool and set. Since I don’t have a double boiler, I fashioned a makeshift one with a saucepan and a metal bowl. I’ve made a pastry cream or two, and knew to take the pan off the heat once the mixture thickened and coated the back of the spoon. Although I’d usually strain the cream, I resisted since the recipe didn’t mention it. Feeling bold, I defied the written instructions and flavored the cream with vanilla extract AND lemon zest.

The day of class, I made the cake. Step one – preheat the oven. But to what temperature? I picked 350 F because it’s a common oven temperature and I had nothing to lose. Then to “Three eggs beaten separately.” Separated into whites and yolks or separate from the dry ingredients? I found some other Boston Cream Pie recipes from that era that separated the whites and yolks and had very similar ingredient proportions to the recipe I picked. I went with my gut and beat the egg whites into stiff peaks, beat the yolks and the sugar, and folded the whole mess together with the dry ingredients. I couldn’t find two round pans that were the same size, so into one pan, not two, it went. I placed the cake in the oven and after 18 minutes I began testing the cake every three minutes with a cake tester for doneness. I took it out after 24 minutes and let it cool.

I cut the cake in half and covered the split half with a layer of cream. The cream was runnier than I expected and by the time it was ready to serve for class it oozed out in a not-unpleasant fashion. The cake, which had no flavoring aside from sugar, was plain and a little dry. But the cream, despite its loose texture, was delicious! This recipe was super short and expected the reader to know how to make a cake and how to cook with a double boiler. At times, I felt I was doing a technical challenge on the Great British Bake Off. I doubt they’ll be serving this version at the Parker House any time soon, but it was pretty tasty.

Anonymous. 1924. “Boston Cream Pie.” Boston Daily Globe, March 9, 1924. ProQuest.