Cookbooks & History: Bread 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 second essay in this series, written by Frank Carrieri.

Cookbooks allow people to gain insight into the past. The recipes within such cookbooks paint a picture of a culture and its foodways during a specific period. In Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats, Eliza Leslie (1828), also known under the pseudonym “a lady of Philadelphia,” records classic and original American dessert recipes. Leslie’s choice of rhetoric in the preface patronizes European receipts by mentioning they are “so complicated and laborious” (1828, iii). She credits herself with the originality of the receipts and also commenting that they were prepared by countless friends with great success. Leslie assures us that if the receipts are done precisely to the direction, there should not be any failure (1828, iv). She goes so far as to assert that these receipts are as good as if one purchased them from a confectioner.  are as good as if one purchased them from a confectioner.

I was attracted to the bread pudding recipe (1828, 29) for various reasons.

  • I love carbohydrates- as most should
  • Bread pudding is relatively inexpensive to make
  • I was intrigued by the ratio Leslie’s bread pudding used

I would like to think I have a good track record making bread pudding- either in industry or at home. In undergrad, I worked at a restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island, where the bread pudding was the staple dessert. Bread pudding, to simply put it, is bread drenched in a custard and then baked slowly, roughly at 325F degrees. Looking at the recipe, Leslie has four ounces of bread to 44 ounces of custard. I, in a sort of arrogance, instantly thought this was going to be awful. How could you call this bread pudding where there is so little bread? Leslie has some explaining to do. With my doubts, I decided to go ahead and increase the bread amount. The following were my adjustments:

Ingredients Quantity
Bread 12 ounces
Milk 1 quart
Cinnamon 2-3 each
Eggs (large) 8 each
Sugar 4 ounces
Lemon Zest “A little”
Nutmeg As needed

Looking at the recipe once more, I had a realization- “Did they use large eggs in 1828?” I decided to go ahead and make the recipe as I would typically do- large eggs and all. Something that is not mentioned in the recipe is oven temperature. For myself, I always bake custards low and slow, as mentioned earlier. How did others know what temperature to bake bread pudding at and if so, was there an embodied knowledge?

As Leslie precisely instructed, I waited until the bread pudding was cool before I started to cut from it. I was eager to snag a bite of her “American” bread pudding. With the cinnamon, it tasted like french toast- which is not a terrible thing. Overall, I thought the bread pudding lacked excitement and a depth of flavor, which could have been achieved by adding other spices, inclusions such as dried fruit, or substituting some of the milk with heavy cream. The addition of bread gave the recipe more body- essentially putting the bread back into bread pudding. Overall the modified recipe was a success, but I still wish I had tried the original recipe. It would be quite interesting to compare the two versions of the dish.

From making the bread pudding, one can learn that historical recipes can offer a notion of embodied knowledge or knowledge so well known that it wasn’t necessary to restate in written form. It can also be said that technology of the era has a role in the production of the recipe. Additionally, through the recipe one can gain an understanding of the kind of person Eliza Leslie was. First, she was a woman who had a passion and knowledge for desserts. Her method of preparation for each recipe was thorough and written with a professional voice. The context of the book is nationalistic, highlighting American cuisine. The cookbook is structured as a guide for women to provide the best American desserts for their families regardless of socio-economic status.

Worked Cited:

Leslie, Eliza. 1828. Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats. Boston: Monroe

and Francis.