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.