Spoon Bread

spoon bread

“The apotheosis of corn bread, the ultimate, glorified ideal,” wrote journalist John Egerton about spoon bread in his book Southern Food (1987). I would agree with that. My family jokes about how besotted I’ve been with this dish ever since we ate it at the Christiana Campbell Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg.

Spoon bread at its best is like a soufflé version of cornbread, slightly crusty and chewy on top and soft and airy inside. The dish evolved from Southern cornbreads during the 19th century, and although it is still made in the South, it’s unfortunately not as common as it used to be.

Oddly, the term spoon bread didn’t appear in print until about 1904. The name may derive from suppone or suppawn, a Native American word for mush made from cornmeal mixed with boiling water. Spoon bread evolved much later, however, so it seems more likely that the dish is called spoon bread because it’s so soft that you need to eat it with a spoon.  Continue reading

Eliza Leslie’s Bread and Butter Pudding

Eliza Leslie's bread and butter pudding

I’ve been craving comfort food lately, what with all the bad news these days, so I delved into Miss Leslie’s Directions for Cookery (1837) in search of a nice old pudding. As I’ve written before, Eliza Leslie was such an elegant writer, her cookbooks are worth reading for her fine prose as well as her recipes.

I was drawn to “A Bread and Butter Pudding,” a simple dish that calls for layers of buttered slices of bread topped with currants and brown sugar, with an egg and milk sauce poured on top. This pudding is British in origin, with published recipes dating to the early 18th century. It seems most closely related to an older pudding from Devon, England, called “white-pot,” which contained dates as well as raisins.

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Weary Willie Cake

Weary Willie cake

Weary Willie cake is named after a type of hobo who used to wander the American countryside. Weary Willies would more accurately be called tramps, because unlike hoboes, who prided themselves on their work ethic, the Willies were known for slacking off and looking for handouts.

The term was originally used for worn-out Civil War veterans, some of them deserters, who became drifters. (I learned this from a 1970 episode of “Bonanza,” of all things, starring Richard Thomas as one of a group of Willies who turn up at the Ponderosa Ranch!) The name Weary Willie was later used for a comic-strip tramp in the early 1900s, and decades after that by circus performer Emmett Kelly for his sad-clown character. Continue reading

Pineapple Upside-Down Cake

pineapple upside-down cake George Washington wrote that of all fruits, “none pleases my taste as do’s the pine.” He had acquired a taste for pineapple in Barbados, and later bought it whenever possible, asking sea captains who traded his goods to bring pineapples back from the West Indies. But he was one of the lucky few to enjoy this fruit. It was so costly at the time, some hostesses would actually rent the fruit from bakers to display as a centerpiece, then return it uneaten. The pineapple would be rented out again and again, sometimes until it rotted!

There were occasional recipes for pineapple in 18th- and 19th-century British and American cookbooks. But most were just instructions for cutting and serving the fruit raw, or preserving it. As the 19th century progressed, pineapples were imported in larger numbers from Florida, the Caribbean, and Central America, and recipes for using them increased. Most of these were for preserves, compotes, and cold dishes like pineapple salad, ice cream, and Bavarian cream.

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Brownies

Fannie Farmer's 1906 brownies

Fannie Farmer’s 1906 brownies

The origins of the brownie are somewhat mysterious and controversial. Chicago’s Palmer House Hotel, cookbook author Fannie Farmer, and an unknown housewife in Bangor, Maine, all have some claim on its creation.

I’ll start with the Palmer House story, which is that its kitchen invented little chocolate cake bars glazed with apricot preserves and decorated with nuts for the 1893 Columbian exposition, and named these treats brownies. They were made to put in boxed lunches for ladies attending the exposition. According to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, this legend may be true, and the hotel served brownies like these later on — and still does — but there is unfortunately no documentation for the 1893 date.

Fannie Farmer was the first to actually publish a recipe for brownies, in 1896. Her creation was different from the modern brownie (and Palmer House’s), as it had no chocolate and wasn’t cut into bars. But the texture was brownie-like, and she followed it up a decade later with a recipe more like the brownie as we know it today.

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Cottage Pudding

cottage pudding

I became interested in cottage pudding largely because of its name. Why was it called a pudding, since it seemed to be a cake, and why a cottage pudding?

“Pudding” was once a general term for dessert (and still is in Great Britain), but there were plenty of recipes in old cookbooks for “cake,” so why wasn’t this one of them? The answer seems to be that although it was a cake, this dish was served with a sauce that was poured over the top, resulting in a slightly mushy, pudding-like dessert. The cake itself was also very moist.

As for the term “cottage,” it probably identified this dish as simple and affordable — suitable for farmers or laborers who lived in modest cottages. (It is similar in that sense to cottage pie, an early name for shepherd’s pie.) Continue reading

Monticello English Muffins

Monticello English muffinsMuch is made of Thomas Jefferson’s love for haute cuisine, but when he moved to Washington as president in 1801, he missed the simple muffins made by his cook Peter Hemings back home at Monticello. Well, not that simple — Jefferson’s French chef in Washington could not master them. The president wrote to his daughter Martha, “Pray enable yourself to direct us here how to make muffins in Peter’s method. My cook here cannot succeed at all in them, and they are a great luxury to me.”

Peter Hemings was a slave who became head cook at Monticello in 1796, after Jefferson freed his brother James, the previous chef. (They and their sister Sally were probably the children of Jefferson’s late wife’s father.) James had trained in Paris and taught his brother French cooking techniques, but there was a strong tradition of Anglo-American food at Monticello as well. The muffins that Jefferson loved so much were yeast raised and cooked on the griddle — what we now call English muffins. Continue reading

Emily Dickinson’s Coconut Cake

Emily Dickinson's  coconut cakeI had read somewhere that Emily Dickinson was a baker, but I somehow pictured the reclusive poet making only loaves of spartan bread. When I began reading about her cooking, however, I realized that my image of her was all wrong. She was a prolific and joyful baker, and she delighted in making not just bread (and very good bread) but also puddings, cakes, gingerbread, and candies. Continue reading