About revolutionarypie

Freelance writer and editor Karen Hammonds describes her adventures in preparing historic recipes based on those in old American cookbooks. She is a former editor at WeightWatchers.com and has written for a blog at Saveur.com.

Gooseberry Fool

Summer is the perfect time for fool. This cool, creamy dish is better known in Great Britain than the United States but used to be common here as well. Fool refers to cooked fruit mixed with custard or whipped cream. The term was once thought to be derived from the French fouler, meaning to crush (as in berries), but the Oxford English Dictionary dismisses this idea since the earliest fools didn’t contain fruit. The dessert may have been considered simply foolish and insubstantial, somewhat like trifle, its culinary relative.  Continue reading

Queen Cakes

I recently spent a fun evening helping out with a historic cooking workshop at the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum, where we made queen cakes, little currant-filled treats that were popular in England and America in the 18th and 19th centuries. These cakes may have been named for Queen Mary, who reigned in Great Britain from 1689 to 1694, or her sister Anne (1702–1714). The earliest known recipe for them was in a book called Court Cookery (1725) by Robert Smith:

Take a Pound of dry’d Flower, a Pound of refin’d Sugar sifted, and a Pound of Currans wash’d, pick’d, and rubb’d clean, and a Pound of Butter wash’d very well, and rub it into the Flower and Sugar, with a little beaten Mace, and a little Orange-Flower Water; beat ten Eggs, but half the Whites, work it all well together with your Hands, and put in the Currans; sift over it double-refin’d Sugar, and put them immediately into a gentle Oven to bake.

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Banana Pudding

banana pudding with vanilla wafersMy apologies for writing about bananas at a time when we clearly have more pressing things to talk about. But the White House isn’t taking my calls (“the comment line is currently closed”), and I’ve neglected this blog too long. I also think a lot of people might be in need of comfort food, thus the choice of pudding.

It’s hard to imagine now, when bananas are so plentiful and cheap, that they were an exotic fruit a few hundred years ago. James Fenimore Cooper mentioned finding bananas in markets in the 1820s, but they were a rarity until well after the Civil War, sold only in port cities like New York and Charleston. Cookbook author Eleanor Parkinson seemed to assume most readers were unfamiliar with the banana when she wrote in 1846, “This fruit is about four or five inches long, of the shape of a cucumber, and of a highly grateful flavor…. When ripe it is a very pleasant food, either undressed, or fried in slices like fritters.” Continue reading

Election Cake

Election CakeElection Day used to be a lot more fun. In late 18th and early 19th century America, it was a festive holiday, featuring parades, dancing, and lots of food and drink. The culinary highlight was a sweetened, fruit-filled yeast bread called election cake.

This cake seems to have originated in Hartford, Connecticut, although it is really a descendant of the English “great cakes” made for grand occasions. It was a bread-like cake made from a dough sponge, which was usually left to rise overnight and mixed with butter, molasses or sugar, eggs, raisins, spices, and brandy.  Continue reading

Milk Punch

milk punch“Punch! ’Tis my Morning’s Draught, my Table-drink, my Treat, my Regalia, my every thing.” So speaks the title character in 17th century English dramatist Aphra Behn’s play The Widow Ranter, and apparently Behn was a big fan herself. After trying her beloved milk punch, I get what all the fuss is about. This blog has been focused on desserts for the last few years, but I’m going to make an exception for this drink, which is practically a liquid dessert anyway.

There are two kinds of milk punch. Better known today is the New Orleans version, in which you mix cold milk or cream with bourbon or brandy, and sugar or simple syrup, then serve the drink over ice. The result is creamy, sort of like eggnog.

That drink is good, but I feel it’s no match for the Widow Ranter’s “Table-drink,” which is now called clarified milk punch, or English milk punch. For this beverage, liquor, lemon, and sugar are mixed with very hot milk, which curdles as a result. The mixture is then filtered to remove the curds but allow the milk whey to remain. This may not sound appealing, and when you see the pictures below, you may have serious doubts. But this punch is amazing. It’s smooth, silky, and pleasantly sweet, with citrus and spice flavorings — served cold over ice, it’s perfect on a hot summer day.

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Rusks and Zwieback

zwieback with cinnamon sugarI wrote about rusk several years ago, after making it in an open-hearth cooking class. But that was soft rusk, which is really a misnomer because true rusk is a hard, twice-baked bread that is sliced before its second baking. Most Americans know it by its German name Zwieback, meaning “twice baked.”

Many of us ate Nabisco Zwieback when we were little — you may remember the striped yellow box with a smiling boy on it. I was sorry to learn that Nabisco no longer makes this bread. It seems to have gone out of favor in the United States, although you can still buy zwieback imported from Germany. Continue reading

Baked Alaska

Baked Alaska 2“My brain can’t decide whether to freeze or melt,” said my daughter while eating Baked Alaska the other night. Her words echoed a stodgier observation by 19th-century British journalist George Sala: “The transition from the hot outside envelope to the frozen inside is painfully sudden, and not likely to be attended with beneficial effect.”

Unlike Sala, my child liked this warm-cold sensation, and she loves Baked Alaska, a sponge cake topped with ice cream and encased in meringue, which is then baked quickly at a high temperature. The ice cream does not melt because the air-filled meringue is a poor conductor of heat and so acts as insulation. So does the cake, to a lesser extent. Continue reading

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