When I see rosy and robust apples at the farmer’s market, they become an immediate signal of autumn’s arrival. Forget about golden leaves falling to the ground, cozy sweaters, and the sun setting a little earlier; the scent of baked apples sends me into autumnal cheer. Naturally, this season conjures a whirlwind of textures, aromas, and imagery.
While recently browsing the apple-stand at the Castle Terrace Farmer’s Market here in Edinburgh, my thoughts turned to a recipe titled “baked apple pudding” from Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife (1824) that I had wanted to recreate since submitting my master’s dissertation last month. Randolph’s directions were clearly written, yet still had elements open to interpretation for the early modern and contemporary cook to showcase their own culinary knowledge.
Though Mary Randolph’s background alone is fascinating in itself, and while it says so much about how she presented herself, her aristocratic upbringing, and her regional identity through the recipes and ingredients found in The Virginia Housewife, my focus that day, as it is here, centers on the singular recipe for baked apple pudding.
At first glance, a pudding in the context of eighteenth and nineteenth century recipes was composed of a thick batter either steamed or boiled in a muslin cloth or unwrapped and baked in a dish. Yet, Randolph’s pudding recipe calls for a layer of pastry dough on the bottom of the dish, indicating that this item would not be a traditional boiled or baked pudding. Rather, Randolph’s baked apple pudding is a single crust pie. What strikes my curiosity is how and when North Americans supplanted the term “pudding” in the English sense (as a dessert course or as the boiled item) with milk-based custards like Jell-O pudding?
While we know that apple pie has English origins and single crust pies were not uncommon, this recipe remains unique. The ingredients are simple: apples, butter, sugar, lemon zest, eggs, flour, and water. However, it is quite a laborious recipe. It serves as a testament to the meticulous rules Randolph delineated in the preface of her cookbook: “Let every thing be done at a proper time, keep every thing in its proper place, and put every thing to its proper use.” Mary Randolph’s culinary methodology is more akin to that of a modern chef than a nineteenth century housewife. Be efficient, do things correctly, do not waste. She was instilling a fundamental culinary phrase into early American minds, mise en place, translated from the French “to put into place.”
So in recreating The Virginia Housewife’s baked apple pudding, I became conflicted with historical accuracy and my own training as a pastry chef. Randolph did not specify a recipe for pastry dough, which leads us to assume that most housewives and cooks would have had a personal recipe. With that in mind, I took inspiration from Sarah Josepha Hale’s pastry recipe that called for half a pound of butter, one pound of flour, and about three ounces of cold water—a standard shortcrust. After bringing the dough together, rolling the pastry, and lining the pie dish, my training instincts kicked in, so I blind baked the crust. While Randolph did not make note to do this, I felt her fastidious rules of order would approve. I also used very cold butter and water as it aids in forming a crisp crust, as soggy crusts occur when the fats (butter) melt before the gluten structure of the flour is able to develop. No one wants a soggy bottom.
For the apples, I chose Bramley apples, as they are great for baking. In a separate recipe for apple pie, Randolph suggested Pippins but I was unable to locate any. I cored, pared, sliced, and placed the four Bramleys on a baking sheet and then “flavoured” them with a combination of cinnamon, mace, and nutmeg. After about 30 minutes in the oven, the juices oozed from the apples and they were ready to be sieved. The remainder of Randolph’s recipe is fairly self-explanatory: mix the warm apples with butter, powdered sugar, and lemon zest, and then when cool, whisk in well-beaten eggs, fill in the blind baked pastry, and bake! The result is a light and fresh dessert, aromatic with lemon, and with the consistency of an applesauce custard.
The enjoyment of recreating historic recipes comes from striking the right balance between historical context and modern culinary knowledge. While it is nearly impossible to make an exact replica of these recipes, as our palates and ingredients have changed over time, the process is what makes it important. It is in observing how ingredients and recipes function within different historical contexts that allows for a richer understanding of history in general; and for this reason a slice of Mary Randolph’s baked apple pudding puts this perspective on a plate.
 For a brief bio, see: http://spec.lib.vt.edu/culinary/CulinaryThymes/2002_03/03Heroes.html
 One note on butter: It was mentioned in the Savoring the Past blog in a video making puff pastry, that a close equivalent to eighteenth century butter would be Kerrygold Irish butter. It is a nice balance of flavor of lightly salted butter from grass grazing cows. Plus, using a salted butter in a recipe like this makes sense, as eighteenth century butter would have been preserved in salt, imparting the flavor even when the salt was removed before use. For the video, see: http://savoringthepast.net/2012/11/26/a-puff-paste-recipe-with-a-secret-confession/
 I figured that the “godmother of Thanksgiving” would have an excellent recipe, so I used “Family Pie Paste” found in Mrs. Hale’s New Cook Book (1857).