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 twelfth essay in this series, written by Danielle Tarpley.
I selected the Custard Pudding recipe from Lydia Maria Child’s The Frugal Housewife (1830: 65) because the nature of this book appealed to me. In my household, I am the modern, frugal housewife. Much like myself, Child came from a middle-class family with moderate income. Even after she was married, her family relied heavily her income. It was necessary for Child to be frugal. I would describe my role as financial manager and waste monitor. I despise food waste and The Frugal Housewife has many admirable time- and money-saving tips. The author writes, “Time is money” (Child 1830:3). Truer words I have never heard.
The book also appealed to my pastry passion. I love how full fat milk products give body and richness to desserts, especially custards. I was also curious to see how the difference in milk affected the outcome of the dessert. Child suggests using boiled skim milk in this recipe as a substitute for a heavier cream. In the 19th century, it is likely skim milk was similar the whole milk we use today. It is likely 1% milk had significantly less fat that the skim milk used two hundred years ago.
Before moving forward with the project I set up my criteria for picking the recipe:
- Do not purchase anything for the assignment.
- Modify recipe as little as possible.
- Make partner (Aaron) a tasty dessert.
Once I set these parameters, choosing the custard recipe was easy. Not only did I have all of the ingredients in my kitchen, I really love custard. Below is the recipe as it is written in the book:
Custard puddings sufficiently good for common use can be made with five eggs to a quart of milk, sweetened with brown sugar, and spiced with cinnamon or nutmeg, and very little salt. It is well to boil your milk, and set it away till it gets cold. Boiling milk enriches it so much that boiled skim-milk is about as good as new milk. A little cinnamon, or lemon peel or peach leaves, if you do not dislike the taste, boiled in the milk and afterwards strained from it, give a pleasant flavor. Bake fifteen or twenty minutes.
First, I modified the recipe for my home kitchen. I made a half batch because the dessert would only feed two people and I did not want waste. I also did not have brown sugar so I substituted white sugar with a little molasses. Because I used medium-sized eggs, I decided three eggs would be appropriate for the recipe. I then identified the challenges: 1) No oven temperature given; 2) No mix method given; 3) No quantity of sugar given. I bake quite a bit at home, custards included. With my cooking knowledge I created the recipe below.
Modified Custard Pudding (1/2x)
- 3 eggs (medium)
- ½ qt. milk (1%)
- ½ c. white sugar
- 2 tbls. molasses
- pinch of salt
- ½ tsp nutmeg
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- Boil milk and cool
- Mix all ingredients
- Bake for 15-20 min at 325 F
After mixing, I noticed immediately that the batter was very thin, even after boiling the milk to “enrich” it. Typically, baked custards are cooked in a water bath so they do not overcook. I choose a 325 F temperature because I thought it would be hot enough to cook the custard in 15-20 minutes. This did not happen. After 20 minutes, the batter was barely set. At this point, I raised the temperature of the oven to 375 and baked it for an additional 10-12 minutes. I had a feeling it would over cook and it did.
In the mid-19th century, people’s tastes were probably different then they are today. It is likely middle class families didn’t waste money to prepare well-seasoned dishes. Taste buds were accustomed to less seasoned dishes. Modern American cuisine is very high in sugar, fat and salt. Because our taste is accustomed to high fat, sugar and salt content, it is the reason why I gave this dish a C- grade on flavor, texture and body. The flavor wasn’t terrible. It resembled flan but lacked in sweetness and richness. I felt the custard needed more fat, sugar and perhaps a little more salt. It was also overcooked. Water was leaching out of it the moment it came out of the oven. The overcooked bits were a little chewy and eggy. Once the custard cooled, I served it with preserved strawberries in an attempted in improve the dish.
Because I have formal culinary training, I know what a custard base, cooked and uncooked, should look like. I conclude that this book was meant for an audience with knowledge developed through domestic experience, or perhaps some culinary education; this is suggested by the incomplete instructions, measurements, and quantities. However, on a personal note, had I been living during this time, I would have rather gone without dessert than serve this economical version.
Child, Lydia Maria. 1830. The Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy. Second ed. Boston: Carter and Hendee.