Welcome back! As we approach the holiday season, I thought it would be the perfect time to dive back into some historic Kentucky recipes. If you are looking for a few savory ideas, please check out Part One. This time I decided to focus on baking and desserts. I once again used Lettice Bryan (1839) and The Historic Kentucky Kitchen as my two main sources of inspiration, but there are plenty of other books in our collection that can help you find the local recipe you desire. Another of my favorites is The Blue Grass Cookbook, so check that out if you’re interested. If you would like any help finding local cookbooks or recipes, please feel free to reach out to our department and talk to a staff member, or watch a periscope video that I did on how to find recipes.
I wanted to use simple recipes that included ingredients I mostly had on hand. For me, that included lots of apples. However, I also love to bake bread and I couldn’t resist trying my hand at a bread recipe. Lettice has quite a few examples of biscuits, rolls, and loaves of bread. Unfortunately for the modern baker, the measurements, which are more exact in baking than other forms of cooking, are quite loose in her descriptions. This wasn’t quite so troublesome for a pie or cookies, but more complicated creations like cakes and breads run into errors of translation. Ingredients diverge from their modern counterparts more dramatically in baking than in cooking. Nineteenth century bakers would obtain yeast from beer brewers, or utilize wild yeast in the form of their own sourdough starters, instead of using the instant dry yeast that is now readily available in packets or jars from the supermarket. Pearlash, a lye-based chemical made from the ashes out of a fireplace, was the precursor to baking soda or baking powder. Even the flour would have been different than what we are used to today.
To compensate for these discrepancies, I used my own sourdough starter, which hopefully bears some semblance to those kept in homes in the 1800s. I also used a mix of whole wheat, white whole wheat, and all purpose flours to get heartier flavors. The steps necessary to translate these recipes make baking from the 1830s slightly more complicated, but these steps also allow for an appreciation and understanding of the past that the soup and vegetable recipes of my savory forays did not. I’ll confess to finding baking therapeutic – something about kneading and patiently waiting for dough to rise before finally getting a crusty reward. Needless to say, I quite enjoyed following Lettice’s sparse and perfunctory directions in baking, regardless of my outcome’s similarity to Lettice’s intention.
Enough musings, let’s get baking:
- Louis Ludlow Dudley’s Ginger Snaps, 1876 from The Historic Kentucky Kitchen: Traditional Recipes for Today’s Cook by Deirdre A. Scaggs and Andrew W. McGraw (also available as an e-book from Overdrive).
I chose this recipe because ginger snaps are a perennial favorite in my house – simple, spiced, sweet. I halved the original recipe in order to avoid swimming in cookies. I like them with a little extra snap, so I also baked them a bit longer than suggested.
- 1 stick butter
- 1 cup molasses
- 1½ teaspoons baking soda
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger (I was generous with this teaspoon for some extra ginger kick)
- About 1¼ cups flour
Preheat the oven to 350°F. In a large saucepan, mix the butter, molasses, baking soda, salt, and ginger. Bring it to a boil and then remove it from the heat to cool.
Once cooled, add just enough flour to be able to roll out the dough, adding a little at a time as necessary. I went a little over the 1¼ cups here. Then, ideally use fun-shaped cookie cutters to cut out some cookies. I had no such luck (I know, I’m awful, not a single cookie cutter in the house!), so I used a floured drinking glass and made small circles. Bake 10-15 minutes on a greased baking sheet, or if you have them, use silicon mats to bake on so that you don’t have to grease the pans so much or fuss cleaning up.
The ginger snaps were simple yet delicious, and kept for quite a long time. At the end, my baking partner and I tried some more adventurous shapes. For your amusement and my embarrassment, I have included a couple of those below. I made the accurate to-scale, anatomically correct giraffe, or maybe it’s a llama? I never said I was artistic. My partner made the flying pig – which you’ll notice started out as a strange dragon and was relegated to pig status, complete with curly tail (my personal touch). My point is, have fun with it!
- Lucy Hayes Breckinridge’s Apple Pie (early 1900s) from The Historic Kentucky Kitchen
An American classic, I couldn’t make a baking blog leading up to holidays without an apple pie. I used Lucy Hayes Breckinridge’s recipe for plain paste for the pie crust. It is unsweetened pie dough made with flour, salt, ice water, and butter. Originally, the recipe called for cottolene, made from beef tallow and cottonseed oil, but the authors of Historic Kentucky Kitchen helpfully replaced that with butter. I used whole wheat pastry flour, simply because it called for pastry flour and it is what I had on hand. I wouldn’t recommend doing that, or at least doing a ratio of 2:1, white to wheat. I wasn’t about to run out to the store and figured I would give the wheat a try. It turned out passable, but the wheat flavor came through strong and it doesn’t flake in the same way as white flour. If you would like to follow in Lucy’s footsteps, feel free to take a look at The Historic Kentucky Kitchen and follow her recipe for plain paste.
If you have a favorite pie crust recipe, go with that. I normally use all purpose flour and a very lightly sweetened crust. The really important part for pie crust is making sure that the butter doesn’t melt before you bake the crust, so make sure you refrigerate the butter beforehand and keep refrigerating as you work with it. This will ensure a flaky crust. My favorite touch for an apple pie is adding some grated gruyere to the pie crust. The hint of cheese really brings apple pie to the next level. For my purposes here, however, I kept it simple. I doubled the paste recipe so that I would have a top and a bottom crust. The filling to this pie was really simple, and definitely the star of the show. As much as the paste was ultimately a let-down, the filling was tart and delicious.
- 4 tart apples – I used 3 Granny Smith and 1 Honeycrisp
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg – fresh is better
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Peel, core, and slice the apples and mix them with the lemon juice. Mix the cinnamon, sugar, and nutmeg in a small bowl. Roll out your piecrust of choice, drape into a greased pan, and fit it loosely to the sides. Then layer on the apples and sprinkle some of the sugar mixture on top. Continue layering with the rest of the apples and sugar. Moisten the edges of the pie crust, place your second crust on top, and press together with a fork. Use a knife to put a couple of slits in the top for steam to escape. For a browned top, brush the top crust with an eggwhite wash just before putting in the oven. Bake for 25-30 minutes.
I had to bake for quite a bit longer because of the whole wheat flour. As I mentioned, the crust was a disappointment. But the simple filling was delicious!
- Apple Dumplings from Lettice Bryan (1839)
Apple Dumplings are not too uncommon nowadays, but they are almost always baked. Lettice Bryan boils hers. Even to me, this didn’t sound terribly appealing, but I couldn’t resist trying. I used the leftover pie crust from the above apple pie. Apple dumplings are incredibly simple. You peel and core the apple without slicing it at all. I used a paring knife to carefully get the core out. Then you stuff the center with brown sugar, squeeze a little lemon on there, and wrap the apple in the pie crust. Here is where modern baking might diverge. Once wrapped in the dough, flour the dumpling heavily and boil. I wrapped the dumplings in cheesecloth to make sure they stayed together.
Lettice mentions serving these with cream or a sauce of some kind. I could definitely see the appeal of that. I dusted them lightly with powdered sugar to add some extra sweetness. They were OK. The brown sugar melted into the dough, so the dough was actually much tastier than in its pie form. The apple cooked, but stayed quite firm. All of this to say, I think baking these with a beautiful flaky crust would be much more delicious (shocking, I know). I believe the direct quote from my guinea pig taster was, “Wow. I bet these tasted great on a cold winter day in the 1800s.” Which you’ll notice doesn’t exactly sound like he liked them.
- Light Wheat Bread from Lettice Bryan (1839)
With all of the ingredient-driven divergences and attempts at creating equivalencies, the directions boiled down to “make dough” and then “bake bread.” I will try to break it down a little more than that. Lettice talks about proportioning the yeast and flour based on the quality of the yeast. “…if it is good and quite lively, a gill will be sufficient for a quart of flour.” In other entries, she mentions acquiring the best yeast by visiting the brewer and using the yeast promptly. From this, I gathered she meant fresh live yeast. To compensate for this, I used a mixture of my sourdough starter and active dry yeast.
For the rest of the proportions, Lettice says, “Sift your flour, sprinkle in a little salt, add your yeast and enough lukewarm water or sweet milk to make it rather a thin dough.” She then has you knead the dough, put it in a greased oven, let it rise by a warm fire, then bake it with a moderate fire until “thoroughly done.” As I said, make the dough, bake the bread. Simple.
- 3 cups white whole wheat flour
- 2 cups all purpose flour
- 2 cups fed starter
- 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
- 1½ teaspoons salt
- 1½ to 2 cups lukewarm water
- (Makes 2 medium-sized loaves)
Because this recipe was more of an experiment than any of the others I tried, I will give a bit of a narrative of the two methods I decided to try. First, I mixed all the ingredients together and kneaded until smooth (about 5-10 minutes by hand). I placed the dough in a bowl, covered it, and let it rise for about an hour. I then divided the dough to make two separate loaves.
The first followed Lettice’s directions, more or less. I shaped the dough into a circle, placed it in my greased, cast iron Dutch oven, and let it rise in a propped-open warm (not hot) oven. Unfortunately, I got wrapped up in pies and dumplings and sort of forgot about it, so it over-rose. I decided to go ahead and bake it anyway. I baked the bread at 425°F with the lid on for 30 minutes, and then the lid off for another 10-15 minutes. Because the dough had over-risen, it collapsed in the oven and came out rather flat. It still tasted delicious, and is destined to be awesome croutons.
With the second ball of dough, I followed a more familiar routine. I shaped it into a tight circular loaf put it in a bowl seam-side down, dusted it with flour, covered it, and stuck it in the refrigerator for 24 hours. When I got home from work the next day I preheated the oven to 475°F with the cast iron Dutch oven inside. Once the oven was at full temperature I left it for another 20-30 minutes to ensure that the Dutch oven was thoroughly heated throughout. I then turned out the dough on a lightly floured work surface, seam-side up, scooped it up carefully, and placed it in the hot Dutch oven. It baked for about 25-30 minutes with the lid on and then another 15 minutes with the lid off. This loaf came out much better. Whether that had to do with the long, cold ferment, or with simply more attention being paid to it to not over-rise is up for debate. Maybe another experiment with Lettice’s method is in my future.
What I learned from Part One and Part Two together: There is a reason baking is so exact. I think my savory adventures with Lettice proved more fruitful. Or maybe the lesson is, when looking at old recipes where ingredients and measurements don’t add up, keep it simple and go with what you know. There are plenty of examples in Lettice’s book of berry tarts and cookies and other desserts that may work better than what I tried. Historic cooking is definitely an experience. I think one of the things I appreciate about Lettice’s and other similar recipes is the way the ingredients are each used so deliberately. Her side dishes and main courses don’t generally have 15 ingredients; they have 5. While I felt some of the recipes lacked garlic or sugar or what have you, I am sure I have a tendency to reach for more when less will do. Sometimes letting ingredients shine on their own is the best course.
If converting measurements and finding ingredient replacements sounds too stressful for you, never fear! Books like The Historic Kentucky Kitchen: Traditional Recipes for Today’s Cook, Appalachian Home Cooking: History, Culture, & Recipes, or dozens like those, have modernized classic, local cuisine for the ease of today’s home cook. If you would like some explanations and examples of classic Kentucky dishes, check out my colleagues’ periscope video. They explain, give the history, and talk about some recipe ideas for goetta, burgoo, mint juleps, and hot browns!
I hope you’ve enjoyed my successes and failures with historic cooking. Stop in at the Local History & Genealogy department on the second floor of the Covington branch, call, or go to our online catalog to learn more about any of the materials discussed. Good luck with all of your holiday cooking adventures, whether they be historically inspired or otherwise.
This blog was written by Liv Dohn, Library Associate in the Local History & Genealogy Department at the Covington Branch.