In the first entry in the Special Collections Cooking series, we dove into early American recipe resources in DePaul’s Special Collections and Archives, highlighting the British basis for cookbooks used during the Revolutionary and post-war periods. We saw how eighteenth century recipe books developed from more medicinal European recipe guides and focused on wealthy women readers interested in managing domestic staff. Books printed in America in the early nineteenth century, like Maria Eliza Rundell’s Experienced American Housekeeper, followed this trend, but began including local ingredients, instructions for value-conscious grocery shoppers, and dishes that emphasized inexpensive goods.
This entry focuses on recreating Rundell’s recipe for gooseberry fool, a sweetened fruit and custard treat that showcases a mix of simple ingredients with more upscale tastes.
Rundell’s fool instructions are typical of early nineteenth century cookbook recipes. She gives no summarized ingredient list, cooking times or temperatures, standard measurements, or indications of portions. Instead, she explains the cooking process in a narrative form. Recreating this type of recipe requires understanding the terms and measures of Rundell’s era, and, for the modern user, a certain amount of adaptation.
With some research, we can better reinterpret Rundell’s instructions. Lisbon sugar likely referred to refined sugar, widely traded from Lisbon, and made using cane juice dried into sugarloaf molds for home grinding. I substituted modern refined sugar, lacking the materials or inclination to dry and grind several pounds of sugar cane juice. A “teacup” as a measure size can be translated with the help of some material culture expertise. A common type of tea cup recovered from colonial sites and cited in British shipping records is the London size. Archaeologist George Miller has identified collections and print records that indicate London size tea cups grew from 1/3 pint to between 3/4 and a whole pint after the 1770s. I chose to use 3/4 pint, or 1.5 cups, for this recipe, since its first publication dated to 1806. Lacking other evidence, I took “new milk” to mean fresh milk, and hoped store bought whole milk would suffice.
My principal alteration was substituting for gooseberries, which my local market didn’t stock. Gooseberries were widely cultivated in Europe and Asia, but their availability in nineteenth century American marketplaces is unclear. Instead, I used two cups of serviceberries, a mild berry common across North America that I’d picked and frozen when they were conveniently ripening outside the John T. Richardson Library entrance in August. Serviceberries, like gooseberries, have a high natural pectin content, which I hoped would help them set without additional gelling agents.
Early American cookbooks emphasized qualitative, rather than quantitative, aspects of food preparation, so I strove to match the textures Rundell described. I set my washed serviceberries over a stove with a spoonful of water, and guessed 2 tablespoons of sugar sufficed for the “some” she instructed to use. After about ten minutes at a low boil, the fruit was soft and pulpy; I pushed it through a colander, removing some berry skin, and set it aside. I then brought the milk and heavy cream to a low boil for about ten minutes, stirring constantly to prevent curdling. The mixture didn’t immediately resemble a custard. As it was warm day, I chose to cheat and use the refrigerator to cool the mixture. Maybe Maria Rundell had an ice house.
After an hour, the cream mixture, which should have formed thick custard, was a cold, runny mess. I tried to hand whip it to achieve a thicker consistency but gave up after five minutes. Attempt one I recorded as a failure.
Thankfully, Experienced American Housekeeper recipes often include substitute instructions. I retried boiling milk and cream, this time whisking a whole egg into the mixture per Rundell’s alternate instructions. Immediate results were more promising, as thick, foamy bubbles formed throughout my would-be custard after a few minutes. I transferred the pot to the refrigerator, and, after an hour, found a more enticing, lightly golden custard. I worked the mixture a little thicker with a whisk to a porridge-like texture and added another tablespoon of sugar. By this time, the fruit mixture had cooled and set to a slightly runny jam-like consistency. By spooning the jam into the custard, I formed layers of sweetened, slightly tart fruit running through thick, eggy custard – maybe not worthy of Julia Child, but rich and enjoyable.
Recreating this recipe made a few aspects of early nineteenth century cooking instruction evident. The reader was certainly not expected to be a novice – it was implicit that I understood how to prevent curdling cream, control temperatures, and gel fruit. This suggests early American readers might be using Rundell’s book in combination with a great deal of common knowledge and hands-on instruction, either as a hired cook or a women preparing her own household’s meals. The recipe was flexible and left much to the reader, who could use as much fruit and sugar as economy or tastes dictated, substitute ingredients common in Europe with those available locally, or add spices like clove or nutmeg typically used to dress up cream and egg-based confections. Flexibility of preparation and inexpensive basic ingredients indicates these recipes might be appropriate for the rich and less affluent alike, as publishers tried to appeal to wide ranges of American audiences.
Next week, we’ll take on a recipe from Reform-era America, when doctors and dietitians argued for a strictly regulated diet as critical to cultivating a productive body. We’ll investigate sanitarium health foods and experiment with the hazards of home fermentation.
Special Collections Cooking is a periodic, bi-weekly series using resources from DePaul University’s Special Collections and Archives to explore American lifeways by recreating historic recipes. The entire series may be viewed here. To learn more about DePaul’s rare books and archival collections, contact Special Collections and Archives at 773-325-7864, or firstname.lastname@example.org.