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Hello, readers! I’m happy to finally introduce myself to you, though I’ve been here for some time. For the last two years I’ve worked beside Kimberly, and today marks my debut as a guest blogger in my own right. I’m looking forward to writing about my life with food and what interest me—as a home cook and culinary nerd, I’m particularly interested in local foods and traditional recipes, obscure ingredients and the history of certain dishes. I’m a Brooklyn girl who loves barbecue but wouldn’t mind a craft cocktail on the side—which pretty much sums up my attitude towards food. From piranha to pimento cheese, I’ll eat almost anything you put in front of me, as long as it’s made from scratch. —Annabelle
I have few memories of my mother making dessert. She always cooked our meals from scratch, but she had her quirks: Not believing in salt was one; not believing in recipes was another. Substitution was an integral part of the preparation of any dish (applesauce and yogurt were frequently inserted in place of other ingredients deemed to be of questionable nutrition). A late phase involved showering everything with garam masala. Dessert, since it added nothing to my diet except calories (and couldn’t be doctored with wheat germ), was generally spurned.
Every year for my birthday I requested the same recipe: a single-layer chocolate cake dryly studded with Maraschino cherries and topped with (unsweetened) whipped cream, a dessert I’d found could be depended upon to emerge from the oven relatively unscathed. There was also a trifle that came out at Christmas: dense layers of store-bought pound cake, Bird’s custard and canned fruit salad in a crystal dish, liberally doused with sherry, a combination that still brings me to my knees. Both were formal, special-occasion desserts. During the other 363 days of the year, the only dessert I can remember was one that even as a child I was not sure that my mother had not come up with herself, out of some vague combination of leftover bits and pieces in the cupboard. In a suburban land of giant chocolate chip cookie cakes and Carvel ice cream, no one else I knew ever ate it, but Indian Pudding was–aside from that chocolate cake–the best thing that came out of my mother’s kitchen.
If I was skeptical about its provenance, I certainly didn’t ask my mother any questions. Since then I’ve learned that Indian Pudding is as American as apple pie, or perhaps more accurately, as American as my mother, whose ancestors first came to this country as colonists in the early 17th century. Though based on the traditional English Hasty Pudding, its main ingredients, cornmeal and molasses, are wholly New World. Its roots are not Native American at all; “Indian meal” was simply the colloquial name for cornmeal. The pudding grew popular during the 18th century as housewives recreated Hasty Pudding from what was available to them. Designed to cook or boil slowly in a hearth for long periods of time, it fell out of favor in the early part of the last century and is now mainly thought of as a regional New England holiday dessert. Now that Kimberly has moved to Massachusetts (officially the Boston Cream Pie state), she’s become reacquainted with Indian Pudding as well. A carefully tweaked recipe has been served for years at Durgin-Park—an old, storied Boston surf & turf restaurant, where Kimberly ordered it for dessert after Mr. Mix’s father urged them to visit and try the traditional New England menu.
I’ve always been fascinated by historic recipes, those that due to changing tastes, cooking methods or the simple passage of time have been all but erased from our collective culinary repertoire. A few weeks ago I had lunch at the America Eats Tavern in Washington, DC—a pop-up restaurant created by chef José Andrés and the National Archives in honor of the latter’s current special exhibit. “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” explores the effect of the US government on our national diet, from research to regulation. Andrés is serving a traditional menu (fried chicken and biscuits, johnnycakes and phosphates) with a modern twist, and with a special emphasis on oysters, formerly more prevalent in American cuisine. When New York harbor’s oyster beds were still booming in the 19th century, Andrés savory oyster ice cream, an apparent favorite of Mark Twain, might not have seemed so bizarre. Indian pudding doesn’t feature, but maple syrup candy, hardened on snow, does; another simple treat that I always associate fondly with Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Little House in the Big Woods.
Despite my love of Indian Pudding, I had never made it myself until this fall, when I found myself the recipient of 15 pounds of apples. The trouble with going apple-picking is that you end up with all those apples; the remedy for this trouble is to gift them to unsuspecting friends. Browsing the index of the 1946 edition of the Woman’s Home Companion Cook Book, I came upon a recipe for Indian Pudding with baked apples, which I whipped up in just under four hours (instant Jell-O this is not.) But a good pudding is worth the wait, and there isn’t much to the dish: scalded milk, thickened cornmeal, ginger, some molasses and sometimes brown sugar. It’s what happens in the oven that’s magical, the conversion of this mixture into a deep, rich, caramelized gruel that, when served hot with a scoop of melting vanilla ice cream, tastes to me like distilled autumn leaves. Recipes can vary quite a bit, and though I make my pudding without eggs, Durgin-Park’s recipe is equally delicious (note that theirs takes 5-7 hours to bake!)
Of course, my Puritan forebears didn’t eat their pudding with ice cream, and even heavy cream would have been a luxury in those early days. Indian pudding was often served for breakfast, which I took as license to have my own leftovers cold with coffee the next day. Though I apparently missed National Indian Pudding Day on November 13th, and neglected to serve the homely brown mush for my Thanksgiving guests, I did bake a whole pot for myself after they left. To me, there is no more comforting food at this time of year. My mother had this one right, and she didn’t substitute a thing.