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Sneak Peek

Baking Recipes of our Founding Fathers
by Robert Pelton

Baking in the American Colonies was far from an easy task. The women of the house made quite an art out of baking tasty loaves of bread, pastry, pies, cakes, cookies, and all of their other homemade goodies. In those days, homemakers couldn't always buy good flour. Almost every sack or barrel presented new baking problems. Flour always had to be tested for quality before using.

Here's how Mary Chew wrote it in her old receipt notes ledger in 1765. Miss Chew became the wife of William Paca (1740-1799) of Maryland in 1761. He would later sign the Declaration of Independence on August 2, 1776: "As good a test of flour as can be had at sight, is to take up a handful and squeeze it tight; if good, when the hand is unclasped, the lines on the palm of the hand will be plainly defined on the ball of flour. Throw a little lump of dried flour against a smooth surface, if it falls like powder, it is bad."

In those days, the wood heated oven was not nearly as efficient as those used today. The method of measuring oven heat in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was simple but effective. Baking was always a matter of guess. The homemaker relied on when it "felt" hot enough to bake in. If the heat was excessive, it scorched the inquiring hand.

As pointed out in the EARLY AMERICAN COOKBOOK: "Big ovens of brick, always ready for baking, had been left behind in their old homes by the settlers. In the new land bricks were scarce. There was little known clay obtainable for brick making. Certainly none along the desolate shores of the broad Atlantic where the Pilgrims landed. And the Colonists were not at first equipped to manufacture bricks. So the Pilgrim mothers did their baking either in Dutch ovens of tin, set facing the open fire on the stone hearth with a tin shield to ward off the flames, or in an iron kettle with squat legs and a depression in the cover for hot coals to give the top heat."

Cookbooks used in the Colonies were initially brought over from England. One of the first to be reprinted in the colonies was THE COMPLEAT HOUSEWIFE, OR ACCOMPLISHED GENTLEWWOMAN'S COMPANION, written by E. Smith. William Parks in Williamsburg, Virginia, reprinted this in 1742. THE ART OF COOKERY MADE PLAIN AND EASY, by Hannah Glasse, was published in 1747 and became a favorite of Colonial homemakers for many years. It contained this recipe that is attributed to the mother of Sarah Hatfield. Sarah was but 21 when she married Abraham Clark (1726-1794) in 1749. Clark later gained a measure of fame as one of the 56 heroic signers of the Declaration of Independence. Here's how Sarah wrote it: "Tasty Cakes of Ginger Bread. Take whole Pound Butter, three Pounds Flour, whole Pound Sugar. Beat 2 Ounces finely beaten Ginger till it is fine powder. . Grate big Nutmeg. Put with other ingredients; then take whole Pound Molasses, a Coffeecupful Cream. Heat Molasses and Cream together. Work dough for Bread till stiff. Lay on Board with little Flour. Roll to thin Cookies. Cut in rounds with small glass turned over or Teacup. Or roll to ball in hands the size of Hickory Nut. Lay on Bake Pan. Bake in slack Oven."

Then in 1772, Susannah Carter's THE FRUGAL HOUSEWIFE OR FEMALE COMPANION was reprinted in Boston. Paul Revere made the printing plates for her cookbook. This was most popular with, and could be found in the homes of, many of the wives and mothers of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Colonial Virginia's most widely known cookbook was commonly used in the homes of those who signed the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution. Shipped to America from England, it was to be found in the kitchens of most wives and mothers of the Signers. It's incredible title read: "THE HOUSEKEEPER'S POCKET-BOOK, AND COMPLEAT FAMILY COOK: CONTAINING ABOVE TWELVE HUNDRED CURIOUS AND UNCOMMON RECEIPTS IN COOKERY, PASTRY, PRESERVING, PICKLING, CANDYING, COLLARING. ETC. WITH PLAIN AND EASY INSTRUCTIONS FOR PREPARING AND DRESSING EVERY THING SUITABLE FOR AN ELEGANT ENTERTAINMENT, FROM TWO DISHES TO FIVE OR TEN, ETC. AND DIRECTIONS FOR RANGING THEM IN THEIR PROPER ORDER."

Another excellent example of how old recipes were written is found in Amelia Simmons' 48 page AMERICAN COOKERY published in 1796. This cookbook was also widely used in great many Colonial kitchens. It was the first originally American cookbook to be published in America. A recipe for "Molasses Gingerbread" is believed to have originally come from the mother of Nicholas Gilman (1755-1814) of New Another excellent example of how old recipes were written is found in Amelia Simmons' 48 page AMERICAN COOKERY published in 1796. This cookbook was also widely used in great many Colonial kitchens. It was the first originally American cookbook to be published in America. A recipe for "Molasses Gingerbread" is believed to have originally come from the mother of Nicholas Gilman (1755-1814) of New. " Take Three Pounds of Double-Refined Sugar beaten and then sifted, and Four Pounds of Fine Flour; Mix together and let them dry by the fire as the other materials are prepared. Then take Four Pounds of Fresh Butter, beat with Wood Spoon until Soft and Creamy. Then beat Thirty-Five Fresh Eggs, and leave out Sixteen Whites, Strain off Eggs from the Shells, And Beat them and the Butter together till all look like Butter. Then Put in Four or Five spoonfuls of Orange-Flower Water or Rose Water, and Beat more. Now take the Flour and Sugar, with Six Ounces of Caraway Seeds, and Strew them in by degrees, Beating it up all the while for Two Hours together. Put in as much as you want of Amber-Grease or Tincture of Cinnamon. Butter your Hoop, and leave to Stand three Hours in a Moderate Oven. Carefully Observe Always, when Beating Butter, to do it with a Cool Hand and Beat it Always one way in Deep Earthen Dish."

As you can readily see, most recipes found in cookbooks of the Colonial period were written as a descriptive paragraph. The paragraph contained all the ingredients needed, correct amounts to use, and how to properly mix them. Unlike today's recipes, it didn't have an orderly list of ingredients followed by simple instructions for preparing the cake, bread, or whatever was to be baked. On the other hand, many recipes handed down through a family were merely a handwritten list of ingredients without instructions telling what to do with them. Homemakers in the Colonies, when given such a recipe by a friend or neighbor, was expected to already know how to correctly mix the ingredients.

The Colonial homemaker depended on homemade yeast that varied greatly in strength from batch to batch. She made both liquid yeast and yeast cakes. Liquid yeast was commonly made and then bottled and stored until needed. Three kinds of yeast were especially popular with the early American homemaker:

Brewers Yeast or Barm
German or Compressed Yeast
Patent or Hop Yeast

The most popular yeast in the Colonies was the frothy brown, sour smelling, Brewer's Yeast. Pasty, easily crumbled German Yeast was also often used. This particular yeast would remain good for weeks if kept in a cool place. Patent Yeast was the cheapest and most extensively used of these ferments. Potato Yeast was a type of Patent Yeast commonly used. This particular recipe comes from the Meredith family. Their daughter, Elizabeth, later became the wife of George Clymer (1739-1813) in 1765. He went on to be a signer of both the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution. Here's the old Meridith family recipe:

"6 potatoes 2 tbls sugar
"4 tbls flour ½ cup good yeast

"Peel potatoes and put in kettle with eight cups cold water. Boil potatoes until they break. Leave potato water on fire but take out potatoes. Mash them to a pulp while blending in flour and sugar. Then gradually wet with the hot potato water until it is used up. Allow to cool and when lukewarm add yeast and stir. Set aside in open bowl and warm place to ferment. When mixture ceases to effervesce, bottle and keep in cool place. This yeast is very nice and white. It is preferred by many who dislike the bitter taste of hops."

Other homemakers of the day used hops (dried flower clusters from the hop vine) to a great extent, especially when making yeast cakes. One old recipe is attributed to the mother of Elizabeth Sherburne. Elizabeth, a lovely and spirited young lady, would one day in 1775 become the wife of John Langdon (1741-1819). He would later have the honor of signing the Constitution. Mrs. Sherburne gives these directions:

"2 handfuls Hops....Flour to suit
"4 cups pared......2 tbls good Yeast
` and Sliced Potatoes 1 cup Indian Meal
"Tie Hops in coarse muslin bag. Put with potatoes in small iron kettle with eight cups ice cold water. Bring to quick boil and cook 45 minutes. Remove Hops bag while water still boiling. Strain potatoes and boiling water through colander into large bowl. Stir enough flour into scalding liquor in kettle to make stiff batter. Beat well. Blend in yeast. Lay towel over bowl and set in warm place to rise. When light, stir in Indian Meal. Put on board and roll to sheet ¼ inch thick. Take a drinking glass and use it to cut into 3-inch diameter cakes. Allow to dry in sun or very slow oven. Take care they do not heat enough to actually bake. When entirely dry and cold, hang them up in a bag. Be sure to keep these cakes in a cool, dry place. They will be good indefinitely if properly stored. Use one cake for fair-sized loaf of bread. Soak in tepid water until soft, add pinch of soda, and mix with recipe."

Elizabeth Pettit, wife of Jared Ingersoll (1749-1822), Pennsylvania signer of our Constitution, wrote this tip regarding yeast: "Yeast sometimes acquires a bitter taste from keeping, which is quite independent of that derived from hops. To remedy this, throw into the yeast a few clean coals freshly taken from the fire, but allowed to cool a little on the surface. The operation appears to depend on the power of freshly burnt charcoal to absorb gasses and remove offensive odors." Of course, the burnt charcoal was to be removed before using the yeast for baking homemade bread and other oven goodies.

And here's a note of interest: Some homemakers in the Colonies were quite superstitious. They would refuse to bake bread at certain times. Sarah Hopkins, was the wife of Stephen Hopkins (1707-1785) of Rhode Island, one of 56 heroic signers of the Declaration of Independence. Sarah, as well as many other women of the time, would not consider baking bread whenever a dead animal was found in their yard, or when someone had died in the house. It was widely believed that bread wouldn't rise on such days.

Anne Carey Randolph was a lovely young woman who became the wife of Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816) in 1789. He had earlier signed both the Articles of Confederation and our Constitution. A baking poem written by her cleverly sums up the art of good baking:

"With weights and measures just and true,
"Oven of even heat,
"Well buttered tins and quiet nerves,
"Success will be complete."

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