Wondering what the recipe for bread pudding is in the first American cookbook? This is Amelia Simmons’ bread pudding from the American Cookery circa 1798. The cookbook is the second edition of the original 1796 version. There is some controversy around the accuracy of some of the recipes as well as the writings in the preface. There are even those who say many of the recipes did not belong to Miss Simmons and were actually reprints of traditional English recipes. Try as they may, these new Americans found it a bit taxing to come up with ways to make recipes distinctly American.
History of Bread Pudding
Bread pudding originated in England and dates back to the 11th or 12th century, during the Courts of King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I. Not wanting to waste anything in those days, frugal cooks would make use of the leftover or stale bread for a delicious dessert—if you like soggy bread with sugar and spices sprinkled on top—that is.
It was called the poor man’s pudding by the 13th century, becoming associated with lower classes. When times were hard for struggling families, it was a sweet treat of relatively affordable ingredients. Dried fruits were added for special occasions.
As the recipe evolved, cooks started adding milk and eggs. It’s called “bread pudding” because the base is, of course, made with bread, but it has a soft, kind of mushy, consistency after baking—hence the pudding.
American Cookery Cookbook
Amelia Simmons was not the first cook in America to publish recipes in a cookbook, but she is considered to be the first American to publish a cookbook uniquely for Americans. All of the earlier “American” cookbooks were reprints of traditional British cookbooks. Miss Simmons attempted to recognize and use American ingredients—those uniquely indigenous to the New World.
The 1798 version is a word for word copy of the first print (1796). However, Miss Simmons’ cookbook was reprinted several times over the course of 30 years—some plagiarized and some with alterations. It was mainly sold in New England, New York, and the Midwest. The author, who was a self-proclaimed orphan, disappeared long before Americans grew tired of purchasing her book. She is credited with writing the introduction to the preface, although she denies having written rules for choosing meats and vegetables. Not much is known about where she lived, but it is speculated that she may have lived in Albany, N.Y. and was likely a domestic worker employed as a cook. One thing that is clear though, she believed in establishing the character of a woman.
Dessert recipes in the 18th century didn’t use the type of measurements that we are used to today, such as cups and teaspoons. But if you are an experienced cook, you may have more familiarity with weighing ingredients on a scale. Miss Simmons’ recipe measured in pounds, pints, quarts and gills (half a cup of liquid). She didn’t measure her spices to any exact quantity, preferring to estimate by taste. Likewise, she didn’t have a modern oven, so there wasn’t a temperature setting. I set my oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and baked for 40 minutes, but I think it could have baked just as well at 350.
If you don’t have a lot of mouths to feed in your home, you might want to cut the recipe in half and share some of the pudding with your friends or co-workers. I like to taste my desserts, to see how well I did, then share the rest with family and friends.
I wanted this recipe to be as authentic as possible, so I went to a local dairy farm and purchased fresh raw cow’s milk. My bread was a fresh loaf of white Italian bread, but I think Miss Simmons might have used wheat or whatever stale bread was handy. I cut up my bread into little chunks (crust on) and soaked it in a pint of milk for about 30 minutes. The bread softened up, but the crust was still a little firm. I drained the bread in a colander, but I could not push it through so I just mashed it up good and set it aside. Ideally, you may want to push all of the bread through the colander so that it has a consistency like cooked cream of wheat.
I suspect cooks in the 18th century were not fussy about the exact science of cooking so I didn’t spend a whole lot of time separating the dry ingredients from the wet. The eggs, cream, sugar, butter, rose water, and spices all went into the bowl one after the other. I did melt the butter and let it cool a little before adding it. When that was mixed well, I added the soggy bread and stirred some more. By the way, I made my own rose water. It’s really easy. I just boiled some rose buds (or you can use rose petals) in two cups of distilled water. After it comes to a boil, let it sit until it cools down. Pour the water and roses into a jar and put in the refrigerator for a few hours. When you take it out of the refrigerator, dig out the rose buds and discard them.
I lucked up on a clearance sale and found a 9-inch pie tin and some mini pie tins. The larger tin was almost just right but I had to use one of the smaller tins for the extra batter. Remember to first butter the pan really well or you can use a cooking spray. I filled the tin to almost full, but in retrospect I should have left a little more room to prevent the crust from baking out over the top of the tin. After you pour your batter in the tin, sprinkle with raisins. You might want to mix the raisins in rather than letting them sit on top.
When I saw the final results, I was a little disappointed because I think the oven was too hot and I should have taken it out after 30 minutes rather than 40. After 30 minutes, I did insert a toothpick to see if it would come out clean, and there was a little batter on it, but the crust was already a golden brown. Since this is a pudding, I think it may have been done enough.
As with many desserts, this pudding tasted best when it was still a little warm and it indeed had that soft, mushy consistency. The middle immediately sunk as soon as I removed it from the oven. Not sure how to stop that. The rim was clearly a bread crust while the center was more like a firm pudding. The raisins on top were a welcome addition. After I refrigerated it, the pudding became a spicy bread—still tasty, but more solid. If you let it sit for an hour or so, it will soften up again. All in all, this is a very easy and fairly inexpensive dessert to make. Most people may already have all of these ingredients in their kitchens.