Thursday, November 26, 2015

Jane's Indian Pudding

A colonial classic that's become a bit hard to find!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Although Thanksgiving isn't usually my favorite holiday, I have a special extra long post for you today, featuring the comeback of a traditional family holiday dish and a trip to none other than Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts! Hosting the post today will be Jane, my custom character from the 17th century.

Again, Jane is actually from Jamestown in about 1614, so she predates the Pilgrims by six years and probably would never have even thought to visit New England. But since I live here, I've been having a lot of fun going to different historical sites that celebrate and educate people about the very early days of European colonization of North America. And while we've got a lot of different places to visit, one of the best is Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Plimoth Plantation is much like Colonial Williamsburg and other living history museums, with costumed interpreters and regular staff members happy to tell you all about the early days of the Pilgrims and Wampanoag. I hadn't been since I was very small, and honestly all I really remember of it was speaking to a Pilgrim about... something in their garden, and being miserably, miserably hot. Needless to say, I was excited to see it from an adult perspective.

Of course, part of this trip was also to do a little bit of research into Indian pudding, a Thanksgiving staple of my mom's family that has, for whatever reason, fallen out of favor. But more on that in a little bit! First, we're taking a trip back in time...

Once you leave the visitor's center, your first stop is the Wampanoag Homesite, a recreated settlement of the Native people of this part of Massachusetts. Unlike the 17th century village, the people here are not reenactors or roleplayers even though they're wearing period accurate clothing. They are Native People - some Wampanoag, some not - who speak to you in a modern voice about the Wampanoag experience and perspective throughout history.

Like the 17th century village, they discuss religious and cultural beliefs, daily life and pretty much everything else. They also do demonstrations of traditional crafts and practices like weaving and, of course, cooking! While we were there, two staff members were cooking a squash soup over a fire, and cooking nasaump, a dish that's a mix of cornmeal, berries and nuts, with maple syrup to help flavor it. They also showed us how the dried Indian corn that people today think of as a festive fall decoration is actually how Native People and eventually colonists would dry corn to preserve it.

Walk further up the path from the Wampanoag Homesite, and you'll pass by the new craft center, which includes a bakery that produces historically inspired bread. We didn't have a chance to see them actually making any, but we did get to purchase some, and boy, was it tasty! I would highly recommend dropping by early and picking up a loaf if you're visiting.

Just beyond that, and you get your official time traveller's welcome!

The 17th Century Village is perpetually set in 1627, which is about the time that the historical community's population had really stabilized and started to expand into a larger farming community. This isn't the original site of the community, and none of the houses are original, but instead are meticulously researched historical reconstructions. One of the staff members we chatted with explained how they're so accurate, they even burn the same way when someone leaves a fire unattended accidentally! Which is... good to know, I guess.

Although the plantation isn't anywhere near as big as Colonial Williamsburg or Sturbridge Village, there is a lot to see and do. Costumed reenactors go about their day and are happy to make small talk with you about their lives, while other museum personnel give modern discussions about the Plymouth colonists and their lives in the New World. The weekend we went, a craft expo was also going on, so there were modern volunteers set up to show us how to spin wool and embroider.

For Jane, these houses wouldn't look entirely unfamiliar, as Jamestown in 1614 would have more formal structures than tents or lean tos that were simply designed and heavily influenced by the homes settlers had lived in and helped build back in England, but James Fort was certainly smaller than Plimoth Plantation. Although I'm still partial to Jamestown, for a Londoner like Jane who isn't exactly thrilled by her family's decision to uproot and move to the New World, she'd probably enjoy living in Plymouth more.

You can let yourself in to just about every home, even if the colonist who lives there isn't in at the moment, and each has a nice garden to explore. We had a lot of fun walking around and seeing what they were growing in September...

It's been very dry, so there wasn't much foodwise growing beyond corn and this one lone pumpkin...

What they were cooking...

Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold...

And baking...

Can you imagine needing to share an oven with the whole village?

And learning about how to prepare corn for grinding and storage.

Jane even got to introduce herself to a colonial poppet!

Did you know poppets were considered a valuable way to teach a girl the stitches she would need around the house as an adult?

Perhaps predictably, one of my favorite parts of our trip was the cafe at the visitor center. Patuxet Cafe is not your average museum cafe, even though it does have the staples like hamburgers and hot dogs if you're not feeling adventurous. They also serve a plate of Thanksgiving dinner! But I'm a sucker for historical and historically inspired food, so I was really excited to try out some of their specials...

You can buy parts of these meals individually, but my mom and I decided to try some of everything and ordered both historical samplers. The Wampanoag sampler had succotash, a rice medley featuring the Three Sisters (corn, beans and squash) and sampe (grits) with blueberries:

It was all delicious, but I especially liked the sampe.

I got the colonist sampler, which had homemade pickles, mashed squash, and a peasecod:

What is a peasecod? Honestly, basically the best thing I've ever eaten. Peasecod refers to the casing on the outside of the pea plant, and since this pastry looks like it, that's how it got its name. The one served at Patuxet Cafe is ground chicken with grated orange rind, and a definite hint of spices like cloves and cinnamon wrapped in delicious, flaky pastry, and I have been fantasizing about it since we got home. Two months ago. I would go back for the peasecods alone!

If you want to make one yourself, and obviously I do, they have a copy of the recipe online!

And of course, we couldn't pass up dessert.

They had three options for historical desserts: Indian pudding, Shrewsbury cakes, and a 17th century cheesecake. I wasn't overly impressed by most of these, although the cheesecake was the most interesting, and I'd kind of like to try my hand at making one of these later one. Maybe it'll be a future Jane post!

The Indian pudding had way too much molasses in it (which usually isn't a problem for me), and the Shrewsbury cake was basically just a snickerdoodle. Nothing like the AG recipe for Shrewsbury cakes I made two years ago!

... Which admittedly might not be a bad thing. Those were sort of nasty.

But of course, Plimoth Plantation isn't the only thing to see when you're in Plymouth. There's Plymouth Rock...

And there are the Pilgrim Hall Museum (the oldest continuously running museum in the United States!) and the Mayflower Society, a historic society with a museum anyone can visit, but whose membership is restricted to Mayflower passenger descendants only!

Plimoth Plantation has two other properties in town as well. There's the Mayflower II, a reconstruction of the original Mayflower that allows visitors to really realize how awful it must have been to be crammed onto a tiny, tiny ship with dozens of other miserable, seasick people.

The ship itself is actually quite clean today, obviously, and much like the 17th century village, there are both costumed interpreters and modern staff members who are happy to teach you about life aboard the ship and early days in Plymouth. Unlike the village, they do act like it's 1620, and there's a museum leading up to the ship itself.

We paid special attention to the provisions they packed on the ship.

Jane and I were excited to see a large copy of John Smith's map of New England! Smith would have left Jamestown years before Jane and her family arrived there, but he's my favorite historical figure and is hugely important in the early settling of North America by the English, so I was excited to see him being featured.

What a lot of people don't realize is that John Smith was the first person to map New England, and even gave it its name! The Pilgrims almost decided to hire him to help set up their colony, but eventually decided against it because he wanted too much money... and they worried he was a little too rough and tumble for them.

The final part of Plimoth Plantation is the Grist Mill, which was built to resemble an original building that burned down years ago.

They don't grind corn year round - obviously, as they grind their own corn grown on the plantation and it's not like that's always available! - but if you're in the area, it's cool to watch them do it. Two staff members were grinding when we went to visit, and they taught us a lot about grinding corn!

The mill stone the mill uses is specially imported from Europe, and is totally authentic to what a mill like this would have been using hundreds of years ago.

One of the staff members showed us how the corn is sifted into three different products. The light, powdery stuff is the actual cornmeal, while the hard, gritty bits are sampe. We learned that samp is actually better known as grits, and that early New England colonists used to be just as fond of this as our Southern counterparts are today! Sampe was pretty much the starchy side dish of choice for early colonists, but it fell out of favor when Irish immigrants introduced another delicious starch: the potato! Sampe is a lot more labor intensive to make and cook, while potatoes just need to be tossed in some boiling water to get nice and tender. They have an impressive shelf life, and have a lot of nutrients, too, so it's not shocking that colonists decided to adopt the potato and abandon sampe, but part of me is sort of disappointed. I love potatoes, but grits are tasty, too!

The third byproduct is basically just the husk of the corn. Plimoth uses this as feed for their chickens!

Some brands of "cornmeal" actually mix cornmeal and sampe, or don't filter their product at all, which leads to a really gritty mix. The cornmeal I used for the cranberry crumble definitely was not filtered, and I think I'm going to start being a bit of a snob when it comes to my cornmeal after learning what it's supposed to be like. Plimoth makes sure you get a great product by hand sifting their cornmeal after it's been ground, which can be pretty time consuming, but is definitely worth it.

You can't buy chicken feed here, but you can purchase cornmeal and sampe. We bought both, and have been saving the cornmeal to make Indian pudding!

Indian pudding used to be a Thanksgiving tradition for my mom's family. Apparently my grandmother heard other people talking about making it, got curious and decided hey, might as well give it a shot! And so for several years, Indian pudding showed up on her Thanksgiving table. At some point, people either fell out of love with it, and so it's been a long, long time since any of us have had opportunity to try it. I actually don't think I'd ever eaten it before I had some in Plimoth!

It's a relative of hasty pudding, a cooked concoction of milk and grains that originally came from England. Upon arriving in the New World, English colonists swapped out the flour for cornmeal because it was more abundant. It gets its name from the type of grain used: Indian corn. "Corn" was originally a term that could mean any kind of grain, so to differentiate the colorful grain the Native People cultivated from other kinds of "corn", it was called Indian corn. When available, the colonists would sweeten it with things like molasses and maple syrup, and season it with spices like cinnamon and nutmeg.

This was a very popular dish in the colonial era. John Adams was a big fan, as he mentions that one of the things he liked best about going to Harvard was the food, and they apparently had Indian pudding for dessert almost every night. As an old man, it also made frequent appearances on his dinner table. Although it's not as common to see on menus or family dinner tables these days thanks to smooth puddings produced by Jell-O and other companies, it still shows up from time to time at Thanksgiving, or in restaurants that market a more classic New England cuisine.

I'm not sure if we still have the recipe my grandma originally used, but the Plimoth Grist Mill has print outs featuring their favorite recipe, and that's what we're going to be making today. It's not especially difficult to make, but it definitely takes a long time to cook, so it's not exactly something you can throw together on super short notice.

You take one cup of cornmeal, 1/2 cup of sugar, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and one teaspoon each of ground cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. This gets sifted together in a bowl and left aside while you cook your wet ingredients.

Four cups of milk, 2/3's of a cup of molasses and three tablespoons of butter get mixed together and heated on your stovetop over medium heat in a large saucepan. This takes a while, and you definitely need to stir it a bit to make sure the molasses is combined. Once it gets to the point where it's almost boiling, you add in your dry ingredients and stir, stir, stir until there are no lumps and the pudding is thick enough to hold its shape when you stir it. Talk about an upper body work out!

Once it's thick and not lumpy, it gets poured into a well buttered baking dish.

And then you dump two cups of milk on top, and put it in a 300 degree oven for an hour.

Looks a little weird, right?

Never fear, once it's been in the stove for an hour, you mix in the milk until everything's well combined, and then put it back in the oven to cook for another two hours.

What finally comes out of the oven still looks a little weird, but I promise, it's actually really good!

Indian pudding can be eaten hot or cold, and there will probably be a little liquid on top of it, but it basically just looks like a thick, slightly jiggly pudding. Letting it sit will make it thicker, and apparently people historically have fried hardened slabs of it for breakfast the next day! I'm not sure we're going to try that, but it reminded me of the Nian Gao we made for Chinese New Year a while ago.

 We set ours aside for a couple hours while we finished up the rest of our cooking and organizing for company, which meant it was room temperature by the time we ate it.

You can serve it plain, or with cream, whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. I threw together some whipped cream with a little bit of powdered sugar to sweeten it.

Now, I know it looks pretty homely. I know I've had bad luck with colonial puddings in the past (remember the pumpkin pudding, anyone?), and I know sometimes historical food can be a hard sell for people. I was even a little nervous about it, or at least not getting my hopes up about loving it.

But this was really tasty, and you should definitely at least give it a try!

It's thick, somewhere in between chewy and smooth, and really nicely paired with the whipped cream. That was a huge problem with had with the pumpkin pudding, where the texture of the pudding was just so weird that it didn't match well with anything, and it's totally not an issue here. This recipe also gets the balance of spices and flavor from the molasses perfectly right - they're all there, but they're not overpowering, and you still get tasty cornmeal flavor, too. It's definitely a hearty dish, and you don't need a lot to feel satisfied, which is definitely a benefit to a dessert. I definitely would recommend making this with finely ground cornmeal, though. Anything rougher might create a really unpleasant texture, or make the pudding too chewy.

I wasn't expecting people to flock to it, but apparently between my marketing and natural curiosity, most of my family tried it out, and all of them really enjoyed it! I've even had requests to make this a new tradition, which was very flattering, and definitely something I'm considering! Like I said before, it wasn't that hard to make, even if it took a long time to finish cooking, and I really enjoyed it. I actually passed up most of the other desserts we had out so I could have seconds of this!

So, not only did I get a really nice trip to Plimoth with my mom, but I think we also got a new holiday treat. I'm always excited when a historical recipe turns out to be super delicious, and when people are pleasantly surprised by what I've made. Rediscovering historic recipes is one of my favorite parts of running this blog, and for something I was a little worried might be more strange than enjoyable, I'm excited to announce this is a recipe that might deserve to get dusted off and reintroduced to our kitchens.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!


  1. I made a variation of this dish that calls for lining the baking dish with sliced apples. As I badly misread how much cornmeal to put in the pudding, I can't give an accurate description of how tasty the pudding should be.

    1. Oh no! That's always the worst. If you're ever in the mood to try it again, I think this one might be really good with some apples baked in as well.

  2. I made a variation of this dish that calls for lining the baking dish with sliced apples. As I badly misread how much cornmeal to put in the pudding, I can't give an accurate description of how tasty the pudding should be.