Cornbread with Colonial Roots

There must be as many recipes for cornbread as there are cooks who have made it. The common ingredient is corn meal, but the shortening, the sweetener, and the type of corn meal itself varies from region to region, and kitchen to kitchen.

I found this recipe from Berkeley Mills in a pamphlet in my grandmother’s files. The mill’s owner, Hugh T. Harrison, seems to be connected Berkeley Plantation, where a signer of the Declaration of Independence and former Virginia governor lived. U.S. President William Henry Harrison was born there. Berkeley still operates as an historic site, telling the story of a Thanksgiving celebration in 1619 and the Union occupation during the Civil War. Before the war, the Harrisons owned enslaved people. The grounds of the home looked authentic enough to become the setting for the movie “Harriet” about the life of Harriet Tubman.

The pamphlet, likely published in the 1930s, sounds like an early advertisement for heirloom ingredients, telling people how to use the “water-ground meal from selected Virginia-grown corn.” There are two versions of “Batter Bread.” Because I like a strong flavor of corn meal, I chose the one without flour or sugar. The eggs and baking powder gave this bread a cake-like texture, making it good as a side dish or a snack. Below is the slightly adapted version. The company is long gone but it’s nice to taste this Virginia recipe with colonial connection.

Old Virginia Batter Bread No. 1

Makes 16 squares

1 cup corn meal

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 cup milk

1 cup water

2 teaspoons lard or butter, melted

2 eggs


In a bowl, sift together the meal, salt, and baking powder.

In a pan, bring to a boil the milk and water.

Pour the milk mixture onto the meal and add the lard or butter. Mix well and stir in the eggs.

Pour into a greased baking dish or pan (I used an 8-inch square pan). Bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean and the top is golden brown. Cool slightly before cutting into squares for serving.

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A Sunny Dessert for Dreary Days

By this time of the year, I need something sunny-looking on my table because there’s no escaping the snow and day after day of below-freezing temperatures. Enter apricot pudding, a recipe I adapted from The New Thought in Cooking by Sara Treat, a booklet published by American Maize-Products Co. There is no publication date, but the company likely printed it in the 1930s to entice consumers to buy its corn oil, syrup, corn starch, and other corn-based products. The company even sponsored radio programs with Don Amaizo, a character it created who was really violinist Max Dolin, the first music director at the NBC Pacific Coast Network in San Francisco.

I adapted this recipe from the book’s spiced prune pudding, which looked easy to make, but didn’t give me the color I wanted. I pulled dried apricots from my pantry and went from there. The result needed a bit of pureeing to eliminate the chunks. To make it healthier, I omitted the whipped cream garnish and used blueberries instead for a smooth, bright dairy and gluten free antidote to winter.

Spiced Apricot Pudding (1930s)

1/2 pound dried apricots, cut into about 1/4 inch pieces

3 cups cold water

1 stick cinnamon

1 cup sugar [or less, to taste – I used about 3/4 cup]

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup corn starch

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Whipped cream, for garnish [optional]

  1. Place the apricots in a pot and soak in cold water for 1/2 to 1 hour.
  2. Add the cinnamon stick and simmer until soft, about 20 minutes.
  3. Pour off the cooking liquid and add boiling water to make a total of 3 cups. Add the liquid back to the pot with the apricots along with the sugar and salt. Simmer five minutes.
  4. In a separate bowl, mix the corn starch with enough cold water to make a smooth paste and slowly stir into the apricot mixture. Cook, stirring constantly, until it thickens, about 5 minutes.
  5. Simmer 15 minutes longer, stirring occasionally.
  6. Remove from the heat, and stir in the lemon juice.
  7. Let cool slightly, then puree to eliminate large chunks of fruit. Pour into a mold or individual serving glasses. Chill thoroughly.
  8. Serve with whipped cream.

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Gingerbread Fit for a President

Crowd outside the White House at Andrew Jackson’s inaugural reception, 1829, by artist Robert Cruikshank, Source: Library of Congress

Inaugural ceremonies of the past week inspired me to read more about the inauguration of George Washington, America’s first President, in 1789. It took place at Federal Hall in New York City, as the U.S. Capitol and the White House had yet to be built. Instead of hosting an elaborate inaugural luncheon, Washington simply ate by himself because his wife, Martha, had not yet arrived in New York.

Since then, presidents have celebrated with intimate gatherings to elaborate receptions. Representing the extremes, Andrew Jackson in 1829 received a crowd at the White House for ice cream, cakes, and lemonade that swelled to an unruly 20,000 and had to be lured outside with tubs of spiked punch. Jimmy Carter in 1977 served peanuts and pretzels. President Joe Biden cancelled this year’s traditional luncheon at the Capitol because of the pandemic.

To make something suitable for this historic week, I went to the website of Mount Vernon, the historic home of George Washington, now a museum. This recipe from George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, was adapted by culinary historian Nancy Carter Crump and posted on the site. It was named after Marquis de Lafayette, a French general who helped the U.S. win the Revolutionary War.

Since this recipe does not call for baking powder or baking soda (not yet in use in the 18th century), the gingerbread has a heavy texture but the orange juice and zest liven up up its flavor. I’m starting the next four years with a nod to history.

Mary Ball Washington’s “Lafayette” Gingerbread (1783)

Makes 16 squares of gingerbread

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar

1 cup molasses

Scant 2 3/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

2 large eggs, plus 2 large egg whites, lightly beaten

1/4 cup fresh orange juice

1 tablespoon freshly grated orange zest

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 9-inch-square cake pan.
  2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, or in a large bowl beating by hand, combine the butter and brown sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Add the molasses, and continue to beat until well combined.
  3. Sift the flour with the ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and allspice.
  4. Alternately add the eggs and flour to the butter mixture, beating very well after each addition.
  5. Add the orange juice and zest, and continue beating for several minutes until the batter is smooth and light.
  6. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 35 to 45 minutes, or until a wooden skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. Set the cake on a rack to cool completely in the pan before slicing.
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Holiday Cake without Candied Fruit

Forget the glazed green cherries and other icky candied fruit. This cake relies on raisins and pecans – nothing artificial in either one. And you’ll likely have these ingredients, plus brown sugar, flour, and spices, in your pantry. You don’t have mask up and go to the store if you want to make a last-minute batch of something festive in a season that feels anything but.

This recipe is slightly adapted from the Food Editors’ Favorites Cookbook, edited by Barbara Gibbs Ostmann and Jane Baker (Newspaper Food Editors and Writers Association, Inc, 1983), a collection by professionals who once set the standards for newspaper readers across America. Ostmann, who edited the food pages of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, contributed this 1979 favorite. The well-spiced, not too dense cake will never double as a doorstop!

Holiday Raisin Cake (1979)

 1 pound raisins
 2 cups hot water
 1 cup cold water
 1/2 cup margarine or butter
 2 cups dark brown sugar
 1 egg, beaten
 1 teaspoon each ground cloves, allspice, and nutmeg
 2 teaspoons baking soda
 2 teaspoons hot water
 4 cups all-purpose flour
 1 cup pecans, whole or chopped 
1. Simmer the raisins in the 2 cups of hot water in a large (5 quart) Dutch oven or saucepan for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and add cold water.
2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
3. Stir in the margarine or butter, sugar, egg, cloves, allspice and nutmeg. Dissolve the baking soda in the 2 teaspoons of hot water and stir into the raisin mixture along with the flour. Mix well. Fold in the nuts.
4. Pour the mixture into a well-greased, 10-inch angel food cake or fluted tube pan. Bake 1 hour or until done.
5. Eat plain or sprinkle with confectioners' sugar.
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Recreating a Tearoom Treat

Through the mid to late 20th century, department store tearooms gave shoppers a place to relax and regroup. Originally a clever marketing ploy to keep customers in the store, the tearooms became a beloved part of the community. Many were known for their regional specialties. That’s the case with Miller & Rhoads, one of the department stores that I frequented as a child growing up in Richmond, Virginia. My cousin and I saved our money from allowance and babysitting, then took the Westhampton 16 bus downtown. When we tired of sampling cosmetics and choosing outfits for each other to try on (some aspirational, some ugly), we stopped for lunch. Our tastes ran more towards burgers and fries than Missouri club sandwiches or turkey pot pie. We usually skipped dessert, saving our money for candy that we could savor after we returned home.

When I saw a pamphlet of Miller & Rhoads recipes from 1957-1985 (“Remembering the Miller & Rhoads Tearoom,” produced by the Virginia Egg Council, 2012), I became nostalgic. I don’t remember these “absolutely addictive” Date Ball cookies, but they suited my current craving for a bite-sized treat. The basic combination of Rice Krispies in a sticky base reminded me summer camp, when we made vats of Rice Krispies treats with melted marshmallows. Yet the other flavors – browned butter, pecans, and dates – now match my grown-up palate. Miller & Rhoads sold the cookies for holiday gift-giving. But why wait? These no-bake treats are going onto my (small and safe) Thanksgiving table. I cut the recipe in half; my adaptation is below.

Miller & Rhoads Tearoom. Source: Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries

Miller & Rhoads Date Balls

Makes approximately 24 1-inch balls

1 stick butter

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 pound chopped dates

1 egg

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1 tablespoon milk

2 cups Rice Krispies cereal*

1/2 cup chopped pecans

Approximately 1/2 cup coconut

  1. In a heavy saucepan, melt the butter. Add the sugar and dates. Bring to a boil, stirring. Boil 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly (approximately 5 minutes).
  2. In a bowl, beat the egg, vanilla and milk. Add to the date mixture. Cook on high another 2 minutes, stirring.
  3. Remove from the heat and add the cereal and pecans. *Note: I added about 1/4 cup of cereal because the mixture seemed too sticky.
  4. When cool enough to handle, use your hands to form into 1-inch balls. [If you pick up a handful of batter and hold it for a minute or so, it hardens slightly and becomes easier to shape]. Roll each one in coconut and let cool completely. These freeze well.

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Cucumber Soup: A Summer Soother

As our garden yields a profusion of cucumbers, slices in salads quickly become monotonous. I’ve tried cutting spears for vegetable dips, tossing cubes into smoothies, and making batches of blender gazpacho. Too bad I don’t like pickles! Americans have grown cucumbers in their gardens since the 17th century English colonies. Only in the 19th century did people begin stewing cucumbers, as cooked vegetables were supposedly easier to digest. Chilled cucumber soup combines the best of both ideas – cooking and coolness. This recipe comes from Donna Segal of the Indianapolis Star in Food Editors’ Favorites Cookbook (Hammond, 1983). Its pale green color and velvety texture stands up well to any kind of herb garnish.

Chilled Cucumber Soup (1980s)

Serves 4-6

  • 2 tablespoons butter or margarine
  • 1/2 cup chopped green onion, including some tops
  • 2 cups diced, seeded cucumber (approximately 1 large cucumber)
  • 1 cup watercress or leaf spinach, chopped
  • 1/2 cup peeled and diced potatoes (approximately 1 medium potato)
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon white pepper
  • 1 cup light or heavy cream [I omitted this as the soup seemed thin enough]
  • Thinly sliced radishes for garnish
  1. Melt the butter in a sauce pan. Add the green onions and cook over moderate heat for 5 minutes, being sure not to brown the butter or onions. Add the cucumber, watercress, potato, broth, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 15 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender. Cool slightly.
  2. Puree in a blender, adding 1 1/2 cups of mixture at a time [I used an immersion blender]. Put in a large bowl and stir in the cream. Cover and chill thoroughly for several hours or overnight.
  3. When ready to serve, float several thin radish slices atop each serving.
  4. Note: Other garnishes might be a sprinkle of paprika or curry powder, chopped chives, or a cucumber slice. [I used dill].
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Graduation Fare: Harvard Squares

How do you celebrate a Harvard graduation when coronavirus cancels the traditional ceremony? Turn on the livestream and bake a batch of Harvard Squares. I found this recipe, named for the crimson and white colors of the school, in The Eastern Junior League Cookbook (Ballantine, 1982). Cellist Yo Yo Ma entertained me while I mixed the ingredients. Later, I brought them to the campus, where my daughter and a small group of her fellow graduates held a gathering to celebrate. These taste a bit like Linzer torte and are so rich you may want to cut them into smaller squares. The perfect accompaniment? Champagne!

Harvard Squares (Makes 16 squares)

1 cup (2 sticks) butter

1 cup sugar

2 eggs, well beaten

2 cups sifted flour

1 cup chopped walnuts [I used pecans]

3/4 cup raspberry preserves

Confectioners’ sugar

  1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
  2. Cream the butter and sugar. Beat in eggs.
  3. Add the flour and walnuts. Stir well.
  4. Grease an 8×8 inch pan and spread half the dough in it. This is best done by scattering half the mixture over the bottom and patting it down. [You may want to lightly flour your hand so it doesn’t stick to the dough]. Spread preserves over this to within 1/2 inch of the edge. Cover with the remaining dough. [I scattered it in clumps and didn’t press it down].
  5. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the top is golden brown and the filling is bubbly.
  6. Let cool. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar while still in the pan [I omitted this step and didn’t regret it]. Cut into 2-inch squares.
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Southern Comfort: Cheese Biscuits

Growing up in Virginia, I ate my share of biscuits, but never took seconds unless they contained cheese. My New England friends can’t quite cotton to a salty, savory combination of cheese, flour, and butter. They expect my homemade version to be similar to the doughy, garlicky Red Lobster Cheddar Bay Biscuits. Introduced in 1992, these biscuits became so popular that the company now makes a mix (just add cheddar, water and butter!) For the 25th anniversary of the biscuits, Red Lobster even introduced a limited-edition, biscuit-flavored lip balm.

Both of my grandmothers passed down their recipes for their cheese biscuits, which are more like wafers than the fluffy biscuits you split in half and serve with butter. In need of comfort right now (aren’t we all), I made a batch from ingredients that I had on hand. They go well with beef stew – if you don’t eat them all first.

Grandma Bertie’s Cheese Biscuits (1920s)

Makes about 16 biscuits

8 ounces shredded cheddar cheese

1/4 pound (4 ounces or 1/2 cup) butter, softened

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups flour

Cayenne pepper, to taste (optional)

  1. Mix cheese, butter, salt, and cayenne pepper well.
  2. Add the flour and stir until well combined.
  3. Shape the batter into a roll approximately 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Wrap in foil or plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator at least one hour or overnight.
  4. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Slice the dough into thin wafers. Place a pecan half on top of each one.
  5. Bake for 15 minutes or until the cheese browns and the biscuits are crisp.
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Traditional Cookies with a Peppery Kick

Though more than 150 years have passed since my mother’s ancestors came to the U.S. from Germany, traditional recipes continue to migrate down through the generations. We are Jewish and light the Hanukkah menorah, but I also grew up making traditional German holiday sweets, including lebkuchen (a cookie similar to gingerbread) and pfeffernusse (small spice cookies).

I recently pulled a recipe from my mother’s collection and made a batch for a cookie swap. Its name, “Pepper Nuts,” is the translation of the German word pfeffernusse. The name is a bit misleading, as the cookies do not contain nuts but instead resemble the size and shape of nuts. The word pepper is more accurate. This ingredient is part of a long list of spices (I sneezed when adding it), giving the flavor a kick. Though the cookies are traditionally rolled in powdered sugar, I decided to use a chocolate glaze to make them more attractive for the swap. They keep well so I look forward to munching them throughout the holiday season. I also remember my mom, who passed away earlier this year, with every bite.

Family Pepper Nut Cookies (Pfeffernüsse)

Makes about 100 cookies

1 cup (2 sticks) butter
1 cup sugar
1 beaten egg
1 tablespoon molasses
3 1/2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  1. In a mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Add the egg and molasses.
  2. In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, baking soda, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and pepper.
  3. Mix the dry ingredients into the butter mixture. The batter will be very stiff. [I added a few drops of water just so it would cling together]. Form into small balls (about 1/2 inch in diameter) or roll the dough into a tube shape about 1 inch in diameter and cut into 1/4 inch rounds.
  4. Bake for 10-12 minutes until lightly brown. Cool on a cookie sheet. Sprinkle with powdered sugar or melted chocolate.
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For Mother’s Day: Grandma’s Apricot Bars

Though I didn’t spend much time in the kitchen with either of my grandmothers, I enjoy remembering them by making the recipes that they left behind. For Mother’s Day this year, I wanted something sweet and brightly flavored, so I pulled out Apricot Bars from Grandma Bertie. Her typewritten recipe isn’t attributed to anyone, nor does it list a cookbook as its source, so perhaps she developed it herself. Its shortbread base reminds me of lemon bars but its apricot topping adds an unexpected flavor. The fruit is sandwiched between a crunchy, buttery bottom and a golden, egg-and-sugar laced top. This one is a keeper. Happy Mother’s Day to all!

Grandma Bertie’s Apricot Bars (circa 1960)

Makes 16 squares

For the base:

1 cup flour

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

For the filling:

1 cup cooked apricots

1/3 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed

1 teaspoon vanilla

  1. To make the base: Sift the flour and sugar together. Cut in the butter. Pat down quickly into an 8 or 9 inch square pan (ungreased). Bake at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown. Cool.
  2. To make the filling: Wash the apricots well, cut into slivers with scissors, and cook 5 minutes with 3-4 tablespoons water. [Alternately, use dried apricots. Cut into slivers, place in a pot, and add water to cover. Simmer 5-10 minutes until soft.] With either method, set aside to cool before continuing the recipe.
  3. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt.
  4. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs lightly. Add the sugar gradually and beat until thick. Add the vanilla and apricots.
  5. Add the sifted dry ingredients with a wooden spoon, cutting through quickly so that the apricots will be well distributed throughout the batter.
  6. Pour onto the cooled base and bake at 350 degrees for about 35 minutes or until golden brown and set in the center.
  7. When cool, cut into squares. Dust with icing [confectioner’s] sugar, optional.
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