To Make An Orange Pudding
Last year, sometime during the fall semester, I was reading a book about the colonial American Southeast and came across a brief reference to an illicit orange trade between Spanish Florida and some of the North American British colonies. The reference was an aside, but it piqued my interest and I followed the citation.
The endnote led me to a chapter in an anthology about American borderlands. The mention of the orange trade there was also brief, and cited another older book as the reference. At this point, I was ready to follow the rabbit hole so I found that old book, out of print, and read it looking for the reference to the orange trade. This book does contain the reference to the original source on which this whole thing is based, but, alas, it is not digitized and it is archived in Spain.
I really could not get that orange thing out of my head, then one day earlier this year I was doing some online research for my dissertation prospectus and I came across a manuscript cookbook by a mid-18th century Philadelphia woman named Elizabeth Coultas. The first recipe in the manuscript was “To Make An Orange Pudding.” 1
I felt like I had somehow won the lottery, or at least the food history lottery. I had so many questions. How did the oranges Elizabeth ate find their way to Philadelphia? Where did the oranges come from? Was this dish a common occurrence or was it reserved for special occasions? In what other ways did Elizabeth and her Anglo-American contemporaries eat oranges? What were the social, cultural, and economic implications of this dish? And so on.
All of those questions require a great deal of research to answer, and led me down the path of what would eventually become my prospectus, but I really wanted to know what this Orange Pudding tasted like, and that was a matter of nearly instant gratification. Experimental history, if you will.
The recipe itself was pretty comprehensive and straightforward. Here it is transcribed from the manuscript, I’ve modernized “the”:
“To make an Orange Pudding.
Take the skins of 3 Chiny Oranges, & put them into Cold water, till they boil soft, Shifting them twice, then take them, and pound them well, then put 1 quarter of a lb of butter, & yolks of 8 Eggs, some spice, a little Rose water, a little brandy, a Gill of Cream, mix it all well together, put into a dish covered with paste, 1/2 an hour bakes it. & add shugar to your taste.”
As you can see in this photo, it is obvious that the person who initially wrote or copied the recipe, presumably Coultas, forgot the sugar, so she added it at the end, then someone else added “to your taste” in a different hand. Having annotations and different hands in manuscript cookbooks is not uncommon as they were often passed around to friends and family members to add to the content, and they were sometimes multi-generational.
Below is the recipe in a modern format although proportions remain the same. I used 6 egg yolks instead of 8 because I used large eggs. Also, you will notice that my pudding did not bake in half an hour, and neither will yours. This is the result of the difference between 18th century and 21st century ovens.
Elizabeth Coultas’ Orange Pudding
1 cup all purpose/plain flour
1/2 tsp salt
6 tbsp cold unsalted butter
4 tbsp ice-cold water
Mix the flour, salt, and butter in a bowl. With a pastry blender or a fork, cut the butter into the flour until the mixture forms large crumbs, about the size of a pea. Slowly, add the water, tablespoon by tablespoon, mixing with the fork, until the dough comes together and is moist.
If using a food processor, add the flour, salt, and butter to the bowl. Pulse until the mixture forms coarse crumbs. While pulsing, add the the water, tablespoon by tablespoon, until the dough comes together.
In both instances, be mindful of not making the dough too wet, and you many not need all the water, or may need more, depending on your climate.
Remove the dough from the bowl. Form into a ball, then flatten it into a disc. Cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate for about an hour, or until the dough is firm enough to roll.
On a floured surface, roll the dough into a disk slightly larger than an 8 inch pie dish. Transfer the dough to the dish and set aside in the refrigerator.
1/4 pound (one stick) unsalted butter
6 large egg yolks
3 tbsp brandy
1/4 cup (4 fl oz) heavy cream
3/4 cups granulated sugar
1/2 tsp rose water
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp ground cloves
Quarter the oranges from top to bottom (pole to pole) and separate the pith and rind from the segments that contain the juice; the juicy part of the orange will not be used for this recipe. Place the pith and rind in a medium saucepan and fill it halfway with water. Bring to a boil, and boil for 15 minutes. Discard the water, add more cool water, and repeat the boiling process two more times. The pith and rind will have boiled in three clean waters for a total of 45 minutes and will be almost translucent. This processes extracts the excess bitterness from the oranges.
Discard the orange water. Place the orange pieces in a blender along with the remaining ingredients. Blend until the mixture is fully combined and the oranges fully disintegrated. The mixture will resemble very thick custard.
Preheat the oven to 350ºF.
Pour the orange batter into the prepared pie dish. Place in the preheated oven and bake until the mixture is set and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Approximately 1 hour.
Remove from the oven and cool before serving.
This pudding, or pie, is decidedly orange-y, and your house will smell delicious while you bake it; people who are not especially fond of oranges will find it overpowering. I thought it had the right balance of sweet, tart, and bitter. And that is coming from someone who does not like bitter-tasting foods.
I grew up eating a dessert made of grapefruit that consisted of the pith, no peel, being boiled and boiled until translucent and then cooked in a sugar syrup so the idea of treating oranges in this manner was not entirely foreign to me. I do understand how it might seem odd to others, but trust me, it works. I highly doubt Elizabeth or her cook would have thrown the rest of the orange away so I do wonder what they did with it. There are no other orange recipes in the book as far s I can see, so maybe they ate it raw rather than cooked it? Maybe this dish was driven by the need or desire to use every bit of the orange, and thus a byproduct of eating orange segments rather than the other way around. I believe this is the case.
Sometimes historical recipes raise more questions than they answer, and this one is a prime example of that. Some questions I may never be able to answer, but at least now I know what Elizabeth Coultas’ Orange Pudding tasted like, and this is one of the few ways, if not the only way, in which we can experience history with our own senses.
1. The book is archived at The Winterthur Library, in the Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera. The call number is Doc. 1044, and it is also available online at library’s website.