On this President’s Day weekend, I must mention my husband’s presidential party trick. Because he’s spent the last 25 years studying American political institutions, he can pull little-known tidbits about U.S. presidents out of his hat at a moment’s notice. Facts like how Rutherford B. Hayes banned alcohol from the White House (though only because the first lady asked him to). Or musings about the Baby Ruth candy bar being named after Grover Cleveland’s daughter Ruth, possibly an honor the candy maker bestowed on her to avoid paying Babe Ruth any endorsement money. Or, one of my favorites, that Gerald Ford worked as a model for Cosmopolitan magazine before being elected to public office.

It’s impressive, indeed. But when I quizzed my husband about George Washington’s favorite dessert, his hat came up empty.

A video posted by historians who work at Mount Vernon, Washington’s Virginia estate-turned-museum, reveals the dessert favored by his wife, Martha, for special occasions. It was called (I’m not making this up) Orange Fool. Fools, in a culinary sense, are cooled and sometimes whipped custards comprising stewed fruit (or juice as is the case for Orange Fool), cream, eggs and sugar. Mrs. Washington liked the recipe published in the 18th-century bestseller “The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy” by English cookery writer Hannah Glasse. Martha may have made this recipe in small batches for her family, but she likely didn’t make it in large quantities for official dinners as she had enslaved cooks in the Mount Vernon kitchen to do the heavy lifting.

The jury is still out as to whether Orange Fool was the first U.S. president’s favorite dessert, as competing reports tie him to ice cream, fruitcake and anything made with paw paws.

What is known, though, was the common practice throughout the 1800s to name desserts after presidents. Some of those include (John) Tyler Pudding, a baked custard; (Andrew) Jackson Jumbles, a type of butter cookie; (James) Madison Cake (a brandied fruitcake); and Washington Pie.

I found it interesting that President Washington’s pie’s primary ingredient is cake because Mr. Rudalevige coincidentally favors a pie that is also, in fact, a cake. Like many couples who’ve been together a length of time, we spar over the same points of contention several times a year, year after year. One of ours goes something like this:

Advertisement

“Boston Cream Pie is a cake,” say I.

“But why, then, is it called a ‘pie’?” says he.

“It’s layers of creamed butter cake, separated by a custard filling, topped with frosting. It’s a cake,” say I.

“And yet, you still call it a ‘pie’,” says he.

Food Historian Patricia Bixler Reber, an expert in American foodways, on her blog, “Researching Food History” posted an 1898 article from the Washington Star newspaper, explaining the evolution of Washington Pie.

“Washington Pie, properly made, consists, in the way of works, of odds and ends of broken cakes that pile up in bakeshops … When bakers found themselves with an overstock of broken cakes on hand, they generally went into Washington Pie.

Advertisement

“The first process was to dampen them (the cake pieces) with water and milk or cream.  Some raisins were thrown in and some spices. There was a pie crust put under and over it, and the result was Washington Pie … It was always baked in square pans about two and a half feet wide and long and was always cut up into squares when sold. When it was fresh and hot it was decidedly good eating.”

Washington Pie fell into disrepute during the Civil War, explains Reber, when certain bakers, in their efforts to produce great quantities of it under wartime rationing conditions, were not just adding cake pieces to the pie. Some bakers got to making it out of stale bread, and from there it fell out of favor.

But not all puddings – either sweet or savory – made from stale bread need be unfavorable. In fact, bread pudding is a delicious food waste reduction tool that sustainably minded cooks should all have in their arsenal. Just about everyone, at some point, has stale bread on hand. It’s far better to throw it into a sweet or savory bread pudding than to toss it out with the trash.

The formula is simple. For every cup of stale bread cubes, add 1/2 cup whole milk, half and half or cream and 1 beaten egg. Low-fat and skim milk are not ideal here, as you need butterfat to get the custard to set properly and not curdle.

Toss in a generous 1/2 cup of your preferred sweet (maple-walnut, cinnamon raisin, chocolate and raspberry, bananas and rum) or savory (ham and cheese; sausage and peppers; roasted red pepper and feta; shredded chicken, blue cheese and hot sauce) elements. Transfer the mixture to a well-buttered pan and bake it in a 350-degree oven until the edges are firm, the top is nicely browned, and the center is still a bit jiggly. Serve the pudding warm out of the oven, or cool and refrigerate it to be sliced and warmed up for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer, tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport Press based on these columns. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

Advertisement

Rudalevige adds walnuts to the mix of cubed stale bread, half & half, eggs, maple syrup and granulated maple sugar. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Maple-Walnut Bread Pudding

This flavor combination is one of my husband’s favorites. It’s good for both breakfast and dessert.

Serve 6-9, depending on the appetite of your eaters

1 cup walnuts, chopped
4 cups cubed slightly stale bread
4 large eggs
2 cups half & half
1/2 cup maple syrup, plus more for serving
1/4 cup granulated maple sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla paste
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
Vanilla ice cream, for serving

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and grease a 9-by-9-inch baking dish.

Place the walnuts in a single layer on a sheet pan and bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until golden brown and fragrant. Remove the toasted nuts from the oven.

Place the bread cubes in a large bowl. In a large measuring cup, combine the eggs, half & half, maple syrup, maple sugar, vanilla paste, nutmeg and salt. Pour the egg mixture over the bread cubes and stir thoroughly. Let the mixture sit for 15 minutes to allow the bread to absorb the liquid. Stir in the toasted nuts.

Transfer the pudding to the prepared casserole and bake for 33 to 35 minutes, until the center is firm when you press on it.

Remove from the oven and serve warm with vanilla ice cream and additional maple syrup.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: