Tucked into a towering 19th-century sideboard in the kitchen of our country house are several shelves of cookery books, overflow from the adjacent pantry. I presumed this hoard encompassed all the books we possessed in that genre, but to my surprise, my husband carried in another armload of old volumes of recipes from the storage shed over the weekend. He’s preparing for winter (Matthew is very much an in-advance kind of fellow), so he informed me the books had to go to make way for more pressing storage demands. Which meant I had to find a new home for these unexpected treasures, among which is an 1871 edition of Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt-Book, Designed as a Supplement to Her Treatise on Domestic Economy (NY: Harper & Brothers).
Just who was Miss Beecher? From what I’ve read, Catharine Beecher (1800-1878) was a 19th-century firecracker: educator; cookery expert; household know-it-all; promoter of kindergarten as a foundation for a child’s education; founder of The Ladies’ Society for Promoting Education in the West and the American Women’s Educational Association; and cofounder of the Board of National Popular Education. She was keenly interested in women’s health issues and was a firm believer in calisthenics set to musical accompaniment, which makes her sound like Jane Fonda in a hoopskirt. In sort, she made an enormous impact on American society in her day, though, admittedly, her sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was the bigger star in the family.
The Beecher book in my possession, actually a compilation of two earlier books, is a guide to living well, eating well, and prospering on the home front. Between its worn covers is a staggering range of domestic topics, including everything from a standardized weekly schedule for one’s chambermaid to directions for building a “sick couch” for an invalid to detailed hog-butchering instructions. The vast majority of the volume, however, is given over to “short, simple, and perspicuous” recipes for meals composed of what Miss Beecher described as “simple and well-cooked dishes, designed for every-day comfort and enjoyment.”
The “simple and well-cooked” dessert we tried out on Sunday is Cocoanut [sic] Pudding. Unfortunately, in the manner of so many old cookery books, Miss Beecher’s directions are vague. In situations like this, I simply turn to the nearest modern cookery book, see what temperature is advised for the recipe at hand, and use it or adapt it to the older one. Usually this works, as it did Sunday night, though I did overcook the pudding a bit; our Chambers gas stove is several decades old and a trifle temperamental.
The pudding produced is an interesting hybrid—it’s nothing special but my husband pronounced it one of the most delicious desserts he had ever tasted. The ingredients separate during the baking process, leaving a tender flan-like custard below and a layer of crisply baked coconut above; the latter offers a textural crunch that reminds one of a coconut macaroon. As for the gill of rosewater included in Miss Beecher’s ingredients list—that’s a 1/4 pint to you and me—it contributed no flavor or scent that either my husband or I could detect. Perhaps our allergies prevented us from fully appreciating it; we’ve a new kitten in the house. His name is Isaac, in case you are wondering.
SOURCE: Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt-Book, Designed as a Supplement to Her Treatise on Domestic Economy (NY: Harper & Brothers).
SERVES: 8 to 10, depending on serving size
Standard soufflé dish
Ovenproof pan large enough to hold the soufflé dish
1 and 1/2 cups grated coconut
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
Two cups granulated sugar (we used castor sugar, to add a vanilla-like undertone)
1/2 pint whole cream
Nine eggs (we used what was gathered from the hen house that morning, meaning 7 chicken eggs and 2 turkey eggs)
1/4 pint rose water (we used William Brewer’s Culinary Rose Water from Todd’s General Store at The Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, New York)
DIRECTIONS (Adapted by The Aesthete Cooks)
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. Cream the butter and sugar.
3. Beat the eggs thoroughly, then whisk or stir into the butter/sugar mixture.
4. Add the coconut and mix thoroughly, and stir in the rosewater.
5. Pour batter into an ungreased standard soufflé dish. Place soufflé dish in a baking pan and pour boiling water into the pan, around the soufflé dish, until the pan is 3/4 full. Carefully place water-filled pan on center rack of oven.
6. Bake for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the coconut crust has turned a pale caramel color. (Ours baked a trifle darker than we planned, as you can see above, which didn’t cause a problem.)