Dessert Recipes from Historic Sites' Cookbooks

Serving up history: Archives from local historic sites reveal a treasure trove of recipes



historic desserts
Arranged clockwise from left: Marlboro Pudding, Cocoanut Cake, and Small Seed Cakes
Photograph by Ken Gabrielsen

Rummaging around dusty old archives may not sound like a lot of fun, but it sure is a great way to discover many interesting tidbits about the history of the Hudson Valley. The documents in these archives, some of which date back to the 1600s, are also a great source for fine — and often forgotten — recipes from the past. For many years, I’ve traveled to different archives all around the region, donned white cotton gloves (this practice is now being rethought; they are coming to the conclusion that gloves do more harm than good, but that’s a story for another time), and dug into these fascinating old documents. Then I go home and try out these recipes; most of them are quite simple and surprisingly tasty. Why not try one? You’ll not only get a divine dessert, but you’ll pay tribute to some Hudson Valley heritage, too. 

One of my favorite old finds is a book with meticulous butler’s notes at the archives at the Lyndhurst mansion in Tarrytown. It dates to the mid-20th century when Ana Gould — who had married Helie de Talleyrand-Perigord, a Frenchman with titles of prince and duke — owned the building and grounds. The butler records every meal served to the duchess, her guests, and the staff, as well as to her Pekinese (the dogs were fed a varied diet of chicken, liver, and beef). The notes mention a delicious drink served at the mansion called Roman Punch. It was used as a palate-cleanser between courses; my adaptation is easy to make. Mix in a blender: one pint of lemon or lime sorbet, and one half cup each of orange juice, rum, and seltzer. Serve immediately or keep in the freezer until you are ready. Makes five drinks. 

marlboro pudding

Marlboro Pudding (Recipe)

Adapted from the 1805 cookbook of Elizabeth Ann Breese, mother of Samuel Finley Breese Morse, from the Locust Grove estate in Poughkeepsie
cocoanut cake

Cocoanut Cake (Recipe)

Adapted from the 1852 cookbook of M.A. Hasbrouck from Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz
small seed cakes

Small Seed Cakes (Recipe)

Adapted from the 18th-century cookbook of Anna de Peyster from the Rockefeller/Van Cortlandt archives in Sleepy Hollow

The scrapbooks/handwritten cookbooks at Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz are full of poems, newspaper clippings, notes, and — of course — recipes. Among the cookbooks is a recipe called “Cocoanut Cake,” marked M.A. Hasbrouck and dated September 4, 1852. The Hasbrouck family were some of the original Huguenot settlers, first coming to the region in 1674. I can assure you that this cake is dense and delicious and worth a try. 

Wonderful recipes can also be found in the Rockefeller archives in Sleepy Hollow, which has more than 10 cookbooks, mostly belonging to the Van Cortlandt family. I have often served Anna de Peyster’s “small seed cakes,” which she says should be dropped “in lumps as big as nutmegs.” (Anna was a member of one Albany’s prominent 18th-century families.) Most people think of caraway as a seasoning for savory dishes, but here it is used to great advantage in a sweet cookie batter. Since they are drop cookies, they are quick and easy to make.

The documents in the New York State Archives in Albany go back to the earliest days of the Valley’s settlement. While local food from local farms is the new rallying cry today, that was the only way to live back then. A kitchen garden was created as soon as a house was built, according to Adriaen van der Donck’s book A Description of New Netherland of 1655. The author also tells what European vegetables and fruits “thrived” in the Valley by the mid-17th century, because Dutch settlers had brought with them seeds for lettuces, cabbages, parsnips, carrots, and beets; herbs like parsley, rosemary, chives, and tarragon, as well as apple, pear, and peach trees.  

Of course, the settlers also brought their customs with them. An account book belonging to baker Wouter Albertsz Vanden Uythoff, among the Rensselaer Manor Papers held in the archives, shows in an entry of 1676 that Maria Van Rensselaer bought Sinterklaesgoet, or Saint Nicholas goodies. The entry is important: it is one of the earliest mentions of how this early-December Dutch celebration for children (which is still celebrated in Rhinebeck each year) was brought to the new land.  

marlborough pudding recipeClassic cuisine: Elizabeth Anne Breese’s handwritten recipes from 1805, including the easy-to-make “Marlborough Pudding”
Photograph courtesy of the Locust Grove Estate

Dutch funeral customs were brought here as well. In a handwritten cookbook in the archives of Albany’s Historic Cherry Hill, you can find a recipe for Doot coekjes (funeral biscuits), followed by one for hot wine with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and sugar. On the same day that I first read this recipe, I also found a description of a funeral in the diary of Harriet Bowers Mumford Paige at the Schenectady Historical Society’s library. She wrote: “It was the custom then at funerals to have cakes [cookies] and spiced wine and cold wines and pipes and tobacco.” She goes on to mention that those cookies were as large as a saucer, which makes sense when we look at the recipe, which calls for 50 pounds of flour and 20 pounds of sugar for 300 cookies! These funeral biscuits are rather plain, but are greatly improved when dunked in the hot mulled wine, as was the custom.

Let’s end this dip into historical recipes with our favorite Hudson Valley fruit: the apple. In the archives of the Locust Grove Historic Site, there is a recipe for an apple-custard pie called Marlboro Pudding (in the table above). The recipe is contained in an 1805 cookbook that belonged to Elizabeth Anne Breese, mother of Samuel Finley Breese Morse (yes, of telegraph fame). The filling of homemade applesauce, slightly sweet wine, butter, eggs, and a little cream is simply stirred together, poured into a pie crust, and baked.

Peter G. Rose is the author of eight books. She has written extensively about the Dutch in America and the influence of the Dutch on the American kitchen. Visit her Web site at www.peterrose.com.

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