Pilgrims’ progress: Thanksgiving in America's Hometown

DSC_2832

Did you know there are still Pilgrims celebrating Thanksgiving today, nearly four centuries after America’s original Thanksgiving dinner?

Have you ever been to “America’s Hometown” – Plymouth, Massachusetts?

You’ve heard of it, right? Plymouth is supposedly the spot where the Pilgrims disembarked from the Mayflower and established a lasting presence in North America.

Which is true, up to a point; they actually got off the boat in Provincetown, 20 miles across Massachusetts Bay. But finding the tip of Cape Cod rather inhospitable, they continued to a more sheltered shore, and established a settlement that, 392 year later, is now Plymouth – home to Plimoth Plantation, a historic re-creation of that original settlement, where I recently met and chatted with Myles Standish (above), the colony’s military advisor.

I also  enjoyed seeing a custard pie created, right before my eyes – using only the ingredients, tools, and oven available to America’s first European bakers.

After which I went home and made my own custard pie – 21st-century style.

Plimoth Plantation’s colonial foodways culinarian, Kathleen Wall, was kind enough to spend many hours with me chatting about the Pilgrims: what and how they fed themselves, and how the Plantation replicates those efforts for the benefit of visitors today.

This trip back in time to the very origins of our American civilization was both fascinating – and daunting. Watching the “goodwives” build and tend a wood fire while simultaneously mixing and shaping pie crust, grating spices for the filling, and lifting their skirts to avoid scurrying chickens gave new meaning to the term multi-tasking.

Let’s start with the crust. A Pilgrim pie crust (called a “coffin”) was made from coarsely ground wheat, moistened with eggs and water to form a shapeable dough. With butter in short supply, it wasn’t wasted on “the coffin.” A sturdy vehicle, it was simply a holder for the filling within, rather than offering any taste benefits of its own.

As a result, “flaky” and “tender” definitely aren’t words you’d use to describe a Colonial American pie crust.

But they’re definitely terms a 21st century pie-baker aspires to. In fact, most pies today are judged by their crust, rather than what’s inside.

Let’s mirror the Pilgrims’ efforts here, with some big-time updates – namely, all-purpose (white) flour, and an abundance of fat: both butter and shortening.

Did you know that by clicking anywhere on this block of pictures, you can enlarge them to full size? Go ahead, give it a try; it’ll work for any of our photos.

Whisk together the following:

1 1/2 cups (6 1/4 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder, optional; for added flakiness

Add 1/4 cup vegetable shortening and 4 tablespoons cold butter, working the fat in until the mixture is unevenly crumbly, with some larger chunks of butter remaining.

Can you use all butter, instead of butter and shortening? Sure; your crust will lose a bit of flakiness, but will be wonderfully tasty.

Sprinkle 1 teaspoon white or cider vinegar, and 3 tablespoons ice water over the dough while tossing with a fork. Add more water if the dough isn’t coming together. Just as soon as the dough becomes cohesive (i.e., you can squeeze it into a ball easily), stop mixing; there should still be visible pieces of fat in the dough.

Flatten the dough into a disk and wrap it in plastic wrap or waxed paper. Refrigerate for 30 minutes or longer; this resting period allows the flour to absorb the water, making the dough easier to roll out.

Now, you can simply roll the dough into a 13″ circle. But for an extra-flaky crust, try this:

Flour your work surface and roll the dough into a 12″ x 9″ (approximately) oval. If it isn’t holding together well, sprinkle it lightly with a couple of teaspoons of water. Fold the dough into thirds (like a letter), then fold it into thirds the opposite way, to form a rough square. Wrap it well and refrigerate again.

When you’re “ready to roll,” remove the dough from the fridge. Dough made with a combination of butter and shortening should rest for about 5 minutes at room temperature before rolling. Dough made with all butter will need to warm slightly (10 to 15 minutes) before rolling, as butter becomes brittle when it’s refrigerated.

Roll the dough into a 13″ circle. Transfer it to a lightly greased 9″ pie pan; folding it in quarters first helps with transportation, as well as centering the crust in the pan.

Make an upright (rather than flat) crimp around the edge, as pictured above; this will help keep the filling from sloshing out as you move the pie from counter to oven. Set the crust aside while you make the filling.

One thing the Pilgrims did have, in fairly steady supply, was eggs. Chickens roamed the Plantation freely – as they do today – pecking at the houses’ dirt floors for insects and food scraps.

This Pilgrim custard pie filling is very similar to one we’d make today, with one exception: spices.

Eggs and milk play a major role in both old and new custard pies, but the Pilgrims’ pie is enlivened with a wide range of spices; while our modern custard pie has, at most, a conservative sprinkle of nutmeg on top – one spice the Pilgrims DIDN’T use.

Here eggs, milk, sugar, and spices are stirred together with a spoon, prior to being poured into the crust.

Sugar was in very short supply; a cone of dark sugar – to me, it looked considerably smaller than a 5-pound bag – was expected to last a family a year. Pilgrim pies couldn’t rely on a lot of sugar for their sweetness, which is why fruit pies – gooseberry, strawberry, raspberry, and beach plum – were quite popular.

Let’s jump back to 2012, and whisk together what goes into our crust.

First, preheat the oven to 325°F. It won’t take long to make the filling, so you might as well get the oven ready.

Pace the following in a microwave-safe bowl, or saucepan:

1 1/2 cups milk (anything from skim to whole, your choice)
1 cup cream (heavy, whipping, light, or half & half, your choice)
1/4 teaspoon salt

Can you use skim milk, and fat-free half & half? Sure; your pie simply won’t taste as rich.

Heat the mixture until small bubbles form around the edges, and steam starts to wisp from the surface; this is how you “scald” milk, if you’ve ever seen that technique mentioned.

In a separate bowl, whisk together 4 large eggs and 2/3 cup sugar.

Pour 1/4 of the hot milk/cream over the egg mixture, stirring well. Combine the egg mixture and the remaining hot milk/cream, stirring well. Pour the custard through a sieve, to strain out any possible bits of cooked egg.

Stir in 1 tablespoon vanilla extract.

If you use Vanilla Bean Crush, you get the visual benefit of seeds and crushed bean.

Pour the hot filling into the crust. Sprinkle 1/4 teaspoon ground or freshly grated nutmeg evenly over the top.

Our Pilgrim goodwives have to preheat their oven, too. Which means building a wood fire in their stone oven.

This fellow is sawing boards for construction, but the scraps are put to good use as firewood.

Once the stone is very hot, the fire is extinguished, the ashes swabbed out, and the pies put inside – sans plate or pan.

It’s hoped the heat of the stone will quickly seal any potential leaks in the crust; sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Looks like we’re one for two here.

(Give thanks for your modern oven!)

Set the pie on a baking sheet or pizza pan; it’ll be easier to move into the oven that way. Place the pie/baking sheet onto your oven’s bottom rack. Bake for 20 minutes.

Transfer the pie to the middle rack of your oven; it should be set enough that you can take it off the baking sheet. Bake for an additional 30 minutes, or until the custard is set at the edges but still a bit wobbly in the center. An instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the pie should read about 165°F; if the mixture goes above 180°F, you run the risk of the custard becoming watery.

Remove the pie from the oven, and place it on a rack to cool. When it’s completely cool, refrigerate until you’re ready to serve.

And here’s our Pilgrim custard pie, cooled and ready to serve.

Is it baked all the way through? Let’s see…

Success!

And success!

Where’s the fork, you ask?

Pilgrims didn’t have forks. They were strictly a spoon-and-knife crowd.

Oh, and one more small detail. According to Kathleen, custard pie was often served at Pilgrim weddings, where young men would take a bite, then spit it out onto young women’s feet, so they’d be forced to raise their skirts – quite entertainingly, one would imagine.

We don’t recommend using our Custard Pie as a dating tool. But we do invite you to read the recipe, bake it, and let us know what you think!

Or print just the recipe.

Happy Thanksgiving!

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel was born in Wisconsin, grew up in New England, and graduated from Brown University. She was a journalist in Massachusetts and Maine before joining the King Arthur Flour Company in 1990, where she's been ever since. Author or co-author of three King Arthur ...

comments

  1. bfischer315

    What a great story, thank you for sharing on this wonderful holiday. I think I am going to try and make the crust now. I never used baking soda before in a crust. Happy Thanksgiving!

    Hope you used baking powder, not soda. I think it helps “aerate” the crust a bit, making it flakier. Hope you had good success with this, and a delicious Thanksgiving pie! PJH

    Reply
  2. Ricardo Neves Gonzalez - SENAC - Petrópolis, RJ, BRAZIL

    Thanksgiving Day!!
    What phenomenal post to comemorate this amazing day!!
    Here at Petrópolis, Brazil, a city colonizated by Germanics, we have a big discussion about German Brot ( german bread ). Local bakeries bake a fake bread that try to remember that original ,baked at home by Germanic settlers and imigrants. A fantastic loaf of delicate white bread made with flour, water, yeast, sugar and lard. Today the breads they call locally Forma Petrópolis ( Petrópolis loaf ) are far, so far from that original the imigrants baked at their homes and caugh with daily suppliers when they went to hard working at streets of Petrópolis, during the construction of the city at far 1800´s. The bread was softly on crumb, so softly that workers haven´t no problem to cut pieces of bread using only their hands to moist it in a cup of hot coffee before eat them. Today what we find at local bakeries is a fake version of that traditional and historical bread. I´ve sent the recipe of this German´s settlers bread to P.J. hamel months ago. Hope you could post the recipe and how to bake this bread at Baker´s Banter!! Fantastic post, a true way for us, to be much closer to historical pilgrims traditions!!!

    Ricardo, I don’t recall getting a Forma Petrópolis recipe… I’m sorry, I may have mislaid it. Would you like to send it again? And thanks for connecting here, as always – PJH

    Reply
  3. aoifeofcheminnoir

    PJ, it was fun to see this. I’ve been involved with a medieval re-enactment group called the SCA. One of the areas that has been the most fascinating to me has been the cookery area. It’s an eye-opening experience to learn how they did things way back then and to try some of those foods.
    There is a fascinating site that covers the Hampton Court Palace kitchens that I follow. To see those kitchens and how they cooked for Henry VIII and for more than 200 years later…priceless. They have a group there who cook in the kitchens (in period clothes) and re-create dishes of those days long past. Also you can even sit down an eat those meals. Google: Hampton Court Palace kitchens and see info on tours and even videos made by the historical study group of dishes they’ve tackled.
    Happy Thanksgiving to KAF and all of your fans out there!

    And Happy Thanksgiving to you, too. I’ll definitely Google Hampton Court Palace; old foodways are fascinating, aren’t they? PJH

    Reply
  4. carolmccaslin

    P.J. Thanks for the post and the history lesson. It has been a few years since I was at Plimouth Plantation. I loved it then and the people were so funny. They really stayed in character. I especially love the scenarios where they were cooking. It is just amazing. We take so much for granted. It really takes you back in time. I live in Kentucky now but when I go home to visit family a trip to Plimouth is wonderful.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

    Glad we could spark your memories, Carol. The do a wonderful job playing their roles, don’t they? “Could you tell me if there’s a public phone close by? “Phone? What is this phone?” :) PJH

    Reply
  5. Ricardo Neves gonzalez - ( SENAC )- Petrópolis, R.J.- Brazil

    P.J., i´ve sent the German Brot original recipe again. Hope you could reproduce it at KAF.

    Thanks, Ricardo. Our wonderful customer/bakers inspire and educate us every day! Happy Baking – Irene @ KAF

    Reply
  6. Irma

    Thank you so much for this information, I have always been fascinated by history, especially our colony states. At Thanksgiving when my children were young I always tried to use some of the vegetables and other foods that the Pilgrims may have eaten on their Thanksgiving.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      What a nice family tradition, Irma! I hope they’re passing it along to their own families. Happy Thanksgiving – PJH

  7. Nicholas

    A very nice and informative article! Something that I see in a few photos bothers me though. Carpets in the time period portrayed at Plimoth Plantation were status symbols, placed over tables. Historical documentation shows that these “Turkey carpets” were either removed before meals and replaced with a linen cloth, or left on the table and covered with a linen cloth, sometimes doubled over. Meals were NOT served directly on them, and in one photo we see food being PREPARED on the carpet. In many homes of this period, the table in the kitchen or hall did double duty, serving as both kitchen “counter” AND dining table. Food would not have been prepared on a table covered with a linen cloth or carpet. I’ve been to Plimoth Plantation, love it, but find things like this to be inexcusable.

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Nicholas, I contacted the folks at Plimoth Plantation, and here’s what they said:

      “The commenter is correct, but even ‘seasoned’ historians get nervous when they know they’re going to be on the Internet!”

      Thanks for pointing this out; all of us – King Arthur Flour, Plimoth Plantation, and historians like you – are of one mind when it comes to making sure the correct information is out there for the world to see. PJH

    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Sure, Bonnie, don’t see why not. You’ll have to figure out the time depending on your cups, but once you have it nailed, you’ll know from then on in. Enjoy – PJH

  8. Janet

    Could you make this into a coconut custard pie? If yes how much cocnut would you use? Would you toast it first? The reason I ask is, for some reason it really hard to find a recipe for a coconut custard pie. It’s one of my favorites. Thanks in advance. Also thanks for sharing. What a fun day that must have been.

    Reply
  9. Janet D. Morris

    If I wanted to make this into a coconut custard pie, 1. Would I toast the coconut and 2. How much would I use? Thanks in advance.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      You can include 1 cup of flaked coconut (not toasted) in the filling. Then sprinkle more on top of the pie before putting it in the oven. Happy Baking!JoAnn@KAF

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *