In researching what New England women were cooking in the 19th century, I have read a few diaries by farm women who recorded the work they accomplished indoors and out, the weather, their health concerns, visitors and family events.
The diary of Jane Briggs Smith Fiske (at the American Antiquarian Society) was a gold mine for learning how an educated woman from Plymouth, Mass., adjusted to life on a New Hampshire dairy farm after marriage. I was impressed by the amount of work she accomplished every day. Consider the following entry made on Saturday, Jan. 4, 1873. “Lovely day, not very cold … Cut sausage meat, made pickle [brine] for ham, and fifteen pies.”
Five is the most pies I have ever made in one day, so this sounded prodigious. I wondered if I could match her output in a single day and decided I would take up the challenge. A closer reading of her diary revealed that she had been cutting up and boiling meat for mincemeat for three days before she baked those pies, which must have all been mincemeat.
That was certainly part of her secret, to have the filling ready to go the day before baking. I don’t know how to dispose of 15 mincemeat pies in June or July, so that was clearly a nonstarter.
I warmed up for the baking challenge by testing recipes and practicing making pie pastry. The factor that sometimes tripped me up was the amount of water to add. Because flour absorbs water from the air, pastry requires more water in winter than in humid summer. With practice, I could feel when the dough was too dry and crumbly or so wet and sticky that extra flour was needed to roll it out.
Our great-grandmothers relied on feel more than exact measurements when baking. Old recipes often fail to specify the amount of flour needed, assuming the reader would know how much to add to make a “thin batter,” a “thick batter” or a “stiff dough.”
Making pie pastry became easy with practice. Mixing up four crusts at a time, I was able to roll out pastry for 15 pies, line the pie pans, trim, and flute the pastry, and wrap and stack the unbaked pie shells in the refrigerator. The technical challenge lay in making different kinds of filling and baking them all with only one oven. I prepared apple pie filling for two pies the night before as well as lemon filling for two Shaker lemon pies.
Making and spreading a topping on the apple pies took a little time. With the apple pies in the oven, I was ready to work on blueberries. That is where I really slowed down. My favorite blueberry pie recipe is finicky, requiring half the berries to be cooked to reduce the amount of moisture and apples to be peeled and grated for thickening. Then there was lemon juice to squeeze and dishes and countertops to wash.
After an hour in the oven, the apple pies came out and the lemon pies went in. Another hour and the lemon pies were done and the blueberry pies went in the oven. And that is when I lost my ambition. I had six lovely pies of three types but still nine unbaked pie crusts when I called it quits.
I could have made 15 mince pies ready for the oven using prepared mincemeat as Jane Fiske had done. But unlike Jane, I had only one oven and no neighbor’s daughter living in to help with household chores. I decided that 15 pie crusts and six finished pies was a respectable output for one day under my limitations. Then I read that the following year Jane Fiske had baked 30 mince pies one day. But even she admitted that she went to bed early and exhausted after her epic baking.
The following recipe makes a sweet but tart pie known as Ohio lemon or Shaker lemon pie. It was popular in the Midwest and in Shaker communities. When you bake this pie without a top crust, the lemon slices make an attractive design.
You don’t need to bake to have pies made from scratch for your Fourth of July picnic. Women from P.E.O. (Philanthropic Education Organization) will be selling homemade pies in front of Ellsworth’s Renys department store (171 High St.) on the morning of July 3, from 9 a.m. to noon. Ninety-eight percent of the proceeds will go to fund scholarships for women.