Arts and Leisure

Catherine Beecher Reluctantly Shares a Plum Pudding Recipe

Catherine Beecher was the Martha Stewart of her day and, like Martha Stewart, lived in Connecticut (Hartford, not Westport). Harriet Beecher Stowe’s big sister and together they wrote The American Woman’s Home in 1869. It was probably the most important guidebook of domestic advice in the 19th century.

From The Century, courtesy Boston Public Library

From The Century, courtesy Boston Public Library

Catherine had taken over running her family’s household at 16 when her mother died. In addition to becoming a 19th century domestic diva, she was a pioneer in women’s education. She opened the Hartford Female Seminary in 1823, one of the first major educational institutions for women in the United States. Later in life she established women’s colleges in Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin.

Catherine Beecher

Catherine Beecher never married, though she was engaged to Yale University professor Alexander Fisher.  He died at sea before the wedding.

She was a woman of strong but not inflexible opinions. She weighed her students’ food before they ate it and fed them the Graham diet, a health food craze of the 1820s. It involved Graham flour, high-fiber foods, no meat, spices or sweeteners.

Her students rebelled against the austere diet, but in a genteel way. Ten of them invited her to eat in a restaurant where she had an excellent meal. The food at the Hartford Female Seminary quickly improved.

Catherine Beecher

Catherine Beecher

In The American Woman’s Home she inveighs against plum pudding and mince pie: “Witness the national recipe for plum-pudding: which may be rendered: Take a pound of every indigestible substance you can think of, boil into a cannon-ball, and serve with flaming brandy. So of the Christmas mince-pie…” She was not a huge fan of cakes, dismissing confectionery as “pleasing and complicated compounds of sweets and spices, devised not for health and nourishment, and strongly suspected of interfering with both—mere tolerated gratifications of the palate, which we eat, not with the expectation of being benefited, but only with the hope of not being injured by them.”

But in a supplement to The American Woman's Home, as in her students’ diets, she relented. Here is Catherine Beecher’s recipe for Baked English Plum Pudding from Miss Beecher's Domestic Receipt Book.

Ingredients:

A quarter of a pound of suet, chopped first, and half a teaspoonful of salt
Half of a pound of bread crumbs
Half of a pound of stoned raisins, wet and dredged with flour
Three ounces of citron
Milk, and six eggs
Half of a pound of currants
Half of a pound of sugar.

Directions:

Pour enough scalded milk onto the bread-crumbs to swell them; when cold, add the other ingredients. If it is too stiff, thin it with milk; if it is too thin, add more bread crumbs. Then add two grated nutmegs, a tablespoonful of mace and cinnamon, and half a gill of brandy. Bake two hours.

Catherine Beecher died of apoplexy in 1878.

This story about Catherine Beecher was updated in 2018. 

15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. Molly Landrigan

    December 23, 2013 at 7:44 pm

    I like plum pudding but I don’t think I’ll try this recipe.

  2. New England Historical Society

    December 23, 2013 at 8:00 pm

    ^The suet is kind of a turnoff.

  3. Carol Downey

    December 23, 2013 at 9:06 pm

    My mother made pork cake with suet. You had to add spirits a little at a time for several weeks before you could eat the cake, otherwise it was unetable. ( I know because I tried :))

  4. New England Historical Society

    December 23, 2013 at 10:27 pm

    ^We believe you!

  5. Ryan Beckman

    December 23, 2013 at 11:57 pm

    Suet melts and makes plum pudding quite velvety in texture (but it is admittedly very rich). It’s really delicious though (if you like raisins etc. and lots of spices), like a dense raisin cake. Also, Sarah Josepha Hale included a Christmas pudding in her cookbook the Good Housekeeper in 1841 ( New Englanders being mostly non-Christmas celebrating at the time) and had a similar reaction to Miss Beecher. She also disliked mince pies for their richness and hated pickles so much she refused to permit receipts for them in her book.
    Here’s her receipt for plum pudding:
    As Christmas comes but once a year, a rich plum pudding may be permitted for the feast, though it is not healthy food; and children should be helped very sparingly. The following is a good receipt:–

    Chop half a pound of suet very fine; stone half a pound of raisins, half a pound of currants nicely washed and picked; four ounces of bread crumbs; four ounces of flour; four eggs well beaten; a little grated nutmeg; mace and cinnamon pounded very fine; a spoonful of salt; four ounces of sugar; one ounce candied lemon; same of citron.

    Beat the eggs and the spices well together; mix the milk with them by degrees, then the rest of the ingredients; dip a fine, close linen cloth into boiling water, and place it in a hair sieve; flour it a little, them pour in the batter and tie it up, allowing a little room to swell; put it into a pot containing six quarts of boiling water and fill up your pot as it wastes [evaporates]; be sure to keep it boiling at least six hours–seven would not injure it.

    This pudding should be mixed an hour or two before it is put on to boil; it makes it taste richer.

  6. New England Historical Society

    December 24, 2013 at 12:00 am

    ^Thank you! Her recipe is a lot like Catherine Beecher’s, though she omits the brandy. That hair sieve is a little scary.

  7. Ryan Beckman

    December 24, 2013 at 12:10 am

    Yes, it is definitely a temperate version. I recall that most of her book is moderately temperate, not using any hard spirits, including mince pies which traditionally also have brandy or rum. Hair sieves are a godsend in hearth cooking without an electric blender! It’s just a screen (in this case just to hold the cloth that holds the batter– you can use a bowl as well) and it is great for sifting and puréeing!

  8. Luhvin Snow

    December 24, 2013 at 9:09 am

    Please don’t compare Catherine to a criminal. She was far better than her in many ways. MS hasn’t had an original thought. She gets her ideas from her staff and other media outlets. Good article though.

    • Laura Kozin

      December 25, 2013 at 4:10 pm

      agreed

  9. New England Historical Society

    December 24, 2013 at 11:08 am

    ^Point taken!

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