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Quick History of Two Favorite Desserts: Carrot Cake & Pumpkin Pie

By Lara Templin

carrot puddingAt first glance, carrot cake and pumpkin pie may not seem to have much in common.  However, they are historically related in that both our modern recipes are thought to have diverged from the same historical origin: the carrot pudding.  Carrot pudding recipes can be traced all the way back to medieval Europe and the Middle East.  Basically, they were sweetened custard or bread crumb puddings that were baked in a single crust (no top crust).  An example recipe that includes both egg custard and bread crumbs comes from English Housewifery Exemplified, by Elizabeth Moxon, 1764:


Take three or four clear red carrots, boil and peel them, take the red part of the carrot, beat it very fine in a marble mortar, put to it the crumbs of a penny loaf (wheat bread), six eggs, half a pound of clarified butter, two or three spoonfuls of rose water, a little lemon-peel shred, grate in a little nutmeg, mix them well together, bake it with a puff-paste (or flaky pie crust) round your dish, and have a little white wine, butter and sugar, for the sauce.  

From this diverged two paths, one to a cake made with carrots and one to a custard pie with pumpkin substituted for carrots.  As pumpkins came from the New World to the Old World, they appeared to be accepted into European cuisine almost immediately.  Perhaps they and the other “winter squashes” of the New World were similar enough to the gourds and squash of the Old World.  They also were easy to grow and provided a lot of food.  We see recipes for pumpkin pies or puddings appear in French and English cookbooks by the mid-17th century (The French Cook, Francois Pierre La Varenne, 1653, Translated into English in 1653).   In the first cookbook written in America (American Cookery, Amelia Simmons, 1796) we find two variations on pumpkin pie served in a single crust or “paste”:

No. 1. One quart stewed and strained, 3 pints cream, 9 beaten eggs, sugar, mace, nutmeg and ginger, laid into paste No. 7 or 3, … and baked in dishes three quarters of an hour.
No. 2. One quart of milk, 1 pint pompkin, 4 eggs, molasses, allspice and ginger in a crust, bake 1 hour.

Carrot and pumpkin puddings or pies exist side-by-side in 17th-, 18th-, and even 19th-century cookbooks (Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson, Oxford University Press, 1999, page 141).  Carrot cakes became more popular in the 20th century, with the first mention of cream cheese frosting that I can find occurring in the 1960s (“Reader Exchange: Carrot Cake Encore,” Washington Post, Times Herald, September 10, 1964, page D4).

Another 18th-century recipe for pumpkin pie comes from The Frugal Housewife or Complete Woman Cook, by Susannah Carter (first published as early as 1765 in London and reprinted in America in 1772 by Boston printers Benjamin Edes and John Gil).  Here is her recipe:

To make Pumpkin Pie.
Take the Pumpkin and peel the rind off, then stew it till it is quite soft, and put thereto one pint of pumpkin, one pint of milk, one glass of malaga wine (a sweet fortified Spanish dessert wine), one glass of rosewater, if you like it, seven eggs, half a pound of fresh butter, one small nutmeg, and sugar and salt to your taste.

The modern cook would rather not have to cook the pumpkin down and many would leave out the optional rosewater and cut down on the butter and eggs quite a bit (this recipe will positively swim with butter otherwise!).  Also keep in mind that 18th-century wine glasses were much smaller than modern ones.  Putting the oven at a high heat first and then reducing will simulate the temperature in a wood-heated historical oven.

So here is an attempt at a modern redaction:

1 can pumpkin

1 can evaporated milk

¼ Cup sweet desert wine (optional)

4 eggs

8 Tablespoons butter (1 stick)

¾ Cup granulated sugar

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

½ teaspoon ground ginger (ginger isn’t in Susannah’s recipe, but it is in both of Amelia’s recipes!)

1 unbaked 9 inch (4 cup volume) deep dish pie crust (or make your own pie crust and put in a deep dish)

Mix the sugar, salt, ginger, and nutmeg in a small bowl.  Beat eggs in a large bowl and stir in pumpkin.  Add sugar and spice mixture and stir.  Stir in milk until all smooth.  Pour into pie crust.  Bake in a hot oven (425°F) for 15 minutes, then reduce to 350°F and bake for about 50 minutes.  Cool on a rack.

Enjoy your pumpkin and carrot cake connections!

Karen Lara Templin is assistant interpretive program manager at the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, where she has worked in historical interpretation, including colonial foodways, at Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown since 1999.

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