About this recipe
Welcome to the first Retro Recipe Project post! The goal of this project is to explore our Region’s culinary heritage through a look back into our old cookbooks. I am a vintage cookbook junky. It’s a personal vice of mine. I’m not interested in them so much as sources of instruction but as means of understanding the time in which they were written and what the content indicates about the culture surrounding food in that period.
My favorite books are ones compiled by organizations in small towns rather than large corporations attempting to sell their new line of jello molds to housewives across the country. Churches in the mid 20th century are amazing sources for these kinds of books which were often put together by members to sell as a kind of fundraiser. The anecdotes included in these compilations are absolutely priceless while the design and illustrations included are both charming and utterly ridiculous in their ignorance of any cookbook design conventions.
I happened across such a cookbook tucked away in a forgotten bookshelf. It is a compilation by a church on Block Island in the 60s of the community’s favorite recipes taken from grandmothers, newspaper clippings, and longtime New England traditions. I decided this book was a great jumping off point for this project after our focus on the Island in the Summer issue. So, here we go!
To be perfectly honest, the reasons I decided to start this little experiment with this recipe are completely self-serving. First of all, our blackberry bushes have been producing boatloads of little berries that are taking up valuable fridge space (I have photographic proof!) and I can only make so much jam. Second, I had no idea what a a”flummery” was and was incredibly curious. It turns out, after what started out as a brief internet search but devolved into the exploration of a strange corner of the internet devoted to these kinds of things, that a “flummery” is essentially a British, starch set pudding using anything from oatmeal to calves feet as the binder. The liquid itself was traditionally water or cream flavored with any combination of alcohol, sugar, and oftentimes rose or orange blossom. The jelly would then be topped with cream or honey to provide extra sweetness and richness. The recipe from the cookbook I used is basically a refrigerator jam masquerading as a pudding by hiding under a fluffy cloud of whipped cream. What makes it uniquely New England is the use of the blackberry (lucky for me and my bushes!)
Research complete, I gave the recipe a whirl. It is a simple concept; cook berries with water and add sugar and cornstarch to thicken. Then spoon the mixture into your ideal mold to chill. Top with whipped cream and you’re done! I decided, against my better judgment, to trust the recipe’s suggestion of an entire cup of sugar for but two cups of berries. A tablespoon of lemon juice hardly seemed like enough to make that level of sweetness palatable but I decided to follow through with it for the sake of the experiment, and I had already made an adjustment by opting for raw cane sugar over normal granulated sugar. Turns out I was right, the sugar serves no real chemical purpose, the cornstarch is primarily responsible for thickening the mixture, and the lemon barely came through the cloying sweetness of the sugar. But, the theory of the dessert is wonderful, who doesn’t love a good, fresh pot of jam straight from the garden or market?
Cook berries and water together until soft. Mix sugar, salt, and cornstarch and add slowly to berries, stirring constantly.
Boil 5 minutes. Add lemon juice and spoon into mold or dishes.
Serve with cream, plain or whipped, hot or cold.
My advice? Use the best fruit you can find and cut the sugar in half (at least!) or add to taste depending on the fruit. By using less sugar you may have to allow the mixture to reduce a little longer to allow it to thicken and sweeten naturally. I suppose alternatives to sugar like honey or maple syrup could be used but the thickening of the mixture might be less easily achieved. The lemon adds a tiny bit of help in the natural pectin department. Pectin is a naturally occurring thickener that is employed when making any kind of jam or jelly. Blackberries aren’t exactly a high pectin fruit but citrus fruits and apples are packed full of the stuff. By adding grated apple, lemon juice, or orange rind you are helping the less than natural cornstarch do its job while providing a lovely flavor.
Cut down on the sugar unless you have a 1960’s era sweet tooth in which case I tip my hat to you
Experiment with other fruit, with blueberry season in full swing I would try a blueberry/lemon version using both the citrus juice and zest. Strawberry cardamom perhaps?
Add a touch of sophistication by adding the traditional orange blossom or rose water to the berries or the whipped cream topping. I tried a whipped cream infused with lemon verbena from the garden.