Amelia Simmons: Here’s to the Women Who Wrote Cookbooks

Amelia Simmons broke new ground with her cookbook–American through and through. Although the 1796 book is brief–the title is not.  American Cookery, or the art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables, and the best modes of making pastes, puffs, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves, and all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plum to plain cake: Adapted to this country, and all grades of life.

Amelia Simmons

American Cooker, 1796, by Amelia Simmons.

 Amelia Simmons’ cookbook contains recipes unique to America. And sometimes just—unique.

To Make a Fine Syllabub From the Cow

Sweeten a quart of cider with double refined sugar.  Grate nutmeg into it, then milk your cow into your liquid. When you have added the right quantity of milk, pour half a pint or more, in proportion to the quantity of syllabub you make, of the sweetest cream you can get all over it.


Winslow Homer, Milking 1875

Two things struck me about Amelia Simmons cookbook the first time I looked at it.  One was the incredible effort that our great-great-great grandmothers had to put into cooking.  So many ingredients and tools that we take for granted were not available to them.  The second thing that struck me was the delightful first section on purchasing foods, including meat.

Getting a Rise Out of Flour

I won’t try to catalog all the various difficulties that our XX-great grandmothers went through ( we have discussed the problem of cooking in a wood fired oven before, for instance).  Let’s just focus on leavening. She could not buy baking soda or packaged yeast in the store, and baking powder hit the store shelves nearly one hundred years after the Revolutionary War, baking light cakes or high-rising bread caused much extra work.

Eggs and Air

In Martha Washington’s time, for instance, you had to find mechanical means to incorporate air into products and use LOTS of eggs.  Amelia advises that you beat sugar and butter together for half an hour, and the recipes in her cookbook assume you own a lot of productive laying hens.


However, the pioneer and colonial housewives experimented with other means of getting the fine cakes and breads they wanted.  They made ale, and knew that the leavings from that process contained yeast that could also be used in bread.  And they used saleratus, a crude substitute for baking soda.

The process for making saleratus was complex and the effort resulted in a powder whose strength could not be exactly calculated and was easily contaminated. Since acid needed to balance the saleratus, you will see a lot of use of buttermilk. That explains why Amelia Simmons adds wine to practically everything she cooks and bakes. Unlike her predecessor English cookbooks she doesn’t specify the type of wine, because she is not using wine for flavoring. She is using it for leavening.


The use of pearlash seemed somewhat simpler, since our great-grandmothers were already making soap and using pearlash for that.  This article explains the making of pearlash.  Amelia Simmons uses pearlash in many of the recipes in her cookbook for leavening. (I could make those recipes by substituting 2 teaspoons of baking soda for one teaspoon of pearlash.)

When you understand this ingredient being used, you can understand the striking use of quantities of caraway seed in so many recipes.  Pearlash, being ash, had a smoky taste.  Caraway seed helped cover that taste.


Amelia Simmons also used “emptins” in her recipes.  The word is a colloquial version of “emptyings,” the dregs of the wine or cider or beer barrels that is used by housewives for yeast, and she includes a recipe for emptins, which, like sourdough, requires some already fermented emptins to get it started. (I was unable to find a surefire way to substitute for this liquid yeast.)

The Intrusive Shopping Section

As much as I enjoy the shopping section, I sympathize with Amelia, who having little education, put herself in the hands of someone else to assemble and manage the printing of the book. In the second printing, she included an insert railing at the changes made by the unknown editor of the first printing, including omitting flour for thickening puddings and doubling the amount of “emptins” needed for a cake.

For some details, read this excellent article. A revelation about the section on purchasing and other changes in issue one from Atlantic Magazine.

Today, the synopses of the book that you find generally do not recognize the adulteration of her original edition, and I was unable to find the second printing available in reprint. American Heritage Magazine article, apparently unaware of the fact that Simmons was not the author of the “shopping” section, contains other interesting insights.  So the errors carry on, and give us cause to be wary when trying her recipes.

Nevertheless, the shopping section is a delight to read. Sorry, Amelia.

A Recipe from Amelia Simmon’s Cookbook

Carrot pudding

Carrot pudding, baked, top view

Not having any emptins lying around, and not having a cow to milk into my syllabub, I found some limitations as to what I could cook from this book. Fortunately, the puddings are simple. (Provided they aren’t spoiled by the above mentioned omission of flour.) So I chose Carrot Pudding.  Here is her recipe in its entirety.

Carrot Pudding

A coffee cup full of boiled and strained carrots, 5 eggs, 2 ounces sugar and butter each, cinnamon and rosewater to your taste.  Bake in a deep dish without paste.

Without paste means it is not a pie filling–no pastry. (Although I don’t see why you could not put this into a crust. Now THAT would be something new on your table–Carrot Pie. And here is my adaptation.

Carrot Pudding from Amelia Simmons

Serves 4
Prep time 20 minutes
Cook time 45 minutes
Total time 1 hours, 5 minutes
Allergy Egg
Dietary Vegetarian
Meal type Dessert
Misc Child Friendly, Pre-preparable, Serve Cold, Serve Hot
From book American Cookery by Amelia Simmons
America's first cookbook by Amelia Simmons presents this simple pudding recipe, a good way to get veggies into the non-veggie eaters in your family.


  • 3/4 cups Cooked carrots (mashed smooth)
  • 5 eggs
  • 4 tablespoons butter (softened)
  • 4 heaped tablespoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon (or to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (or 1 Tablespoon rosewater)


1. Boil two large carrots, cut in chunks, until they are very soft.
2. Mash carrots or rub through grater or run in food processor until smooth.
3. Mix sugar and softened butter. Beat in 5 eggs one at a time.
4. Add flavorings and stir thoroughly.
5. Pour into buttered one to one and a half quart Pyrex dish, sprinkle nutmeg or mace on top and bake at 350 degrees until a knife inserted in center comes out clean. About 45 minutes.


I used a 1 and 1/2 quart pyrex bowl. The bowl is 7 1/2 " in diameter and the pudding was about two inches deep in the center. It turns out that I could have used a smaller bowl. I imagine if the pudding is deeper, it might need to bake slightly longer.

Although Amelia did not suggest a water bath for baking, I am used to placing a pudding bowl (rice pudding or pumpkin pudding) into a larger shallow pan with hot water, so I did that here. I wasn't concerned with the water coming up the sides of the bowl, just adding enough water to create a moist environment in the oven.

The pudding is very liquid when you mix it, but don't worry, all those eggs will solidify it.

You can also see from the picture that this pudding is a good deal more grainy than silky.



Last week, I started this series of tributes to women who wrote cookbooks because I believe they were hugely influential in the lives of our ancestors. If you want to see the first tribute and the list of outstanding cookbook authors, here’s the link.

And for THE REST of the story on leavening, you can always delve into a whole book on Baking Powder Wars: The Cutthroat Food Fight that Revolutionized Cooking by Linda Civitello. (Available in ebook form at Google Books for $9.99).

Or watch the series of videos about leavening at, the wonderful Townsend web and You Tube sites that tell all about Colonial cooking.

Wrong Spelling Costs Eve Stahler Widows Pension

For a couple of weeks now, I have been sporadically attacking a file of 79 pages of legal papers regarding widows pension benefits.  Many of them are illegible, either because age has faded them or because the person who wrote testimony or documents needed one of those penmanship instructors I talked about recently.

Adam Stahler Pension

Page 47 widow’s Revolutionary war pension legal file

And that is far from the worst of the bunch.

Although at least half of the pages still wait for discovery, my magnifying glass and I have figured out enough to fill you in on most of Eva Maria Stahler and her children’s battle to get what the government owed them. The first half of the file has to do with Eva Maria Stahler applying for an increase in her widows pension when she was 83 years old.

The rest of the file is about the attempts after her death to get the pension increased.  Christian Stahler and his sister Eva Maria (the 2nd) were the only remaining children by the 1850s when they brought the case up again. Eva Maria had married and moved to Ohio. My great-great-great grandmother, Elizabeth Stahler Kaser had passed away a few years before this second round of legal struggle.

Along the way, I am also piecing together the details of Adam Stahler’s military history, which I will relate in the future, but I am impressed by the number of notable battles he took part in.  For instance, the battle of Brandywine, in which ill-clothed colonial soldiers lost to the British, and the battle of Germantown, another losing battle, but one that turned the ragtag militias into a more disciplined army.  I will return to Adam’s Revolutionary War experiences at a later date. Now back to Eva and her battles with bureaucracy.

As I mentioned earlier when talking about Adam Stahler’s pension, the laws governing pensions for Revolutionary War veterans changed frequently. Early payments were only for the injured, and later for those in need. When Adam Stahler died in April 1804, widows and children of Militia member were not eligible for full pensions. In 1832 an act provided for a widows pension. However, on July 4, 1836, legislation passed that would allow the widows and children of Pennsylvania militiamen like Adam to collect higher payments for officers and their widows.

The records show that Eva Maria Stahler had a Certificate of Pension issued on 27 July 1833 and the pension payment were made retroactive to 4 March 1831. Her payments, which continued until her death, are detailed on this report. The image cuts off the September 1831 payment, but the form does not show a March 1831 payment as promised in the legal decision.

Widow's Pension Payments

Eva Maria Stahler, Pennsylvania Accounting for widow’s pension payments.

So if she was getting a widow’s pension from the time she was 83, why all the legal action? It is complicated by all those different rules in the various Revollutionary War pension acts passed by Congress.  It was not uncommon for widows or children to reapply when a more favorable act passed.

In March 1834, Eva Maria petitioned the state legislature of Pennsylvania. Because that document is very difficult to read, I am still not sure whether that is because Pennsylvania had a separate pension system for their state’s militia, or some other reason.

At any rate, the scene moves to the Office of Pensioner in January 1835 where a note on the cover page of her file notes, “no proof of poverty” indicating the law in force at that time would only give pensions to the needy. She was there to convince the Commissioner of Pensions that she was entitled to the higher amount granted to officers.

In August 1836, one month after the passage of the more generous act of 1836, she testified as to her marriage date (15 March 1768) and that she has remained a widow since her husband’s death.  Both of these are requirements to receive a pension.  She also introduced several friends and neighbors (old veterans) who testified as to her husband’s service in the Revolution.  The acts governing widows pensions generally require proof of the length of service, and whether the veteran was a commissioned officer or enlistee. Eva is depending on the testimony of these old veterans who served with her husband.

Veteran's testimony

Part of page 43 in legal file, the testimony of old soldier and neighbor, George Lonenberger

This is part of a page of the testimony of George Lonenberger, who was a neighbor of the Stahlers.  It reads, in part:

“I was personally acquainted with the late Captain Adam Stahler of Northampton. I saw,was in company with and had conversation with the said Captain Stahler a few days after the Battle of Brandywine in September 1777 and said Captain Adam Stahler had the command of a company of militia fom Northampton County, Pennsylvania and the same Capt. Stahler and his company were active ________ in the Battle of Brandwine on the Pennsylvania Line and in the service of the United States.”

But then the unfortunate part–the old soldier, aged 81, truthfully reports:

“I am unable to say at what time the said Captain Adam Stahler entered the service or at what time he left the Service, but I am positive he was in the service.”

So despite the closing statement, “The said Captain Adam Stahler was thought of as brave and active man and a very respectable man,” Lonenberger is not able to present proof of length of service. We find that sentence about not knowing when he entered or when he left repeated by other old soldiers who testify.

We know that Eva, and probably some of her friends, were giving testimony in German, because a translators version of her name and birth date and their marriage date is entered into testimony. However, the Justice of the Peace, or whoever took the testimony, entered the transcript of the testimony in English.  We can assume that these old farmers did not speak in legalese–“the aforesaid Captain Adam Stahler” over and over again, so some liberty was taken with their testimony.

Eva Marie continued to receive the low payment of $120 per month for her widows pension. She had not been able to prove conclusively that Adam was a Captain, or the exact length of his service in the militia. She could not plead penury and he was not injured in the war. Testimony continued to be gathered until at least 1836, and Eva was not getting any younger.

In 1842, Eva died at the age of 92, having received a widows pension payments at the low end of the scale for about ten years.

Next up,  Part Two, Christian Takes Up the Fight.

Hannah Glasse and Seed Cake or Nun’s Cake

On page 164 of the 1805 edition of The Art of Cookery by Hannah Glasse, I discover this simple(?) recipe for Seed Cake.

Nun's Cake

Nun’s Cake in a 1920’s version, once baking powder had been invented.

To make a rich Seed Cake called the Nun’s Cake

You must take four pounds of the finest flour, and three pounds of double refined sugar beaten and sifted; mix them together, and dry them by the fire till you prepare the other materials.

Take four pounds of butter, beat it with your hand till it is soft like cream; then beat thirty-five eggs, leave out sixteen whites, strain off your eggs from the threads, and beat them and the butter together till all appears like butter.  Put in four or five spoonfuls of rose or orange flower water, and beat again; then take your flour and sugar with six ounces of caraway seeds, and strew them in by degres, beating it up all the time for two hours together.  You may put in as much tincture of cinnamon or ambergrease as you please; butter your hopp, and let it stand three hours in a moderate oven.

You must observe always in beating of butter, to do it with a cool hand, and beat always one way in a deep earthen dish.

My Notes

Why so many eggs?  Because that is the only leavening available, except for cakes that called for using the yeast from making ale.

Four pounds of the finest flour: 4 1/2 cups of cake flour.

Beat the butter with your hand:  Obviously since electric mixers had not been invented, this is not the same as our instructions today to “beat by hand”, meaning use a spoon.  Would somebody tell me if this really means just using your bare hands?? I have to believe that is what it means, since she warns that you must have cool hands.

“Strain off the threads” of eggs: I learned something here.  If you Google Strained eggs, you will learn that after beating eggs, if you strain them, you will get airier omelets and smoother puddings!

Ambergris/ambergreese/ambergrease:  I linked an article above that gives a short information. For more than you might possibly want to know, go here.

Your “hoop”: You can still buy a hoop. And you can buy it here and also learn the way to use it.

Unfortunately, Hannah does not tell us how large a hoop to use for the seed cake, but it should not be more than 3/4 full, so use that as a guide.

And after beating the butter, then beating the 35 eggs, then beating everything for two hours, you may skip your visited to the gym today.

Try a Smaller Seed Cake

If you are intimidated by the size of this recipe, consider cutting it down to size as I have done with my Emily Dickinson Black Cake Recipe. I have not had time to try this recipe for Seed Cake yet, but I might try a 1/4 size recipe which would call for

  • One pound flour
  • 1 1/3 pounds sugar
  • 1 pound of butter
  • 5 whole eggs plus 4 egg yolks
  • one spooful of rose or orange flower water (or orange zest, orange flavoring or orange liqueur)
  • 1 1/2 oz caraway seeds
  • Cinnamon to taste

Combine these ingredients with an electric mixer, bake at 350 for an hour and a half–or until a toothpick/broomstraw inserted in the center comes out clean. Adjusting the ingredients makes the whole things sounds doable and delicious.

Let me know if you try it before I do.  (Or try the Williamsburg version of seed cake, here.)