My father’s cousin tells me that she makes ‘Apple Deliciousa’, a baked pudding she learned from my great grandmother; the grandmother she shared with my father. She makes it whenever her family visit her.

“It’s their favourite pudding”, she says as we flick through recipes in a pile of community cookbooks printed by Adams Printers, the family business that consumed the days and weekends of her mother and my father.

As she is my father’s cousin, Apple Deliciousa is part of her family and not mine. “When it is cooked”, she says, “it is different every time but there is always a delicious sugary pastry crust on top and caramelised apples and dried fruit underneath.” I write down the recipe as she recites it to me:

Butter a baking dish and peel and core one apple per person. Stuff the apples with whatever you have at hand: figs, dates, sultanas, brown sugar, spices, lemon zest, then wrap them up in homemade thinly rolled pastry. Sit the pastry-covered apples in the baking dish then pour milk in to cover. Sprinkle a thick layer of soft brown sugar over the top and bake until the milk is absorbed and the dish is cooked.

At home, I try it, making a sweet pastry in the food processor. Wrapping each stuffed apple in the pastry I wonder why anyone would go to this much trouble rolling, cutting and encasing each apple in pastry only to have it disintegrate in the milk as it bakes. In my food processor I whip up the pastry in minutes, but my great-grandmother would have made it by hand using suet,[1] requiring even more work – cleaning and grating fat. A pastry-covered stuffed apple, served with a dollop of cream or custard would be a much better pudding and I wonder if somewhere, down the mother-daughter line, a mistake has crept in.

Perhaps, the recipe was included in a letter transported from England to Australia. I imagine a distant relative of mine, hungry for familiar food from ‘home’, writing to a mother and asking for a remembered dish. She writes, “cover the apples with milk” instead of “brush the apples with a little milk”, and that one word, ‘cover’ transforms the dish from apples baked crisp in pastry, to the soggy apple mush that I spooned from the baking dish when I attempted the recipe. I consider the possibility that a mischievous mother-in-law gave slightly wrong instructions to her daughter-in-law so that she could never compete with her and reproduce her son’s favourite dish.

The recipe baffles me. I search in my collection of colonial cookbooks to see if a dish like it was included in popular cookbooks of its time. I find no recipes for pastry-covered apples baked in milk, but I do find dishes that resemble Apple Deliciousa in The Herald Recipe Book (1933), Complete Home Cookery (c1930) and in Colonial Everyday Cookery (c 1900) where I find a recipe for boiled or baked apple dumplings. These apples are stuffed with currants, sugar and spices, wrapped in suet pastry sealed by pinching the edges together, then dropped into boiling water and boiled for “an hour or more”, or brushed with beaten egg, baked, and served with melted butter, sugar and spices or whipped cream. Perhaps the Apple Deliciousa is, after all, a version of this but boiled in milk not water.

In my great-grandmother’s time, a very active community of women provided much of the content of the women’s pages of their local newspaper by writing in with recipes, household problems and solutions, and tips on housewifery. In the spirit women’s pages of the past, I put a post on the Oxford Symposium’s Facebook page and asked the community to comment. Members of an international on-line community of food lovers and food scholars respond.

From their posts I learned that an apple dish in Quebec is similar; except that the pastry-covered apples are baked in a sugar-syrup but only half way up the apples. Another member posted that it sounded like a Bavarian Apfelstrudel in Milch Gebacken. “Apfelstrudel is baked in a baking dish with milk half way up its sides”, she wrote. She included a web-link to the recipe (in German). Another described my dish as a cross between apple steamed in pastry and apple baked in pastry and wrote, “there are many recipes like this for fruit dumplings”. She agreed with me that, “suet pastry – stronger than a shortcrust pastry – is needed.” Another member posted, “old English recipes often used a puff pastry for this sort of dish but no recipes of this sort have survived.” Another wrote, “this sounds like a ‘traditional South German’ recipe, Dampfnudeln where apples are wrapped in a soft yeast dough and baked with just their tops protruding from the milk.”

My cousin makes Apple Deliciousa with a shortcrust pastry, which she makes in her food processor. When the time comes for her children to make the pudding they will most likely make it with a good quality store-bought pastry. My mother baked apple pies with puff pastry made with rendered fat saved from roast meat. She would roll out her pastry, ‘butter’ it with generous dabs of the fat, then fold and roll and fold and roll and fold to create the layer upon layer of paste and fat that the pastry puff and flake. I can taste her Apple Pie with its puff paste crust savoury against sweet scorching hot golden syrup stewed apple, with thick cream melting against the wedge of it on my plate. I can smell it and I can see myself at our laminex-covered kitchen table spooning great mouthfuls of it, ignoring the pain from my burned tongue.

Once, recipes were transported gently through the intimate spaces of family kitchens and local traditions, but now they are brazen in the way they travel. Those recipes that show resilience and the ability to change move freely through time, country and tradition. Apple Deliciousa will never transport me to the kitchen of my childhood, but I do have a new respect for it. “What a journey”, I think.

Post Script:

It is Christmas. Searching for a recipe for Syllabub; an old English recipe combining ratafia biscuits, cream, lemon, wine and sugar, that I am planning to serve with fresh raspberries as an alternative to Christmas pudding on Christmas day, I inadvertently solve the Apple Deliciousa riddle. Looking for the recipe, I looked in the index pages at the back of Elizabeth Craig’s book Elizabeth Craig’s Family Cookery (c 1930) and noticed marginalia on its back cover, “Apple Dumplings Page 618”.

On page 618 in the pudding section of the book Craig includes a recipe for Nursery Apple Dumplings: six cored apples, flour, castor sugar, salt, butter, baking powder, water, milk and strawberry jam. These ingredients were enough for six children.

The ingredients and instructions for making Nursery Apple Dumplings are remarkably similar to those of Apple Deliciousa:

Sift the dry ingredients into a basin and rub in the butter with your finger-tips. Stir the milk in with a knife – you will need to form ¾ to 1 cup full. The dough should be soft and yet not sticky. Roll out on a floured board to ½ inch in thickness, and cut into 6-inch squares. Place an apple peeled and cored in the middle of each square. Fill each apple with sugar and strawberry jam, and bring up the corners of the paste. Twist and pinch it together, and place the dumplings side by side in a well-buttered baking tin. Pour over the water and the remaining sugar. Bake in a hot oven for about 45 minutes. Serve with custard sauce (Craig c 1930: 618-619).

Three things come to mind. Apple deliciousa is not the confounding recipe I once thought it was. A dish remarkably similar to it was a favourite of some other family. The woman who cooked from my copy of Elizabeth Craig’s book has cooked it and noted it for future reference.

I think about the series of chance events that brought this book to me. My mother found it sorting through boxes of donated books destined for an annual book sale held by the Geelong West Rotary Club to raise money for various charities. Of all the Colonial books in my collection I went to this book to find a recipe for Syllabub.

Solving this riddle of a recipe has made my day.

As there was no recipe in Elizabeth Craig’s book for Syllabub, here is one from Mrs Beeton. I followed it making only minor changes (I soaked the macaroons in orange liqueur and beat the cream until it was just starting to thicken).

Syllabub

Ingredients

10 macaroons or ratafia biscuits

1 pint cream

4 oz castor sugar

juice of one lemon

finely grated rind of ½ lemon

small wine glass of sherry or Madeira

pinch of cinnamon

essence of ratafia

Method

Mix the sugar, lemon juice and rind, cinnamon and wine together in a large bowl. Add a few drops of essence of ratafia (almond) and stir until the sugar is dissolved, then add the cream and whip it to a froth.

Arrange the macaroons on the bottom of a serving dish and when the cream becomes a froth, pour it over the macaroons. Stand the dish in a cold place and let it rest for at least 12 hours until served (Beeton c 1950: 872).

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