Friday, November 11, 2016

Martha Jefferson's Chicken Pudding

Sometime in the past year or two, in my museum wanderings, I came upon The Early American Cookbook, by Dr. Kristie Lynn and Robert W. Pelton (originally published in 2002). It’s a slender volume filled with somewhat modernized versions of recipes by cooks in America, starting with the 18th century, featuring recipes of moderately famous people accompanied by brief biographies. It’s a surprisingly diverse collection of recipes, and it’s a wonder that they’ve all survived.

Many of the recipes will be familiar to modern cooks, some less so. I thought this one sounded interesting, although it needed a bit of tweaking. I love that Thomas Jefferson himself recorded his fondness for this particular dish. The “pudding” part is a little misleading, since it’s chicken covered with batter and baked in the oven, but the result is in fact soft and “pudding-y.”

One issue in recreating this recipe is finding a three-pound chicken—I have trouble finding a pair of breasts at my market that weigh that little. But then I had a brainstorm: Cornish game hens.

If you’re really interested, here’s what Wikipedia has to say about them: “In the United States, a Cornish game hen, also sometimes called a Cornish hen, poussin, Rock Cornish hen, or simply Rock Cornish, is a hybrid chicken sold whole. Despite the name, it is not a game bird. Rather, it is a broiler chicken, the most common strain of commercially raised meat chickens. Though the bird is called a "hen", it can be either male or female. A Cornish hen typically commands a higher price per pound than typically sold chickens, despite a shorter growing span of 28 to 30 days, as opposed to 42 or more for regular chicken.”

I found two hens that totaled a bit over three pounds—not quite what the recipe called for, but there are only two of us at home to eat these, and the recipe called for multiple pieces of chicken, spread out evenly in a pan. I voted for the little hens as closer in spirit to the original. If you want to make the dish, you can buy whichever parts suit your fancy.

The authors report that Thomas Jefferson believed that this was the best chicken dish his wife ever cooked. You be the judge!

Martha Jefferson’s Chicken Pudding
The chicken:

2 chickens, 3 pounds each
1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
3 tsp salt
2 tsp pepper

Cut up the chickens. Wash and skin the chicken pieces. Put the pieces into a large kettle with the butter, salt and pepper and add enough water (or chicken stock) to cover. Bring to a boil and let simmer gently for 15 minutes. Remove the chicken pieces from the kettle and set aside to cool. Reserve the cooking water for gravy. 

The batter:

4 cups whole milk

3 cups flour
3 Tblsp butter, melted
4 eggs, well beaten
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1 tsp cream of tartar

Blend all the ingredients together well.

Spread the chicken pieces in a single layer in the bottom of a large buttered baking pan. Pour the batter over this, using only enough to cover the tops of the pieces with a thin layer. (In fact, this batter recipe turned out to be the right amount for the chicken.)

Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 1 hour. The “pudding” will rise and brown on the top.

The gravy:

1 egg, well beaten
1 Tblsp flour
1 Tblsp fresh parsley, chopped

Reserved stewing water/stock (the amount shown above measured 4 cups)

Add the beaten egg to the stew water (this should not be hot or you’ll end up with scrambled egg). Stir well, then slowly add the flour until it thickens. Stir in the parsley. Bring to a quick boil then reduce the heat and cook over low heat for a few minutes (to cook the flour).

Distribute the chicken pieces on plates and pour some of the gravy over them. Serve hot (while thinking about Thomas Jefferson, of course).

I'm kind of between books right now. Search for the Dead, the fifth Relatively Dead book, came out in time for Halloween (barely!), but the next new one (Cruel Winter, the fifth County Cork book) won't be out until next April, and the next Orchard Mystery doesn't even have a cover or a title yet. But of course you can purchase any or all of my books at any time--wonderful holiday presents for a voracious mystery reader!


  1. What a fun adventure. Isn't it interesting how little seasoning was used in the past? Just salt and pepper, not much else.

    How did you like it?

    Am I right that you use a total of 6 pounds of chicken? "2 chickens, 3 pounds each"

    1. That was what the recipe called for (as translated by the book's authors). I can find four-pound whole chickens around here, and one of those might work, unless your family battles about light vs. dark meat. And it really could have used more salt (there was some in the gravy).

      Overall it was kind of nice--the chicken wasn't overcooked, and the pudding part was light and soft. Think polenta, maybe. Not as crispy as popovers.

  2. What a fascinating recipe. Sort of like chicken baked in an egg dish and served with gravy. So what did you think of it? How did it taste? Would you make it again?

  3. That actually sounds quite tasty! I wouldn't have guessed this type of dish by its name.

  4. That actually sounds quite tasty! I wouldn't have guessed this type of dish by its name.

  5. Fascinating recipe, Sheila! You always keep us on our toes. I think it would be delicious. Thanks, MJ