Thursday, February 4, 2021

Plants to Food at Mt. Vernon - Custards Made with Eggs from the Hen Yards


Martha Washington (1731-1802) - From the Garden to the Table 

While George Washington oversaw most aspects of managing Mount Vernon's  pleasure gardens & grounds, Martha Washington oversaw the Kitchen Garden (The Lower Garden), allowing her to keep fruits and vegetables on the table year round.

The Kitchen Garden at Mount Vernon

“…impress it on the gardener to have every thing in his garden that will be nece]ssary in the House keeping way — as vegetable is the best part of our living in the country.” – Martha Washington, 1792

Inside the Kitchen at Mount Vernon

Outside The Kitchen at Mount Vernon

In the matter of eating & drinking George Washington was temperate. For breakfast he ordinarily had tea & Indian cakes with butter & perhaps honey, of which he was very fond. His supper was equally light, consisting of perhaps tea & toast, with wine, & he usually retired at nine o'clock. Dinner was the main meal of the day at Mount Vernon, & usually was served at two o'clock. One such meal is thus described by a guest:  "He thanked us, desired us to be seated, & to excuse him a few moments.... The President came & desired us to walk in to dinner & directed  us where to sit, (no grace was said).... The dinner was very good, a small roasted pigg, boiled leg of lamb, roasted fowls, beef, peas, lettice, cucumbers, artichokes, etc., puddings, tarts, etc. etc."   The General ordinarily confined himself to a few courses & if offered anything very rich, he would protest, "That is too good for me." He often drank beer with the meal, with one or two glasses of wine & perhaps as many more afterward, often eating nuts, another delicacy with him, as he sipped the wine.

Very Good Custards

Ten china custard cups were listed in the inventory of the pantry taken after George Washington’s death, perhaps part of an order from England he made in 1761. Although custard is not specifically mentioned in Mount Vernon meal descriptions, the presence of such a set indicates that the dessert was frequently served on the Washingtons’ table. 

This recipe comes from Mary Kettilby’s A Collection of above Three Hundred Receipts in Cookery, Physick, and Surgery, which was first published in 1714, preceding the better-known works of Hannah Glasse by three decades. Glasse appears to have “drawn on” Kettilby’s book. In her preface, Kettilby assured readers that “the Desire of doing Good was the sole Motive that at first engaged [her] in this Work.” It appears she gathered recipes from several sources, although they are not attributed. Five editions of Mary Kettilby’s book were issued—the last one posthumously, in 1734.

This recipe is a modern adaptation by culinary historian Nancy Carter Crump for the book Dining with the Washingtons.


4 cups heavy cream

3/4 cup sugar

8 large egg yolks

2 teaspoons orange-flower water


1. Preheat the oven to 325°F.

2. Pour the heavy cream into a medium saucepan and scald (bring just below the boiling point) over medium heat. Remove from the heat and add the sugar, stirring until it is completely dissolved.

3. Whisk the egg yolks in a medium bowl until slightly foamy. Slowly blend about 1/2 cup of the hot cream mixture into the egg yolks, whisking constantly. Pour the mixture into the hot cream, and stir in the orange-flower water. Set the pan over low heat and, stirring constantly, cook until the custard thickens just enough to coat the back of the spoon. In order to prevent the egg yolks from curdling, do not let the custard boil.

4. Remove the custard from the heat, and divide it among eight 4- to 6-ounce custard cups or ramekins. Carefully arrange the filled cups in a 13-by-9-by-2-inch baking dish. Pour enough boiling water into the dish to come about one-third of the way up the sides of the cups, being careful not to drip any water into the custards.

5. Bake the custards for 45 to 60 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the centers comes out clean. Remove the custards from the pan, and set on a wire rack to cool completely. Cover each custard and set in the refrigerator to chill for at least 8 hours, or overnight, before serving.

Colonial Era Cookbooks

1615, New Booke of Cookerie, John Murrell (London) 

1798, American Cookery, Amelia Simmons (Hartford, CT)

1803, Frugal Housewife, Susannah Carter (New York, NY)

1807, A New System of Domestic Cookery, Maria Eliza Rundell (Boston, MA)

1808, New England Cookery, Lucy Emerson (Montpelier, VT)

Helpful Secondary Sources

America's Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking/Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Colonial Kitchens, Their Furnishings, and Their Gardens/Frances Phipps Hawthorn; 1972

Early American Beverages/John Hull Brown   Rutland, Vt., C. E. Tuttle Co 1996 

Early American Herb Recipes/Alice Cooke Brown  ABC-CLIO  Westport, United States

Food in Colonial and Federal America/Sandra L. Oliver

Home Life in Colonial Days/Alice Morse Earle (Chapter VII: Meat and Drink) New York : Macmillan Co., ©1926.

A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America/James E. McWilliams New York : Columbia University Press, 2005.