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Contours of the Premodern World

Pi(e) Day Adventures at the James Ford Bell Library!

By March 15, 2024No Comments

Over the past 10 years or so, Pi Day – March 14 or 3.14 – has grown wildly in popularity. It used to be a celebration for Math majors, but now it’s for everyone, and there are many variations. This year, my colleague Emily Beck (associate curator over at the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine) invited me to participate in the Great Library Pie Bake Off (#GLPBO24). This is a fun Pi(e) Day event for librarians from across the country who are into historical cookery. Count me in!

Poster for Historic Fruit Pi(e) Day, showing a child eating a slice of pie, and logos of the organizing institutions.

Poster of #GLPBO24 with the logos of the organizers’ institutions. Maybe next year we’ll add the UMN Libraries logo!

Among the Bell’s acquisitions from the past couple of years are some amazing printed and manuscript recipe books (in English, French, and German) from the 18th century. I particularly like the German one (on “Cookery, medicine, and domestic economy”) dated to ca. 1750, handwritten by several different people over the course of its usage. I like to imagine that at least one of the authors of the recipes was a woman – since female cooks were common in large households in Germany. I’m sure too, that this book was indeed created for a large household because the recipes are scaled for lots of eaters! Pi(e) Day – this year Fruit Pi(e) Day – gave me the push to try out some fruit pie recipes from this book.

One of my first discoveries is that the book actually has just a few fruit pie recipes – most of the pie recipes contain meat, and a few are variations on cheese cakes. I did find a lemon pie and an apple pie recipe, and decided to try the apple for #GLPBO24. The apple pie required fewer unusual ingredients, and I thought I would be able to prepare it more quickly too. However, with a little more research, I think the lemon pie would be fun too – perhaps another day!

This is the apple pie recipe as it appears on the page.

Handwritten page, in 18th-century script, in German.

The recipe for “Apffel Kuchen” (Apple Pie) in the Bell’s 18th-century German cookery book. Bell Call # 1750 Ger.

This is the transcription [brackets with question marks indicate places where I was unsure of the word]:

Apffel Kuchen

Man nimt 24 rechte gute Aepffeln die nicht gar zu groß sind, schehlet sie und schneidet sie in dünne Striemeln [??], giebt sie auf einer Schüssel [?] mit einem wenig Butter und ein fägel [??] weißen Wein, Kanel und ein wenig Cardemom, läβet es durch und durch wohl heiß werden, so muβ es erst wieder Kalt seyn, dann nimmt man 13 gantze Eyer, schläget sie eine gute halbe Stunde, so werden von 2 oder 3 Citronen die Gelbe Schalen abgerieben und der Safft wohl ausgepreβt nebst Zucker so viel man nöthig findet zu den Eyern hinein gerühret, wie auch die Zubereiteten Aepffeln, der Form muβ mit Butter bestrichen und mit gestossen Zucker Zwieback bestreuet werden, dann wird die helffte von den Teig hinein geschüttet, und mit Sucade wie auch candirte Pomrantzen Schalen in Striemeln [??] beleget so dann die andere Helffte von den Teig und mit Sucade [?] und Pomrantzen ~ Schalen in Striemeln [??] geschnitten und damit sehr dichte beleget und dann bey messigen Feuer hellbraun gebacken, man kan auch geschnittene Mandeln hinein geben ungefehr 1/4 pfund [??].

This is the translation – as close to the original syntax and German as possible:

You take 24 really good apples that are not too big, peel them and cut them in thin strips [??], put them in a pan [bowl] with a little butter and [some??] white wine, cinnamon and a little cardamom, let it become hot through and through, it must first become cold again, then you take 13 whole eggs, beat them a good half hour, grate the yellow rind of 2 or 3 lemons and squeeze out the juice together with as much sugar as you find necessary, stir into the eggs, as well as the prepared apples, the form must be smeared with butter and sprinkled with crumbled [?] sugar Zwieback, then pour in half the dough, with Sucade (candied lemon peels/citron) and candied bitter orange peels in strips [?], then put in the other half of the dough with Sucade and bitter orange strips, cut and densely laid and then bake it with a moderate fire, you can also add cut almonds about a quarter pound [?].

First, I gathered ingredients.

Ingredients for the recipe: rusks, eggs, butter, sugar, apples, spices, lemons, and wine.

All the ingredients assembled.

This was not quite as straightforward as one would think. First, the candied lemon I had on hand was way past its expiration date, and I didn’t have any candied bitter orange. Most grocery stores only carry these items around Christmas for holiday baking, but eventually, I discovered bitter orange jam at Sun Foods in Brooklyn Center. The orange peels in this jam certainly would have recreated the intention of the recipe, but ultimately, I just couldn’t add them. The bitter citrus paired with the sweet apples seemed very contrary to my modern palate. Although I usually try to stay as close to the historical recipe as possible, this time I decided not to chance it.

Hand holding a jar of bitter orange jam.

Bitter orange jam – from Lebanon.

Big chunks of bitter orange peel!

The recipe also calls for white wine, but does not suggest what type. I decided that a sweet wine from Germany would have to do: Starling Castle Gewuertzraminer – chosen because the label said it had the aroma of cinnamon and sweet oranges – and also because it was on sale! I had no idea how much wine to put in the recipe, so I poured about half of the bottle in the pot – which was probably too much.

Wine bottle showing the label at the back.

Sweet white wine from the Pfalz region of Germany.

The last puzzling ingredient was “Zucker Zwieback.” This would be “sweet rusks,” which are also not generally available in Twin Cities grocery stores. There are recipes for “Zwieback,” but, alas, I didn’t have time for that today. Again, Sun Foods had what I needed – cake rusks made in Canada.

Package of rusks, made in Canada, eggless.

Eggless sweet rusks, made in Canada.

Rusks - like dried cake slices.

These are essentially dried cake slices.

I decided to use just 18 apples instead of 24, and chose local Honeycrisp apples, plus a couple of Granny Smiths. Honestly, they were all pretty bland in flavor, perhaps because we’re so far from apple season at this point. 18th-century apples would have been denser in texture and more tart in flavor. The recipe says that the apples should be cut in “Striemeln” – an unusual word that I think means something like “strips.” If the idea was to cut long, round strips from the apples, this skill was beyond me. I cut a combination of lengthwise strips and slightly curled ones.

Big pot full of thin apple slices.

One of my largest pots, full of thinly sliced apples – recipe print-out in the background.

The recipe also says that the 13 eggs should be beaten for half an hour at least. I opted for 10 eggs, and since I had never beaten eggs for half an hour, I decided to try it and see what would happen. I used a wooden spoon, since no particular utensil was noted, and found the experience pretty fatiguing.  I don’t think I would do it that way again, and I’m not sure that all that stirring actually did much for the eggs!

Eggs getting stirred with a wooden spoon.

Eggs beaten for a good half hour!


Pot of stewed apples next to bowl of beaten eggs.

Cooled apple mixture ready to be added to the beaten eggs.

Next, I put 10 of the sweet rusks into a zip-lock bag, and pounded them gently into large crumbs. These went into my largest pie pan as the crust of the pie, and then I poured the egg and apple mixture into the pan.

Large crumbs in a pan.

Crumbled sweet rusks in the pan.

I decided that with a modern oven, “a moderate fire” probably meant about 300-325 degrees. The pie baked for about an hour and 15 minutes, and indeed, the filling firmed up and the whole became a pleasant light brown color. The kitchen smelled lovely too!

Pie baking in an oven.

Baking commences.


Apple pie in round pan, photographed from above.

“Aepffel Kuchen!”

Finally, I am pleased to say that the pie got rave reviews from the whole family!

A slice of pie.

Dense and delicious apple pie!

I’m already looking forward to #GLPBO25!

Anne Good

Author Anne Good

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