Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Blueberry History and a Recipe for Berry Tea-Cakes

Berry Tea-Cakes

About Blueberries
One of my favorite soft fruits is genus Vaccinium, or more commonly referred to as the blueberry. One of the interesting albeit frustrating parts of searching for recipes for blueberries prior to the 20th century is that there are so few of them.  The blueberry is a fruit that is native to North America and has probably been around for more than 13,000 years. Native Americans used them  in soups, stews, and meat dishes so why the lack of vintage recipes for them? 

The following history helps to explain the lack of recipes that use the word "blueberries":

Nomenclature, or What's in a Name?
In Central and Northern European, a species of soft fruit similar to the North American genus Vaccinium blueberry was known as the bilberry. To further add to the confusion, New England colonists referred to the native fruits as hurtleberries, whortleberries, huckleberries, and also as bilberries. It is therefore not surprising that there are few recipes that use the name "blueberry".

Formal Cultivation:
Blueberries were only available wild until they were cultivated for the first time c.1915-1920 in New Jersey by the daughter of a farmer, Elizabeth White (no relation!), and Dr. Frederick Coville, a USDA botanist. It is reasonable to assume that once they were cultivated they then entered the recipe repertoire of 20th century cookbooks using the uniform name of "blueberries" to refer to the mass-marketed cultivated variety of the once wild-only berry.

The historic recipe I chose blueberries is non-specific as to the type of berries to use, therefore I took this as an invitation to use blueberries, as I am sure many people who lived near wild blueberry bushes would have done the same back in the 19th century when it was written. 

Recipe: Berry Tea-Cakes
Source: Mrs. F.L. Gillette and Hugo Ziemann (Steward of the White House), The Original White House Cook Book, 1887 edition.
Nice little tea-cakes to be baked in muffin-rings are made of one cup of sugar, two eggs, one and a half cups of milk, one heaping teaspoonful of baking-powder, a piece of butter the size of an egg and flour sufficient to make a stiff batter. In this batter stir a pint bowl of fruit--any fresh are nice--or canned berries with the juice poured off. Serve while warm and they are a dainty addition to the tea-table. Eaten with butter.

Modern Recipe Adaptation: Berry Tea-Cakes
Yield: 28 Cakes

  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 1/2 Teaspoons Baking Powder
  • 2 Eggs
  • 1 Cup Granulated Sugar
  • 1 1/2 Cups Milk
  • 4 Tablespoons Butter, Melted
  • 1 Dry Pint Fresh Blueberries or 1 1/2 Cups Frozen Blueberries
  1. Heat the oven to 375ยบ F. Grease muffins tins.*
  2. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the flour and baking powder. Set aside.
  3. In a large mixing bowl, mix together with a whisk or fork the eggs, sugar, milk, and butter.
  4. Add the dry ingredients to the wet, and mix by hand just until well-blended with no lumps.
  5. Gently fold in the blueberries.
  6. Spoon about 2 Tablespoons of the batter into each muffin cup.
  7. Bake for 20 minutes.
  8. Eat with butter while still warm.
  9. Reheat leftovers in the microwave or on a greased griddle. 

*Variation:  You can also cook these on a griddle just as you would for pancakes.

  • Alan Davidson, The Penguin Companion to Food, 2002
  • www.blueberrycouncil.org/about-blueberries/history-of-blueberries/

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