Apple Pie Bake-Off Or The Sweet Taste of Revenge

In the October 1813 Report of the Committee, Isaiah Thomas justified the choice of Worcester for the home of the American Antiquarian Society. He maintained that an “inland situation” offered the best protection against,

the destruction so often experienced in large towns and cities by fire, as well as from the ravages of an enemy, to which seaports in particular are so much exposed in times of war.

War and fire. Yeah right, Mr. T. We know the real reason you picked Worcester: the apples. From the end of August into late November, the orchards in the surrounding hills gently rock us out of summer and into the sweet lull of autumn. We are eventually deposited harshly onto winter’s doorstep. But up until that point, it is a reverie of fresh apples. So in the spirit of a New England autumn, an apple pie experiment.

applesThe Premise: Four pies sharing the same crust recipe and apple varieties (Gravenstein, Northern Spy, Baldwin, and Golden Delicious to be exact). The differences would be the spices and sweeteners used in the filling: three from historical recipes and one from a modern cookbook. As with the pound cake experiment, our testers would be the AAS fellows.

The Historic Recipes: Most of us are familiar with apple pies starring apples coated in white (or brown) sugar with a dash of cinnamon or nutmeg. We kept the modern recipe modern, but took advantage of historical recipes that called for unexpected sweeteners.

Powdered Sugar/Rose Water Recipe from The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph, 1836


White Wine and Lemon Recipe from Mrs. Putnam’s Receipt Book by Elizabeth Putnam, 1860


and finally…

Let’s be honest, lately these fellows have been working hard, turning in call slip after call slip for materials the reference staff then pages. Their industry is our sore feet. But we can’t say no. Instead it was time for a different kind of revenge:

The Molasses-Sweetened Recipe from The Young Housekeeper’s Friend by Mary H. Cornelius, 1846

The Young Housekeeper's Friend by Mrs. Cornelius, 1846

The unwitting accomplices: Jess “Could have been a pastry chef” Lepler, Hench Post-Dissertation fellow and assistant professor of History at the University of New Hampshire, Emily “Queen of the Crusts” Pawley, AAS-NEH fellow and Ph.D. in the History of Science (2009), University of Pennsylvania, and Allison “I don’t really cook” Stagg, Last fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in Art History, University College, University of London.

apple_pie_butter_gratingThe Process: Pie making is a relatively boring task. One part was thrilling: the discovery of a cheese grater to easily add the cold butter to the crust dough. The rest was pretty straight forward: peel, cut, mix, pour, and repeat. The historic recipes forced us to make educated guesses on what exactly a “teacup” of molasses, a “little” mace, or a “few tea-spoonsful” of rosewater actually meant–caution usually guiding our judgment.

Before the crust covering, there was time for a snapshot of one pie. (t looks delicious when you think it’s chocolate…)


apple_pie_molasses_pieceThe Results: Victory! “The molasses one was vile. It was gross. It was disgusting,” said one esteemed fellow. “Horrible,” proclaimed another. That’ll teach them.

But what of the other pies?

apple_pie_bakedThe powdered sugar/rosewater pie prompted the most broadly split opinion. The cloves created a particularly pronounced flavor that some found an odd combination with the perfumy and off-putting rosewater; others were disappointed they couldn’t taste the rosewater more. As spirits are likely to do, the wine-flavored pie swayed many a fellow. The final score tallied, the white wine pie tied with the modern one in terms of taste. One fellow concluded, “We Americans should be eating wine pie.”

The fresh, tart taste of the modern and wine recipes complimented the crisp apples purchased that day from an orchard. Would this story have ended differently if the experiment took place in the middle of winter with mushy apples two months old? The weighty flavors of the molasses and powdered sugar/rosewater recipes might help mask less-than-delicious apples.

The Take-Away: When you are going to torture library fellows make sure your boss isn’t there. But from Ellen Dunlap, AAS president and unexpected tester, the thoughtful conclusion that our palettes may be more comfortable with subtle flavors. She preferred the modern pie, enjoying the complexity of its spices to the more monotone qualities of the historically-inspired ones. “I kind of liked the first taste of the rosewater and the wine, but they quickly got boring,” she said. And apparently even presidents don’t care for molasses-sweetened pie.

Published by

Diann Benti

Assistant Reference Librarian

10 thoughts on “Apple Pie Bake-Off Or The Sweet Taste of Revenge”

  1. This looks like a really interesting experiment. I don’t think I like the sound of the molasses pie very well either, but the rest sound taste-test worth!

  2. Have we another historical finding here? As I recall from reading foreign visitors’ accounts of their travels in New England, New Englanders pronounced “pie” as “poy.” But the utterance of “poy” may have been the immediate response of tasters of the molasses-and-apple concoction. (When did “ew!” and “yuck!” enter the American vernacular vocabulary?)

  3. The suggested amount of molasses sounds much too large. I’m not surprised that the flavor was overwhelming. I’d adjust it to half a cup, at most.

  4. I read the results of your cook-off with some curiosity. Catherine Beecher offered up a receipt for a pie quite similar to Mrs. Cornelius’s. I’ve long wanted to try it so I was disappointed by your reviews. This morning I found myself faced with a small mountain of apples but wanted something different that the usual. Concerned but undaunted by the reactions of your fellows I tried Beecher’s
    “Little Girl’s Pie” ( It is sweetened and spiced as a “normal” pie but with molasses added. I had an unknown mix of apple varieties and I flavored it with cinnamon, cloves and ginger, as I had a smallish pie plate I did cut the amount of molasses some. Thanks to a somewhat uncooperative fire it was done rather late and was taste tested while still warm. Everyone who tried it came back for more. Maybe this receipt with the addition of sugar and spices is more familiar tasting to the modern palate.

  5. Most likely you used a blackstrap molasses, like Brer Rabbit – resulting in the repulsive taste. For years I’ve been trying to replicate Shoo Fly pie, which also uses molasses. One day I stumbled across a statement that one should be using an Amish regional (Pennsylvania) molasses called King Molasses, or if that is unavailable, dark corn syrup, such as Karo’s blue label (or Lyle’s Golden (Cane) Syrup). While I have not used King Molasses, my Shoo Fly pie recipes gave me delicious results when substituting Karo’s Blue Lable Dark Corn Syrup for the molasses. In researching early Pecan Pie’s I have found that prior to the introduction/production of Karo’s corn syrup products, a New Orleans Pecan Pie recipe calls for Louisana (brand) Molasses, which upon investigation and research I found was actually a Cane syrup (similar to Lyles Golden Syrup).

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