“Tell me where your grandmother came from and I can tell you how many kinds of pie you serve for Thanksgiving,” the food writer Clementine Paddleford surmised in her 1960 book, How America Eats. Around Boston, she wrote, “four kinds of pie were traditional for this feast occasion—mince, cranberry, pumpkin, and a kind called Marlborough, a glorification of everyday apple.”
A single-crust pie of stewed apples in a custard fragrant with nutmeg, citrus, and sherry, Marlborough pie originated in England as a custard pudding and crossed the Atlantic with early English settlers. It has since embraced its Americanness as another take on the beloved national dessert: apple pie.
The practice of putting apples in a custard and baking in a pastry base is at least as old as 1660. An Eater article cites Amy Traverso’s The Apple Lover’s Cookbook, which traces the first iteration of Marlborough pudding to a recipe in The Accomplisht Cook, an English cookbook published that year. It called for a whopping 24 egg yolks mixed with cinnamon, sugar, salt, melted butter, “some fine minced pippins” (tart apples used in cooking), and minced as well as sliced citron, all poured into a pastry-lined dish. The recipe was strikingly similar to the Marlborough pudding recipe in the first known American cookbook, published in 1796: Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery.
So, is it a pie or a pudding? It’s both, says Sarah Ramsey, lead interpreter at Old Sturbridge Village, a living history museum in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, that recreates rural New England of the 1830s. “Pie and pudding in the 19th century are very interchangeable, depending on how they’re served,” she says. “Because this is a custard-based dessert, it would technically be considered a pudding. But because it has a filling that has to be poured into something else—like a pie crust—in order to have it form and cook, it is also a pie.”
Ramsey is one of the costumed historians in charge of operations at one of Sturbridge Village’s many houses. Here, Marlborough pie is a staple at Thanksgiving, where visitors can watch it being made, although only the employees at the Village may partake in the joy of eating it.
“Marlborough pudding is probably one of the favorites of everyone in the Village,” says Ramsey. “It has a really nice, light flavor. It probably disappears the most on the table.”
The exaltation of Marlborough pie to the 19th-century Thanksgiving table features in the American writing of the time, from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Edward Everett Hale. In her 1869 book, Oldtown Folks, Stowe wrote that around Thanksgiving, “Pies were made by forties and fifties and hundreds, and made of everything on the earth and under the earth … huckleberry pies, cherry pies … apple pies, Marlborough-pudding pies—pies with top crusts, and pies without—pies adorned with all sorts of fanciful flutings and architectural strips laid across and around, and otherwise varied, attested the boundless fertility of the feminine mind, when let loose in a given direction.” “It seems she was batty for the stuff,” John T. Edge writes of Stowe’s pie obsession before quoting the above excerpt in his book Apple Pie: An American Story.
Marlborough pie was extremely popular in 19th-century New England, considered an indulgent treat as well as an ingenious use for apples nearing spoilage. “It was special because it was both more labor-intensive and more expensive to make than other pies of the time,” says Ramsey. “The sherry was probably coming from Spain. Nutmegs were coming from Indonesia, lemons from Sicily. Finding the ingredients could be tricky at the time.”
When an apple custard pie got the Marlborough moniker remains a mystery: Its nomenclature may be owed to a town of the same name in England, or Massachusetts, or both. To make matters more confusing, it is also sometimes known as Deerfield Pie (presumably after another Massachusetts town). A gloomier conundrum is why there’s sorrowful little Marlborough pie to be found in the Anglo-American culinary lexicon today. In fact, Clementine Paddleford’s explanatory preface suggests that even in the ’60s, the pie was not ubiquitous. Few establishments serve the pie today, although home bakers have kept it alive in the culinary imagination. In England, the celebrated chef Rick Stein serves Marlborough pudding at his Marlborough restaurant every fall. Stein’s redolent update on the traditional British recipe, topped with glazed Italian meringue and served with warm custard, contributes a portion of the sales to a local food pantry.
Ramsey attributes Marlborough pie’s faded glory to the added labor of cooking the apples down and the fear of custard scrambling as it bakes. But pie aficionados who’ve baked a conventional double-crust apple pie will find this a far simpler affair, with the potential to be a bigger hit for its subtle creamy sweetness, the bright tang of lemon, and the warmth from the sherry and spices.
Atlas Obscura — Rohini Chaki contributed to this report.