A pumpkin pie recipe from 17th-century England

The finished pumpkin pieClick here to jump to the recipe for Hannah Woolley’s pumpkin pie.

When we imagine pumpkins, most of us think of the large, round, orange squashes. These are known as Cucurbita pepo. The Cucurbita family is a wide-ranging genus, and includes watermelons, cucumbers, and zucchini. All Cucurbita pepo plants are American in origin, and C. pepo pumpkins were well-established, popular foods: archeologists working in Central America have found remains of pumpkin rinds and seeds in human settlements dating back to 7,000 BCE. But early modern Europeans didn’t see, grow, or taste pumpkins until they came into contact with the “new worlds” of the North, Central, and South Americas at the end of the fifteenth century.

When early modern Britons first encountered the Cucurbita pepo, they named it “pumpion,” a word derived from the old French word pompon, and the classical Greek pepon – both of which meant “melon.” The orange squashes were first mentioned in the English language in a plant book printed by Peter Treveris, called The Grete Herball, produced in London in 1526.

In metropolitan Britain, pumpkins were seen as a special food, expensive and exotic. But in the British Atlantic colonies, pumpkins, pumpkin leaves, and pumpkin seeds appeared in the bowls and on the tables of many different kinds of people. They continued to hold a valued role in the diets of indigenous Americans, and they were consumed by rich as well as poor white women and men. Enslaved women and men ate pumpkins too, growing them in their gardens – if and when they were allowed to cultivate their own crops – and stewing their leaves and roasting their seeds when these nutrition-rich parts of the plant were cast off as waste by slave-owners and slave-managers.

Today pumpkin is eaten in both savory and sweet dishes, but arguably the most popular use for it in the Anglo-American tradition is by cooking it in a pumpkin pie. Creamy, sweet, and custardy, pumpkin pie appears on most Thanksgiving tables across America. And one of the earliest recipes for pumpkin pie can be found in the Folger vaults: “To make a Pumpion Pie,” which appears in a seventeenth-century cookbook written by a woman named Hannah Woolley.

Hannah Woolley was the Betty Crocker of Renaissance England. Raised in London in the 1660s, Woolley established a name for herself as a chef, author, and cooking instructor. Dozens of recipe books appeared in her name, and she hosted cooking classes in her London kitchen. Woolley was an early adapter when it came to pumpkin. Recipes for pumpkin appear in her books as early as 1672. In a book called The Queen-Like Closet, Woolley included this recipe:

To make a Pumpion Pie

Take a Pumpion, pare it, and cut it in thin slices, dip it in beaten Eggs and Herbs shred small, and fry it till it be enough, then lay it into a Pie with Butter, Raisins, Currans, Sugar and Sack, and in the bottom some sharp Apples; when it is baked, butter it and serve it in.

Woolley’s pumpkin pie wouldn’t look or taste quite like our Thanksgiving custards. She called for chefs to peel and slice the pumpkin into thin wedges, dipping them in egg before frying them. This would have ensured that the pumpkin slices retained their shape and firmness when baked, a helpful step when cooking types of squash that were stringy, tough, or watery. Woolley’s readers were then supposed to layer these pumpkin slices into the piecrust alongside other fruits: apples, currants, and raisins.

When Woolley suggests that cooks use “sharp apples” in the recipe, she’s probably referring to apples with a tart or sour profile. Although apples and grapes (raisins) were grown widely in England, they were expensive, and consumed almost exclusively by the elite. Woolley included sack, a kind of early modern fortified wine imported from Spain and the Canary Islands, to give the filling depth and flavor. Currants – a dwarf seedless variety of grape – were also imported in the period, cultivated in the Middle East and shipped across the Mediterranean to British markets. Taken as a whole, the ingredients in Hannah Woolley’s pumpkin pie were luxury goods, suggesting that this dish would have appeared on the tables of only the richest and most well-connected early modern Britons.

Shakespeare himself certainly understood these associations when he invoked the pumpkin in one of his very best insults. In The Merry Wives of Windsor (Act III, Scene 3), the ostentatious, pleasure-loving Falstaff is described as a “gross [e.g., large] watery pumpion.” The fact that Falstaff is often portrayed with a round, pumpkin-like belly would have made the comparison all the more obvious to Shakespeare’s viewers and readers.

Hannah Woolley’s Pumpkin Pie

To make a Pumpion Pie

Take a Pumpion, pare it, and cut it in thin slices, dip it in beaten Eggs and Herbs shred small, and fry it till it be enough, then lay it into a Pie with Butter, Raisins, Currans, Sugar and Sack, and in the bottom some sharp Apples; when it is baked, butter it and serve it in.

Ingredients:

Two unbaked pie crusts: one for the top of the pie, one for the bottom
2 cups of peeled, sliced squash (butternut or sugar pumpkin)
2 cups of peeled, sliced tart apples (Northern Spy, Cortland, or Granny Smith)
3 tbsp. butter
¼ cup of raisins
¼ cup of dried currants
¼ cup of sugar
½ tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. nutmeg
¼ tsp. cloves
3 tbsp. sherry (we recommend a dark sherry, such as Oloroso)

Directions:

Heat the oven to 425F. Peel the squash and apples and slice them into pieces that are roughly the same size: 3 inches long, 1 inch wide, ¼ inch thick is a good guideline. Melt 1 tbsp. in a frying pan and sauté the squash until softened, about 10 minutes. Combine the cooked squash, apples, raisins, and currants in a bowl. Toss them gently with the sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and sherry. Set aside. Place the first (bottom) pie crust in a pie pan, allowing for two inches of crust to drape over the sides. Layer the squash/fruit mixture into the pie. Dot the top with the remaining 2 tbsp. of butter. Cover with the second (top) crust, crimp the edges, and cut a few vents in the crust to allow steam to escape. Bake at 425F for fifteen minutes, then lower the temperature to 375F, turn the pie, and bake for another 50-60 minutes. Total baking time is between 65-75 minutes.


Historical notes

Pumpkins are classified as squash and are available in a wide variety of types. In fact, the USDA classifies “pumpkin” as any squash that is a “clean, sound, properly matured, golden-fleshed, firm-shelled, sweet variety of either pumpkins and squashes.” Butternut is a good option as it’s available at most groceries and farmer’s markets, and is a dense, firm, and flavorful squash that’s easy to cut and peel. Woolley’s original recipe recommends that the pumpkin to be dipped in egg before frying; this step isn’t necessary if you’re using butternut squash, as it will hold its shape on its own.

Woolley also calls for “herbs shred small” in her recipe; we substituted spices that are used frequently today in pumpkin recipes, as this offers the pie a more familiar taste. The “sack” described in Woolley’s recipe was an early modern fortified white wine. The closest approximation to early modern sack is modern Oloroso sherry, a dark, aged (and highly alcoholic) wine.

A cross between traditional American apple and pumpkin custard pies, this adaptation of Woolley’s early modern pie is fruity, fragrant, and richly spiced. It will be right at home on any modern Thanksgiving table.

For more information on the early modern history of pumpkins, we recommend the following:

  • Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 231, 640.
  • “Pompion,” The Oxford English Dictionary (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
  • Jessica B. Harris, High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011).

Special thanks to Ember Cook and Dave Herbert for their help with this post. All photos by Dave Herbert.