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 Curcubita pepo. The Curcubita family is a wide-ranging genus, and includes watermelons, cucumbers, and zucchini. All Curcubita 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.

31 Comments


  • What a wonderful article. I doubt that I’m going to try this recipe, but it’s well worth publishing. You folks ought to have an Open House someday and serve up food from the recipes. Esp. if they match a play you’re showing. Anyway, thanks!

  • Cucurbitacea is the family, which does include cukes and melons. The genus is Cucurbita which are all New World. The way you’ve worded it suggests that cukes and melons are from the New World too, which they’re not.

  • Really interesting! Are these Zante currants that are being described? Would they have been more common that the currants typically grown in England now (on bushes)?

    • Thanks for your question, Cathy! The blackcurrants that are now so popular in the UK are from the family Grossulariaceae, genus Ribes. These include blackcurrants, redcurrants, and white currants. My hunch is that the currants to which Woolley is referring are Vitis vinifera, which are Zante currants or Corinthian raisins — the OED tells me that these were sometimes described as “raisins of Corauntz/Corinth.” Vitis and Ribes currants were both eaten in early modern Britain, but the Vitis vinifera ones were seen as more exotic (In H. Lyte’s 1578 Niewe Herball the Ribes are even called “Bastard Corinthes”!) and were one of the commodities brought in by the Levant Company starting in the late 16th century. Because the other ingredients in this recipe are high-end and were intended to invoke an air of gentility, it’s my best guess that she meant Vitis vinifera.

  • I’m curious if you have a guess as to what herbs would have been used? I think if I were to try this I’d want to go whole hog and really get how they would’ve experienced pumpkin. My European friends have told me they often think of pumpkin as savory and from what I know of this period sweet and savory were mixed a lot more than we do now. I might not like the herbs, but then I’m also skeptical about frying slices of pumpkin so it’s an adventure anyway. 🙂

    • Great question! It’s really difficult to say what Woolley meant by “herbs.” In another pumpkin recipe, she calls for thyme, rosemary, and marjoram, and that might be a good guess. But she uses many different kinds of herbs throughout the book, so it really could be anything! And it is true that early modern cooks (and early modern eaters) had very different priorities, as well as senses of what tasted good. Dishes that were both sweet and savory were very popular. Let us know if you try it!

  • I’m puzzled that you omitted the egg from your version of the recipe; after all, eggs are a standard ingredient in today’s pumpkin pies. I’m not sure why you assume that the purpose of the egg is so the pumpkin slices will hold their shape; how do we know that Woolley didn’t intend for everything to kind of mush together during the baking process? And it would have been interesting to at least experiment with herbs typically found in late 17th century England instead of using the modern version of pumpkin spice; after all, maybe you would have discovered an exciting and previously unknown combination of flavors. I’m also curious about what kind of crust was used back then, or if crust was used at all; might Wolley’s reference to a “pie” just mean a pie pan? And if they did use a flour crust, what kind of fat was used – butter, lard, something else? So many questions – great article!

    • Hello James, and thanks for your response! In this recreation we weren’t aiming for complete authenticity but rather something that would appeal to wide audiences, so we definitely made changes along the way. But if you decide to do a more authentic recreation, let us know how it goes — we’d love to hear about it!
      The custard question is interesting: she says that the slices should be dipped in egg and then fried, so the egg would have hardened (and did, when we practiced with this technique while we experimented with the recipe!) so it’s unlikely that it would have created a mushy/custard/soft texture. And pie crust: pie was a very popular early modern British food, with firm, high crusts that were sometimes eaten, but sometimes used just for storage. Food scholar Ken Albala has written a great article on English pie and its many meanings, and I highly recommend it if you’re interested in learning more about early modern pie: Ken Albala, “Shakespeare’s Culinary Metaphors: A Practical Approach,” Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 42 (2014), 63-74.

    • James — I looked up your pastry question in the copy of the cookbook I downloaded. I was also curious about what type of crust would be used so I searched through the digital edition I downloaded from Project Gutenberg to try and form a quick opinion. I noted it below.

  • Why did you opt to leave out coating the pumpkin slices in egg before frying them in your directions? Does it end up tasting like pumpkin and scrambled egg? :p

    • Thanks for reading, Gryphon! We did try the egg method, but — at least using butternut squash — it didn’t really make a noticeable difference to the finished product. So in the interest of simplicity and ease, we left it out in our adaptation.

    • Hello, Claire! I was a bit surprised by that too. But the pumpkin does seem to absorb some of the apple juice, and the once baked the filling is moist but not too runny.

  • John Josselyn wrote of his two trips (1638 and 1663) to the New World in *New-Englands Rarities* (London, 1672). Some of the many reprints are in the Folger. He included this recipe:
    But the Housewives manner is to slice them when ripe, and cut them into dice, and so fill a pot with them of two or three Gallons, and stew them upon a gentle fire a whole day, and as they sink, they fill again with fresh Pompions, not putting any liquor to them; and when it is stew’d enough, it will look like bak’d Apples; this they Dish, putting Butter to it, and a little Vinegar, (with some Spice, as Ginger, &c.) which makes it tart like an Apple, and so serve it up to be eaten with Fish or Flesh: It provokes Urine extreamly and is very windy.

    He called it a “ancient New England standing dish,” (or common).

  • I wasn’t sure if the commenters would be interested, but the cookbook that the recipe is drawn from is available for download for free from Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/14377 (You can download the kindle file and then read it on your phone via the kindle app, if you are so inclined. It’s fully searchable which is awesome).

    The “paste” that she recommends with sweet cheese cakes studded with currants are made with “flower, butter, the yolk of an Egg and fair water” and are meant to be rolled thin and baked quickly. A savory paste she recommends for chicken pie, on the other hand is made with cold cream, flour, butter, and the yolk of an egg. A quick glance through shows that many meat pies where the “paste” is also described call for cream or milk to be used instead of water. Sweet tarts, on the other hand, seem to be made with “puff-paste,” for which she includes at least two recipes. One uses “a quart of the finest Flower, the Whites of three Eggs, and the Yolks of two, and a little cold water.” This is then rolled and folded with butter 10 times in the same method that is very familiar today. The other calls for the cook to “Take fine Flower half a Peck, the Yolks of five Eggs and one White, one Pound of Butter, half a pint of Cream, and a little fair water, break your Butter in little Bits and do not mould it too much, but roul it abroad so soon as you can, and let the Butter be seen in spots, for that will make it hollow when it comes into the Oven…”

  • I saw this post yesterday afternoon, and I was so intrigued that I went out straight away to acquire the necessary butter, pumpkin, green apples, and sherry, and baked it that evening! I served it to a group of hungry singers today, partially warmed and with a sherry cream, and it was absolutely delicious. Everyone who tried it came back for seconds. As you would expect, it tastes more like a spiced fruit pie than what is generally thought of nowadays as a pumpkin pie, but that’s all to the good in my book because I’m not a fan of modern pumpkin pies. This may be a good addition to my festive board, so I can satisfy the dessert preferences of the pro and anti pumpkin pie factions at the same time!

    I think there was slightly too much sherry in the fruit mixture (not by flavour, but by the amount of liquid) so after I’d macerated everything I left some of the liquid behind in the bowl. The resulting pie was moist but not mushy – and no soggy bottom :0)

  • I made this pie yesterday and it turned out splendidly! I used a butternut squash as suggested and the Granny Smiths… the family is polishing off the remnants as I write this!

  • This recipe was excellent. I modified it a bit and used spaghetti squash instead and added a can of pureed organic pumpkin. Added currants but forgot to add the raisins and it was still delicious. I made the pie crust from scratch using only flour, unsalted butter, and some ice water.

  • This was amazing, thanks for the post! I did mine with butternut squash, dipped in egg as originally suggested, along with rosemary and thyme, and the result was unaccountably delicious.

  • I love so much that this has become a thing! I have the ingredients but have yet to make mine — I have to adapt it because of allergies in the family, but will go with a butterkin squash, Granny Smith apples, currants, honey-soaked apricots, and apple cider instead of sack/brandy. I’m planning on using rosemary as my herb (though perhaps I’ll add thyme and marjoram, too). I hope you make recipes a regular series, Amanda. And if they are and I’ve just missed them, I look forward to seeing the new ones:)

  • Hi.

    This is splendid!

    One proofing query: did you really mean “early adapter”, or should that be “early adopter”?

    Best —
    jon


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