Mrs J. C. Croly’s 1866 Recipe for ‘Apple and Tapioca / Sago Pudding’

“Put a teacup of tapioca and a tea-spoon of salt into a pint and a half of water, and let it stand several hours where it will be quite warm, but not cook. Peel six tart apples, take out the cores, fill them with sugar, in which is grated a little nutmeg and lemon peel, and put them in a pudding-dish ; over these pour the tapioca, first mixing with it a table-spoon of melted butter and a little cold milk. Bake one hour. Eat with sauce.”

Mrs J. C. Croly, Jennie June’s American Cookery Book (1866)

I have memories of tapioca pudding from my early school days… and they’re not at all good. We used to call it “frogspawn” for reasons that will be obvious to anyone who has ever seen the stuff, or remembers having been made to choke down a few spoonfuls of the slimy, gloopy mess before they could leave the dinner hall.

Back in the day, tapioca pearls were stewed in hot milk and a dollop of the resulting gloop was dumped into the corner compartment of a plastic meal tray, with a blob of school-grade strawberry jam plonked in the middle. It bore very little resemblance to the “hearty comfort food” that modern food-bloggers would have you believe it typifies. The jam was the only source of flavour in the dish, tapioca being a generally tasteless starch with little else to recommend it in terms of nutritional value.

About the only thing I can remember that was worse than tapioca pudding was semolina pudding, which had the exact same colour and consistency as the wallpaper paste we mixed up for papier-mâché in art class. Hardly surprising, as the stuff is just coarse-ground durum wheat. Yuck.

The very best school pudding was, of course, spiced apple upside-down cake, served with custard. Yum.

But I digress. Back to the recipe at hand. Despite my memories and general misgivings, I have to admit that Mrs Croly’s version of tapioca pudding sounds… fairly palatable. Obviously it’s the addition of the baked apples that are swaying me in the direction of perhaps, just maybe, actually trying this one.

I guess the tapioca-filled surroundings would prevent the apples from scorching, and might help them keep their shape. Meanwhile, the baked apples might just infuse some actual flavour into the tapioca pudding which, when baked, might achieve a consistency akin to a firm rice pudding?

Although then again, why risk ruining half a dozen perfectly delicious baked apples by covering them in something that’s probably just going to cook to the texture of rubber and taste like polystyrene? And surely the trickiest question of all: “eat with sauce” goes without saying, but which sauce? A fruity compote? A creamy custard? A molten chocolate mousse? It’s a dilemma, for sure.

Perhaps I’d have more luck with sago? Which isn’t the same thing as semolina, nor tapioca, although it’s much closer to the latter. Mrs Croly also has a recipe for a ‘sago pudding’, and once again, it involves the addition to apples, presumably to make the stuff even vaguely edible:

“Peel and core as many apples as will set into the dish in which the pudding is to be baked ; fill the cavity in the cored apples with ground cinnamon and sugar. Take as many dessert spoonsful of sago as you have apples ; mix it with a little cold water and add as much boiling water as will be required to fill the pudding dish ; stir it all the time till it begins to thicken ; then cover it up and let it stand about two hours until the sago swells. Turn it into the dish, set it into a rather hot oven, and bake it one hour. Serve with sugar and cream.”

Mrs J. C. Croly, Jennie June’s American Cookery Book (1866)

This second recipe involves baking apples within a gelatinous – what’s the word? Pool? Puddle? Morass? – of sago pearls, rather than tapioca pearls. Again: not the same thing, and again, it sounds… well, actually not too bad, weirdly enough.

To be honest though, I’m not entirely sure I’m willing to experiment with either of these two. They could both easily end up being a waste of good apples. And then I’d be left with most of a packet of tapioca and/or sago and no desire to do anything else with the stuff.

How about you? Do you feel the urge to leap to the defence of tapioca and/or sago? Do you fancy giving ‘Apple and Tapioca / Sago Pudding’ a try yourself? If so, please accept my commiserations, and please do let me know how you get on, via the comments.

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