Marlborough Pie: a Traditional Thanksgiving Dessert

Marlborough Pie: a Traditional Thanksgiving Dessert

I’ve decided to include something new this year for Thanksgiving. Well, something new to me that’s actually quite old. Marlborough Pie is a traditional New England apple-custard pie that dates back to the 1600s. The earliest recipes are long gone, but since the 1700s it’s been made with cream, lemon juice, sherry, nutmeg, and applesauce. Today that basic recipe remains relatively unchanged.

Despite its Colonial pedigree, Marlborough Pie isn’t usually listed among most people’s “must-have” Thanksgiving desserts. Pumpkin Pie takes that honor these days. In fact, Marlborough Pie is a type of apple pie that seems to have disappeared almost entirely from our American table. However, our ancestors were far more likely to have included Marlborough Pie (also known as Marlborough Pudding) than Pumpkin Pie among the earliest of Thanksgiving celebrations.

Many of our now traditional New World Thanksgiving dishes were inspired by Native American cooking and indigenous American foods like shellfish and wildfowl. However, the Marlborough Pie is a “pudding-style” pie that has purely English origins. It probably represented a taste of the old country for homesick Pilgrims.

I’m not alone in my quest to give Marlborough Pie a modern-day second look. These days there are pockets of New England where some version of this pie is still served at Thanksgiving. I’ve read that this pie was named after Marlborough Street in Boston, others claim it was christened after the city of Marlborough (also in MA) or simply for someone named Marlborough; no one is certain which story is true. However, the earliest versions were certainly made using ingredients that are typically English: apples, cream, and butter. By the early 18th century, which is when Marlborough Pie began appearing in cookbooks, the recipe began to call for exotic ingredients like, Asian nutmeg, Mediterranean lemons, and Spanish sherry.

Once I decided I wanted to include this traditional pie in my Thanksgiving celebration I researched it as thoroughly as I could. I’ve seen quite a few recipes that entail modern shortcuts. Most notably plain, store-bought applesauce is substituted for fresh apples. However, like modern-day pumpkin pie, a Marlborough Pie is so much better when you start with whole, unprocessed fruit. Most commercially prepared applesauce is made with Red Delicious apples which aren’t the best choice for making homemade applesauce. I suggest you start with crisp, tart baking apples, such as Cortland, Granny Smith, Macoun, or McIntosh. Of course, heirloom varieties will give this pie even more traditional provenance. I chose Black Twig Apples (Arkansas 1868) that I brought back from Philo Apple Farm in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley. It’s one of the densest, crisp, and tart of the heirloom apples that I’ve tasted. GREG

Black Twig Apples (Arkansas 1868)Marlborough Pie

Apple-Custard Marlborough Pie 

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Marlborough Pie


  • raw pie pastry (enough to line one 9‑inch pie pan)
  • 2 pound apples (peeled)
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoon dry sherry
  • 2 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 3 large eggs (lightly beaten)
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 pinch freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 pinch ground cinnamon


Set oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 400ºF.

On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out to a 12-inch circle, about ⅛‑inch thick. Carefully transfer the dough to a pie plate and gently press it up the sides. Drape any excess crust over the edge, then fold under and crimp decoratively. Use a fork to prick holes in the bottom of the dough. Line the dough with parchment or foil and fill with dried beans or pie weights. Bake for 8 minutes. Carefully remove the weights and parchment or foil, then continue baking for another 5 minutes, or until the crust is dry and pale colored. Remove from the oven and set aside on a rimmed baking sheet to cool. Lower the oven temperature to 350ºF.

Meanwhile, using the medium holes on a box grater (or other hand-held grater) set in a large bowl, coarsely grate the apples down to the core. Sprinkle the apples with sugar, lemon juice, and sherry. Discard cores.

In a large nonstick skillet, melt the butter, then add the grated apples with their liquid, and cook, stirring, until the liquid begins to boil. Reduce the heat to low, then continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the apples are tender and most of the liquid has evaporated; 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool at least 10 minutes.

In a large bowl, whisk eggs, cream, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Stir in the cooled apples until well-mixed. Pour the custard into the partially-baked pie shell.

Transfer the pie, on its baking sheet, to the 350ºF oven. Bake until the custard is barely set and a little puffy, but not yet browned; about 35 minutes. Serve at room temperature or chilled.