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