I Tried Making a Recipe from Canada's First Cookbook

April 29, 2020 | Peggy

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Vintage illustrations of food items in graphical pattern
Illustrations from The Cook Not Mad (1972 edition).

Now that we're staying home due to COVID-19, I've seen many people baking bread and experimenting with their pantries. This modern pandemic seems to have brought us back to earlier times. In this spirit, I thought it'd be interesting to test a recipe from an early cookbook.

I chose the first cookbook published in Canada: The Cook Not Mad. (I won't repeat its full, fantastically-long 19th-century title here.) It's one of thousands of early Canadian books available on our Digital Archive.

Published in Kingston in 1831, this charming, palm-sized book includes recipes and household tips. Written for early settlers from Britain, the recipes reflect that heritage with adaptations for local ingredients.

Vintage book cover with long title starting with the words The Cook Not Mad


Picking a recipe

Like the rest of Toronto, I’m following recommendations to limit trips to grocery stores during the pandemic. So my pantry lacked ingredients for some intriguing recipes in the book, like "Rice Snowballs" or "Federal Cake". However, I had everything for recipe number ninety-two, "Lemon Pudding".

The full recipe:

Four eggs, four ounces of sugar, one lemon grated with the juice, mix with four ounces of butter, one cup of cream, baked in a paste.

That’s it. Step by step it’s not, but let’s see. (Very brief recipes were common in the 1800s. They assumed the reader had experience with cooking and baking, so this shorthand was good enough.)

In old recipes, as in modern ones, it’s necessary to read to the end. Here, for example, the recipe ends with “Bake in a paste.” “Paste” sounds a little…icky, but translated into modern usage, this just means pastry. So our lemon pudding appears to be a tart. 

Ingredients for baking on countertop


Baking the recipe

The pastry base is not part of the recipe, so I prepared a standard one-crust pie dough and baked before adding the filling. This is often done for custard pies. Fortunately, I had the beans needed for blind baking (pre-baking) the crust.

Pie crust filled with beans in lining

Now for the filling. No details are given for how to put the ingredients together, so I guessed: I creamed the butter with the sugar; then added the juice and grated rind; then the eggs one by one, using a whisk to keep the mixture smooth. I mixed the cream in last, and poured the result into the cooled crust.

There’s no indication of baking temperature, which is not surprising since they didn’t have electric ovens in 1831. Custard pies are normally baked at a lower setting than fruit pies, so I set my oven to 350 Fahrenheit and left the pie in until it looked done, which took forty minutes.


The result

The end result tasted like a lemon square. My perception may be influenced by the fact that I ran out of chocolate or dessert in any form about a week ago, but it tasted pretty good to me. If you like lemon squares, and can’t run out to your nearest café to get one, why not try this recipe from the past?

A modern update of the recipe is available on page 75 of an annotated 1972 edition of the book if you'd prefer less guesswork. If you have your own suggestions for a different approach to the recipe, please share in the comments!

Lemon pie on cooling rack



More from TPL

While you’re enjoying your lemon pudding, you can have a look at our online resources related to cooking: