Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Betsy: Plum Puffs from Anne of Avonlea

The Challenge: On the Facebook page, I gave a teaser about what I was cooking for the first challenge. It's something from an era I've never interpreted (and, frankly, never want to interpret), and from a book that first inspired my love of history. The book is Anne of Avonlea, the era is the late 19th century, and the recipe is plum puffs!

The Anne series of books made me fall in love with history. I watched the miniseries again and again, and read the books as many times as I could take them out from the library, enamored of the quaint-yet-elegant country life of Anne, Diana and their friends. I wanted to go to a one-room schoolhouse, play on Barry's Pond (excuse me, the Lake of Shining Waters), and wear a dress with puffed sleeves. Anne, the awkward and "homely" heroine who gets herself into so many scrapes with so many good intentions, also appealed to little me, and still has through all these years. So, when we set out a literary challenge, I knew for sure that I was going to pick an Anne recipe.

The plum puffs came from Anne of Avonlea. In the book, Anne has become a teacher with many ideas about what a teacher should do - including never hitting a child. Unfortunately, she meets her Waterloo in Anthony Pye, and gives him a whipping. Horrified with herself, she goes home for a good cry, which is how Marilla finds her.
"I can't help it. I want everybody to love me and it hurts me so when anybody doesn't. And Anthony never will now. Oh, I just made an idiot of myself today, Marilla. I'll tell you the whole story."
Marilla listened to the whole story, and if she smiled at certain parts of it Anne never knew. When the tale was ended she said briskly, "Well, never mind. This day's done and there's a new one coming tomorrow, with no mistakes in it yet, as you used to say yourself. Just come downstairs and have your supper. You'll see if a good cup of tea and those plum puffs I made today won't hearten you up."
"Plum puffs won't minister to a mind diseased," said Anne disconsolately; but Marilla thought it a good sign that she had recovered sufficiently to adapt a quotation.
Oh Anne. How can you not love her?  Who hasn't been there?

The Recipe:  As chance would have it, I came across a recipe for "Puffs" in The Good Housekeeper by Sarah Josepha Hale from 1841. Here's what she says:

Roll out puff paste nearly a quarter of an inch thick and, with a small saucer, or tin cutter of that size, cut it into round pieces; place upon one side raspberry or strawberry jam, or any other sort of preserved fruit, or stewed apples; wet the edges, fold over the other side, and press it round with the finger and thumb.
Simple concept! Puff pastry with fruit filling. There's even a recipe for puff pastry in the book, and it looked remarkably similar to modern puff pastry recipes. To be sure, I double-checked in The White House Cookbook, and their recipe is very similar as well.

The Date/Year and Region: There are several different theories out there about the timeline of the Anne stories. Most place the Anne of Avonlea scenes somewhere in the 1880s/1890s. So I stuck with that as a general era. Given Marilla's old-school-housekeeper personality, I felt comfortable reaching farther back to the mid-19th century for a recipe that she might have learned as a young woman, or even as a child from her own mother. The Good Housekeeper dates to 1841. The White House Cookbook dates to 1887. Both cookbooks are American.

How Did You Make It: I won't bore you with the details of making the puff pastry, except to note that it wasn't as hard as I feared. Following explicit directions was important, and chilling the dough between turns was very helpful. Since Anne wakes up the next day to a blanket of snow on the ground, I felt confident that Marilla probably chilled the dough on the porch as well.

For the filling, I decided to stew some fresh plums. I got some really ripe, juicy plums, peeled them, stoned them, and put them in a pan with a bit of water and some sugar, intending to thicken it up. I waited. And waited. And waited some more. I put some corn starch in and boiled it. And waited. And still it was runny. But, the plum pieces themselves, though nearly decimated from the process, were sweet and tart and juicy. So, I salvaged what I could.

I followed the recipe's directions: cut out circles, put a blob of filling in them, wetted the corners and folded them over. But, the filling was so runny, it was hard to get them to behave. So, they ended up a little more open that I would have liked - I was hoping for something that looked like a little fruit pie.

It doesn't matter though, because they were DELICIOUS. I baked them at 400 degrees for 10 minutes - that wasn't long enough, so I gave them another five minutes, at which point the bottoms were golden brown. The dough turned out flaky and light (a little salty, because I used salted butter without realizing, but oh well). The filling was everything a good fruit filling should be (except that it was runny). They got a little soft in between baking and serving (it was a warm, humid weekend) but they were still very good.

Time to Complete: FOREVER. At least that's what it seemed like. The dough took the longest because of the amount of chilling required between turns. In between each turn of the dough I worked on the filling, so it really took about three or four hours. Easily doable of an evening or on a weekend afternoon, but make sure you don't have to go anywhere suddenly, and plan on doing housework in between turns. You know that's what Marilla did.

Total Cost: Negligible. The pastry was flour and water to make a paste dough, plus a half a pound of butter. The plums were under $5. Mrs. Lynde would be proud of my frugality.

How Successful Was It?: They disappeared at the picnic to which I brought them, those who ate them gave rave reviews (even when asked "But seriously...") and those who did not get to try one were disappointed.

How Accurate Is It?: I live in the wasteland known as Central Minnesota. There are no green grocers or fruit markets, and plums are not easily grown here. So, I made do with what was available at my local supermarket, and have no idea if they are at all similar to 19th century plums. I also used my Kitchenaid mixer with the dough hook attachment to mix the dough, but did end up working it by hand at the end to get it uniform.

 Pictures! As stated on my own blog, you will always get terrible pictures from me. Still not sorry.

The finished product, with tea (naturally)
Bottom right, mid-devouring, on the picnic table. Courtesy of my dear friend Karen!

A note: Just before I started working on this, I was sent a link to another blogger who has done plum puffs from Anne of Avonlea. I was unaware of her efforts before I began this process. I still haven't even looked at her post, or her results, for fear of skewing my own research and results. I'm looking forward to comparing our notes, now that I'm done!


  1. Those look delicious! Your plum filling probably didn't thicken up because plums don't have very much natural pectin, which is what makes jam thicken (along with adding sugar and boiling away excess water). If you try this again, you might add some apples, a bit more sugar, and some lemon juice, or some powdered pectin, to the plums to help them thicken. I tried making plum jam a few years back and it didn't thicken, either, but I ended up with some very nice plum syrup!

    1. Thanks for your feedback! Since this challenge is focused on accuracy, I tried to do it as they did it. The recipes I researched for stewed fruits didn't mention adding anything but some water and sugar. Knowing that plums don't have much pectin, it was a risk, and it turned out as I feared, but there is further research and experimentation to do! At least the results taste good even when they fail, right? And yes, I now have a very nice container of thin stewed plums in my fridge!

    2. I was obsessed with Anne when I was younger, and still am to a certain extent. Congrats on finding a recipe that's not in the Anne of Green Gables cookbook!

  2. Oh, plums. The fruit famous for being made into povidla around here, and povidla apparently entails boiling for days. It was often a communal effort in villages, I've learned.
    But basic jam overall tends to be runny when baked, actually, so it makes me wonder how they did it... Maybe they had smaller fruits with more pectin in general; now fruit has had additional decades of cultivating to be large and juicy and stuff! As we tend to eat more fresh fruit all year around, while back then they had to conserve most of it in one way or another, so they were looking for different qualities...

    Anyway, lovely choice and good to know they were good!