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What Is Marlborough Pie?

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All about a dessert that was once as common as apple pie.

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Among North Americans, New Englanders are most likely to have heard of Marlborough Pie, a type of dessert that used to be popular in the Northeastern U.S. Here is everything you need to know about this pie, which once graced many a Thanksgiving table in colonial times and the early United States.

What is Marlborough Pie?

Marlborough pie is an apple custard pie. (Not to be confused with a custard apple pie.) It is usually a single crust pie, in which the crust lines the pie dish and the filling is baked within, sans top crust. The finished pie has a sweet-tart flavor due to the addition of lemon and sherry wine. In Apple Pie: An American Story, historian John T. Edge writes that the pie tastes of "the tang of lemons, the silky musk of sherry, the base register of apples."

[Photo: Hanoian/Flickr]

[Photo: Hanoian/Flickr]

Where and how did it originate?

In early colonial days, apples were plentiful but perishable. To preserve them, colonists mashed them into sauce and cider. Home cooks turned older apples into puddings and pie. To stretch the apple filling for a pie when stores of fruit grew thin, cooks added a custard base of milk and eggs. Of the pie's ubiquity Edward Everett Hale, a historian once based in Boston, wrote in his 1893 book A New England Boyhood:

To this hour, in any old and well-regulated family in New England you will find there is a traditional method of making the Marlborough pie, which is a sort of lemon pie, and each good housekeeper thinks her grandmother left a better receipt for Marlborough pie than anybody else did. We had Marborough pies at other times, but we were sure to have them on Thanksgiving Day.

A brief history:

According to The Apple Lover's Cookbook by Amy Traverso, the first recipe for an apple pie made with custard and eggs is listed in a 1660 British book (republished) called The Accomplisht Cook by an English chef who trained in France named Robert May:

A made Dish of Butter and eggs.

Take the yolks of twenty four eggs, and strain them with cinamon, sugar, and salt; then put melted butter to them, some fine minced pippins, and minced citron, put it on your dish of paste, and put slices of citron round about it, bar it with puff paste, and the bottom also, or short paste in the bottom.

The Hartford Courant notes that ingredients like nutmeg, lemon, and sherry first began to appear in Britain in the mid-1600s through trade with Asia, Spain, and Mediterranean countries.

Colonists likely brought their recipes (and some ingredients) for apple custard pudding with them to New England, where apple trees prospered.

In Apple Pie, John T. Edge interviewed Deb Friedman of Old Sturbridge Village (an 1830s Living New England Living History Museum in Sturbridge, Mass.) who explains: "Eating seasonally [during colonial times] was not always about eating foods at the peak of their freshness. To eat seasonally at Thanksgiving was, in part, to eat foods that were on the verge of spoiling.... apples [didn't keep long]..."

The apples used for Marlborough pudding were never the best. They had sat through the better part of the year and may have been rotten. "The worm-riddled ones, the ones close to rot, those are the ones we crushed and strained through a horsehair sieve. That way the garbage and worms would stay behind and the rest would be made into Marlborough pudding."

It is unclear why the pie came to be called Marlborough, though it's likely named after the city in England or the city in Massachusetts.

The first documented recipe for "Marlborough Pie" in the United States is found in American Cookery, written by Amelia Simmons in 1776.

How is it made, and what ingredients go into it?

The basic ingredients:

• A pie shell (some recipes call for traditional pie dough; some for puff pastry)
• Apples: peeled; softened, stewed, old, grated, chopped, or sliced
• Sugar
• Lemon (sometimes just the juice, sometimes the whole fruit)
• Sherry
• Spices like cinnamon and nutmeg

Many recipes call for the custard mixture to be poured atop the apples in the pie shell, others specify that minced apples be mixed into the custard before it all goes in.

[Photo: Shutterstock]

A modern apple custard pie. [Photo: Shutterstock]

Here's Amelia Simmons's recipe from American Cookery (1796), an often cited recipe.

Does it go by any other name?

It is sometimes referred to as Marlborough pudding. Some sources say it's also called Deerfield pie.

Is it still commonly served?

It's certainly not as popular as it once was, though other types of apple custard pie are served across the U.S. Marlborough pie began to disappear from recipe books in the 1800s.

Why did Marlborough pie fall out of favor?

It's possible that with the advent of modern apple storage, fresh, good-quality apples became so widely available that a dessert made out of mealy, old apples became unnecessary. Modern apple custard pies rose in popularity not for their frugality, but for their richness.

Another possible cause of the pie's near disappearance is the rise of the temperance movement. "Without the sherry in the pie, it just doesn't taste the same," Friedman says in Apple Pie.

Where can you taste a slice?

Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Mass. makes Amelia Simmons's recipe from American Cookery (1796). for visitors to sample.

Crave Pie Studio (3107 B Main St., Duluth, Ga.) doesn't have Marlborough on its regular menu, it does occasionally offer it. The shop also takes special orders for the pie.

— Additional reporting contributed by Cynthia Correa

Video: Essential Pie Crust