December 6, 2023

Tempting Your Taste Buds with Historic Recipes Perfect for the Holiday Season

Raise your hand if one of your favorite things for the winter season is connected to baking. It might be the warmth from an oven as the temperatures drop, an urge to make something for yourself and others that shows off your creative flair, or even a recognition that the smells of cinnamon, nutmeg, and more evoke a sense of comfort and joy. You might even have a favorite recipe that you make year, after year, after year.

It is with that in mind that we asked our National Trust Historic Sites and sites from the Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios (HAHS) program about holiday recipes connected to their site. In a surprising twist, only two of the recipes we got were for cookies, the others were a mix of cakes, drinks, and other desserts.

Learn about these historic recipes and hear from National Trust staff that volunteered to be our recipe testers. Then try your hand at making some of these delicious treats by downloading the full recipe guide including notes from the staff tester.

Gingerbread from Belle Grove Plantation (Middletown, Virginia)

A plate of elegantly decorated gingerbread with red and green sprinkles and frosting.

Gingerbread Cookies from Belle Grove Plantation.

This Gingerbread recipe is from Belle Grove Plantation, a National Trust Historic Site, and comes from a Hite Family cookbook that is in a private collection. A few years ago, the owner gave it to the site to transcribe and volunteers adapted some of the recipes for today’s cook.

Haley Powell Kelly, associate director of institutional giving, said, “These simple cookies have a strong molasses flavor, with the ginger becoming more subdued once baked. They roll and cut easily, and definitely benefit from a little extra sweetness (like icing and sprinkles!) on top. I think Santa will appreciate a couple of these with a glass of milk.”

Note: The recipe booklet also includes a recipe for gingerbread from the The White House Historical Association’s White House Family Cookbook which was a staple at the Reagan family holiday celebrations.

A Sweet Bun from Oatlands Historic House and Gardens (Leesburg, Virginia)

A plate with some sweet buns on a plate next to a cup of tea and in front of a ceramic ping Christmas tree.

Sweet Buns from Oatlands Historic House and Gardens

A yellowed card on which is written out the recipe for sweet buns. The script is cursive, with some of the recipe notes indicating measurements using a wine glass.

photo by: Oatlands

Recipe Card for Sweet Buns from Oatlands

This sweet bun recipe is from Mary Griffith Carter (1866-1929) the wife of George Cuthbert Carter, the grandson of George and Elizabeth Carter the original family of Oatlands, a National Trust Historic Site. The recipe is for a kind of shaped sweet bun, with cinnamon and nutmeg. If you look at the recipe as written some of the ingredients are measured using a wine glass!

Winter Roybal, grants assistant said, “Because I followed the historic recipe’s instructions pretty closely, the sweet buns came out a little more like scones than buns. That being said, the taste was not bad, and they were perfect with a cup of tea! ! If I were to make these sweet buns again, I would add in the brown sugar prior to the first rise, and because I live at a high altitude (5280 feet), I would add more flour to make them more bread-like!”

Eggnog from The Glass House (New Canaan, Connecticut)

View of eggnog from The Glass House with a filled cup next to a punchbowl and a bottle of nutmeg next to it.

Eggnog from The Glass House.

To mix things up we’ve included two different holiday drinks for you to try.

The first is David Whitney’s eggnog recipe which was often served at The Glass House, a National Trust Historic Site. The Glass House, built between 1949 and 1995 by architect Philip Johnson is a 49-acre landscape with 14 structures and features a permanent collection of 20th-century paintings and sculpture, a collection of Bauhaus design furniture, and periodic temporary exhibitions.

Whitney, an editor and curator and Johnson's partner for 45 years served this recipe to friends (including artist Donald Judd) in their creative circle.

Elizabeth Read, director of planned giving said, “I was glad I was using my largest punch bowl, it reached the very top of the bowl. Also, "eggnog tastes mostly like melted ice cream."

Brattleboro Cake from the Thomas Cole National Historic Site (Catskill, New York)

A view of a round cake on a turquoise plate next to a slice with a set of woven placemats on a table.

Brattleboro Cake from the Thomas Cole National Historic Site.

A image of a printed recipe signed with Emily Cole's name.

photo by: Thomas Cole National Historic Site

The recipe for Emily Cole's Brattleboro Cake.

If you're looking for a winter holiday cake with cozy flavors, look no further than the artist Emily Cole's favorite "Brattleboro Cake" recipe. Emily Cole (1843-1913) was a professional artist whose father was the artist Thomas Cole. Her "Brattleboro Cake" recipe with nutmeg and brandy was featured in the 1911 Catskill Cook Book compiled by the Ladies’ Sewing Society of St. Luke’s Church. Today, Emily Cole's home and studios in Catskill, New York, are known as the Thomas Cole National Historic Site and are a member of HAHS.

Chelsea Lundquist Wentz, associate manager for historic sites, said, “this cake is moist and very boozy if you choose the brandy/cognac option. It would be delicious with whipped cream and blackberries for dessert. Next time I will reduce the alcohol and add in citron to try out a more family friendly version!”

Note: We’ve also included an untested recipe for Plum Pudding from Thomas Cole National Historic Site in the recipe book as well.

Apple Cake from The Soldner Center (Aspen, Colorado)

A bundt cake sitting in front of a bowl with apples and a scented candle.

Apple Cake from The Soldner Center.

Located in Aspen Colorado, The Soldner Center, a member of HAHS, is the home and studio of Paul and Ginny Soldner two artists (Paul a ceramicist and Ginny a painter) who also spent their life as teachers and innovators.

This Apple Cake is a Soldner family Christmas morning recipe. It's beautiful with white powdered sugar on top of the dark brown round bundt cake and was often plated with holiday green and red holly.

Farin Salahuddin, director PastForward conference, said, "this was an easy recipe with an impressive payoff. I made this cake with my 11 year old son and 8 year old daughter. I prepped the ingredients for them beforehand and they enjoyed dumping each ingredient into the batter. My son learned how to peel apples! He even went so far as to say it was fun! My daughter is not a cake girl. But she liked this one because it is not overly sweet. It tasted great with a hot cup of coffee, but it would go just as great with a cold cup of milky beverage."

Hanukkah Blintzes from the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center (East Hampton, New York)

A set of rolled crepes on a blue rectangular plate filled with a cheese filling and a blueberry compote.

Hanukkah Blintzes from the Pollock-Krasner House.

A yellowed envelope on which is written a faded recipe for Hannukah Blintzs

photo by: Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center

The envelope on which Lee Krasner scrawled out the recipe for the Hanukkah Blintzes.

Lee Krasner, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family, wrote this recipe for Hanukkah blintzes on an envelope mailed to her on November 27, 1944. The holiday began on December 10 that year. The site thinks that Krasner was perhaps planning to make the sweet pancake for Jackson Pollock, with whom she was living at the time. This recipe comes from the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center which is a member of HAHS.

Haley Somolinos, email manager, said "these simple little crepes are a bit challenging with many different components. The recipe makes A LOT, so it’s good if you’re feeding a crowd, but expect to be stuck in the kitchen for a while babying the crepes on the stove."

Fig Cake Clementine from the Melrose Plantation (Natchitoches, Louisiana)

A page from a cookbook detailing the Fig Cake belonging to artist Clementine Hunter.

photo by: Melrose Plantation

A photograph of the Fig Cake recipe from Clementine Hunter and Francois Mignon's cookbook, "Melrose Plantation Cookbook."

A view of the slice of a cake with figs in the middle.

A view of the layers in Fig Cake Clementine.

African American Folk Artist, Clementine Hunter co-wrote a published cookbook of recipes from her life working at Melrose Plantation, which is a member of HAHS. A copy of the cookbook is now in the collection of the National Museum of African American Art and Culture in Washington D.C., and includes other delicacies such as rice pudding and apple dumplings. Clementine Hunter’s studio and the murals she painted of life on the plantation are also preserved at Melrose Plantation.

Alison Hinchman, director of digital engagement said “I got a lot of help for this cake from my sister-in-law who is an experienced baker, and from my father and mother, who let me borrow their kitchen and their hands. All the flavor in this cake will come from the figs and allspice in the center gold layer and your frosting. Don’t be afraid to have fun with the frosting, whatever you think will complement the figs.”

Spice Cake from Demuth Museum (Lancaster, Pennsylvania)

A view of a thin bundt style cake on a cake stand with some holiday holly and greenery around the base.

Spice Cake from the Demuth Museum.

This Spice Cake recipe from Augusta Demuth's (1856-1943) cookbook. Augusta was the mother of Modernist artist Charles Demuth (1883-1935) who would often cook for her son and his avant-garde friends in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The Demuth Museum is a member of HAHS.

Jade McClary, associate general counsel, said, “It was warmly spicy, but not overpowering. The cake was moist. The chocolate was a nice touch because the cake was super sweet, and the bitter cacao helped to cut that sweetness.”

Pear Chips and Boston Punch from Chesterwood (Stockbridge, Massachusetts)

Two handwritten recipe's for Boston Punch and a fruit compote style dish called Pear Chips.

photo by: Chesterwood Archives, Chapin Library, Williams College

These handwritten recipe sheets were found in Mary Adams French’s “Menu Book."

These two recipes come from Chesterwood, a National Trust Historic Site and a member of HAHS. Citrusy and festive, Boston Punch could have been served at the lively Christmas dinners the French family hosted at their New York townhouse. Friends and family gathered for an elaborate dinner, gifts were exchanged, and French enjoyed reciting humorous verses about the guests. While the extraordinarily sweet Pear Chips (which is more of a fruit compote in sugar syrup than chips) might have been an excellent way to use an abundant stash of Bartlett pears that had been harvested from trees growing on the Chesterwood property.

A close up view of a sugary fruit compote in a wine glass in a dish with pears.

Pear Chips from Chesterwood.

A punch glass with a yellow citrus liquid next to a dish with apple pie and ice cream and in front of a pitcher of liquid and a bottle of sparkling grape juice.

A glass of the Boston Punch next to an apple hand pie and vanilla ice cream.

As Priya Chhaya, associate director of content said, "Because both of these were made for a large gathering I made smaller batches then what the recipe cards say. For the Pear Chips I did one-fourth of what is written, and that still made a lot of the fruit in sugar syrup mixture. My family brainstormed how we might use it instead of eating it as is and some suggestions included putting it on top of a vanilla cake, using it as a sweet pickle with some hot roti (an Indian flat bread) or spoon it over ice cream. The Boston Punch was refreshing and citrusy.”

Chocolate Caramels from the Bush-Holley House (Cos Cob, Connecticut)

A fragment of a recipe book with the instructions for making Chocolate Caramels.

photo by: Bush-Holley House

The Bush-Holley House Chocolate Caramels Recipe.

A festive plate piled high with chocolate hard candy.

A look at the final Chocolate Caramels from the Bush-Holley House.

The Bush-Holley House, a National Historic Landmark and a member of HAHS, was a boarding house and the center of the Cos Cob Art Colony. This well-loved recipe for chocolate caramels was tucked into the front cover of one of Emma Constant Holley MacRae's cookbooks. She was known for her delicious cooking, and the holiday meals the MacRaes hosted often included their many artist friends.

As Diana Maxwell, associate director of grants said, “Reading historic recipes is always interesting for what they don’t include in their descriptions and instructions! If these caramels are supposed to be more like a hard candy, they are the most chocolate-y hard candy I’ve ever had, but I suspect they are supposed to be softer and chewier. If I were to make them again, I would only let the mixture cook to 250 degrees or so- the “soft ball” stage.”

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While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

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