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Kitchen Science: Early American Holiday Puddings

At holiday time, we enjoy both Native American plant science and food science. Mix in a little food history, and you have both pumpkin pie and “Indian Pudding.”

Before colonists ever arrived in North America, Native Americans nearly all grew corn, squash and beans—called “the three sisters.” In fact, without their plant and agricultural science, who knows when European settlers would have made a “go” of their venture here.

“Samp” was an early cornmeal pudding-porridge Native Americans shared with the English colonists. But the English were homesick for their rich holiday puddings or custards. It’s no wonder that, as soon as more dairy cattle arrived and eggs were plentiful, they began enriching samp with milk, eggs, butter, spices and the most available sweetener, molasses. By mixing cornmeal or squash with eggs, cream or milk and sugar and spice, adapted English custard puddings were soon served.


Kitchen Science Q: What makes the liquid mixture of eggs, cornmeal or pumpkin, milk and molasses or sugar become firm when baked?

Coagulation. The protein in eggs has a unique ability to thicken as it heats. Beaten whole eggs, without added ingredients, will thicken when heated to about 144 to 158 degrees F.
When eggs are mixed thoroughly with milk, sugar and solids like pumpkin or cornmeal, the eggs have a wonderful ability to hold enmeshed all these ingredients in more or less even distribution—setting up into a smooth textured pudding or custard.

When whole eggs are mixed with other ingredients, they won’t thicken or “set” as quickly as when cooked alone. Testing is needed—a clean knife should be inserted in the center of the mixture. When removed, it should come out “clean,” without any liquid egg mixture on the knife. The temperature should also reach at least 160 degrees F. on an instant read thermometer, inserted at the center of the pudding.

Enjoy a little history with your holidays by preparing your own
"Colony Cornmeal Pudding.”

What you’ll need:

1 quart glass casserole dish
2 cups milk
½ cup cornmeal
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ginger
½ cup molasses or dark brown sugar
2 large eggs, slightly beaten
½ cup raisins (optional)


  1. In a one-quart glass casserole, heat milk on HIGH power, uncovered, for three to four minutes, or until steaming.
  2. Use a wire whisk to slowly stir in the cornmeal.
  3. Cover the casserole and heat the mixture on HIGH power for 1 ½ minutes. Stir, then repeat.
  4. Cool five minutes, stirring several times. Stir in the salt, cinnamon, ginger, molasses, and beaten eggs. Add raisins, as desired.
  5. Cover and cook on MEDIUM-HIGH power for 20 to 25 minutes.
    OR, preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Place the uncovered casserole in a 9 X 13-inch baking pan. Pour very hot water around the casserole, to about an inch in depth. Bake 20 to 25 minutes.
    Test for doneness: A knife inserted in the center should come out clean.
  6. Serve warm. Makes six servings.

Keep food safe: Refrigerate custard, covered, within two hours of removing from the oven.

  • Want to learn more? See custard being made? Learn more about cornmeal?
    For a guide to understanding more about egg science and pictorial custard directions, visit www.aeb.org (American Egg Board).
  • For more about early American cooking and ingredients visit www.historycooks.com
  • Visit our member directory find more companies with information about corn meal milling and products in the United States.