I can remember quite distinctly the time I heard about the American delight called ‘popovers’, and looked up a recipe – to find that my mother used to make them when I was growing up in the North of England. They were small Yorkshire Puddings, eaten cold with butter and jam or golden syrup. They did not have a special name, and they were never made especially to eat in this way, we only got them if there were any left over from serving with the roast beef.
Plain batter and suet puddings were a common accompaniment to meat dishes in previous times, the starchy bulk helping fill to out the meal and reduce the amount of expensive protein needed to go around. There is no doubt that early English settlers in the American colonies took their recipes with them, and adapted them - and renamed them – in their new home. The everyday batter pudding which was usually put in a dish under the joint of meat cooking on a spit in front of the fire was placed in small cups one day, presumably for some reason of necessity, and in the baking the batter rose and ‘popped’ over the top of the cups – and Voila! Popovers were born.
The name ‘popovers’ first appeared in print in 1850, but this was in a piece of correspondence, not a cookery book. Actual cooking practices, especially of ordinary everyday items of food, usually pre-date the first mention, sometimes by a considerable period of time, so it is reasonable to assume that popovers were known well before this date. For the first known recipe, we have to wait until 1876, for the publication of Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving (1876) by Mary Newton Henderson. Here is the recipe:
Breakfast Puffs, or Pop-overs (Mrs. Hopkins)
Ingredients: Two cupfuls of milk, two cupfuls of flour, two eggs, and an even tea-spoonful of salt.
Beat the eggs separately and well, and the whites last, and then beat well together. They may be baked in roll-pans, or deep gem-pans, which should be heated on the range, and greased before the batter is put in: they should be filled half full with the batter. Or they may be baked in tea-cups, of which eight would be required for this quantity of batter. When baked, serve immediately. For Graham gems use half Graham flour.
The recipe for batter has remained the same for centuries, and this is essentially Yorkshire Pudding batter. No-one would have considered fiddling with the recipe when I was growing up – where was the need? Not all cooks in all places felt the same way, however, and the lily has ultimately been gilded in various ways. I give you several versions from The 3-6-5 cook book, for use 365 days in the year (1899), by Mary Shelley Pechin.
POPOVERS - 1.
Pastry flour is the most desirable, but the best bread flour will do. Sift two cups of flour with half a teaspoonful of salt. Add gradually two cups of milk, and when a smooth batter has been obtained mix in two eggs without separating the whites and yolks. Add a teaspoonful of butter, melted. Beat the batter thoroughly; pour it at once into the cups of stoneware, well-buttered. Do not fill the cups more than half full. Bake the cakes in a quick oven until, true to their name, they rise far above the edges of the cups and hang over them in a rich, brown crust. These cakes are nice for breakfast when served with either maple syrup or cream sauce ; or may be eaten like a muffin, with butter. They are often served as a plain dessert with sweetened cream.
POPOVERS - 3.
One pint of milk, one pint of flour, two eggs. Beat eggs separately and add milk and flour ; mix thoroughly and add one saltspoonful of salt. Bake in small pans, and fill half full ; the pans must be hot when the mixture is put in.
Half a pint of sifted Graham flour, half a pint of sifted wheat flour, one tablespoonful of sugar, half a teaspoonful of salt, and a teaspoonful of butter, melted. Beat the whites and yolks together and beat the batter vigorously with a patent egg-beater. Pour the batter into buttered cups of stoneware. They should rise, like all popovers, to four times their original size. If they are baked in an ordinary muffin pan or even in a heated iron gem pan, they will not rise in this way. Wheat popovers are light and about double in
bulk baked in gem pans ; in stone cups they are four times the bulk.
Rye meal from which Boston brown bread is made, is used, not rye Hour. Mix an even cup and a half of rye meal with an even cup of wheat flour; add a tablespoonful of sugar and half a teaspoonful of salt. Pour over these dry ingredients a pint of milk, mixing it to a smooth batter. Add three eggs, whites and yolks together. Beat the batter thoroughly and pour into a dozen stoneware cups well buttered. Bake the cakes in an oven that is very hot for the first twenty minutes; then reduce the heat and bake them from twenty to thirty minutes longer.
The same book also has this interesting variation. I assume the name is intended to reflect the white, snowy appearance.
Lapland cakes are a peculiar, delicate, delicious cake of the popover kind. They are made with a much larger quantity of eggs than the ordinary wheat popovers. Beat the yolks of five eggs thoroughly with the patent egg-beater and stir them into a pint of sweet cream. Do not use a heavy cream for this purpose, but a light quality. Pour the mixture on a pint and a quarter of pastry flour sifted with half a teaspoonful of salt ; beat the batter well with a patent egg-beater and fold in carefully the whites of five eggs beaten to a stiff froth. Fill buttered cups of stoneware half full and bake the cakes three-quarters of an hour in a quick oven.