The Historical Relevance of Reconstructing an Early Modern Lemon Pie

In the spring of 2021, students of the Huizinga Institute, the Dutch national graduate school for cultural history, took part in the course “The Sensory Archive”. In this course, they read, transcribed, and prepared recipes from an eighteenth-century recipe manuscript from the University of Amsterdam’s special collections. Here, one student reflects on what he learned from cooking from historical recipes.

Guest post by Theo Dekker

Reconstructing both sister Hoffer’s recipe for lemon pie and a sugarloaf from the early eighteenth-century was an exciting experience, but it did not feel like conducting historical research. This feeling was strengthened when a fellow scholar asked me what I had learned, while at the same time she was enjoying my lemon pie. Since it took some time to formulate an answer, I realised two things: first, the learning outcomes were countless and second, that there was no single answer to this question. The latter made me uncomfortable since professional historical research should at least answer a question. The new director of the NWO, Marcel Levi, wrote something similar in April 2021, resembling a point stressed by Marieke Hendriksen using performative methods.[1] However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and cannot merely be determined behind a desk when reading (for example) recipe books. Only by performing the reconstruction itself, I learned how fruitful performative methods are. Therefore, I would like to share some of the perks and pitfalls that historians need to take into account when using performative methods, while at the same time you learn how to make and early modern lemon pie and sugarloaf. 

Lemon pie after the recipe in MS VIII E 14 

            Food historian Ken Albala claims that while reconstructing historical recipes, the technology ‘must be as authentic as possible to gain any really meaningful insights. Needless to say, the ingredients must be replicated exactly or the experiment is meaningless’.[2]  Although it is evident that replicating the exact ingredients is impossible – fortunately – the aromas of for example wheat did not change significantly over time.[3] However, there were some technical difficulties that could be solved with sufficient resources, but in contrast to Albala, I am convinced that the meaning of the reconstruction lies in the questions that needs to be answered, not necessarily in the exact technology or the specific products. Therefore, in contrast to Albala, I would argue that historians should not restrict themselves, but be aware of the choices they make while using performative methods and be as transparent as possible about the implications that it has on the outcome. 

            One of the technical difficulties I encountered while making rosewater from the Damask rose was related the practice of distillation. Distilling alcohol for spirits, perfumes and aromas in general can be problematic. After the invention of column distillation in the late eighteenth century, the base of perfumes and aromas became rectified alcohol. As a result, the aromas of the original distilled product were lost, which was characteristic of early modern pot still distillation. Although it is possible to reconstruct early modern alcohol, it was too expensive for an educational exercise. As a result, the rosewater that I distilled for the sugarloaf in the seventeenth century distillery of Wynand Fockink, was too pure and concentrated compared to the original variant. Since it was used as an aroma for the loaf, the (grain) aromas of the alcohol itself would have been negligible, while for reconstructing a perfume it would have been necessary to make a proper reproduction.              

            While reconstructing the lemon pie I encountered two other problems. One concerned the measure of ‘1/2 stuijver of stale white bread’, and the other was the reference to the ‘crust’ in which the mixture needed to be poured in. To tackle the first problem, I used The Price of Bread (Cambridge, 2019) from Jan de Vries. In 1708 one-stuiver of ‘fine white bread’ weighted 15 loden, meaning that 1/2 stuiver bread weighted 165 grams, because 32 loden = 1 pound = 494 grams.[4] Three days before the reconstruction, I went to a former colleague who uses a self-made sourdough for the white bread and still bakes it on stone. Although the oven is powered by electricity, I tried to be as historically accurate as possible. Similar to the bread, there was no recipe in the cookbook for the ‘crust’ that it referred to. Therefore, I used recipe 26 Om wit deegh tot Pasteyen te maken from 1593 by Carolus Battus. 

            After blending the ingredients, the mixture was poured into a baking tray and placed in an electric oven, but with top and bottom heat. I set the temperature on 170 degrees Celsius based on the consistency of the mixture and the duration as described in the recipe. Slightly longer than in the original recipe, the lemon pie was coloured gold-brown after 105 minutes. The pie was still a bit fluid after it came out of the oven. But since it has to be served chilled and based on the combination of sugar and lemon juice, I expected a gelling effect after the pie cooled down. This was exactly what happened, and the next day I took it with me to the office so everybody there could evaluate the recipe. Most people were especially amazed by the texture and the freshness of the pie. The filling became gelatinous, but still had a slight bite to it because of the apples. Although one person said that the pie was somewhat sour, others said that it was well balanced and that it tasted healthy because I only added 100 grams of sugar. 

            Coming back to my original question of what I learned from these reconstructions is that an extraordinary amount of ‘know-how’ knowledge is already presupposed in the recipes. Since the practical knowledge cannot be obtained by only reading the recipes, it would be interesting to study this form of practical or embodied knowledge, which was common and significant to a large part of society. Several historians already set excellent examples for others to follow, but more comparative and cross-cultural research will provide new insights on the knowledge practices and identities of large groups in society.[5]  

            To conclude, performative methods are definitely here to stay as advocated by Marieke Hendriksen.[6] Nevertheless, the value and contribution of performative methods depends on their ability to answer scientific (historical) research questions. Similar to some digital humanities projects, tools and visualisations are created that look fancy but are barely useful in answering advanced research questions. Let’s not make similar mistakes with performative methods, by making empty promises or presenting humanistic scholarship as more ‘scientific’. Performative methods are of great value when they enrich our existing methodologies and enable us to answer new research questions. However, to come up with innovative research questions, academics should not restrict themselves to their desks, but get their hands dirty in kitchens, labs and bathrooms to be inspired by the creativity and the unexpected of the process itself. Furthermore, historians should continue discussing the methods and practices both within and outside the humanities. Not only to gain a better understanding of the past, but also to be informative and beneficial for both today and the future. 

The finished sugar loaf

The recipes in Dutch and English. 

Om citroentaart te maaken die kout op tafel moet koomen van Suster Hoffer.

4 a 5 suere appelen na dat groot sijn & geschilt op een rasp tot het klokhuijs toe afgeraspt, neemt dan 1/2 stuijver oudbakke wittebroot mede tot op de korst geraspt, dan 6 eijeren de helft sonder wit, ook 6 citroenen ’t buijtenste effen daar afgesraspt & dan het sap daar uijt gedrukt, doet dat te saamen onder de afgeraspte appelen, dan een lepel of vijf gesmolte booter & dan soo veel brootzuijker tot dat men proeft dat soet is, t’selve dan onder eij geklopt & in de korst gedaan laat een uer of anderhalf bakken. 

To make lemon pie that should be served cold, by sister Hoffer 

Take 4 to 5 sour apples depending on their size and grate them to their core on a rasp. The take a 1/2 stuijver of stale white bread also grated to the crust, 6 eggs of which half of the egg whites are removed and the grated peel and juice of 6 lemons. Mix this with the grated apples and add around 5 spoons of melted butter and as much sugar as is needed for it to taste sweet. Mix this with the eggs, pour it in a crust and let it bake for 1 to 1 1/2 hours. 

Om zuijker broot te bakken. 

2 pond blom, 2 pond beste poejer zuijker, 1 stuijver roose water 16 eijers fijn geklopt & dan de blom & zuijker daarin gestroit & het roose water daarbij gedaan & dit samen beslagen zijnde moet 1/2 uer uit geklopt worden & dat met een in het blik gegooten & in de oven geset. 

To bake sugar-loaf

Take pond of flour, 2 pond of the best powdered sugar, 1 stuijver of rose water, 16 well beaten eggs. Mix the flour and the sugar into the beaten eggs and add the rose water. When this is done it should be beaten for a 1/2 hour before it is poured into a tin and placed in the oven. 

[1] Marieke Hendriksen, ‘Rethinking Performative Methods in the History of Science’, Berichte Zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 43, nr. 3 (2020): 314,

[2] Ken Albala, ‘Cooking as Research Methodology: Experiments in Renaissance Cuisine’, z.d., 76.

[3] Friedrich Longin e.a., ‘Aroma and Quality of Breads Baked from Old and Modern Wheat Varieties and Their Prediction from Genomic and Flour-Based Metabolite Profiles’, Food Research International 129 (1 maart 2020): 108748,

[4] Jan de Vries, The Price of Bread: Regulating the Market in the Dutch Republic, Cambridge Studies in Economic History. Second Series (Cambridge: University Press, 2019), 232.

[5] Sara Pennell en Michelle DiMeo, Reading and Writing Recipe Books, 1550–1800 (Baltimore, Maryland: Project Muse, 2018); Elaine Yuen Tien Leong, Recipes and everyday knowledge: medicine, science, and the household in early modern England (Chicago ; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2018); M. Stols-Witlox, ‘“From Reading to Painting”: Authors and Audiences of Dutch Recipes for Preparatory Layers for Oil Painting’, Early Modern Low Countries 1, nr. 1 (2017): 71–134.

[6] Hendriksen, ‘Rethinking Performative Methods in the History of Science’, 321.

The devil is in the details: turpentine varnish

Corrosion cast of bronchi and trachea, possibly from a rabbit, sheep, or dog, 1880-1890
Likely prepared by Harvard anatomist Samuel J. Mixter.
The Warren Anatomical Museum in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine

This post first appeared on The Recipes Project on 5 June 2018.

By Marieke Hendriksen

One of the first things you learn when you do reconstruction research is that the tiniest detail can make a difference.

Recently, I wanted to prepare an injection wax for corrosion preparations according to a 1790 recipe. Corrosion preparations are anatomical preparations created by injecting an organ with a fluid coloured wax that hardens. The organ is then lowered into a container with a corrosive substance, such as a hydrochloric acid solution, which corrodes the tissue, leaving a negative image of the veins and arteries of the organ. These preparations were made from at least the mid-eighteenth century, but because of their fragility, very few remain. As they were supposedly difficult to make, corrosion preparations were not only a way of studying anatomy, but also a tool for self-fashioning and establishing one’s status as an anatomist.

I have tried to create an injected preparation in the past.[1]It was my first attempt at reconstruction research ever, and although it served me well at the time, now I do things differently.

Most importantly, I want to stay much closer to the original recipe if possible. When we made the injected preparations in 2012, we used modern substitutes for some historical ingredients for economic reasons, and we did not have the time to study every ingredient in detail, substituting those we could not find directly with something we thought would have pretty much the same effect.

The recipe I want to use, Thomas Pole’s 1790 instruction for making a corrosion preparation, calls for a coarse red wax, made from fifteen ounces of yellow bees wax, eight ounces of white resin, six ounces of turpentine varnish, and three ounces of vermillion or carmine red.[2]The wax, resin, and pigment are fairly straightforward.

What is turpentine varnish though? Back in 2012, we ended up using just turpentine rather than turpentine varnish, and although those injections were not meant to be corroded, we ran into numerous problems. For example, it turned out to be almost impossible to keep the wax and the organs at a temperature at which we could both handle it and have it fluid enough to inject. It made me wonder whether sticking with the original recipe could solve that problem, so I set out to recreate it.

This turned out to be more complicated than expected, as there is not one standard recipe for turpentine varnish. Eventually I found a Dutch recipe from 1832 listing a turpentine varnish to finish display cabinets for natural history collections.[3]The ingredients are a pound of oil of turpentine, 8 ‘loot’ (a loot being 1/32 Dutch pound) of white resin, four loot of Venice turpentine, and ½ loot of aloe or kolokwint. Raw larch turpentine has a high concentration of volatile oils that can be distilled. The fluid part is known as oil of turpentine, whereas the residue left in the retort is usually called resin, rosin, or colophony. Oil of turpentine is the essential oil that remains after distilling raw larch turpentine. Venice turpentineis a thick, viscous exudation from the Austrian larch tree, which is not used as a varnish on its own as it becomes dark and brittle when exposed to oxygen and light. Aloe vera is widely known; kolokwint (the Dutch name for Citrullus colocynthisor bitter apple) less so. It is a plant with yellow fruits that resemble small pumpkins, which are very bitter and poisonous. That quality might explain its presence in a recipe for a varnish that is meant to ward off insects. Powdered aloe is readily available from artist’s material suppliers, so I went with that.

The varnish after 10 hours in the sun. The Aloe is the clearly visible murkiness on the bottom. Photograph: author.

The preparation of the varnish was pretty straightforward: put all ingredients in a bottle, cover, and leave in the sun for a day. The only problem was that I had to wait a week for a sunny day. When it came, I put in the ingredients and just left the bottle out in the sun for a couple of hours, which allowed me to stir the ingredients together. The aloe however did not resolve properly, and just sits at the bottom of the jar. While this might not be much of a problem when the varnish is applied to a cabinet, it makes this particular turpentine varnish unsuitable for use in my injection wax. Next time, I will make another batch without aloe and use that instead.

Why do I recount this–admittedly not very exciting–story? It shows how difficult it can be to follow a historical recipe to the letter. It also shows how much you learn from reconstruction research, even if it does not always yield the results you’d like, or as fast as you’d like.

[1]Marieke Hendriksen, Elegant Anatomy, (Leiden: Brill 2015), pp. 1-9.

[2]Thomas Pole, The Anatomical Instructor ; or an Illustration of the Modern and Most Approved Methods of Preparing and Preserving the Different Parts of the Human Body and of Quadrupeds by Injection, Corrosion, Maceration, Distention, Articulation, Modelling, &C(London: Couchman & Fry, 1790), pp. 21-5, 122-42.

[3] S. de Grebber, Over de schadelijke huisinsekten, als de huisvliegen, wespen, muggen, weegluizen, vlooijen, luizen, motten, pels-, boek- en kruidkevers en wormen, hout-, blad- en schildluizen, plantmijten enz., met aanwijzing van voldoende en proefhoudende middelen, om dezelve geheel uit te roeijen, Volume 1,(Amsterdam, 1832), pp. 52-3.

Do(n’t) try this at home: Simon Witgeest’s New Theatre of Arts

To improve Memory

Take the hearts out of seven living Swallows and five Turtledoves, take dry Mint, Pennyroyal, Verbena, Eyebright, prepared Coriander, and Sage, a drachm each, a drachm and a half of flowers of Rosemary, two drachms each of Sweet flag and Cinnamon, one and a half drachm of Cloves, eight grains each of Musk and Gallia Muscata, five drachms each of Anacardium Honey and Styrax Calamita: make cookies out of this with Fennel-water. Every night when you go to bed, you should stick one of these cookies in your right nostril, and close it off with a ball of cotton until you have read thirty Verses from Vergil; when you have done this for some days, you should wet a cookie with Rose-water and stick it into your left nostril, and all you have read, you will remember for sure. Meanwhile, one should stay clear of the games of Venus, drunkenness, and other irregularities. After the meal one should chew on some Coriander and swallow one of the cookies, or dissolve one in Lavender-water, and cover the head with it while sleeping.[1]

Frontispiece of the first edition of Witgeest's 'New Theatre of Arts', 1659.

Frontispiece of the first edition of Witgeest’s ‘New Theatre of Arts’, 1659.

In my search for recipes for coloured glass for the project I am currently working on, I delve into all kinds of sources: manuscripts, chemistry books, apothecary handbooks, company archives. Yet one of the most fascinating I have seen so far is a small book that first appeared in Leiden in 1659, entitled Het nieuwe Toneel der Konsten, or new theatre of arts. It is a book containing sections on magic tricks, recipes and instructions for painting, etching, and making glass, as well as home remedies and recipes for fireworks. The glass recipes in the New Theatre were of little use to me, as they were abbreviated translations from Antonio Neri’s well-known 1612 De Arte Vitraria, but the book is fascinating nonetheless, making you want to test some of the recipes yourself.

Willem Goeree, by D. van der Plaets/P. van Gunst, source:

Willem Goeree, by D. van der Plaets/P. van Gunst, source:

Simon Witgeest is most likely a pseudonym – Witgeest literally means ‘white spirit’ in Dutch, and it probably served to indicate to readers that the recipes were innocent, rather than black magic. It has been argued that Witgeest was a pseudonym of Willem Goeree (1635-1711), a Dutch book trader and publisher of Dutch books on art theory and practices.[2] However, the arguments for this are limited, and given the thorough character of Goeree’s other books, it seems unlikely that he would he would have invested time or effort in the rather frivolous Theatre of Arts, even under a pen-name.

Some of the recipes, like the one quoted above to improve memory, border on the impossible and seem outright ridiculous, whereas others, such as a recipe that advises to lather winter hands with palm oil or chicken fat daily are quite common sense. Some appeal to the imagination, and one would be tempted to try them if the ingredients and the possible results were not so dangerous; take for example a recipe that advises a mixture of vinegar, egg white and quicksilver to make ones hands ‘fire proof.’ Or what to think of a recipe ‘to write in human skin, which cannot be undone:’ tattoos made with a needle and gunpowder, minium, or smalt.

The author stated in the preface that the book was meant to ‘shorten wintery nights,’ although many of the activities described would only be feasible for those with a lot of time, space and money. Following the recipes copied from Neri’s book on making glass for example would require a glass oven that can be fired up to 1200 degrees Celsius. This was probably why in the many subsequent editions that appeared in Dutch and German throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the title was changed to The improved and extended natural magic book, or the new theatre of arts, and the sections on glass, drawing and etching were ditched in favour of more magic tricks, practical jokes, riddles, and entertainment with mathematical and astronomical brainteasers, as well as small chemical and physics experiments. Although it is highly unlikely that Witgeest’s contemporaries actually tried the recipes for making coloured glass, the other recipes will certainly have shortened winter nights for many.

[1] Witgeest, Simon. Het Nieuw Toneel Der Konsten, Bestaande Uyt Sesderley Stukken : Het Eerste, Handelt van Alderley Aardige Speeltjes En Klugjes : Het Tweede, van de Verligt-Konst in ’T Verwen En Schilderen : Het Derde, van Het Etzen En Plaat-Snijden : Het Vierde, van de Glas-Konst : Het Vijfde, Heeft Eenige Aardige Remedien Tegen Alderley Ziekten : Het Zesde, Is van de Vuur-Werken. Leiden: A.W. Sijthoff, 1659, p. 252-3.

[2] Landwehr, John, ‘Simon Witgeest’s Natuurlyk Tover-boek et alia,’ in Volkskunde, 1967, vol. I, p. 70-71.

Gout? Kidney stones? Have a cup of tea!

Here I am, one month into a visiting fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin – a wonderful institution full of scholars from all around the world working on a wide variety of topics. As you can imagine, a lot of tea and coffee is consumed here to keep everyone going. With all those different backgrounds, that leads to heated discussions about where the best coffee in the neighbourhood is sold, and what the right way is to make tea. That, combined with a remark about tea not spoiling in green glass in a text I was researching, reminded me of Cornelis Bontekoe (1647 – 1685), alias the tea doctor, who was born in Alkmaar (the Netherlands) and died here in Berlin.

Cornelis Bontekoe. Copperplate by Adriaen Haelweg.

Cornelis Bontekoe.
Copperplate by Adriaen Haelweg.

Bontekoe was born Cornelis Dekker, but took the surname Bontekoe (literally ‘spotted cow’ in Dutch) after the spotted cow on the shield of his father’s grocery shop. After obtaining his M.D. at Leiden University in 1667, he established a practice as a physician in Alkmaar. Bontekoe strongly advocated the use of fashionable products such as tea, coffee, cacao and tobacco to improve one’s health, which led to suspicions that he had a deal with the Dutch East Indian Company, the big importer of these products at the time. Deal or not, Bontekoe, who was known in intellectual circles as a passionate Cartesian and who went on to have a career as a university professor and court physician in Hamburg, Frankfurt, and Berlin, would go down in history as ‘the tea doctor.’

This was mainly due to his Tractaat van het excellenste kruyd Thee, or tractate on the most excellent herbal tea, subtitle ‘which shows the right use, and the great powers of it in health, and sickness, printed in The Hague in 1678 and reprinted repeatedly. The first part of the tractate is rather curious, an anti-Aristotelian rant that criticizes the wide-spread beliefs that drinking water is bad for you, beer, wine, and butter milk preferable, and the apparent dominant ideal of beauty:

People hate and despise the small and delicate, the skinny and emaciated Bodies, which resemble a ghost or a skeleton rather than a man. People want to be fat, big, and coarse, stout and well-build, full of power and vigor; one should be able to hold down one’s liquor, that is health!

Title page to Cornelis Bontekoe's Tractate on Tea

Title page to Cornelis Bontekoe’s Tractate on Tea

In over 300 pages, Bontekoe refutes common misunderstandings about tea, such as that it would dry out the body, weaken the stomach, stimulate the production of bile, cause shaky limbs, epilepsy, and even infertility. He argues that although drinking cold water is unhealthy, boiled water with the added benefit of the ‘herb of tea’ has a beneficent effect on the mouth, digestive system, blood, and mind, hydrating the body without intoxicating it, stimulating digestion and reducing flatulence.

Tea according to Bontekoe stimulates the mind, improves ones mood, prevents kidney and bladder stones, can help cure gout and he common cold, and warms the blood, but mixed with milk and sugar tempers excessive heat in the body. My favourite argument however is that of the huge size and population of countries like China and Japan, where people drink tea all their lives.

Ladies drinking tea, Pieter van den Berge, ca. 1694 - 1737. The verse at the bottom of the page satirizes the fashion of drinking tea. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.

Ladies drinking tea, Pieter van den Berge, ca. 1694 – 1737. The verse at the bottom of the page satirizes the fashion of drinking tea. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.

The tractate closes with a chapter on what good tea is: as fresh and white as possible, not too bitter, made with fresh, clean rain water that has not been boiled too long, and it should be drunk from earthenware or tin cups instead of copper ones. Tea should be not too strong, and no sugar should be added. Although there is no limit to the amount that can be had, yet those who want to sleep well at night should not drink it after midday.

As for Boerhaave’s remark that tea spoils in clear glass but remains uncorrupted in green glass; this appears to have had something to do with the fact that “by using a great deal of salt to a small quantity of flints, the glass becomes very clear; but is weak and frail, apt to crack by fire and water, and by age grows dull; and even infects liquors put in it, and sometimes destroys them utterly.” Green glass was generally stronger than clear glass, although the green colour came from copper oxides – the one substance Bontekoe warned not to drink one’s tea from….

Cup of tea, anyone?


Bontekoe, Cornelis, Tractaat van het excellenste kruyd thee: ‘t Welk vertoond het regte gebruyk, en de grote kragten van ‘t selve in gesondheid, en siekten: benevens een kort discours op het leven, de siekte, en de dood: mitsgaders op de medicijne, en de medicijns van dese tijd, en speciaal van ons land. Ten dienste van die gene, die lust hebben, om langer, gesonder, en wijser te leven, als de meeste menschen nu in ‘t gemeen doen. (The Hague: Pieter Hagen, 1678).

Boerhaave, Herman. Elementa chemiae, quae anniversario labore docuit in publicis, privatisque scholis. vol. i (Leiden: Isaak Severinus, 1732).