Evolution of a Dish
Popovers, as James Beard describes them in his 1972 American Cookery “…are a delight to the eye, the tooth and the palate. They are purely American.” This came as something of a surprise to a haughty, red-headed bombshell of a Brit who crashed a Fourth of July brunch I threw several years ago, featuring popovers and jam. She was the only person there who spotted the eggy puffs as something recognizable, “That’s Yorkshire pudding!,” she squealed. “But,” she said pinching up her face in disgusted confusion and pointing at the marmalade, “they are supposed to be eaten with meat. Not be sweet.” Oh really, my ginger interloper? I’ll get back to you in a minute.
Recipes for Yorkshire pudding, the classic English batter pudding, started appearing in British cookbooks in the early-mid 18th century, the first reportedly in 1737 as “A Dripping Pudding”. The eggy pancake batter is poured into a very hot pan full of meat drippings and baked (often underneath a roasting piece of meat, to further make the dripping pudding even drippier). Those UK cookbooks became popular in America, and by the mid-19th century American cookbook authors were including the recipe themselves. But by 1877, in Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving, by Mary Newton Foote Henderson there popped up (really, I give myself credit for holding out this long) a recipe, nearly identical batter and technique, but made in miniature, puffier than its often grease-sunken-UK counterpart, filed under breakfast and freed from any connection with a hulking piece of meat: the popover. James Beard goes on to say of popovers, “Although the batter is almost that of Yorkshire pudding, I do not believe that this was the inspiration…” I love your patriotism, James, but when I see a popover next to a Yorkshire pudding, I have no doubt they were baked in the same brood. Go on and do a Google image search. I’ll wait.
But while I think his parallel popover evolution hypothesis is rather flawed, James does bravely, and I think correctly, challenge the conventional wisdom that in order to achieve its signature “pop” the batter must be poured into a screaming hot pan. He states, “they can be started in a cold oven set for 425 degrees. They pop and rise magnificently this way.” Making popovers, as I was taught, should look like the action movie scene where the hero has just seconds to deactivate the bomb the Germans have set. You’ve got to get that batter in the pan while it’s still hot or this whole damn city is going to blow up! Or, rather, in the case of popovers, not blow up. But over at The Tavern in Marshfield they serve magnificent, hulking popovers in their massive bread basket, and they serenely put cold pans of batter in a hot oven.
I followed Henderson’s 1877 recipe, which insists on a hot pan, and got more puck than pop, so I suspect the technique is simply a vestige of its Yorkshire pudding past, one that’s more tradition than tried and true.
What is not up for debate, is that the popover itself is uniquely American–though, somewhere along the way, the popover fell into novelty and obscurity. At The Marshfield Tavern, Chef Scott LaRoche says that people ask him all the time what they are, and he’s always surprised. We are, after all living in an area steeped in American history, a region where perhaps puddings made the jump into popovers. “We should be the popover capital, everybody should have popovers!”, says LaRoche.
But we don’t, not yet anyway. And that’s why party-crashing Britons can order me to put my jam down, while my Yankee friends stare at my popovers as if trying to figure why I’ve assembled a basket of crumpled tissues for breakfast. Though with an apparent resurgence of interest in colonial cuisine, popovers are ripe for a comeback–or maybe a revolution? Time for popovers to break free from their Yorkshire past, and come into their own. Say it with me now: Pop free, or die. Pop free, or die.
The Marshfield Tavern Popovers (On Proprietor’s Green, Marshfield, MA)
For yield 18 popovers
- 6 large eggs
- 3 cup milk
- 3 Tbsp vegetable oil
- 3 cup all-purpose flour
- ¾ tsp salt
- Preheat oven to 425° and lightly butter or spray 18 popover pan cups.
- In a bowl, whisk eggs until frothy, and then incorporate milk and oil.
- Meanwhile, in a separate bowl combine salt and flour.
- Sift flour mixture into liquid mixture and let the batter rest for about 10 min.
- Whisk batter again to bring back up.
- Fill each cup until about ⅔ full with batter.
- Bake for 30 or until tall dark and golden. Do not open the oven before 30 min!
- Remove pans from oven and skewer each popover to make small hole and release steam.
- Serve at once.
BREAKFAST PUFFS, OR POP-OVERS (Mrs. Hopkins).
(Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving By Mary Newton Foote Henderson New York: Harper & Brothers, 1877)
Ingredients: Two cupfuls of milk, two cupfuls of flour, two eggs, and an even teaspoonful of salt.
Beat the eggs separately and well, add the whites last, and then beat all 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 teacups, of which eight would be required for this quantity of batter. When baked, serve immediately.
For Graham gems use half Graham flour.
By: Katherine Perry
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