History Dish: Martha Washington’s Ale and Apple Fritters

fritter1One little fritter.

Fried. Apples. Beer. This recipe appealed to me for obvious reasons. But, interestingly, it also goes along with the medieval theme of my last dinner party. Read on for Mrs. Washington’s link to Queen Elizabeth.

The History

Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats, the source for this recipe, is not a collection of Martha’s own recipes: they were transcribed by an unknown person in the 17th century and were given to her during her first marriage to Daniel Custis in 1749, perhaps as a wedding present.  Widowed at 25, she was Martha Custis until she met George, and together they raised Martha’s two children from her previous marriage; and later, two orphaned grand-children. Interestingly, Martha gave birth to no more children during her marriage to George.

The cookbook was passed down to one of the Custis grandchildren and the recipes themselves had likely been a family heirloom for generations before. Food historian Karen Hess writes “Many of the recipes must have seemed old-fashioned to Martha…the cuisine of the manuscript is that of Elizabethan and Jacobean England.” That’s the 1550s-1620s, which means many of these recipes are considered to be part of a late-medieval mode of cooking.

Put yourself in Martha’s shoes and imagine trying to make dinner from a 200-year-old cookbook. So who can say if Mrs. Washington ever cooked any of the recipes in this manuscript, but some of them definitely seem a bit more modern than others.  Take, for example, the two recipes for apple fritters: one combines nutmeg, clove, ginger, mace, cinnamon, saffron and rosewater–a startling amount of spices much more reminiscent of the Forme of Cury than a modern recipe.  But the other fritter only calls for nutmeg, cloves, and mace–and a little cinnamon sugar strewn on top. Simpler, its likely a later addition to the recipe collection.

The more modern fritter recipe also contains ale, probably added to make the batter light with yeast and carbonation. A beer-battered, fried apple sounded pretty fucking good to me, so I decided to give this recipe a shot.

fritters2Cut yr apples about yay big.

The Recipe

To Make Fritters

Take a pint of very strong ale, put into it a little sack & warm it in a little scillet; then take 8 youlks of eggs & but 2 whites, beat them very well; yn put to them a little flowre & beat them together, yn put in yr warme ale; you must put noe more flowre to ye eggs after ye ale is in. Yr batter must be noe thicker then will just hang on ye apples. Season batter with ye powder of nutmegg, cloves, and mace; then cut your apple into little bits & put them into ye batter; yn set on ye fire a good quantity of tryed suet or hoggs lard, & when it is very hot drop in yr apples one by one with yr fingers as fast as you can. When they are fryde, lay ym on a cleane cloth put over a cullender, yn lay ym on trencher plates, & strow on ym sugar & cinnamon.

Ale & Apple Fritters
Adapted From Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats

1 large egg + 2 yolks
1/2 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup ale (I used Guinness, it’s what I had on hand)
1 tablespoon brandy
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp mace
1/8 tsp clove
4 med-large cooking apples
Oil for frying

In the microwave, warm beer one minute on high. With a fork, whisk together eggs, flour and salt. Add beer and brandy, and mix until blended. Add spices. Set aside in a warm place from 30-60 minutes.

Meanwhile, peel and pair the apples, slicing them into one-inch chunks. Heat oil for frying: you can use lard in a cast iron pan, like the original recipe suggests, or vegetable oil in a FryDaddy, like I did.

Put apple pieces into the batter, mixing them to coat. Drop into hot oil using your fingers or a spoon. Fry until golden brown, turning once. Remove into a colander lined with paper towels, over a plate. Allow to cool slightly, then sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. Toss fritters in the colander to coat, then serve.

fritters3Strown with cinnamon and sugar!

The Results

The results were unexceptional. Technically, the recipe came out well: the apples slices were cooked, the coating thin but crispy. But the fritter batter was almost flavorless, and there was no satisfying contrast between the apples and the coating.  There was nothing interesting going on with the taste or the texture. Perhaps I should have fried them in lard.

I’m disappointed since it seemed like this recipe had a lot of potential.  What do you all think? How can this fritter recipe be improved?

5 Responses to “History Dish: Martha Washington’s Ale and Apple Fritters”


  • I’d try frying them in lard–sometimes that adds a meaty depth to food (like lard-fried potato chips, yum!). I wonder if trying an apple other than one used for cooking would add some contrast, too, like one with a sharper taste or crunchier texture.

  • I second the different apple suggestion. I wonder if a cider apple would do. We grow Kingston Blacks, and they have a bittersharp flavor that might add some contrast. Also with the lard. Just to be historical.

    But I wonder if recipes like this were popular just because they were a fruit/sweet/spice delivery system.

  • I suppose you could also try other beers. Guinness seems a little heavy and dark for something like this. I would go with something lighter and maybe a little sour. There are plenty of good Colonial style ales out there, one of those could go well.

  • You know, as soon as I finished this post I realized I should have cooked these in lard. Not just the meatiness, but the saltiness if would have added would have really improved the flavor of these. Also, a sour pippin apple with recreated colonial brew would be a very different recipe indeed. Perhaps the modern ingredients I picked are simply too bland.

  • I wonder if coring the apples and slicing them into thin rings would be better cooking-wise- other historic apple fritter recipes actually state to slice them across. They’d have a large surface area to apple volume than the chunks of apple- cooking faster or more evenly with more surface for the sprinkling of sugar and cinnamon.

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