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A Recipe for Project-Based Learning

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This post is by Carolyn Bennett, the 2018-2019 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

Over the winter holidays, I visited family in Connecticut. When selecting dishes to contribute to holiday dinners, I perused American Cookery, the first American-written, American-published cookbook – fittingly published in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1796. Recipes, like music scores, are especially interesting to me because they can still be used in the way the author originally intended. Though one cannot read historic newspapers to stay apprised of current events, or read historic letters to stay in touch with friends, “American orphan” Amelia Simmons still speaks through the centuries to help the reader get dinner to the table.

American Cookery, 1796

The carrot pudding caught my attention. As I considered making it for my holiday dinner, I immediately encountered some challenges in interpreting the recipe. What size was an eighteenth-century coffee cup? What is the ideal carrot texture? What time and temperature to bake?

Recipe detail from American Cookery, p. 27

When analyzing a recipe, some information becomes immediately salient. I needed to closely read the cookbook, enriching my understanding of the Carrot Pudding recipe by noticing contextual details within the volume’s other recipes and informational text. I researched antiquated culinary technologies and measurements, seeking out both modern and contemporary cookbooks. I synthesized what I learned through close reading and research with my personal culinary experiences, tools, and skills, including my ability to use a food processor and modern oven. I developed a plan and then created my carrot pudding. I was able to evaluate my success as measured by the expressions on hungry faces – most of which transitioned from skepticism to enthusiasm as my family sampled their first spoonful.

Carolyn’s Carrot Pudding. Photo credit: Carolyn Bennett

I realized my process components, reminiscent of the Stripling Model of Inquiry, can guide learning with all manner of primary sources. Students must engage in close reading, wrestling with unfamiliar vocabulary and syntax, in order to understand the original instructional content. They must synthesize this information with their prior knowledge. Then, they must form hypotheses about how to best accomplish the author’s original intent through the modern means at their disposal. Finally, the end product can be enjoyed by the student and a larger audience. Assessment of the product, by the student, an audience, or teacher, invites students to reflect on their process, evaluate their analysis, and make adjustments for the future.

The Library’s collections include many texts which invite students to engage in inquiry through project-based learning. Musical scores can guide young musicians; blueprints can guide young makers. Manuals can inspire students to play a game, conduct an experiment, dance, or send secret messages – and some exciting books feature all of the above.

How can primary sources lead your students into project-based inquiry? Bon appetit!



Comments (5)

  1. Enjoyed your article very well written. As some one my self who struggled with old family cook books and tried to understand what was mean by a quick oven. I can appreciate the need for more research. Thank you Carolyn I am glad it turned out well for you.

  2. Thank you for this fun “food for thought.” I have had a similar experience using historic recipes with my middle school students. One year we ended our Gilded Age unit with a “fair,” including a potluck lunch with menu devised from recipes from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair (a book I had purchased at the Courthouse museum shop). It was an engaging challenge to assist students in interpreting these old recipes.

  3. Thank you for this enjoyable post describing your own experience with PBL and for so many good ideas for the classroom.

  4. Q: So how many oz. is a coffee cup from 1796? Is it a pudding or more of a cake? Do share the modern interpretation of the recipe, please.

  5. Good questions, Bill!

    Since the recipes seem to be arranged by type, I assumed that adjacent recipes would be meant to have a similar texture. Pumpkin seemed like the most carrot-like ingredient in the chapter. The “pompkin” pudding on p. 28 called for a ratio of l qt vegetables (stewed) to 9 eggs. I cooked down 1 lb of carrots and pureed them, which resulted in a generous pint of carrot puree. I therefore let the pumpkin recipe guide me, let my generous pint of carrot puree stand against the prescribed 5 eggs.

    I was encouraged to note that Amelia favored precise measurements (quarts and pounds) and rarely called for units like coffee cups. I surmised she may have been casual in her measurement of carrots because the recipe had a wide margin of error.

    Externally, I compared the ratios to a few trusted from-fresh pumpkin pie recipes. Modern pie recipes tended to have fewer eggs, but also much more sugar; sugar contributes structure and stability in baked goods, so the low sugar content of the carrot pudding made the slightly higher egg ratio logical.

    My final recipe was:
    1 lb. carrots, pureed (I used a food processor after boiling and draining)
    5 eggs
    2 ounces each melted butter and sugar, by weight
    A shake of cinnamon to taste
    A splash of vanilla extract to taste (I had no rose water, and its use in recipes throughout the book seemed very similar to our use of vanilla today)

    Bake at 350 until achieving an internal temperature of 175 (the temperature at which the proteins in the egg whites can best set and provide structure).

    My photograph shows a double-batch made in a 13×9 inch pan, though I slightly preferred a second batch prepared in a smaller, deeper dish (as Amelia recommends).

    The resulting dish is an American custard-type pudding; for a more cakelike English pudding, flour would be expected. It tastes similar to the filling of a pumpkin pie, or sweet potato casserole minus the streusel.

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