Last Monday was Presidents Day, but today is truly the president’s day – George Washington would have been 284 years old! In honor of his birthday, I’m cooking up a dessert that even he could have enjoyed. George Washington had dental troubles throughout his entire adult life, and his use of dentures is well documented. Therefore, I think we can assume that he would have asked his cook to make something soft but sweet to celebrate, right?
The cook in question would have been Hercules, the chief cook at Washington’s Virginia plantation, Mount Vernon. Apparently Hercules was a great cook, and I’d like to think that he would have obliged Washington for his birthday. When you can’t celebrate with cake, what do you turn to? Butterscotch pudding, of course!
This portrait of Hercules was painted by Gilbert Stuart, one of America’s most important portraitists. During his lifetime he painted thousands of portraits, but his most famous subject was George Washington is his uncompleted 1796 portrait, Athenaeum. Even though he only finished the face and a portion of the background, this work is one of the most iconic images of GW ever – it is the portrait printed on the US $1 bill.
On the other hand, Stuart’s portrait of Hercules is not as well known. Hercules is shown straight on, wearing his cook’s uniform. He looks immaculate and confident; his gaze meets the eye of the viewer. Hercules had the reputation of being an excellent cook, and he must have been talented – I can’t imagine much turning out right for me if I had to depend solely on hearth cooking!
This work was completed in 1797. The year is especially significant, because Hercules is believed to have escaped to freedom on February 22 of that year, which would have been Washington’s 65th birthday.
This soft and rich butterscotch pudding would have been perfect for Washington’s teeth (or lack thereof), and we’ll just ignore the fact that the lack of refrigerators during his lifetime would have affected the 4 hours of chill-time these delightful single-serving desserts require! No matter the occasion, take the time to make this. I promise you won’t regret it, and as GW once said, “I cannot tell a lie.” 🙂
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup brown sugar
pinch of salt
3 tablespoons cornstarch
2 cups whole milk
½ cup half and half
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons whiskey
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
In a medium-sized saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Stir in the brown sugar and salt and stir for a minute over the heat. Remove the saucepan from the heat and set aside.
In a small mixing bowl, use a whisk to mix together ¼ cup of the milk, cornstarch and eggs. Whisk together until completely smooth. Add the rest of the milk and the half and half to the butter/sugar mix, using a whisk to combine.
Return the saucepan to the stove and bring the mixture to a low boil. Be sure to stir frequently, to prevent the milk from scalding! Once you reach a low boil, reduce to a simmer and continue to whisk and cook for one minute. The mixture should thicken to a sauce consistency.
Remove the pudding from the heat and add the whiskey and vanilla. Stir completely, and then divide evenly into cups or small bowls. Chill for at least 4 hours, and then serve with whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles, if you wish.
Recipe adapted from David Leibovitz, serves 4-6
Featured art: Gilbert Stuart, Athenaeum, 1796, oil on canvas (unfinished)
Gilbert Stuart, Portrait of George Washington’s Cook, 1795-1797, oil on canvas