A brown pie with orange slices on top

An old book with cursive handwriting

Nine students transcribed, edited and adapted 
recipes from the mysterious Mrs. Knight, whose 
handwritten collection they examined from 
multiple angles.


We don't know who Mrs. Knight was, but we know she liked to cook.

Her 102-page, 400-recipe manuscript, circa 1740, got the Amherst treatment this January, as nine students studied the handwritten collection of recipes and folk remedies from every angle. They considered trade routes. They researched availability of ingredients. They learned about “implicit knowledge”—and what happens when someone doesn’t have it. And then they adapted and cooked some of the recipes.

The manuscript was on loan from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. Every year, during interterm, the College sends a small group of student fellows to conduct research at the Amherst-owned library, founded by Henry Clay Folger, class of 1879, and his wife, Emily. But this year was different. The Folger had just closed its doors to the public for a major multiyear renovation.

“We wanted to keep the fellowship alive during our intermission, and we thought the best way we could do that was by coming to Amherst,” says Heather Wolfe ’92, the Folger’s curator of manuscripts and a former English major at Amherst.

Manuscript in hand, Wolfe and a colleague traveled to campus, booked a prep kitchen in Valentine and, with the student fellows, got to work.

“I’m totally inexperienced at cooking, and this is the most bizarre entryway into it,” said Olivia Gieger ’21 as she prepared “Extraordinary Plumb Cake” in Valentine. The recipe calls for not a single plum. It does include currants, citrus peels, nutmeg and cloves, as well as a note from Mrs. Knight that it “was given by the nicest housewife in England and it’s as good as it’s ever made.”

Among the book’s other gems are instructions on how “to burn Butter,” prepare “pigeons Transmogrified” and “Fry Lambstones and sweetbreads.” Alongside such recipes are cures for shortness of breath, cancer and “joint evil.”

While whipping up meringue frosting for the plumb cake, Amanda Herbert, the Folger’s associate director for fellowships, gave advice on how to read between the lines: “Recipe books are filled with what we call implicit knowledge,” she said, with authors of the era assuming, for example, that everyone already knew how to bake bread or pluck a chicken or mix dough. The students also discovered recipes that were imprecise or unrealistic about amounts and temperature. The plum cake is a prime example: it calls for 7 pounds of flour. As Herbert noted, “That would make a massive plum cake. Also, eggs were smaller in the 17th and 18th centuries. So when we use eggs in recipes, we usually reduce them—two-thirds of what the recipe would call for.”

As Herbert and Gieger prepared the cake, Sarah Montoya ’21, a self-described “recovering vegetarian,” crafted “forced meat”—which is basically meatballs. She ended up tweaking the original recipe, which requires, among other ingredients, veal, anchovies and a pound of suet.

Meanwhile, Liam Downing ’21E—who, during breaks, works at his family’s restaurant in Manchester, N.H.—cooked a recipe more recognizable to 21st-century palates: French rolls stuffed with lobster salad. Students noted that during Mrs. Knight’s time, lobster was a poverty food, being in plentiful supply in Europe and New England.

When they weren’t cooking, students talked with faculty and studied old books in the College Archives. The program also benefitted from field trips to Historic Deerfield and the College’s own Book & Plow Farm, Wolfe says.

“And we have this amazing kitchen,” she adds. “We don’t have a place like that at the Folger.”

Bill Sweet is a news writer at Amherst.
Photos by Adam Detour & Jiayi Lu
Styling by Christina Barber-Just

Two students preparing baked goods in a kitchen
Gieger and Robbins mix flour, eggs and currants (but no plums) for “An Extraordinary Plumb Cake.”

An Extraordinary Plumb Cake


1 pound flour
5.7 ounces butter
17 ounces currants
¼ of a nutmeg
½ ounce mace
½ ounce cloves
2.28 ounces sugar
2 eggs
3.4 ounces ale yeast (3.4 ounces water, 1 teaspoon yeast, 1 teaspoon sugar)
¼ cup cream
2.25 ounces almonds, sliced
¼ cup sherry
2.27 ounces candied citrus peels

As adapted by Olivia Gieger ’21 and Stuart Robbins ’20
Majors: Environ. studies (Gieger); Amer. studies (Robbins)
Hometowns: Wellesley, Mass. (Gieger); Armonk, N.Y. (Robbins)


Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a 9-inch springform pan with butter. In a large bowl, stir together the flour and butter until they are evenly combined. Mix in the currants, along with finely ground cloves, mace and nutmeg. Crack two eggs into the mixture. Stir in the ale yeast, along with the cream and cup sherry. With the remaining sherry, grind together the almonds and add them to the dough. Adding in the candied citrus peel, continue stirring the dough until the entire mixture is evenly combined. Put the dough into the greased pan and place it on the middle rack of the oven for 50 minutes to an hour, or until the center is well cooked through. Let the cake cool for 10 minutes before removing from the pan. Icing is optional.

Notes from Gieger and Robbins

Mrs. Knight’s original recipe calls for 7 pounds of flour, 7 pounds of currants, etc.—perhaps it’s this massive quantity that makes the cake “extraordinary”—and this recipe has been scaled down for ordinary baking. This modernized recipe also fills in the hidden blanks that Mrs. Knight leaves us with; certain ingredient quantities, the amount of time and the temperature to cook with would have been assumed and known to an 18th-century cook. Among these pieces of assumed knowledge are ingredients that were more commonplace than they are now, such as ale yeast (leavening agent) and sack (Spanish wine). For this recipe, we chose to substitute ale yeast with rehydrated activated yeast, and for sack, we substituted sherry. If the candied citrus peels are unavailable, it’s easy to make your own, which we did for this recipe. The modern springform pan included a base, but the original recipe calls for the use of a pastry layer at the bottom. The finished cake is sweet as-is, but the recipe also notes an option for additional icing of sugar and eggs.

An old handwritten note
The staler the beer, the better the catchup, according to Mrs. Knight. Among the other ingredients are ginger and anchovies.

To Make Forced Meat Balls


For the meatballs:

1 jar of tallow (about 1 pound)
1 pound of veal
1 small baguette, slightly stale
boiled milk
4 pieces of anchovy
grated zest from 1 lemon
salt and pepper to taste
2 egg yolks
panko bread crumbs

For the Gravy:

1 large onion, diced
1 bunch each of rosemary, sage and thyme
lemon zest
¼ cup flour
¼ cup butter
4 cups beef broth
salt and pepper to taste

As adapted by Sarah Montoya ’21
Major: Environmental studies
Hometown: Belmont, Mass.


Take one small, stale baguette and dunk it into a bowl full of boiled milk. Let sit.

For the gravy

Sauté one diced onion in the butter until golden brown. Add the flour to it. Bring to a boil and let cook until thick. Add rosemary, sage and thyme wrapped in twine, along with lemon zest. You can also add juice from the lemon if you wish. Add the beef broth and let simmer for a while. Stir regularly to eliminate clumps. Season to taste and let sit on low heat until meatballs are ready.

For the meatballs

Mix together the tallow, veal, anchovy (canned is fine), lemon zest, some mace, the soaked loaf and two egg yolks. (To separate the yolk from the egg white, crack the egg and open it, attempting to create two halves of the eggshell. While doing this, make sure that the yolk does not fall. Pass the yolk from one half of the shell to the other, so that the whites fall out until you are left with only yolk.)

Once mixed, add some of the gravy that you made—about ½ cup. If you feel this is too wet, you can add panko bread crumbs. Then roll the meat into small balls, about 1 tablespoon in size. Bake in a greased pan in an oven at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 minutes. Serve on a bed of gravy.

Notes from Montoya

I made several adjustments to this recipe for both practical and aesthetic reasons. Firstly, while the original recipe calls for suet, I ended up using tallow, a more usable version of suet. Tallow is readily available at many grocery stores. Another contemporary adjustment is using canned anchovies instead of a whole anchovy fish. I also made a decision to use lemon zest, even though the original recipe calls for lemon peel. Large chunks of lemon peel were very unappetizing in the meatballs, so it made sense to use lemon zest instead. In addition, I used panko bread crumbs. The meatballs I made fell apart slightly, so I increased the amount of eggs.

Two people cooking in a kitchen
The Folger’s Amanda Herbert, left, with Siyi Li ’22. Li and the other fellows studied Mrs. Knight’s recipes from every angle.

To Make Catchup to Keep 20 Years


32 ounces beer
3/4 pound canned anchovies
1/4 ounce mace
1 large piece of ginger
1/2 pound shallots
3/4 pound portobello mushrooms
4 ounces butter

As adapted by Siyi Li ’22
Majors: History and Asian languages and civilizations
Hometown: Hunan, China


Open the beer the night before to make it stale. Wash the anchovies and leave them in water to get rid of the salty taste while preparing other ingredients. Thoroughly rub and clean the mushrooms and cut them into small pieces. Set aside. Peel a very large piece of ginger and the shallots. Cut them into small pieces and set aside. Prepare the mace powder. Set aside. Pour the beer into a pot and heat it for 5 minutes. Add the anchovies, ginger, shallots, mushrooms and mace powder. Cook over a slow fire until the liquid is half evaporated. Strain it through a piece of cheesecloth, squeeze the cloth to get the mushroom juice and discard the waste. Let the liquid cool. At last, add 4 ounces of melted butter to give taste and color.

Notes from Li

The staler the beer, the better the catchup, according to Mrs. Knight.

Mrs. Knight’s Orange Cheesecakes


1 cup almond flour
2 tablespoons orange flower water
1 cup sugar
6 ounces melted butter
3 eggs
3 egg yolks
peel of 1 orange
1 pie crust

As adapted by Eniola Ajao ’21
Majors: Computer science and English
Hometown: Abuja, Nigeria


Boil the orange peel in water until tender. Rinse the peel with cold water and mash with a mortar and pestle until fine. In a bowl, beat three eggs until thoroughly combined. Add the almond flour, sugar, cooled melted butter and orange flower water. Once combined, add the three egg yolks. Lastly, add the crushed orange peel and combine with the mixture. Pour the mixture into the pie crust and bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 45 minutes with an aluminum foil tent over it. Let cool for at least hour before cutting.

Notes from Ajao

This “cheesecake” is also good without the orange, says Mrs. Knight at the end of the recipe. While this dessert uses no cheese, the recipe following this one in the manuscript is a recipe for cheesecake that uses cheese curds.

If you cook any of these recipes, tell us at how they turned out. We may include your response in our next issue.