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

Nine Amherst students spent two weeks in January getting to know the life and kitchen of this unknown Englishwoman. They did this by examining her 102-page, 400-recipe manuscript, on loan from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. This handwritten collection of recipes and folk remedies, compiled circa 1740, received the Amherst treatment as the students studied it from every angle, and also cooked from it.

“I’m totally inexperienced at cooking, and this is just the most bizarre entryway into it,” said Olivia Gieger ’21, hard at work in a prep kitchen in Valentine Dining Hall preparing an “Extraordinary Plumb Cake.”

Olivia Gieger '21 and Stuart Robbins '20
Olivia Geiger ’21(left) and Stuart Robbins ’20 making “An Extraordinary Plumb Cake.”

The plum cake doesn’t actually contain any plums (the recipe calls for currants, citrus peels and a pound of cloves), but the recipe does include a note that it “was given by the nicest housewife in England and it’s as good as it’s ever made.”

Some of the book’s other tidbits—preserved in different hands—include instructions on how “to burn Butter,” prepare “pigeons Transmogrified” and “Fry Lambstones and sweetbreads.” Alongside the recipes are cures for shortness of breath, cancer and “joint evil.”

Every year, Amherst students are awarded Folger Fellowships to spend part of January at the Washington, D.C., institution, one of the world’s premier research libraries. Its founder, Henry Clay Folger, class of 1879, bequeathed the library to Amherst upon his death in 1930.

But this January was different. That month, the Folger closed its doors to the public in order to begin a major, multiyear renovation. Rather than suspend the fellowship for 2020, organizers opted to send a little bit of the Folger to Amherst.

“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, Folger’s curator of manuscripts.

Recipe for
Recipe for “An Extraordinary Plumb Cake.”

With transcriptions and scans in hand, students did their best to reproduce the results of three-centuries-old recipes.

“Recipe books are filled with what we call implicit knowledge,” said Amanda Hebert, the Folger’s associate director for fellowships, as she whipped up a meringue frosting for the cake. She explained that some steps and instructions are missing, because the recipe authors assumed, for example, that everyone already knows how to bake bread or pluck a chicken or mix dough. “That’s something the students are having to learn for themselves,” she said, “and read between the lines.”

Amanda Herbert, Associate Director at Folger and Siyi Li '22
Amanda Herbert, associate director at the Folger, and Siyi Li ’22.

Many of the recipes are also imprecise or unrealistic about amounts and temperature. Hebert points to the plum cake recipe, which calls for seven pounds of flour:  “That would make a massive plum cake,” Hebert says. “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.”

Sarah Montoya ’21, who described herself as a “recovering vegetarian,” crafted forced meat, which is basically meatballs. She ended up tweaking the original recipe, which calls for, in part, veal, anchovies and a pound of tallow or suet. She added egg to better hold the meatballs together after an earlier try fell apart.

“I had never worked with suet before,” she said.

Montoya, an environmental studies major, said the class, which involved studying the trade and availability of the ingredients was “a perfect coalition of all of my interests.”

A group of students and faculty gather around a table of prepared food

The surroundings of the Sebring kitchen were a smaller leap for Liam Downing ’20, an English major who, during school breaks, works in the prep kitchen at his family’s restaurant in Manchester, N.H., Firefly American Bistro and Bar.

“I'm normally doing stuff more like making salad dressings or prepping,” he says. “I normally don't have my hands on the heavy equipment, like the ovens and the range.”

He was engaged with a recipe a little 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.

Downing’s verdict: the lobster rolls came out a little greasier than he’s hoped. At mealtime, however, no one in the room complained.

Recipe “To Make Forced Meatballs”

Recipe To Make Forced Meatballs

Ingredients, as adapted by Sarah Montoya '21

For the Meatballs:

One jar of tallow (~ 1lb)
One lb of veal
1 small baguette, slightly stale and soaked in boiling milk
Four pieces of anchovy 
Grated lemon zest from one lemon
Salt & Pepper to taste
2 Egg Yolks
Panko Bread crumbs

For the Gravy:

One large onion
One bunch of Rosemary, Sage and Thyme
Lemon zest
¼ cup Flour
¼ cup butter
4 cups of beef broth
Salt & Pepper to taste


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 ¼ cup of butter, until golden brown. Add the same amount of flour to it. Bring to a boil and let cook until thick. Add a bunch of rosemary, sage and thyme wrapped in twine, along with lemon zest. You can also add lemon juice from the lemon if you wish. Add four cups of 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 

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

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

Notes by Sarah Montoya ’21:

I made several adjustments to this recipe for both practical and aesthetic reasons. Firstly, the original recipe calls for suet while I ended up using tallow which is 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. 

After making Forced Meat Balls, I also made a decision to use lemon zest as the recipe originally calls for lemon peel. Large chunks of lemon peel were very unappetizing in the meatballs, so it made sense to use lemon zest instead.

The meatballs I made fell apart slightly, so I increased the amount of eggs.