Louisa May Alcott: Apple Slump

If something called a “slump” doesn’t make you salivate, how about eating a “grunt”? No? Then Louisa May Alcott will have your helping. They’re two different names for the same homey New England dessert: a dumpling crust over a baked (or steamed) fruit base, which was said to make grunting noises as it cooked down.

Another name? Pandowdy. Still hungry?

But Alcott loved the dish so much that she nicknamed her house after it. Orchard House, where she lived for nearly 20 years, famously provided the setting for Little Women as well as the backdrop to many Alcott family adventures. With a 12-acre apple orchard, as well as neighbors including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson, it was an idyllic place both to grow up and to bake.

Louisa’s parents, well-known transcendentalists, had tried and failed to start an agrarian commune called Fruitland (sadly not a fruit-based theme park) before buying Orchard House in 1857. So when Alcott and Hawthorne often referred to the new house as Apple Slump, it was both a fond reference to the favorite dessert as well as a wink at the prior collapse of Fruitland, a slump in its own right.

* * *

The first mention of apple slump recorded in American Regional English is from 1831, just a year before Alcott was born, and though it has fallen out of fashion now in favor of cobblers and crumbles, it was an easy and popular way for New Englanders at the time to cook something delicious without much fuss.

Slumps traditionally lack the crispy topping of a crumble or a cobbler, but adding some nuts to the topping batter gives it a satisfying crunch. I admit, it’s hard to take a good photo of a slump. But on a cold winter night, it will be gone before you’ve gotten a chance to take a close look.

(Adapted very slightly from Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House)

Apple Base:
5 to 6 tart apples; pared, cored and sliced (Granny Smiths work well)
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (or bourbon)
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt

Topping:
1 1/2 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup milk
6 tablespoons butter, melted
1/2 cup chopped walnuts

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease the inside of a 9 x 13 baking dish.

2. Make apple base: In a large bowl, gently mix apple slices, lemon juice, and vanilla (or bourbon). In a small bowl, mix brown sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, and salt. Add the sugar mixture to the apple mixture and toss until coated.

3. Spread apple base evenly in prepared pan and bake until soft, about 20 minutes.

4. Make topping: While the apples are baking, sift together flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add egg, milk, and melted butter. Stir gently.

5. Pour flour mixture over baked apples and sprinkle walnuts evenly over the top. Continue baking 25 minutes, or until the top is brown and crusty. Cool 5 minutes and serve with your favorite ice cream (or bourbon).

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24 thoughts on “Louisa May Alcott: Apple Slump

  1. Hee-Sun

    I absolutely love the idea of this blog (execution–writing, design, recipe choices–are pretty excellent as well). I found it by way of a facebook link for those who like reading and food, and couldn’t resist. I’m so glad I found it, and hope you keep up the great work!

    (P.S. Your first entry was a gem; I know I’m going to end up re-reading it a few times, and memorize those great quotes about food by heart. Speaking of which, I’m sure you’re familiar with MFK Fisher, but just in case–http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/1408429.M_F_K_Fisher)

    1. Thank you so much for stopping by! Glad to meet a fellow eater-and-reader. I love those quotes, too, and totally agree about the one about bread-making. It’s a very new thing for me, but it is so calming, comforting, and satisfying at a very deep level – and then you have something delicious at the end of it all!

  2. Melanie Moore

    I loved reading Little Women and the others and I am actually excited to make this. I love to read and have stayed up many a night because I couldn’t put a book down. I just found your blog but I promise it will be one that I will keep up with. Thank you.

    1. Thank you, Melanie! If you do try it out, let me know. I’m always surprised by how the recipes mirror the books. To me, eating this is just like reading Little Women – warm, simple, and super comforting.

      1. melanie

        I have a question for you I got out my tablet today and pulled up the recipe so I could make it and I saw that it calls for nutmeg, but I really hate the taste of nutmeg do I have to use it or can I use something else in it’s place. I really want to make this Slump. Thank you Melane

      2. Hi Melanie – You can either substitute 1/4 teaspoon cloves or just leave it out altogether – it won’t make too much of a difference. Hope you enjoy!

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  5. Margaret B.

    I love to think of Louisa May Alcott enjoying her sweet apple dessert. I just read Ednah Cheney’s biography of her, and she describes the Fruitland experience in Alcott’s youth as deeply painful. Wonderful to know Louisa May had an invincible sense of humor and could joke about the Alcott fortunes and Apple Slump!

  6. NOBODY ever called her “Louisa May”…and Orchard House was not HER house. It was her father’s house. Also: she didn’t “grow up” there. When the Alcotts bought the house in 1857 Louisa was 25 years old!
    BTW: Apple Slump is GREAT! been making it for years!

  7. Margaret B

    Lighten up, Richard Smith! Ednah Cheney called her Louisa, and sometimes Miss Alcott…and if I choose many, many years later to call her Louisa May in a Comment, surely there are worse things in the world to be scandalized about. In regard to Orchard House, of course she would have regarded her father’s house as her own house. That is customary in families; especially in Victorian times, when unmarried adult children so often lived with their parents. By the way, I want to strongly recommend Cheney’s autobiography. Cheney had the priceless advantage of actually knowing the Alcotts. And her choice of quotes from LMA’s letters makes that startling personality leap at us off the page:”I was born with a boy’s spirit under my bib and tucker. I can’t wait until I can work; so I took my little talent in my hand and forced the world again, braver than before and wiser for my failures.”

  8. The original recipe is delicious and easy to make. I even had it in the company of Louisa herself (as played by actress Marianne Donnelly), at a local library. She has a room in Orchard House where she wrote Little Women and it’s advertised as her house. She was the major wage earner in her family and her father lived off her fame and earnings, so I think it’s fair to say Orchard House was her house. She grew up next door, at The Wayside. That’s where the events of Little Women actually took place. (Pilgrim’s Progress, plays, etc.)

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  13. Remembered this from the American Heritage Cookbook, which I can’t find, so glad to find it here and other places on the internet. I’ve got a bunch of Cortlandt apples that fell off the tree early, hit by hail. So, definitely, not Granny Smith’s, but I’ll try the recipe and see how it turns out.

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