Transcribing Bentham’s baked apple pudding from the page

Tim Causer

This post forms part of the JVC Bake off  in aid of Comic Relief. You can sponsor all our bakers efforts here.

Thank you to Helen and Lucinda for allowing a pre-Victorian to take part in the Bake Off.

Since the award-winning crowdsourced transcription project, Transcribe Bentham, began making available digital images of the manuscripts of the philosopher and reformer, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), volunteer transcribers from around the world have discovered a number of interesting and hitherto unknown things in the collection.

These range from Bentham recalling a childhood episode in which he incinerated earwigs in a candle and which influenced his thoughts on the treatment of animals, to the exciting identification of a substantial and unpublished part of Panopticon versus New South Wales (1802), Bentham’s influential critique of transporting convicts to Australia.

Other than the fact that his remains sit in a box at UCL, Bentham is perhaps best known for his panopticon prison: by a ‘simple Idea in Architecture’, the prisoners’ cells arranged around a central inspection tower, inmates would be exposed to theoretically constant surveillance, and their deviant behaviour cured.

Bentham wrote in great detail about almost every conceivable aspect of the panopticon, and we recently uploaded to Transcribe Bentham a batch of material which illustrates this beautifully: in these manuscripts, Bentham discusses the heating of the panopticon, a ‘Ptenotrophium’ (a fowl-breeding establishment), the ‘Sotimion’ for female prisoners, and the ‘Paedotrophium’, a foundling hospital or nursery school attached to the panopticon.

Volunteer transcribers have uncovered a group of manuscripts entitled ‘Cookery, errors of present practice’, in which Bentham first issues a number of ‘General Cooking Directions’ for the panopticon kitchen: ‘Potatoes should be mashed while boiling hot to save labour’, ‘Make root puddings & cakes of any vegetable that happens to be cheap’, ‘Put red herring pounded into soups and made dishes to give flavour’, and the like.

Then, intriguingly, there follows a series of recipes, designed to provide cheap and nutritious food to the panopticon’s inmates. It’s not clear if Bentham came up with the recipes himself, from where he may have compiled them, or even if they were made for him to sample.

The recipes are set out in typically Benthamic style, listing the ingredients and quantities, and their cost (even the amount of labour required to produce each dish is itemised). We are very grateful to Transcribe Bentham volunteers Chris Leeder, Liz Rees, Melissa Rogers, Jen Sguigna, Jonathan Targett, and Keith Thompson, for transcribing this material and making it available for everyone to access.

Baking Bentham

I like to think that I’m a reasonably competent cook, so last weekend I had a go at making one of the less foul-sounding recipes in this list. As neither of ‘walnut husk pickle’ or ‘Devonshire Pie’—the latter of which is a mixture of onions, tripe and gooseberries—took my fancy, I turned to the safe sounding baked apple pudding. What could go wrong?

Bentham’s baked apple pudding

Apples, 1 peck                  3d

Peasemeal, ½lb                                ½ d

Malt dust, ½ peck            ¾ d

Milk, 1 quart                      2d

Water, 1 quart

Treacle                                 1d

2 eggs                                   1d

Labour                                  1d


9 ¼ d

Boil & mash the apples, stir in the malt dust & treacle, press the mass into a pan; boil the meal, milk & water together till thick, add the eggs and the remainder of the treacle, pour the mixture over the apples & bake it.

A couple of slight deviations from the ingredients were required. First, I wasn’t able to source any peasemeal, and so replaced it with plain flour. Second, though I have plenty of dust in my kitchen cupboards, ‘malt dust’ is sorely lacking and so was left out of the recipe. I can only hope that Jeremy would approve of my frugality in saving three-quarters of a pence.

The first step was the easiest: boiling and mashing the apples, and adding some treacle to make the ‘mass’ which acts as the pudding’s base.

Image 1: Mashed apple and treacle Image 2: The ‘mass’

The next step, I was more worried about: was over two pints of liquid, half a pound of flour and two eggs really going to thicken up in the pan? Needless to say, I feel guilty at having ever doubted Bentham’s culinary genius. Before too long, I had a thick, custard-like mixture to which was added (yet more) treacle. I may have been a bit heavy-handed here, as the blended mixture turned a less than attractive shade of brown.

Image 3: adding treacle to the pudding (above)

Image 4: adding more than 1d of labour (right)

This delicious-looking mixture was then poured onto the apple and treacle mass, and, at this stage, things seemed fairly promising (or as promising as a recipe for an eighteenth-century prison dessert can ever get). Unfortunately, as instructions go, Jeremy’s advice to simply ‘bake it’ is not terribly helpful. In the absence of specific timings, the pudding went into a 180 degree oven for fifty minutes.

Image 5: Before baking

Image 6: After baking. Oh.

The end result was far from attractive. It had a burnt custardy skin, and the pudding underneath still seemed alarmingly runny. My only hope was to let it cool, stick it in the fridge overnight, and hope it would thicken up. Maybe I should have looked harder for that malt dust.


Image 7: The pudding in all its glory

I’m very grateful to my colleagues at the Bentham Project for risking their stomach linings and tasting the dessert, particularly as it looked rather grim in the morning, and a lot greyer than I remembered. At least the gooey consistency seemed right.

The general consensus was that the pudding didn’t taste as bad as it looked, and instead was pretty bland and inoffensive (other than the taste of treacle). Some sugar would undoubtedly have improved the taste, but I can almost hear Jeremy tutting at the extravagance. My boss suggested that it tasted better when warmed in the microwave, which is damning with faint praise if I’ve ever heard it!

All in all, the pudding wasn’t the unmitigated disaster it promised to be, but I don’t think we’ll be rushing to open up a branch of Jeremy’s Pie Shop over the road at Euston Station, just yet. Although in saying that, given what we know has been going into beefburgers over the past few years, perhaps the world might be ready for neat’s foot jelly or sweet liver pudding…

Image 7: a healthy serving of Benthamic pie

Bentham’s cooking tips and recipes can be found at here, in folios 109 to 112.

Project description: Transcribe Bentham is a co-ordinated by UCL’s Bentham Project, in association with UCL’s Centre for Digital Humanities, Library Services, Creative Media Services, the University of London Computer Centre, and the British Library. The project was launched under funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and is currently supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Transcribe Bentham allows anyone, anywhere in the world to help transcribe Bentham’s manuscripts, and transcripts produced by volunteers have two purposes. First, they will be uploaded to UCL Library’s digital Bentham Papers repository, making the collection available to, and searchable by, all. Second, volunteer transcripts will form the basis of future volumes of The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham, which is being produced by the Bentham Project, and volunteers will be fully acknowledged in the volumes to which they contribute.

As of 8 March 2013, Transcribe Bentham volunteers have transcribed or partially-transcribed 5,205 Bentham manuscripts (c.2.5 million words). If you would like to add to this total and make interesting discoveries of your own, or just find out more about the project, please visit our website .

You can also follow the project on Facebook, and on Twitter.

If you have any queries, do contact the project team at


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