Cooking with a Pinch of History: Apple Spice Dumplings with Cooked Custard

by Brittany Avila

Fall is here, and in the spirit of kicking off the holiday season right I chose a festive recipe for this month! This post includes two recipes, both of which are from one of my favorite cook books, California Mission Recipes. Apple spice dumplings and a cooked custard to top it create the ideal combo for a fall treat. This post includes two recipes, one for the apples and other for the custard, but it is not necessary to do both as they are delicious on their own!

Apple Spice Dumplings

1 cup raw rice

4 apples

2 quarts water

3 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon cinammon


Begin by washing the rice thoroughly through several rinses; drain and drop slowly into boiling water; reduce heat to a simmer, cover tightly and cook for 30 minutes. Drain the rice in a colander and rinse with cold water to separate the grains.

Although California’s climate is not ideal for growing rice, it was shipped to El Presidio de Santa Barbara several times from the port in San Blas, Mexico between 1779-1810.

The rice cooking just before I brought it to a simmer. Photo by Brittany Avila.

Next pare and core your apples. It’s very difficult now to find an apple corer that doesn’t also slice up the apple into individual pieces as well, so if you have no luck in finding this instrument as I did, carefully use a knife to cut a cylinder out of the middle of the apple to remove the core.

Once you have done that without displacing a finger or limb, fill the cores with the sugar and cinnamon.

Sugar and cinnamon were also imported from San Blas to Santa Barbara.

The cavities of the apples filled with ingredients that give you cavities! Photo by Brittany Avila.

Cover the apples with a thick coating of the boiled rice, which should be fairly sticky. Then, place each coated apple in the center of a cloth, gather and tie the ends of the cloth together. This should be done to each apple dumpling.

Due to California’s climate it is unlikely that apples were grown in most areas in Alta California during the Spanish period, but they may possible have been grown at some of the northern missions. There is no record of them being imported, since they do not travel very well.

Place your wrapped dumplings in a pot, and cover with 2 quarts of cold water. Bring the water to a quick boil and cook for 40 minutes. Allow the covered dumplings to cool, and then carefully remove the cheese cloth and place on a plate.


6 eggs

1 cup sugar

4 cups milk, scalded

½ cup masa (or ¼ cup corn starch)

½ cup water

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

Begin preparing your custard by separating your eggs (pull the yolks out of the egg whites). Beat the yolks until thick and lemon colored.

Many of the California missions maintained livestock to provide basic ingredients and nutrition. Chickens were kept at many of the missions, but there is specific record that geese were the main producer of eggs at La Purisima Mission just north of Santa Barbara.

I found the easiest way to take the yolks out was by using a spoon. Photo by Brittany Avila.

While preparing your eggs you can begin scalding the milk. For those of you who have not scalded milk before, pour in a pan and heat up your stove to 180 degrees. I used a cooking thermometer to measure this. Continually stir the milk to make sure it does not scorch. It is done when you start to see tiny bubbles appear on the edges of the pan.

Goats have been recorded as a popular source of milk in Alta California. Cattle were being utilized for meat, tallow and hide, so goats were an alternative milk source that is not as common today.

Add the scalded milk and ½ cup sugar to the beaten eggs. Then blend your masa with water and add to your mixture.

Masa is the dough used to make corn tortillas. Masa is made from nixtamal, which is created from soaking corn kernels in water and lime. This form of making tortillas was more common in Mexico, since corn grew better in that climate, while wheat grew better in California.

Cook this mixture in a pan over low heat. Stir constantly until the custard thickens. At this time preheat your oven to 200 degrees. Pour your custard into a baking pan and sprinkle with nutmeg.

Nutmeg is also one of the many items imported in from San Blas, Mexico during the Spanish period in California.

Make sure to spread the egg white mixture as evenly as possible over the custard. Photo by Brittany Avila.

Beat the egg whites you separated earlier, add in the remaining ½ cup sugar and spread over the top of your custard. Bake in the oven for 7 minutes, or until lightly browned. Let it cool afterwards. Now you are ready to pour your custard over your warm apple dumpling and taste the fall season!

One word to describe this picture: YUM! Photo by Brittany Avila.


Cleveland, Bess. California Mission Recipes. Japan: Charles E. Tuttle Company,1965, pp. 102,104.

“La Purisima Livestock.” In La Purisima Mission State Historic Park, 1970, p MIS 36.

Perissinotto, Giorgio ed. Documenting Everyday Life in Early Spanish California: The Santa Barbara Presidio Memorias y Facturas, 1779-1810. Santa Barbara, CA: Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, 1998, pp. 353-363.

Mike Imwalle, SBTHP Archaeologist and Master Gardener, also provided historical information about apples and rice in Early California.

#bakeddessert #historicrecipes


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