Whistler’s Mother’s Cook Book: Gambles

It’s that time of year where, thanks to a certain television show, those of us who are so inclined get an extra boost of motivation to get in the kitchen and start testing our baking skills. At the same time, I’ve come across a recipe book here in Special Collections that caught my attention. Interest in historical cooking processes remains high and the popularity of the Edible Archive project from the Scottish Council on Archives shows that tasty morsels can be produced from historical recipes. So, why not investigate just how edible our archive is by having a go at some historical recipes that can be found within our rare books and manuscripts? A quick search of our rare books catalogue shows many good potential sources of recipes from as far back as the 17th century.

Frontispiece to the main library copy of Whistler's Mother's Cook Book showing 'Whistler's Mother' in drypoint by Whistler.

Frontispiece to the main library copy of Whistler’s Mother’s Cook Book showing ‘Whistler’s Mother’ in drypoint by Whistler.

The recipe book that sparked this new baking adventure is, in its original incarnation, a cookery book kept and added to by Anna Matilda Whistler, the mother of painter James McNeill Whistler. Obviously the original 19th century notebook can’t be taken home into your kitchen. However the recipes have been reproduced and interpreted for a modern audience by Professor Margaret MacDonald in the book Whistler’s Mother’s cook book, also available in Special Collections and the main library stockWhat better way to start trying some historical recipes than with this interesting and accessible recipe book?

Cookery book kept and added to by Anna M. Whistler, at call number MS Whistler NB8.

Cookery book kept and added to by Anna M. Whistler, at call number MS Whistler NB8.

There’s something quite appealing about getting an insight into the life of the mother of a great and famous painter – especially one that has her own kind of quiet fame as ‘Whistler’s Mother’ the enigmatic figure from the painting ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1’ The handy interpretations of Anna Whistler’s recipes in the book by Margaret MacDonald seemed like a good starting point for delving into the slightly disorientating world of historical recipes and so I have initially opted to try out a simple cake recipe called ‘Gambles’. Although really it’s a sort of biscuit-y/cake-y recipe.

Recipe for 'gambles' from the original cookery book kept by Anna McNeill Whistler.

Recipe for ‘gambles’ from the original cookery book kept by Anna McNeill Whistler.

“1 lb of butter, one of sugar, 4 eggs, rosewater. Flour sufficient to stiffen them. roll them in powdered sugar”.

 MacDonald helpfully translates this into ‘cups’ for measuring and so on, as well as providing a temperature setting for the oven and a more detailed description of the steps involved in making the mixture. However, as she also indicates that the recipe makes about 48 cakes, I opted to halve the recipe!


Mixing the eggs and rosewater.


Rolling in sugar.

The method is straightforward: mix together the butter and sugar, whisk the eggs with the rosewater and then alternate adding the egg mixture with the flour. From the description I wasn’t too sure what consistency of dough I was looking for – it was still quite soft and more of a batter than I might expect for then rolling them in sugar.  I had made a biscuits from a similarly soft dough before where the recipe suggested chilling the dough so that it could be handled more easy and then rolled in sugar, so this is what I opted to do and then rolled them in caster sugar (instead of ‘powdered’) to give them a sweet crispy coating. Then in to the oven!


Ready for the oven!

The result was a subtly sweet biscuit that went quite nicely with a cup of tea – though they admittedly weren’t much of a showstopper! I felt the rosewater was a little lacking in the flavour so I think I would worry less about ‘perfuminess’ and be a bit freer with the amount next time. Margaret MacDonald describes them in her book as “light sponge cakes with a crisp sugary crust” and this sums them up quite accurately.


The finished Gamble – “light sponge cakes with a crisp sugary crust.”

To get more of a feel for other home baked treats that could be found in the Whistler household I intend to try a couple more of the recipes. Next time, a slightly more complicated recipe from Whistler’s mother’s cook book –“ cocoanut pudding”!

Categories: Special Collections

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3 replies

  1. Glad to see these recipes being tried! When i originally wrote the book, birds were staggering round thw garden having eaten the failed attempts! however… My final favourite- and the family’s- is Amherst Pudding. Slightly excessive on the eggs but hey, running up the stairs to Special Collections should work it off!


  1. First Monday Library Chat: University of Glasgow Library | The Recipes Project
  2. What is a recipe?: a recipes project virtual conversation – University of Glasgow Library

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