There's something fun about popovers. I love peeking through the oven window to watch them burst out of their confines. I also love slathering them with butter and jam after they're done. My mom used to top them with vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup to make us kids popover sundaes.
You can pair popovers with almost anything. The golden-brown custardy rolls made from an egg-based batter are perfect for breakfast but they work well for lunch and dinner too. And, as my family knew well, they're delicious as desserts.
In Maine, Jordan Pond House famously serves them for tea on Mount Desert Island. Guests at Acadia National Park have been stopping there for popovers and tea since 1896, when proprietor Nellie McIntire first began serving them. The history of the house is described in a pamphlet-type recipe book my mom passed down to me, along with a slew of other spiral-bound "indie-pub" type cookbooks that used to circulate among home bakers back in the day.
A quick and quirky history
The Story of Jordan Pond describes how Nellie and her husband Thomas leased and eventually bought the "lonely and weatherbeaten little farmhouse" on the south side of the sparsely populated Mount Desert Island. Visitors to the original 1870s eatery owned by Melvan Tibbets could feed their horses, rent canoes, and "score a good rural lunch for a small rural price, or a pitcher of rich milk, or various cold and refreshing beverages."
Under the McIntires' care, Jordan Pond House soon had birch-bark walled dining rooms and massive fieldstone fireplaces. The rugged natural beauty of Acadia, the renovated grounds, and Nellie's cooking skills made the restaurant "the place to go" for the rich when they vacationed in Maine.
Guests over the years included President William Howard Taft, as well as members of the Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford and Pulitzer families. Famous musicians like pianist Olga Stokowski and composer Fritz Kreisler crossed paths with an eclectic mix of artists, writers, royals and industrialists. They would arrive in horse-drawn carriages then settle in for a vacation filled with dinner and dance parties, hiking, canoeing, music recitals and, of course, tea with Nellie's popovers:
These well-heeled summer visitors flocked from Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City to the shores of Acadia, where they began competing with one another to build the most palatial estates and enviable gardens, sealing Acadia’s reputation as a getaway for the upper echelons of society." -Portland Monthly, "Playground of the Rich and Famous"
As for the staff, they didn't have it quite as easy but most loved their time at Jordan Pond House. Thomas was a passionate hiker who often roused his young live-in staff at the crack of dawn for a trek over Penobscot ridge before the day's work. Maybe that's why they had to be in bed by 10 p.m. and were not allowed off the premises without permission. Despite the strict rules, employees considered themselves lucky to get jobs there. One employee described the restaurant as "not simply a building - it has a soul of its own."
Another had this to say:
We arrived alone or in pairs from colleges and universities around the country to spend a summer working in a place many of us had never seen before. We were there early to learn the Pond House ways, the 'proper' way to carry on the tradition of a hundred years. But these techniques were only outward signs of a much deeper grace and serenity which grew to us as we took on its characteristics. It was a style, a breath from long ago . . ."
The summer colony on Mount Desert flourished for decades but its allure began to fade during the Great Depression and World War II. To ensure that Jordan Pond House stayed in business, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. bought it and donated it to Acadia National Park, which he helped create, in 1940. He kept the McIntires on until 1945, when they retired after an enormous tea party in their honor was attended by more than 800 guests.
Rockefeller, Jr. and his wife loved the Jordan Pond section of the island, in part because it was more secluded than Bar Harbor to the north:
Bar Harbor was already swarming with the glamorous rusticator crowd. For the reserved and frugal Rockefeller Jr., the Bar Harbor scene held little appeal. Instead, the couple gravitated to the relative peace of Seal Harbor, on the southeastern shore of the island."
In 1947 a raging fire destroyed many of the great estates (quaintly referred to as "summer cottages") and the already-dwindling way of life came to an abrupt end. Fortunately, Jordan Pond House survived both the fire and the changing times.
While the original rambling restaurant-farmhouse did burn down in 1979, its replacement appeared in 1982 and immediately took up the tea-and-popovers tradition. Visitors to Mount Desert Island can still reserve a spot to dine on the lawn and gaze out across the serene pond.
Best popover in New England
Over the years, the restaurant's main menu item became known beyond the island and is still considered the best popover in New England. But there's nowhere else in Maine where people consume as many popovers as they do in Acadia at the height of summer.
According to DownEast magazine, Jordan House serves more than 2,500 popovers a day during peak season:
In the summer, MDI has the world’s highest popover density. What are they? Soufflé-like rolls invented by Maine settlers as a tidy twist on Yorkshire pudding, a staple of British roast beef dinners. Instead of being added to a pan of beef drippings, the simple batter is poured into muffin tins, then placed in a very hot oven, where, after 40 minutes, popovers magically burst out of their cups."
2,500 popovers a day is a lot for any town, never mind for a single restaurant on an island with a population of 10,000. If you want to try them, you can follow the original recipe below:
Jordan Pond Popovers
2 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
1 cup sifted all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
Speck of baking soda
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
2. Beat 2 eggs at high speed in an electric mixer until lemon colored (2-3 minutes).
3. On slowest speed, add very slowly one half cup of the milk; beat until well mixed.
4. Sift and measure flour, salt and soda; add slowly (with mixer going on low speed) the dry ingredients.
5. When mixed, stop the beater, scrape the sides of the bowl with spatula, turn to medium speed and add slowly the rest of the milk; beat two minutes.
6. Turn to high speed and beat five to seven minutes. Batter should be smooth and about the thickness of heavy cream. Pour batter through strainer, and then into well-greased muffin tins or custard cups. It is not necessary to heat these before using. If a muffin tin is used, fill the end cups only and to the top if you wish high, large popovers.
7. Bake on middle shelf of preheated oven 425 degrees for the first 15 minutes. Without opening the oven, reduce the temperature to 350 degrees and bake 15 to 20 minutes longer.
They are best when served at once, but may be kept in oven for an additional four to five minutes. Approx. yield - 6 large popovers.
Serve with jam and butter or Jordan Pond's homemade ice cream.
From The Story of Jordan Pond:
Many of our customers have difficulty preparing popovers at home. They can be a very tricky item to bake; even we have days when they just do not come out right. A convection oven, now present in many homes, helps a great deal by providing proper air circulation. I also recommend a popover pan when preparing them in the home oven. These special pans, which are sold in our shops, help to better circulate the heat around the baking popovers.
I love the history in those words that bring back an era when convection ovens and popover pans were still novelties.
Quick note: be sure not to open the oven door until popovers are done.