Medieval pastry: experimentation

I’ve been putting theory into practice, experimenting with different recipes for making medieval ‘paste’, the stuff which medieval cooks used for making pastries, from baked tarts and pies to fried crispels and fritters.

In this post, I report back on my experiments to make authentic medieval pastry, using both egg yolk paste and whole egg paste.

Medieval paste recipes do not list any other fat besides that found in eggs, so it seems quite evident that butter or lard, for example, were not used. You can read more about this, in my first post about pastry, here.

Egg yolk paste

I experimented first with egg yolk paste. I needed 9 medium egg yolks for 200g of flour (I mistakenly say 100g of flour in the video, below). For those of you who use ounces, that’s just over 7oz of flour. The flour I used was organic stoneground white flour. If you’re in the UK, you can buy it here.

 

As you see, it looks and feels like something between pastry and pasta dough. I only gently kneaded this before rolling it out to make a pastry case, or ‘crust’, as medieval cooks would have called it. It needed cooking for about 30 minutes (I was cooking it fully), at 180°C/350°F in a fan oven (= 200°C/400°F in a standard electric oven; gas mark 6).

Egg yolk paste crust
A baked crust, made from egg yolk paste

The crust was robust, held its shape well, and was easy to remove from the ceramic dish I used to bake it in. It bore some resemblance to modern short-crust pastry, though noticeably less fragile, and was quite crisp. It would be ideal for using to make most of the tart and pie recipes in Forme of Cury (‘Method of Cookery’), Richard II’s cookery book.

I will probably use the egg yolk paste for Sambocade, the elderflower curd tart I experimented with a few weeks ago. At the time, I used my own gluten-free pastry — so that I could eat it — but it will be interesting to test it, on some willing participants, with this more authentic crust. I will be filming the Sambocade recipe for the Patreon video series, so please look out for that.

Forme of Cury. Cryspels. 76r
‘Cryspels’ from Forme of Cury, Manchester, John Rylands Library, MS English 7 (c.1390), folio 76r. By permission of the University of Manchester.

I next used the egg yolk paste to make crispels. The recipe in Forme of Cury is as follows:

Cryspels

Take & make a foyle of good past as thynne as paper, kerue hit out and fry hit in oyle oþer in grece, & þe remnaunt take hony claryfyed & flamme hem þer wiþ, alay hem vp and serue hit forth.

Crispels

Take and make a leaf of good pastry as thin as paper; cut it out and fry it in oil or in fat; and for the rest, take clarified honey and glaze them therewith; layer them up and serve it forth.

The edited text and translation are by Christopher Monk. © 2019. All rights reserved.
20190511_175526
A crispel made using egg yolk paste

I cut the paste into small circles and fried them in hot oil. I used peanut oil, not very medieval, I know, but nevertheless a good frying oil. (I will be posting about medieval oils and fats in a later post.)

The crispels took just seconds to fry to a golden colour. I glazed them with warmed honey. They were very delicate and crispy, and apparently tasted pretty good.

I did have enough paste left to make pasta, so I kneaded the remnant a few minutes, rolled it out very thinly, and formed a raviola, filling it with what I had to hand: cheese and homemade chutney!

The guinea pig, Ray (Camera, Lights, Action! man for the video series), said the edges were a bit rubbery, but essentially the rest tasted fine and seemed rather like modern fresh pasta.

20190511_174623
A raviola made from egg yolk paste

Whole egg paste

The whole egg paste was very interesting. I used 3 large eggs to 250g of flour (the same flour as before) — that’s almost 9oz. This took a lot of kneading to get rid of the stickiness, just as it would if you were making pasta dough.

 

I again used the paste to make both a pastry crust and crispels. The results were intriguing.

The crust needed even longer in the oven to bake than the yolk paste version, about 40 minutes at 180°C/350°F in a fan oven (= 200°C/400°F in a standard electric oven; gas mark 6).

 

I wouldn’t go as far as to say the crust was indestructable, but it was very resilient! I didn’t really like it as a tart crust because the sides lost their initial height. Just like pasta dough, the paste was quite elastic and tended to shrink back.

I may have to experiment further to see if I can find a better ingredient combination, probably a ratio of less egg to flour.

The crispels on the other hand were wonderful:

Crispels made with whole egg paste
Crispels made with whole egg paste

I made them a little larger than the yolk paste versions, rolling out the dough as thinly as possible. I fried them until golden brown in hot, but not too hot, oil: they puffed up and grew in size, rather like poppadoms do. I drizzled them in warmed honey. These were a big hit with Ray. These crispels will likely find their way into the video series.

I still have yet to experiment with flour-and-water and flour-and-almond-milk paste recipes. Once I do, I will get back to you all on the results.

I am going to attempt a gluten-free version, too. It’s only fair!

Please feel free to post a comment or question in the reply section at the bottom of the page.

And if you wish to keep up to date with my blog posts, please follow the website (a +follow link should appear at the bottom right of your screen or monitor).

See you soon.

Christopher

P.S. Thank you to Kay, one of my readers, for asking what the second pastry crust was like. Was it edible, she asked. It was. Despite it looking very tough, the texture was not detrimental to my human guinea pig’s teeth. Here, in this short video, you get an idea of how it has the snap of a British biscuit:

 

 

8 thoughts on “Medieval pastry: experimentation

  1. Ah, thank you. Actually, the second one was properly edible. It had the texture of a British biscuit. I’ll append a short video of it being snapped by the human guinea pig. I just think as a crust, I didn’t like the way the sides shrunk back leaving a rather shallow case, whereas the first, made of egg yolks, held its shape better, rather more like short crust pastry does, though it too was pretty resilient. It is quite fascinating working out what must have been done — or, at least, trying to work it out.

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  2. What if you tried a combination of whole egg and yolks? Is it not possible this was done? Complete novice here when it comes to period cooking, I am just curious.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s certainly worth experimenting with. I think overall the yolk-only paste behaves more like short crust pastry dough. The advantage of medieval pastry is that it is stronger, more robust than modern pastry. When reading the recipes, there does seem to be a practice of making a crust ahead of time: ‘make and take a crust’ or something similar is often stated. I could imagine a pastry cook in Richard II’s kitchen being responsible for the day’s crusts.

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  3. I have added egg and vinegar to crusts for modern meat pies and pasties adds strength but maintains tenderness. Not so tasty with sweet fillings. Pie crusts in period also used to preserve filling, there was an experiment whereby meat filling baked refrigeration sealed in medieval crust was safe for weeks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s very interesting about your use of eggs and vinegar. I read the experiment with preserving fillings; it was fascinating.

      What I will say regarding the recipes I’ve studied in Forme of Cury, and other medieval English manuscripts, is that there doesn’t seem to be any clear intent to preserve food through pastry encasement. This might be because these are elite status recipes.

      The instruction in Forme of Cury is invariably ‘serve it forth’, so immediate consumption is the intent. Also, some of the pastries are open tarts, not sealed.

      I think I’m trying to move folk away from the oft-repeated idea that medieval pastry wasn’t made to be eaten. Apart from a few clearly decorative pieces, the vast majority of recipes in Forme of Cury point to the pastry as an edible and tasty part of the dish. My two experiments so far haven’t contradicted this. Even the very robust whole egg crust was still edible.

      Thanks for your input. I really appreciate it. I’m very curious about vinegar in pastry. Will have to try it.

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  4. At least some dishes had the crusts cut away when serving – doucettes come to mind. With the descriptions of cutting off the bottom of the bread before serving, I suspect that many of these crusts were not intended for eating.

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    1. Donna, thanks for replying. I can’t see any instructions in the original recipes for doucettes to cut away the crust when serving. I’ve checked the Harleian MS 279 text, where there are two different recipes for doucettes, and neither mention what you describe. I’m not sure which recipes you are referring to which refer to cutting off the bottom of the bread (bread, not pastry?), so I’d be really grateful if you could point me in the right direction. I’d like to check this. Thanks again.

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