WITH SANDRA OLIVER
What a fun, challenging, and educational workshop. Sharing several days with some of the top food historians and a few enthusiastic novices, we all had something to share as we progressed with our chosen receipt. Sandy, Historic Deerfield, and participants all brought receipt books from very early to modern times. It was hard not to want to look at them all. However, we each had a mission, and mine was to research Hot Water Paste to make coffins. First we all made a list of keywords that we could use in looking up things in the Oxford English Dictionary and several others that were at hand.
My keywords were, hot water paste, raised pye, great pye, coffin, hot water crust, paste pye and standing crust. I found that I could go back as far as 13th century if I wanted too, however, I thought I’d narrow this down a bit. I started in 1596 with Thomas Dawson’s chewits and went on to an 1880 book by Agnes Marshall. Of the ten receipts the majority were in the narrative, with a few short sentences listing ingredients in copious amounts, the three that were scientific gave measurements in cups, tablespoons and pinches, as a list, and then directions on the process. Proportions depended largely on the size of the coffin, or raised pie that was being made. All most all called for three items, hot water, flour and some type of fat. Butter was used over lard and only one receipt used suet. The flour differed in the type of pye being made, rye for a high stiff crust and fine flour for smaller pies. Three of the receipts used eggs and one used saffron. Few tools were needed to make the crust, a pot to boil water and a board to mix everything on. Very few had any instructions at all and Ann Wilson who wrote Food and Drink in Britain said of making dough “Pastry making was one of the crafts which medieval cooks or house wife’s had to learn by hearsay” I would add, by practice also.
Once made into a coffin, standing pye or whatever you might call it, it then needed to be filled. Now this brings me to the wonderful history that I found regarding coffins being made as far back as the 14th century in France, most notably in the context of court banquets. They were not always filled with food. Sometimes they were filled after baking as an Illusion food, called a Sotellties. These were served between courses as an entertainment. The cook book Epulario published in 1598 mentions baking a coffin then stuffing it with frogs and or birds to pop out as they cut the top crust. Does four and twenty blackbirds ring any bells?
They were also made as wedding gifts and for traveling to picnics. No medieval feast would be without a Great Pye containing whole legs of venison or beef, swan, peacock or other foods laden with rich spices, herbs and eggs. All made with a very stiff paste. In 1785 Abigail Adams who was in France wrote a letter to Lucy Cranch relating the customs there. “Religion of the country requires an abundance of feasting. The day before, it is customary to make a large paste pie” So hot paste had a long run in cookery book and feast days. Raised by hand or with the use of a wooden mold if you happen to have one. It was not until the late 1880s that they were made inside a form to hold their shape.
Agnes Marshall’s Cookery Book (London: 1880).
Back to the 17th and 18th centuries- whether or not the coffin was eaten after the content was gone is unclear. The cookery book “Good Housewife handmaid for the kitchen” published in 1596 states “but ye must take heed ye not put too many yolks of eggs for if you do it will make it drie and not pleasant in eating.” Sounds like they did eat the crust.
Yet, look at the picture by Pieter Claesz; you see a coffin with the content spooned out and crust on top.
However, Willem Claesz Heda paints his with it cut much like a pie wedge today. So was the crust consumed or discarded? Was it taken to the kitchen for the cooks or passed out at the door for the peasants. I have not seen any primary source confirming either way.
So with the research completed on our chosen receipts each participant took 15 minutes to share their findings. Then it was off to the Hall Tavern to try our hand at cooking them. I chose Robert May’s 1685 receipt for my paste and filling. And my next blog will include my disaster and triumph in raising a coffin.
Once again I thank Sandy for a wonderful workshop, and am also appreciative of all the participants who were so generous in sharing their knowledge. As my roommate for the workshop mentioned later, “We came for the food and left with all these wonderful folks in our pockets.”
Until next week,
OPEN HEARTH COOKING CLASSES
There are still opening for the up-coming classes for April – May
Look for them in the gray box on the right side of the site –
Hope you can join us