Baking with the Bard: Where’s My Sparknotes?

Selected Shakespearean Recipes:
Mynst Pies
A Fine Paste
A Compound Sallat

You  know when you read Shakespeare, and there are those convenient footnotes explaining all the contextual references to contemporary Elizabethan popculture? If you’ve ever tried reading Shakespeare without looking at these handy explanations, you sort of feel like you are only getting half the picture. Lines have very shallow meaning, but you don’t know what it is you don’t know. Shakespearean works, like historical recipes, are best understood when read with a full grasp of the common knowledge of their time, these things that are so common sense, that contemporary writers don’t bother explaining them. They assume their audience knows all about it. Well. Maybe back then they did! Now, much of that ‘common knowledge’ is lost. And unfortunately, there is no handy sparknotes for historical cookbooks!

16th c.England is the first stop in my European whirlwind trip. Look forward to other Medieval and Renaissance culinary delights as the term moves forward! In order to break bread with the Bard himself, I chose Cooking with Shakespeare, a book by Mark Morton and Andrew Coppolino:

Morton, Mark Steven, and Andrew Coppolino. Cooking with Shakespeare. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2008. Print. Feasting with Fiction.

Photo: Wikimedia and Leah Moncada.

Two notes before I dive in: 

  • Most importantly, My mother would like it known that these are very expensive recipes. (Hi Mom. Thank you for letting me use your kitchen for this blog post! Good luck finishing all that pie!)
  • I have copied the original recipes below as they were typed. In the 16th c excerpts, you will notice many interesting grammatical items. These have been retained.


“To make Minst Pyes”

The Good Housewives Treasure, 1588

Mynst Pye! Photo: Leah Moncada.

For added enjoyment, try reading this aloud with the voice of Brother Maynard from Monty Python.

Take your veale and perboyle it a little, or mutton, then set it a cooling: and when it is colde, take three pound of suit to a legge of mutton, or fower pound to a fillet of Veale, and then mince them small by themselves, or together whether you will, then take to season them halfe an unce of Sinamon, a little Pepper, as much Salt as you think will season them, wither to the mutton or to the Veale, take eight yolkes of Egges when they be hard, half a pinte of rosewater full measure, halfe a pound of Suger, then straine the Yolkes with the Rosewater and the Suger and mingle it with your meate. If ye have any Orrenges or Lemmans you must take teo of them, and take the pilles very thin and mince them very smalle, and put them in a pund of currans, six dates, half a pound of prunes laye Currans and Dates upon the top of your meate. You must take two or three Pomewaters or Wardens and mince with your meate, you maye make them worse if you will, if you will make good crust put in three or foure yolkes of egges, a little Rosewater, and a goode deale of Suger.

Photo: Wikimedia and Leah Moncada.

2 lb ground veal
1 cup suet (raw beef or mutton fat. We substituted lard w beef flavouring.)
2 finely chopped apples
1 tbs cinnamon
½ tsp cracked black pepper
1 tsp salt
8 hard-boiled egg yolks
1 cup rosewater (available at eastern European, Middle Eastern, and Indian food markets)
½ cup sugar
1 peel of orange, minced
1 peel of lemon, minced
1/2 cup currants
6 chopped dates
½ cup chopped prunes
pastry for a 9inch pastry shell and top (as we learned, use a sturdy pastry that includes egg yolks)

Prepare the pastry shell and set aside. Preheat oven to 350F.
Sauté veal until cooked, drain.
In a large bowl, mix the suet, apples, cinnamon, salt, and pepper. Sauté the mixture over medium-high heat (medium for lard) for a few minutes.

In a separate bowl, force the egg yolks through a fine-meshed sieve. Add the rosewater and sugar. Whisk vigorously. Stir into the veal. Add the apple mixture. Cook for a few minutes more on medium. Using a slotted spoon, place into the pastry shell.

Combine the minced orange and lemon peel with the currants, dates, prunes and spread on top of the veal. Cover with a pastry top and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until the pastry is golden brown.

Photo: Wikimedia and Leah Moncada.

To many in Canada (and England), mincemeat pie is a holiday classic. But when we think of mincemeat, we recall the decadent taste of dates and nutmeg and currants and ginger! The original version is vastly different. For one, it has 2 lbs of veal. And a cup of (literal) fat.

Shortly after Shakespeare’s death, English cuisine drastically shifted. With the import and relatively easy access of new foods such as potatoes, vanilla, chocolate and coffee, both tastes and cooking practices changed. Previously absent from the English diet, all of a sudden there are numerous recipes and mentions of fancy lobster dishes. As well, by the late 16th century and into the 17th, we see the gradual appearance of meatless mince pies, leaving us today with the familiar taste of candied spiced fruit. Though well after Shakespeare’s time, I can’t mention old english pies without bring up the variety of creative shapes and arrangements in the 17th and 18th centuries:

Pie shapes and arrangements had become quite varied by the 17th c. Notice the Minst Pies on the top platter. Source.

While preparing this dish, we made a few immediate observations regarding how modern tastes have changed. For example, we instantly regretted the lard. It added an unnecessary amount of fat to the meat, which resulted in a slightly soggy and soft baked pastry. Our other mistake was using one of our own pastry shells, from a family recipe. Canadian pastry (as you would make for a cherry pie, say) is rather too delicate for this type of cooking. In retrospect I should have prepared a sturdier pastry. I have included a 16th c pastry recipe down below for your reference.

This is an excellent example of the ‘common knowledge’ of cooks. “Prepare a pastry” the Good Housewife said. So we did! Unfortunately, as I will explain after the “fine paste” below, there was much I didn’t know about what kind of pastry. So many important instructions are left unsaid in recipes (including modern ones) because there is much we mistakenly believe is universally known. As I argued in my recent Ignite presentation, whenever writing instructions (for say, museum educational materials!) it is so important to remember that we are not our own audience. Always be careful on the assumptions you make regarding the knowledge base of your audience.

“To make a fine paste”

The Second Part of the Good Hus-Wives Jewell, 1597

Take faire flower and wheate, and the yolkes of egges with sweet Butter, melted, mixing all these together with your hands, til it be brought dowe paste, and then make your coffins whether it be for pyes or tartes, then you may put Saffron and suger if you wil have it a sweet paste, having respect to the true seasoning some use to put to their paste Beefe or Mutton broth, and some creame.

2 cups all purpose flour
2 egg yolks
½ cup unsalted butter
¼ cup ice water as needed

Pour the flour onto a clean, cool work surface. Create a well in the centre, and place the butter and eggs. Work the flour into a dough with your hands. Add ice water as needed while bringing it together. (At first it will be crumbly.) 
For sweet pastry, add saffron and a couple tablespoons of sugar.
Flatten into a disk, 6 inches in diameter and 1.5 inches thick. Wrap in plastic and chill.

Interesting to note – vessels of pastry are called ‘coffins’. It seems that pastry (or dough), was not always meant to be eaten. Sturdier doughs might be used solely as a food container. “Coffins” appears to mean pre-hardened pastry shells, used for heavy meat pies (such as this one). That might be why the pastry on our pie seemed to fold under the assault of its fillings. Here is the transcript for another recipe for pastry coffins from the 14th c cookbook “The Forme of Cury” at the British Library.

“Another Compound Sallet”

The English Huswife, 1615
Another transcript

Another compound “sallet”. Photo: Leah Moncada.

To compound an excellent sallat, and which indeede is usual at great feasts, and upon Princes tables: Take a good quantity of blanch’t Almonds, and with your shredding knife cut them grosly; then take as manie Raisyns of the sunne clean washt, and the stones pick’t out, as many Figges shred like the Almonds, as many Capers, twice so many Olives, as manie Currants as all the rest, cleane washt: a good handfull of the small tender leaves of red Sage and Spinage, mixe all these together with a good store of Sugar and lay them in the bottome of a great dish, then put unto them Vinegar and Oyle, and scrape more Suger over all; then take Orenges and Lemons, and paring away the outward pills, cut them into thinne slices, then with those slices cover the Sallet all over; which done, take the thinne leafe of the red Coleflowere, and with them cover the Orenges and Lemmons all over; then over those Red leaves lay another course of old Olives, and the slices of well pickld Coucumbers, together with the very inward hart of Cabbage Lettice cut into slices, then adorn the sides of the dish and the top of the Sallet with mo slices of Lemons and Orenges and so serve it up.

½ cup blanched almonds, roughly chopped
½ cup raisins, roughly chopped
½ cup dried figs, roughly chopped
½ cup capers, roughly chopped
1 cup pitted green olives plus a second cup for another layer
3 cups currants (Our interpretation of the above recipe calls for 1/2 cup)
1 cup red sage (substitute radicchio)
1 cup spinach
2 tsp sugar
2 large peeled oranges, sliced
1 large peel lemon, sliced
1 cup red cauliflower leaves (substitute red cabbage)
4 large dill pickles, sliced lengthwise
1 large cabbage hearts, shredded

3 tsp sugar
2 tsp olive oil
vinegar to taste

In a large bowl, combine almonds, raisins, figs, capers, 1 cup olives, currants, red sage, spinach, and sugar. Place in the bottom of your salad dish. Drizzle with oil and vinegar to taste. Place thin slices of orange and lemon on top, keeping a few slices for garnish. Add a layer of cauliflower leaves, olives and pickle slices. Add a layer of cabbage, and garnish with the leftover orange and lemon slices.

In case you missed it, let me just emphasize some of the flavours mingling together in this recipe:

  • Caper + Fig
  • Pickle + Orange
  • Olive + Currant + …

It was at this point that my Mother seemed to rethink her participation. She was so excited to visit the project, but perhaps realized only part way through just what she had signed on for. (Ha. This is nothing.) She did email me the next day, stating that the “sallet” does improve with marination.

We wondered if the ingredients were chosen for their colours rather than their complementary tastes. Though we recognized that many of the tastes were possibly different in past times. Capers, for example, were likely preserved using a different method. Their strong taste of brine is possibly a modern construct. However, further reading revealed that this recipe may have been constructed as a ‘hangover cure’. (I remain skeptical on its promised results.) Lettuce (cabbage) was believed to “keepe away drunkennesse” according to John Gerard in his 1597 Herbal. He also credits cucumber for curing “copper face” – a vascular condition in which chronic drinking causes one’s nose to turn perpetually red.

After consuming these items and reflecting on our cooking process, we decided we would have adapted the recipes differently. Our interpretation of the steps and quantities differ from the authors. For example, the modern recipe here calls for 3 cups of currants. Which is such a gargantuan ratio of currant-to-everything-else for a salad that we question it. We argue that perhaps original recipe is actually calling for a 1/2 cup currants. The recipe states “as many currants as all the others”. This could either mean “all the others added together” or “the same amount as all the others”. The authors of this cookbook are interpreting this sentence from an academic familiarity with Elizabethan english, while we are approaching the interpretation of this recipe from a ‘what makes sense in terms of food’ standpoint. At this point, I can’t argue that either is more valid than the other. Part of the struggle is simply accepting that there are things we will never know!

If you’re interested in reading further about Shakespearean cooking, there are so many communities and enthusiasts out there! A quick google search revealed passionate historiansfoodies, and Shakespeare enthusiasts.

Next time on Historic Kitchen – Medieval France.

Originally published on Musings on October 2, 2015.


2 thoughts on “Baking with the Bard: Where’s My Sparknotes?

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