(Cook)Book Review: Cooking with Shakespeare

Final Grade: 


“You know Leah, it appears these ‘academic’ cookbooks are not so rigorous as our faithful Canadian Living test kitchen.”

Words from my mother, who is saying them so I don’t have to. The number of times I raised my eyebrows, askance that something was left unclarified -or GASP, forgotten entirely – were too numerous for me to reasonably believe that any of the recipes that we created were tested as rigorously as modern kitchens have come to expect. While I may rejoice in the almost encyclopedic collection of Elizabethan recipes this cookbook provides, it does not make up for sloppy recipe adaptation or composition.

Buttered Beere
A Fine Paste
Warden Pie

Being the inaugural CookBook review, I couldn’t resist adding tidbits of commentary on how I created the rubric for cookbook reviews. (You know how much I like to deliberate…and contemplate… and critique my own standards of quality…and question the very fabric of the universe…) To illustrate my finished format, I will review a familiar book on this site.


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

The framework:

It’s fairly simple. For each section I give a star rating. Loosely, the number of stars can be broken down as follows:

  1. The content is negative or harmful to the field or to the publics using the material
  2. Necessary content is absent entirely
  3. It’s okay, but somewhat insufficient or inadequate
  4. Pretty good, has what I need and expect
  5. GLOWING – does exactly what I need, and gives me things I didn’t know I wanted!

The final letter grade is determined by the total count of stars. This means that roughly, if the average score per section is 3 stars, the final grade would be a C. (And 4 stars are a B, the -likely very rare- 5 stars are an A.)

I would love to hear thoughts on this marking scheme, and am happy to share my long-form rubric for anyone who is curious or wants to offer advice.

Primary Source Recipes: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

cooking with shakespeare

I had to think long and hard on this category. My purposes are so specific, that it would be unfair to mark cookbooks for what they were not trying to do. It is difficult to restrain myself from judging a scramble like an omelette – they may be made from the same thing, but have two different purposes and methods of preparation. Just because a book includes historic recipes, doesn’t mean it was intended for my purposes, and I need to be careful not to negatively judge books for not meeting my (admittedly exacting) standards when that is something they never aspired to. Historically “inspired” recipes are all very fine and well, if all they aim to do is make a delicious recipe. It is when overly anachronistic recipes claim authenticity beyond their means that miseducative experiences occur.

In this instance, Cooking with Shakespeare does exactly what I am looking for: it exposes us to a delightful plentitude of interesting primary recipes, and connects them thoughtfully to a variety of Shakespearean excerpts and historical factoids. Said recipes are transcribed in detail, and includes full bibliographic information (Be still, my heart. I can rant at length about the number of ‘historic’ recipes that conveniently don’t cite their primary resource.) The authors showed impressive knowledge of which foods were common in Shakespeare’s time, and which foods are incorrectly attributed to Elizabethan England (e.g. various lobster dishes, which first materialized in England much later).

The recipes are drawn from twenty two cookbooks, published in London between 1545 and 1627. They are faithfully transcribed to keep the highly entertaining verbal descriptions and dramatizations, modernizing the spelling slightly for better readability. For example, the uses of “u” and “v” were not designated by their sound, but their placement in a word. “V” was always used at the beginning of a word, while “u” was used everywhere else. The example they give turns the modern “my uncle loves sour vinegar” into “my vncle loues sour vinegar” – definitely takes a bit longer for the modern reader!

Modern Adaptations: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Also from this cookbook on Historic Kitchen: Mynst Pie (above) & a Compound Sallet

Well. Yes. Rewriting the recipes into modern english and substituting new technology into the appropriate place is not sufficient when creating modern adaptations. I fully believe the authors prepared these recipes at least once for their own consumption. But they have failed to properly test their written recipes. Well written contemporary recipes are usually quite explicit, clarifying every necessary detail and step.

The modern adaptations found in this book consistently provided problems in the kitchen. For almost every recipe I prepared, I was forced to re-examine the original recipe to figure out how I should actually proceed. The Mynst Pie recipe did not clarify when to combine the apple mixture with the meat. (I argue it also should have told me quite firmly, maybe in huge capital letters, on pain of death, NOT to use a modern pastry, but whatever. I’m over it.) In the Buttered Beere recipe, we are instructed to add the butter in two different places, but the modern recipe gives one amount of butter and never says how to divide it, nor does it give a second amount of butter. The Warden pie recipe does not say to peel the pears, which creates a huge difference in the texture of the filing. These might seem like small things on paper, but are actually quite crucial to the exacting standards we have for modern recipes.

The authors redeem themselves in two areas. The “makeability” ratings are quite useful, as are the appendices assisting modern cooks on how to source or substitute ingredients. (ALWAYS useful information.)

Quality of Tone & Writing: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

The interpretive text was interesting, easy to understand, and showed a rich historical knowledge from the authors as they identify and analyse diverse clues from both Shakespearean and gastronomic texts.

Quality of Interpretive Content: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Does it follow the theme of cooking with Shakespeare? Yes, but less in the way a drama major would enjoy, and more in the way a Renaissance Historian or Literature Specialist would appreciate. The Shakespearean excerpts occasionally probe dramatic motifs and themes, or comment upon the setting or plot development. I found the excerpts mentioning food more often are used to comment upon the daily life of Shakespeare himself, rather than his characters. And for me, that’s just perfect.

An entire section of the introduction explores how Shakespeare uses food and drink as literary devices to set a scene, ascribe qualities to characters, or create establish (and deconstruct) settings of harmonious social relations. Succeeding sections of the very informative (and lengthy) first chapter explore food & ideology, dietary theory, food & drink laws, food in the marketplaces, social practices, culinary knowledge and tradition, table etiquette, consumption norms, as well as recipe book composition, use, and publication. Their knowledge reveals new depths to popular Shakespearean metaphors and insults that reference food – “you’re such a dish of skim’d milk” you coward!

While not every recipe includes interpretive text, most have a few sentences delving into further detail on one of the above topics. Sometimes the interpretive material or Shakespearean excerpt is only loosely connected to the recipe, and provides little actual insight into the food. Aside from these instances, the interpretive text was usually relevant and enlightening on the recipe’s context, and given with a wealth of quantity that is much greater than many other recipe books of this type.

Final Thoughts

This book is interesting, easy to read, and provides more interpretive text and choice of recipes than I usually find. The primary source recipes, while helpfully cited and transcribed, are not adapted as skillfully into modern versions. They leave out key instructions and showing a failure to properly test the modern recipes. I had to rewrite many of the adaptations when transitioning them into this blog. Overall, I enjoyed using this book, and the wealth of interpretive material taught me much about Elizabethan cooking.


All this being said, I have immensely enjoyed working with this book! I have not only made a number of recipes, but also used the posts based off this book in a recent academic conference presentation. If you want to enjoy your own Elizabethan Feast, there are a huge wealth of resources online. Or try your hand at any of the recipes on this site! Here’s a few more:

“To Make Buttered Beere”

The Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin, 1594

Take three pintes of Beere, put five yolkes of Egges in to it, straine them together, and set it in a pewter pot to the fyre, and put to it halfe a pound of Sugar, one penniworth of Nutmegs beaten, one penniworth of Cloves beaten, and a halfepenniworth of Ginger beaten, and when it is all in, take another pewter pot and brewe them together, and set it to the fire againe, and when it is readie to boyle, take it from the fire, and put a dish of sweet butter into it, and brewe them together out of one pot into an other.

6 cups beer
5 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1 dash minced ginger
1/4 cup unsalted butter

Whisk the egg yolks, combine with the beer, and force through a fine-meshed sieve into a large saucepan. On medium-high heat, add the sugar, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and butter and bring to a boil. Just as it boils, put in the butter (< note conflicting mention of when to add the butter) and pour the mixture into another pot. Bring it to a boil and pour it back into the original pot. Perform the transfer a few times.

“A Warden Pie”

The English Huswife1623

To absolve myself of the mistake of not making proper pastry last time (the infamous mynst pie, swimming in its own fat soaked pastry), I decided to try a pie once again!

Take of the fairest and best Wardens, and pare them, and take out the hard cores on the top, and cut the sharp ends at the bottome flat; then boyle them in White-wine and suger, untill the sirrup frow thicke: then take the Wardens from the sirrup into a cleane dish, & let them cool; then set them into the coffin, and prick cloves in the tops, with whole sitcks of cinnamon, and great store of suger as for Pippins; then cover it, and onely reserve a vent-hole, so set it in the oven and bake it: when it is bak’d, draw it forth, and take the first sirrup in which the Wardens were boyld, and taste it, and if it not be sweet enough, then put in more sugar, and some rosewater, & boyle it again a little, then powre it in at the vent-hole, and shake the pie well; then take sweet Butter, and rose-water melted, and with it anoynt the pye-lid all over, and then strow on it store of Sugar, and so set it into the oven again a little space, and then serve it up And in this manner you may also bake Quinces.

4 large, firm Bartlet pears, pealed and cut into quarters
2 cups white wine
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup whole cloves, as needed
2 cinnamon sticks
1/4 cup sugar
For pastry use: “a fine paste”, below
For glaze:
3 tbs unsalted butter
1 tbs rosewater
2 tbs sugar

Prepare the pastry shel and top. Preheat the oven to 350F. Boil the peeled and quartered pears in the wine and sugar until they soften slightly and the liquid thickens. Remove the pears to a dish and allow them to cool. Insert two cloves into each pear quarter and arrange in the pastry shell. Add the cinnamon sticks. Cover the pie with pastry, cutting a 1-inch diameter hole in the centre. Bake for 30 minutes.
In the meantime, heat the wine and sugar mixture and test for sweetness. Add more sugar if desired. Melt the butter, add the rosewater, keep warm.
After the pie has baked for 30 minutes, remove and pour a few tablespoons of the liquid into the pie through the vent hole. Rock the pie back and forth gently to distribute the liquid. Brush the top crust with the butter and rosewater and sprinkle it with sugar. Bake for the remaining 15 minutes, or until golden brown.

Delicious, but the utility of eating this pie is vastly different from our familiar pies. Today, they are eaten much like cakes, a fork will slice through creamy filling and pastry alike, and you consume both in one mouthful. Given the disparate textures of the pieces in this pie, the runny liquid, the somewhat blocky pears, the protruding whole sticks of cinnamon, and finally the cardboard-esque pastry, so to is the practice and ability to eat this food very different.

“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.

In the original post I talked about the function of Elizabethan pastry as “container”, and not something to be eaten on the same forkful as the inside, like we do with today’s pies. The pastry was incredibly tough, while the inner pie was quite runny. Once we consumed the spiced pears, we broke off the pastry bits and ate them like cookies.


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