One of the topics I’ll soon be starting with year 10 is the American West. It’s the study of how and why people in the 19th century moved westwards to settle across the vast landmass that is now the United States of America – pausing periodically for the odd massacre of the people who already lived there, moving again, pausing again to have a civil war and moving on.
When I ask my students what they think of when they think of modern day America the responses are varied and predictable: patriotism, flags, eagles, guns, baseball, fast food and big cars. But that’s not all America is to 15 year old British kids, is it? What about the values – the ideas – that make America similar and different to us?
Usually we manage to steer the conversations away from Donald Trump’s hair and on to more academic things like why the idea of ‘freedom’ (whatever it may mean) is so important to many Americans. The American West course isn’t just about looking at the actions of 19th century Americans and European migrants, but what their motivations were too. It’s about analysing the decisions and events which came to develop American beliefs such as personal liberty and patriotism into the forms we know today (including Donald Trump’s personal right to wear his hair however inexplicably he wants to.)
But when I take my teacher hat off and stop trying to think too deeply about it all, I always come back to food when I think of America. Hot dogs, fries and that weird plastic cheese that my mum made me think was worse than drinking a gallon of bleach when I was growing up, but that melts like nothing else on a burger. And I think of the food I’ve never tried but really want to: corn dogs, biscuits and gravy (which sounds like an abomination to the average Brit), kool-aid, grits… But the most American food of all – the quintessential American dessert – is apple pie.
Before the first settlement in Jamestown had even been dreamed of, the Tudors already had several varieties of apple pie and apple tart. In fact, pies of all kinds were an absolute staple of the Tudor dining table. Whilst hunting for the perfect apple pie recipe I also found recipes for pear pies, quince pies, peach pies, citron pies, gooseberry pies, prune pies (though why anyone would feel the need to make multiple versions of this is anyone’s guess) and cherry pies.
Only slightly disturbingly, pie crusts were known as coffins and their primary function was just to hold the delicious meat or fruit filling in place, sort of like a baking tin. The pastry itself wasn’t necessarily meant to be consumed, although it could be.
Pies were a favourite of that most rotund of Tudors: Henry VIII. He was reportedly particularly fond of quince marmalade and orange pies and in 1534 his household records the purchase of an orange strainer – an exotic and rare piece of equipment for both Tudor kitchens and my own kitchen. As part of the vast kitchens at Hampton Court there was a dedicated department known as The Pastry whose job was to produce the tart cases and coffins for Henry’s meat or fruit of choice. Such was the popularity of pies at Henry’s court, one of Hampton Court’s four great pastry ovens measured twelve feet in diameter. Most of the pastry cases made at The Pastry were wholemeal, but the king’s would have been made of the finest white flour. For more information on this definitely check out Alison Weir’s Henry VIII: King and Court.
This recipe is taken from A Proper New Booke of Cookery which the British Library tells me was one of the first books to include practical instructions of the kind we might recognise today: measurements – spoonful, ladleful – and cooking times. Like a pro, I’ve managed to eschew such helpful recipes and have instead succeeded in selecting one of the few that seems to contain neither measurement nor timings.
For this recipe I felt it was time to call in some reinforcements so I gave my dad a call. Big mistake. He is a very good cook, but struggled to accept that this 500 year old recipe might be slightly different to his beloved Delia one.
“What on earth is it talking about: take your apples and core them as ye will a quince?” he frowned. “When was the last time you cored a quince?” he asked, like I’d personally written the recipe to spite him. “Do quinces have cores?”
We agreed to slice the apples thinly and sprayed some lemon juice over them to stop them going brown, even though the recipe didn’t call for it, because I actually think the man would have had an aneurysm if I hadn’t have let him. While he looked at a picture of Delia’s Complete Cookery Course to calm down, I got on with the coffin.
I had assumed that this pastry would be like a Tudor version of a shortcrust, but upon closer inspection it wasn’t anything like it. First I melted butter with water in a pan and added saffron to it. Then, I added the whites of two eggs and enough flour until the pastry formed a thick and smooth dough. It ended up a little like choux pastry, but much thicker.
I got dad to roll the pastry out onto my forever-ruined wooden worksurface while I added “enough” sugar, cinnamon and ginger to the apple slices. As with many other Tudor recipes, the quantity “enough” served as an indication to add ingredients in quantities that the master’s palate preferred. I calmly added as much sugar and spices as I desired and then my dad decided it was time we had an argument about butter.
“You should definitely butter the pastry dish,” he told me.
“It doesn’t mention it in the recipe, and the pastry has a lot of butter in it already. Anyway, we already added lemon to the apples and that wasn’t meant to be there either.”
“I would. Delia would.”
Long story short, we ended up compromising with an amount of butter that was neither negligible enough to match the butter-less recipe nor large enough to do anything useful in Delia’s eyes. Lose-lose all round!
The apple mixture encased in its coffin, I got on with the decoration. Since I used fine white flour, such as would have gone in a pie for the king, I felt that my apple pie should have some decoration befitting the royal table.
After his defeat of Richard III, and to stop any rebellions or power grabs from relations of Richard, Henry Tudor (father of Henry VIII) married Elizabeth of York who was Richard’s niece. In order to show that the two families were now one, Henry, master of propaganda that he was, combined one of the symbols of his house of Lancaster – a red rose – and one of the symbols of Richard’s house of York – a white rose to create that well known motif: the Tudor rose. He wasted no time in slapping this not at all subtle symbol everywhere – on doorways, building arches, bridges and wall panels. Anything that stood still enough for long enough was at risk of having the image carved into it. What could be more fitting for a Tudor pie than to decorate it with a Tudor rose?
I have to stop playing the ‘gormless dad’ angle at this point though because after seeing me struggle with freehand pastry carving he was the one who suggested drawing a stencil on grease proof paper and cutting round it. Instantly my roses were transformed from the sorts of splodgy modern art-esque designs that might have had me beheaded for treason into something that semi-resembled Henry VII’s emblem. The recipe then called for a rose water and sugar glaze to be pasted onto the top of the pie with a feather, but I felt that this would take too much time and since we’d already adulterated the original method with lemon juice and buttered dishes, I thought using a pastry brush wouldn’t matter now. The pie glazed, I put it into the oven for 1 hour and waited.
I was a bit worried that the pastry might not hold its shape, being a bit wetter than a bog standard shortcrust, but I was delighted to see that I’d be keeping my head when I pulled the pie out of the oven and saw that the rose was still in tact! In fact, the whole pie looked pretty damn delicious.
The pastry held its shape well when cut and the apples still had a bit of crunch to them, which I quite like. It was also neither too sweet nor too spicy because the quantities of sugar and ginger had been added according to my personal taste. I do have to grudgingly admit that the areas of the dish which had been greased well offered up the bottom of the pie crust a lot more easily than those areas that had only had trace amounts of butter smeared over them, but it wasn’t a huge effort to get it out. The only slight issue was that there was a lot of liquid in the pie, but that was quickly mopped up and could be drained out by making a small hole in the crust once cooked.
I had wanted to serve this with clotted cream and had found a 1594 recipe for it: “Clowted Cream after Mistres Horman’s Way” (whoever she is.) However, since the recipe begins “Once you have taken the milk from the cow…” and all the cows in Britain are currently underwater thanks to storm Dennis, I just bought some instead. Either way it was delicious!
Green Apple Pie
5 bramley apples
285g caster sugar
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Few strands saffron
350g plain flour
2 egg whites
Rose water or egg wash
- Peel and core the apples, then cut them into slices.
- In a pan melt butter with a tablespoon of water and saffron. When melted, add the egg whites and flour gradually, stirring until incorporated and smooth.
- Roll out dough to 1cm thickness and place in a pie dish.
- In another bowl, toss the apples with the sugar, cinnamon and ginger. Lay on top of the pastry in the pie dish.
- Cover the pie with a pastry lid and brush with rose water with a little sugar mixed in or an egg wash if you prefer. If you have dough left over you could make your own design and add it to the pastry lid. If you do this make sure you stick the design to the lid with a beaten egg.
- Bake at 160 degrees for 1 hour.