Doucetes: 15th century

We were all in need of something that wasn’t chocolate this morning. Don’t get me wrong – no one loves the stuff more than me, but our cupboards were beginning to look like we were an accredited wholesaler to the Easter Bunny and when my daughter picked up a large mud covered pebble from our garden path and tried to eat it shouting “Egg!” I knew things had gone too far.

So – what to make that was 100% chocolate-free but was still as indulgent and delightful as a Dairy Milk bar you’d forgotten was in the bottom of an Easter Egg? Egg custard tarts, obviously!

Today’s treat is from Two Fifteenth Century Cookery Books. These cookery books were first published in 1888 by Thomas Austin who, along with others, had prepared two sexily entitled manuscripts: Harleian MS. 279 and Harleian MS. 4016 (archivists aren’t big on marketing and PR, it would appear) and published them together to create one historical cookery book. In 1964 the texts were republished by the equally excitingly named Early English Text Society and a little more light was shed on their origins.

Harleian MS. 279 dates from about 1430 while Harleian MS. 4016 dates from about 1450. As was standard for cookbooks of the period, there are instructions in each not only for individual recipes but also feasts and table designs – a bit of a how to manual for cooks of rich households.

Not from the Harleian MS, but a good reminder that fine medieval dining required epilepsy inducing backdrops.

Some of the recipes in Two Fifteenth Century Cookery Books appear alarming: Cinnamon Soup, Fried Brawn, Swan Neck Pudding. I quickly shifted my laptop as my husband asked hopefully what treat I was making.

“Oh…something, haven’t decided yet.”

“Just as long as it doesn’t have anything too weird in it!”

I glanced down at the screen, my eyes resting on a recipe for something called Meat Custard.

“Nope. Nothing weird here.”

Luckily this time I was able to stick to my word.

Medieval egg custard tarts

Yep – this is exactly what Doucetes turned out to be. I don’t know the etymology of the word (if anyone does please let me know!) but they were delicious and very easy to bake. Seriously, if you’re a fan of eggy puddings but not of sugary saccharine stuff, then this is the thing for you.

As with all good medieval recipes, there were no instructions. Well, none that would have been helpful – quantities, measurements, baking times. It was all a bit of a guessing game. The only thing I felt confident about was that I was making several small tarts rather than one big one – thanks to the references to ‘cofyns’ which were medieval pastry cases. Big ones for morbid imagery, medieval cooks.

Medieval pastry was sometimes little more than flour and water because it wasn’t always intended to be eaten but instead was just a vessel for the filling. Stuffing meat into a pastry case was a good way to ensure the food could be baked without fear of burning or going dry (and could also provide a laugh – when serving chicken pie, cooks might leave the legs of the chicken dangling out of the top of the case. How those long winter evenings in manor house kitchens must have flown by.) For that reason some cooks didn’t want to waste precious ingredients on pastry that would end up being thrown to the dogs. However, other cooks took a more modern approach to pastry making, recognising that a good pastry crust was as much a part of a meal as the filling it protected.

The recipe for Doucetes didn’t give instructions about which sort of pastry I was dealing with so I allowed myself some creative freedom and decided that I’d treat my family to Paest Royall – an early version of shortcrust pastry that required eggs and butter. True, it was from A Proper New Booke of Cookery which was about 100 years after my Doucetes recipe, but who was going to stop me?

Pastry made and shaped into tart cases thanks to a very un-medieval muffin tin, I blind baked it and turned to the filling.

First I mixed cream, milk and three egg yolks together to form a thin custard. I expected to have to heat this mixture, but the original recipe didn’t call for it. To this I added sugar and saffron for colouring and that was the custard done. It couldn’t have been easier. Thanks to previous historical experiments I knew that something always goes wrong, it’s something of an unspoken code, a game between modern cook and historical cook – part of the fun is trying to spot what it will be before it happens. I began to get very suspicious indeed.

Once the pastry had blind baked for 15 minutes, I poured my silky smooth custard into the cases and popped them back in the oven for 20 minutes. Surely here was when the monstrous reality of the dish would rear its ugly head? Would the saffron react with the egg in the heat? Would the medieval pastry twist out of shape and the custard burst forth, creating an eggy mess I would quietly and without explanation leave for my husband to clear up later? I awaited with a mounting sense of excitement and foreboding.

But…nothing. It was almost disappointing.

After 20 minutes or so the tarts were a pleasing golden colour. The custard had set without issue with a suggestive, almost scandalous, wobble. Apart from the couple that seemed to have developed major cellulite during baking, they looked very appealing. Even the little runty one (you know the one – the scrag end of the pastry where you’re trying to gather all the scraps together to force one last case) was standing proud. They were really rather splendid.

Glorious eggy, cellulite-y tarts. Mmm!

I tentatively brought them to my husband and daughter.

“No chocolate?” she asked me incredulously.

No chocolate indeed. I couldn’t imagine anything could improve these further. The anonymous author of MS. 279 knew what he was talking about – they smelled and tasted bloody delicious.

The pastry was rich and buttery, exactly as pastry should be. My daughter treated her first tart as though the pastry case was just a vessel and scooped the filling out, leaving the pastry behind. Fool. I ate the empty pastry shell before she could realise her mistake.

The filling was divine. Creamy and rich – there was nothing stingy about it at all. I had worried that it would end up a bit like scrambled egg, or that egg would be an overwhelming flavour, but there was nothing of the sort. If anything cream with saffron were the main flavours – a sort of milky richness with an earthiness to it that made these tarts incredibly moreish. In fact, they were brought out of the oven at 11:00am and were all gone by 11:30 (and 10 minutes of that was spent fighting my daughter off them as I tried to get a decent photo.)

Had to pin my daughter to the floor to get this picture.

It was then that I realised what had gone wrong with this particular dish, as I knew something must. It was me. Wary of ending up with hundreds of burned scrambled egg tarts I had made a conservative number of them – eight small ones. I should have made more – these were easily one of the best things I’ve made so far. I have doubled the quantities I used for the recipe below to yield 16 small cases.

If you’re looking for something indulgent but not too sweet, give these a go. I know I’ll be making them again and will continue making them until my daughter begins picking up things from our garden path shouting “Doucete!”

E x

Doucete (makes about 16 small tarts)

For the pastry:
225g plain flour
100g butter
2 egg yolks

For the filling:
6 egg yolks
350ml double cream
125ml milk
65g white sugar
Saffron strands

  1. Make the pastry: Rub butter and flour together until combined to a sand like consistency.
  2. Add egg yolks to flour and butter and combine to form a dough. Add water if needed.
  3. Roll pastry out and cut into discs. Push each disc into a well of a muffin tin to form the pastry cases (you might need to do some re-shaping!)
  4. Using baking beans or weights, blind bake the pastry cases for 15 minutes at 200 degrees.
  5. Remove the weights and continue baking at 160 degrees for 5 minutes.
  6. Begin on the filling: Beat egg yolks in a bowl.
  7. Mix in cream, milk, sugar and saffron and combine well to form a thin custard.
  8. Pour custard into pastry cases and return to oven, baking at 160 degrees for 20-25 minutes, or until the tops are golden and filling is wobbly but set.

Nut Custard or ‘Aliter Patina Versatilis’: 1st century AD

What do you get if you mix old socks, cat vomit and honey? Something that smells like patina, looks like patina and tastes like like patina. Mmm, delicious!

Actually, I’m going to hold my hands up to this one and say I’m pretty sure it’s my poor skills that led to the kitchen abomination you’re about to bear witness to. For a patina that you’d actually want to eat check out Farrell Monaco’s pear patina, also from Apicuis. I know – it’s a bold move to usher all 2 of your readers off to the blog of someone who’s absolutely nailed what you were trying to do when your own attempt at it has failed so badly, especially only 2 paragraphs in, but you deserve to see what a good patina looks like. Once you’ve seen Monaco’s amazing creation you’ll understand that I can’t compete for culinary ability, or historical accuracy, or photo skills but damn it I won’t be beaten on amateur enthusiasm and not knowing when to quit.

I’ve attempted an Apicuis recipe already, but haven’t yet really looked into the background of who or what Apicuis was. Turns out that it’s not particularly clear but some historians think the recipe book Apicuis was possibly linked to a famous gourmet called Marcus Gavius Apicuis who it turns out is famous for a couple of things: sailing round the Med looking for the biggest prawns he can find (I like him already) and poisoning himself at a banquet when he realised he’d spent most of his money on food and dining; clearly he preferred to die rather than live a life where he couldn’t have big prawns whenever he wanted. In fact, such was his devotion to food and excess that Roman authors such as Seneca frequently used him in moralizing contexts as the archetypal glutton. At some point the book Apicuis became linked with Marcus Gavius Apicuis, although there isn’t concrete proof that he himself wrote it.

And so on to the dish itself – what is it actually called? In Apicuis itself it’s described as ‘another dish, which can be turned over’. Helpful! Google translate, that falsest of friends, says that Aliter Patina Versatilis means “otherwise pan shifting”. Doubly helpful. As you can see I didn’t need any assistance with translating this dish, but I felt I should double check with Sally Grainger’s Cooking Apicius just to see what she thought. Grainger indicated that a patina is a type of cooking dish – a bit like a modern day pudding steamer – as well as a meal, and that the patina mixture could be cooked over heat in the patina bowl either like an omelette or in an oven like a baked custard – hence ‘nut custard’.

Also helpfully, none of these are patina bowls

The version of Apicuis I used had a footnote attached to the patina recipe. It said: “It is characteristic of Apicius for incompleteness and want of precise directions, without which the experiment in the hands of an inexperienced operator would result in failure.” Inexperienced operator? Me? I scoffed at the possibility and ploughed on.

First, I toasted 100g chopped walnuts and hazelnuts in a frying pan – an arbitrary number which happened to match up to 50% of the packet of nuts I had in anyway. I admit, I had to do this twice because I burned the first lot while watching a trailer for This Country, which I admit isn’t a problem Marcus Gavius Apicuis had, but was totally worth it. Once the second batch had toasted (to perfection), I added honey.

True to form, there were no quantities given. For a moment I wavered as the editorial Words Of Doom whispered around the kitchen: “Inexperienced Operator…operator… Failure…failure… Hands…hands…” I pulled myself together and went back to Grainger. She used a tablespoon for her version, with more poured on once cooked, so I followed those instructions.

This actually looked and smelled pretty good! I was excited; so far, everything appealed to me. On to the next part – the liquamen. For those who don’t know (she said, as if she herself did), liquamen was a type of fish sauce. In the last Apicuis dish I made I used a fish stock pot for a broth, but I’ve since learned that liquamen is very different. It was made by layering anchovies and salt in a pot and then leaving the mixture to ferment for several months, before skimming off the layer of clear liquid that rose to the top. The closest thing we have today is nam pla, which to be fair is pretty bloody close – the ingredients are literally just ‘anchovy, salt, sugar’.

I’d never used nam pla before. I felt so cultured that I walked home holding it in my hand rather than putting it in a shopping bag, just in case some high end foodie spotted me and we could share a knowing nod of pomposity. As per Grainger’s advice, I added a tablespoon to my heavenly smelling nut and honey mixture. And stopped. This new smell was intense. Nam pla may do wonders in terms of being the ‘umami’ flavour once incorporated into a meal, but while it was just sitting in the bottle it smelt like the inside of my toddler’s shoes.

Still, the Romans thought liquamen was good and nam pla remains a staple ingredient in much East Asian cuisine so clearly the problem was with me. Peg on nose, I stirred it in, trying not to care too much as my much loved toasted nut flavour evaporated fast.

To the nutty, fishy mixture I added pepper, milk and 4 eggs and then poured it into a pyrex bowl that had been lightly greased with olive oil and put it all in the oven for 30 minutes at 180 degrees. By this point I was actually looking forward to trying this – I knew that the nam pla wouldn’t be a key flavour on its own once cooked, but I had no idea what it would taste like or how it could enhance the dish without just making it taste of fish. After half an hour, the bowl was ready to take out and be upturned onto a plate – a Roman egg blancmange.

Well. I mean, you can see the photos yourself. As soon as I saw it on the plate I booked myself the best divorce lawyer I could, knowing full well that I had just baked my way to the end of my relationship. If you look up ‘Reasonable Grounds’ in the divorce lawyer dictionary, it’s just a picture of this. I tried every light available to me and my limited skills to save my marriage and make this look less like a mound of reconstituted dog food. In previous dishes I’ve tried not to add my own plate decorations and garnishes so that you can see what the actual food looks like, but with this one I feared Google would ban it under ‘Offensive Images’ if I didn’t do something – hence the ground walnuts and pointless knife.

I was trying to be very positive, but I do have to admit that there was still a scent of cheesy feet coming off the steam. Taking a big breath – figuratively! – I cut a slice and bravely waited for my husband to try it first.

If you didn’t look or smell this, you would probably think it wasn’t too bad. It was not great – probably because it was mainly just overbaked scrambled eggs – but it had some subtleties to it. The honey, for example, gave it just a hint of sweetness and the pepper a definite spiciness. The nuts were still a prominent flavour, which I was glad of, but if you tried to pass this off as a ‘custard’ in a restaurant you’d get your license taken away for mislabelling.

As predicted, the nam pla wasn’t a flavour on its own. I can’t really describe what it did to the meal, other than lend a very meaty/savoury element to the dish. It seemed to work with the flavours in the patina rather than against them, without trying to take over. Unfortunately, though, this dish has taught me that I’m one of those people who tastes with their eyes and nose and I couldn’t escape the smell. Even after I moved to a different room, to be sure that it wasn’t just a bit that had splashed on a surface I was smelling, I could still smell it – an olfactory indication of my newly certified status as Inexperienced Operator. I guess one positive is that once you have the quantities, whatever the hell they’re meant to be, sorted you could easily adjust the recipe to feed as many people as you need. Good news for someone recently single.

E x

Honey nut custard

4 eggs
1 tablespoon of honey
1 tablespoon of nam pla
50g finely chopped walnuts
50g finely chopped hazelnuts
pepper
100ml milk
Olive oil (to grease a pyrex or oven proof bowl)

  1. Toast the nuts in a pan.
  2. Add the honey to the nuts and stir.
  3. Add the nam pla and pepper and stir.
  4. In a bowl, beat the eggs and milk together and add to the pan.
  5. Pour the mixture into a greased pyrex or oven proof bowl
  6. Bake at 180 degrees for 30 minutes or until the top is firm to the touch and a wooden skewer comes out clean.

Cabinet Pudding: 1895

If you’ve bumped into any good history teachers today they may have bored you with the information that Queen Victoria died on this day 1901. As any BBC docudrama will tell you: she reigned from 1837, becoming queen at the age of just 18, until her death 64 years later which at the time made her the longest reigning monarch in British history. At the time of her death it was said that Britain had an empire “on which the sun never set”. Which all sounds very impressive if you imagine David Starkey animatedly frothing about it with something by Elgar playing in the background, but doesn’t really mean anything on its own; are we supposed to praise her for being fortunate enough to afford decent medical care and comfort to aid her long reign when at the same time approximately 25% of the population in lived in poverty? Or is it that if you’re the sort of person who believes the positives of the empire outweigh the negatives, we should laud her for personally hitching up her skirts and striding across India to plant the flag and introduce the ever so grateful natives to civilisation because apparently those 1000 year old languages and temples don’t count?

That’s not to say she doesn’t deserve her status as Golden Girl of the Royal Family. She patronised many new inventions and supported rapid industrialisation which made Britain wealthy beyond measure. Likewise, her decision to open Buckingham Palace up for public events whilst still being used as a family home in an attempt to connect with her people (as long as they weren’t too smelly and dirty), was nothing short of revolutionary and her modifications are still used today to help bring the nation together. She may have been known for being a bit dour and hard to amuse in public, but her wit and warm nature (spoken of by those who knew her well) helped form strong international links with countries in Europe, even through times of great political uncertainty. It’s telling that she appears to have had some kind of influence in creating an uneasy peace between her two grandsons Wilhelm II of Germany and George V, as Wilhelm lamented after the outbreak of WW1 that if she’d still been alive she would never have allowed George and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (also one of her relations through marriage) to form an alliance which would help lead to war. He did keep quiet about what she might have thought about Germany’s own alliance system and its contribution to the war, though.

It’s therefore a bit frustrating when you Google Queen Vic and, other than a dodgy pub in London, the first things that come up are clinical facts dressed up as personal hard-won achievements. With this in mind, then, I present to you Cabinet Pudding – a dish I can find no account of Queen Victoria particularly enjoying, nor one that takes its name from her. But it happened to be created in her era and so by Google standards that’s close enough.

Also known as Chancellor’s Pudding, Cabinet Pudding is something that some people might have heard of but aren’t quite sure what it is. This recipe is from Mary Beale’s Wholesome Cookery which was published in 1895 and which I found in this book. Apparently it was on the menu along with another Victorian fave, Charlotte Russe, at a dinner at Erddig in December 1914. By all accounts the whole evening was a delight, “notwithstanding poor Philip’s gout”, as one guest wrote, but I heard he was putting it on for attention.

It quickly became apparent that it was lucky I had the day off. Now I understood why cooks in period dramas always seemed so angry and fraught – I swear at one point I was meant to be simultaneously straining custard whilst stirring something else, chopping fruit, juggling rolling pins and fending off the advances of the footman*.

My first job was to butter an oven proof bowl and “ornament the bottom and sides with pieces of preserved fruit”. That was it. Let me tell you: I’m still angry at how such a monumentally difficult task was disguised as being so simple in one short sentence. I don’t know what kind of butter they must have been using 100 years ago but I’m certain Pritt Stick would be interested in the recipe.

I picked glace cherries, sultanas, tinned apricots and tinned peaches as my fruits because thanks to the invention of canning in 1810, they were all used in the Victorian era and I thought would work well together.

Since starting this blog it’s become a theme that my expectations don’t match reality: I had imagined the inside of the bowl becoming a stained glass window of jewels glistening with ruby and amber hues. In actuality, every piece of the damn fruit peeled itself from the side and slumped to the bottom in a heap of brown.

This was about the time I began to question whether superglue would really cause that much internal damage

Once I’d built the fruit back up to about 1/3 of the way of the bowl and decided to quit while I was ahead, I found I had to add some stale slices of cake and alternate with crushed ratafia biscuits. If the fruit shenanigans hadn’t immediately proven it for me, it was now apparent that Mary Beale was a woman who had lost her grip on reality if she thought ordinary people were letting their cakes sit around long enough for them to get stale. I made a basic sponge cake in 15 minutes (humble brag, don’t care) and left it in the oven for a bit longer to dry out so it would mimic the dryness of these imaginary uneaten treats Mary wrote about. Having no idea how to throw together a ratafia biscuit I consulted the Victorian powerhouse that was Mrs Beeton.

In her Book of Household Management, Mrs Beeton talks about these being small, round almond biscuits but what’s more important is that she also says cooks should just as well buy these from a good shop as make them themselves. Guilt free, I bought a packet of the first Amaretti biscuits I could find.

I made layers in the bowl of alternating cake and ratafia biscuits, separated with spoons of apricot jam, (the original recipe also says cooks could use “lumps of guava jelly” – thanks, empire!) and then turned to the custard.

No idea why the idea of making a custard from scratch scared me because it was quite simple, (apart from the twenty hands needed bit at the end), but I had visions of scrambled egg, so was put off. I heated 450ml of whole milk with the rind of 1 lemon very slowly until it was almost but not quite boiling. In the meantime, I whisked 4 eggs together with 1 tablespoon of caster sugar. When the milk was hot enough, I strained it over the eggs, whisking continuously. It sounds easier than it was, so don’t look like that. The recipe also calls for a wine glass of brandy to be added to this at this point, which I forgot to do, but which would have been a good addition.

Once it was all mixed it had to be very carefully poured over the bowl of cake and fruit. The quantities were perfect and even once my fake-stale cake had absorbed it there was still liquid on top. Then it was wrapped in buttered greaseproof paper and foil and steamed in a pan for 1 hour.

“Why have you made a fruity brain?” my husband cowered as I held it triumphantly above my head

Ok. Let’s just cut to the chase: it looks like it wouldn’t be out of place in a neurosurgeon’s lecture room as an example of rare and unusual brain diseases. But! It didn’t taste like that. (I think. Who knows – maybe brain is delicious?!)

Because of the mish mash of ingredients in this, every bite was different. One moment I was mostly getting almond and then the next cherry. The whole thing was very soft and melt in the mouth, even the dry cake and drier ratafia biscuits just dissolved. Because of the tiny amount of sugar in it, the custard wasn’t particularly sweet but just sort of mild and creamy – more of an eggy background to the nuttiness of the cakes and syrupiness of the fruit. The recipe advised to serve with custard that had been topped up with yet another glass of brandy, but I found it rich enough on its own.

E x

*Not really. But I can dream.