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.
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.
Douceteȝ.—Take Creme a gode cupfulle, & put it on a straynoure; þanne take ȝolkys of Eyroun & put þer-to, & a lytel mylke; þen strayne it þorw a straynoure in-to a bolle; þen take Sugre y-now, & put þer-to, or ellys hony forde faute [leaf 40.] of Sugre, þan coloure it with Safroun; þan take þin cofyns, & put in þe ovynne lere, & lat hem ben hardyd; þan take a dysshe y-fastenyd on þe pelys ende; & pore þin comade in-to þe dyssche, & fro þe dyssche in-to þe cofyns; & when þey don a-ryse wel, take hem out, & serue hem forth.FIFTEENTH CENTURY COOKERY BOOK. I.
HARLEIAN MS. 279, ab. 1420 A.D.
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.
True medieval recipes for pastry never contain fat, such as butter. If an enriching agent is used it is usually egg. The recipe for Doucetes didn’t give instructions about which sort of pastry I was dealing with (egg or not) but I had high hopes for the yumminess (to use a technical term) of these, 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? If you would like to compromise on flavour in the name of authenticity then simply sub out the butter in the pastry ingredients below.
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.
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.)
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!”
Doucete (makes about 16 small tarts)
For the pastry:
225g plain flour
2 egg yolks
For the filling:
6 egg yolks
350ml double cream
65g white sugar
- Make the pastry: Rub butter and flour together until combined to a sand like consistency.
- Add egg yolks to flour and butter and combine to form a dough. Add water if needed.
- 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!)
- Using baking beans or weights, blind bake the pastry cases for 15 minutes at 200 degrees.
- Remove the weights and continue baking at 160 degrees for 5 minutes.
- Begin on the filling: Beat egg yolks in a bowl.
- Mix in cream, milk, sugar and saffron and combine well to form a thin custard.
- 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.