Chastletes: 1390

Ever wondered what it would be like to have dinner and dessert at the same time? Don’t lie, of course you have – what child hasn’t?

What about instead of just serving the two courses at the same time, you served both of them in the same bowl?

What if the bowl was actually a four turreted, freestanding pastry castle?

What if the castle was on fire?

I imagine these are just some of the questions that went through the head of Richard II’s master chef when he designed Chastletes and committed this frankly bizarre but brilliant dish to the pages of Forme of Cury. Settle in because this post is a long one…

According the the British Library, Chastletes translates as “little castles”. Essentially, it was a recipe for an open-top pork filled pie, with battlements cut along the edge, and four open-top pies surrounding it, each filled with a different filling: almond cream, ginger marzipan, fruit puree and egg custard. What was slightly confusing was the term “little”; Forme of Cury seemed to suggest that the pastry be rolled out to a foot in length and width before being shaped into castles, which didn’t scream “little” to me.

By the way, if you use incorrect terminology when discussing castles you’ll give a lot of nerds terrible migraines.

And as I’m vying to become Queen of the Nerds I can’t have that, so here’s a crash course.

Put incredibly simply: the earliest form of castle in Britain was the motte and bailey, for which we have the Norman invasion of 1066 to thank. You may remember this type of castle from school when your mum built a model of one for your homework and it sat at the back of the classroom for two terms before mysteriously vanishing, never to be seen again.

These castles were simple, quick to build wooden towers (the keep) which were constructed on the top of man-made hills (the motte). Mottes provided an excellent vantage point to spot approaching enemies and gave an elevated position for the keep to sit on; an enduring symbol of Norman oppression over the Anglo-Saxon population. A wooden fence (the palisade) ran around the bottom of the motte, forming a courtyard (the bailey), which was often big enough to house several small buildings in which soldiers, provisions, animals – anything, really – could be kept.

This famous section of the Bayeux Tapestry, showing a motte and bailey castle being built, documents the gentrification of Hastings. The next scene shows the construction of a Starbucks.

After a few years, castle builders realised that though wooden keeps were relatively cheap and quick to build, they had several major flaws: they rotted over time, they were susceptible to arson (or just wayward candles), and they couldn’t be build too large. From the 12th century aristocrats began to update their wooden castles and replaced them with stone ones (known as stone keep castles). These were an improvement in defense, thanks to the incredibly thick, inflammable walls.

By the start of the 13th century, those with stone keep castles realised that, yes, things were generally less aflame since they’d upgraded, but there was still work to be done. The motte, for example, provided invading forces with ample opportunity to tunnel under and up, thus undermining the keep’s foundations. The palisade, even if upgraded to stone, was often a weak, easily breached structure. A new defensive strategy slowly took over, moving the focus from the keep to gatehouses and fortified walls, sometimes more than one.

From the 14th and 15th centuries onwards, as the threat of invasion diminished, new castles became less about fortification and more about comfort for the families who owned them. Palace-fortresses, as they became known, were the epitome of luxury for anyone who could afford the astronomical renovation bills. Whatever you kitchen extension cost – triple it, easily. New quadrangular castles had no keeps – the buildings and rooms were built into towers at the four corners that connected the curtain walls and enclosed a central courtyard. These castles were predominantly for show – their owners rarely anticipated invasion or siege, and as such made use of features such as large windows to bring in more light.

Yeah, that’s enough about castles now.

Here’s more if you want it.

According to Professor Chris Woolgar, given its castle shape and brightly coloured fillings, Chastletes fits in with a type of dish called an entrement: a dish that arrived at a banquet table in between courses and was designed to entertain and delight guests. The entrement was a status dish; usually highly decorated and coloured, it could only be eaten by certain social classes and was intended to highlight wealth and show off the skill of the cook. By the end of the 13th century some entrements had become set pieces that conveyed certain messages. One apparently popular entrement depicted a knight (a grilled capon) with a paper helmet and lance sitting astride a roast piglet. I don’t know exactly what message that one was meant to convey, but I bet it was both hilarious and thought-provoking if you were a medieval lord.

Anyway – the design of Chastletes seemed to be a mash up of a quadrangular castle – thanks to the four towers at the corners – with an additional stone keep. This also fits in with the time frame; Forme of Cury was compiled around 1390 – right on the cusp of the 15th century when quadrangular castles were at their most popular. The recipe is very vague and open to interpretation, though, so it’s possible that multiple versions existed.

Take and make a foyle of gode past with a rollere of a foot brode, & lynge by cumpas, make IIII coffyns of þe self past uppon þe rollere þe gretnesse of þe smale of þyn arme, of VI ynche depnesse, make þe grettust in þe myddell, fasten þe foile in þe mouth upwarde, & fasten þee oþere foure in euoury syde, kerue out keyntlyche kyrnels aboue in þe maner of batelyng, and drye hem harde in an ovene, oþer in þe sunne.

Take and make a sheet of good pastry, using a rolling pin, one foot wide and long by computation, make four coffins of the same pastry upon the rolling pin, the size of your wrist and six inches deep. Put the greatest in the middle, fasten the sheet in the mouth upwards, and fasten the other four on each side. Carefully carve out the battlements above in the manner of parapets and dry them hard in an oven or in the sun.

Forme of Cury. Translation by Christopher Monk.

I couldn’t find much evidence online for what my version of Chastletes should look like for sure. The kitchen gurus at Hampton Court Palace recreated a version of the recipe for Chastletes in 2016, but they opted for circular towers throughout in a nod to the Henrician Device Forts – 16th century stone circular castles built during the reign of Henry VIII.

By the 14th century, entrements were known as subtleties (this term would later refer exclusively to sugar paste models). Though the medieval term subtlety meant clever or surprising rather than understated, I still couldn’t help but snort when I read this; there was nothing subtle about Chastletes.

An example of a Renaissance era sugar banquet with sugar subtleties on a table.

To start with, it was over a foot long and tall. In a slightly foreboding jolt of realisation, I realised I’d made a subtlety in the shape of a building before – when I attempted a marzipan model of old St Paul’s. It hadn’t quite gone to plan and rather than a towering sugar cathedral I’d ended up with a model of what St Paul’s might have looked like if bulldozers had existed in the 17th century.

In order to avoid a repeat of the marzipan fiasco, and as it would be just me and my family sampling this dish, and not the worthy guests at a king’s banquet, I scaled it down a little and started by making the main keep. As usual, there were no instructions in the recipe for pastry making, other than it should be “good”. The use of pastry in medieval England is quite complex. Traditionally, it’s believed that the pastry crusts on medieval pies were nothing more than flour and water and weren’t intended to be eaten, instead just acting as vessels for meat and gravy, but recently that theory has been challenged as some recipes for pastry used ingredients designed to enrich the dough, like eggs, which implies the mixture should be edible. Medieval pastries didn’t use fat, such as butter or lard, however, so getting a lovely flaky melt-in-your-mouth pie crust was unlikely for this experiment.

For this “good” pastry I chose to use flour and egg yolk, which yielded a strong dough that was robust enough to hold its shape well and baked into a hard structure – ideal for holding the fillings – as well as being something that could be eaten without too much complaint.

I used a mould to create the main keep. When I say “mould”, I don’t mean I had a handy castle-shaped frame to push the dough into (although I’ve literally just caught sight of my daughter’s bucket and spade in the garden…), I mean I draped the dough over a small upturned lasagne dish. It probably wasn’t 100% authentic, but it was the only way I could ensure straight, even edges. Once shaped and any excess dough trimmed, I cut out squares from the top edge for the battlements. I moved the keep to a sunny area of the garden to dry out a bit before baking, and got on with the turrets.

Who’s to say Richard II’s cooks didn’t use upturned buckets and bowls to help them create the right moulds?

In all honesty, these were the bits I was most daunted by. How was I going to ensure I created four equally sized turrets? How were they going to support themselves? How could I ensure they were watertight for when the various mixtures were poured into them? Designs like these turrets have contributed to a belief that medieval pastry, especially when it had to be freestanding, was incredibly thick, but some argue that the idea of medieval pastry being inches thick comes from 18th century pie making techniques and perceptions of the medieval world as being unrefined.

If the turrets, which were smaller than the main keep, were supposed to be filled with stuffings and custards then it seemed to me that cooks wouldn’t want what little space they had to fill them taken up with thick pastry. Given how robust the keep had turned out, I was confident I could create a reasonably thin – certainly thinner than an inch – pastry wall, thus maximising the amount of space inside to pour the fillings into.

I began to experiment first by freestyling the turret and shaping it by hand. Though this worked to an extent, the turrets weren’t very uniform and looked a little like they’d been designed by Gaudi. Amazing architect though he was, he wasn’t in business during the 14th century so I rolled them up and started again.

This time I had the idea to shape them round something, which is actually what Forme of Cury seemed to suggest, if I’d bothered to double check. The rolling pin proved a bit cumbersome and it was difficult to achieve flat bottoms on the turrets, but then I hit on a solution: spice jars. They were almost the perfect width and height – the only issue was how to get the jar out its pastry casing before baking. I buttered the jars and wrapped them in greaseproof paper and wrapped the pastry round them. It seemed to work, and by leaving a little tuft of greaseproof paper exposed I could fairly easily pull the jar out of its pastry casing, leaving a hollow space behind.

In another life I could have been an engineer.

“Why is there butter all over the cinnamon? And the nutmeg? And the ginger?” my husband asked later.

“It was for the pastry turrets, obviously.” I told him.

It’s a testament both to his patience and how resigned my family has become to this hobby of mine that he didn’t ask any further questions.

With four turrets completed and the keep nicely dried out it was time to blind bake the castle in the oven for twenty minutes or so, just to help it set. At this point I realised that the keep could have done with being a couple of inches taller to make the proportions more even, but by this point it was too late. A tip for next time perhaps (as if!)

God, I’ve never been so smug and self satisfied as I was when this all came together.

Once the pastry was baked and cooling, I began work on the fillings:

In þe myddel coffyn do a fars of pork with gode powdour & and ayroun raw with salt & colour hit with safroun, and do þi a noþer creme of almaundes, and held in anoþer creme of cowe mylke with ayroun, colour hyt with saundres. In a noþur manere: fars of fyges, of raysouns, of apples, of peres & holde hit broune. In a noþer manere, do fars as to frytours blaunche, and colour hyt grene, put þis in þe ovene & bake hyt wel & serue hit forth with ew ardaunt.

In the middle coffin put a forcemeat of pork, made with good powder and raw egg and salt, and colour it with saffron; and do thee another with almond cream; and put in another a cream [custard] of cow’s milk with eggs; colour it with sanders. In another, differently: a forcemeat of figs, raisins, apples and pears; and colour it brown. In another, differently: put a forcemeat like that for frytour blaunched, and colour it green; put this in the oven and bake well and serve it forth with brandy.

Forme of Cury. Translation by Christopher Monk.

Forcemeat of figs

This was by far the easiest of the fillings to recreate: figs, apples, raisins and pears went into a blender and were blitzed until they resembled something akin to baby food. Or rather, something akin to what my daughter left for me in her nappy after eating baby food. Not pleasant. Thankfully, however, it smelled nothing like baby food (pre or post digestion) and tasted perfectly pleasant. There were no spices to be added so it wasn’t out-of-this-world, game-changingly tasty, but it made a pretty decent palate cleanser. Although the easiest to make, it was also possibly the hardest to recreate accurately, given that I was unable to get hold of any of the original varieties of apple or pears that grew in England in the 14th century. Descriptions of apples from this time period use the word “sweet” a lot, so I opted for a Royal Gala apple to try and emulate the original flavours.

Almond cream

What was this? Cream mixed with almonds? I checked elsewhere in Forme of Cury and found a recipe for créme of almaundes that said that, yes, essentially it was. Okay, it didn’t specify cream per se, just that the almonds should be blaunched and then ground to form a thick paste. In order to create an extra creamy version of these, I blitzed some whole almonds and added them to warm whole milk – just enough to form a thick pap. The recipe then said to add a sprinkle of vinegar and sugar so I added the tiniest amount of vinegar – less than half a teaspoon – and a teaspoon or so of sugar and stirred.

Forcemeat of frytour blaunched

Frytour blaunched appears in Forme of Cury as small pastries fried in honey and wine, stuffed with an almond, ginger and sugar paste – like a spiced marzipan. This sounded lovely, and I dutifully prepared the filling that would go into the third tower. Slightly less lovely, however, was the instruction to “colour it green”. The vibrant colour would have delighted guests and might have been procured from crushed parsley or other green plants. Professor Woolgar highlights that though medieval people rarely mixed colours to achieve the necessary shade, green was a bit of an exception; it was discovered that if saffron was mixed with, say, parsley, a much brighter shade could be produced. The English called this “gaudy green” and it helps go someway to disproving the notion that colours were muted affairs in medieval cooking. I tried making my own green shade out of spinach leaves and though it was partially successful, I worried that adding too much would alter the flavour of the marzipan so, choosing style over substance (which, given the essence of the dish wasn’t a totally anachronistic choice to make), I added a few drops of green dye to help the mixture along.

Creme of cowe milk

Custard, to you and me. Again, this was pretty straightforward despite not having a comprehensive recipe to work from, other than it should contain egg yolk. I added three yolks to double cream and whisked over a low heat. A spoon of sugar was added, to enhance the flavours and provide a little sweetness. Once it was beginning to thicken, I coloured it red (again, using a combination of beetroot juice and a drop of food dye) and poured it into the first turret…

…where it promptly seeped out of the bottom.

In a panic, I poured it from the first turret into a second one, hoping this wasn’t going to be a recurring problem. Success! This time the custard stayed put and the pastry walls remained unbreached. The other three turrets were slowly filled and then the whole structure was popped back into the oven to resume baking for another half an hour or so until the pastry was cooked and the fillings had baked.

Pork forcemeat

Meanwhile I began work on the main pork stuffing. This was a fairly straightforward recipe of pork mince, powder fort, saffron and salt. There seemed to be nothing else, but I remembered from making Tartlettes – another Forme of Cury recipe that used a forcemeat of pork, salt and saffron – how well currants had worked in the mixture, so I chucked in a handful, confident they’d complement the various fruit and nut elements of the dish. The pork mixture was coloured yellow and then, once it had fried for a while, was added to the keep and baked along with the rest of the fillings.

And that was that – after a full day’s cooking I had a recognisable castle filled with five different coloured fillings ready to serve to my family.

Except. Except.

That little two word phrase right at the end of the recipe: “ew ardaunt.” What did it mean? The answer came back: probably that the whole thing, having been lovingly and painstakingly created over several hours, should now be doused in brandy and set alight. I felt my blood pressure rise as I recalled how, a few hours earlier, I’d fashioned thirty six individual tin foil hats to protect the pastry battlements from burning in the oven. And now I was expected to set them on fire on purpose?

Having never flambéed anything before, I was advised to watch a few videos on YouTube of Christmas puddings being set alight in preparation. The blurb for one – that I shouldn’t try this at home and that the demonstrator was a “combustion physicist” – didn’t fill me with confidence, but I was sure I’d seen my dad (very much not a combustion physicist) do a flaming pud before, so I invited my parents round for dinner on the understanding he’d do the pyrotechnics.

The scene was set, half a bottle of brandy was heating in a pan, mum was standing by with a huge jug of water: it was time. The pan of brandy lit up beautifully and was dutifully poured over the castle, but the pork stuffing sucked it up like a sponge, meaning that the overall effect was of an underwhelming year 7 chemistry experiment rather than a glorious towering inferno. I managed to capture the first few seconds of the torching, but have had to turn the sound off to block out my dad’s voice repeatedly ordering us to “stand back!” followed by muttered disappointed obscenities when he saw the limited extent of the blaze.

Once the fire had abated I carved the castle up. I was delighted to see that the fillings of the turrets had all set, even the custard, and held their shape nicely. The egg custard was a clear favourite and tasted just like a slightly less-sweet custard tart from today, despite it’s vaguely alarming pinky hue.

The next favourite was the green marzipan, which had a subtle gingery kick to it. Less smooth and sweet that modern marzipan, it was everyone’s second favourite filling and being baked gave the whole thing a nicely toasted taste.

The almond cream had set into a fairly firm, sliceable mixture after cooking. It was creamy but not sweet, and slightly gritty. I could imagine it going well with a stronger flavour – maybe drizzled over coffee ice cream, for example – but on its own it was a little bland and uninspiring.

Baking had done little to improve the forcemeat of figs’ overall appearance, apart from solidify it into a more meaty looking mass. In fact when I served this, everyone expected it to be some sort of sausagemeat stuffing. The consistency was still very smooth, like purée, and wasn’t as sweet as you might expect a dish of just fruit to be.

Obviously what everyone was most intrigued by was pork stuffing which took pride of place in the centre keep. Despite being a fairly impressive golden yellow, it was, unfortunately a little under seasoned and therefore slightly bland. This was my fault – the recipe had made it clear that salt should be added, but I’d been too restrained in my interpretation of how much. The flavours of the powder fort were present such as cloves and nutmeg, for example, but not overwhelming and more of an aftertaste at the back of the throat. Given the rate at which the forcemeat had sucked up the flaming alcohol, one of the initial flavours was, unsurprisingly, brandy – which maybe explained why my husband went back for seconds!

In the end there were several elements of this dish that wouldn’t be out of place on modern dining tables; the lurid colours were reminiscent of brightly decorated cakes and the presentation of it was on par with the showmanship of Crêpes Suzette being served tableside. The castle shape might be a quintessentially medieval design but the idea of shaping food into quirky designs is still popular today; it’s only been a few decades since the rise of the cheese and pineapple hedgehog, for example.

Having said that, there was much that was very medieval about this dish. The flavour combinations – sweet and savoury in the same dish – were jarring to my modern palate. Certain spices were dominant throughout – ginger, saffron, cloves – in a way that they aren’t perhaps in food today. And the pastry, though perfectly edible, wouldn’t fare well in a competition against modern flaky or shortcrust.

“It’s an odd little thing,” my dad, ever the philosopher, declared at the end. I’m not sure Richard II would have appreciated this opinion but I had to agree; “odd” was a fitting description. My daughter, who was offered some non-alcoholic parts of the leftovers, had a much blunter judgement: “Yuck. Can I have a yoghurt?” Clearly the subtleties of this particular subtlety were lost on my family, but I still felt a sense of achievement for trying it anyway.

Overall, if anyone’s looking for a medieval themed challenge then Chastletes, with its five differently coloured fillings, freestanding shape and serving suggestion: “on fire”, is the dish for you. Just make sure you’ve roped someone else into helping you clean the kitchen after.

E x

P.S. My neverending thanks go once again to Dr. Chris Monk for introducing me to Chastletes, sharing his notes with me, and giving up his free time without complaint to offer expert advice and patient reassurance every time I contacted him with queries. An absolute legend.

Chastletes

For the castle:
700g plain flour
6 egg yolks
Water

For the pork forcemeat:
500g pork mincemeat
Powder fort
Saffron
30g currants
Salt
(Yellow food dye if needed)

For the fig forcemeat
4 figs
1 sweet apple (I used Royal Gala)
1 pear
30g raisins

For the almond cream
100g ground almonds
2 or 3 tablespoons of whole milk
1/2 teaspoon of white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon of sugar

For the frytour blaunched
100g blanched whole almonds
1/2 teaspoon of ground ginger
2 teaspoons of sugar
A splash of water
Greed food dye (or spinach water)

For the creme of cowes milk
3 egg yolks
175ml of double cream
2 teaspoons of sugar
Red food dye (or beetroot juice)

  1. Combine the pastry ingredients and knead into a stiff dough. Using 400g of the dough, roll it out into a large sheet and drape over an upturned rectangular dish, approx. 20cm x 12cm in measurement.
  2. Trim off excess dough and carve out small battlements along what will be the top of the pastry case. Place somewhere warm and dry to firm up.
  3. Divide the remaining dough into quarters and shape each one into a tower. I did this by rolling the dough out, wrapping an standard spice jar in greaseproof paper and rolling the dough around this, before closing the bottom off to create a watertight well. The jar can then be removed from the dough by pulling the greaseproof paper up and out of the pastry case, leaving a deep indentation in the dough.
  4. Make sure all seams are pinched tightly closed and carve out battlements in the towers.
  5. Flip the rectangular structure over so that the battlements are pointing upwards. Without removing the rectangular dish, place the structure on a non-stick baking tray and attach the towers to each edge – try to get it so the seams of the towers are pressed against the corners of the keep and therefore hidden.
  6. Blind bake for 10 to 15 minutes at 180 degrees C until solid.
  7. Begin on the fig forcemeat. Combine the fruit in a blender and blitz until a purée forms. Pour this mixture into the first tower once it is out of the oven and slightly cooled.
  8. Begin on the almond cream. In a pan, combine almonds and milk until a thick paste, the consistency of wall paper paste, forms. Stir in the vinegar and sugar and add to the second tower.
  9. Begin on the frytour blaunched. In a blender combine almonds, ginger and sugar. Blitz until a marzipan like consistency is reached (you can add a few spoons of water if needed). Add the food dye and spoon into the third turret (make sure to press this one down.)
  10. Begin on the creme of cowes milk. Combine egg yolks, cream and sugar in a pan and heat slowly until the mixture just starts to thicken. Colour it red and pour the mixture into the final turret (cross fingers it doesn’t leak!)
  11. Place the castle, with the filled towers, back in the oven at 180 degrees C and bake for about 30 – 40 minutes, or until the custard seems set. You may want to place tin foil over the battlements to stop them from burning in the heat.
  12. Begin the pork forcemeat. In a blender, combine pork, powder fort, salt and currants and blitz until the consistency of sausagemeat. Fry this in a pan and add a few strands of saffron that have soaked in a little water to release the colour. If the colour doesn’t turn a deep enough yellow, add a few drops of food dye. Once the pork is almost cooked through, add it to the centre of the castle in the oven to finish off cooking with the rest of the fillings.
  13. When the fillings are all cooked, remove from the oven and set aside. In a pan, heat a few tablespoons of brandy until very hot in a metal saucepan or metal ladle.
  14. Once the brandy is hot, set fire to it while still in the pan or ladle and pour over the main section of the castle.

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.