We’d had quite a long day having yet again been up early, each of us lying silently and pretending not to hear our toddler’s 6:00am shouts, hoping that the other would break first and get up with her. I won, but my husband got his revenge by allowing her to play with a toy drum kit very loudly and enthusiastically in the room directly under our bedroom. After what seemed like a never ending day, 13 hours later she was back in bed drifting off to sleep and we crashed onto the sofa, exhausted.
I’m giving you this background so you’ll understand that I was tired and slightly delirious when I decided to unwind by making this dish. Because what could be more relaxing than making puff pastry from scratch for the first time ever using vague historical methods, whilst hoping that any noise or swearing you make doesn’t drift up to the bedroom above you? As soon as I started I realised I’d basically become a hostage to butter and dough, unable to stop what I’d started but also unable to call for help.
This recipe is taken from a 1699 Stuart book called Elizabeth Birkett’s Commonplace Book, which the National Trust has helpfully transcribed here and which you can also find in Sara Paston’s Book of Historical Recipes.
The Stuart era was one of the most turbulent and violent periods of English history, seeing the attempted assassination of its first monarch, an increasing obsession with witchcraft, a full on civil war, the Interregnum, the restoration of a monarchy that seeemed hell bent on bankrupting itself and the eventual increased curtailing of royal prerogative. Phew. How fitting, then, that a dish from this time period should mimic the unpredictable and confusing nature of the era.
First, I had to take a “good quantity” of spinach and boil it. Taking into account that even a tonne of spinach has an uncanny ability to wither away into just enough to feed an ant, I settled on a 900g bag of frozen spinach to start with, with emergency back up spinach in the fridge if the frozen stuff dwindled too much into nothing. If this experiment didn’t work it did at least indicate that I should change banks because the anti-fraud squad at NatWest still has yet to contact me; after all, if spending £10 on healthy green veg and nothing else doesn’t constitute unusual activity on my credit card I don’t know what does.
After I’d boiled an ungodly amount of spinach I had to strain it completely, shred it and then mix in the yolks of 4 eggs and an ambiguous amount of sugar, stated only as “a good flow” in the recipe. At this point I really began to question myself: What was this dish for? Was it a pudding? Was it a main? Some quick research told me that sweet spinach tarts were a popular “second course” dish in the 17th century. Out of how many dishes, though, I couldn’t find. Was it meant to be served alongside roast beef or with custard? The bewildering nature of this recipe was shining through loud and proud.
I read on and was perplexed to see that I also needed to add a “pretty amount of butter.” I paused.
“Darling,” I whispered sweetly through to my husband, aware that the bat-eared child was dozing directly upstairs. “How would you describe this butter?”
“For God’s sake, if it’s mouldy just don’t use it,” he hissed back, not even looking at it. “No one will care if you have to use marge instead.”
I thrust the half used pat of butter under his nose. “Would you say it looks pretty?”
I genuinely think he thought I’d lost it.
“Would you describe this butter as the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen? More radiant than your wife, more delightful than your child?”
His eyes twitched. “Er -“
“Look at its shiny greasy gleam. Look at the little toast freckles poking out at you, even though I’ve asked you a thousand times to use a different knife, look at it’s pretty gold wrapping. This is one hot piece of butter, right?”
Back to the kitchen I skipped, while my husband quietly researched psychotherapists in our area.
I melted the ever so pretty half pat of butter and mixed it into the spinach, sugar and egg mix. The recipe then just casually mentioned that I’d need some puff pastry to lie the mixture on. I don’t know why I didn’t read ahead fully, but by now it was 9pm and my will was waning. Learning that I’d have to make puff pastry from scratch for the first time in my life, and using instructions that were clearly already written by a madwoman was almost too much.
(Luckily?) Elizabeth Birkett didn’t provide a recipe for 17th century puff pastry, so I began to toy with the idea of using shop bought ready rolled. I mean, no one would know, right? I could just say I’d made it myself… My eyes read down the recipe to where, underneath the ingredients for the tart filling, I saw another 17th century recipe, from an unknown document: ‘To Make Pufe Past’. Damn.
Puff pastry is one of those things that I always thought sounded really daunting and belonged firmly in the realm of Serious Cooking. It’s the sort of thing I imagined Nigella Lawson might silkily say was ‘divinely simple’ to make from scratch before whipping out twenty different ingredients and revealing you need a chemical engineering degree for. The instructions for making 17th century puff pastry were, however, fairly straightforward, but I still Googled how to make it just in case.
The difference between 17th century pastry and modern day pastry was obvious: eggs. Modern day puff pastry is basically a bucket load of butter mixed with dough made of flour and water. 17th century was a bucket load of butter mixed with a dough made of flour and a bucket load of eggs. This 1686 recipe was one of the most decadent display of a culture going ‘sod it’ in the face of political, religious and financial uncertainty I had seen. I guess if you thought you might lose everything tomorrow (and for King James II this was true just 2 years in 1688 later during what became known as the Glorious Revolution) then you might as well eat all the eggs and butter you have all at once, a la Ron Swanson.
First I added 3 eggs and 1 egg yolk to 275g of plain white flour. The dough was very wet and I doubted that I’d be able to roll it out like it was required, so I added more flour until it was firmer. I then stuck it in the fridge, which wasn’t wholly historically accurate, but did give me an advantage later on when I had to add lumps of butter and roll it without it melting.
After it had chilled for 15 minutes or so, I rolled it out and stuck lumps of butter over it. Thanks to my Googling, I knew I had to fold the dough into thirds, give it a quarter turn and then roll it out. Then, I added more lumps of butter and had to repeat the process 10 times. In all, I used up an entire block of butter and I definitely lost count of how many turns I did. It still looked bloody awesome, though.
Once the pastry was made I placed it onto a baking tray and slopped my weird sweet spinach mix onto it. I spread it around, covered it with another layer of dough and brushed it with a rose water and sugar glaze. It then baked for 25 minutes while I did my best Bake Off impression, peering in through the oven door every 30 seconds and whispering “rise, rise, rise” to myself. In the other room, my husband dialled the number for the psychotherapist.
The kitchen filled with a pleasant buttery aroma. Because the oven had to be so hot when it went in to give the pastry a chance to rise properly the rooms downstairs also got very hot. We switched the central heating off, basking in the glow of the oven, and tried not to think about another Stuart event, the Great Fire of 1666, which started in a bakery perhaps making spinach tarts like this one.
Finally, the tart was golden and was even doing a very good impression of successfully risen puff pastry. I narrowly avoided 3rd degree burns when I opened the oven door and removed the dish, genuinely excited to try this enigmatic experiment.
By now it was after 10pm. We were both exhausted. The kitchen looked it had been the site of a fight between an army of millers and dairy farmers. There was butter in every crack and crevice of the work surface and my husband visibly recoiled in horror when I emerged like a crone with hair and face covered in a thick dusting of flour. I cut us a slice, not sure what to expect.
The pastry had worked! It wasn’t perfectly flaky layers like Paul Hollywood would have liked, but it was definitely closer to puff than any other type. The mixture wasn’t as watery as I had expected either, perhaps because I’d spent so long pressing the spinach into the sieve to drain it. Because it had called itself a tart, I cut it into two generous slices, but after a few mouthfuls both of us agreed that standard portions were far too big. It was just far too rich to be able to eat a whole slice of; baklava sizes would have been much better.
Taste wise it was subtle and sweet but the spinach was still the main flavour. Luckily, spinach isn’t too strong of a flavour anyway, so it wasn’t overpowering. The rose water and sugar glaze was a bit perfume-y for my tastes, but because there was only a little bit of it, it was easily hidden with another bite of filling.
It definitely wasn’t unpleasant and actually when I came home I had a bite of it cold as an after work snack, but I still don’t know where it would fit in a modern day dinner. It wasn’t pudding-y enough to be a dessert, and I think the subtle flavours would be lost if you tried to serve it with custard or cream. It was too sweet to be a main. It might fit in well at a brunch alongside other pastries but you’d have to think of another name for it because if someone gave me the choice of an almond croissant or something called a spinach tart, I know what I’d pick.
One of the more minor reasons I started this blog was to eat more greens. Though it’s taken some time to achieve this, and most other adults manage it without needing to resort to making an egotistical song and dance about it, I felt that in this recipe I might have finally managed it. Unfortunately any healthy kudos I might have achieved were definitely neutralised by the amount of butter that also went into this. It was one of the most unhealthy things I’ve eaten. As it cooked, I watched the butter pour off it and as soon as it hit my tongue, melting and rich as it was, I heard my long suffering junk food clogged arteries sigh ‘not again.’ Still, in small quantities, definitely one to try!
For the pastry:
275g plain flour
3 eggs plus an extra yolk
250g unsalted butter
For the filling:
900g frozen spinach
4 egg yolks
50g of sugar
125g melted butter
a tablespoon of rose water and sugar for glaze
- Preheat oven to 200 degrees.
- Mix flour and eggs together to form a dough. Place in the fridge for 15 minutes.
- Roll dough out into a rectangle the size of a baking tray.
- Place 50g of butter, in lumps, onto the dough.
- Mark the dough into thirds and fold it over itself. Turn it a quarter clockwise and roll it out into a rectangle again. Repeat this until all the butter is used up.
- Divide the pastry into half.
- In a pan, cook the spinach. When it’s cooked, drain it and dry it completely.
- Mix in the yolks of 4 eggs and 50g of sugar.
- Add the melted butter and when all combined, spread over half of the pastry which has been rolled to cover a baking tray (it will be very thin).
- Cover with the other half of the pastry and glaze with a mixture of rose water and sugar.
- Bake at 200 degrees for 25 minutes or until golden and risen.