Modern Chicken Pie: 1864

When planning today’s experiment I suddenly realised I hadn’t done a savoury Victorian recipe in quite a while. In my defense, Victorian food (barring cakes and puddings) doesn’t have the greatest reputation so it was hard to get excited about it. As Talia Schaffer points out, certain Victorian cooks like A. B. Marshall advised boiling food until it no longer resembled its original form and tasted of nothing. This was to avoid scandal befalling the diners; in a society obsessed with morality, strong flavours were believed to ignite sexual arousal – something that was largely condemned in polite Victorian society.

Or was it? Though the Victorian era tends to conjure up images of stuffy and repressed men and women glancing furtively at one another across candlelit parlours (as though making eye contact over a plate of macaroons was a particularly deviant crime), that’s not quite the full story. Of course certain groups fell into this category, but there’s also a lot of evidence to suggest that Victorian sexuality wasn’t all repressed and buttoned up; there are many accounts of couples enjoying all elements of their relationship and of same-sex relationships which were ‘allowed’ to flourish in relative privacy (up until 1885, at least, after which any homosexual act – private or public – became illegal.)

The trouble was that many Victorians had never been very good at speaking publically and openly about sex, and so any sexually liberated voices were trampled on by the overpowering moralism of the abstinence crowd. As the century wore on these various groups became louder and more opposed to what they saw as the degeneration of society; social moralists who believed sex caused “enfeeblement” in men even went so far as to promote the wearing of male anti-masturbation devices to ensure that men were not regularly depleting themselves of energy and brainpower by… well, you know.

Though the final few years of the 19th century saw a radical clash of ideas around sexuality, it was the prim and proper (and largely upper class) image of Victorian Britain that won out in popular culture and in the culture of the kitchen. Victorian food became immortalised in images of milk jelly or gristly lumps of unseasoned meat and as it did, so too did society’s belief that Victorian Britain was full of sexually frustrated aristocrats with no outlet other than long-winded poetry and endless walks in the countryside.

This post has not begun the way I thought it would…

Yeah, me neither.

Back to pies?

The ‘Victorians-hated-flavour-because-they-hated-sex’ myth can also be busted by looking at a range of recipes. Sure, a quick flip through the pages of the quintessential Victorian Mrs Beeton’s Household Management shows us that pretty bland recipes for the likes of tapioca and kale broth existed, but as well as being recommended for invalids (who were supposed to eat plain things to aid recovery) these recipes are interspersed with more exciting ones for things like chocolate cream and cake so laden with booze it was literally called “Tipsy cake”.

Powerhouse of the Victorian culinary scene though she was, Mrs Beeton wasn’t the only celebrity chef and today’s experiment is from another well-known 19th century cook: Eliza Acton.

Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families was originally published in 1845 but became so successful that it had been reprinted 13 times by 1853. Even modern day cooks praise Acton for her writing and recipes; Delia Smith commented that Acton was “the best writer of recipes in the English language” and food writer Bee Wilson referred to her as “my heroine” in 2011.

It seemed as though I was looking in the right place if I wanted to challenge the idea of Victorian food as being dull and bland. I flipped through the pages searching for something that would be a tasty thing to eat for dinner without tipping me into the abyss of moral corruption. Then I found it: chicken pie. Not just any chicken pie either: modern chicken pie. Acton didn’t explain what made this pie modern but it may have been the ingredients used; modern chicken pie contained a heady mixture of spiced chicken and sausage meat whereas an alternative recipe for “common chicken pie” didn’t have any sausage meat at all – not even a little bit – which must have appealed to the anti-sex members of Victorian society.

Don’t you dare do a ‘sausage meat’ joke. Your mother reads this blog.

Although Acton’s modern chicken pie recipe looked pretty tasty on its own, I still wanted more ‘wow’ factor to really put an end to the bland food myth. Over the next couple of pages I found instructions to make a raised pie – a type of pie that was generally taller and more ornate than standard pies and wasn’t baked in a tin or dish. Raised pies were the showstopper challenge on the Great British Bake Off 2017 pastry week episode, so it seemed a fitting choice. Acton also recommended that any of her pie recipes could be used for raised pies but cautioned that for an inexperienced pie baker (such as me) it was best to start by making a small one first, as the technique of hand moulding the case might take practice.

Following Acton’s method, I began on the pie crust. After making a dough of flour, melted butter and hot water I began to shape my pastry case by rolling it into a large mound and then pushing down to hollow out the centre so that it resembled a clay pot on a pottery wheel. One technique that’s sometimes used today is to shape the dough around a cake tin or pie dolly to ensure smooth edges and lines, allowing it to firm up and then removing it from the tin or dolly before baking. Acton also mentioned that it was difficult to achieve good results by “using the fingers only” and that usually only French cooks excelled at a totally free-hand form of pie making, which to me suggested that inexperienced cooks sometimes relied on props. Anyway, I counted myself as an inexperienced cook and shaped my dough round a small spring-form cake tin and popped it into the fridge to firm up for 20 minutes while I worked on the filling.

I could say I spent time making my own sausage meat but that would be a lie. I don’t feel too bad though as Acton’s recipe for sausage meat was lean pork, fat, sage, salt and pepper and these were the only ingredients listed in the sausage meat I bought. I also don’t have a meat grinder so any sausage meat I made was liable to be quite coarse, which Acton expressly mentioned as being a problem and something cooks should take great care to avoid.

Once I’d carefully unwrapped the parcel of sausage meat, I chopped two chicken breasts up into small chunks and seasoned them with cayenne pepper, salt, pounded mace and nutmeg. Things were definitely not looking bland! In fact, I was pretty impressed with how well the pie was holding its shape and how colourful the cayenne stained chicken was. It was then time to fill the pie with alternating layers of sausage meat and chicken before topping it and brushing with egg wash.

After one and a half hours it was done. It smelled delicious and, amazingly, it had held its shape and looked pretty impressive – if I do say so myself.

I desperately wanted to cut into it to see if I’d be greeted with neat layers or (as I half expected) pools of grey water and amorphous meaty mush, but I waited until it had cooled a little to give everything time to settle.

After five minutes I cut into the pastry which gave a heartening crack as it split open to reveal… distinct layers of sausage meat and chicken, still moist and steaming, yes! It was definitely time to taste it.

Stick an 18+ certificate on that and you’ve got some Victorian smut right there.

The next time someone comments that Victorian food was all overcooked meat and milky mush I’m going to send them a copy of this recipe. I’m going to print out and frame this recipe – one copy for each room in my house. Hell, I’m going to tattoo this recipe onto me so I never forget it. This. Was. Excellent.

Okay, so the pastry was a little thicker than perhaps Acton had intended, but it didn’t matter because it was surprisingly rich considering it was just three ingredients. However, it was the filling that really stood out. Chicken and pork work really well together anyway, but encasing them in pastry and allowed them to steam in their own juices for a couple of hours was a revelation. Each bite was tender and not at all dry, as pies without gravy can sometimes be. The sausage meat was subtle and slightly peppery, but the chicken was the stand out star. Faintly spicy with a slightly sharp aromatic after taste from the mace, this was not your usual meat pie. It was, in all honesty, one of the best pies I’ve ever eaten. In an instant I understood why some people could consider food a gateway to degeneracy because there was nothing dignified about the way I shovelled it into my mouth.

It was also incredibly filling – I cut two ordinary slices for both me and my husband but because the pie had a bit more height than normal we could only manage about 3/4 of a slice each. Luckily, Acton recommended that the pie could be enjoyed hot or cold so though it’s unorthodox, we’ll be having more of it for breakfast tomorrow.

Unfortunately for Acton her fame, reputation and glorious pies were eclipsed by Mrs Beeton when Household Management was published in 1861. Fans of Acton might take a little morbid comfort in the knowledge that Eliza had been dead for two years by this point, though, so didn’t live to see her fame dwindle in comparison to Beeton’s rising star. Slightly meaner fans who enjoy seeing Mrs B’s recipes lambasted (or who just enjoy it when I cook something that ends up inedible) might want to click here for an example of stereotypical bland Victorian fare.

Comparative fame or not, it’s clear that Acton’s chicken pie wins hands down out of the Victorian recipes I’ve tried so far. Myth-busting and delicious, this is one dish I’ll definitely make again and would really encourage anyone who likes pie to give it a go – raised or not.

E x

Modern Chicken Pie

2 large chicken breasts
300g sausage meat
500g plain flour
250g butter
Teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground mace
A good grating of nutmeg
A good pinch of salt

  1. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C.
  2. Melt the butter in hot water and gradually add it to the flour until it forms a dough. Set aside about 150g worth for the lid.
  3. Knead the rest of the dough into a lump and then, as if pushing down on clay on a pottery wheel, hollow out the centre to form a rough shaped case. Don’t push all the way through the dough as you want to ensure the filling doesn’t leak out of the sides or bottom.
  4. Continue shaping the pastry case by pushing the dough down and kneading up the sides until it is about 5 inches in diameter and 4 or 5 inches tall. You may want to use a bowl or small cake tin to help give it a neat form.
  5. When the pastry is the required size and shape, pop it into the fridge to firm up for about 20 minutes.
  6. Chop the chicken into small lumps and place in a large bowl.
  7. Add the salt, mace, nutmeg and cayenne to the chicken and make sure each piece is coated.
  8. Remove the pastry case from the fridge and push a layer of sausage meat into the base. Sprinkle with water and then add a layer of chicken. Repeat each step until the case is filled (I managed two layers of chicken and three of sausage meat.)
  9. Roll out the dough set aside at the start to a small disk and place on top of the pie. Make sure the edges are sealed by crimping them or pinching them to the edge.
  10. Make a slit in the top of the pie to allow steam out of the pie when cooking and brush the pastry all over with egg yolk wash. You can add some pastry decorations at this point if you want to.
  11. Bake. After an hour, check that the pie crust isn’t turning too brown and if it is, cover it with foil. Turn the oven to 180 degrees C and continue baking for another hour after which time the pie should be cooked.

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.