Shortcrust Pastry

To make short paste for a Tart.
Take fine Flower, a litle faire water, & a dish of sweete butter, & a litle saffron, and the yolkes of two egges, & make it thin and as tender as ye may.
A Proper Newe Booke of Cokerye

Take fine flour, a little fair water, and a dish of sweet butter, and a little saffron, and the yolks of two eggs, and make it thin and tender as you can.

A Proper New Booke of Cookery first appeared in print in 1545, and was included in an anthology of texts collected by Matthew Parker, Master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. It was a recipe collection probably used by his wife.

This recipe for short paste is significant for two reasons; first, it is probably the first recorded recipe in English specifically for pastry. Prior to this, pastry ingredients were included in the rest of the recipe, and then only if the pastry contained special ingredients like spices and sugar. In most cases, the cook was simply instructed to make a paste, or a coffin. The second significant thing about this recipe is the inclusion of butter. Earlier pastries were probably simple mixes of flour and water. The simple fact that recipes for pastry were now appearing indicates this was a significant change.

If you are interested, here is a handout for a class I have run on the evolution of pastry.

Ingredients

250g white flour 125g unsalted butter
2 egg yolks Pinch saffron
15mL boiling water approx. 40mL cold water

Method

  1. Dissolve the saffron in the boiling water and leave to cool.
  2. Beat the egg yolks and set aside.
  3. Using just the tips of the fingers, rub the butter into the flour so the flour becomes coated in butter and starts to resemble breadcrumbs. It does not matter if there are flecks of butter throughout the flour.
  4. Add the eggs and the water and beat lightly to bring the mix together into a pastry.
  5. Handle everything as little as possible – if you start to heat the flour and butter too much, it will start to become much tougher as the gluten strands start to bind.
  6. Allow the pastry to rest in a cold place for at least half an hour before using.

This makes enough pastry to make a generous 24cm pie with a lid.

Notes

  • A lot of the butter produced in this period was salted, so it could be transported and stored with less risk of spoilage. Sweet butter is butter that hasn’t been salted.
  • The egg yolks in the pastry are purely there to enrich the dough; they don’t bind the pastry. You can make this pastry without egg yolks if you wish, which makes it vegetarian/egg allergy friendly.
  • If you have any vegans or lactose intolerant people, you can make the pastry with a good dairy free spread. Make sure to check the ingredients carefully – many margarines contain milk solids, and can be worse for lactose intolerant people than real butter!

Further Reading

A Proper Newe Booke of Cookerye ed. Anne Ahmed. Cambridge: Corpus Christi College, 2002.
Contains a facsimile of the original manuscript with an excellent translation, plus good redactions of some of the recipes, plus a discussion of the manuscript. I do wish all period cookbooks had editions this good!
Brears, Peter. Cooking and Dining in Medieval England. Totnes: Prospect Books, 2008.
A massive tome that deals with all aspects of producing and preparing food in the medieval period, and contains a very good discussion of pastry before shortcrust was developed. There are also many recipes, but try to find the original and compare to Brears’ recipe, as sometimes he changes things for no good reason.
Santich, Barbara. “The Evolution of Food in the Middle Ages.” In Food in the Middle Ages, ed. Melitta Weiss Adamson, pp 61-82. New York: Garland Publishing, 1995.
This essay traces how four foods evolved in the Middle Ages, including pastry.

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2 comments on “Shortcrust Pastry

  1. Sherry m says:

    Historical recipes are so fascinating! Pastry was just a vehicle for the filling originally wasn’t it?:)

    • leobalecelad says:

      Sometimes, yes. A lot of the time the pie case is described as a “coffin,” and I suspect these weren’t meant to be eaten (or were possibly given as alms to the poor). However, in some recipes you see the pastry described as “a fair paste,” and the fair paste contains expensive ingredients like sugar and saffron, which I doubt would have been put in something that got thrown away.

      These early pastries were probably flour and water mixes – and guess what wonton skins are made from…

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