Prince Bisket

20. To make prince bisket.
TAke one pounde of verie fine flowers, and one pounde of fine ſugar, and eight egges, and two ſpoonfuls of Roſewater, and one ounce of carroway ſeeds, and beat it all to batter one whole hour, for the ore you beat it, the better your bread is, then bake it in coffins of white plate, being baſted with a little butter before you put in your batter, and ſo keepe it.
Hugh Plat, Delightes for Ladies (1602)

20. To make prince biscuit.
Take one pound of very fine flour, and one pound of fine sugar, and eight eggs, and two spoonfuls of Rosewater, and one ounce of caraway seeds, and beat it all to batter one whole hour, for the more you beat it, the better your bread is; then bake it in coffins of white plate, being basted with a little butter before you put in your batter, and so keep it.

Bisket was originally a long lasting, but tasteless and hard to eat food, consisting of flour and water, used as food for soldiers, and there were many complaints about how inedible they were (Brears 2016, 568). They were twice cooked to make them hard enough for weevils to avoid (Spurling, 2011, 117). But then in the sixteenth century, in a form of cultural appropriation, sugar, eggs and spices were added to create a high end version that was often enjoyed at banquets. Some biskets were twice baked, similar to a modern Italian biscotti, while others were baked once, like this.

To me, the key to this recipe is the instruction to “beat all to batter one whole hour.” You don’t need to mix this for an hour, even by hand, to fully incorporate the ingredients; the only reason I can think of for beating it for so long is to get the eggs to foam, so you wind up with a lighter, fluffy end product. And the problem is, the sugar and the flour, added to the eggs, will actually impede the process of foaming the eggs (see the notes at the end). There are other, better ways to incorporate eggs, sugar and flour to create a light batter. And at least one person in the period we are talking about knew this.

To make bisket bread.
Take one pound of flower, & one pound of sugar, one ounce of annisseeds, halfe an ounce of coriander seed, mingle these together, take viii eggs beat them verie well, then put in your stuff, then beat it alltogether very well, then take dishes &annoynt them with butter & put the stuf into them, Let the oven be as hot as it is for manchet, when it is brown at top turne it & set it in againe, if you would have it light put the yolks of viii eggs more to it, & beat the sugar with the eggs, before the flower bee put in.
Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book, ed. Hilary Spurling, p 119.

To make bisket bread.
Take one pound of flour, one pound of sugar, one ounce of aniseeds, and half an ounce of coriander seed. Mingle these together, take 8 eggs and beat them very well. Then put in your stuff, then beat it all together very well, then take dishes and anoint them with butter, then put the stuff into them. Let the oven be as hot as it is for manchet. When it [the bisket] is brown at the top, turn it and set it in again. If you would have it light, put the yolks of 8 eggs more to it, and beat the sugar with the eggs, before the flour be put in.

This is twice baked, but leaving aside the different spices and the extra optional egg yolks, this is basically the same ingredient combination as Sir Hugh’s. However, Spurling notes the end reminder, to beat the sugar with the eggs before the flour, is an addition to the recipe text, clearly made later. And this is after Lady Fettiplace said to beat the eggs first – the order thus being beat eggs, then beat in the sugar, then the flour. My own working journal is full of extra annotations like this (when I can read the scrawl), where I have changed ingredient quantities, timings or methods. Clearly, Lady Fettiplace made some bisket bread adding the sugar and the flour at once and got an unsatisfactory result. She then added an extra note to her working journal to remind herself of the better method.

I often find Lady Fettiplace’s recipes much more trustworthy than other writers (dodgy spelling aside). What we have is her working recipe journal – as with this recipe, she made changes and additions if she found her original written recipe didn’t give the desired result. She used these recipes, and many other printed cookbooks were written by people who weren’t necessarily cooks.

There are many other versions of bisket recipe (see, for example, The Good Housewife’s Jewel pp 79-80 and Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book pp 117-121). They are all similar in that they are combinations of equal amounts of flour and sugar, with many well beaten eggs, spices and rosewater. Biskets were also probably commercially available; there are recipes that use biskets without actually having a recipe. See for example A.W’s A Book of Cookrye Very Necessary for All Such as Delight Therin, which specifies in several pie or tart recipes to sprinkle bisket on top, but does not have a recipe for them.

I have seen other redactions where people change the proportion of flour to sugar, possibly influenced by modern biscuits where the biscuit mix holds its form when uncooked. But these biskets are more like a cake batter than a modern biscuit, or even an Italian biscotti.

Ingredients

225 g flour 1.5 tbs rosewater
225g caster sugar 2 tsp caraway seeds, ground
4 eggs

Method

  1. In a stand mixer, beat the eggs slowly until they are combined, then increase the speed of the blender.

    Lightly_Whipped
    The eggs at the start of the whipping. Note the colour and the volume.

  2. Beat the eggs until they are light and frothy, and at least doubled in volume.

    Fully_Whipped
    The eggs fully whipped. The colour has changed and the foam has doubled in size.

  3. Gradually add the sugar, and continue beating until the mix is shiny and is starting to resist the beaters.
  4. Add the flour, caraway seeds and rosewater, and continue to beat until the mix is well combined and stiff.
  5. Line the moulds of a mini muffin tray with mini patty cases, and carefully spoon the mix into patty cases. The mix is quite stiff, so it will help to use two spoons. Fill each mould about ¾ full.
  6. Bake in a 150ᵒC oven for 15-20 minutes, until a skewer inserted into one of the biskets comes out clean.

Notes

  • Normally, I will do things such as mixing, pureeing or grinding at least once manually, to get an appreciation for the process the medieval cooks had to go through (and then I break out the power tools because I don’t have an army of minions; I do have minions but not an army of them). But this is one where I will never do the mixing by hand, because it does indeed much constant beating to get the eggs to foam properly! When you beat the yolks and the whites together, you are breaking down and re-combining the proteins in the egg, and combining the water in the egg white, to create the foam that will give the biskets their rise. And the eggs need to be beaten a lot, in order to bring about the protein structures. You can beat the eggs less, but you won’t get a light, fluffy bisket (McGee, 2004, 100-106).
  • As one of Elinor Fettiplace’s recipes warns, add the sugar when the eggs have been sufficiently beaten, then add the flour once the sugar is incorporated (Spurling, 2011, 119). You need to beat the eggs to a foam first, then add the sugar, to stabilise the egg foam, before adding the flour, or your biskets will collapse when cooked (McGee, 2004, 104).

Prince Bisket
These were made in a mini muffin pan lined with paper cases, so they could be served easily for afternoon tea at a tournament. You could also make them in a tea saucer or shallow bowl, as Hugh Plat suggests in his recipe. But I suggest using more than a “little butter, because the final result will stick because of the high sugar content.

Further Reading

Click on the links below to buy direct from The Book Depository.
Black, Maggie (2002). The Good Housewife’s Jewel.
McGee, Harold (2004). On Food and Cooking.
Spurling, Hilary (2011). Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book.
A.W. (1591). <a href="https://www.bookdepository.com/Book-of-Cookrye-Very-Necessary-for-All-Such-as-Delight-Therin-Gathered-by-W-1591-W-W-W/9781171316305?a_aid=leobalecelade&quot; target="_blank"A Book of Cookrye Very Necessary for All Such as Delight Therin.

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One comment on “Prince Bisket

  1. Why do you think the eggs are supposed to foam? Nothing in the recipe suggests beating the eggs first.

    I have done it, long ago, combining everything and beating it to batter one whole hour, with relays of people doing the beating. Nowadays my rule is to do it in a food processor, part of a recipe at a time, until the food processor stalls.

    The effect of either the long beating or the food processor is a change in the batter. It gets more fluid and gluey. I bake it in a pie plate, which I think is closer to the original coffins. It comes out as a dense pastry, very tasty, but if you leave it too many days it becomes very hard.

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