Coffyns and Faire Pastes – Early Pastry Recipes

You can download a handout for a class I have run on the evolution of pastry here. This includes shortcrust pastry and puff pastry.

If you know anything about medieval food, you’ll know that pastry was important as a food preserver. Food would be cooked in a pastry case called a coffin, for transportation, then cut out of the coffin, which would be thrown away. Experimentation by SCA cooks has actually shown that food can be cooked in a pastry case and stored for around a week in a cool place, so long as there are no gaps in the pastry.

But that’s not the whole story. You do find pie recipes, particularly for meat dishes, where the text specifies a coffin, and this is probably what was thrown away. However, you come across recipes with more delicate, luxurious fillings, and these refer to the casing as a “fair paste.” These fair pastes may be sweetened or use luxury ingredients like sugar or saffron, which would not have gone into a dish that wouldn’t be eaten. I think these were two different formulations, one intended to be eaten, the other not (or at least distributed as alms for charity).

A Recipe for a Coffyn

You tend to find “coffyns” associated with meat recipes, and I suspect these were the ones where the pastry wasn’t meant to be eaten (by nobility). The flour was probably much coarser.

The following recipe comes from Peter Brears (2008, 129). He has experimented with both hot and cold water, and discovered making pastry with cold water is much harder if there is no fat, such as butter.

225g wholemeal flour Approx. 150mL boiling water 1 tsp salt
  1. Put the flour and salt in a bowl in a mound, and make a well in the centre.
  2. Pour the boiling water into the well, then use a spatula or spoon to mix.
  3. When the pastry is cooler, get your hands in to finish incorporating the pastry. The pastry will feel quite lumpy in your hands; knead it fairly hard until it is reasonably smooth-feeling and elastic. You won’t be able to get the pastry completely smooth feeling, as it’s wholemeal flour, and it’s unlikely as much care was taken with coffyns. Add more flour or water as necessary. You will need to work fairly fast, as the pastry will stiffen as it cools.
  4. Divide the pastry into two pieces, one 2/3 of the pastry and one 1/3.
  5. Roll the larger piece of pastry out, and put it into a pie tin, or make a ball of the dough and mould it into a hollow pie shape. The pastry should be quite thick – around 4-5mm.
  6. Roll out the second, smaller piece of pastry into a lid large enough to completely cover the pie. Brush the edges of the pie and the lid with water to help the pie seal. Crimp the edges together hard to ensure the edges of the pie are completely sealed, with no gaps.

This will make enough pastry to make a 20cm pie, with a lid.
 

A Fair Paste

In recipes such as custard or fruit tarts, or for small pies called chewets, you will see “fair paste,” though they are also often called coffins. But because they’re referred to as “fair,” I believe these mixes were meant to be consumed.

Take and make faire paste of floure, water, saffron and salt; And make rownde cofyns þere-of; and þen make stuff as þou doest for rissheshewes, and put þe stuff in þe Coffyns, and couer the coffyns with þe same paste, and fry hem in goode oyle as þou doest for risshshewes and serue hem forthe hote in the same maner.Harleian MS 4016. 140

Take and make fair paste of flour, water, saffron and salt. And make round coffins thereof, and then make stuff as thou do for rissoles, and then cover the coffins with the same paste, and fry them in good oil as thou do for rissoles and serve them forth hot in the same manner.

There is a similar recipe in Harleian MS 279.lv, which adds sugar to the recipe. Adding sugar will make for a crisper pastry.

Chawettys Fryidde. Take & make fayre past of flowre & water, Sugre & Safroun & Salt, & þan make fayre round cofyns þer-of; & þen fylle þin cofyns with þin stuf, & keuere þin cofyns with þe same past, & frye hem in gode Oyle, & serue f[orth].

Fried Chewets. Take and make fair paste of flour and water, sugar and saffron and Salt, and then make fair round coffins thereof; and then fill thine coffins with thine stuff, and cover thine coffins with the same paste, & fry them in good oil,and serve forth.

225g fine white flour Approx. 150mL boiling water 1 tbs salt
Optional: 75g sugar Optional: Large pinch powdered saffron
  1. If using, add the sugar and the saffron to the boiling water, and stir to combine and dissolve the sugar.
  2. Put the flour and salt in a bowl in a mound, and make a well in the centre.
  3. Pour the boiling water into the well, then use a spatula or spoon to mix.
  4. When the pastry is cooler, get your hands in to finish incorporating the pastry. The pastry will feel quite lumpy in your hands; knead it fairly hard until it is smooth and elastic. Add more flour or water as necessary. You will need to work fairly fast, as the pastry will stiffen as it cools.
  5. Divide the pastry into two pieces, one 2/3 of the pastry and one 1/3. You don’t need to divide the pastry if you are making a tart rather than a pie.
  6. Roll the larger piece of pastry out, and put it into a pie tin, or make a ball of the dough and mould it into a hollow pie shape. If using a pie tin and the pastry has sugar in it, make sure you grease the tin well or it will stick.
  7. Roll out the second, smaller piece of pastry into a lid large enough to completely cover the pie. Brush the edges of the pie and the lid with water to help the pie seal, and ensure the edges of the pie are completely sealed, with no gaps.

 

Notes

  • When initially incorporating the flour and water, it’s important to make the well in the flour, rather than just pouring the water over the flour. If you don’t make the well in the centre, the top layers of the flour will absorb all the water but the flour at the bottom of the bowl won’t be incorporated as well. Making a well in the flour distributes the water through the flour much better.
  • The gluten in wheat is a protein. When wet, it can stick to itself and form long chains. It can also change its shape, especially when heated and moulded. When it’s heated, gluten stretches, and when it cools, it relaxes, but it retains its shape. However, the more you work it, the more gluten sticks together, and becomes tougher.
  • Pie tins were rare in period, so it is likely most pies, even those made from fair pastes, were free standing.
  • The coffyn has a higher salt content to assist with preservation of the pie contents. If you make it free standing, the higher salt content will also help it retain its shape without collapsing.
  • A pastry with sugar in the mix will be crisper than one without. Sugar, as it heats, turns from a solid, to a liquid. As this liquid cools, it re-forms into a solid, but the sugar crystals are now more cohesive. These sugar crystals will stick to each other, and any other materials in the mix. However, it may tend to spread while it’s cooking. It is also why the pastry will stick to a pie tin.

 

Further Reading

Click on the links below to buy direct from The Book Depository.
Austin, Thomas. Two Fifteenth Century Cookery Books.
Brears, Peter (2008). Cooking and Dining in Medieval England.

Santich, Barbara. “The Evolution of Food in the Middle Ages.” In Food in the Middle Ages, ed. Melitta Weiss Adamson.
This essay traces how four foods evolved in the Middle Ages, including pastry.

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