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.

Medieval Cooking Terms

One of the things that can make redacting medieval and early modern recipes Interesting is trying to work out what the words actually mean. You will definitely find it easier if you know the meanings of certain terms; many times these will be the only hint you have towards cooking methods or main ingredients.

If there are any terms you’d like to see explained, let me know in the comments.

Bray – to grind or pound ingredients, typically in a mortar and pestle.

Boil – while it might be clear what this means, sometimes “boil” should actually be interpreted as “simmer” as a full boil might be too aggressive. You will need to use some judgement as to how much heat you want to apply.

Broil – this is often misinterpreted as “boil,” but broiling actually means to cook by directly exposing to heat. This is typically done by suspending food over or under a flame in a cage or frame (such as a grill).

Capon – a rooster that has been castrated and allowed to grow to full size before being eaten.

Coffyn – a pastry case used to cook food. Many people believe the pastry case wasn’t meant to be eaten, and in the case of many meat recipes, this is likely the case. However sometimes the coffyn is described as being made of a “fair paste” or contains luxury ingredients such as saffron or sugar – why would you throw these away? Furthermore sometimes the coffyn is encasing ingredients such as cheese or custard, where pastry enhances the eating experience. So I feel not all coffyns were meant to be thrown away.

Fricassee – similar to a pottage. The meat, usually chicken, is cooked in a pale sauce that does not have much liquid. The resulting dish is generally quite pale. Fricassees first appeared in C14 France, and spread to England in the early C16. In later fricassees, the ingredients were briefly fried before the sauce was added to complete the cooking.

Leche – a slice. If you see this in a recipe, the final product will be firm and need to be cut to serve. You may only pick this up from the title of a recipe, or section of the book.

Pottage – to cook in a sauce in a pot. This can be particularly tricky because meat, in particular, is often cooked in other ways as well as being part of the pottage; and like leche, pottage may only be mentioned in the title of a recipe. If you see pottage, it means the final dish will be cooked at least partially in the sauce it will be served in, like many stews or braises.

Roast – most modern “roast” meats are actually baked – the meat is placed in the oven and cooked by radiant heat. Medieval roasting is done with an open fire over a spit; while radiant heat cooks the meat, the meat also absorbs smoke from the flames. The meat is also constantly turned and basted while it is cooking, so the end result is far more succulent and tasty. If using a joint such as a leg, bone and roll the roast – the bone means the roast takes a lot longer to cook, and is much harder to carve. This was done in period.

Seethe – typically interpreted as boil, but sometimes in the context of a recipe, a simmer would be better. It’s best to use your judgement about how vigorously you want to heat your cooking.

Serse – to sieve ingredients.

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. It also makes 2 20cm tart cases (no lid).

Notes

  • Making pastry on a hot day is awful. It will tear if you look at it sternly, as the heat prevents the butter from binding properly. If you must make pastry on a hot day, make the pastry at least the day before and chill it until you need it.
  • This pastry can be frozen and made well ahead. It is best to freeze it in vacuum packed plastic, to prevent freezer burn.
  • 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.

Redacting Historical Recipes

Note: This article is available as a downloadable PDF, complete with 3 sample recipes, here.

Introduction

Redacting recipes is an important skill you need to develop if you are going to advance in SCA cookery. Eventually you are going to want to try a cuisine where you just have a manuscript, but no one else’s redactions…. Or you find yourself disagreeing intensely with someone else’s redaction. Redacting is a skill that like any other improves with practice, but hopefully these notes will give you a starting point.

The Golden Rules of Redactions

When redacting recipes, there are two rules I always keep in mind, that guide every redaction I do.

Golden Rule 1: If the food produced isn’t liked, the redaction is a failure

One of the major goals of a historical cook (whether in the SCA, another group, or just for interests sake), if not THE major goal, is to produce food that’s fun and/or tasty to eat. It doesn’t matter how accurate, how expensive, how darned spiffy a dish is – if people don’t eat it because it’s awful, the dish is a failure.

Please note, this does not mean you always shy away from the weird and shocking – it just means you provide other food as well as the weird, and only small amounts of weird. One of these days I WILL serve chicken’s testicles at a feast. But they won’t be a major component of the feast, and there will be non-testicle chicken for people to eat as well.

Golden Rule 2: The only substitutions that should be made are for toxic/extinct ingredients, or when a modern method will produce the same result for less hassle

Frequently, when reading recipes in books about medieval food, you will find people have substituted a modern method of cooking that’s not mentioned in the text of the recipe (for example frying meat instead of braising or stewing it), or they will add ingredients or leave ingredients out. NO. In the age of Internet shopping, “I couldn’t find an ingredient” is (mostly) no longer the reason it was twenty years ago – it’s an excuse for being lazy. Similarly, changing the method of cooking because people won’t be used to the recipe is lazy. Yes, it might seem weird. You won’t know how people will like it until you try it. (That said, using muslin and a strainer to produce a puree rather than a blender is a lot of hard work for no good reason.)

However, ancient and medieval cooks used ingredients we now know to be toxic, and these should be substituted or left out. We are also more aware of dietary concerns these days, so failing to provide gluten-free options for celiac sufferers for example, is rude. Similarly, there may be substitutions/exclusions you can make to make it easier for people with severe allergies if there are ingredients that form a major component of a feast.

The Business of Redacting

If you’ve ever looked at ancient or medieval recipes, you will know they aren’t like modern ones. Ingredients aren’t always listed in the order they’re used, or might be missing entirely, there are often no measurements or timings, and even cooking methods can be inexact. However, medieval recipes were more likely memory aids than precise instructions; a medieval cook might also be cooking for anywhere between 10 to 1,000 guests, so quantities aren’t necessarily useful. And even in a modern recipe, timings are often more like guidelines than actual rules.

Before You Begin: Gain a Working Cooking Knowledge

You need to have a reasonable grasp of general cooking before you try and start redacting recipes. This way, you will be more likely to work out what an author meant, you will know how to combine ingredients, and you may even recognise what the final dish will be from its description.

Step 1: Find Your Recipe

If at all possible, work from the original manuscript or a direct copy. Translators are sometimes “helpful” in putting things in a modern way of speaking, which can cause more harm than good.

Translate your recipe directly into modern English. If you are working with an unknown language, you have to work with someone else’s translation, but even period “English” can be weird.

Step 2: Know Your Source

Understand your source material. Find out about the manuscript and the author, and its intended purpose. Usually this simply means reading the Introduction for a book.

If you are working with someone’s translation, find out if it’s reputable – and the easiest thing to do is ask; whether other SCA cooks, or by checking the reviews on sites like Amazon or GoodReads. There aren’t that many undiscovered manuscripts (or translations) out there. Odds are, someone’s going to know whether this funky new book you’ve found is actually worth using.

Step 3: Parse your Recipe

(Yes, I work in IT). Break down your recipe into ingredients, cooking methods and service instructions. Try and group your ingredients together – major ingredients, seasonings, garnishes etc.

If there are weights and measurements mentioned, translate them into metric equivalents. If there are proportions mentioned (for example “of sugar, half as much as flour”) take note of them and think about what the final weights will be.

Step 4: Know your Ingredients

Make notes on your ingredients, and try and find out what they were. Especially for herbs and spices, use modern sources of information, because these will tell you about toxicity. Consider what would have been used in period, rather than modern times. For meat, consider what cut is the best cut to use. Find reliable sources for your ingredients.

Step 5: Consider Cooking Methods

What cooking methods are mentioned in your recipe – boiling, frying, roasting? Are there any indication of temperatures? Any indication of cooking times? Note the cooking methods if any, and try and get them into the correct order. DO NOT substitute modern, or different, methods here.

Step 6: Look for Other Versions

In other manuscripts, are there recipes with the same name, or similar methods? You often find there will be similar recipes in other manuscripts, which can help you fill in gaps or put your own spin on the recipe (while still being “true to period”).

Step 7: Fill in Any Gaps

Does your recipe look complete? Are there any steps you think are missing, and will you need to draw on your cooking knowledge to fill in the gaps? A classic example of this is pies and tarts – they feature heavily in medieval cooking, but you will search long and hard before you find a pastry recipe in a period cookbook. Pastry was one of those things “everyone knew how to make;” furthermore, in a royal household, there was often a separate kitchen just for making pastry, with one or more people whose sole job was to make pastry. Probably they guarded their recipes and techniques.

Step 8: Prepare a Proper Recipe

WRITE DOWN the ingredients, using proper portions, cooking methods and timings (tip: when working with meat, use 500g or 1KG as your base portion – it will make scaling for feasts easier). Make notes of any substitutions you have made and why.

It is a good idea to keep a recipe log, such as an exercise book. Trying to remember what you did even the next day rarely works. And writing down your redaction on any piece of paper that comes to hand guarantees that paper will go missing when you need it for a feast.

Step 9: Try, and Evaluate, the Recipe

How did it go? Are there any improvements you could make? Was it easy to make, and would you be able to do it easily in bulk at a feast? What equipment did you need?

WAS IT TASTY?