Pies & piecrusts

June 26, 2011

In order to get myself a bit more familiarised with the kitchen I started of lightly with a few investigations that were not completely dependent on getting the heatng, embers and fire wood completely right.

Both in the medieval and the renaissance cuisine pies and pastries seem to have played an important role, and the role of the pastry chef was quite important. Pastries seem to range from mere vessels containing meat or fruits to elaborate subtleties depicting castles and the like. In “Book of caruynge” the reader is given instruction on how to cut a pie according to how it was shaped and what it contained. The main question is however, were the actual pie crust intended to be eaten or was it just used as a vessel? Did they use some kind of pie shell or were they standing by them selves? Though I have mainly favoured the latter interpretation, some more work with early pie-recipes may give some insights.

Though the earlier pie recipes rarely give any further clues to the actual pie dough, some recipes from the mid 16th century gives us some further clues. For this experiment I have used two recipes from the cookbook by Sabina Welserin and an English recipe from about the same time.

Sabina Welserin, 1555

61 To make a pastry dough for all shaped pies

Take flour, the best that you can get, about two handfuls, depending on how large or small you would have the pie. Put it on the table and with a knife stir in two eggs and a little salt. Put water in a small pan and a piece of fat the size of two good eggs, let it all dissolve together and boil. Afterwards pour it on the flour on the table and make a strong dough and work it well, however you feel is right. If it is summer, one must take meat broth instead of water and in the place of the fat the skimmings from the broth. When the dough is kneaded, then make of it a round ball and draw it out well on the sides with the fingers or with a rolling pin, so that in the middle a raised area remains, then let it chill in the cold. Afterwards shape the dough as I have pointed out to you. Also reserve dough for the cover and roll it out into a cover and take water and spread it over the top of the cover and the top of the formed pastry shell and join it together well with the fingers. Leave a small hole. And see that it is pressed together well, so that it does not come open. Blow in the small hole which you have left, then the cover will lift itself up. Then quickly press the hole closed. Afterwards put it in the oven. Sprinkle flour in the dish beforehand. Take care that the oven is properly heated, then it will be a pretty pastry. The dough for all shaped pastries is made in this manner.

65 The dough for the pastry

Take rye flour, according to how large the fish is, take it, and put water, about three pints, in a pan and a good quarter pound of fat into it, and let it cook together, put the flour on the table and put the solids from the melted fat-water on top, until it makes a good firm dough. You must knead it well so that it becomes good and sticky. Afterwards make two parts out of it. First the bottom, roll it out as large as the fish is. After that lay the fish on the bottom crust and roll out the top crust just as wide and put it over the fish and shape it like the fish. Make fins on it and take a small knife and make dough scales, also eyes and everything which a fish has. And put it in the oven and spread it with an egg. Then you have a fish pastry.

A Propre new booke of Cokery , 1545

To make shorte paest for tart.

Take fine floure and a curtesy of faire water and a disshe of swete butter and a litle saffron and the yolkes of two egges and make it thin and tender as ye maie.

As it was only a trial to see how I could make the dough stand without any aid of a pie shell, they were made without any filling and just to see how I managed to shape them. One of the recipes – the rye dough was meant to be shaped like a fish and not as a regular pie, so that one I just made into an empty fish shaped pastry.

The recipes were followed rather closely, though the amounts were headed only superficially. To a pair handful of flour I mixed an egg, after which I added a mixture of lard dissolved in water. The resulting dough was rather rubbery dough that at first seemed to have had some problems in getting the sides to stand. After I twisted the sides into the classical s-shape of pies the sides kept standing.

The butter based dough in the third recipe was perhaps slightly softer, but should not have proven any problem. With my modern preferences I would have used the third dough for a sweeter dish and the first one for a more savoury pie, as the use of lard gave the pie a distinct association to bacon.

However, the main observation was that all the doughs that were meant to hold a mixture or even a liquid content seemed to be able to keep their walls up and hence not losing any of their contents. It should therefore be possible to bake pies without the use of any pieshells or the like.

While it is likely that these ashen bottomed piecrusts were merely used as vessels for cooking and serving, I would find it likely that these remains of the pies wandered down the hierarchy and were used as a handouts.
Although I would conclude that most pies were baked and served in their dough, there are some mentions of a pie-shell in the mid 16th century recipes, so it is possible that both existed. The rather common occurance of pies in 16th and 17th century recipes will certainly have me revisit them.

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