Baking Pastries the Italian Way

As my birthday approaches, I’m getting things ready for a small party with medieval and modern recipes (watch this space). The best present, though, is that my translation of the Kuchenmaistrey is hitting the market, albeit slowly. The print version is still listed as unavailable unfortunately (physical production has its hangups, I guess), but the e-book can already be bought.

The e-book is finally here

To mark the occasion, I am sharing one of the more interesting recipes from the Kuchenmaistrey today: Pastries the Italian way.

Pastry in the Italian fashion using milk-egg-dough, here with crawfish and pears

3.xxv Item to make pastries in the Italian fashion (welchen sitten). Take good wheat flour and knead it with cold water. Beat (?buch) it under your hands so that it can be rolled out (welgen), lay it in a mortar and pound it very well so that it becomes hard, and throw a dusting of flour into it each (time) and when the flour has been absorbed (vrzert), take it out and shape a pot (i.e. a coffin) out of it in an old cooking dish (hafen scherben) or a glazed dish so that the dough and the container are of the same width. (As) the dough is set into the container, you place warm butter between the container and the dough coffin straightaway. Now a filling goes into it made of eggs. Chicken broth. Milk or wine beaten well together and seasoned with good spices and also with salt and chopped parsley. Put all of that into the same dough coffin. And also pound roasted or prepared forest birds into it. Or roast chickens, or boiled (ones).

Item the same boiled or roasted chickens, you cut them apart nicely, limb from limb, entirely and properly. Thrust them (the pieces) in (into the pastry filling) upright, or (pieces) of roast meat or roast pears or of sausages roasted dry or boiled, or (do) the same with what you have. And when they touch each other (der anstoß geschicht), set the container by hot embers (zu einer roschen gludt) without smoke. At first push it towards the fire (?des ersten feer herdan) and the more and more close (you move it) the filling begins to (turn) white and the dough coffin begins to smoke (?). Then pour in warm butter with the dough coffin so that the dough does not stick to the container. And themn the filling cooks (wirt bachen – as in a fritter), turn the container frequently so that it has the same heat, and pour in half a spoonful of fat in occasionally (?yeleicht) so that the filling is moist in proper measure. Make a clean wooden skewer and thrust it into the container occasionally, all the way to the bottom, so that the hot fat goes to the bottom. That way it will sizzle and boil until the filling hardens, and that is nice enough.

Then remove it from the fire and let the fat sink in. lift the dough coffin out of the container and set it into a wide bowl and cover it with a clean bowl. Thus bring it to the table for a king or a prince. I keep quiet about common folk and poor men who would also like to eat from this (probably misplaced here: in ein dych werden to agree or become one). Also note that if you place the container by the fire, you must cover it with a warm pan that is so wide as to cover the container and the dough coffin well. If you do not have one, make a sheet of the dough that the coffin is made from and cover it with the sheet, or pin it to a board so that it does not fall closed (cover up the coffin permanently) and (lift it to) see to it that the filling settles and the dough coffin does not burn.

The same cooking technique is described again in several other recipes, here using a dough of milk and eggs:

3.xxvi If you would make a good tart (turten), have a care to have a clean pan as small or as large as you wish the tart to be. Make a dough of milk and eggs, very strong, and roll it out thin with a rolling pin. Measure it according to the pan so that it hangs over the (edge of the) pan all around as much as a finger is thick. Make a dough coffin (teigpfannen) in the pan and for this, make a filling of beaten eggs, parsley, and fat, and also spices. Beat this well together and put it into the dough coffin. Make a sheet of dough (to go) over it and crimp (? portel) it shut as for a fladen to that the excess dough (crimped rim) sticks out over the (edge of the) pan. See that the pan has fat so that the dough coffin does not burn. Frequently turn it around and around and let the tart bake. For this, you need a broad, shallow pan. You may thrust shelled crawfish into such a filling, or fish of pikes or basses or eel. See that these must be firm, fresh fish, for the soft ones are not suitable because they must first of all be boiled fully and seasoned with spices. When the tart browns, it has had enough. Take it off the coals when the fire and smoke make it burn and smell. Take it out, (set it) on a broad platter and serve it.

And a description of the sound by which you gauge the progress:

3.xxvii Item a meat tart, make the dough as before or the flappy dough (3.xxii) as is described earlier. Do not make the filling too stiff, of eggs and wine or milk or chicken broth or good, tasty meat broth, (but?) not much. Beat eggs and butter into it, salt and spice it as before. Set the dough coffin (teigpfannen) into the pan and pour fat between them all around so that the dough does not burn. Put the filling into the dough coffin. If you have chicken or venison, all boiled fully beforehand, or be it forest birds or roast meat, chop that very nicely and add it to the filling. Make a dough cover over it and crimp it (verrenftels) nicely and pour fat on the cover. Set the pan on hot coals. At first (start with) a small fire, then more and more. Frequently turn the pan so that the fat goes all around the dough coffin until it sizzles (bratzelt) and bubbles (boppelt) of boiling. When it is burning, you must prevent that with (adding) fat. Thus the dough coffin is as good to eat as the filling (scharrn) within.

I am not entirely certain what qualifies this recipe as Italian and thus aspirationally exotic, but I suspect it is the cooking technique rather than the egg-based filling. Both are innovations – earlier pastry recipes do not mention egg. However, cooking the crust in a richly greased pan is far more interesting and has bigger implications.

Three different pastries ready to go in, pans liberally greased

Contemporary cooks would have been aware of the fact that cooking basic doughs in fat affected their flavour and consistency. A mix of eggs, milk, or just water and flour will become crumblier and richer, thus “short” as in shortcrust, if it is fried in fat, but hard and brittle if baked. This is a way of transferring that principle to pastry crusts, and the result is something that feels a lot like a modern pie crust. To us, the idea of greasing a pie pan and putting in a crust is trivial, but when it was a new idea, it must have seemed decidedly odd. It also required dedicated equipment and a good deal of attention. But the result would have been worth it.

There is another instance of adding fat to a lean dough during the cooking process: the ‘Prophets’ cake’ that is dotted with butter and baked in an oven. This would not have been practical with pies and tarts, It is interesting, too, that the technique does not show up in the sources for very long. Possibly that is because it becomes commonplace. A lot of things are taken for granted, and especially for pastries instructions are often perfunctory. However, the sixteenth century is also when we get the first surviving recipes for ‘short’ crusts including fat in the mix. Perhaps this is a genuine transitional stage, that fata morgana of culinary history: evidence of evolution towards a higher level.

Personally, I doubt the Whig narrative of cuisine, but I tried the technique and found it gave satisfying results. It is important to apply the fat liberally. Think of it as an ingredient, not just a grease film to prevent the pastry from sticking. The temperature needs careful regulating, something an electric oven makes easy, and the kitchen should have a muscular fan or large windows, because the amount of greasy steam this produces is impressive even if it does not burn. The crust is quite good, soft and crumbly, and does not taste of the burned butter the kitchen smelled of. But on balance, I can see why cooks would prefer short crusts.

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