Custards: Part 2 – Cooking, no recipe….yet

As I explained in part 1,  an early modern custard is a baked pastry case filled with custard. The recipe I used from Gervase Markham’s Countrey Contentments, or The English Huswife (1623) specifies a pastry recipe from elsewhere in the text – it’s a puff pastry recipe that looks a little more complicated than the last one I tried. Here’s the pastry recipe:

Now for the making of puffe-past of the best kind, you shall take the finest wheat flowre after it hath been a little bak’t in a pot in the ouen, and blend it well with egges whites and yelkes altogether, then after the past is well kneaded, roule out a part thereof as thin as you please, and then spread cold sweet butter ouer the same, then vpon the same butter role another leafe of the paste as before; and spread it with butter also; and thus role leafe vpon leafe with butter betweene till it be as thick as you thinke good: and with it either couer any bak’t meate, or make pastie for Venison, Florentine, Tart or what dish else you please and so bake it: there be some that to this past vse sugar, but it is certaine it will hinder the rising thereof; and therefore when your puft past is bak’t, you shall dissolue sugar into Rose-water, and drop it into the paste as much as it will by any meanes receiue, and then set it a little while in the ouen after and it will be sweet enough.

I have made puff pastry before, and this recipe is quite similar to a modern one with the rolling and buttering of the pastry. Modern recipes don’t use egg though, as far as I recall. The warming of the flour seems odd – I looked this up on trusty old Google and found a few references to it in bread making but I’m not sure what it’s for. I did it anyway, who knows, it might make for delicious pastry.

I started with one beaten egg and then added flour until it came together as a dough. It was about 200g flour.

I then kneeded the dough and split it into 5 pieces. I rolled out the first piece as thin as I could get it and then spread butter on it. Obviously the butter would not have been fridge cold, what with fridges still being a good few hundred years away at the time of printing, so I took it out of the fridge about an hour before I needed it and let it come to room temperature.

Butter would have likely been kept with other perishables in a cool part of the kitchen, or in an earthenware pot kept in water. You can find out more about the history of butter, if you are so inclined, at this page: Butter Through the Ages. By the late17th century some kitchens had ice-houses – underground structures packed with snow and ice during the winter. Being underground meant they were cool enough to keep the ice frozen, and foods cold, throughout the year. Petworth House, where my PhD research is based, has an ice-house, although I believe it dates from a later period.

Anyway, back to the cooking. I used room temperature butter and spread it on the pastry. I then added another later on top and rolled it out again. I repeated this until all of the pastry was used.

Once the pastry was made I cut a diamond shape, then cut a long piece for the sides and stuck it down to the flat piece with an egg yolk, as recommended in the custard recipe. I baked the pastry case, or coffin, in the oven until it started to crisp up. I then mixed 1 tbsp sugar with a few drops of rosewater and a little water, then drizzled this over the pastry, base, returning it to the oven once again.

To bake an excellent Custard or Dowset; you shall take good store of Single illegible lettergges, and putting away one quarter of the whites, beate them exceeding well in a bason, and then mixe with them the sweetest and thickest creame you can get, for if it be any thing thinne, the Custard will be wheyish; then season it with salt, sugar, cinamon, cloues, mace, and a little Nutmegge; which done raise your coffins of good tough wheate paste, being the second sort before spoke of, and if you please raise it in pretty workes, or angular formes, which you may doe by fixing the vp|per part of the crust to the nether with the yelks of egges: then when the coffins are ready, strow the bottomes a good thicknesse ouer with Currants and Sugar; then Single illegible letteret them into the Ouen, and fill them vp with the confecti|on before blended, and so drawing them, adorne all the toppes with Carraway Cumfets, and the slices of Dates prickt right vp, and so serue them vp to the table.

For my custard, I took 4 eggs yolks and 3 egg whites and beat them together. I then added about 250ml double cream. You might have noticed that cream and butter are often referred to as sweet – this does not mean they are sugared but that they are fresh. I added a tiny pinch of salt and ground cinnamon, cloves, mace and nutmeg. I covered the bottom with currants and sugar, then poured the custard over the top and baked it in the oven until the custard was set. I took it out and stuck in some dates.

The custard did leak out quite a bit through the sides, and as the tarts were fairly shallow the currants were still visible as the custard set around them. The taste, particularly of the pastry, was very tasty indeed, but the custard didn’t really set properly, instead it was quite puffed up and fluffy, not set and creamy as I had hoped. I had to guess the measurements for the cream as one wasn’t given in the recipe – I think I might have to look up modern day custard tart recipes for some guidance on getting the quantities right. I won’t post a recipe yet as I don’t feel I’ve perfected it – but this is one I’ll definitely be having another   go at to get it right.

Also, I did have a go at caraway comfits, but that didn’t go very well either! I think I know where I went wrong though so next time I should be able to get them right.

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