Tag Archives: confections

Comfits and custards revisited – recipes

I’ve finally had a second attempt at the custards, and a third attempt at the comfits. Happily, this time both worked very well indeed.

I’ll start with the custard first. You can find the early modern recipe and my initial attempt here. For some background on custards, see this post.

Custard tart

400g plain flour

4 eggs, plus 2 more yolks

75g butter, room temperature

2 tbsp sugar

Few drops rosewater

300ml double cream

4tbsp sugar

Generous pinch each ground mace, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves

Small pinch salt

Caraway comfits

A few dates

Preheat the oven to 150c. Mix the flour with two beaten eggs until a dough is formed. If it’s too dry you can add a little water. Take some of the dough, about a fifth, and roll it out as thinly as you can. If you end up with holes, it’s not too much of a problem as you’ll be layering it up. Spread some of the butter on the pastry, then roll out another piece, put it on top and spread more butter. Continue until all of the pastry is layered up, don’t butter the last piece. Roll out the layered pastry again, then use to line the greased tin. Mix the sugar and rosewater with 1tbsp water, then sprinkle over the pastry case. Bake in the oven for about 10 minutes.

While the pastry case is baking, whisk the remaining eggs and yolks with the cream, spices and 2 tbsp of sugar. Remove the pastry from the oven and scatter the remaining sugar and the currents over the base of the pastry case. Pour the egg and cream mixture into the case. Bake in the oven for 35-45 minutes, until the custard is set. When the custard is cool, scatter over caraway comfits (see recipe below) and stick in some dates.

Caraway comfits

For the background on comfits, see this post. You will find the recipe and first attempt here.

38g caraway seeds (this is the usual amount you get in a small jar)

300g caster sugar

Heat the sugar with 100ml water over a low heat until the sugar is melted and the syrup is bubbling. Let it bubble for a few minutes, stirring all the time, then turn the heat right down as low as you can get it. You need to keep the mixture warm so it stays liquid, but if it’s overheating ad starting to boil you can take it off the heat for a few minutes. Once you have your warm sugar syrup ready, warm a frying pan over a very low heat and add the caraway seeds. Add a very small amount of the syrup – DO NOT add too much the comfits won’t work – see the first attempt post for an example of it going wrong! You probably want only about a tablespoon of liquid, it’s important to make sure that you only add enough to dampen the seeds slightly.

Stir them round with a metal spatula until the liquid is absorbed and the seeds are dry. They look a little bit white, getting more so with each coating. When the seeds are dry, add another small amount of liquid. Repeat this process until all the liquid is done – you will need to apply many coats. Don’t be tempted to rush by adding too much liquid or by turning up the heat, or you’ll ruin them. Once they are done, cool, then store in an airtight jar.

I would recommend trying both of these recipes, they both came out rather tasty. The comfits were particularly nice, you can keep them in a cupboard for a while and use them in biscuits and the like, they would also be nice sprinkled on cereal. They are quite easy to make, as long as you are careful not to use too much heat or liquid.

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Marchpane Part 1: History and background

My first food experiment is marchpane, these days more commonly known as marzipan. I’m hoping to get hold of more books and resources as I go along, but for now I only have a few things at my disposal – a couple of original texts from EEBO and a lovely little book about “Banquetting Stuffe” editing by C. Anne Wilson. I thought starting with marchpane would be a good introduction as it is quite a common food mentioned in a lot of Early Modern literature, it’s something we are familiar with today, and also it seems (fingers crossed) like it might not be too difficult to make, nor the ingredients too difficult to get hold of.

First, let’s look at a definition from the OED:

marchpane, n. and adj.

Pronunciation:  Brit. /ˈmɑːtʃpeɪn/ , U.S. /ˈmɑrtʃˌpeɪn/

Forms:  marchepane, marche payn, marche payne, marche peyne, march pain… 

Etymology:  Italian marzapane or German †martzepan 

Now arch. and hist.

 1. n Originally: a flat disc of marzipan mounted on wafers and usually decorated with motifs made from similar paste or other materials (by the 18th cent. often iced with sugar and mounted on a rich fruit cake, esp. a bridecake). Subsequently: a cake or sweet made of marzipan; Now hist. 

Just speculating here, but presumably the “pane” or “pan” indicates the etymology has something to do with bread. Any marzipan I have ever eaten has certainly been of a bread-like colour, and like bread it was certainly a versatile substance. Marchpane was used as it is today to make edible models which could be quite realistic. In fact, in Arcadia, Sir Philip Sidney seems to consider marchpane more lifelike than life itself, so to emphasise the perfect beauty of flesh he compares it to the sculpted food:

But back vnto her back, my Muse,
Where Ledas swanne his feathers mewes,
Along whose ridge such bones are met,
Like comfits round in marchpane set. 

I suppose the “you’re so beautiful you look like a work of art” is fairly ubiquitous, but doesn’t “you’re so beautiful you look like food made to look like a work of art” just give it an extra level?

Sweets like marchpane could be a token of affection. Peter Brears, in my treasured “Banqetting Stuffe” book (which is actually a collection of lectures from a symposium in the 1980’s) describes how Queen Elizabeth’s courtiers would present her with sculpted marchpanes – from chessboards to miniature castles to scale models of St Paul’s! I bet the chessboard guy felt a bit upstaged. And in Shakespeare we can see how sweets like marchpane were, like an Early Modern equivalent of your last rolo, something to be sought after and saved as a treat (or maybe given to a couple of girls you fancy):

1 Servingman: Away with the joint-stools, remove the court cupboard, look to the plate. Good thou, save me a piece of marchpane, and as thou love me, let the porter let in Susan Grindstone and Nell

Romeo and Juliet, Act 1 Scene 5

Finally, here’s one more literary mention of marchpane, and weirdly this was the one that made me think about making it in the first place. In Middleton’s The Witch, foods, particularly sweet ones, have a slightly more sinister role. The Witch is, I think, an under-read play, to me it is particularly interesting because it is just so hung up on the idea that eating and luxury are very dangerous things. There are plenty of examples, such as the part where Francisca, an unmarried woman, blames her unwanted pregnancy on the fact that her secret lover wooed her with foods such as “wine, chewets and currant-custards”, leading to my favourite line “I may curse those egg-pies”. As for marchpane, and this is where it gets a little bit icky, Hecate (the titular witch) trades a love potion (also a kind of dangerous food, I suppose) for “a toad in marchpane”, something wicked and witch-like innocuously hidden in something tasty and appealing. See, sweets don’t just make your teeth rot, they are actually a path to the dark side.

If you are brave enough to continue after that, then carry on to part 2 for the (toad-free) recipe.

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