Playing History Detective, Early Modern Style



If you have ever looked at historical food boards on Pinterest (and since you are reading this I would guess that you probably have) then you’ve probably seen Chelsea Monroe-Cassel’s Medieval Peach Crostata. Published on her Game of Thrones food blog Inn at the Crossroads, this dessert looks like a cross between a sweet pizza and a strudel. How could I resist making that?

That being said, I went back to Bartolomeo Scappi’s instructions and my interpretation of the final product is quite different. Scappi was a papal chef, writing in the 1560s, and his cookbook was published in 1570. Although Scappi is better than many of hist contemporaries at providing quantities and instructions, the recipes are still very hard to follow.


Frontispiece from The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. 

You’re not only dealing with a translation, but you have to keep swapping between recipes to find the other instructions that you need (which is of course why this is my entry for the HFF History Detective challenge). I used four recipes in total, but there were a number of options to choose from for how to make the mostaccioli and how to do the twists. Basically, there’s no one right way to make this.

Please note that, like the Metternich cake, this recipe is not for the faint of heart. The crostata is made of up three sheets of pastry as the base, a pastry twist filled with dried fruit cooked in wine and spices which makes the side of the tart, then there are several layers of filling and then three more layers of pastry for the top. It contains copious amounts of butter and sugar, and took more than three hours of continuous work. You have been warned!

“63. To prepare a peach, apricot or plum crostata

Get a peach that is not too ripe; if it is hard it will do quite a bit better than if not. Peel it and cut it into slices. Have a tourte pan ready, lined with its three sheets of dough and its twist around it, greased with butter or rendered fat, and sprinkled with pepper, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and sugar, and with raisins and crumbled Neapolitan mostaccioli. On all that set out the peach slices and on top of them put the same ingredients as are under them. Cover the pan over with three thin sheets of dough, with rendered fat or butter brushed between each; sprinkle that with sugar and cinnamon. Bake it in an oven or braise it; it does not take too much cooking because it would disintegrate into a broth. Serve it hot, dressed with sugar and rosewater.

With those ingredients you can also add in provatura or grated cheese.”[1]


The first step is to make the mostaccioli, which are a kind of biscotti. The recipe that I chose was made from bread which is toasted and then ground into flour. The breadcrumb flour is mixed with flour, sugar, eggs, yeast, rosewater and anise to make a thick batter and left to rest. You then add more eggs and some salt and allow it to rest again. The mixture is then poured into a pan, baked, sliced into rectangles and baked again. Next time I would leave the biscuits to cook longer both times, and I would probably slice them more thinly too because they were a bit too gummy to really crumble.



“237. To prepare dainty biscuit morsels. (Morseletti or mostaccioli)

Get two pounds of white breadcrumb and bake it a second time. Grind it in a mortar and put it through a sieve so it becomes like flour. For every pound of that sieved substance, add as much again of fine flour, two and a half pounds of finely sieved sugar and four ounces of leaven ground in a mortar and moistened with fifteen fresh eggs; then everything should be mixed together with three-quarters of an ounce of raw anise ground into powder and four ounces of rosewater. When everything is thoroughly mixed and beaten together so that it looks like fritter batter, let it sit for two hours in a warm place. Beat it again, adding in four more eggs and an ounce of salt; then let it sit for another hour. Then have a buttered tourte pan and put the filling into it so it is a finger’s width in depth. Put that into an oven that is not too hot. Leave it there until it is dry. Remove it and with a sharp knife cut it into little long rectangles, as wide or narrow as you like. Just as soon as they have been cut up, put them immediately into marzipan tourte pans, set out apart with paper under them, and put them back into the oven with a very moderate heat. Leave them there for half an hour, turning them several times until they have firmed up. In order to keep them white, keep them covered with rag paper.”[2]


So far so good, but this is where it gets a bit complicated. The recipe tells us that we need a tourte pan lined with three sheets of dough and a twist, but not how to do this. For detailed instructions we need to go to an earlier recipe for a crostata of cow’s udder.


“49. To prepare various sorts of crostate which Neapolitans call coppi and Lumbards napoleons, beginning with a cow’s udder.

When the udder has been boiled in salted water, so that it is thoroughly cooked, take it out and let it cool. Cut it into very thin slices. With that put the same amount of boiled, desalted sowbelly and slices of fresh provatura. Have a tourte pan ready, greased with rendered fat or butter, with a rather thick sheet of dough made with fine flour, rosewater, egg yolks, butter and salt. On that sheet of dough put two other thin ones greased with rendered fat or butter, and sprinkle them with sugar. Make the twist of flaky pastry all around and not very big. On the last sheet of dough set a layer of slices of provatura sprinkled with sugar, cinnamon and raisins, and beaten mint and marjoram; on that layer put little lumps of butter and some of the udder slices and of the sowbelly; continue doing the same up to three layers, covering the last with another sheet of somewhat thinner dough. On that sheet put some strips of flaky pastry, slitting the twist all around with the tip of a hot knife. Carefully, with a greased hand, put waves into the flaky pastry or else cut it into lacework with a knife. Put it into an oven and bake it, making sure to grease the flaky pastry with rendered fat or melted butter so it will puff up better. When it is done serve it hot…”[3]


This explains that the dough is made from flour, rosewater, egg yolks, butter and salt but gives no quantities. For that, we need to turn to another recipe again. The instructions for making a filled twist give the quantities: two pounds of flour, six egg yolks, two ounces of rosewater, an ounce of leaven moistened with warm water, four ounces butter and enough salt. Even though I didn’t knead the dough for the full half an hour I was amazed at how well this dough worked. It was smooth, silky and could be rolled out very thinly.


“122. To prepare a filled twist.

Make a dough of two pounds of fine flour with six fresh egg yolks, two ounces of rosewater, an ounce of leaven moistened with warm water, four ounces of either fresh butter or rendered fat that does not smell bad, and enough salt. That dough should be kneaded well for half an hour. Make a thin sheet of it, greasing it with either melted butter that is not too hot or with rendered fat. With the pastry wheel cut the edges one after the other, which are always thicker than the rest. Sprinkle the dough with four ounces of sugar and an ounce of cinnamon. Then get a pound of currants that have been brought to a boil in wine, a pound of dates cooked in that wine and cut up small, and a pound of seeded muscatel raisins that have been brought to a boil in wine; combine all those ingredients and mix them with sugar, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Spread that mixture out over the sheet of dough along with a few little gobs of butter. Beginning at the long edge of the dough, roll it up like a wafer cornet, being careful not to break the dough. A twist like that only needs three rolls so it can cook well; it should not be too tight. Grease its surface with melted butter that is not too hot. Begin at one end to roll it up, not too tightly, so it becomes like a snail shell or a maze. Have a tourte pan on hand lined with a rather thick sheet of the same dough greased with melted butter and gently put the twist on it without pushing it down. Bake it in an oven or braise it with a moderate heat, not forgetting to grease it occasionally with melted butter. When it is almost done, sprinkle sugar and rosewater over it. Serve it hot. The tourte pan in which the twists are baked has to be ample and with low sides.”[4]


To line the tourte pan (I used a shallow, Victoria sponge cake tin) you place three circles of dough (the bottom one should be slightly thicker) in the base, brushing each with melted butter. The way that I read the recipe, these circles are the same size as the base of the pan, they do not come up the sides of the pan as in a modern pie recipe. The sides are formed with a twist. The twist is made by rolling out a long, thin sheet of the same dough and rolling this up around a filling of dried fruit cooked in wine and spices. This twist is laid around the edge of the tin and forms the sides of the crostata.


With the base now in place, the filling comes next. The base is sprinkled with spices, dried fruit, sugar and the crumbled mostaccioli from earlier. This is followed by a layer of sliced peaches and topped with more spices, sugar, fruit and biscuits. This is then topped with another three layers of pastry and then cooked in a moderate oven.



The Redactions



180g bread, cut into slices and with the crusts removed

100g flour

250g sugar

5 eggs

7g of dried yeast (fresh yeast, ale barm or sourdough starter would be even better)

25ml rosewater

(anise if desired)



  1. Heat the oven to 150˚C. Place the bread slices on baking trays and toast lightly in the oven until golden and very dry, but be careful not to burn them.
  2. Crumble the toasted bread with your fingers, then take small amounts and grind it to a powder in a mortar and pestle. Sieve this powder to remove any bigger pieces and weigh the amount that you have. The quantities given in this recipe are for 100g of breadcrumb flour.
  3. Take the flour and mix it with 250g of sugar, 4 eggs and the yeast. Beat to combine, then add the anise and the rosewater. Leave to rest for two hours in a warm place.
  4. Beat the last egg and some salt into the mixture. Let rest for another hour.
  5. Pre-heat the oven to 150˚C and grease a square cake tin or a slice tin. Pour the mixture into the tin, it should be about 1 cm deep, and bake in the oven for about 30 mins, or until a skewer comes out clean.
  6. Allow the cake to cool slightly, then remove from the tin. Slice the cake into rectangles and lay them on their sides on a baking tray lined with baking paper. Return the biscuits to the oven for another 40 minutes or until hard and dry. When done, allow to cool completely.




Peach Crostata


450g flour

Pinch of salt

56g cold butter, cut into cubes

3 egg yolks

30ml rosewater

7g dried yeast, dissolved in 15 ml of warm water




A handful of raisins

Ground pepper, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg

4 mostaccioli, crumbled

1 hard peach, sliced


Filling for the twist:

55g sugar

225g currants, raisins and/or chopped dates

1/4 cup red wine

Ground cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg to taste


Melted butter, to grease


  1. To make the dough place the flour and some salt in a large mixing bowl. Rub in the butter with your fingertips until it is the consistency of breadcrumbs. Add the egg yolks, rosewater and the yeast. If it seems to dry add a little more water. Bring together and knead for at least 10 mins (or you can go for the full 30 mins if you are using a stand mixer with a dough hook).
  2. To make the filling for the twist, place the dried fruit, red wine, 1 tsp of sugar and spices to taste in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer. Allow to cook for 5-10 mins or until plump and slightly softened. Drain the fruit from the juice and allow to cool.
  3. For the base of the crostata take 1/3 of the dough. Break this into three parts, with one slightly larger than the other two. Begin with the larger piece and roll it out to the size of the base of your tourte pan. Use the base of the pan to cut out the circle of dough. Place the circle in the base of the greased pan, and brush the dough with melted butter. Repeat this twice more with the other two pieces of dough (they should be slighlty thinner than the first layer).
  4. For the twist, measure the circumference of your tourte pan. Take half the remaining dough and roll it out very thinly into a rectangle that is the same length as the circumference of your pan, and about 6 cm wide. Brush the dough with melted butter and sprinkle with the remaining sugar and some ground cinnamon.
  5. Spread the fruit mixture over the rectangle of dough, leaving 1 cm of space at the edges. Starting at one of the long sides, gently roll up the dough. It should not be too tight, and be careful that the dough doesn’t tear. Place the rolled up twist around the outside edge of your tourte pan, pinching the short ends together to form one continuous ring.
  1. Brush the twist and the base with melted butter. Sprinkle on some sugar, raisins, spices and 2 mostaccioli. On top of this layer place the sliced peach, then top with more sugar, raisins, spices and the remaining crumbled biscuits.
  2. Preheat the oven to 180˚C. Take the last 1/3 of the dough and break it into three equal pieces. Roll the first one out thinly until it will cover the crostata. Place over the top of the filling and run a knife around the edge of the pan to remove the scraps. Brush with butter and repeat twice more with the other two balls of dough. Brush the final layer with butter and sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon.
  3. Place the crostata in the oven and cook until the pastry is golden. Do not leave it too long of the juice from the peaches will dissolve the pastry. Serve hot.


The Round-Up

The Recipe: To prepare a peach, apricot or plum crostata, from The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi

The Date: 1570

How did you make it? See above.

Time to complete?: 3 hours + time for making the mostaccioli

How successful was it?: It had a nice combination of flavours, but was a bit on the heavy side. I think that is to be expected with so many layers of a yeasted pastry, but overall I was quite happy with the way that the pastry performed. I didn’t really expect it to work! The peaches have a tendency to make the bottom rather soggy, so it’s best to use fruit that isn’t too ripe.

How accurate?: I think that it is probably closer to the original recipe than some other versions, but the recipes are so ambiguous about the way in which the twist is formed in particular that it’s hard to know what they mean.


[1] Scappi, The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570), 466.

[2] Ibid., 533–534.

[3] Ibid., 459–460.

[4] Ibid., 488–489.



Scappi, Bartolomeo. The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570). Edited by Luigi Ballerini and Massimo Ciavolella. Translated by Terence Scully. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.

A Dish of Earth Apples


IMG_5721.JPGIt’s a new year, and a new round of Historical Food Fortnightly Challenges (and of course I’m already running late!). If you missed the last one, the HFF is a series of themed challenges where you choose a historical recipe (from before 1960) and follow it as closely as you can. Of course it’s not possible to be completely accurate, modern cooks have budget constraints, modern (for the most part) kitchens, and some ingredients are impossible to find, but we do our best. If you want to find out more about the challenge, the challengers or the different themes then head to the HFF blog to read all about it.


The first challenge of the year is ‘Meat and Potatoes’, and I’ve interpreted this quite literally with a recipe for bacon and potatoes. I feel a bit bad doing this recipe after Betsy’s impassioned plea to primary sources, so Betsy I apologise in advance. The impetus for this post came from a good friend of mine who gave me William Sitwell’s A History of Food in 100 Recipes for Christmas. At number 26, tucked in between zabaglione and trifle, is a recipe for earth apples from Marx Rumpolt’s Ein new Kochbuch (1581).


“Peel and cut them small, simmer them in water and press it well out through a fine cloth; chop them small and fry them in bacon that is cut small; take a little milk there under and let it simmer therewith so it is good and well tasting.”[1]

Sitwell translates earth apples, or erdäpfel/erdtepffel in German, as potatoes and calls this recipe the earliest surviving recipe using potatoes. However, this is a very controversial claim, although maybe not for the reason you think. On blogs and message boards across the internet there is a powerful undercurrent that this recipe refers not to potatoes, but to some type of squash. The closest that I’ve come to an explanation for this comes from The Potato: A Global History when Andrew Smith claims that the German folklorist and historian Günter Wiegelmann maintains that the earth apples are a type of round squash.[2] Unfortunately, since there’s no reference for this claim and since I can’t read German I haven’t been able to follow it up any more. Dr Thomas Gloning form the University of Giessen has also cast doubt upon the potato identification when posting on message-boards, seemingly on linguistic grounds.[3] Similar references in Anna Wecker’s Ein Kostlich New Kochbuch have also been refuted.[4]


Frontispiece from Ein New Kochbuch, 1581, [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Without a clearer understanding of why these historians think that the earth apples are squash rather than potatoes it is difficult to come down on one side or the other. Yet potatoes were certainly circulating through Europe in this period, as exotic gifts and curiosities. The white potato or Solanum tuberosum were seen in the Andes by the Spaniards in 1532 and introduced to Canary Islands prior to 1567.[5] Archival research by Hawke and Francisco-Ortego has shown that potatoes were being exported from the Canary Islands to Antwerp in 1567 and Rouen in France in 1574.[6] By the 1570s and 1580s potatoes were being grown in Spain, and by late 1581 they were being grown in Germany.[7]

According to Smith, Wiegelmann describes the earliest recipe as boiled potatoes cooked simply in butter.[8] The recipe came from a letter sent in 1581 by Wilhelm IV von Hessen to the Elector of Saxony, Christian I. Gloning also quotes Wiegelmann and gives a rough translation for what seems to be the same recipe but gives the date as 1591.

“We also send to your Highness among other things a plant that we got from Italy some years ago, called Taratouphli (…) Below, at the root, there hang many tubers. If they are cooked these tubers are very good to eat. But you must first boil them in water, so that the outer shell (peeling?) gets off, then pour the cooking water away, and cook them to the point in butter.”[9]


A potato plant in flower, watercolour sent by Philippe de Sivry to Clusius in 1588. There is a better, but copyrighted, version of this picture available on the website of the Museum Plantin-Moretus. See page for author [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

These potatoes were probably the type of potato that was described by Clusius in 1601: small and smooth, with beetroot red skin, white flesh and deep eyes.[10] There appears to have been a second introduction of potatoes to England in around 1590 and a different type was described by the John Gerard in 1597, these potatoes were white, irregularly shaped with yellow flesh and deep eyes.[11] Gerard explained that the potatoes could be roasted or boiled and suggested serving them with oil, salt and pepper.[12]

Gerard_potatoes (1)

Potatoes from Gerard’s Herball – By McLeod [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

So, does Rumpolt’s recipe suggest the use of potatoes or not? I don’t think that I’ve seen enough evidence to make a clear judgement either way. Potatoes and recipes for them, or at least descriptions of how to cook them, were certainly circling through the elite circles of Europe at the time. As chef to the Elector of Mainz, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Rumpolt would have come into contact with these exotic tubers. The recipe itself is certainly more advanced than contemporary potato recipes, but uses ingredients and techniques which make sense when dealing with potatoes.


The Redaction

A Dish of Earth Apples

4 medium sized potatoes

160g bacon

Butter and oil to fry

1/2 cup of milk

Salt and pepper (optional, not listed in the original)


  1. Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Peel the potatoes and cut them into quarters. Place the potatoes in the boiling water and cook until just tender. Drain the potatoes and leave to cool a little.
  2. Heat a large frying pan over a medium-high heat and add some butter and oil. Chop the bacon into 1 cm cubes and fry until golden. Meanwhile, chop the potatoes into 1 cm cubes. Add to the bacon and fry until golden and crunchy.
  3. Lower the heat and add the milk. Simmer gently for 5 mins. Add salt and pepper if using. Serve hot.



The Round-Up

The Recipe: Erdäpfel from Marx Rumpolt’s Ein new Kochbuch (translation found in William Sitwell’s A History of Food in 100 Recipes)

The Date: 1581

How did you make it? See above.

Time to complete?: 40 mins.

How successful was it?:  A little bland, but very comforting. Warm and stodgy in the best possible way.

How accurate?: Well, potato/gourd issue aside, there are no quantities or times given so everything was a bit of guesswork. The quantity of milk in particular was hard to know. Should the potatoes be swimming in it?

[1] William Sitwell, A History of Food in 100 Recipes (New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2013), 85.

[2] Andrew Smith, Potato: A Global History (London: Reaktion Books, 2011), 53–54.

[3] Thomas Gloning, “SC – Re: 16th Century Potato Soup Recipe?,” Stefan’s Florigelium, March 27, 1999,

[4] Smith, Potato: A Global History, 54.

[5] J. G. Hawkes and J. Francisco-Ortega, “The Early History of the Potato in Europe,” Euphytica 70, no. 1–2 (January 1993): 1–7, doi:10.1007/BF00029633; J. G. Hawkes and J. Francisco-Ortega, “The Potato in Spain during the Late 16th Century,” Economic Botany 46, no. 1 (1992): 86–97.

[6] Hawkes and Francisco-Ortega, “The Early History of the Potato in Europe,” 3–5.

[7] Smith, Potato: A Global History, 24.

[8] Ibid., 53.

[9] Thomas Gloning, “SC – Help with 1650s+ Info: Potatoes (long),” Stefan’s Florigelium, February 5, 2000,

[10] Redcliffe N. Salaman, Potato Varieties (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1926), 4.

[11] Ibid., 3–5.

[12] Smith, Potato: A Global History, 54.



Gloning, Thomas. “SC – Help with 1650s+ Info: Potatoes (long).” Stefan’s Florigelium, February 5, 2000.

———. “SC – Re: 16th Century Potato Soup Recipe?” Stefan’s Florigelium, March 27, 1999.

Hawkes, J. G., and J. Francisco-Ortega. “The Early History of the Potato in Europe.” Euphytica 70, no. 1–2 (January 1993): 1–7. doi:10.1007/BF00029633.

———. “The Potato in Spain during the Late 16th Century.” Economic Botany 46, no. 1 (1992): 86–97.

Salaman, Redcliffe N. Potato Varieties. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1926.

Sitwell, William. A History of Food in 100 Recipes. New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2013.

Smith, Andrew. Potato: A Global History. London: Reaktion Books, 2011.


The Good Food Feast and a Medlar Tart

Medlar Tart, recipe from 1594

Update: For more about The Good Food Feast and even some photos of yours truly in a green and orange gown see the write up in Good Food

I have a couple of exciting things to share with you, or at least I hope you find them exciting like I do. The first is a recap of the fabulous Good Food Feast which was held in Politarchopolis (Canberra) this weekend by the Politarchopolan Assault Catering Corps. At $125 it was a bit pricier than your average SCA feast, but the Good Food Feast has been much anticipated in the 20 years since the last one, and with four courses, plenty of entertainment and souvenirs of the night we definitely got our moneys worth.

The menu was as follows:

Course the first

Stuffed eggs

Smoked pressed beef tongue

Pickled vegetables

Freshly baked pretzels

Course the second

Baked salmon, served on rye crackers

Oysters with lemon

Golden scallops

Roast goose with green garlic sauce

Course the third

Quail and pigeon pies

Veal with berry sauce

White sausage and pickled cabbage

Pea fritters with garlic sauce


Plum tarts

A warm Malavosia Pear tart

Spanish pastry pillows

A selection of fine hand-formed Politarchopolan cheeses, with crisp Gouda biscuits.


Homemade cordials

Red or white wine

Red or white hypocras

Homebrewed beer

The highlights were the scallops – a perfectly sculpted sugarpaste shell containing an almond milk and rosewater leach, and an orange marzipan – and the warm pear tart which was my favourite dish of the evening. Special mention also goes to the homemade cheeses, the small bird pies, and the soft, salty pretzels which were served on sticks just as depicted in period paintings.

Scallop Subtletie

Scallop Subtletie – an edible sugarpaste shell with an almondmilk and rosewater leach and orange marzipan.

As good as the food was, the real triumph of the evening was in creating the experience of a feast. The team had thought of everything, from wall hangings to scented water to wash our hands with. This attention to detail carried over to the place settings which became our keepsakes for the evening, along with a unique, hand-painted, sugarpaste plate.

My beautiful, hand-painted, sugarpaste plate

Unfortunately, I don’t have many photos of the actual event, but I will try to link some when I can. In the meantime, a couple of weeks ago I managed to acquire some more medlars from a friend who has a tree in the Blue Mountains.

The Recipe

Since my last encounter, I have been looking forward to trying a medlar tart. With my medlars well bletted, I set to work using the recipe ‘To make a tarte of Medlers’ from Thomas Dawson’s ‘The Good Housewife’s Handmaide for the Kitchin’, published in 1594.

To make a tarte of Medlers.

Take medlers that be rotten, and strain them then set them on a chafing dish of coals, and beat it in two yolks of eggs, and let it boil till it be somewhat thicken season it with cinnamon, ginger, and sugar, and lay it in paste.[1]

As you can read about over at the Pilgrim Seasonings blog, this recipe is the earliest of a number of nearly identical recipes published in 16th and 17th century cookbooks.

Medlar Tart, recipe from 1594

The Redaction

This is a really easy tart to make, if a bit time consuming, and once again you can always make it even faster by buying shortcrust pastry although there’s something very satisfying about making your own. Feel free to use your favourite pastry recipe if you would rather, or to find a hot water crust recipe as that seems to be the type used in the original cookbook. I used a 24cm pan and didn’t pre-bake the shell, but I would if I was doing it again and have included instructions to do that.

To Make a Medlar Tart

For the pastry:

335g flour

100g butter, chilled and cut into 1cm cubes

1/2 + 1/8 cup of water

1 egg yolk

For the filling:

1 kg medlars

2 egg yolks, beaten

3 spoons sugar

1 1/4 tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp ginger

  1. Heat the oven to 180C. Mound the flour in a bowl and rub in the butter until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add the egg yolk and enough water to make a smooth, pliable dough. Roll out the dough and line your pie tin with it. Prick the base with a fork, line the crust with baking paper and fill it with pie beads, dry rice or uncooked lentils and bake it for 15-20 mins.
  2. Remove the flesh from the medlars by squeezing the pointy end and pushing out the flesh. Push the flesh through a sieve to get rid of the seeds and any fibrous bits.
  3. Place the sieved medlars into a saucepan over medium heat and stir in the egg yolks. Bring to the boil and cook for 5-10 minutes or until it thickens somewhat. Stir in the sugar and spices and cook for another 5 minutes.
  4. Pour the filling into the pre-baked pie shell and smooth the top. Bake for 40 mins or until the filling has solidified.

Medlar Tart, recipe from 1594

The Round-Up

The Recipe: Medler Tart from ‘The good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin’ (available here)

The Date:1594

How did you make it?: See above.

Time to complete?: About 1.5 hrs.

How successful was it?: It tasted and looked quite a lot like pumpkin pie. It wasn’t overly sweet and was pleasantly spiced.

How accurate?: I used a shortcrust pastry rather than a hot water crust which is the type of pastry referred to in the book, and the lack of quantities makes it hard to know how close I really got to the original.


[1] Thomas Dawson, The Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin (Imprinted at London by Richard Jones, 1594),

Historical Kitchens in Scotland

So as some of you know I have been traveling around Europe for the past couple of months. During my travels I have come across historical kitchens of all shapes and sizes and covering about four centuries. Since not everyone has a medieval castle just around the corner I thought I might share some of the pictures that I have taken. First up, two very different dwellings from Scotland.


Provand’s Lordship is the oldest house in Glasgow. Built in 1471 as part of St. Nicholas’ hospital, it later became the house of the Lord of the Prebend of Barlanark and the furnishings reflect this later 18th century period of occupation. Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of the main cooking fireplace but you can see a good picture of it on the website here.



A small fireplace and griddle.

A small fireplace and griddle.

The dining room, with 18th century furnishings.

The dining room, with 18th century furnishings.

An 18th century dresser with pewter and wooden tableware.

An 18th century dresser with pewter and wooden tableware.

The back of Provand's Lordship and part of the herb garden which would have provided medicinal herbs for the hospital across the road.

The back of Provand’s Lordship and part of the herb garden which would have provided medicinal herbs for the hospital across the road.


The second lot of pictures comes from the spectacularly positioned Dunnottar Castle in Aberdeenshire. Although the promontory has been in use since Pictish times the majority of the buildings which can be seen today date between the 14th and 17th centuries, including the kitchens which are housed in the lower levels of the Palace. Construction of the palace began in the latter half of the 16th century with a basement level for the kitchens and accommodation and living areas above.

Dunnottar Castle

The kitchens are comprised of a number of rooms, some with specific functions and others probably for storage and preparation. At the far end of the kitchen range is an enormous fireplace which would have been the central focus of the kitchen, used for roasting and boiling. The most striking thing, however, is the gloom. The windows, where they existed, where tiny and although fires would have helped a bit, the effect of the smoke must have been absolutely suffocating!


The bread oven at Dunnottar Castle.

The bread oven at Dunnottar Castle.

The entrance of the bread oven at Dunnottar Castle. The fire would be lit inside the oven to heat the surrouding stone, then once the desired temperature was reached the fire would be raked out and the bread quickly put in. The bread cooked thanks to the heat from the stones, and as they cooled a succession of items could be cooked with bread first followed by pies and more delicate items which needed a cooler oven.

The entrance of the bread oven at Dunnottar Castle. The fire would be lit inside the oven to heat the surrouding stone, then once the desired temperature was reached the fire would be raked out and the bread quickly put in. The bread cooked thanks to the heat from the stones, and as they cooled a succession of items could be cooked with bread first followed by pies and more delicate items which needed a cooler oven.

Pit for brewing, I think that a large cauldron would be placed on top of the stone walls and a fire lit underneath. Weak beer was safe to drink and provided a large proportion of the average person's daily calories and nutrients.

Pit for brewing, I think that a large cauldron would be placed on top of the stone walls and a fire lit underneath. Weak beer was safe to drink and provided a large proportion of the average person’s daily calories and nutrients.

Again, possibly ovens?

Ovens? *Probably not ovens, see the comments below. 

The well which provided fresh water for all the residents and workshops inside the castle walls.

The well which provided fresh water for all the residents and workshops inside the castle walls.


Apologies for the quality of the pictures, the lighting was not good at all in the cellars! I hope you enjoyed the pictures, there are lots more to come once I get myself organised.


Not So Subtle

Having made my marchpane as the basis for my subtletie (you can read about the process here) the next step was to turn it into an elaborate confection representing my medieval re-enactment group The College of St Ursula. Our official symbol is a bear but we also have a strong connection with carrots, so I wanted to incorporate those two elements into my subtletie. A popular type of subtletie involved making an animal look like it was still alive, so as a twist on the iconic subtletie of a boar’s head eating an apple I decided to make a bear’s head with a carrot in its mouth.


The tradition of processing a boar’s head at Yuletide goes back centuries, and the classic image forms the basis of my subtletie. By St. J. Gilbert, Christmas Supplement to the Illustrated London News, 1855. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Process

First I had to make the sugar-paste, so I turned to this redaction of a sugar-paste recipe based on Thomas Dawson’s Good Hus-wiues Iewell. I used this recipe partially because it avoided the use of raw egg-white which makes a lot of people nervous, and since I didn’t know who would be eating it I thought it would be safer to just not use it. I also had a limited supply of gum tragacanth (known in period as gum dragon) which is what gives the icing its strength and, without time to order more if it went wrong, it seemed safest to start with a well-tested recipe. Unfortunately, disaster ensued. As I have since learned, the protein of the egg-whites is actually extremely important for strength, and without them the sugar-paste could not hold its shape. By morning the head had spread sideways, lost its shape and the surface had cracked. It was back to the drawing-board.



The first attempt at sugar-paste. The icing wasn't strong enough to hold it's shape and cracked horribly.

The first attempt at sugar-paste. The icing wasn’t strong enough to hold it’s shape and cracked horribly.

This time I found an article by Lady Deirdre O’Bardon[1] that referred to Barbara Wheaton’s redaction of a recipe by Alexis of Piedmont [2]. Wheaton’s redaction contained egg-whites and called for the mixture to be rested at several points which tallied with what I had read about improving the strength of the paste. I mixed it all together, using the rest of my gum tragacanth and, although it felt much softer than modern fondant, the combination of pre-soaking the gum and then resting overnight produced an excellent, malleable paste. The only thing that I was unhappy with were the lumps of gum which didn’t dissolve properly. This could probably have been avoided by whisking the liquids in more slowly or possibly even sieving the lumps out before adding the sugar.


The basic shape formed (I removed those eyes and did the texturing with sugar before adding them back again).

The basic shape formed (I removed those eyes and did the texturing with sugar before adding them back again).

The next morning I coloured about 2/3 of the paste brown, leaving the rest aside for the carrots and detailing. Forming a smooth ball of sugar-paste I rolled one end into a flattish cone to form the nose and indented the eye sockets with my thumbs. I then cut open the mouth and placed a pencil into his mouth to keep it open while it dried and pinched some of the extra icing to form the ears before leaving the bear to dry for 24 hrs.


I covered the bear in a dark coloured icing and sugar which I coloured brown.

I covered the bear in a dark coloured icing and sugar which I coloured brown.

Once the bear was dry to the touch I added some of the extra white sugar-paste to the backs of the bear’s ears, building it up until I found the shape and thickness which I wanted. To make the bear more realistic I slathered him all over (except for the eyes and the front of the ears) in a simple icing mix of icing sugar, water and brown food colouring before sprinkling with dyed sugar (place raw sugar in a zip-lock back with food colouring and shake until evenly coloured). After the icing had dried I added more white sugar paste to the inside of the ears and rolled balls of icing to make the eyes. With the remaining sugar paste coloured orange I formed little carrots, rolling small balls into cones and gently impressing the sides with a sharp knife. I then used a skewer to make a small hole in the top and inserted small strips of green glacé cherries as stalks. These were left to dry for several hours.


The carrots made out of the extra sugar-paste, with stalks of glacé cherry.

The carrots made out of the extra sugar-paste, with stalks of glacé cherry.

To put it all together, I used a little more simple icing mix to stick the bear head to the marchpane. I surrounded it with sprigs of rosemary and arranged the small carrots on top, placing one into his mouth too of course.


Mr. Bear in all his glory. Photo courtesy of Charlie Murray.

The Recipe

Alexis of Piemont’s 1595 recipe To make a paiste of Suger, whereof a manne maie make all maner of fruites, and other fine thinges with their forme, as Platters, Dishes, Glasses, Cupps, and such like thinges, wherewith you maie furnishe a table: and when you have doen, eate them up. A pleasant thing for them that sitte at the table.


“Take gumme Dragant as much as you will, and seepe it in rose water, untill it bee mollified. And for fouwer ounces of suger take of it the bigness of a beane, the iuice of Limons a Walnut shell full, and a little of the white of anne egge; but you must first take the gum, and beate it to much with a pestell, in a morter of white marble, or of brasse, untill it become like water, then putte to it the iuice, with the white of the Egge incorporated well together. This doen take fower unces of fine white suger well beaten to powder, and cast into the morter by little and little, untill all be tourned into the forme of past. Then take it out of the saied morter, and braie it upon the powder of Suger, as it were meale or flwre, untill all bee soft paiste, to the ende you maie torne it and fashion it, which way you wil. When you have brought your paiste to this forme, spreade it abroade with sinamon upon greate or small leaves, as you shall think it good, and so shall you forme, and make what things you will, as is aforesaid: with such fine knackes as maie serve a table, taking heede that there stande no hot thing nigh unto it. At the end of the banket, they maie eate all & breake the platters, dishes, cuppes, and all thinges: For this paiste is verie delicate and savourous. If you will make a thing of more finesse than this, make a tarte of Almndes, stamped with suger and rose water, of like sorte that Marchpaines, bee made of. This shale you laie betweene twoo pastes of such vesselles, or fruites or some other thing as you thinke good.”[3]


Although I primarily used recipe from Alexis of Piedmont, I noticed that in Hugh Platt’s recipe to make sugar-paste he encourages the addition of starch to the powdered sugar which helps it to pass through the sieve. This is essentially the same as modern icing sugar mixture, and means that the sieving becomes almost unnecessary.


My Redaction


Elizabethan Sugar-paste


Adapted from Savouring the Past by Barbara Ketcham Wheaton


2 tsp powdered gum tragacanth

2 tsp rosewater

2 tbsp lemon juice

2 egg whites

4 cups of sifted icing sugar mixture (contains cornstarch as an anti-caking agent)

Gel food colouring as desired


1. Mix the gum tragacanth with the rosewater to form a gum. Leave for at least two hours.

2. Slowly whisk the lemon juice and egg white into the gum, trying to make it as smooth as possible.

3. Mix in the sugar gradually until it forms a dough, kneading the sugar in once the dough becomes too stiff to stir.      Knead until all the sugar is incorporated and it is no longer sticky, adding extra sugar if necessary. Wrap in plastic wrap and leave at room temperature overnight.

4. Knead the food colouring into the paste, a few drops as a time. Shape into fruit, animals, plates etc as desired. For instructions on forming the bear, see above.


[1] Lady Deirdre O’Bardon, “Fun W Sugar Art,” Stefan’s Florilegium, February 15, 2011,

[2] Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789 (Simon and Schuster, 2011), 246–247.

[3] Girolamo Ruscelli, The Secrets of the Reverent Maister Alexis of Piemont: Containing Excellent Remedies against Diverse Diseases, Wounds, and Other Accidents, with the Maner to Make Distillations, Parfumes, Confitures, Dying, Colours, Fusions, and Meltings … (London: P. Short for T. Wight, 1595), 61–62.