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Period-Pies-art - 9/29/97


"Raising a Coffin or the Fine Art of Making Period Pies." by Lady Aoife Finn.


NOTE: See also the files: pies-msg, meat-pies-msg, fruit-pies-msg, flour-msg, desserts-msg, sugar-msg, To-Mke-A-Tart-art, fruits-msg, yeasts-msg.





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                               Thank you,

                                    Mark S. Harris

                                    AKA:  Stefan li Rous

                                         stefan at florilegium.org



Raising a Coffin


the Fine Art of Making Period Pies.

by Lady Aoife Finn



Customer: "Want to play Hole in the Pie?"


Lady of the evening: "Have you got a big enough sausage?"




        Dirty jokes aside, pies have been around for centuries, as has the old chestnut above. It is a quite modern practice to put the filling (mixed together in a bowl first) in a pie plate lined with pastry and add a pastry crust on top. Historically, pies were meant to stand alone, either in the form of pasties or literally as a small tower of the cook's achievement. In fact, their ornamentation frequently prevented them from having anything touching the sides

during baking.


        We have come to expect huge servings from our modern pies, mostly because modern cooks use fillers and gravies to economise. During the middle ages, however, the pie fillings were generally just barely moistened before cooking, and a good jelling stock poured into them  once they were cooked. Thus, a six-inch round pie would provide six servings, and could easily weigh three to four pounds. The meat and other ingredients inside were concentrated and heavy, and the pastry dense. These pies could be kept for several days in the larder, since they were equally delicious hot or cold. Not all pies were tiny, however. The Newcastle Chronicle of 6 January 1770 states:


    "Monday Last was brought from Howick to Berwick, to be shipp'd to London for Sir Hen. Grey, bart., a pie, the contents whereof are as follows: viz. 2 bushels of flour, 20 lbs of butter, 4 geese, 2 turkies, 2 rabbits, 4 wild ducks, 2 woodcocks, 6 snipes, and 4 partridges; 2 neat's tongues, 2 curlews, 7 blackbirds, and six pigeons; it is supposed a very great curiosity, was made by Mrs. Dorothy Patterson, Housekeeper at Howick. It was near nine feet at circumference at bottom, weighs about twelve stones, will take two men to present it at table; it is neatly fitted with a case, and four small wheels to facilitate its use to every guest that inclines to partake of its contents at table."       


        This pie must have been made in stages, for no pastry could have been kept as long in the oven as this pie must have spent baking. Very probably it was baked in a rough crust (or several, or no crust at all), the final presentation crust being applied at the last minute. Imagine the amount of stock needed to moisten it!


        Pie ingredients are as varied as the cooks who make them. Generally, however, one rarely saw beef amongst the ingredients. Pork, wild game (including venison, pheasants, hare, and any number of wild birds), domestic fowls, sausage, and the odd anchovy or oyster were the most frequent ingredients. The bones of the above ingredients were boiled with high seasoning while the pie was baking. This produced a rich stock guaranteed to gel when cold. As the pie and the stock cooled together, there was no problem pouring the half-gelled stock into the vent hole in the center of the pie. The stock would then saturate the meat, making it moist, and the excess would form a layer of aspic. The meat was then sealed from exposure to the air, and the pie would keep for several days in a cool place. The resulting pie, though heavy, would be moist and juicy inside, and very savory due to the incorporation of the stock within the meat.    


        There is an art form to making a free-standing "coffin". An excerpt from Two Fifteenth Century Cookbooks (Thomas Austin, ed. Oxford University Press, 1964), admonishes:


    "And then close thi coffyn with a lydde of the same paast, And putte hit in the oven, And late hit bake ynogh; but be ware, or thou close hit, that there come no saffron nygh the brinkes there-of, for then hit will never close."


        No doubt every cook had his "secret". There is really no secret to "raising" a pie crust, however. First we need to examine the ingredients to be used:


        1 lb(2 cups)   Flour

        1 tsp.          Salt

        1/2 lb.              Lard, or the preferred Butter (or 1/4 each)

        1/4 pint(1/2 cup)Boiling water, or milk and water.


Some notes on the ingredients:

Flour: Use ordinary baking flour, sifted once if necessary.

Salt: This exists as a dough conditioner, (not a "taste" ingredient) and is also necessary for its preservative qualities if the pie is to keep for any length of time.


Lard or Butter: Either is period. Lard is easier to work with but many dislike it's taste. Butter, on the other hand tastes good and hardens more firmly than lard (thereby making a sturdier crust. If you doubt me, then try putting a stick of each in the fridge for an hour, then testing them). If price is a consideration, try some of each. Do not substitute shortening or any other vegetable product, especially corn oil margarine. The dough will be too soft.

Water or Milk: Water is perfectly acceptable on its own. Addition of milk will make for a richer looking crust when finished baking.




        Rub a tablespoon of the butter (lard) into the flour and salt with your fingertips. Take the remaining butter (lard), and add it to the liquid. Heat the liquid over med. heat until it just breaks a boil, and the butter (lard) is melted. Make a well in the flour, dump in the liquid and melted fat, and stir quickly with a wooden spoon to combine. Cover with a cloth to keep it warm, and let the dough rest for 10 minutes or so in a warm place. Now comes the hard part.


                              Raising Your Coffin


        There are three basic methods to forming the coffin: the pat-a-cake method, the molding method, and the rope method. I have been unable to determine if any of these are not period methods. Let's examine each of them in turn.  


Pat-a-cake: Pinch off two thirds of the very warm dough. Reserve the remaining third for the lid, in a bowl with a cloth covering it. We will aim for a six-inch base, with sides approx. 4-5 inches high. Pat the dough into a circle. With knuckles, thumbs, palms, and any other means possible, mold the dough into a bowl shape or cylinder. Splay out the top edges slightly. Try to give the base a slightly wider circumference that the top, but only slightly. Pottery classes will come in handy here.


The Lid: Roll the remaining dough into a circle. Flatten out into a  seven inch circle. Cut a one inch circle in the center. If you have any excess dough, use it to decorate the lid or sides with rosettes, leaves, vines, etc. Score the bottoms of these with a fork, and moisten, then attach to a scored section of the lid. When the pie has been filled, moisten the edges of the base. Put the lid on top. Pinch the edges together. Using a small knife or kitchen shears, cut small, inch deep cuts into the edges, making an even number, all around the edge. Fold every other "notch" down, to make a crenelated edge. Pinch the crenelations to ensure they stay down.  


Rope Method: Use 1/3 of the dough to make a 6 inch flat circle. Use a further 1/3 of the dough to form a long rope. Coil the rope around the edge of the circle, building upon itself, and smoothing the joins. Make a lid as directed above.


Molding Method: Find a jar or flat bottomed bowl of approx the correct circumference. Using 2/3 of the dough recipe, mold the warm dough around the vessel, then carefully twist and slide off. Splay out the top edge slightly. Make the lid as directed above.



        Following are a collection of recipes. Some I have tested, some I have not. Those tested will appear in modern terms, with source noted. Those not tested will appear in period language.       Modern pie eating has spoiled our palates. We expect pap smeared in pastry. The ancients would have rightly called our pies "tarts". As late as the 17oo's, short-crust was reserved for fruit pies, then called tarts, which were baked in pie tins or tart tins. True pie eaters know to expect dense, savory fillings, and the heavy crust need not be eaten if it is not liked. The odd bone may make it's way into a pie. If you're expecting it, then there's no need to worry. Meat pies were the meat-and-potatoes of former generations.


               Parma Tarts  (Taillevant, #180)                1/5/95

8-10 servings.

One 1 lb. recipe Pie dough stiff enough to stand on it's own.

                                      (suitable to make a "coffin")

Fine Powder:

3 tsp ginger

3/4 tsp cinnamon

3/4 tsp. sugar

1/3 tsp. each cloves ground, grain of paradise ground (or substitute pepper, paprika and cardomom in eaqual measures)


Meat filling:

3 lbs roast pork, veal or mutton, cooked rare.

2 tbsp lard or butter

1/2 cup black currants

1/2 cup pine nuts, ground to a paste or substitute almond paste.

1 tbsp. sugar

2-3 thin slices of above roast, or 2-3 chicken leg quarters, roasted.



2 egg yolks, beaten


Prepare the pie dough, and form in to a large round "crenelated" pie. There will be no lid, so use all the dough to form the base. The sides should project well above the filling, once filled.


Finely chop the meat, mix in the spices, and fry a few minutes in the lard or butter to blend flavors. While hot mix in the nut paste and currants.


Fill the pie with the meat mixture, strew sugar on top, and bake until the dough is cooked, about 45 minutes, at 375 degrees. You may tie or pin a collar of waxed paper or foil around the sides of the pie to help retain its shaped, if desired.


When cooked, lay the meat slices or chicken leg quarters on top of the pie. Their sole purpose is to create enough surface tension that a small flag inserted into the pie will be able to stand on it's own. Gild the meat\chicken with the egg yolk, returning to the oven and re-paint as needed. Do not brown the egg yolk. Bake only until it is set, a few minutes.


If desired (as Taillevant intended), insert a small flag honoring the arms of the kingdom or certain lords present into the pie, and serve your mini-castle forth!


Notes on the recipe: There is no mention of salt in the original. This pie really needs it! It should also be approached with the mind set of minced meat, the old fashioned kind. One other note: the filling would be improved with the addition of 2 tbsp.lemon juice. While not faithful to the original, the flavor is improved for modern palates. This pie is extremely solid and filling. It is unusual in that the ingredients are mixed first, then put into the coffin. This was not the accepted practice in the 14th century, and I imagine the reason was economy. We are deceived by the layer of meat on top, and do not expect a hash of leftovers underneath! 



To Make a Pie of Humbles   Good Huswife's Jewel Thomas Dawson, 1596



Take your humbles being perboiled, and choppe them verye small with a good quantity of Mutton sewet, and halfe a handful of hearbes following, time, margarom, borage, perseley, and a little rosemary, and season the same being choped, with pepper, cloves and mace, and so close your pye and bake him.



Fidget Pie (or, Fitchett, after the slang for apple)

                                             Farmhouse recipes, Reader's digest,

                                             London, 1980


1 lb. lean sausage meat (sage-based) or small lamb chops (boned if

                                      you desire, not necessary)

12 oz. lean bacon, diced

2 large onions, peeled and sliced

3 large tart apples peeled, cored, and sliced thinly

2 tsp. sugar

1/2 tsp. dried thyme

salt and pepper

1/2 pint good stock

1 lb. recipe (that is, using 1 lb. flour) "coffin" pastry.


Form the base of the pie. Put in the sausage meat (lamb), then the onion, the bacon, and finally the apple. Sprinkle with seasonings and sugar. Put on the lid of the pie, decorate as desired, with 1 inch hole cut in center of lid.


Bake on a tray in a 350 degree oven approx. 1 hour 15 minutes. Use a band of wax paper or foil to help pie keep it's shape if desired. Cover edges of pie with paper or foil to keep from burning if necessary.


Remove from oven, and use a small funnel to pour cooled stock into the hole in the pie. Do not over fill. Serve pie warm or cold. An excellent pie, very savory.



Forfar Bridies

*Bridies were invented in the 1870's by a Forfar baker, Mr. Jolly. They are period in intent, however. Pasties have been a staple of cooking ever since food was needed to travel!


Oven 425--serves four

1 lb. rump roast (rump for best flavor!)

1 small onion, diced

1 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. pepper

1/4 tsp. mustard powder

1 lb. pastry dough

3 oz. suet

1 egg, beaten


Cut meat into small pieces cut from thin strips. add onion and seasoning, mix well.


Form pastry into four 1/4 inch thick rounds or ovals. Divide filling amongst the ovals, placing on one side only of each oval. Divide suet amongst the portions.  Moisten edges of pastry, fold over to make half-moons, sealing well. Crimp edges with fingers or a fork. Brush with beaten egg, cut a small vent hole in each. Bake at 425 degrees 15 minutes, then lower temp. to 350, and bake a further hour.  


Stargazy Pie                        Farmhouse cookery



This pie is blatantly not period. At least, I can't find anything similar in period. I could not help including it, however, because it is just the sort of fanciful but authentic thing our ancestors would have enjoyed. (I know, that smacks of the old "If they'd have had it, they would have used it" theory. All I can say is, you read the recipe, then see for yourself). For those of you who avoid fish at all costs, all I can say is that you must never have had a truly fresh piece of fish. Like any fish recipe, eat this one immediately. Fish ripens as it stands.


8 pilchards

salt and pepper

1 large onion peeled and chopped

2 heaped tsp. chopped fresh herbs (a good mixture)

8 rashers of lean bacon

1/4 tsp. saffron filaments

6 tbsp. milk

3/4 lb. "coffin" pastry


Clean and bone the fish, leaving the heads intact. Season their insides. Mix onion and herbs , and put a little in each fish.

Cut bacon rashers in half. Put saffron in the milk and bring to a boil. Remove from heat to infuse while preparing pastry.



Use 2/3 of pastry to form bottom of a wide, shallow pie. Place on a greased baking sheet. Scatter pie with any left-over herb mixture. Lay fish in pie so that their heads protrude past edges (Gazing at the stars!)Tuck bacon between the fish. Form the lid of pie, this time without the hole in the middle. Place over fish, leaving heads exposed. Seal. Brush with saffron milk. Bake in 400 degree oven about 15 minutes, then lower heat to 350 degrees and cook a further 30-40 minutes, until pastry has browned.


Why leave the heads on, but sticking out of the pie? It's simple. really. No one wants to eat the heads, but the oil they contain will drain back into the pie if they are left on. Cut them off after baking, if they offend.


Game Pie                            The Cookery of England, Elizabeth Ayreton

                                             Penguin Books, London 1977

Revised                             Serves 4-6        Oven 300 degrees


2 partridges (or 1 partridge and another game bird, chicken or pheasant)


1 oz butter

1 large onion

2 slices bacon

1 pint good stock

1/2 lb. lean steak or veal

sprig of thyme

bay leaf

pepper and salt

2 hardboiled eggs

1/4 lb mushrooms

2/3 lb "coffin"Pastry

1/3 lb "coffin Pastry reserved for later (lid)

Joint the birds, cut up onion, and fry all in the butter until lightly browned. Cut veal or steak into 1 inch pieces, and bacon into 1/2 inch strips.


Raise the base of the pie pastry with 2/3 of the pastry, reserving 1/3 for the lid. Splay edges outwards and "notch" for crenelation. Fold 1/2 the notches down.Put the veal or steak in the bottom. Put in the birds and onion, mushrooms (raw), and herbs and spices to taste. Moisten with stock. Cover with foil, bake in the oven until tender (1 hour).


Remove and allow to cool. Put in hard boiled eggs(whole, peeled, nestled amongst other ingredients). Pour stock in to within 1 inch of top of meat. Moisten edges of pastry base.Cover with a pastry lid. Decorate with leftover pastry. Match lid "notches" to the notches on the base. Bake in 400 degree oven 20 minutes, then reduce temp to 250 degrees and cook another 15 minutes. Remove, let cool. Serve cold.


To make a Mutton Pye after the French fafhian:  Mrs. McLintock's Receipts for Cookery and Pastry-work (Scotland's first published cook-book circa 1736, reprinted faithfully by Aberdeen University Press, 1986).


Take a Leg of Mutton, mince it fmall, to every lib. of Meat take half a lib. of Beef-fewet, mince it fmall, 2 Nutmegs, a littl Pepper and Cloves and Mace beaten in, a lib. of Currans to every lib. of Meat, a few fweet Herbs fheared fmall, fweet Marjory, Thyme, Winter Savory, the Yolk of 6 Eggs, mix all together with a little Salt, make them up in Balls as big as Turkey-Eggs, lay them in the Pye with good ftore of fweet Butter, fo clofe up the Pye and fend it to the oven.


**This actually sounds quite good. I'm not a big fan of mutton. Perhaps beef would suffice!


To make a Friday Pye   (Lady Castlehill's Receipt Book, circa late 1600's-early 1700's, in two hands, not published until 1976 by Hamish Whyte and the Moledinar Press, Glasgow. Not a faithful reproduction. Punctuation was changed, and modern typeface used. The bulk of the Manuscript was not published.)


Boil 5 Eggs very hard, and mince them exceedingly small, then mixe a quarter of a pound of Suet, 6 Dates some new Raisons stoned, mixe these together wih Currans salt, sugar, and Spices with a little rosewater, and so bake your Pye. If you please you put it between two sheets of Paste, anf fry it in a frying pan.


To Make A Cheftnut Pye (Mrs. McClintock's Receipt Book, as above)


Take 2 dozen of Apples, 100 Chefnuts, a lib. of Almonds, 2 lib. of Currans, half a lib. of Rafins, half a lib. of Sugar, half an Ounce of Cinnamon, 3 Drop of Nutmeg, a Quarter of a lib. of Cordecidron, as much Orange-peel; flice your Apples, fkin the Chefnuts, and blanche the Almonds, put a layer of Appls in the Bottom of the Pye, put a Layer of Chefnuts, a Layer of Almonds, Curransm Raifins, Cordecidron, Orange-peil and Spices; Give it good ftore of fweet Butter on the Top, then put on the Lid, and fend it to the oven; when 'tis near fired, pour in a Mutchkin of white Wine at the Lumb.


(Lumb is a vent or funnel in a pie. Mutchkin is .212 litres or 2.996 gills, if that actually helps!)



References used in preparation for this work, in no particular order:


Mrs. McLintock's Receipts For Cookery and Pastry Work, Introduction and Glossary by Iseabail Macleod, 1736, 1986 Aberdeen University Press, Aberdeen, Scotland, Great Britain. An excellent and faithful source, with recipes easily interpreted.  Some funny variatins in printing, making copying the text a typist's nightmare! This is the first printed Scottish resource available. A close second would be the following:


Lady Castlehill's Receipt Book, 1976, Hamish Whyte Ed., Scolar/Molendinar Press, Glasgow, Scotland. The language is original, the spelling and punctuation slightly changed for the modern reader. This is really a coffee-table book in disguise as a period resource. The only recipes included were the ones the editor was fairly sure a modern audience would find either amusing or useful. The bulk of the MS remains unreproduced, in the Edinburgh Central Reference Library.


Seven Centuries of English Cooking, McKendry, Maxine, under the pen-name Maxime de la Falaise, 1973 Grove Press, New York. Her interpretations of period recipes work well but are not necessarily what I feel the original cooks intended the dish to represent. However, she cites sources, gives, dates, and names names. A great deal of effort went into this book.


The Cookery of England, Ayreton, Elisabeth 1977 Penguin Books. This book, by the widow of the well known author Michael Ayreton, is penned by a woman after my own heart. She read English and Archaeology at Nwenham College in Cambridge. I feel we can trust her interpretations of recipes. I wish, as a secondary source, we had a greater peek at the originals. Highly reccomended.


Le Viander de Taillevent, Second edition, English Translation 1989, James Prescott, Alfarhaugr Publishing Society, Eugene, Oregon. A Faithful representation of the famous manuscript, translated into English from the Original French. An insightful look at fanciful court cookery.


Farm House Cookery, Recipes from the Country Kitchen,1980, Reader's Digest Ass'n Ltd., London, Great Britain. Definately derivative, but none the less, useful rendition of cooking from the middle ages to Victorian times. Here again, I wish I'd seen the originals, but a very handy and to my mind misnamed volume.


The Good Huswife's Jewel, Dawson, Thomas, 1596, re-printed by Falconwood Press, Albany, NY. A faithful reproduction of the original. Must Have!



Questions? Comments? Contact me! Lady Aoife Finn, Lisbeth Herr-Gelatt, RR 1 Box 500F Honesdale, PA 18431.(717)253-6228, before 10.  


Copyright 1996 by Lisbeth Herr-Gelatt. Permission granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided author is credited and receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in

the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also

appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being

reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org