Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Pies for Preservation

In the fall what is better than to make, eat and talk about pie.  Not just sweet dessert pies but what about savory dinner pies.  Eating pie as part of a meal is a very old tradition. 
The origins of pie can loosely be traced back to the ancient Egyptians. The bakers to the pharaohs incorporated nuts, honey and fruits in bread dough, an early form of pastry. Drawings of this can be found etched on the tomb walls of Ramses II.  But mainly the Greeks are given credit for originating pie pastry. Pies during this period were made using a flour-water paste wrapped around meat, which served as a container to cook the meat and seal in the juices.  The Romans, sampling the delicacy, carried home recipes. The wealthy and educated Romans used various types of meat in every course of the meal, including the dessert course. The pie spread throughout Europe, via the Roman roads, where every country adapted the recipes to their customs and foods.1
By the Middle Ages these pastries are named for the French word for basket or case, “coffin/coffyn”.  The pastry itself is the container and baking dish for the contents not necessarily for eating.  The coffin crust is mostly what is now called a standing crust or hot water crust.  This means the crust is thick and can support it’s own weight.  The hot water method of melting the fat and adding it to the flour mixture means the crust will be thick and similar consistency to playdough for building up the walls that will support the pie and hold the lid.  Here is a recipe for hot water crust from the 16th century. 
The Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchen, 1588. 

To make Paste, and to raise Coffins. Take fine flower, and lay it on a boord, and take a certaine of yolkes of Egges as your quantitie of flower is, then take a certaine of Butter and water, and boil them together, but ye must take heed ye put not too many yolks of Egges, for if you doe, it will make it drie and not pleasant in eating: and yee must take heed ye put not in too much Butter for if you doe, it will make it so fine and short that you cannot raise. And this paste is good to raise all manner of Coffins: Likewise if ye bake Venison, bake it in the paste above named. 2       

The contents of these pies were a wonderful mix of sweet and sour.  Spices, citrus juice or verjuice (sour grape) and sugar along with dried fruit and preserved or cooked meat.  A meal for everyday or a luxury for a banquet depending on the meats, fruits and spices used.  For a banquet the idea was to present a centerpiece or ‘subteltie’ at the table which was part entertainment and part show.  The foods presented at the king’s or aristocrat’s table were suppose to wow the guests, disguised in ornamental ways.  This could mean having a stuffed bird on the pie or the pie pastry shaped to look like the animal inside.  In the 16th century it was popular to have live birds fly out of large pies as in the nursery rhymn “Sing a Song of sixpence – four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.”  Here is an English translation of an Italian recipe from Epulario (The Italian Banquet), published in 1598, the following is written on making this type of surprise pie:

 To Make Pie That the Birds May Be Alive In them and Flie Out When It Is Cut Up – Make the coffin of a great pie or pastry, in the bottome thereof make a hole as big as your fist, or bigger if you will, let the sides of the coffin bee somwhat higher then ordinary pies, which done put it full of flower and bake it, and being baked, open the hole in the bottome, and take out the flower. Then having a pie of the bigness of the hole in the bottome of the coffin aforesaid, you shal put it into the coffin, withall put into the said coffin round about the aforesaid pie as many small live birds as the empty coffin will hold, besides the pie aforesaid. And this is to be at such time as you send the pie to the table, and set before the guests: where uncovering or cutting up the lid of the great pie, all the birds will flie out, which is to delight and pleasure shew to the company. And because they shall not bee altogether mocked, you shall cut open the small pie, and in this sort you may make many others, the like you may do with a tart.3
Note the stuffed bird on top of the pie which is most likely made with the meat of that bird. 

In the late 19th century the sprung metal pie form was invented and raised pies became popular again.  These useful molds were sold by braziers and kitchen equipment retailers, who marketed a great variety of designs.  Because of the support the metal form afforded the pie during baking, it was possible to use a finer edible pastry than the old fashioned inedible hot water crust which had been used since medieval times.  Here is an interesting recipe from Agnes B. Marshall “Cookery Book”, 1880:

Prepare a raised pie paste, and with it line a No. 2 size French raised pie mould to scarcely a quarter of an inch thick; then prepare a farce or mince as follows: Take then ounces of veal, twelve ounces of fresh pork, and chop very fine, or pass twice through a mincing machine; season with coralline pepper, salt, and arrange this on the paste in the mould.  Fill in with fillets of pigeon, chicken, or any game you may have, strips of tongue, ham, or bacon, hard-boiled yolks of eggs that are masked with chopped parsley and seasoned with pepper and salt, button mushrooms, pistachios, truffles, pate de foie gras, coekscombs – and any farced birds, such as larks, quails, or ortolans, so as to stand higher than the mould; cover in with more of the farce or mince, and then put a somewhat thinner layer of paste over the top, first wetting the edges of the paste round the mould, press the edges together, and trim off the paste; brush the top lightly over with cold water, stamp out some rounds of the paste and work them into leaves or other pretty designs, and ornament the top of the pie with them; fix a buttered paper round the mould standing some six inches higher than the top of the pie.  Bake gently for about two and a half to three hours, taking care that the paste is not browned, as it should be a rich fawn colour when done; when cooked put the pie aside in the mould till it is cold, then remove the top by cutting the paste through round the edge of the mould, and fill up the pie with any nice meat jelly that is not quite set; then cover the top with some chopped aspic and replace the paste cover.  Remove the mould, dish on a paper, and it may be garnished round with aspic jelly.  Care must be taken when filling up the mould that the jelly is not too liquid or it will go through the paste.  This is excellent as a side dish, or for wedding breakfasts, ball suppers, and, in fact, for use generally.4  

    Sweet pies or fruit tarts

Tarts spring from the Medieval pie-making tradition, and are in fact a kind of flat, open-faced pie.  Enriched doughs or short crusts came into common use about two hundred years after pies, about the 1550s.  Pies and tarts differ in that while pie could be found on a king’s table and a commoner’s,  tarts were the stuff of high cuisine. They were extremely popular among the nobility. Court cooks employed tarts not so much for their taste but because of their looks. Often custard-based, a large, open tart presented a broad canvas upon which an artistic chef might compose a work of edible art. Thus brightly-colored fruits, vegetables and spices all found their way into them. They could be sweet, savory, or more often than not, a mixture of both.  Over time culinary trends took tarts primarily in the sweet direction (citrus tarts like orange and lemon are two all-time classics) though it’s important not to forget their famous savory cousins, quiches.5 

The decoration or trellis work on a tart is what made it especially grand.  The great heyday of this kind of pastry trellis work lasted from the second half of the sixteenth century to the first half of the eighteenth. The practice almost certainly had its origins in a burgeoning fashion for knotted strapwork ornament inaugurated by Mannerist architects such as Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554). Interlacing decorations like those published by Serlio found their best known expression in architectural detailing and garden design, but food ornamentation was strongly influenced by the same.  The curious knotted biscuits or sweetmeats known as jumbals emerge at this period and elaborate tarts and pies in knot-garden form start to adorn the tables of the wealthy. Edible strap work was all the rage.  Although tarts with intricate strapwork lids appear from time to time in Netherlandish still life paintings like that of Clara Peeters below, it was not until the 1660s that designs for these tarts were published in recipe collections.6 

These European traditions came to America with the first settlers and many of these tart and pie recipes can be found all around the country.  Pies were a practical way of using ingredients, they used less flour than bread and could be easily and cheaply baked. They provided a sustainable food source that could be rationed out to hungry immigrants.  Pie continued to sustain early Americans as they settled the west. Once pioneers found land to claim as their own, their pies began to reflect the regional differences of the areas where they settled. Pumpkin pies and pies sweetened with maple syrup were enjoyed in northern states, where Native Americas taught new settlers how to extract sap from maple trees. In Maine, the plentiful blueberry crops were often baked into pies, and over time blueberry pie became the official dessert of that state.
“Chess pie” was popular in the South—a silky pie with a rich filling of sugar, cream or buttermilk, egg, and sometimes bourbon. The Pennsylvania Dutch made molasses “shoofly” pies, as well as stew-like savory meat pies known as “bott boi,” or pot pie. Settlers in Florida, utilizing the plentiful local citrus, turned native limes into key lime pie. The state of New Hampshire became known for its fried hand pies, quaintly called “crab lanterns.” The Midwest, famous for its dairy farms, favored cheese and cream pies. French immigrants to New Orleans created the pecan pie after the Native Americans introduced them to pecans. Massachusetts invented the beloved Boston Cream Pie, a hybrid pie-cake. This colorful variety of pies reflects the diverse tapestry of early American culture.  If one wanted to, one could tell the story of our nation through pie.7

2.       Jones, Richard.  “The Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin”, 1588.

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