Pastry is frequently used in medieval recipes, for pies, tarts and pasties, both sweet and savoury. Since it is a staple ingredient in the medieval menu, however, pastry is frustratingly taken for granted by the majority of cookbooks; they do not bother to include recipes since the making of pastry is a routine known to all cooks. Scully comments that "pastry or bread have no place among the significant recipes of a house" (9). Those extant pastry recipes that do exist come from later in the medieval period - the 16th century texts of Sabrina Welserin and A Proper Newe Booke. This probably reflects the move away from the medieval collection reflecting a professional cook's personal recipes, and to a more generalised household manual which includes basic as well as specialised recipes.


A great debate exists on whether or not medieval pastry was, in fact, designed to be eaten. Scully notes references to enriching pastry with eggs (8-9), a tendency reinforced by injunctions to make pastry "as tender as ye maye" in A Proper Newe Booke of Cokerye, which suggest that some pastry, at least, was very much part of the meal, rather than a convenient casing. The converse viewpoint suggests that crusts should be particularly hard and tough because they are designed as a container rather than as a food (rather like the putative origin of Cornish pasties as miners' food, with the inedible pastry case discarded after being handled by grubby miners' hands). The issue is further clouded by the somewhat cavalier confusions, in many sources, between pastry and dough. While pastry (shortened thin foil) and dough (thicker yeast-leavened bread) are very distinct to the modern mind, there seems to be some haziness of definition in many medieval texts (so-called Icelandic Chicken comes to mind). The occasional reference to a leavening agent, however, suggests that a lighter texture was sometimes desired, which itself points to pastry as an edible, tasty starch rather than merely a container.

The general absence of actual pastry recipes from the medieval corpus makes it rather difficult to resolve this debate one way or another; in fact, both kinds of pastry may be perfectly valid. Medieval recipes cover a wide range of possible pastry uses, from wide, flat open tarts to the great raised meat and fruit pies with a pastry lid. Flat tarts and flans may well have been meant for complete consumption, cut in slices in very much the modern fashion; Forme of Cury contains numerous recipes which instruct the cook to "make a crust in a trap", suggesting that the pastry does not need to be free-standing or particularly tough.

The more substantial pies, on the other hand, often have a fairly liquid filling, and it is perfectly possible that the pies were designed to have the lid lifted so that diners could spoon out the stew-like innards. In addition, elaborate subtleties such as Chastletes from Form of Curye, require free-standing pastry as castle walls, to which use a tender pastry will not really be appropriate. (At least, it didn't work when I tried it). For this kind of dish, a low-fat hot-water crust might be more appropriate. This is backed by pastry recipes in Sabina Welserin's sixteenth-century German cookbook: her crusts are hot-water crusts but are described as being specifically for "shaped pies", and one recipe is an elaborate counterfeit fish constructed from pastry (recipes 64 and 65). In support of this, A Proper New Booke's injunction towards tender pastry comes in recipes for a tart rather than a pie. In my own medieval cooking, I tend to follow personal preference in making medieval pastry as edible as possible; I do not enjoy the texture of a hot-water crust. Thus my standard recipe is based on the one in A Proper Newe Booke of Cokerye, see below.


It is likely that, in very much the modern manner, medieval cooks tailored their pastry to their specific needs. This is supported by Gervase Markham's Renaissance recipes, in which he insists that "our English House-wife must be skilful in Pastry, and know ...what paste is fit for every meat, and how to handle and compound such pasts." His differentiations are made as much on issues of keeping as of toughness, however, and make further distinctions on types of flour: rye for long keeping and a tough crust, wheat for the lighter poultry dishes which are eaten more quickly.

As for example, Red Deer, Venison, wild Boar, Gammons of Bacon, Swans, Elkes, Porpus, and such like standing dishes, which must be kept long, would be mak'd in a moist, thick, tough, course, and long lasting crust, and therefore of all other, your Rye-paste is best for that purpose; your Turkey, Capon, Pheasant, Partridg, Veal, Peacocks, Lamb, and all sorts of Water-fowl, which are to come to the Table more than once, (yet not many dayes) would be bak'd in a good white crust, somewhat thick; therefore your wheat is fit ...

This points to another possible use for pastry aside from its value as a starch: in an age without without refrigeration or preservatives, fillings had a better chance of keeping if they were safely sealed within a crust. On the other hand, Markham suggests that these pies were returned to the table more than once; cutting slices from such a dish would badly compromise the anti-bacterial effect of the sealed crust.


Many recipes require "coffins", the somewhat doom-laden medieval term for a pastry case. Medieval cooks were perfectly aware of the technique of pre-hardening open pastry cases in an oven before adding the filling, and directions for such a process can be quite elaborate. The 15th-century Harleian MS recipe for Doucetes, a custard tart, requires the cook to "take þine coffins, & put in þe ovynne lere, & lat hem ben hardyd; þan take a dysshe y-fastenyd on þe pelys ende; & pore þin comade in-to þe dyssche, & from þe dyssche in-to þe cofyns." The purpose here is apparently to avoid cooling the hardened cases by removing them from the oven; the baker's peel, a long-handled flat shovel for moving items in and out of the oven, here has a bowl attached so that the filling can be poured into the cases while they're still in the oven. I'm not quite sure what difference this makes; I've always removed the pastry cases from the oven to fill them, and the skies have not yet fallen.

There seems to be little or no notion in the medieval recipes of filling the case with anything (we'd use beans or rice in modern kitchens) to keep it from rising while the empty case is being hardened. The one exception is Martino's elaborate live-bird pie (Italy, 14th century), which requires pre-baking the shell filled with flour, subsequently removed through a hole in the bottom.

Flying pie
Make a mold for a large pie, and in the bottom make a hole large enough that your fist can pass through, or even bigger if you please, and the sides around it should be slightly higher than the common usage; fill it with flour and cook in an oven. Once it is cooked, open the hole on the bottom and remove the flour; beforehand, prepare another small pie filled with good stuff that has been well cooked and seasoned and that has been made as big as that hole in the large mold; place this pie through the hole into the mold; and in the empty space that remains around the small pie, put some live birds, as many as it will hold; and the birds should be placed in it just before it is to be served; and when it is served before those seated at the banquet, you remove the cover above, and the little birds will fly away. This is done to entertain and amuse your company. And in order that they do not remain disappointed by this, cut the small pie up and serve.

This, however, is a very specific use of pastry for effect, rather than a standard procedure, and also presupposes a particularly deep covered pie which needs to stand alone without filling (live birds being a bit dodgy for purposes of support). It thus seems safe to assume that the standard pastry tart case was not filled during pre-baking.


(A Proper Newe Booke of Cokerye of the Sixteenth Century)

Take fyne floure and a cursey of fayre water and a dysche of swete butter and a lyttel saffron, and the yolckes of two egges and make it thynne and as tender as ye maye.

This is the source I use for medieval pastry recipes; it forms the basis for a standard shortcrust pastry, enriched with eggyolk and, often, saffron.

200g flour
1 tsp salt
100g margarine or butter
pinch saffron
1 egg yolk
iced water

If you're using saffron, steep in a tablespoon of hot water for at least half an hour, so the water has time to cool.

Sift flour and salt into a basin. Cut chilled fat into the flour, chopping into small pieces. With your fingers, rub the fat into the flour, shaking the bowl at intervals to bring lumps to the top. When you've finished, the mixture should look slightly mealy, like breadcrumbs. Drop eggyolk into a well in the flour mixture, and add a few tablespoons of iced water, and the saffron water if you're using it. Mix with a butter knife. The mix should start to form lumps; if it doesn't, add iced water a little at a time until it does.

Form pastry into a ball and wrap in clingfilm; refrigerate for about half an hour before using. Roll it out on a floured board, use a chilled marble rolling pin if at all possible. This recipe should make one small covered pie, or a largish tart.

To bake blind for an open tart, prick the pastry case all over with a fork, and line with baking paper. Fill with baking beans (I use sugar beans, which I've been using for years and which are now hard as rocks and totally inedible). Bake at 200 degrees for 5-10 mins, until the pastry starts to harden. Remove baking beans and return case to the oven for a few minutes.

61 To make a pastry dough for all shaped pies

(Sabina Welserin)

Take flour, the best that you can get, about two handfuls, depending on how large or small you would have the pie. Put it on the table and with a knife stir in two eggs and a little salt. Put water in a small pan and a piece of fat the size of two good eggs, let it all dissolve together and boil. Afterwards pour it on the flour on the table and make a strong dough and work it well, however you feel is right. If it is summer, one must take meat broth instead of water and in the place of the fat the skimmings from the broth. When the dough is kneaded, then make of it a round ball and draw it out well on the sides with the fingers or with a rolling pin, so that in the middle a raised area remains, then let it chill in the cold. Afterwards shape the dough as I have pointed out to you. Also reserve dough for the cover and roll it out into a cover and take water and spread it over the top of the cover and the top of the formed pastry shell and join it together well with the fingers. Leave a small hole. And see that it is pressed together well, so that it does not come open. Blow in the small hole which you have left, then the cover will lift itself up. Then quickly press the hole closed. Afterwards put it in the oven. Sprinkle flour in the dish beforehand. Take care that the oven is properly heated, then it will be a pretty pastry. The dough for all shaped pastries is made in this manner.

Since I avoid a hot-water crust, I have never tried this particular recipe. Various versions, together with other medieval-style pastry recipes, can be found in the Florilegium: - several recipes for free-standing pie crusts. - general discussion of medieval pastry, with several recipes.


Valoise Armstrong (tr) Der Kochbuch der Sabina Welserin (1553).

Luigi Ballerini (ed), Jeremy Parzen (tr) and Stefania Barzini (2005) The Eminent Maestro Martino of Como: The Art of Cooking: The First Modern Cookery Book. California Studies in Food and Culture, 14. Edited and with an Introduction by Luigi Ballerini, Translated and Annotated by Jeremy Parzen, and with Fifty Modernized Recipes by Stefania Barzini.

Catherine Francis Frere, ed. (1913) A Proper Newe Booke of Cokerye (of the sixteenth century). In A collection of Medieval and Renaissance Cookbooks, 1991, Duke Cariadoc of the Bow.

Constance B. Hieatt and Sharon Butler, eds (1985). Curye on Inglysch: English culinary manuscripts of the fourteenth century (including the Form of Cury). London: Oxford UP.

Gervase Markham (1683) The English Housewife. Transcribed by Kirrily Robert,

Cindy Renfrow, 1991, Take a Thousand Eggs or More: A Collection of 15th Century Recipes, Volume 1, published privately

Terence Scully (1995) The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge: Boydell.

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