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Our third video series, “18th Century Cooking with Jas. Townsend & Son,” is embarking on a closer look at the three more common types of pastry crusts used in 18th century cookery: the standing crust, the puff paste, and the short crust (also known as the common paste or cold paste). Pastry crusts were foundational to a great many 18th century dishes. Our second video installment (above) focuses on the puff paste. I am also including an 18th century recipe for beef pasties at the end of this post.
Puff pastry was a very popular form of pastry crust in the 18th century. It was commonly used for pies, pasties, and fried patties (what we would think of as a fried turnover). A number of period cookbooks suggest puff pastry is best for meat dishes, though others also recommend a thin puff paste for fruit tarts. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, recipes for puff pastry first began to appear in cookbooks in the early 1600’s.
The basic ingredients for puff paste are virtually the same as those used in standing and short crusts: flour, water, a little salt, and fat, but the key to making a good puff paste is found in how one goes about bringing the ingredients together. Rather than incorporating the fat (i.e., butter) into the flour by cutting or rubbing it in as with a short crust, or by melting it before mixing as with a standing crust, the butter used in a puff paste is for the most part sandwiched in between layers of dough. The butter/dough sandwich is then repeatedly rolled out thin and folded upon itself. During this whole procedure, the dough and butter are kept chilled to prevent the butter from melting and thus becoming completely integrated. The layering of butter between thin sheets of dough results in an exquisitely flaky crust unequaled by other construction methods.
For our recipe, we are using a 1:1 ratio of flour to fat: one pound of pastry flour and one pound of butter. We have chosen pastry flour because of its low protein content which makes it easier to roll out. We are also using egg whites instead of water. Egg whites result in a dough that is easier to roll out, but it will also result in a finished product that has a crisper, crackly texture.
A Puff Paste Recipe:
- 1 lb. (about 3-1/2 cups) Pastry or Cake Flour
- about 1 teaspoon Salt
- around 1 cup egg whites (or water)
- 1 lb. Unsalted Butter
To make a foundational dough, mix the first three ingredients. If the dough is too sticky, add additional flour, a little at a time. The dough should be soft and easy to work. Knead the dough on a well-floured surface for about 10 minutes. Cover your dough and set it aside while you work on the next step.
Next, lay out four sticks of butter side-by-side on a piece of cloth or plastic wrap. Cover the butter with the same and press it with a rolling pin into a single patty of butter about 1/2″ thick. Don’t be afraid to show your butter who’s the boss.
Once you’ve reached the desired thickness, set your butter aside, keeping it as cold as possible.
Next, roll out your dough into a large square, until it’s about 1/8″ thick — maybe just a bit more.
Place your pad of butter in the center of your square and fold the dough snugly around the butter like an envelope.
Roll the pastry into a long rectangle about 18″ long by 8″ wide by about 1/4″ thick.
Fold the dough onto itself in thirds.
Turn 90-degrees, and roll out to 1/4″ thick once more. Fold into thirds again, cover with a cloth, and allow your dough to rest for 5 to 10 minutes in a cool place (e.g., your refrigerator).
Repeat this process three more times, allowing your dough to rest each time.
Once you’ve done this folding and rolling process a total of four times, it’s time to roll the dough out one last time to the final thickness you wish to use it.
This dough can be quite stiff and stubborn to work with. It has a tendency when rolled out to shrink right back to a smaller thicker shape. This is the case even when using cake flour, but it is even more of a battle if you opt for all-purpose flour.
AH! But here’s a little secret technique that you won’t even see in the video!
During the filming of the above video, Jon and I took a break right at this point in the process. Jon left the set to tend to a few other business matters. I told him I would roll the dough out to the final thickness. I had done this a number of times before, struggling each time with the dough’s elasticity. I would work up a sweat rolling the dough out to the perfect thickness only to have it spring back out of protest to a smaller and thicker size.
I had read a number of period recipes that prescribed “beating the dough well.” Up to this point, I figured that was an 18th century euphemism for “rolling it out.” My assumption was based on other such unfamiliar terms used in the old recipes. Take, for instance, the phrase, “cast the eggs until they are light.” “Cast” means to whip. So “beat” probably means to roll out, right?
“Beat” means to beat. I discovered this through my frustration. A rolling pin is the weapon of choice. I normally don’t condone this type of behavior — especially in the kitchen, but if you stay focused on the dough, trust me, it will be o.k.
So as you roll out your dough to its final thickness, if it resists and shrinks back to a smaller size, whack it a few times with your rolling pin. Start with a few gentle whacks at first, until you get a feel for how much the dough can handle. Try it. I think you’ll be surprised at how persuasive this technique is. And you may ashamedly find it to be a little therapeutic.
Once you have rolled out your dough to its final thickness, you’re ready to cut it to size. It can be used to line pie pans or to top them. You can cut out a circle of the dough, pile on some seasoned meat, and seal the edges by brushing them with egg and crimping them over. Baked or fried, the possibilities are nearly endless.
A Recipe for Beef Pasties (pronounced “PAST-eez”)
At the risk of stepping into a very old culinary fray, the quintessential English beef pasty is probably better known as the Cornish pasty. the modern Cornish pasty is a heritage food protected by British law. By definition, it contains chopped beef, potatoes, onions, and “swede” (otherwise known as yellow turnips or rutabaga).
Our recipe, on the other hand, is an authentic 18th century version that uses only seasoned beef.
Pasties are thought by many to have originated as a food for the upper class, since the earliest recipes called exclusively for venison. By the end of the 18th century, however, other meats, e.g., beef and mutton, were used as a substitute to venison, and the convenient meal-on-the-go made its way into the grimy hands of field workers and miners.
- puff pastry
- 1-1/2 lb. Beef, coarsely chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon each, Salt and Pepper
- 2 Tablespoons Butter, divided
- 1 Egg White, beaten, for the egg wash
Your puff pastry should be rolled out to less than 1/4″ thick. Cut out two circles approximately 9″ in diameter. Set aside.
Season the chopped beef with salt and pepper, and divide into two equal portions. Spoon the meat onto the middle of each puff pastry round and dab it with a little butter. brush the edges of each round with egg wash and fold the round in half. Seal the edges by folding them over, pinching them as you go.
Brush each pasty with egg wash. Cut a couple of vent holes through the pastry dough. Place each pasty on a paper-lined baking sheet, and bake at 350-degrees (F) for one hour, or until golden brown.
When it comes to interpreting 18th century cookbooks, sometimes it pays to go with your instinct when it tells you a recipe may be inaccurate.
Take for instance this recipe from the book “The Universal Cook” by Francis Collingwood and John Woollams (1806):
I’m quite certain even the most robust palette would find a mincemeat pie made with eight ounces each of mace and nutmeg shockingly inedible.
Now, I don’t want to sound overly critical of all the hard work that Mr. Collingwood and Mr. Woollams put into their book. I don’t want to be another Ann Cook, for instance, who started her 1760 cookbook, “Professed Cookery” with a lovely poem followed by nearly 70 pages of scathing criticism of the work, “The Art of Cookery” by her culinary rival, Hannah Glasse. After all, I have made my share of mistakes in life and have even made a few mistakes on behalf of my closet friends. I’m sure the mistake here was a simple one: the word “pound” was innocently used in place of the word “ounce.”
But not all innocence is innocuous. Small amounts of nutmeg and it’s aril companion, mace, are just fine for human consumption (albeit, not so for pets, which is why you should never let your dog drink the leftover eggnog after the party). These are versatile spices, used in both sweet and savory dishes. But unfortunately for all of those inexperienced 18th century cooks who took the above recipe at face value, consuming large amounts of nutmeg can result in myristicin poisoning. Symptoms include convulsions, dehydration, nausea, palpitations, headaches, dizziness, dry mouth, blood-shot eyes, memory disturbances, visual distortions, hallucinations, and paranoia.
I knew when I read the recipe that a full pound of this spice combination had to be erroneous. So I cross-referenced this recipe to others found in some of my favorite 18th century cookbooks. It was then I began to smell something a little more sinister (at least by modern standards) wafting from the kitchen: plagiarism!
The first edition of “The Universal Cook” was published in 1792 — that’s nine years following the original publication of John Farley’s book, “The London Art of Cookery.” Compare Mr. Farley’s mincemeat recipe to the aforementioned version:
Plagiarism was apparently pretty common in the 18th century, that is, if the considerable number of offenses I’ve noticed in the old cookbooks is any indication of that. But in this case, I wonder if it carried dire consequences. Kind of a culinary karma.
The moral of this story is to read twice, bake once — similar to the ol’ carpenter’s mantra, “measure twice, cut once.” Calmly put the whisk down if your instinct tells you something smells fishy. If a recipe calls for eight ounces each of nutmeg and mace, you may want to consider cross referencing the recipe.
And for a broader application of this principle, in the reenactor’s or historical foodie’s endeavor to be historically accurate, one might want to be sure that what he or she is meticulously replicating was accurate in the first place.
One would hate to be the death of a party.