The Crust of Time

Jonathan Townsend

Posted on October 29 2012

The Crust Of Time

While many foods (and people’s taste preferences for them) have changed dramatically over years of culinary evolution, some remain unaltered from their ancestral origins. Take pie crusts, for instance: any trustworthy modern recipe likely calls for flour, cold butter and/or some other form of fat, a little salt, and just enough water to hold it together. One recipe may differ from another in terms of proportions, but interestingly, the basic recipe, as well as many if not most of the variations, can be found in cookbooks published a couple of hundred years ago.

According to the “All English Cookery Books” by Arnold Whitaker Oxford, there were nearly 120 cookbooks published during the 18th century. A remarkable number of them are available on line either in free electronic format, or in print-on-demand copies. I maintain an electronic bookshelf on Google Books that contains over forty 18th and early 19th century cookbooks. I am repeatedly drawn into their pages, conducting word searches, and comparing recipes to their contemporary and modern counterparts. I guess you can call me a food nerd. Discovering a connection between my dinner table and palates of centuries ago can be the highlight of my day.

I’ve been recently researching pastry crusts or “pastes” as they were called in the 18th century, in preparation for a new video series in 18th Century cookery. After reading through countless recipes and comparing ingredients and procedures, it became apparent that, while variations existed, period pastry crusts can be divided into three basic categories: standing pastes, puff pastes, and short pastes.

Modern American foodies are likely most familiar with the latter two. One can usually find convenient ready-to-use puff pastry and pie crusts (short pastes) in the frozen food section at the local grocery store. Most people on this side of the pond are less familiar with standing pastes, but ask our friends in Great Britain, and they will likely hand you a Melton-Mowbray Pork Pie.

As alluded to earlier, short pastes are the pastry used to make the flaky crust in good ol’ apple pie. While one could say that short pastes are the latest innovation in pastries, fact is, they’ve still been around since the mid to late 1700’s. Period cookbooks recommend their use in fruit tarts and pies.

pie crust

Puff pastes were most often assigned to savory dishes, though an occasional recipe suggested their use as top crusts for fruit pies. A pie pan or baking dish could be lined with puff paste prior to filling the dish with meat or vegetables. A top crust of puff paste was often added before the dish was baked. Some period recipes suggested putting the dish’s ingredients directly into the pan and then topping it with a puff paste.

Puff pastes could also be folded into free-form pasties (pronounced PAST-eez). Original pasties were nearly always made with venison, suggesting, considering the scarcity of venison, they were intended for the aristocracy. Beef and mutton pasty recipes began appearing in the mid to late 18th century. They were eventually popularized as mobile meals for the working class. Culinary descendants of the original pasty exist in numerous cultural and regional forms throughout the United States, Great Britain, and around the world.

Both the short paste and the puff paste find their flaky success in the chilled temperature of their ingredients. The colder your butter, the better — an excellent rule to live by. While some differences in ingredients exist between these two types of pastries, the biggest difference exists in how the doughs are constructed.

In short pastes, whether you are using butter, lard, or modern-day shortening, the fat is evenly distributed throughout the dough by either cutting or rubbing it in. The result, if done properly and prior to adding water, is a dry mealy flour that resembles corn flour. Moisture is then added to bind the dough together.

In puff pastes, the butter is laid between layers of dough. This layered dough is then folded upon itself, rolled out and folded again. This process is repeated a number of times, increasing the number of layers while making each layer of dough and butter thinner with each rolling out. The fine layering of butter and dough, if done properly, remains intact even after baking.

In contrast to short pastes and puff pastes, standing pastes go in the opposite direction on the temperature scale. Ingredients are relatively the same, but the fat is melted in boiling water.  The resultant dough has a similar texture to “Play-do.” It can be rolled out into sheets, allowed to cool, and then constructed into large free-standing crusts, or it can be pressed and manipulated into individual-size cups.

Standing pastes are the oldest form of pastry crusts, dating back several hundreds of years. They were also called “coffins,” a word derived from the Old French term meaning “basket.” Frequently, standing crusts were large and ornate, exhibiting elaborate decorations.

Standing crusts — especially earlier forms which used only butter, were seldom eaten with their contents. They were too hard and often over-baked. Their intended purpose was to serve as a baking and serving dish. When a standing crust dish was brought to the table, the top crust was broken, the contents dished out, and the crust was either discarded, or taken back to the kitchen to be used at a later time as a thickening agent in other dishes.

Once a dish was baked in a standing crust, it could also be drained of it’s juices through a hole in the top the crust, and those juices would be replaced with melted butter or rendered mutton fat in order to seal the dish’s contents from the open air. The dish could then be stored in the larder for days or even weeks, and brought out to be reheated and served at a later date. The dish would be reheated, the fat poured off, and a lear or cullis of gelatinous broth added back through the hole in the top crust to replace moisture in the baked meat.

Modern British pork pies are still topped off with a lear before being allowed to cool prior to serving.

In upcoming posts, we’ll share authentic 18th century recipes for a standing paste, a puff paste, and a short paste. We will also post subsequent recipes for dishes that use these different types of crusts (e.g., beef pasties, pork pies, and pear tarts, just to name a few). Stay tuned to our website and YouTube channel for accompanying videos as well!

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