How to make a proper medieval pie crust

Update March 2018: I have done more work on this recipe and settled on proportions I like even better. This one still works just fine, but if you’d like the new version you can find it, and lots of other recipes, in my cookbook: Tried and True Historical Recipes for Home, Camp, and Feast Hall.

After several years of experimentation, I have developed a method for making hot water pastry that works very well both for rolled crusts and for self-supporting crusts for a wide variety of medieval pies and tarts.

Finishing a medieval pie crustI use imported flour from Lammas Fayre for my pastry and have been extraordinarily happy with it. I recommend their Elizabethan Manchet Blend for this recipe as that most closely matches the evidence I found for what type of flour was used by high medieval English bakers. If you are unable to obtain this flour, you can substitute a mixture of 2 parts whole wheat pastry flour and 1 part unbleached all purpose white flour, although this does not have the same qualities as the heirloom wheat varieties or sieving to yield “white” flour.

This recipe uses lard for fat, so it is only suitable for meat day pies. That said, lard crusts needn’t be exclusive to meat-filled pies — I’ve never had a problem with the taste of lard pastry for sweet pies. For the record, I use leaf lard from heirloom Tamworth hogs, but you can substitute any home-rendered or pure rendered lard. Do NOT substitute shelf stable lard from the grocery store, it is substantially different from natural, real lard.

If you are cooking for a meat day but cannot use lard due to dietary restrictions, rendered beef suet is a fine substitute but has a somewhat stronger flavor. For fish or fast day pies, the evidence I have found suggests that their pastry was made with thick almond milk, but I am not currently satisfied with the pie crusts I have made using this method and plan to do more experimentation before “officially” publishing a recipe.

The historical pie dish I have is much smaller than a modern pie dish. The amount of pastry that I need to line and top that dish is also a good amount to make for a self-supporting pie that isn’t too large. With some experimentation, I found that doubling the quantities I used made enough pastry for a two-crust pie made in a standard modern pie dish. Since I suspect this is more useful to more people, those are the quantities I give here.

Recipe for Hot Water Pastry: (sufficient for one two crust pie in a standard dish)

  • 14 oz flour
  • 2 oz lard
  • 1 cup (8 oz) water — I know it seems excessive, but much of it will boil off
  1. Place the flour in a heat-safe bowl, making a well in it.
  2. Heat the water and lard together until the lard is fully melted and the water has barely begun to bubble.
  3. Pour the heated water and lard into the well in the flour and stir vigorously.
  4. Knead the dough until smooth and elastic.
  5. Separate the dough into two pieces, one roughly twice the size of the other. Roll out both portions of pastry on a lightly floured surface to between ⅛ and ¼ inch thick.
  6. Use the larger piece of pastry as a bottom crust, lining the pie dish (trap); set aside the smaller piece for a top crust.

Note: This recipe works better when the dough is kept warm.

Happy baking!

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All about medieval English grains

This is an excerpt from my research into high medieval English pastry. For more information and a full bibliography, see “Raising a Coffin” and “Crustardes of Flessh” on the Files page.

A wheat thresher
A wheat thresher

One potential source of information on medieval cereal crops is blackened roof thatch from standing medieval buildings. Layers of soot-blackened thatch survive on some medieval English buildings dating from the medieval period (specifically the 14th and 15th centuries) and John Letts (see sources) has examined over 200 samples, all originating from the South of England and most coming from Devon. (Typically roofs in the north of England were thatched with water reed or sedge [Ambrose and Letch].)  These samples have preserved not only grain-bearing plants (with both the ears and straw intact), but also crop weeds and other vegetables. These roof samples provide us with a glimpse into complete medieval fields, and allow us to see how crops changed over time. The most significant finding is the diversity of crops within a medieval field:

Most samples contain ‘land race’ mixtures of bread wheat (Triticum aestivum), English rivet wheat (Triticum turgidum) and rye (Secale cereale) which grew to 6ft (1.8m) or more in height – far taller than modern varieties – as well as barley (Hordeam vulgare) and oats (Avena spp). Land races evolve over many centuries when crops are grown in heterogeneous conditions, year after year, from seed saved from the previous year’s crop. The result is that every plant in a land race is slightly different from its neighbour, and medieval cereals were consequently very uneven in straw height, ripening time, grain yield and other agronomic traits. This diversity ensured that a portion of the crop almost always set seed irrespective of the many environmental stresses that can destroy a crop such as drought, waterlogging, frost or crop disease. (Letts)

Continue reading “All about medieval English grains”