Updated April 4, 2017.
I was inspired to look back at some of my coffin work by a question from Don Caiaphas. Wow, has it been six years since I did this at Tir Righ A&S? Ok, I think it’s time to go back to this, especially since I have a bunch of research that I did in 2013 on it and never got around to writing up.
Coffins, as discussed in my previous work, are a pastry case which has a bottom, sides and a top (with exceptions where referred to in the recipe) which is able to hold its shape without supports in the oven and can be filled with other items.
The earliest I’ve found a coffin recipe is in Fourme of Curye from 1390 and the recipes continue throughout the SCA time period all the way to the 17th century, though they change in composition.
Le Meneger de Paris, because I like double checking early recipes against the French, has a great number of recipes which are cooked in pastry, likely a coffin, but he never gives a recipe for them. The closest he has is in his instructions that “then it is carried to the pastry-cook”. He does have a number of recipes where you are supposed to make the pastry yourself instead of having the pastry-cook do it, but there are no ingredients listed.
Returning to England, though, I have found numerous recipes for coffins. For each recipe, rather than giving the entire recipe which contains the coffin recipe I will simply give the title of the recipe and then the relevant section.
Fourme of Curye (1390):
Cxj. For to make flampens
thenne take blank suger & ayroun & flour & make a past with a rollere
This recipe I used for my previous work and it makes an amazing coffin that works great for dishes where you want a hint of sweetness. I made this one with egg yolks, flour, and sugar.
Although there are many many recipes in the 15th century that call for coffins the majority of recipes simply specify the quality of flour it’s made with. You could assume this refers to a flour and water coffin, but without supporting information I doubt it.
There are, however, a few standouts in Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books (ed. Thomas Austin)
Harleian MS. 279 (1420):
.iv. Chawettys Fryidde
Take & make fayre past of flowre & water, Sugre, & Safroun, & Salt
.xiiij. Pety Pernollys.
Take fayre Floure, Safroun, Sugre, & Salt, & make þer-of past
.xx. Pety Pernauntes.—Take fayre Flowre, Sugre, Safroun, an Salt, & make þer-offe fayre past & fayre cofynges;
Harleian MS. 4016 (1450):
Take faire floure, Sugur, Saffron̄, and salt, and make paast þer-of; then̄ make small Coffyns
Take and make faire paste of floure, water, saffron̄, and salt; And make rownde cofyns þere-of
Essentially the 15th century coffin is made of:
Though some recipes omit the sugar they never omit the saffron or salt. Water doesn’t show up in all of the recipes but as egg is never mentioned in these recipes it must be present in all of them or there would be no way of binding it.
It’s in the 16th century that we get an explosion of cookery books and with it coffin recipes.
A Proper newe Booke of Cokerye (1557):
To make pyes of grene apples.
make youre coffyn after this maner, take a
lyttle fayre water and half a dyche of butter
and a little Saffron, and sette all this upon a
chafyngdyshe tyll it be hoate then temper
your flower with this sayd licuor, and the
whyte of two egges and also make your
This is the first hot water pastry I’ve come across in English cookery (though they show up much earlier in German cookery). Other than the addition of egg white at the end it’s a fairly basic hot water pastry recipe.
A Book of Cookrye (1591):
How to bake Sparrowes or other small birds.
Make paste of fine floure, egges, butter and faire water, therof make Coffins
How to bake pyes of Calves feet.
then make your paste of fine flower with yolkes of Egges, and raise the Coffin square
How to make Chuets.
then take fine flowre, yolkes of Egs, and butter, a little quantitye of rosewater and sugar, then make little coffins
Three different recipes are given in this book.
- flour, eggs, butter, water
- flour, egg yolk
- flour, egg yolk, butter, rosewater, sugar
Because the first recipe calls for water as well as egg I don’t assume that they mean just the egg yolk as the advantage of the lack of egg white would be removed by the addition of water.
The second and third recipes are similar to my previous work with the addition of another flavouring, rosewater, which is another reminder that these weren’t normally inedible items. The earlier recipes were aimed at the nobility and so although the coffin was edible, and tasty, they weren’t necessarily meant to be eaten by the diners. Now however with the focus changed to gentlemen and wealthy merchants they would have likely been less interested in spending money on expensive ingredients that they would not consume.
The good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin (1594 & 1597):
For the first time a recipe is specifically about the coffin:
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 so short that you cannot raise. And this paste is good to
raise all maner of Coffins: Likewise if ye bake Uenison, bake it in the paste above named.
To bake orenges
Then take foure handful of fine flower, & lay it vpon a faire board, and make an hole in the midst of the flower with your hand: then take a pinte of fair water & eight spoonfuls of Oyl, and a little saffron and let them seeth altogether and when it seeths put it in the hole in the midst of the flower, and knead your paste ther with: then make little round coffins of the bignesse of an orenge, and when they be made, put a little sugar in the bottom of them
TAke faire flower, Saffron, & Sugar, make thereof paste, and make thereof coffins
The three recipes are again a little different:
- flour, egg yolk, butter, hot water
- flour, hot water, oil, safron
- flour, saffron, sugar (based on the previous two recipes I’d assume this is also a hot water crust)
The Good Huswifes Jewell pt 2 (1597)
To make fine paste. Take faire flower and wheat, & the yolkes of egges with sweet Butter, melted, mixing all these together with your hands, til it be brought dowe paste, & then make your coffins whether it be for pyes or tartes, then you may put Saffron and suger if you will have it a sweet paste, hauing respect to the true seasoning some vse to put to their paste Beefe or Mutton broth, and some Creame.
This is the second recipe I used in my prior documentation, which I made with flour, egg yolk, and butter.
All told I found thirteen recipes for coffins in English cookery books from the 14th to the 16th century.
The following trends are noticeable in the binding agent:
- 4 Egg yolk based (14th & 16th C)
- 5 Water & saffron based (15th C)
- 4 Hot water based (16th C)
- 1 Egg, butter, water based (16th C)
I was reading Daniel Myers’ translation of Ouverture de Cuisine (1604) when I came across this recipe:
To make English pies.
Take flour of wheat sifted through a coarse strainer, then make paste that is well greased with butter, the yolks of five or six eggs, & that the paste is well sweetened: then you will make a square pie, then take a quarter of goat or lamb that is very fatty, or some piece of venison that is fatty, & parboil the meat, & cut the piece to fit the pie, then put therein ground mace a little pepper & cinnamon, dates cut into pieces, & candies also cut into pieces, pine nuts, beef drippings, sugar that is sweet enough, & fresh butter, & cover your pie, & put it into the oven to cook: & after put it in the oven basting the cover thereon with egg yolks, & then cast sugar over all, & put in the oven to cook.
Yep, that’s an egg yolk, sugar, and butter crust filled with parboiled spiced meat. So this lends credence to my theory that the English style was the egg yolk based crust. Of course that doesn’t mean that there weren’t many people using the hot water based crust as Mistress Eulalia theorized PDF (I used her crust here).
A brief note on Traps
It’s a trap!
Although some people have referred to a “trap” as an open topped coffin the references I find to it in English cooking make it seem like a baking vessel of some sort. Perhaps a form for the pastry.
I’ve found it incorrectly referred to on Food Network (since removed), East Coast Living, and several other sites. The Questing Feast may be the origin of the misinformation. However you can see good info from Katja Orlova Davidova Khazarina and and Eulalia Piebakere.
Fourme of Curye (1390) blatantly puts the myth of a trap being another type of coffin to rest. Here is a very quick rundown on the primary source evidence of it being a baking vessel from that book in 12 different recipes:
make a crust in a traup
.Clj. Mylates whyte.
make a foyle in a traup & bake it wel ther inne and serve hit forth.
.Clij. Crustardes of flesch.
make a crust in a traup & pynche hit & cowche the fleysch ther inne.
.Cliij. Mylates of pork.
make a crust in a traup, bake hit wel ther inne & serve hit forth.
.Cliiij. Crustardes of fysche.
& cast hyt in the traup & bake it & serve it forth.
.Clv. Crustardes of erbes on fysch day.
make a crust in a traup
Take pork y sode.
& make a crust in a traup & do the fars ther inne & bake it wel. & cet.
.Clxiij. Tart in ymber day.
& bake hit in a traup & serve hit forth.
.Clxiiij. Tart debry.
Take a crust ynche depe in a traup… do hyt in a traup and bake hyt and messe hyt forth.
.Clxviij. Tartes of fysche.
make a crust in a traup as byfore & bake it ther inne and serve hit forth.
Take & make a crust in a traup.
do butter in a traup & do the fars ther to. & bake hit and messe hit forth.