Tart in Ember Day, an onion-cheese quiche, has become an SCA staple: it's simple, it's familiar, and it's good. This article presents two medieval recipes for the dish, talks about their similarities and differences, presents one interpretation, then discusses variations on the theme.
Medieval recipes aren't like modern ones, and the differences aren't just the ingredients and the ways they're combined. Modern recipes specify a dish precisely, so that basic cooks can reproduce them uniformly. Say you give four minimally competent cooks the same recipe from The Joy of Cooking and ask them to follow it precisely. If they do, you probably won't be able to tell the results apart.
By contrast, medieval recipes were written for experts, to give an idea of a kind of dish. The concept of uniformity isn't there. If you give four good cooks the same recipe from Forme of Cury, you can expect four quite different dishes. Many medieval dishes have recipes in several sources. Sometimes the recipes will be much alike, but equally often, they will vary widely in ingredients and handling. Even within a single manuscript, you may find several quite different recipes with the same name. Variation was the norm.
Medievals didn't expect blind obedience to recipes, and the recipes they wrote can't be followed blindly. I hope this example will give some sense of how to use the differences among even quite similar recipes for the same dish to guide creativity in finding many different -- but all reasonably medieval -- interpretations of it.
"Ember Days" are sets of three fasting days (Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday) that occur four times a year in the Catholic calendar. Meat is forbidden, but cheese and eggs are allowed. Tart in Ember Day is a filling dish to take the place of a meat dish on fasting days out of Lent. The first recipe we are looking at comes from probably the best known collection of English medieval recipes: Forme of Cury, late 14th C (about 1390); the edition here is from Hieatt and Butler's Curye on Inglysch.
Tart in Ymbre day
(Curye on Inglysch, Forme of Cury recipe # 173, page 136)
Take and perboile oynoun & erbis & presse out the water & hewe her smale. Take grene chese & bray it in a morter, and temper it up with ayren. Do therto butter, safroun & salt, & raisouns corouns, & a litel sugur with powdour douce, and bake it in a trap, & serue it forth.In more modern English:
Take and parboil onion[s] and herbs, and press out the water, and chop them small. Take green cheese and grind it in a mortar, and temper it up with eggs. Add butter, saffron, and salt, and currants, and a little sugar with powder douce, and bake it in an open crust, and serve it forth.We have cheese, eggs, onions, herbs, and miscellaneous other flavorings, baked in an open crust: essentially a quiche. What else can we say?
The problem of proportions is obvious. Apart from that, there are several other immediate questions. First, what is green cheese? Probably a fresh (as opposed to aged) cheese. This could be anything from (fresh, not aged) cottage cheese to cream cheese to something like cream havarti. It probably is not something like brie, which needs substantial aging, or one of the harder cheeses. (Bleu cheese is probably the wrong direction, as is swiss or cheddar.)
What herbs? Well, what herbs do you have? What herbs go well with cheese and onions? The recipe is deliberately vague.
Powder douce, on the other hand, is not intentional vagueness; instead, it is a reference to a standard medieval premixed combination of spices, much as "curry powder" is a modern combination of spices. The name means "sweet powder". Sugar was definitely one constituent; other probable ones include cinnamon, ginger, mace, and cloves.
Now we compare a second recipe. This one is take from Arundel MS 344, dating from the early 15th C, and edited by John Nichols under the title Ancient Cookery. This collection has a lot of recipes in common with Forme of Cury, some with the same names in the same order. Tart in Ember Day occurs in one such sequence. It is probable, given the degree of overlap, that the author of Arundel 344 had a copy of Forme of Cury, from which he worked. Still, the recipes do vary a little in details.
Tart on Ember-Day
(Ancient Cookery 356, 448/38c)
Parboyle onions, and sauge, and parsel, and hew hom small, then take gode fatte chese, and bray hit, and do therto egges, and tempur hit up therwith, and do therto butter and sugur, and raisynges of corance, and pouder of ginger, and of cannell, medel all this well togedur, and do hit in a coffyn, and bake it uncoveret, and serve hit forthe.Again, in modern English:
Parboil onions, and sage, and parsley, and cut them small, then take good fat cheese, and grind it, and add eggs, and temper it up with them, and add butter and sugar, and currants, and powdered ginger, and cinnamon, mix all this well together, and put it in a crust, and bake it uncovered, and serve it forth.This time, we have more details. In the place of "green cheese", we have "good fat cheese". This suggests that cream cheese or a soft cheese like havarti or muenster is probably more to the point than cottage cheese, which tends to be less fat. In place of "herbs", we have (fresh) sage and parsley; the saffron has vanished, and in place of powder douce we have ginger and cinnamon.
Both recipes, then, specify onions, butter, eggs, cheese, sugar, and currants. One calls for herbs in general, the other for sage and parsley. One calls for powder douce, the other for ginger and cinnamon. One calls for saffron, and the other doesn't.
One Version 4 onions 1/4 cup currants 6 eggs 1/4 tsp ginger 3T butter 3/4 tsp cinnamon 1/2 lb havarti grated 1/2 tsp dried sage leaves 1/2 lb muenster, grated 1/4 cup parsley 3T sugar 1 deep dish 9" pie crust 1. Parboil onions (about 10 minutes). 2. Remove onions from heat, drain, and chop. 3. Chop parsley. 4. Mix all ingredients. 5. Pour into pie shell. 6. Bake at 350deg for 50 to 55 minutes (top will be brown; a knife inserted into the top should come out clean.As you can see, this follows the second recipe closely. The main liberties I've taken are to omit parboiling the parsley (it's never seemed necessary), use dried sage in place of fresh (which I usually can't get), and, of course, make decisions on the proportions of the ingredients.
How did I decide on what I did? Trial and error, mostly. (It took about four tries to get something I was really happy with.) First, I decided that this would be more egg- than cheese-based. It doesn't say that in either recipe: it doesn't say either way. If you want a very rich cheese tart, instead of something more quiche-like, you could with equal justification increase the cheese and cut the eggs. Second, I chose the cheeses, again largely consulting personal preference. Then I tried various balances of the herbs, spices, and sugar (and various baking times, and so on) until I got something I liked.
Try it with saffron; the first recipe does. You hate currents? Leave them out. One of the recipes dumps the saffron; you could dump the currants. Currants are strong tasting, and have a strong effect -- but the same is true of saffron, and both are tangential to the dish. But there are much larger changes you can make, and still stay well within the limits of the recipes as stated above.
You want a cheese tart instead of a quiche? Take the above. Increase the cheeses to between three quarters of a pound and a pound each, and reduce to two or three eggs. Cheese is salty; you may want to increase the sugar to offset the increase in salt. Voila: a far richer tart, more expensive but more filling.
You want a smoother, less salty, less tangy tart? Change the cheeses to half cream cheese, half ricotta. Because these are softer and more liquid, you may want to slightly reduce the eggs, say to five instead of six. This will also make the tart sweeter, but with these cheeses, you may want it that way. Alternatively, reduce the sugar a little.
To increase the influence of the onions, slice instead of chopping. You can also omit the parboiling; but if you are going to do that, it is wise to go to a sweet onion, for the greater digestibility.
To get an interesting and novel effect, mix half of the eggs with the cheese (either kind) and put in the shell, then mix the other half with all the rest, and pour that in on top for a layered tart.
You like swiss, or cheddar, or a mixture of them? Go ahead. Increase the butter, to make up for the decrease in fat in the cheese. No, these probably aren't the kind of cheeses originally intended (and they can't have specifically been intended, as both are post period; but so are most readily available cheeses). On the other hand, the preceding recipe in both collections calls explicitly for brie; there are others, in other collections, that call for cream cheese. Medieval recipes can be reasonably explicit, when they want to. These aren't, presumably because they don't much care. Furthermore, when you make cheese, what precise cheese you get depends on everything from the precise set of wild yeasts in your buttery to the relative humidity. With a few exceptions, uniformity in cheeses is a modern artifact. Don't worry about it.
The first three of these variations, while giving a wide range of effects, can all be described as straightforward interpretations of the originals. The fourth takes a greater liberty, but is certainly a reasonable variation: there are other medieval pies that involve pouring one filling in a layer over another. The fifth is also more of a departure, but again, in a reasonable and justifiable direction. What you will get is not precisely Tart in Ember Day, at least as we know it from these recipes, but it's an authentic, documentable medieval-style dish.
Second, people look at the recipes, see no proportions, and wonder how they can make food from them. Actually, it's pretty easy. First tries are rarely perfect, but if the cook has a decent food sense -- and most people have a better one than they realize! -- it's usually edible. If you write down what you did, and take notes like "Much less salt! Try a couple more eggs next time," improvement tends to be fast.
Third, and perhaps most tellingly, people seem to be afraid that they can't follow recipes and also be creative cooks. Nothing could be further from the truth. Medieval recipes are not sets of orders, to be slavishly followed. They are indications of a style of a dish, with most of the details left to your imagination. The more you read, the more variations will occur to you: and instead of stew after stew after boring stew, interrupted by the occasional (good, but unexciting) plain roast, you will have at your disposal a wide selection of good, enjoyable dishes that are different enough in detail from anything you would get at a modern restaurant to be interesting. I've met very few medieval recipes with familiar main ingredients that I couldn't like (well, there's a pork in vinaigrette in my big collection that's plain dreadful, and I don't think anything can be done to save it, without making it into something plain different; but that's only one); whereas some of the worst food I've ever put into my mouth was somebody's undirected notion of modern-medievalish.
In this regard, food is not all that different from clothing, or from calligraphy and illumination, or for that matter from armor. The medievals wanted food that tasted good, just as they wanted to look good, they wanted (some of) their books to be beautiful, and they wanted their armor to keep them alive. They faced constraints that we don't, but by-and-large, they met them with an ingenuity that we rarely need, and found solutions that we can admire. Tart in Ember Day is one of them; I hope you will enjoy it.
Hieatt, Constance B. and Sharon Butler, eds., Curye on Inglysch, Oxford University Press (London, New York, Toronto) 1985, ISBN 0-19-722409-1 (Early English Text Society SS8). Fourteenth C English material; contains the following manuscripts: Diversa Cibaria (63 recipes, early 14th C), Diversa Servisa (92 recipes, 1381), Utilis Coquinario (37 recipes, late 14th C), The Forme of Curye (205 recipes, c. 1390), and Goud Kokery (25 recipes, misc. 14th C sources).
Nichols, John, ed., Ancient Cookery, London, 1790. Contains recipes from Arundel MS 344; English material, early 15th C.
Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (firstname.lastname@example.org)