Bake along with Victorian Bake Off
The Great British Bake Off is a TV phenomenon that shows no sign of slowing down. The most cosily British of baking show’s last year had a final that was watched by more people on the BBC than the final of the World Cup. You may remember two years ago we used this blog to have our own Bake Off with sandwich cakes, but that’s the last time that I mentioned the show. Now, though, Bake Off has decided to take a new tack and enter the realms of another surprisingly popular cookery show sub-genre: historical recipe re-creation. A new theme has been introduced to the show, now in its sixth year, with this Wednesday’s Victorian Week.
Bake Off has been widely credited with boosting the popularity of home baking nationwide and that has certainly been reflected in our household as Professor Plum has decided to bake along with the show by baking something of the theme of each week. I, meanwhile, have not been baking as much as usual (as you may have noticed from the downturn in the frequency of posting here) due to trying to focus on my Victorian Studies PhD. Still, a Victorian themed week gives me a chance to get back in the kitchen from a nineteenth century perspective (following on from my comments on a similar themed episode of Masterchef last month).
The ‘signature bake’, the initial challenge faced by the Bake Off contestants, for Victorian Week is to provide their own take on the stout English classic the game pie. As old school pie baking has been a recurring theme on these pages, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to apply some of those skills to the world of Victorian Bake Off.
The Victorian Age has obviously been selected by the Bake Off producers as perhaps an era that represents the genesis of modern home baking. Pastry cutters, moulds and tins all became far more widely available, with the newfangled likes of the springform tin, in particular, allowing for a change in how people baked. Meanwhile, the Victorians published unprecedented numbers of recipe books, increasingly targeted at telling housewives how to cook for themselves and their own families rather than advising those in domestic service on what to do. So, it makes sense that if they’re going to do a history themed Bake Off then the Victorian era is the one to go for.
Ivan Day’s Historic Food website, a resource I’ve mentioned here before, is particularly good on the subject of pies, something Ivan himself obviously spends quite a bit of time baking. His page on pies leads off with a rather spectacular take on the Victorian game pie recreated from a recipe from the enormous eight volume Garrett’s Encyclopaedia of Practical Cookery from 1890. Garrett’s pie is made from minced veal and pork along with fillets of pigeon, chicken or any game meat you have. This is far from all that goes in, though, with additional ingredients including mushrooms, pistachio, hard boiled egg yolks, button mushrooms, truffles and foie gras. I’ll be surprised if all of that gets used on Bake Off! ‘Excellent for wedding breakfasts and ball suppers’ is how Garrett describes the pie, which suggests it may be a little elaborate even for a high stakes TV baking show.
As is quite common in pre-twentieth century recipe books, Garrett simply says ‘prepare a raised pie paste’, assuming a basic knowledge of pastry in his readers that does not necessarily continue today. Day uses a recipe from Mrs A.B. Marshall’s Book of Cookery, a rare venturing beyond her favourite ice cream recipes for Victorian ‘Queen of Ices’ Agnes Marshall. Marshall’s pastry is much more similar to the short crust doughs that we are familiar with today than the lard based hot water crusts of most raised pies. This is because of, as I mentioned above, the invention of spring-form tins. Day writes: ‘These useful moulds were sold by braziers and kitchen equipment retailers, who marketed a great variety of designs. Because of the support the metal form afforded the pie during baking, it was possible to use a finer pastry than the old fashioned hot water crust which had been used since medieval times. Mrs Marshall’s pastry recipe opposite makes a delicious crust for pies of this kind. Earlier pie makers had to raise their pies entirely by hand.’
Despite this, however, the ‘traditional’ game pie is nowadays virtually always made with a hot water crust and often hand raised. Paul Hollywood, AKA ‘the male judge’, uses such in his own game pie recipe posted on the BBC. If anything gives us a decent indication of what Hollywood is after in a game pie, then it’s probably this. His recipe, which he calls ‘a spectacular centrepiece’, uses a lard based hot water crust, filled with pre-mixed diced game meat. Essentially, it amounts to a pork pie with whatever game you can get hold of.
While pie recipes with game in have been made for as long as there are records of what people were eating (and until the 1816 Gaming Act attempted to clamp down on poaching, a pie with some variety of game in would have been a dish of cross-class popularity), the game pie as a cold meat pie in the pork pie mould seems to be a particular development of the nineteenth century. The Practical Cook, English and Foreign, written in 1845 by Joseph Bregion and Anne Miller, is one of the first examples of plenty of recipes for pies of pigeon, partridge and pheasant, rabbit or hare, and plenty else, that was designed to be served cold and surrounded with an aspic or jelly as you would see in a pork pie. By the time of Mrs Beeton in 1861, there was a chapter devoted to game recipes in which there were pies with the likes of grouse and partridge, many made with old fashioned puff pastry.
Here in Yorkshire, the most significant early recipe book came from Doncaster born Elizabeth Raffald and her 1769 The Experienced English Housekeeper. Raffald has this advice in her section ‘Observations on Pies‘: ‘Raised pies should have a quick oven, and well closed up; or your pie will fall in the sides; it should have no water put in, till the minute it goes to the oven, it makes the crust sad, and is a great hazard of the pie running.’ Bearing that in mind (and the fact that ‘sad crust’ would be a good variant on Bake Off favourite ‘soggy bottom’ for this week), I decided to have a go at a traditional raised game pie inspired by some of these recipes.
So, having raised a hot water crust for my pastry, now I just had to decide what to go in it. A good game pie needs a mix of different game meats, so I decided to create a pie that layered up different ingredients, utilising venison and partridge.
These pies have a lot in common with the festive pies that gave us the mince pie, so often have the same mix of warming spices as the colder part of the year draws in. The likes of mace, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and ginger crop up in a lot of these recipes, as they would in Christmas pies. Combining this with some of the other flavours that work with my individual game ingredients, I mixed my venison with nutmeg, juniper, garlic and parsley, with my partridge breast combined with ginger, lemon, parlsey and rosemary. These I layered with cranberries and apricot to give the game a fruity flavour (not to mention a little colour to my layers). Meanwhile, I made a stock from chicken bones infused with cloves, lemon zest, and peppercorns and mixed this with gelatin to fill the gaps in my pie.
So, how did it go? Well, despite Raffald’s advice, my raised pie crust was not a solid enough consistency, resulting in a situation where I did indeed end up with something of a ‘sad crust’ and the ‘great hazard of pie running’. This was probably because I made too much filling and so over filled the pie. Despite all that, though, the filling worked pretty well. I liked the combination of the game flavours and the fruit (although there was probably a bit much cranberry). Obviously, the bakers on the show get plenty of chance to practice. Perhaps with a few more efforts at this I could make something a little more worthy of the Victorian Bake Off. As it was, it still made a pretty good dinner.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: I get very, very overexcited by Great British Bake Off. Wednesdays are now Bake Along With Bake Off night. Pies like this aren’t new to us; liquid lard doughs are a staple of historical cooking (I assume Nadiya is using dripping on the show), and we both love a bit of game. We ended up eating the pie while it was still fairly warm (though probably not as warm as Flora’s was on this week’s GBBO) which I think meant the fruit came through sweeter than it would when cool, but it smelt too good to sit around and wait all night for it to cool. It was very tasty, and I’m very excited about taking a slice to work tomorrow.