Simple Simon met a pieman, going to the fair…

As previously noted, this past weekend an old back injury flared up (cough-anvil-cough) and I was a bit stuck. I couldn’t sit down and got tired of laying down, so I decided to do some food-borne experiments standing at the counter.  An excellent opportunity to explore the cuisine prepared for the high and the low by the Worshipful Company of the Cooks of London. After poking around the internet (the cookbooks were on a shelf too low to reach, something I’ll need to address soon) I settled on making a classic pork pie.

Except that no one on the web could seem to decide what that meant.  Which is perfect territory for me because I never know what anything means until I get there.

Thankfully, enough of the kitchen is done to give me some space for my lab equipment, but which I mean a notebook and a laptop.

What I like most about this is that it gives you a sort of mid-race look at how things work in behind the scenes. First I look to see if anyone else has done this before. If so, what did they do? Do I like what they did? Can I do it differently, or better, or in some way contribute to the discussion in my own way? Has it been done to death? Is there a better project?

Then I begin to experiment, carefully recording my results and noting where I deviated from the standard profile. Note taking is of paramount importance. I lost my notebook with all my notes on the history of brewing and it quite literally set me back a month on that project.

To quote Adam Savage from the Mythbusters: “Remember kids, the only difference between doing science and screwing around is writing it down.

So… pies.

I know going in that pies were often used as simple ways to create fare for the working stiff. Which is right up my alley. A pie wrapped in cloth will stay hot for quite awhile after the working stiff gets to his workshop, a portable hug from his family kitchen. Pies were served to all walks of life, differentiated mainly by the expense of their ingredient list.

My cupboard holds enough spices that to the 16th century cook it would seem that I’d purloined a king’s ransom, so I must be careful. I want an upper-middling sort of pie, perhaps around a festival time when purse strings were loosened by gaiety or in hopes of impressing an important client. The clove and cinnamon especially come to us from the far Orient by way of many middle-men, each taking a cut of the high price I paid to show off the wealth of my kitchen… all six square feet of it that are finished enough to be in the photos.

Yes, pain and painkillers do make my imagination run a bit wild, but as long as I don’t hurt anyone, who does it hurt?

After a bit of trial and error, I cobbled together the following working recipe for a spiced pork pie in a standing coffin, complete with photos of carefully-staged food (which was weird for me, because I’m not the Instagram breed of foodie).  Though I use some spices that would cost our Elizabethan cook a pretty penny, the nicest thing about a pie is that it’s a scalable application and could easily be made for more money or less depending on what you put in it.

Hang on… you put what in a coffin?

A coffin is a period term for a pie crust and in general they were edible but not necessarily meant to be eaten. It’s a curious bit of nomenclature and it illustrates handily the gallows humor of a people who lived much closer to the line between life and death than moderns like myself are accustomed to. When I can reach my Oxford English Dictionary (too heavy, too low of a shelf… now I know why dictionary stands were invented) I’ll try to figure out whether the box for dead people or the crust for a pie was named that first.

I sort of like the idea that it was the pie first.

Please note: Bad back means no chopping wood, so this one’s done in the modern oven inside, but would easily translate to the wood-fired oven or to baking in a cauldron placed next to carefully-tended coals. I really should find myself a couple of apprentices…

Let’s get cooking!

To make a simple pork pie in a standing coffin

Serves: 4 (Makes four pies)

3 cups of flour
2 tsp creme of tartar
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp of salt
1 cup of water
8 tbs lard
2 tbs unsalted butter

1 lbs ground pork (plus reserved liquid)
1/4 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup bread crumbs
1 tbs spice mixture
     black peppercorns  
6 cloves of garlic
pinch of salt
1/4 tsp flour

One egg, beaten

Making the coffins…

Combine dry ingredients in a work bowl using a sieve or whisk. Make a well in the middle of the mound of dry ingredients.

Meanwhile, heat the lard and butter with 1/2 cup of water to a boil. Remove from heat and wait for it to stop bubbling, then pour slowly into well in the dry ingredients. Begin to combine the hot wet mixture into the dry using a wooden spoon, working outward from the center, being careful because the wet ingredients are just off the boil. Sieve additional flour as needed until your paste takes on the consistency of Play-do.

Turn out onto a floured board and divide into six equal parts. Use a rolling pin to flatten into disks about a half inch thick and stack the disks with waxed paper between them in an open bag.  Counter for at least four hours or move to the refrigerator and chill for at least two hours. (If you decide to chill, bring to room temperature before you start to work the dough again.)

Making the filling…

Your spice pack is basically mulling spices minus the star anise. (The licorice flavor of anise overwhelms the pork in my opinion.) Candied ginger or orange peel is a delightful addition if you get a whim. Combine the spices in a mortar and pound into powder. If you must use an electric spice grinder, I won’t judge you.

Well… maybe a little.

Combine spice pack, onions, garlic, salt, and ground pork in a pan and cook on medium heat until it starts to come together.


Once the pork is brown, mix in bread crumbs and a 1/4 teaspoon of flour to thicken the drippings.  Set aside to cool and congeal. Yes, congealing is a Good Thing.

Deviation from the norm: This gets pretty thick, but it makes a rather loose filling by meatpie standards. In traditional pork pies, you would often make a gelatin by boiling down trotters (read: pig feet) and then combine that to make a filling that could stand up on its own. For a modern approach, you can substitute unflavored gelatin, which you use according to the package instructions.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
If you are baking these in a wood-fired beehive style bread oven like mine, these are introduced in the baking sequence after the bread is finished cooking.

Raise the coffins…

When your crust dough has aged, allowing the fats and the proteins to form a strong melange (and it’s back to room temperature if you chose to refrigerate) roll out the first disc on a floured board. Place a pie mold in the center of the dough disc and begin to smoosh the dough up the sides, forming a little bowl.

On the subject of pie molds: Pie molds are not often seen these days in even the best stocked kitchen store. Anything cylindrical will do. I’ve seen everyone including some very serious reenactors do this with an ice tea glass. I use a 4-inch cut from the middle of a thrift store rolling pin. This is the cheapest source I could find, short of turning one on a lathe and even then the raw materials would cost more than Goodwill’s old rolling pins. Just remember to grease the mold so you can get it out.

Whatever you choose to use, raise four coffins in this way, making what amounts to four tall, doughy ramekins, leaving two rounds of dough on the board. The bottoms of your coffins should be at least a 1/3 inch thick and the walls should be sturdy at the bottom and taper at the tops.

Divide each of the remaining disks in half and flatten into thin rounds with your rolling pin to make lids. Scoop a bit of the filling into each, mounding the middle, but leaving the lip clear. Smear a bit of beaten egg around the inside lip and lid them up, pinching the edges decoratively if you so choose.  Be sure to cut vents for escaping steam or the coffins will get gooey instead of staying sturdy.

Add a bit of water to your beaten egg to make an egg wash and slather the tops liberally with the egg mixture.

Bake for 30 minutes or until the tops are golden brown and flaky.

Serve hot or cold, alone or with a nice salat (that’s a “salad” to you and me) and a complementary beverage. For my part, I like any nice amber ale that I had nothing to do with brewing.

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