“Raise a coffin neatly of hot paste, bone your turkey, season it with savory spices, add one pound of ham, a little force meat, a little grave and half a pound of butter, close up the pie and ornament it, and set it in the oven, where two hours will bake it.”
— Mary Smith, “The Complete House-Keeper and Professed Cook”, 1772
If you happen to be in possession of a house with an oversized fireplace, learning to cook on an open hearth is a skill worth acquiring. With a focus on 17th and 18th century food, Sandie Tarbox, an historic foodways culinarian, offers a series of hands-on classes cooking on an open hearth and the attached bake oven in her Newmarket home. The classes include an assortment of dishes selected from historic sources, and the one we attended was on the topic of coffins, a colonial version of pie. During this era, the technique of cooking food in a pastry shell was mainly to serve as a baking dish, storage container, and serving vessel, as we would soon discover.
Our small group of six split into two to tackle the day’s menu: Two types of coffins, one filled with turkey and another called Lumber Pye; Fried Beets and Carrot Pudding to accompany; and Custard Apples for dessert.
The filling for Turkey Coffin — turkey breast, onions, chicken livers, mushrooms, hazelnuts, thyme, and a glug of brandy — is cooked in the hearth.
The Turkey Coffin is assembled with a puff paste made of flour, water, salt, and butter, then shaped into decorative shield.
The Turkey Coffin is then placed in the bake oven next to the hearth; roast beets are ready to be breaded and fried.
The second coffin, Lumber Pye, is a rich and complex mix of savory and sweet ingredients: Boiled eggs; a mix of ground meat seasoned with nutmeg, cloves, ginger, parsley and thyme, formed into small sausages, stuffed with marrow and wrapped in caul; fresh figs and grapes; and covered with a creamy gravy.
A hot water crust, the traditional dough for hand-raised pies, is formed into a high coffin. A carved roller is used for a second piece of dough.
The decorative piece is attached to the coffin wall with egg wash.
The coffin is filled with layers of sausages, eggs and fruit.
The Lumber Pye — topped, decorated, and ready for the bake oven.
Making Carrot Pudding: Grated carrots are mixed with bread crumbs, eggs, cream, and spices, then bound in a heavily buttered and floured cheesecloth, and submerged in a pot of water and left to boil for an hour.
The humble result is delicious all the same, and tastes similar to Indian Pudding.
For dessert, Custard Apples: Cored apples are coated with whipped egg whites, dusted with powdered sugar, then filled with a rich custard and baked in the remaining embers.
After the flurry of activity, we take a moment to tidy up and set the table, then sit down and enjoy the results of the day’s labors in one another’s company.
To find out more about Open Hearth Cooking Workshops with Sandie, visit www.colonialtable.com. In addition, Strawbery Banke Museum is also offering a series of Hearth Cooking Workshops this season. Click here for full slideshow >
Wow!! That crust! The work!
What a humbling post – I need to get up and make some dinner with my convection oven, four burners and microwave. You ladies rock!
And just imagine if we had to grow, butcher, and preserve it all on top of cooking!
fascinating. To think our ancestors did that daily.
Just boiling water took an enormous amount of time and heat, and I came away imagining that daily cooking was much more pared down. The coffins would’ve been a way to preserve food, allowing one to cook for a whole week at a time.
I did see that one lady was wearing summer shoes…what a work-out. Looks delicious…haven’t seem caul in a while…looks like a great experience.
This was an unseasonably warm day in November, and the woman wearing summer shoes was a regular and knew to dress lightly! It was fun to work with caul again, reminded me of the French caillettes we used to make. Have even used it to wrap a turkey when cooking Thanksgiving dinner in France. The whole experience made me appreciate how much effort it used to take to make a meal!
Very nice post and very interesting workshop. I love that carved roller.
It’s one of those single-purpose kitchen tools that are hard to resist acquiring, then finding recipes just so you can use it!