Robert May had an extensive and impressive career spanning over fifty-five years and the most tumultuous part of the seventeenth century, from the twilight of the reign of Elizabeth I, through the civil war, the protectorate and the restoration of the monarchy. His cookery book, The Accomplisht Cook, was first published in 1660, when he was in his mid seventies,
As a boy, he apprenticed in France and upon his return worked for many important Catholic families in England. As a consequence, his book not only chronicles multiple decades of British food, but thanks to the generosity of his patrons, that of France, and via printed recipe books, of both Italy and Spain. In his preface, May praises the generosity of hs patrons in allowing him the funds to prepare food at the highest quality, and admits that not all purses will be able to stretch to all of the recipes he presents. He nevertheless holds it his responsibility to pass as much of his 55 years of knowledge as he can. For the most part he claims that with his book:
the Reader shall find most of the Compositions, and mixtures easie to be prepared, most pleasing to the Palate, and not too chargeable to the Purse; since you are at liberty to employ as much or as little therein as you please.
On which note we come to this recipe.
There are two variations of this recipe in The Accomplisht Cook, with only trifling differences between them: one has nutmeg and pistachios, the other cream and breadcrumbs. It is a fraction of a much larger and more ostentatious banqueting dish, and constitutes merely the centrepiece. Robert May has called it a “Pine-Molet”, which is later defined by Randle Holme¹ in 1688 as:
a Manchet of French Bread, with a hole cut in the top, and all the crum taken out, and filled with a composition of rost or boiled Capons minced and stamped to a Paste, with sweet Herbs, Eggs and Spices, &c. and so boiled in a cloth; and serve it in strong Broth, with several sorts of Fowls about it.
This definition seems to have come from a reading of May’s own recipes, as there is no indication of the name being used prior to 1660. It is quite possibly a corruption from French of “pain mollet” a light, spongy bread introduced to France in the early 17th century and much admired and sought-after by, if not the great and the good, then definitely the wealthy, including the queen, Marie de Medici. In following Robert May’s advice, I have decided to dispense with the ‘garnish’ of several cooked birds and focus on the stuffed loaf, because it is so deliciously original, and have opted for baking rather than boiling. Leftover chicken never looked so good!
I tried several variations of the recipe, in terms of both the filling and the exterior, and have made only slight adjustments in order to keep the flavours authentic, and appetising to our 21st century palates. I like all three variations seen here, each delicious in its own right.
The filling is a wonderfully unusual but distinctly savoury jumble of meat, eggs, herbs, nuts and spices, bound with more egg and with a smattering of currants. Seen here, chopped uniformly and baked in an enriched milk bread loaf, the crust has been moistened with stock to prevent it drying out as it bakes in the oven. The result is a crisp outside and a moist and savoury inside. Delicious eaten hot, the pie firms up as it cools, making it ideal for picnics and outings.
In this version, the filling has been chopped less finely, so that the different elements can be easily distinguished. In addition to the large loaf, I have also baked some smaller, individually-sized buns, perfect for a packed lunch.
This third variation has been baked in filo pastry for a thin, friable but deliciously crisp and buttery exterior. This is the same mixture as the pie on the main photograph, with the filling pleasantly chunky and the different elements providing interest visually as well as through taste. This is best enjoyed at home, as the pastry doesn’t retain its crispness once cooled, and would therefore not travel well.
Robert May’s Chicken Pie
You can customise the proportions of the ingredients to suit your own personal tastes, but the following is both flavourful and delightfully different.
100g shelled pistachios
50g ground almonds
4 large eggs – hardboiled, chopped²
2 large eggs – whisked
300g cooked chicken – chopped
1/2 nutmeg – grated
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp coarse ground black pepper
1tbs fresh chopped (or 1.5tsp dried) each of chopped thyme, chives, rosemary, marjoram
2tbs chopped fresh parsley.
(optional) chicken stock
A large round loaf/brioche, buns or 1 pack of filo pastry and butter for brushing.
- Mix all of the ingredients together well. Set aside while you prepare the loaf/pastry.
- If using a loaf or buns, cut off the ‘lid’ neatly and hollow out the interior. Keep enough structural integrity so that the walls remain standing (no thinner than 1cm). Blitz the insides to breadcrumbs and use in the filling if required.
- If using filo pastry, generously butter a 24cm spring-form tin and line with sheets of filo. Brush each sheet with melted butter and allow at least 10cm of the sheets to hang outside the tin.
- Check the filling for moistness: the breadcrumbs and almonds will have absorbed some of the moisture, so if required, add in stock until the mixture is moist but not over-saturated. Check the seasoning by frying a little patty of the filling in a pan, then tasting and adjusting as necessary.
- Spoon the filling into the prepared loaf/buns/tin.
- For the stuffed loaf/buns: add the lid and brush the outsides with either stock or water. Wrap in foil.
- For the pie: fold over the excess filo pastry to cover the filling. Cover with a loose bottom from a springform tin, or a baking sheet, and add a weight. I use a large, smooth rock, wrapped in foil.
- Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan.
- Bake for 30-40 minutes until the filling is cooked and the pastry/crust is crisp. To check, use a probe thermometer, which should read at least 75°C-80°C. If making the smaller filo parcels, cooking time is reduced to 20-25 minutes.
- For the stuffed loaf/buns: remove the foil and place on serving dish, or if eating cold, keep wrapped until required.
- For the pie, remove the weight and baking sheet/base. place your serving plate on top of the pie and flip over. Remove tin and serve.
¹ The academy of armory, or, A storehouse of armory and blazon (1688), Holme, Randle (1627-1699), Chester
² The original recipe (as seen in the first loaf picture) suggested yolks only. I subsequently chose to use the whites as well, to avoid having to find a use for them. If you have a favourite go-to recipe, then by all means omit the whites from the filling.