Blog

Coventrys, Godcakes and Congleton Cakes

It’s all about triangular pastries this week.

Let us start with Coventreys (middle pastry in the above photo). Essentially, these are jam turnovers, but there are a few key characteristics that set them apart from your average turnover. For a start they are triangular, formed by cutting circles of puff pastry, adding a teaspoon of raspberry jam and folding in the edges of the pastry to form an equilateral triangle. These are then turned over and laid on the baking sheet with the seal underneath. The edges of the pastry are notched using either a flat-ended spatula, or a knife. This has two purposes. Firstly, it allows the steam to scape during baing, and secondly, it permits the jam to peek through in an attractive manner.

Godcakes (on the left in the above photo) also hail from Coventry, but according to Harris & Borella (All About Pastries, c1900) are actually more well known in their home town than regular Coventrys. Godcakes too are triangular, formed in the same way as regular Coventreys, but are baked with the seals upwards and visible. Their filling is of a rich mincemeat, and derived their popularity from being given as blessings by godparents to their godchildren, the three sides being symbolic of the Holy Trinity.

There’s some differing opinions as to when this gifting of pastries might have taken place. Harris & Borella maintain it was at Easter, whereas other sources claim New Year’s Day or even the festive season itself. This might be down to the filling. Nowadays we tend to associate mincemeat very much with Christmas, but originally it was eaten pretty much all year round, and a number of eighteenth century cookery writers, including Hannah Glasse, have recipes specially tailored for consumption during Lent.

There’s certainly a long history of symbolic cakes tied to the church. A ‘God’s Kichel’ is mentioned in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, and defined as

Kichel: A flat Christmas cake, of a triangular shape, with sugar and a few currants strow’d over the top – differing, only in shape, I believe, from a bun. Cocker says “Kichel is Saxon – a kind of cake of God’s Kichel, a cake given to God-children when they ask blessing of their God father.”¹

The third pastry is, I confess, something of a mystery in that I have not been able to find much detail about them at all. Congleton Cakes, aka Count Cakes, have long been celebrated. They are of triangular form, with a raisin inserted at each corner; and, from being eaten at the quarterly account meetings of the Corporation for more than a century, they are called ‘Court Cakes’. The three raisins are thought to represent the mayor and two justices, who were the governing body under the charter of James I. By others, they are supposed to symbolise the Trinity. ²

Aside from their shape, and the detail of the three raisins at the corners, there’s no further information that I have been able to find. The pastry, if indeed it is that, might be shortcrust, sweet shortcrust, puff or hot water crust. It might even be bread dough, either plain or enriched. The filling might be jam or mincemeat or apple or currants or something else entirely. I’ve gone with puff pastry and a mincemeat filling, as the names ‘court’ and ‘count’ have a whiff of expense. However, the high temperature needed to bake the puff pastry well and truly crisped the three raisins, which is what got me thinking the paste might be something plainer, shortcrust perhaps (like Chorley cakes), or even an enriched dough (like the original Banbury Cakes). They might not even be a filled pastry at all, but a fruited dough which has merely been cut into triangles, but it’s all guesswork unless someone can fill in the gaps.

If anyone has any information on these mysterious baked treats, please do get in touch.

Coventrys, Godcakes & Congleton Cakes

The instructions can easily be adapted to whichever of the three pastries you’d like to make, so it’s going to be a one-size-fits-all kinda recipe. To make about 8 cakes.

1 sheet of ready-rolled puff pastry
raspberry jam (Coventrys) OR mincemeat (Godcakes/Congleton cakes)
large raisins (Congleton cakes)
eggwhite (for glazing)
caster sugar (for glazing)

  • Heat the oven to 220°C, 200°C Fan.
  • Sprinkle the pastry with flour and roll out a little thinner (3-4mm).
  • Cut plain circles of pastry, about 10cmin diameter.
  • Dampen the edges with a little water to help with sealing the cakes/
  • For Coventrys, spread a teaspoon of raspberry jam in the centre, then fold the edges in over the jam to make a triangle. Press gently, then turn the pastry over and place seal-side down on a baking sheet lined with parchment.
  • For Godcakes, spoon a rounded teaspoon of mincemeat into the centre, then fold the edges in over the mincemeat to make a triangle. Press gently, then place seal-side uppermost on a baking sheet lined with parchment.
  • For Congleton Cakes, place three large raisins at equal distance around the edge of the pastry. Spoon a rounded teaspoon of mincemeat into the centre, then fold the edges in over the mincemeat to make a triangle, ensuring the raisins are closely folded in the pastry.
  • Whichever style you have made, brush over with lightly whisked egg-white and sprinkle with caster sugar.
  • Using a flat-ended spatula, or a knife, make notches in all three sides of each pastry. For Coventrys, don’t make the cuts too deep, as the jam might leak out during cooking.
  • Bake for 18-20 minutes, turning the baking sheet around after 10 minutes to ensure even colouring.
  • Cool on a wire rack.

¹ “Suffolk Words and Phrases: Or, An Attempt to Collect the Lingual Localisms of that County”, Edward Moore, 1823

² “The English dialect dictionary”, J. Wright, Volume 1 A – C, 1898

Advertisements

Sultan Cream Tart

This tart is a pleasant change from round or rectangular tarts and has the added advantage of being able to be made in any size required, from small, serving just one person to large, serving eight. Of course, if you’re feeling peckish, then one person could probably eat a large one, but I’m going to pretend I never said that – I’d hate to put ideas in your head.

This tart is also infinitely customisable. The original recipe (Harris & Borella, All About Pastries, c1900) filled the segments with delicately coloured and flavoured whipped cream, which makes for a wonderfully light and airy treat. For the photo above, I chose an 18thC recipe for a dairy-free whip. Similarly, fresh summer berries or indulgent fruit conserves are both equally appropriate.

Sultan Cream Tart

This enriched shortcrust pastry is halfway between pastry and shortbread: very crisp and friable and a great contrast with the buttery, puff pastry.

Sweet shortcrust
170g plain flour
60g cornflour
125g unsalted butter
15g caster sugar
1 large yolk
ice water to mix

  • Put the flours, yolk, sugar and butter into the bowl of a food processor and blitz until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
  • With the machine running, gradually add the cold water a tablespoon at a time until the mixture comes together in a ball.
  • Tip the mixture onto a floured surface, knead smooth then roll out to a thickness of 5mm.
  • Transfer to a board, cover with cling film and chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

To assemble the tart
1 sheet of ready rolled puff pastry
1 large yolk whisked with 1tbs water for glazing

  • Remove the chilled pastry from the fridge and cut out into circles of the desired size, 15-25cm in diameter.
  • Prick all over with a fork, to prevent blistering, and brush the surface with water.
  • Docked Pastry
  • Unroll the puff pastry. Each tart will require 5 strips of 1cm width, and 2 strips of 2cm width.
  • Place the 1cm strips of puff pastry as follows, laying two strips down the middle with a small gap in-between, as shown.
  • Lay the two, 2cm strips around the edge to form a rim. Have the ends start/finish at the top/bottom of the pastry as shown.
  • Trim the pastry ends neatly.
  • Return the pastries to the fridge and chill until firm. When thoroughly chilled, transfer each tart to a separate piece of parchment paper. using a sharp knife, cut down between the two vertical strips of pastry, and draw each half apart.
  • Heat the oven to 205°C/185°C Fan. Brush all the puff pastry edges with egg glaze and bake them until puffed and golden brown, 25-30 minutes. Cool on a wire rack.

Finishing

These pastries can be made and finished with the glaze/nuts the day before they are required, and kept – carefully – in an airtight container until needed. Fill just before serving.

chopped pistachios
toasted, flaked almonds
75g apricot jam – warmed with 2tbs water

fillings of choice

  • Warm the jam with the water and whisk until smooth. Brush the semicircular rim with glaze and smother with toasted almonds.
  • Brush the glaze over the three dividing bars and smother with chopped pistachio nuts.
  • Fill as desired and serve at once.

 

 

Plum Cannons

These eye-catching pastries are, essentially, a jam turnover, but with a little deft handling, they are transformed into an unusual and appealing shape.

Another hit from the team of Harris and Borella’s All About Pastries, they date from the turn of the nineteenth century.

The original recipe suggested Greengage conserve for the filling, but alas, my cupboard was as bare of this preserve as the supermarket shelves. I was more than slightly perturbed by this sad state of affairs: I had merely run out, but I would have settled for ‘store-bought’. Seeing as Greengages are a classic in preserves, I was disconcerted to find my local Sainsbury’s devoid of Greengage Conserve, despite internet assurances that they would have some.

Of course, any high-quality preserves can be substituted – I opted for mirabelle – the real pleasure comes from enjoying the combination of crisp pastry, crunchy sugar topping and sweet/sharp burst of fruit in the middle.

With a sheet of ready-rolled puff pastry, these treats come together very quickly – and will no-doubt disappear just as fast.

Plum Cannons

1 sheet ready-rolled puff pastry
Plum conserve
egg-white for glazing
caster sugar to sprinkle

  • Use a rolling pin to roll the pastry a little thinner, so it measures at least 24cm by 36cm
  • Cut the pastry into nine rectangles 12cm by 8cm.
  • Put a teaspoon of jam/conserve in the middle of each piece of pastry.
  • Damp the edges of the pastry and fold the ends inwards to cover, overlapping the pastry by at least 3cm.
  • Turn the pastries over, so the seal is underneath and trim the ends (the original long side) straight with a sharp knife.
  • Arrange on a cutting board and chill for at least 30 minutes until firm.
  • Heat the oven to 200°C, 180°C Fan.
  • Remove the chilled pastries from the fridge and, again with a sharp knife, cut a neat V-shape from each end.
  • Arrange the pastries on a lined baking sheet (the jam WILL run during baking, and cleaning baked-on jam from a metal baking sheet is not fun).
  • Brush the pastries with lightly-beaten egg-white and sprinkle with sugar.
  • Cut a small vent in the top to let out steam – I was a little heavy-handed with this batch and the slits opened too much. No-doubt yours will be the epitome of elegance.
  • Bake for 25-30 minutes, turning the baking sheet around after 15 minutes. NB This might seem a long baking time, but puff pastry needs a surprisingly long time to both puff up AND bake thoroughly. If you’re sceptical, before you remove the pastries from the oven, check underneath to see that they are golden brown. If you remove the pastries too early, they will sink as they cool and their layers disappear into stodge.
  • Cool on a wire rack and serve either warm or at room temperature.
  • Store in an airtight container and ‘refresh’ by crisping them in a low oven for 10 minutes.

Dutch Macaroons

Macaroons have been a favourite British treat for centuries. Their form, shapes and flavours might have changed over the years, but they basically remain a mixture of sugar, ground nuts and egg white.

These colourful specimens come from Harris & Borella’s All About Biscuits (c1900), a commercial handbook for the Victorian/Edwardian baker. Unlike the modern preoccupation with a relatively small number of shapes made from a seemingly standard recipe, this book boasts over fifty different macaroon recipes, many of which can be further varied in terms of both colour and flavour and thereby increasing the variety close to a hundred. I think we are missing out on enjoying so much variety by focusing on inconsequentialities such as getting the perfect ‘foot’ on a plain, round macaron – as if that impacts how it tastes. I plan on returning to this chapter in this book on a regular basis, so  stay tuned for more macaroon delights!

These miniature biscuits are just three centimetres in length and about two wide, and the two complimentary flavours are sandwiched together to give a tiny but elegant treat. They aren’t actually sandwiched with anything – their innate stickiness when removed from the baking parchment is enough to join them together, meaning the flavours can be savoured without additional distraction.

There’s nothing stopping you from having a filling, of course – seedless raspberry jam or redcurrant jelly for a burst of sharpness, a white or dark chocolate ganache for richness – but it would be like gilding the lily.

These macaroons get their distinctive form by allowing them to dry a little after piping, then just before baking, cutting through the paper-thin skin that has formed, into the moist mixture beneath. This forces the biscuits to expand in this one place during baking as the egg-white cooks. Whilst each one may vary slightly in the degree to which it expands, there’s much greater uniformity and less likelihood of lop-sidedness. The result is a batch where all the biscuits are much more similar, yet still retaining an organic, freestyle quality. The effect is very striking – much more preferable to the regimented uniformity of the modern, frequently machine-made style – and yet so simple to achieve. The original instructions suggest a sharp knife for this task, but I recommend using a baker’s lame (lah-may) or a single razor blade, in order to get a perfectly clean and sharp incision.

Dutch Macaroons

This is, to a large extent, a proportional recipe, so you can scale it up or down to your requirements. It calls for two parts sugar to one part ground almonds, with one egg-white for every 150g of almond/sugar mixture.

100g ground almonds
200g caster sugar
sufficient egg-whites to mix (about 80ml/2 large)
vanilla extract
raspberry flavouring
claret food colouring

  • Cut a piece of baking parchment to fit your baking sheet, and mark up a grid as below, of dimensions 2cm by 3cm. Turn the parchment over (so your macaroons won’t pick up any marks from the pen/pencil) and lay onto your baking sheet. Have ready two piping bags fitted with a 5mm plain nozzle. If you have disposable bags, you can just snip the end to 5mm.
  • Parchment mark-up
  • Select two mixing bowls, one of which will be used over simmering water. The other bowl will need to be heated with hot water until required.
  • Set a pan of water to heat to a simmer.
  • Put the sugar and almonds into one of the bowls and gradually whisk in sufficient egg white to make a mixture that  will run slightly.
  • Put the pan over the simmering water and whisk vigorously, either using a balloon whisk or with an electric whisk until the mixture is just hot enough for a finger to bear.
  • Remove the bowl from the heat.
  • Empty and dry the second bowl and pour half of the mixture into it.
  • Add vanilla flavouring to one mixture, and raspberry flavouring to the other, together with enough colouring to make a rich magenta (the colour will fade a little during baking.
  • Pour the mixtures into separate piping bags and pipe oval macaroons 2cm by 3cm in alternate squares in your grid.
  • Set aside until a thin sin has formed. The original recipe suggested overnight, but if this is inconvenient, a workaround would be to set your oven to 170°C/150°C Fan for one minute, then turn it off and put the baking sheet into the just-warm oven. Check after 1 hour, and if the skin hasn’t formed, repeat and leave for another hour.
  • When ready to bake, remove the baking sheet from the oven and heat it to 170°C, 150°C Fan.
  • Using a lame/razor blade, slice through the skin of each macaroon vertially down the centre.
  • Bake for ten minutes, turning the baking heet around after five minutes to ensure even colouring.
  • Allow to cool on the sheet.
  • When cold, wet the work surface and slide the baking parchment onto it. After a few minutes the macaroons should lift off easily and you can sandwich them together with one macaroon of each colour. If you’re using fillings, you might like to join the same colours together.  Go wild.

Old Fashioned Cheesecakes

These cheesecake recipes come from a favourite book – All About Pastries, from the All About… Confectionery Series by H.G.Harris & S.P Borella (circa 1900). The recipes are all for commercial quantities, but I’ve become quite adept at scaling them down to more manageable batches.

They were simpler times back then, and ‘cheesecakes’ weren’t always made of the cream cheese that is so widespread today. Much as the term ‘pudding’ originally described a texture, thus accounting for its use to describe both savoury black/white puddings, and sweet Kentish pudding pies, ‘cheesecake’ was used to describe a soft and light texture in a pastry case.

Before refrigeration, cheese curds weren’t available year round, especially as cows were sometime slaughtered in the winter when food sources were scarce. So with typical ingenuity, recipes were developed to achieve the same delicious morsel using other ingredients. Ground almonds were popular, and in commercial bakeries, cake, biscuit and bread crumbs have all been employed to produce a tender tartlet filling.

These two cheesecakes provide a nice comparison, because they also illustrate how one’s choice of pastry can affect the overall success of a recipe.

In the photograph above, the cheesecakes on the left are made with sieved cooked potato. The tartlets on the right are made with curd cheese. The cheesecakes on the left are made with buttery puff pastry, while the ones on the right are made with a very dry and crisp cornflour shortcrust. This is the combination of filling and pastry recommended in the book, but for science I decided also to swap them round, and bake the potato filling in shortcrust and the curd filling in puff pastry. It was not a success. Or rather, it was successful in confirming my belief that contrast is everything.

  • When the filling is rich, use a plain, unsweetened pastry.
  • When the filling is humble, use a rich, butter pastry.

This rule is of mutual benefit, because of the contrast between the two. The pastry adds a texture as well as a flavour contrast to the filling. Baking the rich filling with the butter pastry just made for a finished tartlet that was both heavy and overly greasy. Baking the potato filling with the crisp shortcrust made for a disappointing dry and desiccated bite. Bear this need for contrast in mind as you create your own pastry/filling combinations.

Potato Cheesecakes

Potato Cheesecakes

If you don’t have any maraschino, you could use a little lemon or orange zest, or almond/vanilla instead.

Potato Filling
75g cooked, sieved floury potato
75g unsalted butter – softened
1tsp maraschino liqueur
60g ground almonds
60g caster sugar
1 large egg
1 large yolk

  • Press the potato through a sieve. This is easiest when the potato is still warm.
  • Add the butter and maraschino and beat together until light and fluffy.
  • Whisk the egg and the yolk together, then whisk into the potato mixture.
  • Whisk in the ground almonds.
  • Add the sugar and just stir it enough to combine.
  • Transfer to a container, cover and chill for at least 30 minutes.

To assemble
2 sheets ready rolled puff pastry, all-butter if available
raspberry jam
a few slivered almonds to decorate
small fluted tartlet tins approx. 5cm in diameter

  • Grease the tartlet tins.
  • Unroll the pastry and cut into rectangles the approximate size of your tins.
  • Line the tins with the pastry, making sure to press it firmly into the fluted sides.
  • Using the ball of your thumb, press the base of the tart thin, thereby easing the edges of the pastry up the sides of the tin. If it rises above the top edge, that’s fine.
  • Chill the lined tins in the fridge for at least 30 minutes, to relax the pastry.
  • When the filling and pastry are thoroughly chilled, remove from the fridge.
  • Trim the pastry flush with the top edge of the tartlet tins using a sharp knife.
  • Put half a teaspoon of jam into the bottom of each tart case
  • Fill the tartlets 2/3 full with the potato filling , making sure it is spread to the sides of the pastry (to prevent the jam from bubbling up/through).
  • Scatter a few slivers of almond over the top.
  • Heat the oven to 210°C/190°C Fan.
  • Bake until the pastry is cooked and the filling puffed and browned. This will take 15-20 minutes. You need to judge how cooked you want your pastry to be. In the picture above, the pastry is baked, but not browned and the filling a delicate colour. Longer baking will brown the pastry, but the filling will also darken considerably, unless you cover them. Given the delicate nature of the filling, I think the lighter colour on the pastry is more suitable, but it’s only a personal preference.
  • Allow to cool in the tins for 10 minutes before removing to a wire rack.
  • Serve at room temperature.

Curd Cheesecakes

Curd Cheesecakes

Pastry
225g plain flour
60g cornflour
140g unsalted butter
ice cold water

  • Put the flours and butter into the bowl of a food processor and blitz until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
  • With the machine running, gradually add the cold water a tablespoon at a time until the mixture comes together in a ball.
  • Tip the mixture onto a floured surface, knead smooth then wrap in clingfilm and chill for 30 minutes.
  • Grease some tartlet or cupcake tins.
  • Remove the pastry from the fridge and roll out to a thickness of 4-5mm.
  • Cut out circles using a pastry cutter the same diameter as your tin indentations. Turn them over (so the side rolled by the rolling-pin is against the metal of the tin) and smooth into the sides of the tins.
  • Using your thumb, press the pastry on the base of the tins thin. This motion will ease the edge of the pastry to the top of the tins.
  • Chill the tin in the fridge while the filling is mixed.

Curd Filling
150g curd cheese, well drained
75g unsalted butter, softened
50g caster sugar
1 large egg
zest of 1/2-1 lemon, according to taste
1/4 nutmeg, grated

  • Sieve the curd. Don’t skip this step, thinking that it is soft enough. Forcing the curd through a sieve gives it an incredible lightness which allows it to combine smoothly and easily with the other ingredients. Since there will be some loss in the process,  the actual amount required for the recipe is 115g.
  • Whisk the butter and sugar together until light and creamy.
  • Add the egg and whisk in thoroughly.
  • Add the flavourings, then lightly stir in the curd.
  • Chill until required.

To Assemble
raspberry jam
small fluted tartlet tins approx. 5cm in diameter

  • Put half a teaspoon of jam into the bottom of each tart case
  • Half fill the tartlets with the curd filling , making sure it is spread to the sides of the pastry with no gap (to prevent the jam from bubbling up/through).
  • Heat the oven to 200°C/180°C Fan.
  • Bake until the pastry is cooked and crisp and the filling puffed – 15-20 minutes. The filling will lose its puff as it cools. This is normal.
  • Allow to cool in the tins for a few minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.
  • Serve at room temperature.

Ratafia Pancakes

Pancakes have been the traditional pre-Lenten meal for centuries. Pancake Day is preceded by Collop Monday, when the last  of the bacon and ham was fried up for the evening meal, usually with some eggs. The fat in the pan was then retained for frying the pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.

There are almost as many pancake tradition as there are households. In my childhood, we had sugar and lemon juice on our rolled pancakes, which I just assumed was the one and only way to serve them. Only when I went away to college did I learn about jam, syrup, honey, treacle also being options, puffy American pancakes with syrup AND bacon, and in more recent years Scandinavian æbleskivers and Dutch poffertjes.

Ratafia Pancakes, MS.2767 c1750-1825, Wellcome Collection
Ratafia Pancakes, MS.2767 c1750-1825, Wellcome Collection

This recipe comes from a Georgian manuscript recipe book, and is a charming twist on regular thin pancakes. Filled with a spiced custard and glazed with egg-white and sugar, they are then baked in the oven until crisp. There’s no ratafia flavouring in them, so I’m assuming that the name comes from the crunch of the caramelised sugar and the crisped pancake edges. The combination of warm, spiced custard, crisp pancake and crunchy sugar glaze is delicious. For an adult flavour, you can add a tablespoon of something alcoholic to the custard – cream sherry is probably the closest to the sack that was much in vogue at the time, Madeira, Marsala or Mead are also good choices.

You can use your favourite recipe, or the one below, and if short of time, use ready-made custard, or indeed ready-bought pancakes for that matter. The quantities given below are very modest, enough for four pancakes and filling. Increase the quantities to suit the number of diners you’re serving.

Ratafia Pancakes

For the pancakes
115ml milk
1 large egg
1 large yolk
60g plain flour

Butter for frying

For the custard
250ml milk
2 large yolks
30g cornflour
50g caster sugar
pinch of ground cloves
pinch of ground mace
1/4tsp ground cinnamon
fresh grated nutmeg to taste
1tbs cream sherry/Marsala/Madeira/Mead (optional)

For the glaze
1 large egg white
caster sugar for sprinkling

  • Whisk together the ingredients for the pancake batter.
  • Melt a little butter in a pan and fry ¼ of the batter at a time to make four, thin pancakes. Don’t worry if they’re uneven – the folding/rolling will neaten everything.
  • Set each cooked pancake aside to cool.
  • Whisk together the yolks, sugar, spices and cornflour.
  • Heat the milk in a pan and when almost boiling, pour over the egg mixture, whisking briskly.
  • Return the mixture to the pan and stir over medium heat until thickened.
  • Transfer the mixture to a bowl to cool. Stir in the alcohol, if using.
  • Cover the surface of the custard with plastic film and chill until cold.

To finish

  • Take ¼ of the custard and lay it in a log shape along the bottom edge of a pancake.
  • Fold the left and right sides of the pancake inwards (to contain the custard) and then roll up the pancake, keeping the custard filling well wrapped.
  •  Lay the rolled pancake on a parchment-lined baking sheet, with the free edge of the pancake underneath to keep it from unrolling.
  • Repeat with the remaining pancakes and filling.
  • Heat the oven to 200°C, 180°C Fan.
  • Whisk the egg-white until frothy and brush generously over the rolled pancakes.
  • Sprinkle the caster sugar over the rolled pancakes.
  • Bake the pancakes for 15 minutes to caramelise the sugar and crisp the pancakes. Add an extra 5 minutes more, depending on how brown/crispy your tastes are.
  • Allow to cool for 5 minutes before serving – the custard inside will be very hot.

Lancashire Butter Pie

The Lancashire Butter Pie is a regional, traditional pie specific to western Lancashire, especially the area around Preston, and has also been known as Friday Pie and Catholic Pie.

Preston has traditionally had a strong Catholic presence. In Tudor times, it was resistant – and at times downright hostile – to the Reformation. In 1583 the bishop of Chester denounced it as having a people ‘most obstinate and contemptuous’ of the Elizabethan laws on religion.

Since it was forbidden for Catholics to eat meat on Fridays, this pie, having only three simple ingredients, was ideally suited to the pious abstaining from their usual rich fare. And it does make for a good ‘story’.

However, my curiosity over the fact that it is the butter that gives the dish its name, rather than the potatoes and the onions led me to do some digging around into the pie’s history. My thoughts were that, although butter is commonplace for us now, it must have been regarded as a delicious treat in poorer times.

The modern incarnation of Butter Pie is alleged to owe much to the British Butter board, although I can find no verification for this. What I did find was what could be an ancestor of the modern recipe, in an account of the desperately poor existence of the cotton weavers of Lancashire, dating from 1827.

Joseph Greenwood, a worthy man of independent spirit, who has never troubled his parish, 60 years of age, with a wife and six children, lives at Bridge Inn, two miles and a half from Todmorden, on the Burnley road. He has five looms, and has wound and wove in his family, on an average, every week for the last four weeks, 16 pieces, each 30 yards of super calico, 28 west, at 9d, which gets 12s. per week. This sum is to support eight persons, pay rent, fire, clothes, candles to work by, shuttles, repair looms, &c. yet he will not run into debt. This family’s mode of living is as follows: they purchase a quantity of oatmeal, make gruel of oatmeal, salt, and water only, which serves for breakfast and supper; for dinner they bake a small quantity of the meal into a cake, and buy a little blue milk, as they call it, at ½d. per quart, and sup the milk along with the cake, but this is a luxury they cannot have every day. By way of change they sometimes buy wheaten flour to make the porridge, but with that they cannot afford to have the milk. Butter, cheese, and flesh meat, weavers never think of, unless now and then they purchase two ounces or a quarter of a pound of butter: or one or two pennyworth of suet, or odd bits of interior meat, to make a potatoe pie. The mode of making this pie is as follows: the potatoes are washed and cut into, slices, placed in a dish and sprinkled with salt, then filled up with water, the bits of suet are mixed with the potatoes, and the whole is covered with a thin crust, and if they cannot raise the suet or butter, the pie is made without them.[1]

Porridge morning and evening, oatcakes and skimmed milk for lunch. Having to choose between skimmed milk or wheat flour. Potato Pie as a treat. It’s a sobering thought. And little wonder that the tale of it being a dish of abstinence is the more popular, or at least, easier on the conscience. In this modern age, we are sometimes a bit too blasé about food and shameless with food waste. The story behind Butter Pie makes me, at least, be grateful for the abundance we have. This pie was a treat. IS a treat. No matter the humble ingredients.

So, if I haven’t plunged you irretrievably into a pit of despair, let’s talk ingredients!

This pie is deliciously savoury and ‘toothsome’ as Victorians were wont to say – ridiculously so, given the simplicity of its ingredients. Even with such a short list, you can vary the mix to produce delicately nuanced and finely-tuned combinations whilst still respecting the original.

My absolute favourite potato is the Pink Fir Apple, a fingerling-type potato with such a delicious flavour, I eat them as they are – no butter, no salt – they’re that good. In terms of texture, they sit perfectly between floury and waxy, relieving me of having to choose between these two different types of tuber. They aren’t very easy to find, alas. Many people have a specific preference, and will deign to eat only that one type. I, however, believe that there are times when one is more suited to a recipe than the other, and in this recipe you can celebrate both types according to the season. In spring and summer, use waxy new potatoes and spring onions or chives for freshness. In autumn and winter, big slices of soft, floury King Edward or Wilja potatoes with delicately softened brown onions turn this into an unctuous and comforting dish.

Whichever style you choose, the pastry should provide contrast against which the filling can really shine. Now you could be forgiven for thinking that with such a buttery filling, a rich buttery puff pastry would be the way to go, and you would be perfectly within your rights to try it, but it would not be the best option. It’s just too rich. Everything gets lost. My recommendation is for a cornflour, all butter, shortcrust pastry. It bakes incredibly crisp and the presence of the cornflour makes it a dry crispness – something not usually achievable with an all-butter pastry. And this unassuming, plain pastry is the perfect background for the soft, buttery filling to shine. It’s all about contrasts, of textures as well as flavours. You need the plainness of the pastry to really enjoy the rich-tasting filling.

Butter Pie Slice

Lancashire Butter Pie

The choice of potato is entirely up to you. I used Anya potatoes this time. The quantity of butter in the filling is restrained: you can also dot more over the potato layers if you’re feeling indulgent.

Pastry
225g plain flour
60g cornflour
140g unsalted butter
ice cold water

  • Put the flours and butter into the bowl of a food processor and blitz until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
  • With the machine running, gradually add the cold water a tablespoon at a time until the mixture comes together in a ball.
  • Tip the mixture onto a floured surface, knead smooth then wrap in clingfilm and chill for 30 minutes.
  • Remove the pastry from the fridge and cut off two thirds. Put the remaining third back into the fridge.
  • Roll this piece out to a thickness of 4-5mm and use it to line a greased 18cm pie tin, loose-bottomed for preference, making sure there is enough pastry overlapping the sides of the tin to allow for joining the lid.
  • Chill the pastry while you prepare the filling.

Filling
750g potatoes
120g unsalted butter
2 medium onions
salt and ground white pepper

1 egg yolk for glazing

  • Peel the potatoes and cut into 1cm slices.
  • Boil or steam (preferred) until tender. Spread out on a clean cloth to cool/dry.
  • Chop the onions finely.
  • Melt the butter in a pan and add the onions.
  • Cook gently over a low heat until softened. Do not allow them to take any colour.
  • Spread a thin layer of buttery onions over the base of the pastry and season with pepper and salt. Cover with a layer of potato slices, cutting them if necessary to fill any gaps.
  • Repeat until the pie is filled, remembering to season each layer of onions. Pour any remaining butter over the top.
  • Roll out the remaining pastry to make a lid.
  • Damp the edges of the pastry and lay the lid on top. Trim to leave a border of 1cm.
  • Crimp the pastry edges between finger and thumb. Gently press the crimped edge inwards until it is standing vertical.
  • Mix the yolk with 1-2tsp cold water, and glaze the pastry lid thoroughly using a brush.
  • Cut out some decorations from the offcuts of pastry and arrange on top of the glaze. Leaving the decorations unglazed will keep them from taking on too much colour in the oven, which means they will stand out more when baked. Cut a steam vent in the centre of the lid.
  • Chill the pie in the fridge while the oven heats up.
  • Heat the oven to 200°C, 180°C Fan.
  • Bake the pie for 40-45 minutes, turning it around after 20 minutes to ensure even browning.
  • Allow to cool for at least 10 minutes before turning out and serving.
  • Also delicious cold.

[1] Niles’ National Register, Volume 32,  1827, p118