Friday, December 31, 2010

The Tartlett Experiment: 14th Century Flavor!

Hi folks. Sorry for the lag in posting, but we were supposed to have a babysitter come on Wednesday morning and she had to reschedule for this morning. Friday. I think it's Friday? It's hard to keep track of the days of the week, the date, etc., when most of your days go something like this:

1. Wake at ungodly hour.
2. Wrestle child into clean diaper and, hopefully, pants. Repeat ad nauseum.
3. Provide child with a variety of wholesome, nutritious food then despair when child will only eat Veggie Booty and Kix. Repeat ad nauseum.
4. Play with child, including but not limited fashioning outfits for small plastic zoo animals out of Scotch tape and paper towels.
5. Collapse into bed wearing sweatpants and a booger-encrusted shirt around the same time most childless San Franciscans are dressing for dinner.

Anyway, enough about my thrilling life! What you want to know,  I am sure,  is "how did the vaguely disgusting-sounding 14th century pork tartletts turn out?"

The short answer: not bad.

The long answer:

I started by investigating the composition of the mysterious "powder fort" and "powder douce." It turns out they are basically medieval curry powder-- that is, they have a general kind of character but the exact ingredients vary from source to source. Powder fort is, unsurprisingly, a strong blend with heavy ginger and pepper flavor. Powder douce includes sugar and healthy doses of the "sweeter" spices like cinnamon and cloves.

For the powder fort I used these proportions:

1 TB ground cloves
1 TB ground mace
1 TB ground allspice
1 TB ground white pepper
4 TB ground ginger
3 TB ground black pepper

(In the middle of this it became abundantly clear that I was not going to be able to hand-grind 3 TB of black pepper from our anemic IKEA pepper grinder. My sainted husband strapped our 28-lb. toddler into the backpack and trekked out to the store to purchase two tins of the pre-ground sawdusty stuff, bless him, thus saving my wrists from a possibly permanently debilitating case of repetitive stress injury. Thanks, babe.) 

For the powder douce: 

3 TB ginger
2 TB sugar
2 TB cinnamon
1 TSP cloves
1 TSP nutmeg
I suspect you could substitute pumpkin pie spice for the powder douce if you were feeling lazy. Seriously, go ahead, we don't judge here.

I mixed up a double batch of each with the idea that I would be using these blends again. 

Next I decided to prep the tartlett filling, hoping that a couple of hours in the refrigerator would make it easier to handle. I pulled this glistening beauty-- two pounds of wild boar shoulder, provided by the fine folks at Golden Gate Meats-- from the fridge and proceeded to get medieval on its ass. Or, um, shoulder.

Unrolled, it was kind of an awkward flappy thing with a distinctly gamy aroma. It didn't smell bad, it smelled... wet. And kind of metallic-bloody. So, medieval! I was already giddy with the thrill of authenticity. 

I introduced a pound of the feral pig to the grinder attachment of my KitchenAid, which kind of deflated the authenticity elation, honestly, but no way was I about to attempt to mince this by hand with nothing but a cheap Chinese cleaver and my trusty Wusthof chef's knife. (In case you were wondering, the other pound of meat went into the freezer to reappear at some point either in this blog or as wild boar carnitas. Mmmmm, carnitas. I hope I have an excuse to buy lard soon. But I digress). I used the small grinding plate,  assuming that smaller pieces would cohere better in the tarts than big chunks. 

To all this porcine goodness I added two heaping tablespoons of powder fort, a half cup of currants, a teaspoon of sea salt, and two eggs.

These were mixed and put back in the fridge, (covered, of course; as dedicated as I am to this experiment  I would prefer the smell of my refrigerator remain firmly in the 21st century, thankyouverymuch), to chill while I prepped the dough.

Ahh, pastry dough. How I hate thee. I hate fiddling with you and your finicky, capricious nature, even if the end result is going to be apple pie, which I love. I hate you more when I don't know if the result is going to even be edible.

Luckily,  further research revealed that much medieval dough was of the "hot water" variety, which happens to be very similar to the hot water dough used to make wontons and gyoza-- that is, it's flour. And hot water. And not much else.

I started with two cups of Bob's Red Mill Buhr Stone Ground Whole Wheat flour, which was both surprisingly affordable and available at the ghet-TO Safeway by our house. I then sifted the flour with a teaspoon of salt through a fine-mesh strainer, which removed some small bits of the bran.

Then I added just-boiled water in a steady stream while I stirred with what I hoped was medieval vigor. My efforts were rewarded with a blob of unusable slop with the consistency of... oh, there is nothing to compare it with. It was just gross. Half pancake batter, half PlayDo.

So sorry, Bob and your Red Mill.  I don't like to waste flour.

I started over, this time admitting my weakness and hauling out the Cuisinart. Once again, flour and salt were sifted, added to the bowl of the food processor along with an egg for the hell of it, and whizzed at low speed while I added the hot water in a slow stream until the dough just came together. I sprinkled it with a little extra flour and was able to pull it out of the processor bowl in more or less of a ball.

Following a tip I picked up from a wonton-wrapper recipe, I placed the ball of dough into a Ziploc bag, sealed it up, and let it steam itself until it was cool. I am sure there is a medieval equivalent to the Ziploc bag; I just haven't quite found it yet. But I will. Oh, I will.

The result was nothing short of miraculous. The dough was pliable, forgiving, and easily rolled out into a 1/8"thick sheet. We are lucky to have (albeit hideously patterned) marble countertops in our kitchen, which further eased the pastry-rolling process. The only downside was the color. Brown. Browny-brown-brown. Waaaayyyy more brown than I expected. Still, the texture made me too happy to care that it was the color of baby shit.

Maybe I am just inured to baby shit after dealing with it on a daily basis for so long. Man, that's a depressing thought.

(Did I mention that I was also cooking like five other hors d'oeuvres for our Christmas Eve party at the same time I was making these freaking tartletts? Because I was. That's the kind of bad decision-making that results from a two-year case of Mommy Brain, FYI. Consider that a public service announcement).

The upside to having the party was the assistance of two of our guests, the lovely Susi (of the awesome Craftroom) and Gina. They gleefully jumped in to help roll, fill, and photograph the tartletts-to-be.

Here you can see the exacting method employed to cut the pastry into circles. Yes, that is a pint glass. 'Cause we are Klassy like that here at the Time Traveling Cook. And I may have had some ale in that glass later. Ale's an authentic 14th century beverage; beer is not. I am just saying.

I should probably mention that I had set a 3 quart saucepan filled with a mix of homemade chicken and beef stock to simmer on the stove, to which I added four threads of saffron and two tablespoons of the powder douce. I got saffron for myself for Christmas, and I gave it to myself on Christmas Eve! I am so nice to me. The saffron gave the broth a lovely yellow color, though I was hard-pressed to taste it, honestly.

Gina and I then filled the pastry circles with the wild boar mixture and used an egg beaten with a little hot water to seal the edges. Voila!

From there it was pretty smooth sailing. Once we had tartletts equal to the number of party guests, I placed them, in batches as to not crowd the pan, into the simmering broth. 

Employing the totally scientific method of guesstimating, I cooked the tartletts until the the filling felt firm to the touch and the pastry edges felt soft. I used my fingers. Somehow during this step the broth went from a lovely saffron-yellow to a dull-- you guessed it!-- brown. 

The cooked tartletts looked like this: 

They tasted pretty good. Actually, with the ginger flavor from the powder fort and the wonton-like texture of the pastry, they were vaguely Asian-tasting. The pastry probably could stand to be rolled even thinner, because it definitely swelled in the simmering-- in several of the tarts, some of the filling's flavor was lost in the "doughiness" (is that even a word?) of the pastry. The currants added a nice textural element and bright little bursts of raisin flavor.

I then proudly presented my tartletts in the broth to the party guests, who gamely partook of them and pronounced them "OK!"

The guests even politely ignored the fact that it looked like I was serving them brown turd patties wrapped in turd dough floating in a bowl of watery diarrhea.

Perhaps from now on I will use historically accurate lighting when serving medieval cuisine. Darkness could only improve the appearance of these tartletts. Still, I am going to call this one a qualified success. They were edible, even pleasant-- and they definitely had an out-of-our-time quality that is the ultimate goal of this entire Time Traveling Cooking enterprise.

NEXT UP: I am going to attempt something American, probably 18th or 19th century, and possibly over an open fire! I hope the neighbors don't call the authorities. Stay tuned for the big reveal in a day or two.


  1. Love this! You had me cracking up over the presentation ;) can't wait to see what's next...

  2. It was brown. That cannot be over estimated. But they were really good. Very interesting. Not bland, as the color would suggest. I had more than one!
    Next, maybe I will borrow your plans for animal clothing and feature them on the Craft blog.
    You did not mention the "casting". I think "casting" them into the pot was one of the highlights. : )

  3. Like the writeup, and would love to have tasted it!