Redacting Period Recipes

How to go from medieval source to modern recipe - a rough outline.

This is the roughly-edited version of the notes for a class I’ve taught at Canton of Kappellenberg meetings.

Defining Redaction

What do we mean by “redaction?” From the Oxford English Dictionary 1st edition in 2 volumes, vol 2, pg 293:

Redact – past participle
1. Brought together in a written form (1432)
2. Brought or reduced into (in), to a state, condition, etc, or under one’s power (1432)
3. Of material things: Reduced to or into ashes, dust, etc.

Redact verb
1. transitive – a. to bring (matter of reasoning or discourse) into or to a certain form; to put together in writing (1432)  b. to bring or insert (a thing) into a scheme or body (1570)   c. to reduce (a subject) to a person’s understanding (1657)
2. to bring together into one body (1432)
3. To reduce (a person or thing) to, into a certain state, condition, or action. (1542)
b. To reduce (a material thing) to a certain form. (1634)
4. In modern use: a. to draw up, frame (a statement, decree, etc) (1837)   b. to put (matter) into proper literary form, to work up, arrange, or edit (1851)

In other words, we are editing a period recipe to make sense to a modern reader. Period recipes are more or less notes from one cook to another – great if you know what your end product is supposed to look like, but sometimes vague if you’re not sure.  Think about how you give a recipe to a friend – or how your grandmother passed on her recipes – “A bit of this, some of that…” – in fact, standardized volume measurements weren’t really popularized until the 18th century, though some 16th century cookbooks use weights or other measures.

Redacting Period Recipes – Step by Step

The steps I use for redacting a period recipe are as follows:

  1. Read the recipe. In cooking period food, the first thing to do is look at the period source.  Is it in English? If so, are all of the words familiar? If not, and you have a translation, how reliable is that translation? Can you look at more than one translation, or work one out for yourself to better understand the translator’s word choices? If necessary, rewrite the recipe in plain English, for instance:
    • Before: Bray ginger, yolks of eggs without the germ, and pass them through the strainer with cows’ milk; or in the case it should turn, let the yolks of cooked eggs be taken and then brayed and passed through the strainer; moisten with cows’ milk and boil well. This recipe is translated from Le Menagier de Paris, a 14th century French source.
    • After: To bray means to grind, so this recipe is instructing us to grind ginger (note that it doesn’t specify fresh or dried) and egg yolks. “Without the germ” may mean without the embryo, as many eggs would have been fertile, or it might refer to the chalazae (which would make sense in terms of making a smooth custard). Then mix with cows’ milk (note the lack of proportions) and pass through a strainer. Alternatively, grind cooked egg yolks with the ginger and force the mixture through a strainer, add milk and boil.
  2. Ask questions: For this recipe, I would ask the following questions:
    • What is the end product of this recipe supposed to be? I interpreted this as a thin, custard like sauce dish. Others may interpret it as a thicker sauce, and other recipes may have even more interpretations.
    • Are any of the procedures unfamiliar? There are many sources for terminology such as “bray”, including Pleyn Delight and Take a Thousand Eggs. (While these sources also include the authors’ redactions, it’s more fun to do your own!)
    • Does equipment used make a difference? While one often uses modern equipment to substitute for large amounts of labor (I love my Cuisinart!) it can change the end product.  For instance, in redacting a recipe for a “Bread Tart“, the author specifies that bread should be grated, and bread crumbs made using a grater gave the final product a fluffier, more consistant texture than those using a food processor.  For this recipe, the difference between grinding the ginger and egg yolks in a mortar and pestle may be significant, though I haven’t tested that yet.
    • Are there any other similar recipes? Sometimes, other sources can help inform your redaction.  For instance, one might check other jance sauce recipes from 14th century French sources to see if there are other cooking tips or ratios included.  I also check modern sources for similar recipes, both completely modern ones (custard sauces, in this instance) and others’ redactions of period recipes, just to get an idea of possible ingredient ratios and cooking times.  There is a fine line to walk when doing this – if you rely too heavily on modern sources, your end product will be very modern, but attempting to cook completely unfamiliar dishes with no outside references can lead to completely inedible dishes.
    • How would period ingredients and modern ingredients differ? What ingredient choices can I make to achieve a more period product? For instance, for this recipe I would check how ginger would be acquired by residents of Paris in the late 1400s, and make sure to use whole milk, preferably not homogenized, or even raw if I could get it.
  3. Make a stab at creating the dish. My redaction for this dish was as follows:
    • For this sauce, I pureed 2.5 oz peeled ginger with 3 large egg yolks.  I then mixed the puree with approximately 1 cup of milk, and brought to a boil, then strained the mixture and adjusted the seasoning with salt and additional ginger.
  4. Evaluate your redaction:
    • Does it taste good? I’m still working on this one – it’s gingery, but it’s thinner than I would like – perhaps it should have less milk, or more eggs. If you play with it and get a better result, please let me know.
    • Does it closely match the instructions given? It’s very easy to fall into modern cooking habits and use modern culinary techniques while doing redactions – it would be so much easier to thicken this sauce with a roux, for instance, but that technique wasn’t recorded as being used until the late 15th/early 16th century.
    • Is the result plausible? 

A more difficult example: Cuskynoles

A mete þat is icleped cuskynoles. Make a past tempred wiþ ayren, &
soþþen nim peoren & applen, figes & reysins, alemaundes & dates; bet
am togedere & do god poudre of gode speces wiþinnen. & in leynten make
þi past wiþ milke of alemaundes, & rolle þi past on a bord, & soþþen hew hit on moni perties, & vche an pertie beo of þe leynþe of a paume & an half & of þreo vyngres of brede. & smeor þy past al of one dole, & soþþen do þi fassure wiþinnen. | Vchan kake is portiooun. & soþþen veld togedere oþe 3eolue manere, ase
þeos fugurre is imad:
|  .   |   .   |   .  |   .  |   .   |
|  .   |   .   |   .  |   .  |   .   |
|  .   |   .   |   .  |   .  |   .   |

& soþþ boille in veir water, & soþþ en rost on an greudil: & soþþen adresse.

The first thing to know about this recipe is that the letter “þ”, or thorn, represents “th”. Rewritten with modern spelling in mind:

“A meat that is (called) cuskynoles.  Make a paste tempered with eggs, and so then take pears and apples, figs and raisins, almonds and dates, beat them together and do good powder of good spices within, and in lent make the past with milk of almonds, and rolle the paste on a board, and so then hew it in many parts, and each part be of the length of a palm and a half and of three fingers of bredth.  And smear the paste all of one half, and so then do the mixture within. Each cake is one portion, and so then meld together of the below manner, as this figure is made: (see figure above) and so boil in fair water, and so then roast on a griddle, and so then dresse.

The question? Are they ravioli, or are they a single, many “celled” cake?

See for more debate.

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