My interest in early modern domesticity and science began last year when I read Margaret Cavendish’s Poems and Fancies and noticed that some of Cavendish’s poems bore a remarkable resemblance to recipes. One of the most interesting is her poem “A Tart” (read here), which is what started the whole thing for me. Since it’s a good idea to go back to the beginning occasionally, I decided to try and create a tart from Cavendish’s poem. Can it be done? Are poems reliable sources for cookery? Should we next look out for William Carlos Williams’ plum compote? Read on, Macduff.
“A Tart” and “A Posset for Nature’s Breakfast” are the two poems in the kitchen fancies that most resemble workable recipes. I’ve had trouble with possets in the past, so although the posset poem has a more detailed method, the tart leaves me more room to compare with contemporary recipes and develop one of my own. Here’s the poem:
Life took some Floure made of Complexions white,
Churnd Butter, by Nourishment; as cleane as might:
And kneads it well, then on a Board it laies,
And roules it oft, and so a Pye did raise.
Then did she take some Cherry Lips that’s red,
And Sloe-black Eyes from a Faire Virgins Head.
And Strawbery Teats from high Banks of white Breast,
And Juice from Raspes Fingers ends did presse.
These put into a Pye, which soone did bake,
Within a Heart, which she strait hot did make;
Then drew it out with Reasons Peele, and sends
It up to Nature, she it much commends.
Katherine Capshaw Smith has written about the decidedly disturbing cannibalistic overtones in Cavendish’s poem, in her article “‘Bisket of Love, which crumbles all away’: The Failure of Domestic Metaphor in Margaret Cavendish’s Poetic Fancies.” (Domestic Arrangements in Early Modern England, Duquesne UP, 2002). The fruits come from violence against women, and the “raspes from fingers ends” line also conjures up the violence within the kitchen. It’s an odd sort of blazon in that it literalizes the violence of taking apart a woman to praise her; it also shows us the consequences of doing so. (Elizabeth Scott-Baumann’s “’Bake’d in the Oven of Applause’: The blazon and the body in Margaret Cavendish’s Fancies” is a lovely exploration of this.)
On the culinary side, it’s interesting to see a cooked-fruit tart, when a lot of today’s berry tarts I ran across in my research are fresh. Although Cavendish’s poem is titled “A Tart,” what Life produces is more like a pie; so in deciding how faithful to the recipe I was going to be (after mostly disregarding it) I started thinking about fruit presentation in early modern England. Fresh fruit and vegetable eating certainly wasn’t alien to the early modern palate–the new fashion for sallets testifies to that–nor would it have been too desirable to the early modern housewife to bake in the summer when berries were seasonal. But since this “recipoem” appears in Cavendish, I wonder if upper-class eating preferences also influence why this Tart is baked and not fresh. Was eating raw food considered more common than eating cooked/baked food? Most of Hannah Woolley’s tart recipes are cooked–apricot, custard, lemon; and Markham’s similarly so. I’ll be interested to see if further cookbooks and recipe books of aristocratic ladies confirm this.
Since Life adds the fruit before putting it in the oven, I think this is what we’d call today a mixed berry pie, containing cherries, blackberries or blueberries (because you can’t get good organic virgin’s eyes in stores), strawberries, and raspberries. I’m taking a little culinary liberty and transforming it into a summer berry tart, to avoid using my oven and to display the fruit-conceits. Although it was tempting to cheat and use premade puff pastry dough, I “took some Floure” and made my own. I’ve also decided against a cream base, in the spirit of making this tart more closely resemble a pie. (Adapted from the kitchn’s recipe).
1 1/2 c flour (unbleached, although Cavendish asks for only the whitest complexions)
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp lemon zest
10 tbsp cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
4 tbsp ice water, more as needed
Pulse flour, sugar, and salt together in a food processor; then add lemon zest and butter (gradually) until it resembles a coarse meal. Add the ice water until clumps form that barely hold together. (Or if you’re operating a graduate student/early modern kitchen, finger-mix together in a bowl.) Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and form a ball. Put the ball on plastic wrap and press into a disk 1/2 inch (a finger width) thick. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour-4 days.
Preheat oven to 400 F. Take dough out of fridge and let rest for 10 minutes before rolling out into an 11-inch circle. If you have a tart pan, press dough into pan and use baking beans when you bake. If not, make a free-form circle on a baking tray. (You may want to make the edges slightly thicker in this case.) In either case, freeze for 10 minutes, then bake for 25 minutes or until crust begins to darken. Keep an eye on it.
1/2 c sugar (adjust depending on sweetness of berries)
1/4 c cornstarch
3 c berries
1 tsp lemon zest
Mix together sugar and cornstarch. Add 2 c of berries and zest, smashing so that some of the berries mix into the sugar. (“And Juice from Raspes Fingers Endes did Presse”?) Put into tart shell and top with remaining berries. Bake until fruit is bubbling, 25-30 minutes. If it starts to brown too soon, cover loosely with foil.
Tasting notes: Excellent. I was surprised at how closely the methods in the modern recipe and in Cavendish’s poem matched up, and this version turned out splendidly. The crust isn’t too sweet (and would be even better in a tart pan where it didn’t burn) and the lemon brightens the berries nicely. I forgot to poke the crust with a fork beforehand, though, so the juice didn’t seep into the crust as much as I’d hoped. I’ll definitely make this again, hopefully with a tart pan!