THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

21 December 2020

Great medieval bake off: Christmas edition

In the medieval and early modern periods, people celebrated Christmas with twelve days of extravagant feasting and merriment. Following the success of our Great medieval bake off in September, we’re getting into the spirit of the season by recreating some festive treats using authentic recipes from manuscripts held in the Library.

On your marks, get set, bake!

A scene from a medieval manuscript of people feasting at a table
A medieval feast, France, 1290-1300: Add MS 28162, f. 10v

Ellie’s recipe: a dish of snowe

A recipe for 'a dish of snowe' in an early 17th-century manuscript
Recipe for ‘a dish of snowe’, England, early 17th century: Add MS 28319, f. 17v (detail)

To make a dish of Snowe / Take a potte of sweete thicke creme and the white of eight egges and beate them altogether with a spoone then putte them into your creame with a dish full of Rose Water and a dishfull of Sugar withall then take a sticke and make it cleane and then cutt it in the ende fowre square and therewith beate all the aforesayd thinges together and ever as it ariseth take it of and putte it into a Cullander thys done take a platter and set an aple in the middest of it and sticke a thicke bush of Rosemarye in the apple then cast your snowe upon the rosemarye and fill your platter therewith and if you have wafers cast some withall and thus serve them forth

To make a dish of snow, take a pot of sweet thick cream and the whites of eight eggs and beat them together with a spoon, then put them into your cream with a dishful of rosewater and a dishful of sugar withal. Then take a stick and make it clean and then cut it in the end foursquare and therewith beat all the aforesaid things together and ever as it arises take it off and put it in a colander. This done, take a platter and set an apple in the middle of it and stick a thick bush of rosemary in the apple. Then cast your snow upon the rosemary and fill your platter therewith and if you have wafers cast some withal and thus serve them forth.

Some of the highlights of medieval and early modern feasts were novelty foods made to look like something else for the delight of the diners—the historical equivalents of an illusion bake. This recipe for ‘a dish of snowe’, made to resemble a snowy little tree on a hilltop, is a lovely example of this. This version of the recipe comes from an early 17th-century manuscript, but a similar version also appears in the printed book A proper newe booke of cokerye, which was published in several editions with the earliest dating from 1545. Modern editions of the recipe, which are based on these early printed editions, don’t explain that you should stick the rosemary into the apple, meaning that modern commentators have missed its identity as an illusion dessert. The extra detail provided in the manuscript version allows us to rediscover the original presentation of the dish. 

To make this recipe I mixed together a 300 ml pot of double cream, the whites of 2 eggs (the 8 eggs specified in the recipe would make enough snowe for a considerable feast!), 2 tablespoons of rosewater and 2 tablespoons of caster sugar, then whipped them together with a whisk until they formed a firm foamy consistency (about 15 minutes by hand). I love that this recipe gives you instructions to make your own whisk, but boringly I already had one. I placed a small apple in a bowl, made a hole in it with a skewer, and then stuck a sprig of rosemary into the hole so that it stood upright. With a spoon, I gently spread the snowe over the rosemary leaves and apple and put the rest in the bowl. Not having any wafers to hand, I decorated the dish with some cinnamon thins. The finished product looks more exciting than it tastes, which is pleasantly sweet and creamy but a little bland. I think it would work better as a topping, perhaps on something tart and fruity. But the recipe definitely succeeds in what was probably its main purpose, making an eye-catching winter wonderland of a centrepiece.

A photo of a modern recreation of 'a dish of snowe'
A dish of snowe, photo by Ellie Jackson

Calum’s recipe: gingerbread

A recipe for gingerbread in a 16th/17th-century manuscript
A recipe for gingerbread, England, late 16th-early 17th century: Add MS 46139, f. 48r (detail)

To make ginger breade / ffirste take fayre clarified honye, sinnamon, ginger, and a quantitie of pepper and graynes and a great quantitite of liccoras, anniseede, lett all theis seeth together, till they eate like ginger breade, as the taste pleaseth or offendeth you, so mende the aforesaid amixtures, and when you like yt well put in the breade and stirre yt well together, and worke yt forthwith, as hott as may be suffered

To make gingerbread, first take clarified honey, cinnamon, ginger, and a quantity of pepper and grains, and a large amount of liquorice and aniseed. Let all this sit together, until it tastes like gingerbread, as the taste pleases or offends you. Stir the previously mentioned mixtures, and when you like it well add the breadcrumbs and stir them together well, and then work the mixture, as hot as it can take.

Gingerbread is a common feature of surviving medieval cookbooks (this blog has previously featured a gingerbread recipe from an English cookery book made c. 1430). The example above can be found in an early modern collection of medical, alchemical and cookery recipes, partly written by Alexander Gill the Elder (b. 1565, d. 1635), the High Master of St Paul’s School in London, whose pupils notably included the famous English poet John Milton. Readers might have gathered that Gill’s recipe for gingerbread is unlike the biscuit or cookie we all know and love. In fact, this ‘gingerbread’ is not a biscuit at all. It is more similar to a piece of modern confectionary, a soft shaped sweet like marzipan or nougat, and ginger is only one of a number of spices that can be added to the mix.

For my version, I poured a jar of honey into a pan and brought it to a boil, skimmed the scum that formed on the surface and flavoured it with small amounts of cinnamon, ground ginger, white pepper and aniseed. To this, I added plain white breadcrumbs, incorporating them into the liquid a little at a time until the mixture began to grow firm and stick to the pan. I then turned it out on a parchment sheet, placed another parchment sheet on top and rolled it out thinly. Once the gingerbread had cooled, I cut it into squares. Some variants of this recipe mention that you can dye the gingerbread by adding sandalwood. In this case, I used a modern food colouring and shaped the resulting mixture into balls. The recipe resulted in a sweet, quite sickly treat, which tasted much like the filling in a treacle tart.

A photo of a modern recreation of gingerbread
A plate of gingerbread, based on the recipe in Add MS 46139, photo by Calum Cockburn

Clarck’s recipe: mulled wine

A recipe for mulled wine in a medieval manuscript
A recipe for mulled wine, England, 15th century: Harley MS 2868, f. 4v

Take an unce of gode treacle half an unce of tormentile rotes a sponfull of columbyn sedes vj nutkyrnels bray al þies sam except the treacle to þai be small þan putte iij sponefull of Juse of rewe and ij unce of sugar and medle all wele to gedder and put it into a closebox . and take of þat fastand þe quantite of an hesill nutt with a littill wyne or ayle warmyd

Take an ounce of good treacle, half an ounce of tormentil roots, a spoonful of ‘columbine’ [vervain] seeds, and six nut kernels. Grind all these together (except for the treacle) until they are a powder. Then add three spoonfuls of the juice of rue and two ounces of sugar, mix it well together, and put it in a jar. Then take of that solid matter the size of a hazelnut with a bit of warmed wine or ale.

Mulled or spiced wine was commonly consumed in the Middle Ages, but I was surprised to find a 15th-century Middle English recipe for this popular wintry drink in a Latin prayer book that is part of our ongoing cataloguing project on the Harley collection. An owner of the manuscript wrote the recipe below a prayer to St Giles, probably because they considered both the prayer and the recipe as forms of protection against plague: while the saint was often invoked against the disease, the recipe’s main ingredients (treacle, vervain, and tormentil) were considered highly potent plague remedies. Coincidentally, the saint’s feast day on 1 September also marks the beginning of the cold season—the time of the year which we nowadays associate with mulled wine.

I first simmered an ounce of lemon vervain (‘columbyn’ refers to verbena, not the poisonous columbine aquilegia!), common rue, and tormentil rhizome in a litre of water for half an hour. After sieving the resulting ‘herbal tea’, I added half an ounce of molasses (black treacle), two ounces of sugar, and a handful of finely crushed hazelnuts. I bottled the mixture, let it cool down, and then mixed half of it with 750 ml of warmed-up fruity red wine. The resulting flavour was tasty, but mostly dominated by the treacle. For those who want to try this for themselves, I would recommend adding traditional mulled wine spices such as cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg.

A photo of the ingredients for medicinal mulled wine
Ingredients for a medieval medicinal mulled wine, photo by Clarck Drieshen

We hope that our recipes can inspire your own culinary creations over this holiday season!

Ellie Jackson, Clarck Drieshen and Calum Cockburn
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***disclaimer: these recipes were made in the authors' own time and at their own expense. No Library resources were used in the making of these medieval treats! ***