This past weekend I went on my Rare Books Bake Off adventure and it was an adventure, believe you me. While my end product was yummy and made my apartment smell like the best of local British pubs, it wasn’t much of a looker and it was a journey to get it made. Here are my takeaway lessons from this journey to make a recipe from early 19th century Britain, a venison pasty.
First lesson: A pasty was something different in the early 1800s; it was essentially a full size meat pie, not the handheld pies we know and love today. And I could find only three recipes that used “pasty” in their title in our Cookbooks & Herbals digital collection and all three were for the same thing, a venison pasty. It was always found among all the meat pie recipes though. The only difference I could discern is that the pasty called only for a crust on top of the pie filling with no crust under – all the other pies called for a traditional pie crust. It was also a recipe only to be found in cookbooks from Great Britain.
Second lesson: One cannot simply buy venison these days, at least not around Tallahassee. I spoke to the two main meat markets in the area and was told that if I killed a deer, I could bring it in and they would process it for me. That was a bit more commitment than I was willing to make for the Bake Off challenge so I subbed in stew beef for venison. All the recipes also called for mutton and that wasn’t something I even attempted to find as I didn’t think that would go well (nor did I really want to try mutton).
Third lesson: The recipes all assumed I know a lot more about cooking and baking than I do. One of the recipes I looked at simply remarked at one point to “pour the gravy over the meat” and yet had told me nothing about making a gravy or how to do so! Other recipes used venison bones and mutton to make a gravy, two things I did not have either. So, I needed a modern day recipe to guide me on this journey. Luckily, I found this fabulous recipe at The Spruce Eats, shared by one of their British writers so I would keep to the original character of this very British dish from its early 1800s roots. I did my best to also find British ingredients where I could. Thinking I would not find mustard powder (what even is that?), I thought I would need to sub-in ground mustard but Publix to the rescue! They had a mustard powder from Norwich in stock. I did not however buy or make the ginger biscuits the recipe wanted – I am curious how that might have thickened the final filling though as that was pretty thin in the end.
Fourth lesson: Puff Pastry is not my friend. This was my first time trying to make puff pastry from scratch and it actually went well until it came time to roll it out to place over the filling for the pie. My dough remained very sticky throughout the process and no matter how much flour I would put on the counter, it would stick! I did eventually get pastry over the filling but by then, I’d worked the dough a lot and it was breaking in lots of places. So while it does taste good, it did not puff as it should have in the baking process so the final product looks a flat and a bit sad. Also, since it didn’t puff, the underside is soggy (Mary Berry is so disappointed in me) but, as a pasty, there is only crust on the top of the pie so no soggy bottom at least!
Fifth lesson: The cooks of the early 19th century clearly had a lot of time on their hands (and I know often cooking was an actual occupation at the time) but this dish was time-consuming. I started work at 2pm and finally sat down to eat the final product at 7pm. And there were a lot of dishes and cleaning up in between and after as well. I was exhausted when I went to bed that night.
All that said, I really enjoyed this project and chronicling my journey through Instagram stories and getting lots of encouragement from the ladies of my network who are all great bakers and assure me for a first effort, my puff pastry wasn’t as much of a disaster as I thought it was (still, I think I might stick to the frozen pre-made versions in the future…). Now, I get to enjoy left over pie all week for dinner – yum!