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Tiny Tarts

October 18, 2017

Last weekend I attended the Middle Kingdom Cooks’ Symposium in the Barony of Cynnabar.  This event is held every other year and travels from group to group around the kingdom.  The focus of the event is, of course, medieval cooking, and this year the list of classes included everything from the place of tea in Japanese society to cooking over an outdoor fire to carving meat in the manner used in the 14th century.

At the end of the day is typically a potluck feast in which participants are encouraged to bring a dish appropriate to the SCA period (or just something really tasty).  We had a great array of foods this year – all kinds of bread, salads, meats, grain dishes, several soups, vegetables, and many desserts.

I’m a fan of desserts, so I had a look through one of the great resources of 16th century German cooking, the Cookbook of Sabina Welserin, which dates to 1553 and has a list of nearly 200 recipes including everything from boar’s head to apple pie.

As I looked through the recipes, I started to feel some interest in the various almond tarts that are listed (six different versions) and I decided to give one of these a try for the potluck.  After looking through the different versions and considering what sounded most appealing, I settled on recipe 76: “Shell the almonds, pound them very small and strain them through a copper sieve.  Take cream or sweet milk, take five or six egg yolks and let it bake.  If you would like, you can mix rose water in with it, or else not.”

Even though this particular recipe doesn’t specify putting the almond mixture into a crust, I decided to do this to make it more tart-like and easier to serve.  I used a mini-muffin pan to make tiny tarts that could be small servings for the potluck.  This was easier to serve than a larger tart that would have to be cut into slices.

I cheated a bit by using commercial pie crust since I didn’t want to mess around with making my own, and cut the crust with a biscuit cutter that’s about 2.5 inches across, fitting each circle into one of the mini-muffin spaces.

Almond TartsThe filling mixture consisted of:
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup 2% milk
1 cup almond meal
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon almond extract

I used almond meal partly because I had it on hand and it was already ground, and partly because the recipe states to pound the almonds “very small” and then put them through a sieve.  This suggested to me that the end result was meant to be very fine, like the almond meal I used.  This mixture made enough for about 30 little tarts, filling each shell almost to the top.  The tarts were baked at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes, until the filling had puffed and set and was lightly golden brown on top.

The end result was a soft, pillowy filling that one taster even mistook for mashed potato!  This was probably related to the finely ground almonds since there wasn’t a lot of “nut” texture to the finished tarts.

As I worked on these and tasted them when they were done, I spent some time thinking about what this dish was really meant to be.  While our modern definition of a “tart” is usually something meant for dessert, I suspect that many of these tarts were meant to be served as part of the main course of a meal rather than a sweet dish at the end.  The recipes don’t all involve sugar, though several do list rose water (which I omitted because I don’t care for the flavor).  As noted above, several of the recipes do not call for a crust, also suggesting that this may have been served more as a pudding than a tart in the modern sense of the word.

Overall, the recipe was simple – one of the joys of Welserin’s book is that the recipes are pretty straightforward – and tasty.  This is something that could be made sweet or savory, depending on how it’s intended to be served, though if I were making it again as a dessert, I would add more sugar and increase the amount of almond extract (though perhaps using freshly ground almonds would give more of that “almond” flavor).

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