Any student of medieval cookery quickly learns that almond milk is a staple of the upper class kitchen across many countries. I figured if I were to go through the fun of making my own almond milk, I should use it for a nice dish that would feature the flavor, like some tarts. So here’s a bit of documentation and kitchen fun.
I made almond pies, based on a single recipe found in 4 different manuscripts in Northern Europe, dated no later than the end of the 13th century. Grewe and Hieatt published this collection of 35 recipes, with translations from the original Danish, Icelandic, and Low German. They write that the original version of this cookbook may date as early as the 12th century, making these recipes some of the earliest recorded. The evidence is apparently strong of an original in Low German, but as with many early cookbooks, connections seem to be in place with the centers of medical training in southern Europe (Grewe and Hieatt mention Salerno, specifically, in the context of these recipes). However, as noted by Grewe and Hieatt, the recipes are decidedly northern European, lacking typical southern ingredients like olive oil and rice.
I have slowly been working my way through the recipes in the manuscript. I chose to work on the almond pies as part of a larger project developing an authentic Nordic picnic basket for events. Almonds were an incredibly important ingredient in medieval cooking, especially in the form of almond milk. A major use was for fast days, where almond milk could be used as a replacement for animal milk, for instance as described in Le Viandier, a 14th century recipe collection. From a food safety issue, almond milk keeps longer than animal milks. Almonds remain a very common ingredient in Nordic and Finnish cooking, and like now, would need to be imported from warmer climates (like the Mediterranean).
Original Recipe Sources
The earliest version of the recipe comes from the Danish court of around 1300. This cookbook starts with recipes for almond oils, almond butter, and an almond milk meant to imitate sour sheep’s milk. The recipe for almond pies is recipe IV in each of these manuscripts.
How almonds are used in a pie.
One should make thick milk of almond kernels, and make a shell of dough, and pour in the milk, and seal the top with the same dough, and salt it, and bake it in a hot oven.
The next version has changed very little in over 100 years.
Next, one should take almond kernels, and make a thick milk out of them, and make a [pastry] pot, and place the milk in it, and cover the milk with the dough, and salt it. And let it bake in an oven.
The final version, from the late 15th century, similarly changes little.
How almonds are used in a pie. One should make a thick almond milk, and place it in a pastry cup made of dough, and with a little salt. Then seal it above with dough, and bake it in an oven as other pies.
Unlike other recipes I have studied from these manuscripts, the additional versions give very little extra detail. This is a testament to the relative simplicity of the dish, but also indicates this was likely a staple food source. In their commentary, Grewe and Hieatt draw parallels between this almond pie and the better known dariole custard tarts from England and France. In Forme of Cury, one of the best known cookery books of the middle ages (dated to 1390), “daryoles” are made with a custard from cow’s cream, almonds, and eggs and spiced with sugar and saffron. The Nordic almond pie is however much less rich.
Testing and Redaction
While a recipe like this one seems brief and simple, like all early medieval recipes, the details which are left out can be complex. This requires quite a bit of interpretation and extrapolation from general knowledge of medieval cooking techniques.
The first step is to make a thick almond milk. Our focal recipes give no details about how to make almond milk. Luckily this is a well-known technique. The general principle is to smash a bunch of almonds, add water, and drain it. Chiquart, possibly the most famous of medieval cookbook authors describes making almond milk thus:
28. And again, flans of almond milk: according to the quantity of flans which you are making take the quantity of almonds, have them well and cleanly blanched and washed and then have them very well brayed; and take very clean fair water and let him strain his almond milk into a bowl or a cornue which is fair and clean according to the quantity of flans which he should make….
Almond milk is also facing a modern revival and there are many recipes available, usually with additions like vanilla, honey, or cinnamon. I noticed that most modern recipes favored soaking the almonds in water overnight. Because modern almonds in the United States are processed differently than medieval almonds (ours are pasteurized and sometimes even fumigated with propylene oxide), I wondered if this soaking step was necessary because of these modern processing methods. I tried making almond milk both with and without presoaking; pre-soaking results in a plumper almond that grinds much more easily.
Chiquart’s recipe blanches the almonds, which is placing them briefly in boiling water. The main benefit of such a step is the skin is able to be more easily removed. In modern cooking blanching almonds is done primarily for this purpose; almond skin can have a slightly bitter taste. The next step in the recipe is to pound the almonds into a fine pulp. The best way to do this is with a mortar and pestle. I pounded a small amount of almonds by hand, and then used a blender for the rest. In period, I would have had a kitchen assistant to do such a task; modernly my minions stay in the laboratory doing real science and aren’t available for kitchen tasks, thus the blender.
Boiling water is then added to the pounded mixture and allowed to steep, then it is drained through cheesecloth. An important point of interpretation is what the “thick milk” in the original recipes is. I thought it could be almond milk made with less water, or almond milk still retains some particulate matter (ground almonds) in it, or an almond milk that is then thickened by simmering. Made with less water doesn’t work because whatever liquid is there gets squeezed out of the cheesecloth the same way, you just get less liquid of the same density. Thickened with additional puree also doesn’t work- the remaining almond paste is quite chalky both in appearance and taste. I finally ended up with an almond milk that I thickened over heat, just as one might start to make a boiled custard from cow’s milk.
My redaction is as follows:
- Soak 3 cups of raw almonds overnight in a bowl of water.
- Drain almonds and place them in a pan of water and bring to a boil.
- Immediately remove the almonds and rinse with cold water (this stops the cooking process).
- Allow almonds to dry, and then remove the skin (it can be more or less squeezed off)
- Pound or use a blender to reduce almonds to a fine ground. If using a blender, you must add a little bit of water to get a nice puree.
- Add boiling water to provide the thickness desired. A 1:2 ratio of almonds to water makes a nice milk. For a “thick milk,” which is required for the current recipe, I used a 1:1 ratio.
- Sieve the mixture through a metal strainer lined with cheesecloth.
- For thickened milk, simmer while stirring over the stove. This takes a rather long time.
There are dozens of ways to make pastry dough. The original recipes refer to a pot, cup, and shell of dough. I interpret this as a relatively stiff dough, which can stand on its own and will hold the filling. In modern baking terms, this is more like a tart shell and less like a pie crust. In making medieval deserts, I have had the best success with the following period recipe from A Propre new booke of Cokery (England, 1545). For this I used an online transcription, this one from Daniel Myers.
To make a shotre paest for tart
Take fine floure and a curttesy of faire water and a disshe of swete butter and a little saffron and the yolkes of two egges and make it thin and tender as ye may. (“A Propre new booke of Cokery,” 1545)
My redaction for the pastry:
1 pinch of salt
100g salted butter
2 egg yolks, beaten
I added salt to the original recipe for taste; this takes the place of the salt to be added to the top of the pastry in the almond pie recipe. I left out the saffron in keeping with the simplicity of the filling, and the general lack of saffron in the other recipes in the focal collection. To make the dough, I mixed the butter into the flour using my fingers. This method works quite well and results in a nice coarse sand consistency. I added the egg yolks, and the water a spoonful at a time until the dough was a good consistency, about ¼ cup of water total. My goal was something slightly more moist than a modern shortbread dough, but much more firm than a modern pie crust. As with any pastry dough, it is best chilled before shaping. I wrap mine in wax paper and chill for a few hours. This is my go-to recipe for pastry.
Shaping and Filling the Pies
Because I am interested in adapting this for picnic packing purposes, I made a series of single serving pies rather than one large pie. To do this I separated the dough into 6 sections, one per pie. For each section I separated 1/3 of the dough for the pastry lid. I then shaped cups out of the remainder of the dough- approximated the size of a modern muffin tin.
Then fill the pies with the thickened almond milk, and flatten the lid between the hands, and close the pastry. I baked the pastries at 375F, which is a decently hot oven, using a baking stone. This mimics to some extent the baking conditions of the period ovens I have seen in Europe and in demonstration areas like that at Estrella Wars in the past.
Some Final Thoughts
I think these pies will be great in a period Nordic picnic basket for events. Anyone familiar with traditional Nordic cooking knows that the flavors are often understated, and these are really great in the classic Nordic sense of simple flavors where you can appreciate each ingredient. I have made these a few times now, although I have to admit I purchase the almond milk, because I really, really hate getting the skins off the almonds. Some forms of blisters should just not be necessary in my modern every day life without kitchen minions. I’ve also used a little flour to thicken the almond milk more quickly, and to really cheat, I’ve made a great silky filling with corn starch as a thickener.
 Grewe, R. and C. B. Hieatt (2001). Libellus de arte coquinaria: an early northern cookbook. Tempe, Arizona, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.
 Taillevent: Viandier. Original Vatican manuscript found at http://www.uni-giessen.de/gloning/tx/vi-vat.htm, an excellent transcription and translation found at http://www.telusplanet.net/public/prescotj/data/viandier/viandier1.html
 Royal Library of Copenhagen, Ny sampling, nr. 66. 8vo; original in Danish dated from 1300, believed to be a copy of an earlier text
 Herzog August Bibliotek von Wolfenbüttel, Helmst. 1213, in Low German, dated to 15th century
 Royal Irish Academy of Dublin, 23 D 43, original in Icelandic and dated to the last part of the 15th century
 The Forme of Cury: A Roll of Ancient English Cookery Compiled, about A.D. 1390, by the Master-Cooks of King Richard II
 Du fait de cuisine by Maistre Chiquart, translated by Elizabeth Cook, online transcription at http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Medieval/Cookbooks/Du_Fait_de_Cuisine/Du_fait_de_Cuisine.html
 Almond Board of California, http://www.almondboard.com/HANDLERS/FOODQUALITYSAFETY/PASTEURIZATION/Pages/Default.aspx
 Child, J.; Bertholle, L.; Beck, S. 1961, 1983, 2001. Mastering the art of French cooking. Alfred A. Knopf.
 A Propre new booke of Cokery. (1545). Retrieved 3 July, 2010, from http://www.medievalcookery.com/notes/pnboc1575.txt