“Take as many sliced Pippins as will cover the Pan’s bottom ; fry them with a soft fire ; then beat eight Eggs, Whites and all, with a half-penny Loaf grated, and half a Pint of Cream, a little Nutmeg and Sugar ; then beat all these together, and pour over your fried Pippins ; bake it over a soaking fire ; and when it’s thoroughly baked on one side, turn it, and serve it with Butter melted thick, and Sugar round the brims of your Dish ; a Side-dish.“
Henry Howard, England’s Newest Way in All Sorts of Cookery, Pastry, and All Pickles (1708)
Tansy is a herb with a long history of medicinal and culinary use. In the middle ages for a couple of centuries after, a ‘tansey‘ was a baked egg dish – sometimes sweetened, sometimes not – that was flavoured with the juice or the leaves of the tansy herb, hence the name.
As usual for recipes of the era, exact counts and measurements are frustratingly inconsistent. We’re told to use eight eggs, half a penny-loaf (or, presumably, one half-penny loaf) and half a pint of cream for the eggy mixture, and “as many sliced Pippins as will cover the Pan’s bottom“… but not what size of pan to use. Presumably if your pan is too small then your eggy mixture won’t cook through to the middle before the apples on the bottom are burned, so you’ll have to adjust downwards.
Henry’s method is lacking in a couple of key details as well, starting with: do you grease the pan, or dry-fry the apples? I’m guessing a bit of butter wouldn’t hurt but, as is typical of many cookery books of the time, Henry assumes his readership will already know. Likewise the instruction to turn it “when it’s thoroughly baked on one side” – does that mean to turn it and then cook it on the other side, or just turn it out onto a plate and serve it, possibly with the top (now the bottom) still a bit runny and under-done? I know what I’d do: finish cooking it under the grill and only then turn it onto a plate, but that probably wouldn’t have been an option in the early eighteenth century kitchen, not without the use of a suitably large salamander, or perhaps a heated shovel.
So: let’s say that for a Henry-Howard-sized amount of eggy mixture you should probably grease up a 25-30cm frying pan, lightly fry the apple slices on one side, then flip them over, and then add the eggy mixture before the apples start cooking on the other side. Do bear in mind that our modern eggs are probably larger, so you might only need 6 if the eggs are graded ‘large’, and maybe the full 8 if they’re ‘medium’. Then gently cook your tansey through on a not-too-high heat on hob, finishing off the top under the grill if necessary, before flipping it onto a plate to serve. I’ve just realised: the fried apples will then be on top of the plated tansey. That’s a nice visual touch.
Melted butter and sugar to serve is an optional extra; you might prefer a nice dollop of crème fraîche, lashings of lovely custard, or perhaps just a bit more of that cream, if you have any left over. Yeah, that should do it.
I’m very tempted to try this one myself, substituting the grated penny loaf for rolled oats (to attempt a gluten free version). If you decide to have a go as well, please do let me know how you get on, either via the comments below, or by emailing me with your notes and photos.
|⇧1||Or a weed, depending on your point of view and given how freely it self-seeds.|
|⇧2||I really do need to look into the historical culinary understanding of the term ‘Pippin’, which seems to differ from the generally accepted pomological meaning: a fruit that has grown from seed, the best-known example today probably being ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’. I suspect it was used to refer to a broad group of similar apples in the same way that ‘codlin’ was, but I haven’t properly investigated… yet.|
|⇧3||Although he recommends serving it as a side-dish, which could mean alongside a ‘main’ course of meat and fish, or possibly an intermediate course; in any case I get the impression that eighteenth century diners were generally happier to mix up the order of savoury and sweet flavours within a meal than we are today.|
|⇧4||The sizes and prices of loaves of bread were determined by the ‘Assize of Bread and Ale‘ that specified the weight of several loaf sizes. Fines or punishments could be levied on any baker who failed to provide good weight.|
|⇧5||If you find that your tansey doesn’t quite cook through then next time use a bigger pan, or reduce the amount of eggy mixture.|