Recipe Trialling: Two Date Tortes

By Lady Caterine de Vantier

Again, this is testing that I did in preparation for the feast at Canterbury Faire. I wanted to offer some sort of fruit-based pie as part of the final credenza course, and Messisbugo's date torte recipe first caught my eye, and then his other one did. I decided to test them both, since I had the luxury of all the ingredients and a group of people willing to taste test on hand.

Torte of Dates, and Other Fruits, from Messisbugo, p72r-73v

The first thing that I noticed about this recipe is that it specifies that the dates and almonds are to be cut lengthwise. Most cooks just settle for chopping things small, and I would have been all set to go with the food processor if this were the case, but he specifically said lengthwise. So I got really quick really quickly at cutting dates and almonds lengthwise. Although he doesn't specify, I used almonds that had already been skinned as this is their common state in a lot of Italian recipes, putting in half a cup of each as I was only making one pie. I assumed that the "one pound, and a half" extended to cover the almonds as well, so used equal quantities of each. I also assumed that the first measure of raisins ought to be chopped, as he specifies that the second measure of different raisins is whole - so I used my larger raisins to chop, adding in just under 1/3 of a cup of each sort.

Since the whole lot is to be cooked in the same sort of wine, I saw no problem with mixing them together and cooking them all at once in the same wine. Perhaps if I was using the quantities that he specified and making more pies, I would need to cook each separately. I added just enough wine to half cover the fruit, and cooked it until most of the wine had been absorbed. I just used a fairly sweet cheap cask white wine, which works really well when you're cooking with it (just don't drink it). I then added a half cup of figs, chopped finely, a 1/4 cup each of whole pinenuts and sugar, a tablespoonful of wheat starch, a teaspoon of cinnamon and a pinch of pepper.

Then I hit the interesting bit in the recipe. The addition of fish broth. Given that it's a torte for lean days, the use of fish broth is understandable, but it seems a little unnecessary given that he's just cooked everything in wine - couldn't a little more wine be added? I think given the volume of fruit and presence of spices, you wouldn't get much taste of fish, if any. However, it's not very friendly to people with allergens, or who are completely vegetarian, and I expect there's a whole bunch of people out there who think that it would spoil an otherwise pleasant fruit pie. So, I opted for a quarter cup of vegetable broth instead.

The nice side effect though was that the presence of the fish broth in the recipe intrigued me, and led to some further research which I will write up later.

My experience making cinnamon tortes from Scappi led me to think that I would be best blind baking the pastry before adding the filling, as I expected it would be rather sticky and leave the pastry a bit sodden. I used some commercial prerolled pastry that I had sitting around in the freezer, although I would normally make my own. The blind baking worked well as it meant that we were able to slice the pie neatly for serving. I served these unlidded, although I will probably spend a bit more time looking at torte recipes and make a decision about whether and how to lid them or not for the Canterbury Faire feast over the next few weeks. I baked the pie for about 20 minutes at 180°C, before turning the oven down to just warm while everyone finished digesting and made room for dessert.

Everyone really enjoyed this pie. I mentioned that I was interested to know what they thought of the texture, given that I had gone to the effort of cutting the dates and almonds lengthwise. Everyone found the texture to be really smooth, more so than the second pie. I found this interesting, as the fruit in the second pie had been cooked in more wine and for longer. Perhaps it really is the lengthwise cutting that makes the difference? The side effect of mentioning the cutting method was that this pie is now commonly referred to as "lengthwise pie". The combination of fruit and nuts was particularly tasty. My testers all agreed that this was a pie made for cream, which is good because I intend to serve it with clotted cream at Canterbury Faire.

Lean Tartlet for Ten Plates, Messisbugo, p68r

This is the recipe that I was originally intending to serve for Canterbury Faire. I think of it as a date tart, although actually, there are less dates in it than other things.

This time Messisbugo specifies that the dates be cut small, but the raisins lengthwise, which I obligingly did. In an attempt to maintain the proportions while making only one pie, I added in 1/4 cup of dates, 1/3 cup of large raisins, and 1/2 cup of small whole raisins. As these were to be cooked for 15 minutes in wine, I added enough wine to cover the fruit twice over, again using my cheap cask wine. This gave me enough liquid that it was able to boil off and be absorbed by the fruit without the pot going dry. Once this mixture was cooked, I added a 1/2 cup of pinenuts, ground in the blender, along with 1/4 cup of sugar, a teaspoon of cinnamon, and a pinch of pepper.

I again put the mixture into a blind-baked shell of the same pastry as above, before cooking at 180°C for 20 minutes and leaving in the warm oven until everyone was actually ready to eat it.

My testers enjoyed this pie, but found the texture grittier than in the other pie: this was probably because of the ground pinenuts, and perhaps also because there were less dates to meld the mixture together. It was a fairly decent pie, it was tasty, and there was absolutely nothing wrong with it - but the other was definitely preferred by all, and next to it this one just didn't really capture the tastebuds in the same way.