Shakespearean Cooking – Funeral Baked Meats

Shakespearean Cooking - Funeral Baked Meats, Elizabethan Era Meat Pies from Shakespeare's Hamlet on The History Kitchen

The History Kitchen welcomes new contributor Ken Albala! In this post, Ken explores the famed “Funeral Baked Meats” from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Learn more about Ken here. ~ Tori

Although Shakespeare is not known for being gastronomically minded, many of his references do shed light on culinary practices of the Renaissance. Among the best known is the passage in Hamlet where the prince mentions that “The funeral baked meats Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.” This refers the pies served at his father’s funeral that have been offered again as cold leftovers at his mother Gertrude’s wedding to his uncle Claudius, one following quickly after the other. Under normal circumstances this would be an act of thrift, exactly as Hamlet says: “Thrift, Thrift Horatio.” But the phrase also refers obliquely, albeit gruesomely, to the pastry shells of the “baked meats” or pies, also known as coffins. The pastry was sometimes a vehicle for storage of the contents and wasn’t eaten, being made of coarse but sturdy free-standing rye flour. The contents would include gelatinous broth or fat to keep the contents hermetically sealed. The coffin is thus meant to protect and preserve the contents from corruption.

Titus Andronicus uses the word coffin in the same double sense when he describes his plan to put childrens’ heads into a pie to feed to their mother. “I will grind your bones to dust And with your blood and it I’ll make a paste, And of the paste a coffin I will rear And make two pasties of your shameful heads.” It is the same double metaphor of coffin as pie crust and a vessel bearing the dead. Clearly Shakespeare understood the value of gelatinous meat and bones, even human heads, in keeping the contents of the pie solid, sturdy and long lasting.

Shakespearean Cooking - Funeral Baked Meats, Elizabethan Era Meat Pies from Shakespeare's Hamlet on The History Kitchen

Both of these references to coffins are further clarified with a recipe. The 15th century Harleian mss. 279 has a section on baked meats (pies). They are specifically for supper, the smaller evening meal, and likewise served at room temperature, and could have been baked several days before and served much like the leftover pies at Gertrude’s wedding.

A bake Mete Ryalle. 

Take and make litel cofyns, and take Chykonys y-soþe; o þer Porke y-soþe, and smale y-hackyd; oþer of hem boþe: take Clowys, Maces, Quybibes, and hakke wiþ-alle, and melle yt wiþ cromyd Marow, and lay on Sugre y-now; þan ley it on þe cofynne, and in þe myddel lay a gobet of marow, and Sugre round a-bowte y-now, and lat bake; and þis is for soperys.

Shakespeare’s other references to pie reveal that he is usually thinking of fruit inside as well, especially dates. In Troilus and Cressida we are given a seasoning metaphor to describe Troilus’s attributes.

Pandarus.  Do you know what a man is? Is not
birth, beauty, good shape, discourse, manhood,
learning, gentleness, virtue, youth, liberality,
and such like, the spice and salt that season a man? 

Cressida. Ay, a minced man: and then to be baked with no date
in the pie, for then the man’s date’s out. 

Cressida’s quip refers to a variety of finely chopped mincemeat pie, made up of so many jumbled ingredients, each individual item, just as each personal attribute of a person, is lost in the mix. She also implies that without dates in the pie, it would be out of date, or out of fashion, or without substance.

Shakespearean Cooking - Funeral Baked Meats, Elizabethan Era Meat Pies from Shakespeare's Hamlet on The History Kitchen

The Good Huswife’s Handmaide for the Kitchen, first published in 1588, offers a good idea of the type of pie Shakespeare is referring to here. First it is a pie with an edible crust. The author warns explicitly in a recipe to make Paste to raise Coffins, not to put too many eggs in the pastry or “it will make it drie and not pleasant in eating.” On the next page he offers exactly the sort of recipe Cressida has in mind.

To make sweete pies of Veale

Take Veale and perboyle it verie tender, then chop it small, then take twise as much beef suet, and chop it small, then minse both them together, the put Corrans and minced Dates to them, then season your flesh after this manner. Take Pepper, salt, and Saffron, Cloves, Mace, Synamon, Ginger, and Sugar, and season your flesh with each of these a quantitie, and mingle them altogether.

Presumably without the dates the pie is not only paltry, but not something likely to please – a insulting comparison directly to Troilus. The double meaning of date points directly to the reigning aesthetic of the late 16th century, when dates were still an exotic luxury, absolutely requisite in elegant and table-worthy pies.

A similar pun about date and fashion is given by Parolles in the opening scene of All’s Well that Ends Well. He is describing how virginity is of no use if kept too long.

Virginity, like an old courtier, wears her cap out
of fashion: richly suited, but unsuitable: just
like the brooch and the tooth-pick, which wear not
now. Your date is better in your pie and your
porridge than in your cheek;

The pun is that dates, the fruit, belong in pies, but date meaning age, does not wear well on a woman’s face. The lines only makes sense knowing that dates in pies are indeed still fashionable and that without them pies are not considered very interesting. We also learn, incidentally, that picking one’s teeth in public was now considered declassé.

Shakespearean Cooking - Funeral Baked Meats, Elizabethan Era Meat Pies from Shakespeare's Hamlet on The History Kitchen

Shakespearean Meat Pies

Adapted from: The Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchen

Pastry Ingredients

  • 4 cups pastry flour (use pastry flour for a flakier result)
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 stick butter

Filling Ingredients

  • 1/2 lb veal shoulder meat (weight should not include bone)
  • 1 lb suet (or raw beef fat - suet preferable), finely chopped but not into a paste
  • 1/4 lb dried currants
  • 1/4 lb dates
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tbsp mace
  • 1/2 tbsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tbsp ginger
  • 3/4 tsp cloves
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp pepper
  • 1/8 tsp crushed saffron

You will also need

  • 2 muffin tins (1 dozen each tin), mixing bowls, large pot with lid, small saucepan, 4 inch biscuit ring, 3 inch biscuit ring, sheet tray, rolling pin, flat surface for rolling, fork, knife
Prep Time: 45 Minutes
Cook Time: 2 Hours 30 Minutes
Servings: 24 meat pies
  • In a large pot, cover the veal with cold water. Cover pot with a lid and simmer until tender, about 1 ½ hours.
  • Shakespearean Cooking - Funeral Baked Meats, Elizabethan Era Meat Pies from Shakespeare's Hamlet on The History Kitchen  Drain and allow the veal to cool. Then chop it finely with the chopped suet or beef fat. Note that suet will produce a better texture result; beef fat will make for a greasier pie, but it is easier to locate than suet so we add it here as an alternative. Add in currants, chopped dates, sugar and spices. Set aside.
  • Shakespearean Cooking - Funeral Baked Meats, Elizabethan Era Meat Pies from Shakespeare's Hamlet on The History Kitchen  Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  • To make crust, first melt the butter in 1 cup of water. Heat just until the butter is melted, do not boil.
  • Shakespearean Cooking - Funeral Baked Meats, Elizabethan Era Meat Pies from Shakespeare's Hamlet on The History Kitchen  In a large mixing bowl, make a well in the center of the 4 cups of flour. Mix in water/melted butter mixture until well combined. Let sit until it reaches room temperature. Mix in egg yolks. The dough should come together as a ball.
  • Shakespearean Cooking - Funeral Baked Meats, Elizabethan Era Meat Pies from Shakespeare's Hamlet on The History Kitchen  Allow dough to rest for 10 minutes, then divide into 4 equal portions.
  • Shakespearean Cooking - Funeral Baked Meats, Elizabethan Era Meat Pies from Shakespeare's Hamlet on The History Kitchen  On a floured surface roll the dough to 1/16 inch thickness, then cut out 24 4-inch circles. Roll out remaining dough and cut into 24 3-inch circles.
  • Shakespearean Cooking - Funeral Baked Meats, Elizabethan Era Meat Pies from Shakespeare's Hamlet on The History Kitchen  Place the larger dough circles into the bottoms of a greased muffin tin, then spoon in 2 tbsp of filling.
  • Shakespearean Cooking - Funeral Baked Meats, Elizabethan Era Meat Pies from Shakespeare's Hamlet on The History Kitchen  Top with the smaller dough circles, pressing down to make sure that there are no air pockets between the dough and the filling. Use a fork to crimp the top and bottom edges together.
  • Shakespearean Cooking - Funeral Baked Meats, Elizabethan Era Meat Pies from Shakespeare's Hamlet on The History Kitchen  Make a vent in the top by cutting a small “x” in the center.
  • Shakespearean Cooking - Funeral Baked Meats, Elizabethan Era Meat Pies from Shakespeare's Hamlet on The History Kitchen  Place muffin tins on a baking sheet, then bake for 1 hour rotating the pan halfway through, till golden brown and baked through.
  • Shakespearean Cooking - Funeral Baked Meats, Elizabethan Era Meat Pies from Shakespeare's Hamlet on The History Kitchen  If you open the oven and see that fat is draining from the pies onto the baking sheet, don't worry, this is likely to happen (especially when using beef fat in place of suet) and will not ruin the pies.
  • Shakespearean Cooking - Funeral Baked Meats, Elizabethan Era Meat Pies from Shakespeare's Hamlet on The History Kitchen  Serve warm or at room temperature (we preferred them warm). They are similar to sweet mince pies. Note they tend to get greasy after sitting for prolonged periods of time; keep pies separated by layers of parchment or wax paper when storing.
  • Shakespearean Cooking - Funeral Baked Meats, Elizabethan Era Meat Pies from Shakespeare's Hamlet on The History Kitchen

Research Sources:

Hamlet I:ii.180.

Titus Andronicus V:3.

Austin, Thomas. Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books. London: Oxford University Press, reprint, 2000.

Troilus and Cressida I:2.258.

Peachey, Stuart. Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchen. Bristol: Stuart Press, 1992, p. 22.

Ibid, p. 23.

All’s Well That Ends Well I:1.

About Ken Albala

Ken Albala is Professor of History at the University of the Pacific. He is author or editor of 17 books on food. He is a past recipient of the IACP Jane Grigson Award and the Gourmand World Cookbook Award for best foreign cuisine. Read more...

Comments (35)Post a Comment

  1. “Young Hamlet was prince of Denmark, a country disrupted and sad. His mother had married his uncle, his uncle had murdered his Dad. But Hamlet could not make his mind up; to dance or to sing. He got all phrenetic and walked around pathetic and did not do one *#~>ing thing.” — anonymous

    1. Lynn it’s interesting to me how popular it is there! I suppose it has something to do with the weather, there is something so hearty and warming about a savory pie. :)

    2. I think it also goes back to the war when they all had ration cards and had limited ingredients and most people grew vegetables and actually kept chicken, rabbits and pigs which is the most popular, pork pie which obviously I don’t eat and is not appropriate for your website for obvious reasons. I’ve tried beef pies many times and can never seem to get them right. I’ll keep trying lol

    3. Here in Australia when one says ‘pie’ it is assumed that it is a meat pie (usually beef), otherwise you would say apple pie, apricot pie etc. Fascinating. Tori, love you website.

  2. A minor point, but it might be helpful if you explained the difference between suet and beef fat. I always used suet in my plum puddings – beef fat would have been awful. Suet is kidney fat, and is very dry. Hence the finished product, while a bit greasy when piping hot, isn’t greasy as it cools to eating temperature, and doesn’t taste or feel greasy.

    1. Thank you Nancy, I have added a clarification to the post. My testers made the recipe with beef fat as suet was impossible to locate. The result wasn’t overly greasy, however I’m sure suet would have been preferable.

    2. In the US all the suet goes to bird feed. I’ve found a hard at room temp shortening made out of palm oil that I want to try in my steamed puddings. It’s the high melting point of the suet and the palm oil shortening that makes it important in some recipes.

    1. Carmen I recently migrated websites to a new domain, it appears the instructions did not transfer over. I’ve asked my web team to look into it, hopefully they’ll be restored soon!

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