Coffin up the truth about Elizabethan food

This post was inspired by the lovely Nancy Cunningham, a fellow historical author, who I noticed was having a day of doldrums, but posting some mouthwatering pictures of her cake baking. It's interesting that there are so many amazing chefs, cooks, bakers, who are also writers. Some even produce cookbooks .... perhaps there are some good reasons why.

Food, of course, can both fuel and inspire writing. Quite frankly, there have been a few days in recent Covid times, where my head has not wanted to focus on putting ink on the page. Instead, I decided to apply that time to some research into my historical period - currently Elizabethan.

Getting yourself fed in the Tudor period was so time-consuming (no pun intended). Walking to market. No convenient refrigeration. Many homes didn't have ovens and had to go to the local bakery to get food cooked. Cooking meat on a spit over a fire. In Elizabethan times, pies were often made for the sole purpose of storing and preserving food, rather than providing a part of the food that should be eaten. To make matters even more gruesome, sometimes these pies were referred to as coffins - not the most tastebud tickling of notions. When you understand that, aspects of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus are rendered even more stomach turning:

'Hark, villains! 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...'

That aside, I also used procrastibaking as an excuse to both bake and taste food of the time, in the hope it would inspire my writing. I chose something little more inspiring: a traditional pound cake. Here is the recipe:


1 lb sugar

1 lb butter

1 lb (SR) flour

1 lb eggs (about 8 large)

(I actually used half these amounts, which made one loaf tin)


1. Preheat oven to about 180

2. Cream the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy

3. Add eggs one at a time (Think I may have rushed this as mine looked a bit curdled at this point!)

4. Add flour until incorporated

(I then added some vanilla and cinnamon as well. There are lots of variations on the basic pound cake.)

5. Bake in oven for 40 minutes

Cake made, I'm ready to think about writing again, fuelled up with this sponge, of course! I'm also incredibly grateful for all the modern gadgets and conveniences I had at my disposal to make this. One Elizabethan recipe for 'bisket bread' I read required the mixture to be beaten 'with a slice of wood' for 'the space fo two hours...' I'd rather go hungry. I suspect I'd have been ravenous had I lived in Elizabethan times!

Modern conveniences aside - and very grateful for my laptop and not having to use an ink and quill - writing a novel is not so very dissimilar to making a cake (though, of course, it takes rather a lot longer):

  • it needs to contain all the vital ingredients, but there's no harm in a bit of variety

  • set your oven temperature to suit your story - think about appropriate genre conventions and what it needs in terms of its pacing, tone, hooks.

  • writing the story is rather like mixing your cake batter - try to make sure its not under-whipped, over-whipped and you haven't forgotten anything important

  • let it bake - every good story benefits from some time to let your ideas develop properly. This is the thinking and editing stage of your story and it's absolutely critical. You don't want an under-baked novel, but nor should you let it over-cook and dry out.

  • Pound Cake made - 'coffin up the truth' - I have to be honest and admit that for my tastes this was a little too sweet and I feel the recipe needs some adjusting - but let's face it, this is also the case when writing a novel. You may suddenly realise that your entire manuscript needs redrafting.

Once you bake a cake/story you are happy with ...

  • let it cool - after you've done all of the above don't blast it straight out to your preferred publisher. Let it cool and think about how to best present it.

  • decorate as necessary. Finesse your opening chapter, prepare your pitch documents and make it dazzle!

Even then, if you get a rejection, don't be disheartened. Remember everyone has different tastes and it may take time to find someone who appreciates your cooking!

If you fancy trying your hand at making some other traditional recipes, the UK's National Trust provides some great ideas:

And here is another source of inspiration.

For my research into Elizabethan food today, I was using:

'Elizabeth's London' by Liza Picard and 'The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England' by Ian Mortimer.

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