Fasting days and Emberings be
Lent, Whitsun, Holyrood, and Lucie
old English rhyme
First things first, however: I know you are all just dying to know why this is called an Ember Day Tart. According to Western Christian churches, Ember Days are sets of three days of fasting and prayer - a Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday - that fall in the same week, and occur four times a year. On these days, meat is forbidden, but eggs, dairy, and fish are allowed. Frankly, I'm not sure I understand where the element of sacrifice comes in. I mean, if this rich and satisfying dish is meant for a fasting day, then I'm thinking I could probably fast every day, no problem.
Don't worry - you don't need to come out of a Christian tradition to participate in this delicious day of fasting. Ember Days are likely much older than Christianity. The word itself, in fact, (and this part I got from Wikipedia, lest you become too impressed with my linguistic prowess!) probably comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ymbren, meaning cycle or revolution, almost certainly referring to the annual cycles of the year. The moral of this story? Whatever one's religion or philosophy, I think we can all come together, get along, and enjoy a nice cheesy pie.
As for why this thing is called a tart and not a pie - I have no idea. As with so many medieval recipes, the originals do not list ingredient amounts, and all of the translations I consulted cited amounts that would have literally spilled out of a tart shell. Plus, most modern versions call for a pie crust.
Actually, when it comes to dishes like this, medieval recipes often instruct the cook to lay the pie or tart filling in a "trap" or "coffin" in reference to the crust. Scholars speculate that this may be because the manner in which pies were baked could have rendered the crust inedible, and perhaps the rich ate the filling while the poor ate the crust. As for me? I'll eat it all, thanks.
The original recipe for my Ember Day Tart-Pie comes from two sources: the fourteenth-century manuscript Forme of Cury, and a slightly later manuscript, the Arundel MS 344. I adapted my version from the translations and interpretations at Celt Net and Medieval Cookery.
A Tart for Ember Day
3 medium onions, chopped
2 small bunches of parsley, chopped
8 oz. extra sharp cheddar, grated
6-8 eggs, beaten
1 tbsp melted butter
8-10 saffron threads, ground
a few pinches of salt
2 small handfuls of currants
a few pinches of sugar
1/8 tsp ground clove
1/8 tsp grated nutmeg
5-7 sage leaves, chopped fine
1-2 tsp fresh thyme
* I used the pie crust recipe from the Mini Fig Pies of Day 1
The original recipe calls for you to "Take & perboile oynouns & herbis & presse out pe water & hewe hem smale." In other words, boil the onions and herbs, press out the water, and then chop. It wasn't very medieval of me, but I decided not to do this in order to preserve more of the punchy herb flavor and the crunch of the onions, because that's how I like it. If you want to be a purist, by all means go ahead and boil away! The rest is pure simplicity: Just mix all the ingredients together, put the whole lot into your pie crust (in a greased pie pan of course) and pop it in a 350 degree oven until it sets, about 45 - 60 minutes. I let it sit for about 10 - 15 minutes before I cut into it.
And guess what? This year the winter Ember Days fall on December 18 & 19, so if you're reading this post on Friday, you still have time to make your pie and start denying yourself and fasting with all that cheesy goodness. I had no idea that the timing would work out so perfectly when I was choosing medieval recipes for this series.
I hope you enjoy your Ember Day Tart - I can't believe there are only 3 days left in the 12 Days of Feasting! Vegetarians, you are going to hate me tomorrow, and I apologize in advance. I hope you'll let me make it up to you on Day 11 with a decadent sweet treat. Everyone else, I'll see you on Day 10!