Historic baking – Spanish puffs

The Spanish puffs recipe

On hearing about Lauren’s idea for a blog series based on trying out historical recipes, I was keen to sign up – as a lover of both history (which rather comes with the territory as an archivist…) and, well, food in general it seemed right up my street. After a week or two of procrastination I decided the time had come and I began to peruse Lauren’s selected list of recipes. Pausing over such intriguing options as ‘New College Pudding’ and ‘Gooseberry biscuits’, I came upon a recipe rather enigmatically titled ‘Spanish Puffs’ from the 1787 recipe book from the Maberley family archives. Quite what these were I had no idea, but my interest was piqued and I decided to venture forth into this thrillingly unknown territory.

My initial gung-ho attitude was tempered somewhat when I looked more closely at the recipe which sounded reasonably unappealing. My baking repertoire tends to revolve around simple cookies and cakes with the odd flapjack thrown in, all nice achievable stuff – anything more unusual and I’d normally rather watch the Great British Bake Off contestants wrestle with it than attempt it myself.

A plate of Spanish Puffs – but what lies beneath that crisp exterior? Read on!

The technique for Spanish Puffs involved boiling together water, butter and salt, before mixing in flour and eggs and deep-frying in ‘plenty of Hog’s Lard.’ Yum. I won’t deny that I had second thoughts about the wisdom of my choice, but reminded myself firmly that stepping outside my comfort zone was rather the point. Besides which, hog’s lard aside, the recipe was actually not really particularly far-fetched.

I decided against the ‘Hog’s Lard’ (not sure this is any healthier…)

Essentially this was a choux pastry type of recipe, although the deep frying suggested it might turn out more akin to a doughnut or beignet than a profiterole. I’d never actually made any of these things before but other people did and I hoped optimistically that it would turn out all right. I gathered my ingredients – albeit eschewing the instructed hog’s lard for a vegetarian-friendly substitute. I suspected these puffs would be the type of thing to eat freshly cooked and probably wouldn’t be fresh long enough to take in to the office, but I had my in-house testing team – in the form of my two sons – who I felt I could rely on to clean up.  ‘You’ll eat my weird puffs, won’t you?’ I cheerfully asked Jacob (age 10). ‘I will?’ was his alarmed response as he quickly made himself scarce.

Would you call this a paste?

The first steps of the recipe were pleasingly specific, with precise quantities given and clear instructions and I boiled the requisite butter, water and salt as if this was something I did every day. Then things became slightly less clear, as the recipe told me to ‘Stir in as much flour as will make it a paste.’ How much flour would do such a thing? A very small amount, it turned out. I added two heaped tablespoons to start, and suddenly the whole mixture had become a thick, gluey mass. Rather at a loss, I stirred in a little more then decided to assume this constituted a paste and continued with the instructions by mixing in what seemed to me a rather large quantity of eggs, and getting my ersatz hog’s lard ready to cook the puffs. These, my recipe informed me, should be made from a quantity of mixture ‘about the size of a nut’, dropped in with a teaspoon.

Spot the ‘tail’ which formed when batter was dropped into the oil

The puffs appeared to live up to their name, becoming crispily golden in the hot oil and mostly round-ish, apart from an odd sort of ‘tail’ which formed on one side as I dropped the mixture in. With no directions as to how long these should cook for, I had to rely on appearances, and once they looked vaguely ‘done’ I removed the first batch to a plate and was able to take a reasonably presentable looking photograph (see photo at top of blog).

Whilst, as mentioned, the recipe had begun with reasonable detail, this rather petered out towards the end and amongst other things, there was no sense of how these Spanish puffs might have been served. With no sweetening ingredient in the batter, I speculated that these might, like choux pastry baked goods today, have been expected to be eaten with some sort of sweet condiment and had intended to offer them to the boys sprinkled with icing sugar and with condiments such as honey or jam (such as could plausibly have been served with the original dish) as well as Nutella (not so much, but I thought bribery might be necessary). Before this, though, I felt obliged to test the puffs myself…

Deep frying in progress – but how long for?

It was probably lucky that I did. Exactly where I had erred I wasn’t quite sure, but I had to assume, unless the Maberley family had no taste buds, that something had gone awry. The promising appearance of the puffs gave way to an overly-eggy – and distinctly undercooked interior. Whilst there was an initial crispiness in the outer coating, there was also an unpleasant oiliness. I tried a further couple of batches, making the puffs smaller in size, and leaving them in the hot oil for longer, but all to no avail – the Spanish puffs just didn’t seem to want to become edible. By this time, with my kitchen smelling like a chip shop, and the oil in the pan beginning to look decidedly murky, I decided it was time to give it up as a failed experiment. Whether it was my inexperience with deep-frying, my failure to add sufficient flour, or something indefinably lost in translation in the 300+ years since the recipe was written, this was one historical dish which was perhaps better off left in the archives.

Jo McConville

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