Monday, November 24, 2014

MEDIEVAL PASTRIES: Cassemuseaux, petits choux and ratons

One of the joys of translating Le Grand d'Aussy's texts on pastry is seeing the inventory of various old pastries he mentions: échaudés, cassemuseaux, petits choux, ratons, étriers, flageols, gobets, etc. However, Le Grand mainly lists a lot of these without providing many details on them.

For things like étriers. flageols and gobets, it may never be possible to know exactly how they were made. But more information is available on others he mentions. This is certainly true of échaudés, one of the most famous medieval pastries; these however merit a whole separate article. For now, let us look more closely at three of the others: cassemuseaux, ratons and petit choux.

These may all fairly be called medieval pastries, yet some lasted into the nineteenth, even the twentieth century. The rare recipes that exist for these all come from after the Middle Ages. Where (as for darioles and talmouses) both medieval and later recipes exist, the latter are always notably more sophisticated and that is no doubt true here as well. Those seeking to reproduce the medieval versions of others then must be cautious in using what recipes do survive. Too, even cursory descriptions of these vary enough to cast some doubt on their exact nature. This said, the enterprising medievalists who care to recreate these may be able to extrapolate from what they know of other pastries and cobble together credible imitations of the earlier versions.


The word cassemuseaux literally means “break muzzle”, or more colloquially, “break-snout.” (As a phrase, it means a punch in the nose.) This has led some to think it was a hard, cracker- or biscuit -like, pastry. And Rabelais does compare bone to them, further suggesting that they were rock hard. The dictionary author Furetière was of the opposite opinion, writing that the pastry was simply the softer petit choux, given an ironic name (“named by antiphrasus”). The truth, based on recipes, may lie midway between these ideas.

One related explanation for the name lies in the old practice of throwing these pastries in people's faces. For instance, in Evreux (Normandy), these were handed out on the first of May and hurled at passers-by. (If such public aggression seems very medieval, consider that still in Paris today people throw firecrackers at others on the fourteenth of July.)

Other sources say that these were given out on the feast of St. Radegund, though not if they were thrown in people's faces.

Whatever the exact origin of the name, these have been mentioned since the fourteenth century, sold apparently by wafer-makers rather than pastry cooks:
Pastry-cooks themselves, though they form only a single community, are divided into pastry-chefs properly named, (statutes of 1440, of 1497 and of 1522)... and of wafermakers (statutes of 1270, 1397, 1406) who sell cassemuseaux and wafers.
In the fifteenth century, a letter from the provost of Paris mentions them.

They were well-known enough that they are referenced in French both by their French name and by the Latin term globuli pistorii (“bakers' globules”). The latter term suggests that early on, at least, these were spherical (As it happens, the same term is sometimes used for petit choux, supporting Furetière's idea that they were the same; it is always possible too that such usage was simply inconsistent.) A Flemish-French dictionary from 1643 describes them as “ronde koexckens” (round little cakes).

The earliest recorded recipe seems to be from La Varenne (seventeenth century); this eighteenth century version is essentially taken from his:
Take pieces of beef marrow, an inch or so long; scald them in near-boiling water, then take them out of the water with a pierced spoon, drain them a little, and arrange them on a table. Powder them the best you can with a little salted spice, or a little salt or powdered cinnamon. Then promptly prepare little bases of very thin puff pastry, garnish one end with a piece of beef marrow, an inch long; and if needed, you can add more seasoned sugar as said. Then turn the other side of the base in on the marrow; wet the sides of the dough a little, in order to join the one with the other more easily. When your cassemuseaux are made, fry them in butter, or lard, and do not drain them in turning them over, and when they are fried, take them out of the frying oil with a pierced spoon, then powder them with sugar to eat them.
This is followed by a method using cheese or curds, which in fact seems to have been the most common version. 

Massialot, also from the eighteenth century, has a simpler one:
Take creamy cheese, four fresh eggs, a quarter pound of fresh butter, a half-litron of the best flour, and a little salt; make a soft dough of it all: when the dough is made, let it rest, then cut the Casse-museaux like petits-choux, and set them to bake in the oven, but very hot, and after a quarter of an hour, take them out to split them, and put in the oven to finish baking them.
A nineteenth century description does not seem very different from the earlier ones:
This name is given to little round cakes, kneaded with fresh cheese. These cakes are about the size of an old six francs piece. Towards 1830, a great many were still eaten, in summer, in the cafes of la Chatre. - The cassemuseau is known in Brittany, in the Vosges, and no doubt in many other places.
Even today recipes can be found for it, though these often hearken back to earlier times. But the pastry is no longer generally well-known.

Petits choux

In his thirteenth century rules for different trades, Boileau mentions petitz chouz as one of several pastries sold in the streets by pastrymakers' apprentices. Interestingly, the passage in question forbids masters from using apprentices in this way, partially because of “inconveniences, chance and illness” which can result, but also because it takes them away from learning their trade.

In 1555, Pierre Belon rather unexpectedly included a long list of foods in his “History of the Nature of Birds”. He mentions “nice hot petit choux” and in fact these seem to have been served hot. (But then many baked goods were.)

The term continues to appear in following centuries. It means “little cabbage” and has long been one of endearment in French. Le Grand suggests that this use of the term comes directly from the pastry; the idea is credible enough, pastry being more endearing to most people than cruciferous vegetables. Choux pastry of course has survived until the present day and appears to have evolved from the earlier types. In his 1611 French-English dictionary, Cotgrave describes this as"a kind of puffe-cakes of two sorts; the one round and plump as an apple; the other also round, but much flatter." The term “puffe-cakes” does not sound so different from the modern idea of choux pastry, but La Varenne's recipe is unlikely to yield anything too close to the modern variety. He basically treats it as as a variant on the popelin:
How to make a popelin
Take about a fist's worth of choux cheese, these are unskimmed cheeses made the same day; put these cheeses in a bowl and knead them well, adding a few pinches of the best flour; that done, break two eggs into this mixture, put in also a good handful of the best flour and a little crushed salt; then mix all these things together with the wooden paddle.
When this mixture is ready, put it on buttered paper: spread it out in the shape of a cake, and give it about the thickness of a finger, then put in the oven, and the mouth of the oven must be hot: this oven piece will be baked in a half hour, then you must take it out of the oven, and open it into two to separate the two whole crusts the one from the other, then you will put them separately the one after the other in a basin or other convenient vessel in which there is enough good melted and unsalted butter; and this butter must be refined...
Plunge the lower crust in first, and take it out a little later and drain it: then put the upper crust of the popelin into the same butter.
When these two crusts are drained, powder them well with sugar on top and underneath, and sprinkle them inside with a little rosewater, you can also garnish the inside of the lower crust, with slices of lemon peel, then you will cover it with the upper crust, well-sugared, then you will return the popelin to the entry of the oven so that the sugar glazes, and also to keep the popelin warm until you want to eat it.

How to make petits choux
One must make the dough for petits choux like that of the popelin, one must only add a little more flour.
The dough being made, lay out separately on buttered paper [an amount] about the size of an egg, more or less, make them into rounds and gild them a little and lightly, then put them in the oven.
Both the mouth of the oven and the oven must be quite hot.
When the petits choux are baked, you can cut them in half, and plunge them into butter, then prepare them as said for the popelin.
Or else you can cut the petits choux into pieces, and put them in a bowl with unsalted butter and rose water, heat them, and eat them.


The word raton means “little rat” and it is sometimes suggested that the pastry resembled that creature; but if so, this resemblance only seems to have been approximate. Scheler provides a far rarer origin for the word, tracing it to the Dutch word rate, for a honey waffle said to resemble a spleen (which the word also means in French). This might explain why descriptions of the pastry do not sound very rat-like.

A cartulary mentions “rastons” being served at dinner (the midday meal) in 1392. In his dictionary of old French, Godefroy cites references to the raton going back to 1336. He also mentions that some sources describe it as made with milk and eggs, others with cheese. Belon mentions “cheese ratons”; Cotgrave describes it as "a fashion of round and high tart, made with butter, eggs, and cheese". (Curiously, by the way, Cotgrave uses the later spelling – raton – for a little rat, but the older one – raston – for the pastry.) In his seventeenth century recipe, La Varenne says it can be made with cheese or another pie (tart) filling:
How to make ratons
Put on the worktable, for example a litron [about 0,813 liter] of fine flour, a good quarter pound of butter if you have any, and about a half ounce of salt, and a half setier [the latter about .5 liters] of warm water or about: work these things together and reduce them to a smooth paste: it must be soft: put some of this dough on buttered paper, and shape it like cakes: make them about the thickness of two teats, and about the diameter more or less of a dish, as you wish, and raise the side a little: gild or fill the raton a little with pie filling or cheese, then bake them.
La Varenne then offers a far more complex method, using eggs, almonds or macaroons (made in France with almonds), in which the dough is then essentially cooked like a pancake; but the first method was probably closer to the standard one.

Ratons too were served hot. In a late seventeenth century play, a pastry maker's boy cries them in the street: “Nice hot ratons, smoking hot, just out of the oven, two liards, two liards [small coins].”

These barely survived into the nineteenth century, at least as such. But the simple version might readily be known by other names and a rare version from 1825 describes how to make a filling with milk, flour and eggs which is essentially a custard.


For Le Grand's texts on pastry, along with bread and sweets:

Furetière, Antoine, Pierre Bayle, Henri Basnage de Beauvals, Dictionnaire universel: contenant generalement tous les mots ..., Volume 2 1701

Masson de Saint-Amand, Amand-Narcisse, Lettres d'un voyageur à l'embouchure de la Seine , contenant des détailshistoriques, anecdotiques et statistiques sur les contrées de laNormandie connues sous le nom de pays de Caux, de Lieuvin et deRoumois, dans les départemens de la Seine-Inférieure, du Calvadoset de l'Eure. 1828

Arsy, Jean-Louis d', Le grand dictionaire françois-flamen, de nouveau revû, corrigé etaugmenté de plusieurs mots et sentences 1643

Registres du Conseil de Genève. Tome 8, Volume 18-19,1906-1940

La Varenne, François Pierre de, Le Patissier Francais, 1653

Dictionnaire œconomique, contenant divers moyens d'augmenter son ..., Volume 1 1740 

Scheler, Augusten Dictionnaire d'étymologie française d'après les résultats de la science moderne 1888

Boileau, Étienne,  René de LespinasseLes métiers et corporations de la ville de Paris: XIIIe-XVIIIe siècle 1886

Godefroy, Frédéric, Dictionnaire de l'ancienne langue française, et de tous ses ..., Volume 6 1890

Regnard, Jean François,  Joseph Alfred X. Michiels, Œuvres complètes, avec une notice et de nombreuses notes par m ..., Volume 2 1854

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