Mince pies and mirth: Transcribed 17th-century recipes

Mince pies and a honey-spiced drink called mirth are just two of hundreds of recipes found in a 17th-century handwritten recipe book once owned by Leticia Cromwell.

Cromwell’s book and two other early modern recipe books in the Folger collection were the focus of a November 7 transcribathon organized by the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC). Sixteen transcribers at the Folger joined more than 100 contributors from around the world to transcribe these recipes using the Folger’s online transcription tool, Dromio.

One of the recipe books, belonging to Margaret Baker, includes concoctions for gout, scurvy, king’s evil, nose bleeds, perfuming gloves, and more. The other, belonging to Susanna Packe, is a preserver’s paradise: ideal for those who wish to extend the life of their grapes, cherries, ripe apricots, green apricots, lemon peel, raspberries, white pippins, red pippins, orange peel, damsons, walnuts, gooseberries, snails, angelica roots, barberries, and quinces.

Cromwell’s recipe book has a rather unassuming cover, which belies the treasures inside. It has approximately 200 pages of recipes for things such as syrup of violets, French marmalade, and a rich perfume. There is also a recipe for snow, but we thought you might like to try a mince pie with a dose of mirth this holiday season.

Mince pies are very popular in the UK during Christmas time, be they dusted with sugar, deep-filled, or given a boozy kick. Others have icing lids or all-butter pastry hats. Most supermarkets sell them in boxes of six, each sized for one person, and will stock at least four different kinds. A quick search today revealed a well-known English supermarket with ten delectable versions on offer.

This year’s mince pie taste test competition run by Good Housekeeping declared the winner was “everything a mince pie should be. We loved the mouthwatering, Christmassy aroma of mincemeat and spices…The balance between sweet and tart is spot on, complemented by the delicious buttery pastry…”—although the very same pie was criticized for having too much pastry and a mince meat which was ‘jammy’ in The Guardian’s Christmas taste test. A tart taste is an important component in achieving mince pie perfection.

Early modern mince pies contained sweet and savory tasting notes too, partnering meat with flavorful spices and fruit. Hence why the mince pie recipe in Cromwell’s cookbook contains apples, orange peel, raisins, and prunes alongside the beef (which you can include or omit as you wish).

Serve your mince pie warmed or cold, with a glass of mirth or cup of tea. For any fans out there of the previous Great British Bake Off’s Mary Berry, she suggests serving them with grated marzipan in her mincemeat and orange feather tarts recipe. It also includes a pastry recipe, which is useful since Cromwell’s recipe is only for the filling.

Here are the recipes for mince pies and mirth, with images of how the recipes appear in Cromwell’s book, original spelling transcriptions, and normalized transcriptions (i.e. spelling that is more understandable to us today). A quick disclaimer: These recipes have not been adapted for modern palates, so we can’t make any guarantees about how they might taste! (If you’re looking for dishes that have been adapted from early modern recipes, check out these recipes for sweet potato pudding and pumpkin pie.)

Mince Pies Recipe

Recipe for mince pies from L. Cromwell
From the cookbook of L. Cromwell. Folger Shakespeare Library. V.a.8


To make minced Pyes
Take a peece of the Butt of beefe &
boile it a little then cut of the outside
of it & waigh the rest & to 10 pounds of
beefe take 13 of suett, mince them smale
together & take 12 apples & mince uery
smale & put to the meate then of cur=
rence take 7 pound of reason 8 pound
of pruens 2 pound 8 Nuttmegs 4 ounces
of dates cloues & mace 1 ounce halfe an
ounce of sin: beaten a little beaten san=
ders a pint of rosewater a little pepper
& salt & beaten ginger & carraway seeds
& 3 orrange peeles minced smale.
(nb. “sin:” likely refers to cinnamon)

Normalized transcription

To make minced pies. Take a piece of the butt of beef, boil it a little, then cut the outside off it and weigh the rest. To 10 pounds of beef take 13 of suet. Mince them small together. Take 12 apples and mince very small and put to the meat. Then of currants take 7 pounds, of raisins 8 pounds, of prunes 2 pounds. 8 nutmegs. 4 ounces of dates. 1 ounce of cloves and mace. Half an ounce of cinnamon, beaten a little. Beaten sandalwood. A pint of rosewater. A little pepper and salt. Beaten ginger and caraway seeds, and 3 orange peels minced small.


Recipe for mirth from the cookbook of L. Cromwell
From the cookbook of L. Cromwell. Folger Shakespeare Library. V.a.8


To make mirth
Take 2 or 3 Gallons of Water to the leavings of the
Honey & breake & straine the Comes with it & boile it in
water an howre & straine it ^put to it a sprig of rose:mary & some bay=
leaves with it, then put in Cloves sinamon & ginger &
some littell Nutmegs & boile it with these & when it is
Cold put it into a randlet & a littell new barme at top

Normalized transcription

To make mirth
Take 2 or 3 gallons of water to the leavings of honey. Break and strain the honeycombs with it. Boil it in water an hour. Strain it and put to it a sprig of rosemary and some bay leaves. Then put in cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and some little nutmegs. Boil it with these. When it is cold put it into a rundlet (cask) with a little new barm on top.

This was the third annual EMROC transcribathon the Folger has taken part in, and the first one that has gone fully virtual. Both of EMROC’s 2015 and 2016 transcribathons were held on-site at the Folger. In 2016 contributors finished Lady Castleton’s recipe book, and in 2015 transcribers signed off on Rebeckah Winche’s recipe book.

If you are interested in trying out more early modern recipes you are most welcome to join the transcribing community over on Shakespeare’s World. Here you can find early modern recipes and letters that need transcription and join in the conversation about them. The website includes a tutorial, a guide for transcribing, tips to address common points of confusion, and a majuscule / miniscule alphabet. Follow the project on Twitter at @ShaxWorld.

For an inside look at what happens at a transcribathon, and to see someone making (and drinking!) an early modern plague water, check out this story from BBC News: Cookbook features recipes to cure the plague.