If you thought deep-fried sweets like funnel cakes, elephant ears/beaver tails and doughnuts were modern inventions for the county fair, think again. Fried pastries have been around since ancient Egypt and China. The Romans ate something called scriblita, a fried pastry dough. Fried doughs were common throughout Asia, the Middle East and Europe in various forms during the Middle Ages. The Youtiao (a Chinese cruller) originated in China during the 10th century Song dynasty. A recipe for Awameh is found in a Middle Eastern recipe book from 1226. Fritter recipes are plentiful in medieval European manuscripts and were extremely popular street treats just before Lent.
European colonization spread some familiar forms of fried pastries even further across the globe. Beignets were introduced to Canada by French settlers in the 1600’s and gradually made their way down to Louisiana to ultimately become a staple of Cajun cuisine. A century later, the Pennsylvania Dutch (German) immigrants brought funnel cakes to the United States. Fried fair foods became especially popular in the U.S. during the 19th century. It was then that the term “doughnuts” became common for a certain type of fried dough, likely coined by Washington Irving in reference to Dutch oliebollen (fried pastry balls). Meanwhile, the Navajo Indians developed their own tasty version of fried bread, Puff Puffs became a traditional treat in Nigeria and the popularity of Sopapillas began to spread throughout South America. Needless to say, there is a wide variety of fried dough pastries worldwide, many with histories going back hundreds or even thousands of years.
One type of ancient fried dough is the crispel. This was a popular treat in medieval Europe during the 14th century. It was basically pastry fried in olive oil and glazed with warm honey.
This recipe was composed by King Richard II’s master cooks around 1390 and compiled in what is now called the British Library ms 5016. A duplicate manuscript called the Rylands English ms 7 was created in 1420 (see image below). This collection of recipes is better known as the “Forme of Cury,” which was published by Samuel Pegge in 1780.
Cryspels. Take and make a foile of gode past as thynne as paper; kerue it out wyt a saucer & frye it in oile; oþer in grece; and þe remnaunt, take hony clarified and flamme (flaunne) þerwith. Alye hem vp and serue hem forth.
Crispels. Take and make a sheet of good pastry as thin as paper; carve it out with a saucer & fry it in oil; or in grease; and the remnant, take clarified honey and baste there-with. Allay them up and serve them forth.
1 3/4 c. flour
½ c. butter
2 tbsp cold water
Pinch of salt
You will also need
Olive oil or lard
Step ONE: The Dough
Take and make a sheet of good pastry as thin as paper…
After attempting this recipe with a variety of dough types, I discovered that the absolute best result (and most authentic) comes from basic homemade shortcrust pastry dough. While it would be nice to use pre-packaged frozen pastry dough sold in grocery stores, it just doesn’t work. Any preferred dough could possibly give you good results, but be sure to avoid puff or extra-flakey pastry. I will explain why in Step Three.
Cut butter into cubes and rub it into flour until the dough is crumbly. Add the salt, egg and cold water to bind into a dough. Add more water if necessary.
Optional: steep a couple strands of saffron in the cold water prior to adding to the dough. This was common practice in royal kitchens.
Step TWO: Roll and Fry
Carve it out with a saucer & fry it in oil
Roll the dough out very thin and use a mug to cut into small circles. Fry (not sear) in olive oil or lard. Be sure to fill your pan with enough oil to cover the dough. When one side is golden and crispy (this takes about 30 seconds), flip over to fry the other side. Let your crispel cool on a paper towel.
Note: While you can certainly deep fry in olive oil with no problems, the less refined Extra Virgin oil does have a lower smoke point than other cooking oils. If you are worried about EVOO’s low smoke point, use light or pure olive oil instead.
Step THREE: Baste
Take clarified honey and baste there-with. Do them up and serve them forth.
Meanwhile, bring your honey to a boil and stir often. This is especially important if your honey is raw, hard or crystallized. This process is meant to clarify your honey or simply liquify it a bit, making it easier to baste.
Baste your crispels with the honey using a basting brush. If you prefer, dip your entire crispel in the honey but be aware that basting really is the best way to go. King Richard’s cooks direct us to “baste” for a reason. Serve them warm.
If your dough is too flakey this step will be very frustrating. The result might be a crispel with a gaping hole in the top or a pastry that dissolves in your mouth like cotton candy, but not in a good way. I recommend following the directions above and start with a homemade dough. Do not be afraid to make your own dough! It really isn’t difficult.
The great thing about working with pastry is that you can roll the whole thing out and cut it all into circles immediately after you make it. Fry what you need and freeze the rest for later. Just wrap the circles in plastic wrap, stack them in a ziplock and put them in the freezer. When you’re ready to wow your friends and family with a quick medieval treat, fry them up frozen or thawed (your choice) and drizzle some honey or even agave over the top. Easy!
If you are interested in trying a similar period recipe, check out cryppys (crisps). This is more of a fritter since it uses a batter instead of a pastry dough.
- Beignets. (February 14, 2012). National Geographic.
- Ehler, James T. Scones: A Short History. FoodReference.com.
- Nudi, Erin. “Food History: Fried Dough”, (April 30.2015). Erinnudi.com.
- Perriman, Kit. Olde English Honey Crispels