17th Century: Poor Knights of Windsor

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Although this seems like a pain perdu, ‘Poor knights of Windsor’ is a different dish that evolved from the same Roman recipe. Poor knights has sweet spices, such as nutmeg, added to the pudding. White bread is soaked in cream then fried until golden with eggs and nutmeg, and served sprinkled with fine sugar and cream.

The origin of the name is a bit of a mystery: similar dishes throughout northern Europe have the name ‘poor knights’, such as the dish ‘köyhät ritarit’ in Finland, or ‘Arme Ritter’ in Germany, which is a pain pur-dew today but in Das Buch von guter Speise from the fourteenth century, however, the dish is not titled ‘Arme Ritter’ but ‘a good dish’. It was a pie made with layers of chicken and fried and battered bread – which the book calls ‘armeritlere’ (from which the name Arme Ritter is derived) – and slices of apple and spices.

The earliest English recipe in The Compleat Cook (by W.M., 1658) suggests to serve the pudding with rosewater, sugar and butter. The recipe remains unchanged until at least 1723, as John Nott’s recipe (The Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary) is virtually identical. By the mid-nineteenth century the same dish is served with a wine sauce by J.H. Walsh in The English Cookery Book. Strangely enough, the pudding doesn’t appear in any of my Victorian pudding books.

To make poore knights.

Cut two penny loaves in round slices, dip them in half a pint of Cream or faire water, then lay them abroad in a dish, and beat three Eggs and grated Nutmegs and sugar, beat them with the Cream then melt some butter in a frying pan, and wet the sides of the toasts and lay them in on the wet side, then pour in the rest upon them, and so fry them, serve them in with Rosewater, sugar and butter.

W.M., The Compleat Cook, 1658

The Scottish Mrs Frazer is the first person I can find to call the pudding ‘poor knights of Windsor’, in her book The Practice of Cookery (1791). She was a cookery teacher in Edinburgh and successor to Mrs MacIver who also left us an interesting book (Mrs MacIver’s Cookery, 1773) to read. Frazer soaks her slices of bread first in white wine and sugar before dipping them in egg yolk and frying them. She serves the pudding with sugar and cinnamon strewn over it.

The Poor Knights of Windsor, established in 1352, were originally a number of mendicant military veterans attached to the Order of the Garter, who were fed and housed at Windsor Castle in return for saying daily prayers for the sovereign and his successors, and for the Knights of the Order of the Garter. The Military Knights of Windsor still exist as military pensioners and participate in the pageantry of the Order of the Garter today.

Ambrose Heath, in Good Sweets, 1937 soaked the bread of his poor knights of Windsor in sherry, and served the fried bread with a butter, sherry and sugar sauce, which has been a favourite pudding sauce for centuries (see Sack sauce). His pudding was clearly inspired by Mrs Frazer’s recipe.

The next change to the recipe for this pudding was made by one of the most-loved modern English food writers, Jane Grigson, in her English Food in 1974. She added fresh raspberries and whipping cream, but leaves out the eggs.

As I said in my recipe for pain pur-dew, the quality of the bread is very important and should be the best you can afford. I suggest using day-old bread, but when it is two days old it will work even better. When bread goes dry, it keeps its shape better when soaking and frying.

I like to serve this dish with a sack sauce, as Heath suggests, and add raspberries, as in Jane Grigson’s book. It truly makes this a very luxurious and festive breakfast dish.

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Ingredients

  • 175 ml ( fl oz/ cup) thick (double) cream
  • 1 tablespoon caster (superfine) sugar
  • four 1 cm ( inch) thick slices of day-old white bread or brioche, not stale
  • 50 g ( oz) clarified butter
  • 4 egg yolks, beaten
  • 1 quantity Sack sauce

Raspberry Compote

  • 500 g (1 lb 2 oz/4 cups) raspberries
  • 125 g ( oz) raw sugar, processed to a fine powder in a food processor
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

Method

To make the compote, sprinkle the raspberries with the sugar and cinnamon. Allow to stand until they produce some liquid and look like a slightly runny whole-fruit jam. Taste and add more cinnamon and sugar if necessary, but you want to keep some of the tartness of the fruit.

Meanwhile, whip the cream and add caster sugar to taste, but no more than 1 tablespoon or it becomes too sweet.

Remove the crusts from the bread if you like, I prefer to leave them on. Heat a frying pan that is large enough to hold the pieces of bread over medium heat. Use a pastry brush to brush the bread all over with the clarified butter, then fry on both sides until golden.

Whisk the egg yolks and dip the fried bread in them before returning the bread to the pan to fry briefly until the egg has set.

Meanwhile, reheat the sack sauce.

Place 2 slices of fried bread on a plate, pour the sack sauce over, then scoop on some of the raspberry compote and finally the whipped cream. Enjoy with a smile, as your day is bound to be great with a breakfast like this.

If you want to try Mrs Frazer’s and Ambrose Heath’s version of this dish, simply add some sherry or white wine to the egg yolks and proceed. If you prefer to use whole eggs rather than only the yolks, use 2 whole eggs.

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