The turducken – a Thanksgiving centerpiece consisting of a chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey – is in many ways a quintessential American food. And yet, as the recipe collections in the Folger Shakespeare Library reveal, the antecedents of this decadent dish date back much earlier than we might expect.
The history of the turducken is usually traced to the second half of the twentieth century, when it was popularized by Paul Prudhomme in 1970s New Orleans. Combining the three birds with smoky Cajun spices and a rich cornbread stuffing, the turducken became so emblematic of Prudhomme’s famous brand of Louisiana Creole cuisine that he even trademarked the name in 1986.
However, the practice of stuffing different meats inside another – known as ‘engastration’ – has a much longer history. An anonymous Arabic cookbook from thirteenth-century Andalusia, for instance, records a recipe for mutton stuffed with chicken, pigeon, and other small birds. Today, Greenlandic Inuit communities enjoy a centuries-old winter dish called Kiviak, which consists of a whole seal carcass stuffed with hundreds of seabirds, fermented for up to a year, and then eaten raw.
“To Season a Turkey Pie”
Cajun spices and cornbread aside, the present-day turducken bears a striking resemblance to some of the more lavish banqueting centerpieces found in early modern European receipt books. Two of the Folger’s cookbooks, both written around 1700, contain the following recipes “To Season a Turkey Pie”:
“Take a turkey and bone him, stick him all over the breast with cloves, season him with mace, pepper, and salt, lard it with bacon, fill the corners of the pie with force meat balls, and put a duck in his belly.”
“Take a turkey and bone it and stick his breast with cloves. Season it with pepper, salt, mace, and lard. Then season a duck to put in the turkey’s belly then lay it in the pie. Fill the corners with force meat balls and put in good store of butter. Close it and bake it.”
Pies like these were usually hand-raised (without the aid of a mold or pan) using a thick, sturdy hot-water crust, similar to the pork pies still consumed widely in Britain today. The challenge of hand-raising an enormous pie like this one no doubt added to the air of lavish spectacle which, as Elisa Tersigni noted in last week’s blog post, was central to the experience of the early modern banquet.
The thickness and density of the crust would also have helped to preserve the meat inside against spoiling. In a recipe for “A Christmas Goose Pie” from 1837, the American cookbook author Eliza Leslie noted that “if the weather is cold, and they are kept carefully covered up from the air, they will be good for two or three weeks; the standing crust assisting to preserve them.”
It seems likely, then, that the Thanksgiving turducken actually began life as a gigantic meat pie of the sort that was often sent as a gift between wealthy English households. Nutritionally dense and seasoned with expensive spices, these pies served a dual function as both a hearty and warming winter dish and an extravagant gesture of seasonal goodwill.
Recreating the pie
I made two major changes in adapting this recipe. Firstly, instead of deboning and stuffing the poultry, I chose to purchase a pre-assembled turducken. Secondly, rather than attempting to hand-raise what I knew would be a truly enormous crust, I decided to bake the pie in a roasting pan that was both wide and deep enough to hold the bird. This was certainly cheating. In this case, the use of a roasting pan resulted in a pie that was likely lower and flatter than the recipe author intended, but also far less likely to collapse.
The major challenge remaining was to ensure that the meat was cooked through to a safe temperature without ending up with a charred crust – or, worse still, the dreaded ‘soggy bottom.’ Hoping to avoid both of these problems, I sought advice from historical food recreation expert Stephen Schmidt, lead researcher for the Manuscript Cookbooks Survey.
Following Stephen’s advice, I ended up baking the pie for just over six hours at 300°F and using a meat thermometer to check for doneness. Because I was nervous about the whole thing collapsing when I removed it from the pan, I made the bottom and sides of the crust extra thick.
As a result, while the exterior of the finished pie was a rich and flaky golden brown, and the meat roasted to perfection, the thicker parts of the pie crust soaked up a good deal of juice from the cooked birds and so remained moist – safe to eat (and delicious!), but perhaps not up to the exacting standards of The Great British Bake Off’s Paul Hollywood.
Fortunately, early modern cooks were much more tolerant of a soggy bottom. They even had a term for it – the seventeenth-century courtier Sir Kenelm Digby, for instance, advised cooks to make their meat-pie crusts “pretty thick upwards towards the brim, that it may be there pudding crust.”
Perhaps, then, rather than being a baking faux-pas, this is just another example of how culinary tastes and expectations have shifted over time. Early modern cooks clearly loved their pudding crusts, soaked through with juices and deliciously moist – in 1691, the poet Thomas Brown even penned a couplet praising the “Dear Pudding Crust of Turkey Pye.”
Making this dish was, in all honesty, a lot of work. While the finished product was genuinely delicious, the process was both time-consuming and labor-intensive. For those who’d like to try something a little more straightforward, I’ve developed a recipe for miniature turducken pies which is loosely inspired by Dorothy Stone’s recipe. This is an easy and fun recipe that can be made in less than two hours, and which preserves most of the textures and flavors of the original. You can make the filling from scratch, or using cold leftovers from a holiday meal.
Recipe: Mini Turducken Pies
For the hot water crust:
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 2⁄3 cup lard or vegetable shortening
- ½ cup unsalted butter (and a small amount extra to grease the pan)
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- ½-1 cup hot water
- 1-2 eggs (for egg wash)
For the turducken filling:
- 1-2 lbs turkey/duck/chicken meat, chopped small (or leftovers from a roast)
- 2-3 strips bacon or turkey bacon, chopped small (optional)
- Stuffing (optional – why not try our recipe for early modern stuffing?)
- Cranberry sauce (optional)
- 1 tsp long pepper* or black pepper
- ½ tsp nutmeg
- ½ tsp cloves
- 1 tsp marjoram
- ½ tsp sage
- ½ tsp rosemary
- ½ tsp thyme
- 2 tsp butter
- Salt, to taste
* Long pepper was used frequently in early modern cooking. While today it can still be found in some specialist grocery stores, it can also be substituted for the more common black pepper.
To make the hot water crust:
- In a large bowl, stir together sifted flour and salt. Make a well in the center of the flour.
- Cut butter and shortening into pieces and place into well.
- Pour about half a cup of hot water over butter and shortening in flour well. Using a fork or spoon – remember, the water is hot! – stir mixture until water is evenly incorporated. You should still be able to see some lumps of butter and shortening in the mixture.
- Turn dough out onto a floured surface and knead with hands until smooth and stretchy. If your dough is too moist, you can add a little more sifted flour; if it’s too dry, add a little more hot water.
- Separate dough into two balls. Wrap both balls in plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for about an hour, or until the dough has firmed slightly.
To make the turducken filling:
- In a large bowl, mix together all chopped meat, herbs, and spices.
- Melt butter in a large frying pan or skillet over medium heat.
- Add spiced meat mixture to skillet and cook until meat is just cooked through, 5-10 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
To fill the pies:
- Lightly grease a non-stick muffin or cupcake pan with butter.
- Roll each ball of pastry dough between two layers of parchment paper until about 1/8 inch thick. Divide into 8-12 pieces, depending how many pies you intend to make.
- Using your fingertips, carefully press each piece of rolled pastry dough into bottom and sides of the muffin pan, smoothing out any creases and making sure no air is trapped between the pastry and the sides of the pan.
- Trim off any overhanging pastry with scissors or a knife.
- Make sure pastry is an even thickness by pressing and shaping with fingers. Don’t worry if you make a mistake – it’s easy to reshape!
- Once you’re done filling the tin, form your trimmings into a ball. Roll this out between two layers of parchment paper to about 1/8 inch thickness.
- Using a round object like a glass or mug as a template, cut circular ‘lids’ for your pies. These should be just slightly wider than the pies themselves.
- Layer filling in base of your pies. If using stuffing and cranberry sauce, add this on top. Make sure you put enough filling in your pie to hold up the lid and prevent it from sagging in the middle.
- Brush egg wash on the lip of the base before adding the top pastry lid to help seal together. Using fingers or a small kitchen implement, carefully crimp the edges of the base and lid together.
- Brush the lid of your pies with a coating of egg wash, and make a small hole in the middle to allow them to vent.
To bake the pies:
- Bake pies for 10 minutes at 400°F, then lower temperature to 375°F and bake for an additional 40-50 minutes until crust is golden brown and firm. You should be able to see steam coming from the hole in the top of the pie.
- Remove from oven and place pan on a cooling rack for 15 minutes.
- Before removing pies from the pan, carefully run a knife around the edge of each pie to make sure the sides aren’t sticking.
- Serve warm.
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