Actually, this doesn’t seem to me to be a simple little cheesecake at all, but it is according to Philip Harben; he’s talking about Richmond Maids of Honour, which was, at the time of his writing, over sixty years ago, ‘maintaining its popularity over four centuries but in the course of that founding several generations of family fortunes, becoming the basis of a thriving local industry and – perhaps most amazing of all – remaining for four hundred years a closely guarded secret‘!!
According to Mr Harben, in about 1525, Queen Katherine (of Aragon)was at the palace of Hampton Court, attended by her ladies in waiting (maids of honour) among whom was Anne Boleyn. Henry VIII, while visiting Katherine, came upon the maids of honour eating some little tarts, and being a bit of a foodie and no doubt also interested in Anne, he tried one. Apparently they were just a little ‘something the pastry cook had knocked up’ but Henry called the Maids of Honour… so our enjoyment of them, and their longevity is all due to Henry fancying Anne Boleyn!
This isn’t the end of Mr Harben and the Maids’ story; the recipe became a favourite but was kept a secret of the palace kitchens until several hundred years later when George II was now in the throne, the recipe as leaked to a Mr Burdekin who set up a bakery in Richmond and so made his fortune.
There are various versions of the history of these little tarts or cheesecakes,but all seem to have the royal connection with Henry VIII and Queen Katherine, although by 1655 the recipe actually appeared in a cookery book, The Accomplisht Cook by Robert May, which was way before George II, in the reign of Charles II. When Philip Harben write this story the shop in Richmond still existed, although it was no longer the Burdekin family.
The commercial production of Maids of Honour in Richmond began in 1750 which was in the reign of George II, and within a couple of decades Mr Burdekin expanded his business until he sold it in 1790 to William Hester. Hester eventually sold it to John Lea who, in 1830, sold it to Mr Billett, and it was the Billett family who really made the little tarts famous. The shop closed in 1957, some four years after Philip Harben was writing. The Newens family now make maybe the ‘original’ Richmond Maids of Honour, still to a secret recipe.
The ‘simple’ little cheesecake sounds quite complicated to make, puff pastry which has to be made the day before (I would just buy it!) and then pressed into the tart moulds in a particular way to stop the bottom bit puffing up and ejecting the filling. The milk – ‘two to three pints very freshest and richest milk‘ has to b=heated, rennet added, set, and in what sounds a tricky and risky operation, gently squeezed through a fine cloth (not a butter muslin – too coarse) until you have a very firm, rubbery, dry curd. Mr Harben says there should be about four ounces (after all that, just four ounces??) and he airily says if there isn’t enough make some more! Then add beaten egg, melted butter, and sugar and mix well, fill the pastry cases and bake for thirty minutes – this, he says, is the secret recipe!