Saturday, November 30, 2013

Syllabub: definitely a classic



Until week before last I'd never experienced syllabub, the whipped concoction of cream, sugar, and alcohol that was popular in Britain during the 17th and 18th centuries. 

There are three syllabub recipes in Classic Desserts and, given that antique desserts with silly/poetic names have always appealed to me, I felt I had to make one. 

I chose the so-called everlasting syllabub, which Classic Desserts editor Richard Olney excerpted from one of Elizabeth David's books. It is wonderfully simple: In a bowl, combine the zest and juice of one lemon with 2 tablespoons brandy and 1/2 cup white wine. Infuse overnight. The next day, pluck out the lemon peel and beat the liquid with 1/4 cup sugar and 1 1/4 cups heavy cream until it forms soft, billowy peaks. Spoon into small glasses and grate a little nutmeg on top. 

I thought, here goes nothing. Another weird creamy dessert. But it was love at first bite. This syllabub was tart, sweet, light, airy, rich, boozy, all the flavors and elements in perfect balance. A recipe for the ages. Even Mark thought so. Make this. It may not be exactly to your taste, but I think you'll have to agree that there is something magical about it. 

I was so crazy about the Elizabeth David syllabub that the following day I made cider syllabub using a recipe from Anne Willan’s Cookbook Library. Willan’s recipe is older than Elizabeth David’s, dating back to 1660 when people still treated syllabub as a drink. Although I served the cider syllabub with a spoon, it was actually a beverage with a thick, foamy head. Or, as Willan puts it, “a feisty liquid topped by a creamy mousse.” I liked it almost as much as Elizabeth David's syllabub. Mark liked it better.

I wanted to know more about syllabub, so I looked it up in The Oxford Companion to Food:

It has often been said that the primitive method of making syllabub, ensuring a good foam, was to partly fill a jug with sweetened, spiced white wine or cider, and to milk a cow directly into it. When this technique was critically examined, and subjected to experiments, by Vicky Williams (1996), it was found to be unsatisfactory; and it began to seem doubtful whether it had ever been a common practice. Ivan Day (1996b) crowned the debate on this particular question by a historical and technical survey of the whole subject of syllabubs, now the locus classicus.

Locus classicus? Sheesh. So much for my American education.

The fact that there are people "critically examining" syllabub and "subjecting it to experiments" interests me more than syllabub itself. And I'm pretty interested in syllabub.

If you have 15 minutes to spare, there are worse ways to waste them than in reading Ivan Day's paper on syllabub. It's scholarly but funny. Day attempted milking a cow into his syllabub and reports: 

Unless your syllabub cow is extremely well-groomed, the congealing milk will also be garnished here and there with cow hairs and the odd speck of bovine dandruff, a most unappetising prospect, at least to our modern eyes. It is possible that a farmhand would have happily slaked his thirst with a rude refreshment of this kind, but surely not an aristocratic banqueteer expecting a “daintie silla-bub” in a delicate spouted glass.

And so on.

Even if you don't read the paper, you should check out Day's web site. For me, it was like falling through a trap door into fantasyland. Pink Twelfth Night cakes, sugar sculpture, jelly moulds. My personal dream.

On another subject, thanks to the reader who recommended Amy Thielen's New Midwestern Table which I picked up at the library. It’s a handsome cookbook, full of dishes I’ve never heard of, like runzas, which appear to be something like Nebraskan piroshki. I have not make those, but did make Thielen's cracker crust pizza. It was easy and very good and I’m not sure anyone but me noticed that the crust was unleavened and totally flat. We are not talking about a discerning audience here. The crust recipe is here.

The other New Midwestern dish I tried was the smoked oyster dip. Hugely popular at my sister’s birthday party. I should note that the recipe contains what I believe to be a significant typo, calling for a 13-ounce tin of smoked oysters when I am quite sure Thielen meant to call for a 3-ounce tin. Anyway, that’s what I used and, as I said, the dip was great. 

29 comments:

  1. After reading novels all my life that contained references to syllabub, I ashamedly admit I had no idea what it was. Now, thanks to you, I do. It sounds magical, I must admit. What can go wrong with that ingredient list? I will try it. Do you think the wine is essential? Since we love thin crust pizza, I appreciate the pizza dough recipe very much. I'm glad you had a good Thanksgiving. You completely peaked my curiosity about your aunt' spinach casserole recipe. Would she share? I have tried every spinach casserole recipe I can find. I like it that much.

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    1. Have you eaten blancmange? That's the dish that always captured my imagination in novels. You can use sherry instead of white wine in the syllabub. I'm not sure it would work without something lighter in addition to the brandy. And the spinach casserole was Laurie Colwin's before it was my aunt's. I think she's taken the jalapeno out completely. She's made it for Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter since 1996 or so. The recipe is here: https://mywebspace.wisc.edu/dsshapiro/web/recipes/colwinspinach.html

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    2. I have not eaten blancmange, but I admit it made me as curious as syllabub. I think the addition of gelatin turns me off when I see it in a recipe. I have no idea what that is about, but there you have it. I also feel really dumb about asking you for the spinach recipe since I have read Home Cooking, but thanks for the link.

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  2. Syllabubs sound like my kind of thing. Alas, I only have the cream on hand, so I cannot make one without going shopping.

    I once lived in a town with a fast food place called Runza, but I was scared to try it. It's only in a handful of states.

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    1. Was that fast food place in the Midwest? I think I'm going to make runzas, especially now that I've seen "Nebraska."

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  3. There's this recipe for "frozen nougat" I found that I am certain you would love. It has orange zest, honey, pistachios, orange flower water, vanilla and chopped almond praline. Its base is whipped egg whites and sugar, but with whipped cream folded in at the end. Then you freeze it and serve it like ice cream. I have come to the conclusion that it is the perfect dessert to go with pizza:
    http://nougatt.wordpress.com/2010/09/28/frozen-nougat/
    Since you like fruitcake and syllabub, you can't help liking this dessert! Also, have you ever made panforte di siena? It's like dense, spicy, moist fruitcake but without any glace cherries. I love it and didn't expect to before I made it.
    Are runzas pastries?

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    1. Runzas have a yeasted dough -- is that a pastry. Maybe 18 months ago you mentioned that nougat in a comment and it is actually written down on my to-do list. I was thinking about it just today. Funny. I've never made panforte, but I've eaten it and I love it!

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  4. Hi First- you and your daughter look great! (we like seeing glimpses of our fearless blogger). Regarding your previous post about the grapefruit pie- please answer because this pie is so intriguing. I live in NYC and maybe I would find passion fruit- are they in season? where did you get passion fruit puree? I cant recall what they taste like: if you had to substitute another fruit what would it be? Would you consider ever making this in summer? It seems like something that would be a summertime dessert.

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    1. Ah, yes, tracking down the puree. I went to two Latin markets last week looking for passionfruit puree. It was in the second one, in the freezer section. Goya brand. I don't think I've ever even seen a real passionfruit.
      That pie would be great in summer. I hope you like it!

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    2. Thank you so much!

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  5. Make runzas as soon as possible...you won't be sorry. :-)

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  6. Whenever we would go visit my grandmother in small town Nebraska, we usually ate a meal from Runza's. I do not know if they exist outside of Nebraska.

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  7. hmm.. I might be able to serve syllabub to my change-averse family at Christmas if I rename it "brandy mousse." it sound delicious.
    Well, I definitely just wasted half an hour on Ivan Day's intoxicating website. historical desserts are so beguilingly weird. I enjoy the blog Four Pounds Flour for all things sweet/historical, and my one of my favourite podcasts recently did an episode on the history of ice cream. (http://blogs.howstuffworks.com/2013/07/24/missed-in-history-ice-cream/) I think we can all be glad that camphor (aka mothball) flavour went out of fashion a while back...

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  8. I just had to chime in here. These sandwiches are called bierocks in my neck of the woods. I have made them, usually with ground meat, cabbage, onions, and carrots. It's one of those adaptable recipes. They are very good, and the freeze well.

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    1. I've heard of bierocks. Never runzas. I'm going to make them tonight, whatever the name.

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  9. Leslie Underwood12/2/13, 9:40 AM

    Yes, make runzas. My husband is from Lincoln, Nebraska. We eat the ones from the restaurant and make them at home. We double the dough and make cinnamon rolls, too. They are a production to make, but worth it. And they freeze nicely. Can't wait to hear what the family thinks of runzas.

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    1. Oh no, "production." That may not work on a Monday.

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  10. This sounds delicious, I will add to the Christmas line up. I still have pumpkin pie we need to choke down.

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  11. I also lived in a town with a Runza fast food place, but never ate there. I think they're like glorified Hot Pockets or, if you want to be nice, Cornish pasties.

    I've heard of Ivan Day! I was reading a book last year about the development and history of the house, and in one of the chapters the writer went off to watch Ivan Day cook in a circa-1650 kitchen. Naturally the title of this entertaining and informative book escapes me. Argh.

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    1. When you think of the name, tell me. I'd definitely read that book.

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    2. The book is Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson. It is well worth reading indeed. I was fascinated by her account of Ivan Day's kitchen and find his website a treasure trove of bits of arcane cooking information. Absolutely addictive.

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    3. Consider the Fork. I'm at the library right now and will look it up.

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    4. Thank you, Anonymous. It was a great read, highly recommended. I also really liked Lucy Worsley's "If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home", more wide-ranging in scope, obviously, but fascinating and well-written.

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  12. Glad you're liking the book! When I made the runzas for my family, they thought that I should have served a marinara on the side (calzones). Amy Thielen has an interesting blog called Sourtooth that you might enjoy reading through. I find her Food Network show fascinating and such a departure from their norm. Happily, they are picking it up for another season.

    I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy your blog (and your book). Your posts are a bright spot in my day. Thanks!

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    1. Thank you very much. I made the runzas last night and they were delicious, if a little bit bready for me personally. My husband did not complain. I'll check out Sourtooth.

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  13. Now I am in hysterics about Ivan Day's paper on syllabub and the reference to the cow's milk, having been subjected to said "floaties" in the pails our "kind" neighbor used to leave on the back steps...gag me!! Love your followers and their comments as much as I love your blog.

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    1. Thank you, Pat. I hope you're having a lovely holiday season.

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  14. Great post. I too feel myself getting sucked into Ivan Day's site, and extracted myself long enough to comment here. I was slightly taken aback (although I should have known better) by clicking on Puddings and being greeted by illustrations of Puddings in Skins, and then was intrigued to read "the musk and ambergris we use at Historic Food was obtained in the 1970s from very old perfumer's stock" - obviously this stuff lasts forever! I can see I'll be spending many happy hours here, thanks for the tip!

    Yes, a 13-oz tin of smoked oysters seems as if it would be both excessive and expensive...

    I have always wanted to try syllabub but never got around to it. You have intrigued me afresh, and as I actually have all the ingredients, I may just do it today! I was also surprised (again, I shouldn't be) to learn that there has been so much learned discussion about syllabub. Fascinating! Thanks for a lovely post.

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