Hello lovely followers. Just a quickie to let you know that the sister blog to British Food: A History, Neil Cooks Grigson has moved from Blogger to WordPress. It makes much more sense to have them on the same format.
If you’ve never checked it out, now is your chance – there’s over 400 recipes on there, all fully reviewed. There are some amazing ones, and a fair few disasters, warts and all. So if there’s a classic English dish or recipe you’ve always wondered about, chances are I’ve cooked it up.
Last post I wrote all about the mediaeval dish Blanc Mange, an almond and rice stew served with chicken or fish. Obviously, I couldn’t let the opportunity pass to give you a recipe for the dessert blancmange we know and love (or hate).
Blancmange went from a savoury to a sweet dish somewhere
around 1600 – 1604 is the earliest recipe for it I can find that sounds like
the pudding we eat today.
When one thinks of blancmange, a shuddering over-sweet pale
pink mass doused with cloying raspberry flavouring is imagined. This is not a
proper blancmange. When I make one, I go back to basics.
Blancmange should be a simple affair: cream, milk, sugar and
almond extract set with gelatine. In the recipes from earlier than the 20th
Century, the gelatine would have been prepared in house from calves’ feet or
pigs’ trotters. There was an alternative setting agent called isinglass which
is made from the dried swim bladders of fish.
By the way, the pronounced almond flavour of almond extract is not supposed to emulate that of regular almonds, but of bitter almonds which were high in cyanide and therefore used in small, highly aromatic doses. Other things were sometimes added to this basic mixture: lemon zest, cinnamon, brandy and rose water all crop up in recipes through the centuries.
The blancmange went rather downhill once you could buy it in packet form. The almond extract or bitter almonds replaced with almond flavouring and instead of gelatine, cornflour was used. This is the dessert that many people hate. I must confess to quite liking the preparatory blancmange, but then, I’ll eat anything. It shouldn’t be called blancmange though, as it is quite a different beast; fake flavour and thick cornflour base making the final pud less jiggly and delicate. I suppose that after the realisation you could set custard with cornflour instead of egg yolks, the ‘magic’ formula was applied to blancmange.
I like to serve blancmange with a compote of cherries
flavoured with a dash of kirsch and some delicate shortbread biscuits, but it
is pretty good served all on its own. Who needs panna cotta!? If you want to
turn the blancmange out of its mould, it is worth brushing the inside with a
thin layer of sunflower oil so that it is easier to turn it out.
Makes 600 ml:
250 ml whole milk
gelatine leaves (see method)
100 g caster sugar
300ml double cream
1 tsp almond extract
Heat up the milk in a saucepan and as you wait, soak the gelatine leaves in cold water – check the instructions in the packet and use the correct number to set 600 ml except use one leaf fewer than instructed – you want a good wobble.
When the milk is very hot, squeeze out the excess water from
the gelatine and whisk it into the milk along with the sugar. Once dissolved,
add the double cream and almond extract. Pour into your mould or moulds, cover
with cling film or a plate and refrigerate overnight. If you like, you can whip
the cream until floppy and stir it through the milk when it is just warm. This
way you get a mousse-like consistency – good if you want to serve it at a
To turn out the blancmange, dip the moulds in hot water for
around 10 seconds. To make it release you may have to carefully coax the blancmange
from the inside edge of the mould with your finger; if you can move it away
easily, it should come out. Place a serving plate on top and quickly flip it
over – the blancmange should release, if not, simply dip it in the water for a
further 10 seconds.
Once turned out, you may find that some of the blancmange has
melted, so tidy up the plate with a piece of kitchen paper before serving.
I’m carrying on the medieval almond milk theme (I will move away from this topic, I promise) with another post on what could be described as mediaeval England’s national dish – blanc mange. Blanc mange – literally white food – was a simple stew of poultry and rice poached in almond milk. Over the centuries, it evolved into the wobbly dessert we know and love (or hate) today. In France almond soups thickened with rice or bread are still eaten, so it appears that the blanc mange diverged into two different dishes: cold pud and creamy soup.
Blanc mange wasn’t just popular in England, but over the whole of mediaeval Europe. It began life as a Lent dish of rice, almond milk and fish such as pike or lobster, but people liked it so much that it was eaten at every meal, where the fish could be substituted with chicken or capon. Outside of Lent it could be flavoured with spices such as saffron, ginger, cinnamon and galangal, seasoned with verjuice, sugar and salt. It is thought that the dish originates from the Middle East, the part of the world we imported rice and almonds.
It’s worth mentioning that although a Lent dish, no commoner
could afford this meal even in its most basic form– imported rice and almonds
were very expensive, as were farmed chickens. This was commonplace food for the
richer folk of society.
Here’s an example of a blanc mange recipe from around 1430:
For to make blomanger. Nym rys & lese hem & washe
hem clene, & do þereto god almande mylke & seþ
hem tyl þey al tobrest; & þan lat hem kele. & nym þe lyre of
þe hennyn or of capouns & grynd hem small; kest þereto wite grese &
boyle it. Nym blanchyd almandys & safroun & set hem aboue in þe dysche
& serue yt forþe.
This recipe seems to be for a blanc mange served cold or warm;
the rice is cooked in the almond milk and cooled while the capon or chicken is poached
separately. Saffron and almonds are sprinkled over the dish before serving.
I’ve looked at a few recipes and they don’t really change over the next two hundred years – always chicken or fish, rice and almond milk and a few mild spices, sometimes served hot, sometimes cold and often adorned with slivered almonds fried in duck or goose fat and a sprinkle of sugar, all before being served forth. They also seem extremely bland with most recipes containing no spices at all. That said, many of our favourite foods are bland: white bread, mashed potatoes, avocados and mayonnaise all belong in the bland club, so bland does not equal bad. In fact, bland food is usually comfort food, and I strongly suspect that this is what is going on here, a bland white food, served at every meal no matter how grand. Blanc mange was mediaeval comfort food, the macaroni cheese of its day!
The blanc mange went from a chicken and rice dish to wobbly
pudding somewhere around 1600 it seems. A 1596 recipe uses capon meat, ginger,
cinnamon and sugar, and is pretty much identical to the recipes from 1400, but
then I find in Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book of 1604 that she gives
instruction for a cold sweet. She describes a moulded dessert set with calves’
foot jelly (i.e. gelatine), almonds, rice flour, rosewater, ginger and cinnamon.
Mediaeval Blanc Mange
I’ve combined the methods of several recipes from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The important thing to remember is that mediaeval almond milk would have contained sugar, salt and a little rosewater, so if you want to use the modern shop-bought stuff, you might want to add a little of all three for authenticity. Alternatively, you can have a go at making some yourself.
The spices I went for were ginger and cinnamon, but you can
add white pepper, galingale and saffron too if you like.
The only thing I have done differently to the original
recipes is to leave my chicken on the bone; bones stop the chicken drying out
in the cooking process and flavour the dish.
1 chicken jointed into 8 breast pieces, 4 thigh pieces and 2
drumsticks, skin removed
3 tbs duck or goose fat
white rice measured to the 300 ml line of a jug
½ tsp each ground cinnamon and ginger
1 ½ tsp salt
small handful slivered almonds
Demerara sugar and more salt for sprinkling
Pour the almond milk in a saucepan and heat up to almost
boiling. Meanwhile, in a large saucepan melt one tablespoon of the goose or duck
and when hot, tip in the rice. Stir to coat the rice grains in the fat, then
add the spices and salt. Add the chicken pieces and hot almond milk and stir
just once more.
Turn the heat down to low, place on a lid and simmer gently
for 25 minutes.
When the time is almost up, fry the slivered almonds in the
remaining fat until a deep golden-brown colour.
Serve the chicken and rice in deep bowls with the almonds, salt
and sugar sprinkled over.
There you go, pretty easy stuff really. And the verdict?
Well, it was quite bland, but pretty tasty with all of the adornments, and the
flavours developed a lot over night when I reheated some. The sugar wasn’t as
weird tasting as you might expect, and the mild scent of rose water really
lifted the dish. The almonds fried in duck fat were amazing, and I’ll certainly
be stealing that idea. Will I make it again? Probably not, I must admit, but it
was an interesting experiment. Next post, I’ll give you a very easy recipe for
a proper dessert blancmange, one of my favourite things to eat. Until then,