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,
Last post I wrote about my little experiment making almond milk. With my batch I decided to make a mediaeval recipe from the first cook book in English, Forme of Cury. It was written around 1390 by the cooks of King Richard II; I’ve written about it and cooked up a few recipes from it before.
The one I chose is called Rosee, and it is like a pudding – in the American sense of the word
– i.e. a thick custardy dessert. This one is thickened with rice flour instead
of eggs like a regular custard and is flavoured with rose petals (“with flours of white rosis”) as well as
some ginger and cinnamon. It’s not the right time of year for roses, so in lieu
of the blooms, I used some rose water instead. It’s also flavoured with pine
nuts and dates, which also adds a little texture. Sugar is the sweetener –
which wasn’t refined to pure white in the 1400s, so I used soft light brown
sugar to replicate this.
You don’t have to use mediaeval almond milk, you can buy it,
or just use regular cows’ milk.
Here’s how it is written in Forme of Cury. It’s hard to decipher, but once you know the now
defunct letter thorn (þ) is makes a th sound (so seþe is pronounced seethe), it makes it a lot easier.
Rose Pudding 1390:
Take thyk mylke; seþe it. Cast þerto
sugur, a gode porcioun; pynes [pine nuts], dates ymynced, canel [cinnamon], & powdour ginger; and seeþ I, and alye [mix] it with flours of white rosis, and flour of
rys. Cole it; salt it and mess it forth. If þou wilt in stede of almaunde
mylke, take swete crem of kyne [cows].
Hopefully you get the gist – it takes a while to tune in!
I didn’t follow the method exactly – I used my own cook’s logic to the dish – but I made quite a delicious pudding, and it didn’t feel as though it was a vegan dessert. A knob of butter or a glug of cream, goes a long way with making food satisfying, but I genuinely didn’t miss them. It really goes to show that the King and his court did not go without during Lent!
25 g pine nuts or chopped mixed nuts, plus extra for
2 to 3 tbs rose water
Put the flour and spices in a small saucepan and whisk in
the milk, starting by adding just a third of it at first to prevent lumps. When
all of the milk has been added, put the pan on the heat and bring to a simmer,
stirring well with a wooden spoon or small whisk as it begins to thicken. Add
the sugar, salt, dates and nuts. Keep it simmering very gently for around 10
minutes to cook out the flour. If it looks like it will be too thick, add more
liquid (it sets quite firm, so when it is hot, you’re looking for the
consistency of thick double cream).
Remove from the heat and add the rose water – I like quite a
lot, but it can be rather overpowering, so add enough that seems just right and
then add a shake more. By doing this you are compensating for the fact it will
be served cold, the flowery aroma less pungent.
Pour into serving cups – I went for small coffee cups – scatter
with a few more dates and nuts and cover with cling film to prevent a skin
forming. Pop them in the fridge until set.
Half an hour before you want to serve them, take them out of
the fridge to take off the chill.
At the end of last year, I finally had the opportunity to visit the United States to visit old friends – and haunts – in Houston, St Louis and Chicago, as well as discovering new cities such as Dallas, New York and New Orleans. It was a crazy whistle stop road trip and no mistake.
Having lived on both sides of the Pond, I can really appreciate the American influence on British cuisine. So much deliciousness has drifted over the Atlantic to wedge itself firmly in the psyche of British – nobody in the UK could possibly imagine a world without mouth-watering pulled pork, pillowy cinnamon buns or squidgy chocolate brownies (and blondies!).
One of the best foods of all is Mac and Cheese, and although considered very much an all-American (or perhaps the American) meal, macaroni cheese has its origins firmly planted in Britain.
Macaroni cheese emigrated to the US and Canada with the British settlers, but it wasn’t until the 1930s, during the Great Depression, that it really became part of American culture. Millions were starving, but one entrepreneurial salesman from St Louis, Missouri had the idea to combine nonperishable dried pasta with dried processed cheese. It could be mass produced and priced low. It was a huge hit, quickly establishing itself as the ‘American Housewife’s Best Friend’, feeding a family of four for just twenty cents. It literally saved a nation from starvation.
The first mention of it my side of the Pond can be found in the 1769 classic cookbook The Experienced English Housekeeper by Elizabeth Raffauld. It says To Dress Macaroni with Parmesan Cheese:
Boil four ounces of macaroni till it be quite tender and lay it on a sieve to drain. Then put it in a tossing pan with about a gill [a quarter of a pint] of good cream, a lump of butter rolled in flour, boil it five minutes. Pour it on a plate, lay all over it parmesan cheese toasted. Send it to the table on a water plate, for it soon gets cold.
All the elements of a modern macaroni cheese: the appropriate pasta, a proto-béchamel sauce, plenty of cream and lots of cheese; perhaps surprisingly, parmesan cheese.
But we can go back even further; back to the 1390s in fact, with Britain’s earliest cookbook Forme of Cury. Pasta made from breadcrumbs (I must try it sometime) cooked in a velouté sauce (like a béchamel but made with stock instead of milk), and something called chese ruayn which was a hard cheese similar in taste to brie, resulting in something half-way between macaroni cheese and a lasagne. I wonder if there’s an extant French cheese that could fit the bill if I tried to cook this dish?
Take good broth and do in an earthen pot. Take flour of payndemayn [high quality white bread] and make thereof past[e] with water, and make therof thynne foyles as paper with a roller; drye it hard and seeth [simmer] it in broth. Take chese ruayn grated and lay it in dishes with powdour douce [a mix of warm spices such as cinnamon, cloves etc], and lay on the loseyns [the pasta sheets] isode as hole as thou myst, and above powdour and chese; and so twyce or thrice [i.e. layer it up], & serve it forth.
This dish must have remained popular because macaroni and other pasta dishes using cheese and velouté sauce appear crop up again in Eliza Acton’s 1845 book Modern Cookery for Private Families. There is also the more familiar béchamel sauce version. What is interesting is that there is a variety of cheeses used in these recipes: Cheddar, Parmesan, Gruyere and blue Stilton all feature. I love blue cheese, so this one really stood out for me and I have adapted it below.
If blue cheese isn’t your thing, replace it with another. Cheddar, red Leicester or a mature Lancashire would all work. This recipe produces a rather saucy macaroni cheese, if you prefer a thicker consistency, add an extra 50 grams of pasta.
Blue Stilton Macaroni Cheese
30 g plain flour
30 g butter
400 ml hot full-fat milk
150 ml double cream
200 g macaroni
1 slice stale bread
½ tsp chopped fresh rosemary leaves, or ¼ tsp fried rosemary (optional)
225 g Stilton cheese, grated
200 g Gruyere or Cheddar cheese, grated
Pinch Cayenne pepper
Salt and freshly-milled black pepper
First of all make a roux by melting the butter in a saucepan. As soon as it has finished foaming, tip in the flour and mix well with a small whisk or wooden spoon. Cook on a medium heat for a couple of minutes, stirring frequently. If the roux starts to brown, turn down the heat.
Beat in around a quarter of the milk with your whisk, adding another quarter once the first lot is fully incorporated. Repeat until all of the milk is used up. Add the cream and allow the béchamel sauce to simmer gently for around 10 minutes. Make sure you stir every minute or so, to stop the flour sticking to the bottom of the pan.
Meanwhile cook the macaroni in plenty of salted water – follow the instructions on the packet and cook for two minutes less than the instructions state.
Make the bread into breadcrumbs by pulsing in a food processor. If using, add the rosemary half way through the pulsing process.
Take the sauce off the heat and drain the pasta. Stir in the cheeses, mixing until fully incorporated. Tip in the pasta and mix. Now season well with salt, black pepper and Cayenne pepper.
Pour the whole lot into a baking dish of a capacity of 1.5 litres, or thereabouts and bake for around 20 minutes at 180°C until brown and bubbling and the breadcrumbs are well-toasted.
Serve straight away with crusty bread or a rocket salad.
Upon the table was an immense dish, and in the dish was the biggest Twelfth-cake that the eyes of childhood had ever beheld. It was a positive monster, and whitened sugar of the most approved kind encrusted it all over.
From Little Grub, E H Knatchbull-Hugesson 1874
Twelfth Night, on the fifth day of January, is on the last day of Christmastide and was once the party highlight of the twelve-day long festival. In fact, Twelfth Night used to be the big day where gifts would be exchanged, and folk would make much merriment, very aware of the austere months ahead of them. All of this, including the cake, has moved to Christmas Day, of course.
The focal part of the Twelfth Night side-table was the elaborately-decorated Twelfth cake, essentially a rich fruit cake containing brandy, covered in a layer of rock-hard royal icing, the top groaning under the weight of sugar figures and other intricate sculptures and piping. Inside each Twelfth cake a large dried bean or pea would be baked; on the big day those who discovered them would be proclaimed king or queen for the rest of the day.
Queen Victoria’s 1849 Twelfth cake
Some Twelfth cakes were extremely expensive, and every baker or confectioner in the land worth their salt would produce a breath-taking, awe-inspiring shop window filled with cakes of differing sizes, all covered in wonderful sugar-work. There was huge competition between confectioners to produce the best displays; and no wonder, selling any number of these bespoke cakes meant some real money had been made that winter!
Many people, of all ages and conditions, – young and old, gentle and simple, giddy and thoughtful, – stepped every hour to look through the large plate-glass window, and see the grand show of Twelfth-cakes.
From The Queen of the Twelfth-Cakes, Cuthbert Bede 1857
The Twelfth Night cake began life – like many traditional cakes did – as a yeast-leavened bread, enriched with dried fruit and ale (see also Simnel Cake). Over time, the cakes were enriched further with brandy or rum and sugar, giving it a close texture. Eventually, chemical raising agents were used to give the batter a lift.
Here’s a 1604 recipe from a lady called Elinor Fettiplace:
Take a peck of flower, and fower pound of currance, one ounce of Cinamon, half an ounce of ginger, two nutmegs, of cloves and mace two peniworth, of butter one pound, mingle your spice and flower & fruit together, but as much barme [the yeasty froth from the top of fermenting beer barrels] as will make it light, then take good Ale, & put your butter in it, saving a little, which you must put in the milk, & let the milk boyle with the butter, then make a posset with it, & temper the Cakes with the posset drink, & curd & all together, & put some sugar in & so bake it.
I would love to have a go at this recipe at some point.
Twelfth Night cake has declined in popularity since the invention of the Christmas cake (which, incidentally, is a hybrid of a Twelfth Night Cake and Simnel Cake). Here’s the recipe that I use, which is slightly different to my Christmas cake. Notice that there are no raising agents used – I like the close-texture it gives, if you disagree, add a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda to the flour to give it a little lift.
I don’t decorate my cakes elaborately, preferring as thin a layer of icing as possible, so I use half a batch of royal icing, but if it is your thing, you might want to make a little more!
175 g softened salted butter
175 g caster or brown sugar
1 tbs black treacle
175 g plain flour
¼ tsp each ground cinnamon, nutmeg and mace
400 g mixed dried fruit (currants, raisins, sultanas, quartered prunes)
Line and grease an 8-inch cake tin and preheat your oven to 160°C.
Cream the butter, treacle and sugar until pale and fluffy and beat in the eggs one by one before gently stirring in the flour and spices. Once incorporated, mix in the fruits, peel and nuts and stir in the booze (or milk).
Pour into the cake tin, pop in the king/queen bean, level off the top and bake for an hour. Cool in the tin.
Decorate the cake with the royal icing, being as elaborate as you like.
Fine oranges well roasted with sugar and wine in a cup, they’ll make a sweet Bishop when gentlefolk sup.
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)
I spent part of the week in London this week and made sure I had a wander around the Tower Bridge area, my favourite part of the great city. The tiny roads are still so very evocative of Dickens with many of the street names and yards appearing in his writings. Much of Little Dorrit takes place in this area of London, but it was such a bitingly-cold day that it put me more in mind of the winter scenes described in Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol.
At the very end of the story, when it dawns upon the old miser Ebenezer Scrooge that it’s nice to be nice, he offers his long-suffering clerk a well-deserved pay rise and some delicious steaming-hot smoking bishop:
“A merry Christmas, Bob!” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you, for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”
The Christmas Bowl:
Original illustration from A Christmas Carol by John Leech
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a heady hot boozy snifter and smoking bishop is the best of all, in my opinion. Everyone is sick of mulled wine these days – or at least I am – this is the way to go; a marvellous mixture of port, oranges and spices.
The drink is smoking because the oranges – preferably bitter Seville oranges – are roasted until blackened. The drink is a bishop because it is one of several drinks once known as ‘ecclesiasticals’; drinks named after various orders within the Catholic church. Indeed, if you substitute the port for claret, you have a smoking cardinal; better still, use champagne and you’ve got yourself a smoking pope! I have never tried these, but I think I might give smoking pope a go but using Prosecco instead. There was a spate of these somewhat anti-Catholic snifters during the 17th and 18th centuries, but it was just a wry dig, compared to what had happened in the past (e.g. this post). If you look up the recipe for a smoking bishop in Eliza Action’s classic 1845 book Modern Cookery for Private Families, inset is an illustration of a mitre-shaped punch bowl into which it should be served!
A mitre-shaped punchbowl, from Modern Cookery for Private Families, 1845
Many port drinks were created around this time too because France and England were tied into an out-of-control tit-for-tat game with tariffs for exports between the two countries, making French wine – the preferred drink at the time – too expensive for most people, and so eyes moved to Spain and it was soon Cheerio! Chateau Neuf de Pape and Hello! lovely port wine.
One of the reasons I don’t always like mulled wine is that it can be a little heavy on the spices. A smoking bishop uses fewer spices, in fact my recipe uses only one: cloves. The only other aromatics being the oils released from the burnt bitter orange rinds. Aside from that, just a little water and some dark brown sugar are added to taste.
It’s a delicious and easy drink to make, and you will never go back to mulled red wine again once you’ve tried it, so please give it a go; you won’t be disappointed!
Smoking bishop can be made ahead of time, strained, and reheated with great success.
One 750 ml bottle of port
3 oranges (Seville, if possible)
Dark brown sugar to taste
Place the oranges on a tray and bake at 200°C for around 25 minutes until they have started to blacken and give off their delicious burnt aroma. Remove from the oven and allow to cool a little before slicing them up.
Next, pour the full bottle of port into a saucepan (very satisfying to do) along with the oranges and any orange juicy bits, as well as the cloves and water.
Bring to a bare simmer – don’t let it boil! – and let it gently tick away at a scalding temperature (around 80°C) for around 20 minutes.
Add sugar to taste – if the oranges are very bitter and black, you might need quite a bit. If you don’t want bits of orange pulp and clove floating about in the drink, strain into a clean pan before adding the sugar.
If, in the unlikely event, you do not have a mitre-shaped punch bowl, you can simply ladle straight from the saucepan into punch glasses or small mugs.