Tag Archives: almonds

Blancmange

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.

photo: unknown

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.

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 dinner party.

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.

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Mediaeval Blanc Mange

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 L mediaeval almond milk flavoured with a few drops of almond extract

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, cheerio!

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Mediaeval Almond Milk

Over recent years, as we have become more aware of people’s food intolerances and allergies there has been a great rise in the amount of plant-based milks consumed in the western world. We’ve also realised that there are many benefits associated with the cutting down of animal products in our diets. One of these plant milks – almond milk – is actually having a Renaissance because it was a food that used to be consumed in abundance in mediaeval Europe. Indeed, if I was writing this 20 years ago, it would be appearing in my ‘Forgotten Foods’ series on the blog.

As you may know, mediaeval Christians fasted a lot. There were two great fasting episodes: Advent and Lent. Every Wednesday, Friday and Saturdays was a fast day, meaning that around half of the days of the year were spent fasting. No meat or animal produce was allowed to be eaten, except for fish which was considered cool and calming and so appropriate for these days of solemnity.

The nutrition contained within almond milk. Notice the added ingredients.

Just like the people do today, mediaeval folk tried to make alternative products that could fill the same satisfying gastronomical niche as the real thing. Almond milk was one of those products.

Almonds were imported (as they are now) and very expensive. Households were expected to make almost all their own food and drinks and almond milk was no exception. The expense and effort required to make it made it a fasting ingredient reserved only for the rich, and they consumed a lot of it. King Edward I went through a startling 40 000 pounds of almonds in just two years!

I must admit I quite enjoy modern almond milk as a drink or in porridge but find it otherwise a little insipid, so I was interested in finding out how mediaeval people went about making it and what it was like. From my reading, it seems to be thicker and more substantial than todays, where it was refined into a thick almond cream or curdled to make a kind of almond curd cheese. I’m not sure if this would be possible using the almond milk of today!

On the other hand, modern almond milk may be more nutritious. When people moved from cow’s milk to plant-based milks, many didn’t realise there would be a massive drop in their consumption of nutrients like calcium and vitamin D. This led to concerns that people would become deficient, and so modern manufacturers fortify almond milk with extra nutrients to help people to achieve their recommended nutritional allowances for the day.

Making Mediaeval Almond Milk

The basic method was acquired from the Arabs who were supplying much of the almonds themselves via the vast network of trade routes that stretched out through Eastern Europe, the Middle East and beyond.

The begin almonds would be pounded very fine, sometimes with a little spring water or rose water to stop them oiling;  they didn’t want to make almond nut butter by accident! After this initial exhausting task, the almonds would be soaked in spring water (though I have found references to soaking them in barley water too). After soaking, it was passed through a strainer and seasoned with salt and some honey or sugar. Cream could be made by boiling the milk down until very thick or made into curds by adding vinegar before straining. I came across this recipe for an almond cheese so thick, you could slice it:

Take almond milk, and boil it, and when it is boiled take it from the fire, and sprinkle on a little vinegar. Then spread it on a cloth, and cast sugar on it, and when it is cold gather it together, and leche it [slice it] in dishes, and serve it forth.

So how does mediaeval almond milk compare to compare to todays, and how is it to use as an ingredient?

I updated the mediaeval approach to making almond milk, but the ingredients essentially remain the same.

100g ground almonds

2 tsp rose or orange-flower water (optional)

1 tsp sugar or honey

A good pinch of salt400 ml boiling water

60 ml white wine (optional)

The first task is to get those ground almonds super-fine. Put them in a blender (a Nutri-bullet style blender is perfect) with the rose water and about 50 ml of the hot water and blitz in pulses until very smooth. Add the rest of the boiling water and leave to stand and soak for around 20 minutes.

Give the milk a good swish around and pass it through a sieve to remove any large pieces of ground almond. Sweeten with the sugar or honey, add the wine if using and allow to cool.

The mediaeval almond milk is now ready to use.

The Verdict

Well I must say, I was quite impressed with the end result. It was more substantial than bought almond milk in both texture (it was creamy) and taste (the honey, salt and rose water). It wasn’t chalky or gritty either like I expected. I don’t recommend adding the wine however; it put the flavours out of kilter for me, but each to their own I suppose.

I heartily recommend making some. I made a rose-flavoured pudding (see next post) and I even tried making the cheese with the left-over almond milk.

I was rather odd in flavour, I added soft dark brown sugar and a couple of tablespoons of red wine vinegar, let it stand for a few hours and then passed it through a scalded tea towel sat in a sieve. It could make an interesting mediaeval version of a Yorkshire Curd Tart I think.

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Angels and Devils on Horseback

A Victorian hors d’œuvre that has died a death in recent decades; an angel on horseback is simply an oyster wrapped in bacon and grilled; a devil is a tea-soaked prune treated the same way. The main reason for this is that oysters were then poor man’s food and now they are a delicacy; it is odd to think of the working-class tucking into these at dinner rather than the upper middle classes. Of course, the tables were turned by the time we hit the 20th Century. If you have never tried oysters before, this is a good way to introduce yourself to them, I reckon. They should have a comeback as they are delicious, and if you can’t afford – or stomach – oysters, then at least have a go at making the devils, though they are best made together.

The best oysters for the angels are the large Pacific ones – especially if you can get them pre-shucked. The best prunes are the squidgy ‘giant’ ones; if you can’t find them, just substitute two normal prunes for each giant one. There are many elaborate recipes, especially for the angels; the oysters in one are  breaded and fried, in another they are chopped up to make a stuffing. These things are best kept simple – the raw ingredients should speak for themselves.

You can make these delightful and delicious bite-size nibbles as some decadent finger-food on rounds of bread fried in butter or alongside some roast poultry instead of pigs in blankets.

Angels on Horseback

12 large shucked oysters

Cayenne pepper or Tabasco sauce (optional)

6 rashers of smoked streaky bacon cut in half

First, soak 12 wooden toothpicks in some water and get your grill nice and hot. Season your oysters with a little Cayenne or Tabasco sauce if using and roll each in a piece of bacon, securing it with a toothpick. Place them on a baking sheet and grill until the bacon is crisp and the oysters are plump. Serve immediately.

Devils on Horseback

12 large prunes or 24 small ones

Freshly brewed, strong tea

12 roasted, salted almonds

6 rashers of smoked streaky bacon cut in half

Soak your prunes in the hot tea until plump – this will take 30 minutes if no-soak prunes, or overnight if they require soaking.* Remove the stones if the prunes are pitted then fills the gap it has left with a roasted almond. If you are using small prunes, sandwich an almond between two of them. Spear with a cocktail stick and grill as described above.

*Don’t throw away the tea for it tastes delicious!

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Decorating the Christmas Cake

Once your Christmas cake is nicely matured and well-fed on brandy, it is time to decorate the bugger. In my opinion it is best to go all-or-nothing; either don’t decorate at all or go crazy. Traditionally, in England at any rate, you need a layer of marzipan and a layer of royal icing. Though I have seen recipes that have a bakeable marzipan and no icing, which I must admit is attractive, but I keep it traditional, even though I am not really bothered about the icing. No, I do it simply for tradition’s sake.

I gave the Christmas cake recipe that I use in the previous post, so if you have made one or have a bought undecorated one that you want to put your own stamp on, I have recipes for marzipan and for royal icing too. Don’t forget to add some festive bits and bobs too.

Marzipan

Marzipan is essentially a paste made of ground almonds and sugar and it found its way in Europe from the Middle East via the Crusades. It was the Italians – specifically the Milanese – that really took to the stuff, refining the techniques to produce a very high quality product that was excellent for making into extravagant sculptures. Leonardo da Vinci was quite despondent after making some amazing and intricate marzipan sculptures for the Milanese court as he ‘observed in pain that [they] gobble up all  the sculptures I give them, right down to the last morsel.’

Aside from being used as a sculpture material, marzipan also became a popular sweetmeat used by chocolatiers and bakers. Some of my favourite cakes use marzipan: Battenburg, stollen and simnel cake. The Christmas cake got its layer of marzipan because the Twelfth Night cake – traditionally covered in it – was banned by the Puritan and Lord Protector of England, Oliver Cromwell as too frivolous, so people added the marzipan they loved so much to their Christmas cake instead.

Here’s the recipe I always use these days. What I like specifically about this recipe is that it is not too sweet, which I think the bought stuff always is. Also, when you make your own marzipan, it has a much better texture as well as flavour. You can add extra things to the mixture if you like, such as the grated zest of an orange, or a couple of teaspoons of orange flower water or rose water.

 

140 g icing sugar

90 g caster sugar

220 g ground almonds

1 beaten egg

1 tbs apricot jam

1 tbs water

Sieve the icing sugar into a large bowl and stir in the caster sugar and almonds. Stir in the beaten egg and lemon juice to form a paste. Knead the marzipan on a surface floured with icing sugar. Easy. Wrap and allow to chill in the fridge for a few hours.

To cover the cake with it, you first need to slice the top of your cake off so that it is a nice, flat surface. I always like that bit because I get to try the cake.

Next, turn it upside down and pop it on a cake base or plate. Warm up the jam and water in a pan and paint the whole cake with the glaze.

 

On a sheet of greaseproof paper, roll out a little over half of the marzipan into a round shape that is just a little larger than the cake itself. The greaseproof paper makes it easier to roll out, but you can use an icing sugar dusted worktop instead. Use the cake tin as a template and cut a circle.

Pick up the marzipan still stuck to the paper, place it on top of the cake and peel off the paper.

Next, take the remaining third of the paste and roll that out into strips the same height as the cake and secure them to the cake. Press the edges together as you go as well as any cracks that may appear.

You need to leave the cake for a couple of days to dry a little before adding the icing (should you want to).

Royal Icing

Royal icing is the classic icing for the Christmas cake – it is ‘royal’ because it was the British Royal Family that used in for their wedding cakes, and naturally if the Royals did it, then we copied it. Icing had been around since the eighteenth century; before that, there wasn’t the technology to refine the sugar appropriately. The first icing was similar to royal icing, it was spread over the top of the cake but then the cake was returned to the oven to set hard. The final result was a nice flat, shiny surface like that of a frozen lake, hence we call the stuff icing. Elizabeth Raffald mentions it in The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769) – the first written recording of the word.

Royal icing is the most popular icing because it can be piped and coloured easily. Plus it is easy to make , which a bonus. Here’s how:

2 medium egg whites

2 tsp lemon juice

500g icing sugar, sieved

Whisk the egg whites until frothy but not yet stiff and then stir in the lemon juice. Add icing sugar to the egg white bit by bit, mixing as you go – an electric beater comes in very handy here, but you can use a wooden spoon if your forearms are up to the job. The icing can be used straight away.

 

Spread the mixture all over the cake using a palette knife to smooth it out. Dipping the knife in very hot water is a good way of getting the icing super-smooth, but I like it a bit more rough-and-ready. You can reserve some of the icing for piping of course, but that has never really been my thing – I should have a go one time though!

A simple and effective way of decorating the cake is to use the side of a knife to make a nice spiky snow effect. When decorated, leave it for two or three days to set hard.

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Ce n’est pas une Macaron

If you look at old recipes for puddings, you’ll find they often require macaroons; sometimes as the sponge to soak up the booze at the bottom of a trifle, crumbled over the top of a dessert or used as part of the base to a cheesecake. Indeed, in Jane Grigson’s English Food, macaroons are needed for several recipes. She doesn’t give a recipe herself, and seeing as one of the blog’s roles is to try to fill in all the recipes that were omitted from English Food. If it had appeared, it would have been in the Biscuits section of the Teatime chapter.

However, don’t get macaroons confused with coconut macaroons – they are a relatively modern invention, old receipts require the classic macaroon, made of stiffly whipped egg whites and ground almonds. They are quite hard to find these days. If you are lucky, you might find them in a french bakery. Indeed, they are called french macaroons in America, and are found miniature-sized and sandwiched together with some buttercream. Delicious, of course, but no good for baking with.

The traditional macaroon is part-biscuit (cookie), part-meringue, wonderfully chewy and sweet. They are quite easy to make, though the mixture does need to be piped onto a tray. I recently made some for the 300th recipe for my other blog as  part of a trifle. Luckily for me they would be drowned in dessert wine and then covered with custard, so a deft piping hand was not required (as you can see in the pictures below).

Macaroons were originally invented by Italian monks and became popular in France in the 1530s when the pattisiers of King Henri II’s wife used the Italian recipe and started making them for the court. I dont’ know when they eventually made their way to Britain, but I am sure it was pretty soon after that, as French and English cuisine was very similar and they were always looking toward each other for inspiration, especially in those times. Most recipes from around that era are very difficult to pronounce either French or English as everything overlapped so much. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that the idea of making tiny ones glued together with buttercream took off.

The modern brilliantly-coloured and tiny macaroons

My recipe below is based on two others:  one from Elizabeth Raffald’s 1769 book The Experienced English Housekeeper, and the other from Martha Stewart’s website of all places. The older recipe includes orange flower or rose water, which was not used as a flavouring per se, but as a way to prevent the whole almonds turning into a paste when they were being ground. I like the taste, however, so I have included it in the recipe.

If you come across a recipe that requires macaroons, or you just want some to go with a cup of tea, here’s how to do it:

Ingredients:

5 1/2 oz icing (confectioners’ sugar)

4 oz ground almonds

3 egg whites

pinch of salt

2 oz caster (fine granulated) sugar

1 teaspoon rose water or orange flower water (optional)

Begin by mixing together the icing sugar and the ground almonds. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg white and salt until they form stiff peaks, i.e. if the turn the bowl upside down, everything stays within. Whisk in the caster sugar gradually so that the egg whites become glossy. Mix in the orange flower or rose water. Next, using a metal spoon, fold in the icing sugar and almonds. Take your time here as the mixture gets thick and tacky, and you don’t want to lose all the air from your whisked eggs.

Line a baking sheet with baking paper and grease it lightly. Pipe out the mixture leaving some space between each one as it will rise in the oven.

For small macaroons, use a number 4 tip, for larger use a bigger size or pipe out in a spiral shape. It’s up to you how careful you are – the classic shape is a dome.

Leave to dry for 15 to 30 minutes, depending upon size and humidity before baking at 180°C (350°F) with the oven door slightly ajar (use a wooden spoon handle!) for between 15 and 25 minutes, depending on size. You can tell when they are done when the tops go from shiny to dull. Remove from the oven and allow to cool on a rack.

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