Welcome back from the holiday, and a very happy new year from the Literary Kitchen!
I do hope you are not too full still from the recent festivities to bear to look at the superb pudding I will be introducing you to today: blancmange. Actually, no. Feeling a little sick may be the best way to approach this dish, as for a good part of its history it was considered perfect for the sick. In the Victorian cookbook for the working classes written by Queen Victoria’s chef, Charles Elmé Francatelli (1805-1876), blancmange is included in the section on dishes for the sick, and is apparently particularly recommended for cases of fevers, or extreme delicacy. Blancmange, though, is said to have completely different origins: a dish almost as old as Europe, said to be brought over here by the Arabs, and now commonly referred to in English with the French name (blancmange – white eating, white food), and considered a local speciality of Spain (manjar blanco), and Italy (biancomangiare). The name derives from its original main ingredients, all white in colour: milk, almonds, and sometimes chicken or capon. With the inclusion of chicken one can see, I think, how it would have been perceived to be reinvigorating, and thus fit for feeding the sick. Its white texture was originally, unsurprisingly, linked with purity: another reason to consider it fit to restore health and well-being. Today, this dish is mainly a pudding, while in England and France it is usually made with almonds, in Italy (especially Sicily) almonds are used mainly to decorate the top, and lemon zest and cornflour or rice starch are used in the preparation of the blancmange ‘jelly’.
This most international, and cross-cultural pudding, blancmange, features in James Joyce’s famous New Year’s Eve dinner in his short story ‘The Dead’, placed on the table next to ‘a fat brown goose’, ‘a great ham’, and a variety of Yuletide goodies —
A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some tall celery stalks. In the centre of the table there stood, as sentries to a fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American apples, two squat old-fashioned decanters of cut glass, one containing port and the other dark sherry. On the closed square piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish lay in waiting and behind it were three squads of bottles of stout and ale and minerals, drawn up according to the colours of their uniforms, the first two black, with brown and red labels, the third and smallest squad white, with transverse green sashes. (p. 197)
The description is baroque, no doubt: such an abundance of food is for sure a statement regarding the host family’s wealth and status, where blancmange is not even the protagonist, but makes a brief appearance ‘in blocks’, served with an unspecified ‘red jam’ (which for our recipe I interpreted as raspberry jam, but you’re welcome to use whichever you prefer – cherry, strawberry, etc.). Blancmange is chosen here, as in a painting, to create a sharp contrast with the many other colours, standing out in its pure hue in the midst of the festive table. Throughout the dinner in Joyce’s short story, questions of (Irish) national identity are raised, and the food served during the evening appears to confirm this. While roast goose and roast ham are considered typical of Christmas or post-Christmas festivities’ meals in the UK and Ireland, and are deeply rooted in Irish traditions, the whole array of sweets and desserts presented here by Joyce, albeit equally typical for Christmas, can be barely regarded as native of Ireland: with such specific collocations of places, i.e. ‘Smyrna’ and ‘American’, and foreign names such as precisely ‘blancmange’, Joyce is underlining the origins of these dishes as non-Irish. Blancmange is, again, the symbol for a unified European identity, a longing for a Europe which was perhaps desired by a character like Gabriel, in contrast with the new rising fights for Irish independence occurring at the turn of the twentieth century.
The Literary Kitchen offers you the original Victorian recipe by Queen Victoria’s chef, and then Nico’s more modern, and slightly Sicilian take on the blancmange (or biancomangiare as we call it down South!).
Francatelli’s 1852 recipe (Recipe no. 193. How to make blancmange.):
Scald, skin, wash, and thoroughly bruise one ounce of sweet almonds with a rolling-pin on a table; put this into a basin with one ounce of lump sugar, and three gills of cold water, and allow the whole to stand and steep for three hours. Next, boil one ounce of shred isinglass, or gelatine, in a gill of water, by stirring it on the fire, while boiling for ten minutes; pour this to the milk of almonds; strain all through a muslin into a basin, and when the blancmange has become stiff and cold, let it be given to the patient in cases of fevers, or extreme delicacy.
400gr whole milk
200gr peeled whole almonds
150gr granulated sugar
6gr leaf gelatine
- Blend peeled almonds together with sugar.
- Move mixture of blended almonds and sugar into a bowl, add milk and stir well.
- Cover the bowl with film and leave to rest overnight.
- Once the mixture has rested, sieve the almonds from the milk and place almonds aside. (I then roasted the chopped almonds in the oven at 180°C for 30 minutes, or until golden and crispy, and used them as decorations for the blancmange after they cooled down)
- Now pour the almond milk into a saucepan, and warm it up on a low heat for 3-4 minutes (it should not boil).
- In the meantime, you will have softened the leaf gelatine in cold water for at least 10 minutes. Squeeze the leaf and add it to the mixture in the saucepan, stirring well until completely melted. Set this aside until cooled.
- Whisk the cream and gradually add it to the cooled mixture.
- Pour the mixture into a medium-size mould, or into five small moulds. Leave to rest in fridge for at least 6 hours.
- To take the blancmange out of the mould and serve it, place the mould (with the blancmange still in it) in some hot water for a few seconds.
- Decorate with jam, and roasted almonds.
Francatelli, Charles Elmé. A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes (1852). Stroud: The History Press, 2010.
Joyce, James. Dubliners. London: Penguin Books, 2000.