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Monday, July 22, 2013

What's a Blancmange?

Food seems to always find a way into my books. In A Cardros Ruby, a blancmange features in the story--a tainted blancmange. But not everyone today knows this formerly common dish.

The name comes from Old French for "whitedish" or blanc mangier, and was a common upper-class dish for most of Europe since early times (the dish is said to originally have an Arabic influence in a rice pudding). Early cookbooks use the basic ingredients of milk or almond milk, sugar, rosewater, rice flower, and flavoring such as saffron, cinnamon, or various foul (chicken, quail or partridge). The dish could be made more fancy for festivals, or simplified into a very bland dish for invalids. Irish moss, or agar, is mentioned in one recipe to make a better cure-all dish, and the moss helps to thicken the dish.

Blancmange is unlike a custard, which requires eggs. It's more like what Americans call a pudding, but it wiggles like a jelly, and the "slithery" texture is not appealing to everyone. (In A Cardros Ruby, the invalid in question, Havelock Seaford, refuses the blancmange, and his sister, Helena, tosses it from a window.)

(The image here is of a fancy blancmange, formed and presented so that those who dislike the taste could at least admire the form.)

For an ancient blancmange, this recipe below is for a sweet casserole of chicken and rice. It was described as being suitable for the infirm, but also found a place on the menus of banquets and wedding feasts (and would have been served in the Regency).

1 pound chicken (or use just chicken breasts)
4 cups cooked white rice
1/2 cup almond milk
1 cup water (or milk for a richer recipe)
2 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ginger
1/8 tsp. white pepper
(Optionally, substitute saffron for the ginger color and a more savory flavor.)

Boil chicken until tender. When cool shred meat and put into a large pot with all other ingredients. Cook over medium heat until thick. Serve hot or cold.

If you'd like to try a more modern blancmange, here's a recipe using arrowroot or cornstarch for thickening:

3 Tablespoons cornstarch
4 Tablespoons sugar
1/8 tsp. salt
2 cups milk
1 tsp. vanilla

Mix cornstarch, sugar, and salt with 1/4 cup of cold milk. Heat the remaining milk over a low heat. Slowly whisk the cold mix into the heated milk.Do not boil, but cook over a low heat for 15 minutes until the mix thickens. Cool, add vanilla, cover and serve chilled.

There was interest enough in food skills that by 1765 Hanna Glasse's The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy had gone into nine editions, selling for five shillings if bound. (Back then, one could buy unbound books and have them custom bound to match the rest of the books in one’s library.) Hanna’s book remained popular for over a hundred years. However, her recipes can be difficult to translate into modern terms--the quantities often seem aimed to feed an army, as in this recipe for ‘An Oxford Pudding’:

"A quarter of a pound of biscuit grated, a quarter of a pound of currants clean washed and picked, a quarter of a pound of suet shred small, half a large spoonful of powder-sugar, a very little salt, and some grated nutmeg; mix all well together, then take two yolks of eggs, and make it up in balls as big as a turkey's egg. Fry them in fresh butter of a fine light brown; for sauce have melted butter and sugar, with a little sack or white wine. You must mind to keep the pan shaking about, that they may be all of a light brown."

I’ve yet to try this recipe, and when I do I’ll probably substitute vegetable oil for suet, but it does sound tasty.

Amounts in older cookbooks can also confuse a modern reader, often listing ingredients to be added as handfuls, as in the rue, sage, mint, rosemary, wormwood and lavender for a "recipt against the plague" given by Hanna Glasse.

The time spent on making these recipes could also be considerable. This was an era when labor was cheap, and if one could afford servants, they could provide that labor. Shank Jelly for an invalid requires lamb to be left salted for four hours, brushed with herbs, and simmered for five hours. There are few today who have time for such a recipe, unless they, too, are dedicated cooks.

Sick cookery was an item of importance for this era. Most households looked after their own, creating recipes for heart burn or making "Dr. Ratcliff's restorative Pork Jelly." Coffee milk is recommended for invalids as is asses’ milk, milk porridge, saloop (water, wine, lemon-peel, and sugar), chocolate, barley water, and baked soup. (Interestingly, my grandmother swore by an old family recipe of hot water, whiskey, lemon, and sugar as a cough syrup, and that’s one recipe I still use.)

As interest expanded, and a market was created by the rise of the middle class, other cook books came out. Elizabeth Raffald had a bestseller with The Experienced English Housekeeper. The first edition came out in 1769, with thirteen subsequent authorized edition and twenty-three unauthorized versions.
In 1808, Maria Rundell, wife of the famous jeweler, came out with her book A New System of Domestic Cookery for Private Families. This book expanded on recipes to also offer full menu suggestions, as well as recipes for the care of the sick, household hints, and directions for servants.

This shows how the influence of the industrial revolution had created a new class of gentry who needed instructions on running a household, instructions that previously had been handed down through the generations with an oral tradition. The rise of the “mushrooms” and the “cit”, merchants who’d made fortunes from new inventions and industry, created a need for their wives and daughters to learn how to deal with staff and households.


Shannon Donnelly

Shannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, the Grand Prize in the "Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer" contest, judged by Nora Roberts, RWA's Golden Heart, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: "simply superb"..."wonderfully uplifting"....and "beautifully written."

Her Regency romances can be found as ebooks on all formats, and with Cool Gus Publishing, and include a series of four novellas.

She also has out the Mackenzie Solomon, Demon/Warders Urban Fantasy series, Burn Baby Burn and Riding in on a Burning Tire, and the Urban Fantasy, Edge Walkers. Her work has been on the top seller list of and includes Paths of Desire, a Historical Regency romance, and The Cardros Ruby.


Regency Romance Author, Donna Hatch said...

I had heard of this dish but didn't know what it was until now. It hadn't occurred to me that the reason for all the cookbooks and instruction books was due to a growing number of those who were newly wealthy and needed instruction on how to manage a household full of staff. Good point.

Catherine Curzon said...

I have had blancmange a fair few times; we were once in Denmark and encountered a buffet at which every single dessert was a variation on blancmange, there were about two dozen of them!

Quincy said...


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