Regency Desserts—What is Syllabub?
Like Jane Austen, most of us enjoy a sweet treat now and then, although dessert is not, for many households these days, a mandatory end to our dinners. In the Regency era however, dessert was quite a production in many cases, depending on the household budget, and almost always included not just one but several sweets to end the meal. If the meal was a formal dinner with guests, the dessert course could be considered a spectacular finale with many elaborate dishes.
Austen herself had much to say about the importance of sweets, not one of which is her quote above. She approved of sugar in moderation, and talks of her delight in a bath bun, her interest in sponge cakes, and in her novel Emma, Mrs Weston’s wedding cake is eaten down to the last crumb—and enjoyed by young and old!
Some popular desserts of the Georgian and Regency era were blancmanges, cakes and biscuits, especially macarons, baked fruits such as apples, custards, puddings, cheesecakes (which were nothing like our popular creamy version, but were made from almond meal and were more solid, usually baked in a puff pastry) ices (not the ice cream we know today, but more like sorbet), sweet pies, cakes, trifles, flummery, syllabubs, preserved fruits and so on. Not much different today, really, except the ingredients had no chemical preservatives and additives, so were likely a lot healthier!
Of all these desserts, we are familiar with most of them, but some of these treats seem to us to be quite mysterious! For example, syllabub is often mentioned in Regency fiction, but what is syllabub?
Regency romance novels were my first introduction to the dessert. The word ‘Syllabub’ makes me think of something silly and delicious at the same time!! (along with ‘flummery’!) Because it sounds so exotic it has always fascinated me. As I discovered, the heroines of romantic novels are often seen eating this strange-sounding confection at routs, balls and dinners, but I had no clue what it was.
It turns out that syllabub was a popular dessert in seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth century England. Now strangely enough, syllabub could be, depending on its consistency, either a light whipped desert, or a thick drink! Traditionally it was made with wine and cream, and whipped for at least a half hour until it became wonderfully frothy. It was then served as a drink in glasses, and the frothy part sometimes eaten off the spoon. It reminds me of eating the milky froth from the top of a cappuccino!
Syllabub was generally made with whipped cream, whipped egg whites, red or white wine, sugar, and in the regency era, lemon juice and zest. Today’s syllabubs can be any flavour, and be combined creatively with any fruit and spices, but the traditional flavour is still lemon. The quantity of wine added would determine the consistency qualifying whether the mixture would be a creamy dessert or a thick beverage. Supposedly, one always knew who had been at the syllabub, because you would be given away by the white ‘moustache’ on your upper lip!
Syllabub recipes changed a lot over the years. One might milk a cow directly into the basin of alcohol, as in this recipe below from the 18th-century cookbook, The Experimental English Housewife. It instructs homemakers to “make syllabub under a cow” – or in plain words, milk the cow directly into a punch bowl filled with alcohol and sugar. “Let it stand an hour, then strew over it a few currants well washed, picked, and plumped before the fire. Then send it to the table.” I must say I would be always looking in my drink for cow hairs and dirt, however!
Here is another Georgian era recipe for the whipped confection:
Take a quart of thick cream, and half a pint of sack, the juice of two Seville oranges, or lemons; grate in the peel of two lemons; half a pound of double-refined sugar, pour it into a broad earthen pan, and whisk it well; but first sweeten some red wine, or sack, and fill your glasses as full as you chuse; then as the froth rises take it off with a spoon, and lay it carefully into your glasses, till they are as full as it will hold.
From Charles Carter The London and Country Cook (London: 1749)
Later on one must suppose the servants got tired of whipping the confection for half an hour at a time to froth it, and other methods were developed to make frothy and keep it that way, such as reducing the alcohol portion and adding in thicker cream. I personally like the idea of focussing on just the froth portion, and making it thicker, which is how syllabub is made today.
Here is a modern versions I found—needless to say, you will not have to whip it with a birch rod for half an hour!
•rind and juice of 1 lemon
•7 tbs sweet white wine
•2 tbs sherry
•1/2 pint double cream
•2 oz very fine sugar (we like to use icing sugar)
Place the lemon rind, juice, wine, sherry, and sugar in a bowl and leave to soak for several hours. Remove the lemon rind. Add the cream. Whisk until it forms soft peaks. Put into glasses. If not serving immediately, put in the fridge to chill. However, it is best to make this shortly before you plan to serve it.
Garnish with grated nutmeg and some lemon rind twists. Serves 4
You can serve the syllabub with shortbread, gingersnaps or other biscuits. You can make a syllabub with just about any fruit. Popular choices include raspberries, peaches and strawberries.