Ivory For Dessert

Blancmange, garnished with fresh strawberries.
Blancmange, garnished with fresh strawberries.

I pay a lot of attention to references to food in the books that I read. I like to know what the characters are eating or where they’re dining.

Most of what I’m reading of late are science-fiction novels, and they’ve nothing in them that would please a gourmand. It appears that as our civilization evolves, our plates will get smaller, and whatever little—and little is what we shall eat—we eat, will become less sapid, and more Spartan. It’ll also be either puréed, powered, or 3D-printed. Taste and flavor will take a backseat.

But if you go back in time a bit, and read 19th century classics by Honoré de Balzac or Marcel Proust or even crime-fiction by later writers like P.D. James or Agatha Christie, you’ll get a taste of the fare of those times.

Descriptions of lavish meals, served on fine china, with silver cutlery, and spread over white, linen tablecloths abound. But even if the viands and victuals weren’t always glorious and grand, they were, by all counts, hearty and delicious.

It was in one such volume that I came across a luscious confection called “blancmange” (French for “white food.”) A scrumptious and elegant dessert that looks like “a piece of carved ivory,” as Amanda Hesser describes it in her piece in the NYT, it was a deeply cherished dish in the Darwinian age, an age that I deeply cherish.

Its appeal is its glassy smooth texture that’s a joy to both behold, and bite into, for it melts in your mouth. And for all its wonderfulness, all it called for were modest ingredients, very little labor, and no fancy kitchen gadgets.

But simple though it may sound, easy it is not. Ever since I came across it, I’ve tried making it at home.

In my maiden attempt, after an overnight’s stay in the fridge, when the blancmange didn’t firm up, I figured, it was because it had only a fraction of the gelatin it needed.

Before I’d set out, I’d meticulously tried to track down the best formula that would deliver a perfect blancmange, but ended up getting lost in a forest of recipes. Not certain which would work, I decided to wing it, and set the ball in motion.

One could make it with all-milk—a milk of Ronnybrook richness. Or with half milk and half cream. Or, it could have an all-cream base. It could be jellied with cornstarch or gelatin. Again, it could be made with one of the two forms of gelatin: granular or sheet-like.

Some recommend that the gelatin be allowed to “bloom” in a small bowl of cold water, and sit a while before it’s plopped into a saucepan of hot milk, and then slowly stirred into it till it dissolves.

But in the course of my arduous search, I descended upon one in the NYT that suggested differently. Seven years ago, in 2008, the paper re-published a recipe, which it’d run 132 years earlier, in 1876, at the height of the blancmange mania.

It advised that the gelatin be combined with the milk and the sugar at the outset, and the mixture be gently brought to boil, while whisking it all the while.

And then, of course, there was the matter of the quantity of gelatin. Too little, and the blancmange would be pulpy; too much, and it’d turn rubbery. No two recipes proposed the same proportion of the very ingredient that could make it or break it.

In my second adventure, the blancmange solidified beyond all expectations, in the process, losing its creaminess. This time around, there was an excess of gelatin.

I still didn’t give up. I researched several more recipes, careful to note down the ratio of the milk and gelatin. Scaling it to fill four ramekins called for no small measure of culinary math on my part.

I got lucky the third time around.


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