It’s a whimsical summer picnic treat that turned into a classic English dessert, and it has the silliest dessert name ever: syllabub. It was a leading English sweet from the 17th to the 19th centuries, and it was the classic topping for trifle until the English fell hard for Bird’s Custard Powder. Syllabub’s a lot nicer than fake custard — rich but light, dainty and elegant, innocent-looking and just a bit naughty.
All this started as something people liked to do on picnics. When you were out in the countryside, you would pour some wine in a bucket and talk a dairymaid into milking her cow into it, creating a sort of spiked milk foam.
Some people liked to serve the old school “syllabub from the cow” even when they were living in town with no dairymaids on hand, so for them there was a device called the artificial cow. It was sort of a wooden bicycle pump, with which you could spurt wine into your milk with enough force to produce foam.
Most city syllabubs, however, were made by whipping wine with cream and fell into two categories: whipt and everlasting. Whipt syllabub was flavored with wine (nearly always white wine, to preserve the color of the cream) sweetened with sugar, often with the addition of lemon juice and rind. You stirred these ingredients into the cream, carefully, so that their acidity wouldn’t just curdle the cream. Then you would whip it to stiff peaks and let the syllabub stand for a couple of hours.
And behold, it comes out a bit thicker than regular whipped cream, because the acidity has caused some of the watery fraction of the cream to separate. In a way, syllabub is the whipped cousin of an English fruit fool, which is simply cream thickened by the acidity of pureed fruit. Anyway, there was your whipt syllabub — lightly spiked whipped cream floating on a layer of sweetened wine faintly clouded with whey.
Everlasting syllabub was made the same way, except that you removed your whipt topping by spooning it off the wine layer (and then discreetly swigging the latter, I expect) to be served on its own. It would keep, if not forever, at least for several days. But who wants to keep syllabub that long?
As for that silly name, nobody really knows where it comes from. It would be like asking where “toodle-oo” comes from.
Syllabub from the British housewife
Martha Bradley’s “The British Housewife” (1756) included a syllabub recipe that’s worth trying today. I have halved it. There were a million kinds of syllabub, though. Mrs. Bradley also gave a more complex recipe for which you spooned off the foam into glasses partly filled with sherry and port, which must have looked rather fine. All syllabubs are delightful, whatever your doctor may say.
- Grate the rinds of two small lemons and juice them.
- Combine the lemon zest and lemon juice with the ice cream, stirring continuously to prevent it from turning.
- Sweeten the mixture to taste with sugar.
- Whip it up until stiff peaks form
- Spoon into 6 martini or wine glasses that each have a dash of sherry and wine in the bottom and let stand for 4 hours before serving.
Zester Daily contributor Charles Perry is a former rock ‘n’ roll journalist turned food historian who worked for the Los Angeles Times’ award-winning Food section, where he twice was a finalist for the James Beard award.
Photo: Syllabub. Credit: Charles Perry