There’s a dessert that’s scarcely known in America but all too familiar in England, where it is today considered the epitome of blandness, no small feat given English standards. But in the 19th century, its wilder possibilities were explored, some of which were smashingly good and deserve a new life.
The dish is blancmange (that’s French lingo there: “blahn-MAHNJ”), and the modern standard is basically a gelatin dessert of almond milk, or dairy milk with almond flavoring, or just milk and vanilla, molded into a characteristic shape that sometimes showed up in Monty Python skits as a silly, giant blancmange monster.
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The almond-milk version, at least, has an ancient history. Blancmange descends from blancmanger, the most esteemed dish of the European Middle Ages, which basically consisted of the whitest ingredients available to the cook: milk, almonds, chicken breasts, sugar, rice, even breadcrumbs in a pinch. It was a special attraction at a time when cuisine tended to be either brown or green or brownish green, and it appealed to the medieval nobility for another reason: As the middle class kept rising and rising, pure white food such as blancmanger symbolized the stainless aristocratic ancestry that those irritating bourgeois upstarts could never claim. The idea was that you can add colorings to turn a white food whatever color you like, but you can’t turn a colored food white. In the 1820s, Antonin Carême, the founder of French grande cuisine, wrote, “These delicious sweets are greatly esteemed by gastronomes, but to be enjoyed they must be extremely smooth and very white. Given these two qualities (so rarely found together), they will always be preferred to other creams, even to transparent jellies.”
It’s not surprising that democratic-minded Americans paid little attention to the historical significance of whiteness. They made chocolate versions (every edition of the Fannie Farmer cookbook since 1896 has presented the chocolate pudding as a variety of blancmange), and they made versions flavored with fruit; when they used berries or cherries, the result was very far from aristocratic white. They also played with different thickening agents, using cornstarch, farina or tapioca as well as gelatin. For my money, the star version is the cream fruit blancmange. It’s reminiscent of a packaged gelatin dessert but with the genuine flavor of fresh fruit (I’m particularly partial to blackberry), enriched by cream. The texture is unique, soft and elastic, like a cross between pudding and fruit jelly but richer. Old recipes say to serve cream fruit blancmange with whipped cream or boiled custard sauce (which we now know as crème anglaise), but I don’t think it really needs a topping.
Some advice: Do not add the fruit purée to the cream until the gelatin is thoroughly dissolved or the acidity will cause curdling. The result will still taste good, but you won’t get that plush texture. For a more conventional pudding effect, you can cut the amount of gelatin to 1 1/2 tablespoons; if you want less richness, you can use half-and-half instead of cream.
Cream Fruit Blancmange
Prep time: 7 to 8 minutes
Cooking time: 9 to 10 minutes
Total time: 2 1/2 to 2 3/4 hours
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
1/2 cup water
1 ounce (2 tablespoons or 2 packets) unflavored gelatin
1 quart berries or cherries
1 pint cream
1 cup sugar
1. Add the water to a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin on top. Let dissolve and swell, 5 minutes or more. Meanwhile, purée the berries in a food processor or food mill 2 to 3 minutes and strain. You will have about 1 cup of thick juice.
2. Put the cream in a saucepan and cook over medium-high heat until scalded, 7 to 8 minutes (tiny bubbles will form and the aroma of the cream will change). Stir often to prevent scorching.
3. Reduce heat to low. Stir 1/2 cup of the hot cream into the dissolved gelatin and whisk until thoroughly mixed; then add the gelatin mixture into the cream remaining in the saucepan and whisk until it is thoroughly dispersed, 1 minute or so. Add the sugar and stir until well dissolved, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat.
4. Add the fruit purée to the cream and stir until the color is uniform. Pour into serving bowls, bring to room temperature and refrigerate until set, 2 to 2 1/2 hours.
Main photo: Classic blancmange, pictured, is even better when you blend the fruit right in. Credit: Copyright 2015 Lesyy