December 17, 2002

Stephanie Vander Weide

Food History

Whenever I saw syllabub mentioned in my university and present-day studies of historical English society, sources appeared to differ on whether it was a drink or a dessert. The instances I present here indicate that the determination rested on how much wine was used in the recipe: less would get you a spoonable dessert and more would result in a sweet drink or punch. According to the background text accompanying the recipe for "Sweet Wine Syllabub" from Bon Appétit in May 1996, syllabub is "[a] milk pudding that dates back to the Middle Ages...straight into a bowl containing 'Sille,' a wine that used to be made in Silléry, in France's Champagne region. 'Bub' was medieval slang for a bubbly drink." Today there seem to be many variations of syllabub, and some even have the addition of various fruits -- from raspberries to limes -- which weren't in the initial recipes. Hannah Glasse even mentions using syllabub as a topping for trifle, rather than only detailing it as a drink or dessert to be enjoyed on its own.

The general ingredients that have not changed over the years are whipped cream, whipped egg white (absent in the modern recipes), lemon juice, lemon zest, sugar, some additional herbs/spices and an alcohol. Wines have changed so much over the years, that, with my comparatively limited knowledge of wines, it is hard to conclusively say whether the "Sille" wine from the Champagne region of France used back in the earliest incarnations of this recipe can even be found today. One might assume that a sweet white wine -- such as a Sauternes or any other dessert wine -- would come very close to the original. However, instances of other recipes indicate that the alcohol could actually be dry white wine, brandy, cider, port, sherry, Madeira, or a combination of two of those libations. I assume the sheer range of alcoholic choices indicates that the chef used whatever was readily available. Of course, vodka or gin could never be substituted, since the result would be quite disgusting when mixed with the heavy cream, egg whites, nutmeg and/or cinnamon.

There are some versions of the traditional Old English recipe -- for which I was unable to obtain primary sources but I include in my bibliography -- that call for the aforementioned addition of nutmeg and sometimes cinnamon. Since none of the three recipes published in the United States in 1803, 1885, and 1913 mention nutmeg or cinnamon, we might extrapolate that those additions fell out of vogue during those times. Of course, since we can all now get our hands on these once-precious spices, modern recipes have gone back to including them in their list of ingredients. In fact, all of the ingredients used back during the era of the recipe's origination are readily available today; only their method of adding might have changed.

I found it singular that not all the recipes researched call for whipped egg whites. Perhaps with the introduction of such powerful helpers such as the electric mixer, present-day chefs are now able to whip heavy cream stiffer than a human arm and whisk/spoon/fork ever could in 1913, 1885, and 1803. That might explain why egg whites were needed to reinforce the mixture in the past. Even though salmonella entriditis is found in the yolks, the absence of egg whites in my two contemporary examples could be symptomatic of the modern-day fear of raw eggs.

Only one recipe (The Frugal Housewife...1803) specifically mentions the use of a whisk in preparation of the syllabub. It is probable that subsequent recipes assume that the chef knew how to properly whip cream and egg whites without having the implement spelled out for them. The same recipe from 1803 also alludes to the fact that there were once receptacles specifically used for syllabub serving: "pour it into your syllabub-glasses or pots, and they are fit for use." None of the other recipes mention this, so either the glasses/pots fell out of style or they lost their proper name over the years and became "goblets," "footed parfait glasses," or "jelly glasses." My two examples of contemporary recipes call for the syllabub to be served up in wine glasses. This is in keeping with the dessert/drink nature of the recipe.

According to the definition provided by Epicurious Food via, this recipe was originally prepared by taking the milk straight from the cow's udder and milking it into the prep bowl. This step has been lost to our tables due to modern conveniences, pasteurization, and urbanization. However, that step does point out how integral the farm was to food preparation in the Middle Ages all the way up to the late eighteenth century. It's possible that the reason for wanting the milk directly from the cow might have something to do with the desired temperature of the dish.

"You may make this Syllabub at Home, only have new Milk; make it as hot as Milk from the Cow, and out of a Teapot or any such Thing, pour it in, holding your Hand very high."

-Hannah Glasse author of First You Take a Hare : The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy , 1760 as quoted in Lobsconse and Spotted Dog, 2000.

When it comes to temperature of the dish, none of the primary sources -- save for the two from Bon Appétit -- indicate that any chilling is necessary. This could be due to several reasons. One, is that houses back in the day were so improperly heated that additional chilling would not be necessary. Another could be that the chefs, housewives, and cooks didn't see the necessity for the syllabub to be refrigerated before serving. But it was intriguing that one of the recipes from the South specifically notes that if the syllabub was not consumed quickly, "it went almost to nothing at the agitation of the spoon" (Dishes and Beverages of the Old South, 1913). Is it the warmer climate of that area of the country that made them include that snippet of info? I think it's definitely possible. On the other side, as the idea of adding the milk directly from the cow and the Hannah Glasse quote indicates, heat was actually preferable to chilling. So why and when did the idea of chilling this dessert/drink come into effect? I'm not sure if I have enough information at this point to formulate an explanation, except to hazard that modern dairy desserts and/or drinks might be considered more palatable cold, as people often associate warmth and dairy products with curdling.

Another thing I find interesting -- and this shows my history as an editor -- is how titles have changed since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Today, they are succinct, to the point -- in fact, the briefer, the better. Back then, they were almost a paragraph. Consider Cooking With Julia compared to The Frugal Housewife: Or, Complete Woman Cook, Wherein the Art of Dressing All Sorts of Viands is Explained Upwards of Five Hundred Approved Receipts...If I had more time, I would consider this potential proof that we, as a society, have become much more impatient and place such value on our time that we don't want to waste it reading long book titles. More's the pity.


Carter, Susannah. The Frugal Housewife: Or, Complete Woman Cook, Wherein the Art of Dressing All Sorts of Viands is Explained Upwards of the Five Hundred Approved Receipts....New York, Printed and sold by G & R Waite, no. 64, Maidenlane, 1803.

Hearn, Lafcadio. La Cuisine Creole, A Collection of Culinary Recipes from Leading Chefs and Noted Creole Housewives, Who Have Made New Orleans Famous For Its Cuisine. New Orleans: F.F. Hansell & Bro., Ltd., c. 1885.

Williams, Martha. Dishes and Beverages of the Old South; New York: McBride, Nast & Company, 1913.

Bon Appétit, May 1996.

Christiana Campbell's Tavern, Williamsburg, VA, Bon Appétit, November 2000.

Grossman and Grossman Thomas.Lobsconse and Spotted Dog. W.W. Norton, New York, 2000.

Author's Note:

Mr. Carlin, Thank you for giving me the opportunity to just touch on an area of study I am completely enthralled by. After I finish up at CSCA, I am going to do what I can to pursue food history in every form -- it is definitely something I have a great passion and abiding interest in. -SVWL

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