Creamy frothy syllabub was a firm favourite in English cuisine from the 1500s to the Victorian era, and although it is less commonly found on modern menus, it deserves a comeback. So easy to make, the dessert still seems wonderfully decadent in its simplicity.
History of Syllabub
The earliest known reference to syllabub dates to 1537. The English writer John Heywood wrote “You and I… Muste walke to him and eate a solybubbe.” Samuel Pepys mentions it more than a century later in his diaries, and it makes an appearance in the 1861 novel Tom Browne at Oxford.
Syllabub can take the form of either a drink or a dessert, depending on how much you whip its main ingredient – cream. The cream is mixed with white wine and lemon juice, causing it to curdle. Sugar adds sweetness. Later recipes sometimes call for the addition of egg whites or cornstarch. While these create a more stable dessert, they are not part of a traditional syllabub.
Multiple rumours claim that syllabub gained in popularity during the reign of Charles II (1660-1685). According to the stories, he would send one of his maids to milk a cow directly into a glass of wine. He would then enjoy the frothy concoction. Food historian Ivan Day disputes the truthfulness of this in his lengthy and fascinating essay on the syllabub. Among his very sensible reasons for questioning this:
Unless your syllabub cow is extremely well-groomed, the
congealing milk will also be garnished here and there with cow hairs and the odd
speck of bovine dandruff, a most unappetising prospect, at least to our modern eyes.
Early recipes for syllabub simply involved adding the cream from a great height (or direct from the udder) to create a frothy top. Later recipes, from the Regency period on, involve whipping the cream.
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)
This recipe makes a delicious and light dessert for 4 people.
- 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)
- grated nutmeg
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.