ENGLISH FOOD writer Elizabeth David's elegant pamphlet, "Syllabub and Fruit Fools," published in 1969, defines a syllabub as a "fragile whip of cream contained in a little glass, concealing within its innocent white froth a powerful alcoholic punch."
Syllabubs were introduced in England during the 17th century and were immensely popular both in England and America, especially in the South, through the 18th and 19th centuries. But, according to David, by the turn of the century the syllabub was replaced by the trifle which, in turn, was degraded by both gummy sponge and commercial custard powder, and then supplanted by synthetic ice cream. An outraged David undertook to "combat the Chemicals Age" by seeking to replace that synthetic ice cream with, naturally, the syllabub. And syllabubs are indeed enjoying a bit of of a revival, especially as a traditional dessert during the Christmas season, although they are perfectly suitable the year round.
Syllabubs are particularly appropriate for the holidays because they are wicked without appearing to be. They are foamy, feathery and unfilling, much like zabaglione, while most traditional foods are wonderful but rich, weighty and overblown. At the same time, syllabubs are satisfying, as well they should be, considering they consist primarily of heavy cream flavored with wine, perhaps cognac or brandy, sometimes fruit juice and always sugar. As a sop to the conscience, it is comforting to remember that the cream is inflated with so much air that it goes quite far.
As David points out, the ingredients of a syllabub are "simple and sumptuous." Moreover, "the skill demanded for its confection is minimal, the presentation is basic and elegant."
Syllabubs are sometimes described as a dessert and sometimes as a drink. They can be either and both. Those that contain a greater proportion of wine and sugar to cream tend to separate, so the whipped portion is eaten off the top of the glass with a spoon and the liquid, which sinks to the bottom, is drunk. Syllabubs with a proportionately smaller amount of wine and sugar do not separate and are therefore called "everlasting." Both types have their considerable virtues.
Another 17th-century dessert, the posset, more or less resembles the syllabub and is thus justifiably confused with it. "Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery," a transcription of two books of recipes dating back to Elizabethan and Jacobean days, contains a recipe for "whipt posset." In her commentary, editor Karen Hess notes that this dish is actually a syllabub, although possets were most often made of ale and served warm. And the recipe here for lemon posset, given to Lady Mary Henderson, wife of the British ambassador, by the Lord Mayor of London from an old English cookbook published in 1614, is served cold and has nothing to do with ale. In fact, it is more like a bavarian cream than a syllabub.
During the 19th century, the syllabub served as a topping for the trifle, and while many recipes advise the use of the everlasting syllabub for this purpose, Mrs. Beeton points out that any syllabub can be used provided it is made in advance and the liquid is allowed to sink. Then only the froth is spooned off onto the trifle.
Syllabubs first were made by milking fresh milk directly into a punch bowl containing the wine and other flavorings. The force of the milk, not to mention its freshness and richness, resulted in a fine froth. Interestingly enough, as I experimented with various syllabubs, I found that they were more successful when the cream was added slowly and stirred in vigorously. Furthermore, ultra-pasteurized cream, for which I normally have nothing but disdain, worked as well as if not better than the old-style pasteurized cream I buy at High's, which is superior for cooking. The recipe here for Traditional Syllabub, which I found enclosed with a copper replica of an old tin syllabub churn, calls for milk along with cream. This makes a much paler dish that brings egg whites to mind more than cream.
Syllabubs must be whipped, and as the foam forms it is spooned off into glasses and then refrigerated overnight. The foam holds and does not collapse, as difficult as that may be to believe. Some "modern" recipes suggest whipping the cream and then folding the flavoring in; the result is nice but not authentic. An electric mixer used with cream and flavorings makes something that is more like whipped cream, denser than a froth, but good. Care must be taken to beat just to the soft-peak stage, or else you will end up with a grainy mess. A wire whisk produces a nice froth, but a very strong arm is needed for any quantity. The syllabub churn, which is marketed by Valeria Murphey, a Macon, Ga., woman who has devoted much energy to historic preservation, works extremely well. The churn, a prettily crafted cylindrical object fitted with a dasher that is worked with a walnut handle, is appealing in its simplicity and functionalism. Packaged attractively in little fabric bags, the churns can be found for around $22 at such stores as Country Living, the Herb Cottage at the Washington Cathedral, Little Caledonia Shop, Sutton Place Gourmet and Woodward and Lothrop in the District; The Bean Bag in Maryland; and La Cuisine, Mt. Vernon Inn Gift Shop and Woodlawn Plantation Preservation Shop in Virginia.
As for serving the syllabub, there are several options. I am told that the Charleston Dining Room at Delaware's Winterthur museum has a table laid with two-handled, footed syllabub cups, but the rest of us will have to settle on parfait, tulip-shaped or red wine glasses.
Several of the syllabub recipes I tried were rejected or modified because the flavor was unpleasantly strong. An apple and mincemeat syllabub, called Advent Snow, seemed such a nice name for this time of year and looked promising. But in actuality, it was like a heady mince pie without the leavening effect of the crust. Elizabeth David's Everlasting Syllabub was better made with white wine than with sherry. The Staffordshire Syllabub, flavored with unsweetened French cider which I keep in my refrigerator for Normandy dishes, was so good I also used it for the Holiday Apple Trifle. The orange-madeira syllabub was most like a zabaglione, although creamy rather than eggy, especially the second time around when I eliminated the cognac. A recipe for Whipped London Syllabub is not included because it had almost no flavor.
STAFFORDSHIRE SYLLABUB (8 to 10 servings) 1 cup unsweetened French cider ("Purpom") 2 tablespoons cognac or brandy 1 cup superfine sugar 1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg 3 cups heavy cream
Combine the cider and the cognac in a deep bowl, add the sugar and nutmeg and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Slowly and vigoriously beat in the cream. Place churn in bowl and slowly pump to produce a froth. As it rises, remove to a tulip-shaped glass or red wine glass. Continue until all the mixture has become a froth. If you are using an electric mixer instead of a churn, beat all ingredients until peaks form or whip the cream separately and fold it into the cider-cognac mixture. Turn into glasses. Refrigerate overnight.
ORANGE-MADEIRA SYLLABUB (8 servings) Grated rind and juice of 2 oranges 1/2 cup medium-sweet madeira wine 1/2 cup dry white wine 2/3 cup superfine sugar 2 cups heavy cream
Combine the grated rind and orange juice with the madeira and white wine. Cover and let steep for 3 hours. Strain into a deep bowl, add the sugar and stir until dissolved. Slowly and vigoriously beat in the cream. Place churn in bowl and slowly pump to produce a froth. As it rises, remove to tulip-shaped glasses or wine glasses. Continue until all the mixture has become a froth. If using an electric mixer instead of a churn, beat all ingredients until peaks form or whip the cream separately and fold it into the wine mixture. Turn into glasses. Refrigerate overnight.
ELIZABETH DAVID'S EVERLASTING SYLLABUB (8 servings) Grated rind and juice of 1 lemon 1/2 cup dry white wine 2 tablespoons cognac or brandy 1/3 cup superfine sugar 2 cups heavy cream
Combine the lemon rind and juice with the white wine and brandy. Cover and let steep for several hours or overnight. Strain into a deep bowl, add the sugar and stir until dissolved. Slowly and vigorously beat in the cream. Place churn in bowl and slowly pump to produce a froth. Remove froth to glasses as it is formed. If using an electric beater instead of a churn, beat until soft peaks form or beat cream separately and fold into liquid. Turn into glasses. Refrigerate overnight or up to 2 days.
TRADITIONAL SYLLABUB (8 servings) 1/2 cup bourbon or sherry 1/2 cup superfine sugar 2 cups milk 2 cups heavy cream
Place the bourbon or sherry in a deep bowl, add the sugar and stir until dissolved. Add the milk. Slowly and vigorously beat in the cream. Place churn in bowl and slowly pump to produce a froth. Remove the froth to glasses as it is formed. If using an electric mixer instead of a churn, beat the mixture with an electric mixer until soft peaks form. Turn into glasses. Refrigerate overnight.
HOLIDAY APPLE TRIFLE (8 servings) 1 recipe Staffordshire Syllabub (see recipe), prepared the day before and refrigerated, in a bowl, overnight 12 to 14 packets Italian macaroons (Amaretti di Saronno), or enough to line bottom of the serving bowl 1/2 cup unsweetened French cider ("Purpom") 10 large granny smith apples, peeled, cored and sliced thin 3 tablespoons sugar, or more if needed 1 teaspoon rose water (optional) 1/4 cup water 2 tablespoons butter
Custard: 2 cups milk 2 eggs 2 egg yolks 1/2 cup sugar Pinch of salt 1 teaspoon vanilla Candied rose petals and dried currants for decoration (optional)
Prepare the syllabub the night before and refrigerate.
Line the bottom of a glass bowl about 8 or 9 inches in diameter and at least 3 inches deep with the macaroons. Pour the cider over the macaroons and set aside for about 45 minutes.
Combine the apples, sugar, optional rose water, water and butter in a heavy saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally to prevent the apples from burning, until tender. Taste for sugar. Spoon the apples over the saturated macaroons. Set aside.
Make the custard by scalding the milk over direct heat but in the top of a double boiler. Beat the eggs and egg yolks in a bowl, stir in the sugar and salt and beat a little of the hot milk into the eggs, stirring constantly. Beat the egg mixture into the remaining milk. Place the top of the double boiler over hot but not boiling water. Stirring constantly, cook until the mixture becomes thick enough to coat a spoon. Remove from heat and immediately place the pan in a bowl of cold water to stop the cooking. Cool the custard and beat in the vanilla.
Spoon the cooled custard over the apples and chill for an hour, or until the custard is set. Just before serving, spoon the syllabub lightly over the custard, skimming the froth off the top and leaving behind the liquid that has sunk to the bottom in the bowl. Mound the syllabub and decorate if desired with candied rose petals and dried currants. Serve immediately.