Blancmange

blandmangeI meant to make blancmange earlier this summer, but got that unfortunate cholesterol reading and so put it off, since the dish is made with lots of cream. Then I was reminded of it while watching Wimbledon, with all the references to Andy Murray defeating the blancmange. For those not up on their Monty Python, and I wasn’t, in the relevant sketch an alien race of blancmange try to win Wimbledon by turning all the Englishmen into Scots, who are supposedly bad at tennis. (“And it’s blancmange to serve,” and so on. If you’re curious, watch the “Science Fiction Sketch” on YouTube.)

Monty Python blancmangeAnyway, I decided Murray’s win was a sign that I should make blancmange, despite all medical advice to the contrary. And it’s really not that bad from a nutritional standpoint — I calculated that a serving of the dish has about two and a half tablespoons of cream, a mere 50 calories. There’s also sugar in the dish, but not much. 

Blancmange comes from the French blanc manger, or “white food.” Possibly Arabic in origin, the dish was common throughout Europe in the Middle Ages as a stew made with chicken, milk or almond milk, rice, and sugar. It was considered a good dish for the sick but was also served on festive occasions, often dyed various colors. The meat was taken out of blancmange starting in the 17th century, and cream, eggs, and thickeners such as isinglass (collagen from dried fish bladder) were added.

I made a slightly modernized version of Thomas Jefferson’s blancmange recipe from the beautiful book Dining at Monticello, published by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. The book’s editor, Damon Lee Fowler, writes that almond paste was made from scratch in Jefferson’s time, but pre-made almond paste, which is widely available, works very well in its place. The original recipe also called for isinglass, which you can find online since brewers use it, but gelatin is a good substitute.

Assuming you use the almond paste shortcut, you’ll find making this blancmange really simple. Just be sure to put on the pouring shield if you use a stand mixer, or your kitchen will be covered with cream. And no, for once this didn’t happen to me, though it was a close call:

blancmange spatter The dish also takes time to set — about four hours — and you’ll need a mold. I used an aluminum pudding mold, but I think you could also use a Bundt pan.

I loved this dessert, but the rest of my family didn’t. My husband is lactose-intolerant, so he wasn’t pleased. “It tastes very white,” he remarked. My daughter wasn’t crazy about it, either. “The cream is too creamy,” she said. It is profoundly creamy, but I’m fine with that. Nineteenth-century cookbook author Mary Randolph wrote that blancmange should be served with raspberry cream on top — talk about too much cream!

You should serve blancmange with berries or some kind of sauce, however, or it will taste too bland. Food scholar Terence Scully has suggested that the name really comes from the French bland mangier, or “bland dish,” referring to its mild taste, though this was considered refined and aristocratic at the time. I don’t know about that, but it’s a nice cool summer dessert — just right for the 95-degree weather we’ve been having all week.

Blancmange
Slightly adapted from Dining at Monticello, edited by Damon Lee Fowler

5 ounces (rounded ½ cup) almond paste
2 cups heavy cream
½ cup cold water
2 envelopes unflavored gelatin
1½ cups boiling water
4 ounces (½ cup) sugar

1. Mash the almond paste in a large bowl with a fork or in the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle. Add ¼ cup of the cream and blend until smooth. (If you’re using a stand mixer, be sure to put on the pouring shield first.) Then slowly add the rest of the cream, beating until smooth.

2. In another bowl, add the cold water to the gelatin and stir. Let soften for 10 minutes. Add the boiling water and stir until the gelation is dissolved, then add the sugar and stir until that is completely dissolved.

3. Very slowly pour the gelatin mixture into the almond cream, blending well.

4. Lightly oil a 1½-quart mold with vegetable oil. Pour the blancmange into the mold. blancmange in mold5. Cover, and refrigerate until firm, about four hours. Dip the mold in hot water and run a knife around the edges of the mold to loosen the blancmange. Then invert the mold onto a platter or in a shallow bowl, and lift it off. Serve sliced, with berries or a fruit sauce.

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