Our household has developed a bit of a blancmange obsession. It all began when my mother-in-law gave me her old ceramic jelly/blancmange mould. It was beautiful. White, mottled with use, with a lovely distinctive pattern within. It sat for months on the side of the kitchen waiting to be used. Then recently, when visiting the Emmaus bric-a-brac shop in Cambridgeshire, they had an enviable collection of vintage jelly and blancmange moulds, both glass and ceramic. I am a sucker for the ceramic and imagined how lovely they would look with my mother-in-laws’. I claimed a mere two of them as my own and back to my house they came to sit on the side of my kitchen, sitting pretty but a little in the way.
Then over the Easter weekend after being hounded by my husband for not putting these space hoggers to good use we worked together to create a simple yet traditional blancmange. Now, I haven’t have a lot of experience of blancmange, I vaguely remember Angel Delight from my childhood but it wasn’t something we really had at home. Likewise I don’t really remember it at nursery school, just the horror of congealed rice pudding and claggy spotted dick, so I really had no point of reference.
Blancmange originated with the Arabs and was typically a white dessert, hence the name, made of rice and almond milk which seems to bear more resemblance to rice puddings. Of course, like most English puddings it would originally have had meat involved somewhere and shredded chicken or capon are said to have been main ingredients, but towards the Edwardian times the meat was being left out and in time so was the rice.
Gelatin is the most common setting agent used in blancmange recipes these days which makes sense as it is easy to use and very stable. Indeed Delia Smith on her website explains how she struggled with her chocolate blancmange recipe until she added gelatin to a chocolate custard and then it set beautifully. It isn’t that gelatin is a modern ingredient; in fact it is historically the original way of setting a blancmange and would have been made by individual cooks the way Mrs Beeton explains, by boiling up a few calves’ feet. Cooks throughout British history have long been experimenting with the setting of magnificent blancmanges, jellies and rennets. Arrowroot and carogeenan (Irish moss) were also commonly used but it is cornflour which I have been most keen to experiment with. It became popular as a setting agent in 19th Century kitchens for its ability to produce a light and smooth result, presumably it was also a lot easier than boiling up smelly calves’ feet. It appealed to me the most as I wanted to try something different, a world away from the panna cottas, which are the set desserts I am most familiar with, and directly from the kitchens of Victorian England which was probably about the time my moulds might have been in use.
The blancmange recipe which I have been experimenting with has been adapted from a recipe in Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management and it is the easiest dessert in the world. I haven’t ever made an Angel Delight but I can’t imagine that it is easier than this. It only really needs 3 ingredients: whole milk, cornflour and sugar; any other flavourings you want to add are up to you. It is no custard as there are no eggs involved so is a lot lighter than say a crème brulee or an American style vanilla pudding. It does resemble panna cotta the closest but it is softer and more giving and the cornflour lends it a hefty wobble. This does mean that the whole fragile construction is liable to topple if you get too carried away with the size of your mould. The element of risk though is what makes this dessert so much fun.
The flavours I settled on after my first few weeks of experimentation are simple yet sublime. Delicate, not too sweet and definitely not the cloying of commercial blancmange which hammered the nails in the coffin of this much maligned dessert. Fresh from the fridge it is cool and summery, spiked with the light heat of black pepper and cinnamon. Although wonderful on its own, the possibilities of serving it with English berries when they come into season is terribly alluring. This blancmange is also incredibly moreish, a very innocent teaspoon checking for flavour balances was suddenly discarded for a large dessert spoon and a few more tastes later that was soon abandoned for a huge bowlful which feels like childish indulgence laced with grown up flavours.
Blancmange does not keep well, so you should make it the day before you intend to eat it and do not turn it out of its mould until you present it to the table or you will find it will quickly wilt over the course of a few hours. I urge you to rediscover the humble blancmange, the possibilities of experimentation are endless.
1.2lt whole milk
⅛ tsp freshly milled black pepper
1 cinnamon stick, bashed a little with a mallet
⅛ tsp freshly ground nutmeg
Pinch of salt
1 tsp vanilla paste or 1 vanilla pod with seeds scraped out
55g caster sugar
- Place the cornflour in a large bowl with about 100ml of the milk and stir thoroughly together to make a smooth yet thin cream. Set aside.
- Pour the rest of the milk into a large saucepan and add the black pepper, cinnamon stick, nutmeg and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, then remove from the heat.
- Pour carefully, in a continuous stream, into the cornflour cream, whisking briskly to ensure all the cornflour is evenly mixed in.
- Pour the mixture back onto the heat along with the sugar and vanilla and bring to the boil whisking constantly. Simmer the mixture for 4 minutes, always whisking, until thickened.
- Strain the blancmange mixture then pour into a wettened mould. Leave to cool to room temperature then place into the fridge for about 2 hours to fully set.
- It turns out of the mould beautifully by just placing a plate underneath, then carefully turning the mould upside down.