Solid Sillibubs

August: month of ok-fine-I’ll-have-another-salad-just-to-avoid-turning-on-the-oven. So, what better time to experiment with syllabub? A popular dessert in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – so popular that it was often served in dedicated pots and glasses – syllabub is a sweetened mixture of cream and wine. I returned to UPenn MS Codex 205, home to the excellent Beer Cakes, to try out “Solid Sillibubs.”

Leafing through these recipe books provides an ongoing education in how common certain dishes were in early modern cooking. Some, like fried cream or (ahem) fish custard, seem to occur only rarely. Others, like jumballs or various puddings, appear time and again. Selecting one recipe to try in these cases is something like settling on a chocolate chip cookie recipe today: you happen to have chosen that one, but there are numerous others out there. I thought syllabub would be a great test case to show what one dish can look like across multiple recipe books.

The syllabub recipes below all combine cream, white wine, and sugar, then thicken the mixture. Proportions of cream to wine vary. Some “solid” syllabubs are left to sit until the cream and clear portions separate by themselves; other “whipped” syllabubs strain the froth over a sieve, then dollop the thickened mixture on top of white or red wine. (This vocabulary isn’t entirely consistent, and other adjectives like “ordinary” and “excellent” complicate matters.) Recipe books might contain one or two or even, in Judeth Bedingfield’s case, three syllabub recipes. (Print cookbooks contained even more: Mary Cole’s The Lady’s Complete Guide; or Cookery in All Its Branches [1788] details five, ranging from “lemon” to “everlasting.”) The handful of syllabub recipes below allow us to consider how cooks write out similar instructions in different ways, vary or omit steps, create flavor twists, and put their own mark on a somewhat standard recipe.

Syllabub / Sillibub / Silly Bub: A Survey

ms753 ordinary syllabub{from MS Codex 753}

How to Make an Ordinary Sillibub

Fill yr Pott halph full of of Wien & good share of
Sugar, milke in as much Cream & Stirr itt once
about very softly. Let itt stand two houres
before you eate itt

ms625 whipt sillabub{from MS Codex 635}

A Whipt Sillabub

Take a p[in]t of cream w[i]th a spoonfull of
orange flower water 2 or 3 ounces of
fine sugar [th]e juice of a lemon [th]e white
of 3 eggs these wisk these up together
& having in yo[u]r glasses rhennish wine
& sugar & clarret & sugar lay on [th]e
froth w[i]th a spoon heapt up as leight as
you can

ms642 silly bub{from MS Codex 624}

A silly bub

Sweeten a quart of cream take a pint of renish wine & poure it thro
a narrow mouth bottle into [th]e cream let it stand a while before you stir

ms624 whipt sillabub{also from MS Codex 624}

whiptt sillabub

take[th] a pintt of sack [th]e like of whitt wine putt into itt A lemmon
sliced A sprigge of burrage & baulm & lett itt stand and steep 2 hours
sweeten itt w[i]th [th]Att of suger & pull outt [th]e herbs and lemmon then take
a pintt of sweet Cream & poure itt in A yard high leizurely into [th]e
wine & froth itt up w[i]th A chocolett stick and (as itt risis) w[i]th A spone lay itt
into [th]e Glases high as they will bair make 4 hours before Eatten
you may putt in [th]e whitt of an Egg well beten into [th]e wine to make itt
froth [th]e more

ms631 3 syllabubs{from MS Codex 631}

To Make Churn’d Syllabubs

Take a Quart of sweet Cream & 3 pints of white wine & a quarter of a pint of sack
[th]e peel of a Lemon & 3 quarters of a pound of Loafe sugar mingle all these well together
& beat or Churne them in a Glass Churne & when tis as thick as will be without turn:
:ing to butter milk pour them into y[ou]r Glases & let them stand 3 or 4 hours before they
are eaten /

To Make Rich Syllabubs

Take one pint of Cream, half a pint of white or Renish wine a quarter of a pint
of sack, [th]e Juice of one Lemon with [th]e peel grated three quarters of a pound of double
refine sugar, mingall all these together, in an earthen pot or Bason beat it all one
way with a Burchen rod, till it be so stiff that [th]e rod will stand upright in it then put
it into [th]e Glasses, it will keepe very good two or three days /

To Make Whipt Syllabubs

Take a Quart of Cream & as much of [th]e best white wine & when you have mixt
it grate as much as you can of [th]e rine of two Lemons & squeeze [th]e Juice of them into it
then grate a nutmeg & put as much powderd Loafe sugar as you please & whip it up
& take [th]e froth of with a spoone & put it into a Cullender for [th]e thin to run a way put in a Little new milk it makes it mill [th]e better when tis very thick put some wine
into [th]e bottom of y[ou]r Glasses with some sugar then fill y[ou]r Glasses still whiping it & it will
be better on [th]e morrow then now

Many printed cookbooks contain syllabub recipes, too. My personal favorites? The recipes that call for making syllabub in perhaps the most efficient way imaginable: straight from the cow. In a 1796 edition of The Art of Cookery, for example, Hannah Glasse details how “To make a Syllabub from the Cow” – and thoughtfully provides variant instructions if you lack a cow and need to approximate one (!):

Make your syllabub of either cyder or wine, sweeten it pretty sweet, and grate nutmeg in; then milk the milk into the liquor: when this is done, pour over the top half a pint or a pint of cream, according to the quantity of syllabub you make. 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, and strew over some currants well washed and picked, and plumped before the fire.

I was tempted to try this technique in my cow-less kitchen, but I stuck with the instructions from MS Codex 205.

The Recipe

ms205 solid sillibubs

18.                      Solid Sillibubs.

Take 1 Quart of Cream and boil it, let it Stand
’till ’tis cold, then take a pint of White Wine,
pare a Lemon thin, and steep the Peel in the
Wine 2 Houres before you use it, to this add the
Juice of a Lemon, and as much Sugar as will
make it very sweet; put all this into a Bason and
wisk it all one Way, ’till ’tis pretty thick:
Fill your Glases. Let your Cream be full Measure,
your Wine less so

Our Recipe
[halved from original]

1 pint (2 c.) heavy cream
1 c. white wine
1 lemon: rind peeled in thick strips, then juiced
1/2 c. sugar

In a small saucepan, bring cream to a boil; let boil gently for 2 mins. Remove pan from heat or pour into heatproof bowl and let cool.

Meanwhile, place the lemon rind in the wine and let sit for 2 hours. Remove the rind, then add the lemon juice and sugar.

Combine the cream and wine mixtures and beat with a stand or electric mixer or by hand* until frothy and slightly thickened. Pour into 2-4 glasses and refrigerate 4 hours or overnight; the cream will thicken and a small layer of liquid will appear below.

*At first I beat the mixture by hand and assumed that my arm power was the reason it didn’t thicken significantly. But when I transferred it to the stand mixer, the thickness remained the same. It should become frothy and be well-combined, but it won’t thicken like whipped cream.

The Results

This wasn’t my favorite, though I’m glad I made it and I can certainly see the appeal. The cream mixture is extremely rich – lemony and sweet – and the liquid underneath is a tart contrast to that. I think there should have been more liquid; I boiled the cream for about five minutes to let some water evaporate (in hopes of making a noticeably “solid” syllabub), but I think that was too much, so I’ve adjusted the recipe above. The topmost layer of cream becomes quite solid and mousse-like, while below about 1″ it remained softer. I dug through the layers with a spoon, but a straw would be even better! (As would smaller glasses: juice glasses or small mason jars would make more reasonable servings.)

A word about methodology: without reading up on other syllabubs, I wouldn’t have known to let the mixture sit. And I feel fairly certain that it should sit. Almost all the syllabub recipes, both handwritten and printed, that I read called for the mixture to be strained or to sit. A thickened layer of cream on top of a more liquid wine layer is characteristic of syllabub. So why not specify that step in this recipe? I think this is a good instance of a step being left implicit because the cook doesn’t think twice about it. It made me think of what we leave unspoken in our own recipes. Have you ever written down a well-loved and much-made recipe for someone else, then paused and added in more steps and specifications for someone making it for the first time? I think that’s what happened here. This first-time syllabub-maker didn’t know any better, even if the recipe writer would have.  Without letting the mixture sit, the whole thing is creamy but very liquid, not thick or “solid” at all.

I didn’t like this quite enough to keep experimenting with other syllabubs – plus, there are other refreshing liquid desserts to tackle before the end of the summer. Shrub! Posset! But if anyone feels moved (er … moo-ved?) to try “Syllabub from the Cow,” please report back.

9 thoughts on “Solid Sillibubs

  1. Now this is exciting because it appears to be a direct descendant of the medieval caudle! now a caudle in medieval terms depends on how rich you are. An ordinary bever [drink-that’s-a-snack] for a working man would likely be milk and ale with an egg beaten in; someone up market will use cream, and cider or wine and more than one egg, for a thicker drink, and with spices like nutmeg. It’s moved on a bit by the Georgian era…

  2. I was a witness to the making of syllabub with a cow at Pennsbury Manor many years ago. We had a pewter mug of beer, and milked the cow right into the mug of beer, which frothed up nicely and tasted much better than it sounds. The force of the milk is kind of like what happens when you use those fancy expresso machines and add the hot milk to a cafe con leche. They are trying to accomplish the same thing by pouring the milk/cream from a great height (via the tea pot) into your syllabub cup, but I agree that you are more likely to make a mess than a good syllabub in that way.

  3. The very best way to make syllabub is to pour the cream into sweetened white wine from on top of one of the bridges at Raglan Castle in Wales. (Speaking from personal experience here). Our medieval version of syllabub has just those three ingredients, and we term it “medieval milkshake”. It’s so tasty, we can hardly ever make enough. SO delicious!

  4. This was a wonderfully timely piece, Alyssa, as I just finished a historical fiction novel where syllabub made an appearance, and although I had plenty of recipes from which to draw imagination from, seeing how it looks within your post has not only solidified my mind’s eye, but now made me desperate for a taste of it.
    A hankerin’ for syllabub. Not a phrase I’m guessing will be on the cover of Bon Appetit, but it probably should be.

  5. This is very similar to the recipe Jane Grigson published in “English Food” as “Everlasting Syllabub”. She got it from Elizabeth David. I make it often, but always with two differences: They add a couple of tablespoons of brandy, and have you serve it right after you whip it. It does not seem nearly as appetizing when it separates, as in the recipe here. I do believe Elizabeth David did quite a bit of research to come up with this recipe, so the similarity is not surprising. “Solid” and “ever-lasting” were apparently interchangeable names for this sort of syllabub, as opposed to the liquid “from a cow” kind.

    At any rate, eaten unseparated, it makes an incredible topping for English trifle (very traditional) or pears poached in wine, or… Of course, if you do not like boozy deserts, add this to the list to avoid: baba au rhum, crepes suzettes, cherries jubilee, souflee au grand marnier….(wow, I feel like I’m in a fancy restaurant circa 1970)

  6. Pingback: To make selebub | Cooking in the Archives

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