I’ve just returned from Bolton Mansion, an historic site in Levittown, PA, where
I participated in an 18th Century confectionery class taught by Susan McLelan Plaisted. After spending hours and hours playing with sugar and creating assorted
concoctions, there are two simple words that best describe the experience:
We began the day with a Syllabub, using a 17th Century receipt (recipe) from Hannah Wolley’s The Queen-like Closet. An intoxicating mixture of cream and wine that’s been infused with
lemon. sugar, and rosemary, it is then whipped into a frenzy of bubbles either with a whisk or a syllabub engine. Hence the name, “syllabub” or “silly bubbles.” The bubbles (only) are spooned out and into an appropriate Syllabub Pot, and after resting for 12 hours, any remaining liquid settles in the bottom, thus leaving the bubbles at top. One then drinks the liquor and eats the bubbles.
Next were confits, a lovely little confection that is still made today. Only two ingredients are required: sugar and caraway seeds (anniseeds, cloves, cinnamon sticks, etc. can also be used). It’s what has to be done with those two items. First, the sugar has to be sleeked, or brought to the first degree (there are nine altogether), by boiling it with water just until a one inch thread can be made when putting a drop between two fingers and pulling. Then caraway seeds are placed in a copper confit pan that’s placed over heat (mmm, the smell of warm caraways!), with a dollop of the 1st degree of sugar, and they’re quickly mixed together, using your hand to rub it against and all around the pan. Thus, the seeds become enrobed with layer upon layer of sugar, until there are 60 total. Only 12 layers can be added at one sitting; go beyond that, and you begin to remove what’s already there. We only had time to do 12 layers, so we’ve a ways to go! But they’ll keep, so we can either add more at home or just wait for the “Confectionery II” class.
The third item was an isinglass flummery, a jellied-like concoction that was eaten at the end of a meal in order to cleanse the palate. Isinglass is the air bladders of sturgeons. Added to a “pint of new milk,” sweetened, and mixed with a little orange water, it is then set on the fire and stirred continually until it thickens. At that point, it’s poured into molds and allowed to cool. Finally, take them from the mold, and serve.
Finally, we come to the truly luxurious confection for every wealthy lord and lady of the court: sugar plate. Comprised of pounds of sugar, gum tragan, and a bit of rose water, it is carefully mixed, kneaded, and then formed into scuptures, plates, goblets, mini replicas of buildings, and more. At assorted grand meals in palaces and wealthy homes, entire scenes were constructed out of sugar plate and set up around the banquet hall. These grand creations would last a long time, and they’d be re-used for other meals, or even loaned out to other palaces. In addition, portions of a meal might be served on a plate made of sugar, or wine in a sugar goblet, and guests would eat the food and drink the wine, then top it all off by eating the plate and the goblet.
All in all, it was a very productive day of re-creating confections of past centuries. Huzzah!