History Stories

In the food world, few names are as evocative as those for desserts. Take the slump, for instance—you might correctly think of fruit hunched under a thick, doughy blanket. A trifle: an alternating parade of cream, cake and fruit. The brown betty? Imagine apples under a crust as tough as the cowpoke’s wife who baked it. For a more obscure example, what about the long-neglected syllabub? This frothy mixture of whipped cream, white wine and sugar was once a popular refresher in upscale venues from Buckingham Palace to Versailles. The confection has been all but lost to the ages, a victim of changing tastes and enlarging waistlines. But surely there’s still a place for a light, sugary, alcoholic treat like this one at modern dinner tables.

One of the earliest written recipes for syllabub dates back to 1655, in the work “The Compleat Cook” by a British author known only as W.M. The tome also gave directions on how to “make Almond Jumballs” and “dresse Snayles,” and taught cooks “how to boyle a rump of Beefe after the French fashion.” In this recipe, W.M. poured heavy cream into nutmeg-flavored hard cider and stirred it forcefully, creating syllabub’s trademark frothy bubbles. Later recipes instructed cooks with willing and able dairy cows to milk the cow directly into the sugar and alcohol mixture. While this step may have raised nary an eyebrow in Elizabethan England, modern palates might be put off by the resulting combination of booze, warm cream and the occasional stray cow hair.

Even if most tales of straight-from-the-cow syllabub are udder nonsense, the dessert was extremely popular throughout Europe and America. The 17th-century English chronicler Samuel Pepys mentioned it in his “Diaries.” Pots specially designed to contain syllabub were equipped with spouts—similar to our gravy boats—so dainty ladies could drink the sweet, flavored wine after it had separated from the clouds of whipped cream. Kitchen maids used syllabub whisks made with rosemary branches to flavor the cream, inspiring the English poet William Davenant to write, “Her elbow small she oft does rub, tickled with hope of syllabub.”

It’s not clear when or why syllabub disappeared from dessert tables. It still shows up with startling regularity on menus as late as the 1900s, then seems to have been discarded in favor of more fashionable, sweeter treats like cakes and puddings. For our modernized syllabub, we added another element to the white wine and sugar mixture: Meyer lemon. This citrus originally hails from China and gives a milder, sweeter flavor than its traditional cousins. Grating zest into the sugar mixture sharpens the lemon flavor, while a touch of vanilla bean lends a subtle, comforting note.


Start to finish: 12 hours (30 minutes active)
Servings: 4

1/4 cup sweet white wine, such as Riesling or Gewürztraminer
1/2 cup sugar
1 Meyer lemon
1/2 vanilla bean, seeded
1 cup heavy whipping cream
Mint leaves, blueberries, shortbread cookie crumbs for garnish

In a small, nonreactive bowl, mix the wine, sugar, zest from the lemon and vanilla bean seeds. Let stand overnight.

In the morning, in a large, chilled bowl, begin to whip the cream with a hand whisk or electric mixer. Gradually add the wine mixture until fully incorporated and cream is whipped, taking care not to over-whip cream into butter. Serve immediately in parfait glasses, garnished with mint, blueberries or shortbread cookie crumbs.

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