Delightful Holiday Concoctions

Jellies and Syllabub . . . And how different our worlds are . . .

By Jamie Credle, Davenport House

Have you noticed when visiting one of the fine 18th century houses such as those in Colonial Williamsburg the arrangement of small cylindrical glasses with colorful jellies and creams inside that centers the festive table? In the grandest of homes, such as the Governor’s Palace, these glasses are often arranged in a dessert pyramid of glass salvers. Sometimes placed around the jellies and creams are sweetmeats and cakes. Because of their placement one expects that they were a highlight both for the eye and as well as the appetite.

And then you wonder, “What is that gelatinous mixture? Is that Jell-O?” Without refrigeration or electric mixers or prepackaged gelatin, how did that work? The two “treats” noted by historians and historic cookbooks as filling these glasses are fruit flavored jellies and syllabub, both of which have long culinary histories and may be completely unfamiliar to the modern foodie.

One source notes that syllabub, served either as a frothy dessert or beverage, was a 16th century invention. The determination on whether it is a drink or a dessert is how much wine is used in the recipe. Less would get you a spoonable dessert and more would result in a sweet drink of punch. Authorities have noted that the “bub” in syllabub “was a medieval slang for a bubbly drink.” The usual ingredients in syllabub are cream, whipped egg whites, lemon juice, lemon zest, sugar, nutmeg and an alcohol (cider, wine or champagne). One food historian writes “a range of methods were used to produce syllabub of quite different character,” as is indicated by the great variety of wines that are noted in recipes such as “dry white wine, brandy, cider, port, sherry, Madeira, or a combination of two.” It can be assumed “the sheer range of alcoholic choices indicates the chef used whatever was readily available.” The beverage most often noted is white wine.

Two fascinating points in early syllabub recipes are it is to be made directly “by the cow” and there is often no specification about the temperature of the concoction. In “American’s first cookbook” Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery (1796) notes the recipe “To Make a fine Syllabub from the Cow” which calls for “Sweeten a quart of cyder with double refined sugar, grate nutmeg into it, then milk the cow into your liquor . . .” What?! Could that taste good?

A hands-on food historian writes:

I can . . . confirm from my own experiences, that milking a cow straight into a bowl of sweetened cider, ale or wine produces a result that differs radically from the 20th century expectations of what a syllabub should be. Although a bubbly froth initially forms on the top of the liquid, this quickly subsides and the mixture separates into a creamy whey below a floating mass of clotted, stringy curd, of a kind more likely to grace a baby’s bib than a regal banqueting table. Unless your syllabub cow is extremely well-groomed, the congealing milk will also be garnished here and there with cow hairs and the odd speck of bovine dandruff, a most unappetizing prospect, at least to our modern eyes. (Ivan Day)

The writer goes on to say that he eventually was successful at making a fine frothy syllabub made “under the cow.” It took practice, determined research and being able to read in between the lines, as old recipes often leave out points that we would find necessary. Hannah Glasse in Art of Cookery directs us to “pour over the Top half a Pint or a Pint of Cream.” Another recipe notes to remove the curd. Another recipe calls for adding cream to the wine in advance and shake before being finished “under the cow.” By the 18th century “whipt syllabubs” became the most popular form of this type of concoction and is probably syllabub early 19th century Savannahians would have recognized.

To make a whipt syllabub, cream was poured into a wine mixture and beaten with a birch rod, willow twigs or a chocolate mill. Whisks made with rosemary branches were popular as they contributed a flavor to the cream. The resulting layer of slightly oily bubbles were carefully skimmed off with a spoon and transferred to a dish or horse-hair sieve to drain. The mixture was whisked again to produce more foam and the process repeated, one layer of bubbles being heaped upon another. Although it might take an hour or so, a whipt syllabub made from a pint of cream produced an enormous quantity of insubstantial suds – enough to fill a gallon pancheon. . . . After a long period of draining on the sieve – up to a full day – the foam was transformed into a much drier, extremely light fluff. This was usually spooned onto sweetened wine, or coloured whey, and served in wide topped glasses. (Ivan Day)

Later in the 18th century, “it was discovered that lowering the proportion of wine and using a thicker cream, enabled whipt syllabubs to be made without the tedious process of spooning off the bubbles as they rose. After a short period of vigorous whisking these thicker mixtures set into a uniform lather, rather like modern whipped cream. A certain amount of liquid might form at the bottom of the bowl, but these `solid’ syllabubs were firm and stable enough to last for a number of days.” (Ivan Day)

Now that we understand syllabub, what about jellies?

The whole jelly discussion is intriguing and we were delighted to find in the Telfair Family Papers housed in the Georgia Historical Society clear evidence of the jellies consumed by early 19th century Savannahians. In the historic documents are two recipe books from approximately our time period. The smaller of the two is entitled “Recipe Book for Puddings” and includes hand-written recipes “to make jelly,” “Strawberry Jelly,” “Orange Jelly,” and “Transparent Pudding.” It also provides the wonderful citation “nostrums that are used at fashionable entertainment” noting desserts and treats served mentioning “creams – orange, lemon, ice &c/ jellies, orange, quince do & swine’s foot do.”

Swine’s food jelly? Just in case you didn’t know it, before prepackaged gelatin, cooks boiled calf’s feet to obtain the coagulated consistency of jelly! It was a tedious and time consuming affair to scrape hair from the feet, boiling them for hours then simmering to clarify the broth and filtering through jelly bags.

One on-line food historian writes, “Calves-foot jelly has two forms: sweet, common in 19th-century Britain and America; and savoury–called petcha, a standard of Ashkenazi Jewish cooking. Both dishes start with a long braise of split cow’s feet. The latter adds garlic, onion, salt and pepper, and usually retains the meat that falls from the feet; the former adds sugar, Madeira wine, brandy, cinnamon and citrus, and discards the meat. In both cases the stock is chilled until it sets, and the fat that rises to the top is skimmed off.” (Jon Fasman)

He continues on the unfamiliarity of the tastes to contemporary palates: “Both forms of calves-foot jelly seem wrong now: the sweet because we rarely use meat in desserts, and the savoury because we associate gelatin’s wobbliness with pudding.” (Jon Fasman)

Instead of the thickening agent produced by boiling hog’s feet, a couple of the Telfair recipes call for “isinglass,” which is a clear gelatin formed from the air bladder of certain fish including sturgeon and cod. Though rarely used today it was certainly used in the desserts and confections such as fruit jellies and blancmange, which is sweet dessert commonly made with milk or cream and sugar thickened with isinglass and is mentioned in the Telfair recipes.

The Davenports’ was a very different “food world” and we can only imagine the labor and pandemonium that went on in the kitchen of the home while preparing a tasty syllabub or fruit jelly such as swine’s food jelly in the 1820s. Though we do not know for sure that they were served in their home, certainly they were part of the gracious tables of friends and neighbors. So in recognition of “jellies past” during the month of December, the side board in the Davenport House dining room is graced with faux jellies in a pinkish hue in reproduction glasses all custom made by an English Company Replica Warehouse. And, I suspect many of us would prefer to enjoy the glistening gelatinaity instead of actually tasting the historic mixtures!

Untitled book and “Recipes for Puddings”, Box 8, Manuscript Collection 793, Georgia Historical Society.
ReplicaWarehouse. CO.UK. 200 Main Road, Goostrey, Cheshire, CW 4 8PD, England

Historic cookbooks:
Mrs. Child, The American Frugal Housewife. Boston: Carter, Hendee, and Co. 1833. (Old Sturbridge Village reproduction)
Mary F. Henderson, Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving. 1876. (on-line)
Sarah Rutledge, The Carolina Housewife. 1845 (University of South Carolina Press, reproduction).
Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife. 1824 (University of South Carolina Press, reproduction).
Amelia Simmons, The First American Cookbook: A Facimile of “American Cookery,” 1796. (Dover Publications)
Louis Eustache Ude, French Cook, A System of Fashionable and Economical Cookery. 1829. (on-line)

Websites and Internet resources:
“Calf’s foot jelly,” Barron’s Educational Services, Inc.
Ivan Day, “Further Musings on Syllabub, or Why Not `Jumble It A Pritie While’?”, Petits Propos Culinaries 53 (1996).
Elizabeth Fries Ellet, The New Cyclopaedia of Domestic Economy ,and Practical Housekeeping.
“Isinglass.” Definition.
Tim Lambert, “A Brief History of Sweets, Biscuits and Puddings”
The official website of Colonial Williamburg – Dessert Pyramids.

Jellies and Other Glasses in the Savannah Inventories:

Isaiah Davenport (1828)
4 doz cut and plain wine glasses – 7.00
2 doz cut and plain tumblers – 5.00

Joseph Clay (1805)
1 Glass Pyramid & 3 doz Glasses

Francis Doyle (1817)
1 table set of glass-ware 30.00
1 plated stand and castors 5.00
2 plated and gilt goblets and stands – 10.00

Oliver Sturges (1824)
1 cordial stand
1 plated stand
1 glass stand for jellies
3 doz. jelly glasses

Gardner Tufts (1824)
A set of crockery and glassware 100.000

Philip Brasch (1825)
2 doz. Glass sweetmeat saucers – 10.00
1 glass cake plate 4.00
1 cordial stand with bottles 12.00
1 ½ custard cups 1.50
1 doz. finger glasses – 3.00
4 jelly moulds .50

William Henry Greene (1828)
1 lot glassware – 20.00

Herman D. Greene (1828)
1 doz wine & 1 doz cordial glasses 5.00

William Davies (1829)
Glassware, decanters 40.00

Joseph Habersham (1832)
2 glass pyramids – 2.00
2 doz. jelly glasses – 2.00

Alexander Telfair (1833)
6 doz jelly glasses 18.00

Nostrums that are used at
fashionable entertainments
Butter cake iced plain do caraway
Oranges/in winter season in summer
Peaches nectarines figs melons
Grapes &c – No2 chestnuts
Filberts (serbert?) & cordials
Anniseed, perfect Amour, cimmon,
And peach cordial, wines, white
& red, sweet do punch do &
Mead wine
Dried fruit/raisins almonds prunes

Creams – orange, lemon ices &c jellies
Orange, quince do & swines foot do
Recipe Book of Puddings. Telfair Collection. GHS

Transparent Pudding
Beat 8 eggs, put them into a stew pan,
With ½ lb. sugar, the
Same quantity of butter with
Some nutmeg, sit it on the fire
Keep it stirring until
Thickens set . . .
Recipe Book of Puddings.
Telfair Collection. GHS.

Season the milk with sugar and white wine,
But not enough to curdle it; fill the glasses nearly full, and crown them with whipt cream seasoned.
Mary Randolph. The Virginia House-wife. 1824

Strawberry Jelly
Put some strawberries into an earthenware pan
Squeeze them well with a wooden spoon
Mix some pounded sugar with the fruit and
Let them infuse for an hour that the sugar
May draw out the juice, next pour
in a little water. If the strawberries
are very ripe, squeeze the juice of
2 lemons. Put all this into a bag
that is nearly new that the juice
may be clear
Mix some melted isinglass with
The juice but mind that the whole
Is very cold – put a spoon full into a
Mould over ice to try it if thick
Enough put the whole into a mould
Cover it with ice.
[almost word for word – from French Cook. A System of Fashionable and Economical Cooking. 1829] Telfair Collection. GHS.

To Make Jelly From Feet
(Calf’s or Swine’s Foot Jelly)
Boil four calf’s feet, that have been nicely cleaned and the hoofs taken off; when the feet are boiled to pieces, strain the liquor through a colander, and when cold, take all the grease off and put the jelly in a skillet, leaving the dregs which will be at the bottom. There should be from four feet, about two quarts of jelly; pour into it one quart of white wine, the juice of six fresh lemons, strained from the seeds, one pound and a half of powdered loaf sugar, a little pounded cinnamon and mace, and the rind thinly pared from two of the lemons; wash eight eggs very clean, whip up the whites to a froth, crush the shells and put with them, mix it with the jelly, set it on the fire, stir it occasionally till the jelly is melted, but do not touch it afterwards. When it has boiled till it looks quite clear on one side, and the dross accumulates on the other, take off carefully the thickest part of the dross, and pour the jelly in the bag; put back what runs through, until it comes quite transparent; then set a pitcher under the bag, and put a cover all over to keep out the dust—the jelly looks much prettier when it is broken to fill the glasses. The bag should be made of cotton or linen, and be suspended in a frame made for the purpose. The feet of hogs make the palest coloured jelly, those of sheep are a beautiful amber colour when prepared.
Mary Randolph. The Virginia House-Wife. 1824.

To Make Jelly
Soak 1 and ½ ounces of the isinglass
For 25 minutes in cold water – take it out and
Let it cool and add the beaten
Whites of 4 eggs – the juice of 3
Lemons – the peel of one a little cinnamon one pint of wine,
And one lb of loaf sugar – stir it well
Boil it about a minute – strain it
Through a jelly bag into moulds
& leave it in a cool place to
Jelly – the jelly bag is
Made of flannel eight or ten
Inches cross the opening
About half a yard deep &Narrowing to a point at the bottom.
Telfair Collection. GHS.