It is of immeasurable fascination to me that in spite of my 47 years in the food business I am still able to discover new and exciting dishes. But truth to tell, it’s even more fascinating when I discover an old one.
Ever heard of blancmange?
If you’ve read Little Women, the classic 19th-century novel by Louisa May Alcott, you probably have. In the story, Jo visits her neighbor Laurie, who is ill. She brings blancmange, a milk pudding made by her sister Meg. Laurie declares it “too pretty to eat,” but Jo insists, saying it is so soft it will “slip down without hurting your sore throat.”
Blancmange is without doubt one of the more interesting dishes I have “discovered” lately, simply because it has so few ingredients and is so simple to make. And because I can’t believe I’ve been cooking for 47 years without ever having made it.
Blancmange has been around for a long time, actually, dating back to the 14th century. As its name suggests, it is a white dish. (Blanc is French for white and manger means to eat.)
Originally, blancmange was made with almond milk, combined with finely minced chicken, veal or dried fish, along with rice. In the 17th century, French cooks began making it with calves’ feet so it would jell and could be molded, and by the 19th century, when Alcott wrote Little Women, the meat was omitted and blancmange had become a sweet molded dessert that was often associated with the sick room.
I made blancmange for the first time last week for my ailing son, Frank, who was indeed suffering with a sore throat, only to have his spirits lifted by the pleasing taste and satisfying smoothness of this best of all puddings. It’s become our new favorite.
Nineteenth-century cooks, enthralled by just about anything that could be molded, thickened blancmange in various ways, using either isinglass (an early form of gelatin), seaweed or sea moss, gelatin, arrowroot or cornstarch.
Arrowroot is often preferred as a thickener over cornstarch in sauce making because it has a more neutral taste. When thickening milk or cream, however, it tends to make the pudding slimy. And it’s much more expensive. My choice for this simplest of milk puddings is cornstarch.
Frank Chlumsky, former executive chef of Philander’s restaurant in Oak Park, teaches in Chicago at Kendall College’s School of Culinary Arts. In his 37-year career, Frank has owned restaurants in Michigan City, Ind., and in Lake Geneva, Wis. He has also been executive chef at the Saddle & Cycle Club in Chicago. Frank lives in Forest Park, where he cooks for pleasure.