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Recipes and Stories

14 February 2015: An Historical Romance

Blanc Manger (or blancmange) for two makes a lovely end for an amorous dinner for two

Why we set aside just one day to commemorate romance (and inadvertently bludgeon those who don’t have any in their lives), I do not know. But since we do, and many a lover will be trying to win (or at least please) the heart they crave by way of the stomach, here are a few thoughts on romance at the table on the Feast of St. Valentine.

First, set the mood: if you do that, you’re pretty much home free. Put a real cloth on the table for a change, use your best tableware (even if that means a lot of hand-washing later), light the scene with candles, and make sure there’s plenty of chilled champagne on hand.

As for what you put on that table, keep it simple, forget about aphrodisiacs, and serve what the object of your affections likes best. You are far more likely to conjure a romantic reaction with a thoughtful selection of simple favorites that you’ve not worked up a sweat preparing than from a complicated parade of so-called love-enhancing comestibles that has left you too exhausted to follow through—if you know what I mean.

And since so much of romance is tied up in nostalgia, offer one thing that’s got some old-fashioned amour connected with it. This lovely sweet from history’s kitchen has long been associated with lovers, and never fails to please.

Blanc Manger (Blancmange)

Literally translating “white food,” this almond flavored cream has been connected with lovers for hundreds of years, including one of our founding fathers. Thomas Jefferson, himself a famous lover and gourmet, liked blanc manger so well that he wrote out the recipe and sent it to the cooks at Monticello. Though he knew nothing at all about the practical applications of cookery, jotting down recipes that caught is imagination was a lifelong habit.

There were dozens of them over the years, but this is one of only a handful that survives in his hand. When we were developing a workable recipe for Dining at Monticello, I first drafted it exactly the way he recorded it, making the almond paste from scratch, but we quickly decided that that was just plain nuts, since good quality almond paste so readily available today.

If you are a stickler for history, not to mention a glutton for punishment, then get some raw almonds, blanche and skin them, and make your own paste with them. And good luck to you and your shoulder sockets: to be completely historical, you’ll have to make it with a mortar and pestle, and the cream will need to be gradually pounded into the paste with the same tools. But without the distinctive flavor of bitter almonds, which were part of the original recipe and aren’t available in our country, a good quality purchased almond paste is probably closer to the original flavor than a paste you’ll make yourself. The added touch of almond extract is an option to make up for the assertive flavor of the bitter almonds.

Regardless of whether you’ve made the paste or bought it, the only tricky part is beating it smoothly into the cream so that’s absolutely homogenous. Jefferson’s transcription of the recipe included carefully straining the cream through cloth to remove all the almond solids, but it’s really not as interesting that way, and Mary Randolph didn’t mention it, so I omitted that step in the final version. If you want it like Jefferson’s version, put it through a fine wire mesh strainer.

Serves 8

5 ounces (a rounded ½ cup) almond paste
2 cups heavy cream
About ¼ teaspoon almond extract (optional)
½ cup cold water
2 envelopes unflavored gelatin
1½ cups boiling water
4 ounces (¼ pound or ½ cup) sugar
Raspberry Coulee (recipe follows)

1. Break up the almond paste in a medium bowl with a fork or electric mixer fitted with a paddle. Work in ¼ cup of cream and, when it is fairly smooth, gradually beat in the remaining cream, mixing until smooth and creamy. Taste, and if the almond flavor is not distinctive, add a few drops of almond extract as needed.

2. Stir the cold water into the gelatin and let it soften for 10 minutes. Stir in the boiling water, and stir until the gelatin is completely dissolved. Add the sugar, again stirring until dissolved.

3. Slowly add the gelatin to the almond cream, stirring constantly until thoroughly mixed. Lightly rub the inside a 1½-quart mold or 8 small individual serving molds with vegetable oil and pour in the blancmange. Cover and refrigerate until chilled, set, and firm, about 4 hours.

4. Dip the mold briefly in warm water and run a sharp knife around the edges to loosen the blancmange. Invert onto a deep-rimmed platter or shallow serving bowl and carefully lift off the mold, tapping it once or twice if necessary. Spoon the Raspberry Coulee around it and serve cold.

Raspberry Coulee

Jefferson’s cousin Mary Randolph, author of the iconic Virginia House-wife, accompanied her version of Blanc Manger with rich raspberry cream, a thick sauce of heavy cream that derived its flavor and thickening from pureed raspberries. My own preference is a simple puree of the berries alone. It’s not quite so heavy and rich and, for my taste, is a lot more satisfying.

Makes about 1 cup

2 cups frozen raspberries, thawed (juices reserved)
2-4 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier, raspberry liqueur, or 1/2 lemon

1. Put the berries and their juice in bowl of blender or food processor. Add 2 tablespoons of and pulse until the berries are pureed. Taste and adjust the sugar, pulse to mix, and then strain it through a wire mesh sieve into a glass bowl.

2. Stir in the liqueur or squeeze in a few drops of lemon juice, to taste. Mix well, cover, and chill until needed.

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