By Anne Rothfeld
Want an intriguing dessert from the past to satisfy your present day holiday palate? Serve the syllabub: a cream-based treat, mixed with sweet wine and lemon juice, then whipped with cream until frothy, and garnished with a seasonal herb. The acids, which rise from the lemons to firm the cream, then separate from the wine, which sinks into a two-part delectable sweet course. Syllabub, wine mixed with well-whisked cream, originates from the name Sille, a wine-growing region in France known for its sweet wine, and bub, an English slang word for a bubbling drink.
Eighteenth-century English cooks whisked syllabubs into a froth then placed the mixture into a pot to separate. Next, the mixture was spooned through a fine sieve to drain, oftentimes overnight. Before serving to guests, the creamy foam was topped with a splash of sweetened wine. Cooks developed the everlasting syllabub: less wine and more cream. Perhaps served in individual glasses for afternoon tea, this syllabub was deemed ladylike. At the same time, some cooks no longer drained the syllabubs. Rather, they whisked the cream and wine together just before serving, which avoided any separation—creating a light dessert to follow a heavy meal. Near the end of the century, syllabubs began to lose their appeal as a dessert course for English meals because ice cream became a very popular sweet treat.
A basic recipe from The compleat housewife, or, Accomplished gentlewoman’s companion, 1773
“To make very fine Syllabubs.
Take a quart and half a pint of cream, a pint of Rhenish [white wine], half a pint of sack [sherry], three lemons, and near a pound of double-refined sugar; beat and sift the sugar, and put it to your cream; grate off the yellow rind of your three lemons, and put that in; squeeze the juice of the three lemons into your wine, and put that to your cream, then beat all together with a whisk just half an hour; then take it up all together with a spoon, and fill your glasses; it will keep good nine or ten days, and is best three or four days old; these are call’d the everlasting Syllabubs (sic).”
“To make Lemon Syllabubs.
Take a quart of cream, half a pound of sugar, a pint of white-wine, the juice of two or three lemons, the peel of one [lemon] grated; mix all these, and put them in an earthen pot, and milk [whisk] it up as fast as you can till it is thick, then pour it into your glasses, and let them stand five or six hours; you may make them over night.”
Syllabubs were also made with beer and cider.
From Elizabeth Raffald’s, The Experienced English Housekeeper…, 1795
“To make a Syllabub under the Cow.
Put a bottle of strong-beer and a pint of cyder into a punch-bowl, grate in a small nutmeg, and sweeten it to your taste ; then milk as much milk from the cow as will make a strong froth, and the ale look clear, let it stand an hour, and strew over it a few currans, well washed, picked, and plumped before the fire, and send it to the table.”
By the nineteenth-century, Americans, too, made syllabubs but with Madeira or brandy.
Rub a lump of loaf sugar on the outside of a lemon, and put it into a pint of thick cream, and sweeten it to taste. Squeeze in the juice of a lemon, and add a glass of Madeira wine, or French brandy. Mill it to a froth with a chocolate mill, take off the froth as it rises, and lay it in a hair sieve. Fill one half of the glass with red wine, then lay the froth as high as possible, but take care that it is well-drained in the sieve, otherwise it will mix with the wine, and the syllabub be spoiled.”
Intrigued? Try this syllabub recipe modified for twenty-first century cooks (adapted from Eliza Smith, The Complete Housewife, and History is Served).
Zest then juice one and one-half lemons into a large bowl. Add one cup of (sweet) white wine, one-half cup of (sweet) sherry, and about one-half cup of sugar to the lemons; mix until the sugar is dissolved. Add three cups of heavy whipping cream and whisk until frothy, almost to a peaking consistency. Gently fold into dessert glasses, and place at room temperature for two to three hours to allow the syllabub to separate. Place glasses into refrigerator until ready to serve. Lightly garnish with herbs.
This lemony dessert calls for experimentation. From the base of cream and wine, mix in spices and herbs to taste to produce a unique retro treat for the adventurous cook.
Explore more syllabub recipes in NLM Digital Collections, the National Library of Medicine’s free online resource of biomedical books, still images, and videos.
Anne Rothfeld, PhD, is a librarian and historian in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.