Blancmange (no one knows how to spell it) is one of the rare medieval recipes that has survived to the present day, though not without some major revisions. What was once a chicken and rice suspension sweetened with sugar and flavored with cinnamon, anise, and almonds, is now a gelatin aided frequently almond custard. I cooked a semi-authentic version some time ago as part of my abandoned (don’t call it a hiatus) “Eating Chaucer” project:
From The Forme of Cury, by the Master-Cooks of King Richard II, ca. 1390 :
Blank maunger. Take capouns and see6 hem, 6enne take hem vp; take almaundes blaunched, grynde hem & alay hem up with the same broth. Cast the mylk in a pot. Waisshe rys and do 6erto, and lat it seeth; 6anne take 6e brawn of 6e capouns, teere it small and do 6erto. Take white grece, sugur and salt, and cast 6erinne. Lat it see6, 6enne messe it forth and florissh it with aneys in confyt, red o6er whyt, and with almaundes fryed in oyle, and serue it forth.”
The 6s are supposed to be the Old English letter eth (which looks like a backwards 6 with a line through the top curl) – they could also be thorns – both are pronounced more or less like th and I could never tell the difference. Anyway, I read this somewhat sparse recipe a few times to try to figure out amounts, tried the semi-authentic medieval cookbook Pleyn Delit: Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks and consulted Martino di Como’s The Art of Cooking for additional inspiration. The Pleyn Delit recipe had fish in it (I’m willing to have sweetened rice/chicken for desert but I’m going to have a work up to something like fish), but the Di Como Catalan Blanc Mange was a nice envisioning (the other version he has is for a sauce to put over your chicken which is odd, but probably worth consideration) – it also calls for rice flour instead of rice which might very well work towards making this more of a custard. This is one of the Di Como recipes that Platina “borrowed” for his 1475 treatise, De Honesta Voluptate (for centuries the only way to access Martino di Como’s work).
So, a little of this, a little of that: The key to the recipe turns out to be the almond milk – a staple of medieval English cookery. It’s made, in this case, by reserving some of the broth from boiling the chicken, adding mortared almonds and bringing it to a slow boil. As the almonds boil, milky plumes bubble up from the almonds. I used a little cinnamon stick and a vanilla bean (anachronistic, I know – vanilla wasn’t available in Europe until the early 16th century. I have no defense save usefulness and my dislike for the suggested anise – there was a bad experience with Sambuca in high school that underlies this – plus, using the Di Como, I was already 3/4 of the way to New World foodery. You could also use nutmeg, all spice, cloves or grains of paradise) to add additional flavor to the milk.
All you do it tear up the chicken breast (I boiled a whole chicken to get some nice broth and then tore up the breasts – Di Como tells you to tear it into pieces as thin as a hair and then mortar. I probably should have done that.), add two cups of cooked rice, the almond milk (which is strained through cheesecloth to get the almonds out) – it tells you to cast the almond milk into the pot which sounds exciting but makes a bit of a mess – some sugar, I used about 12 tablespoons, and mash it all into a bowl to set. For garnish, I fried sliced, blanched, almonds in oil until they were good and brown and crispy and spread those on top. It looked like this.
Here’s a cross section.
It set nicely – thick and substantial but still very moist and reasonably light, considering. I left it overnight but I would guess it takes only 6-8 hours. It was sweet and savory at once, and the toasted almonds gave it a really nice sort of opulence and nutty interest. Though, initially, there was the sense in the room that a sweet rice dish with chicken was strange, no one who ate it seemed to find it odd – not even my 12 year old sister who gobbled it up, and she typically eats like a bird). It might even be more appealing to children who are more in touch with the idea of throwing a bunch of stuff they like together and eating it.
Though there was a pretty good amount of liquid in there, the rice soaked everything up as it set. If you cooked the rice with way too much water a la congee, maybe it would thicken but stay wet? Either way, the flavors blended together nicely, though I should have gone heavier on the cinnamon. You could make it sweeter and more desert like by adding more sugar (honey could be interesting as well), but eventually you’d lose the sweet/savory mix that makes it unique. Experimenting with additional sugar and salt should eventually yield the perfect mix.
In medieval cookery lore, blank maunger was considered the perfect dish for the sick, ideal for casting out those bad humours.
Online editions of cookbooks mentioned: