Sunday 12 February 2012

Pumping up the Syllabub

To make whip syllabub the most common tool was a birch whisk used to excite a mixture of wine, lemon juice and cream into creating a layer of bubbles on top. 
Since this is the third posting on the subject, readers of this blog might get the impression that I have more than a passing interest in syllabub. You would be right. I started experimenting with old syllabub recipes nearly fifty years ago. I had my first go at making syllabub using the oft cited method of milking a cow into some sweetened cider when I was fourteen. It was a miserable failure. The milk curdled and made a terrible mess. What was I, or the cow doing wrong? I found the same thing happened when I tried recipes that called for warm milk to be poured from a great height into the mixture - resulting again in stringy and inedible curds.  In my early days of syllabub experimentation there were very few modern recipes. It was not until Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson started publishing some in the late 1960s that the British general public started becoming aware of what until then been an almost  totally extinct dish.

What a contrast that is to the situation today. Google the word and you will find a myriad modern recipes - champagne syllabub, turkish delight syllabub, amaretto syllabub, iced cappuccino syllabub, hogmanay syllabub, passionfruit syllabub etc. What I have noticed though is that nearly all of these contemporary versions are made by whisking whipping cream with the other ingredients until it sets into a uniform thick whip. This type, which seems to be the only one made in modern times, is derived from those revived recipes by Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson, which they based on what was once called solid syllabub. This sort, also known as everlasting syllabub, was technically a flavoured alcoholic whipped cream. After a while a small amount of liquid might form at the bottom of the syllabub glass, but generally this type consisted of a uniform creamy whip. 

A solid or everlasting syllabub in a panel moulded double handled syllabub glass of the mid -eighteenth century. This is the model for just about every modern syllabub. It is really a type of whipped cream
A glass salver set with ribbon jellies and solid syllabubs. Photo: Vicky Osborne.- courtesy Delomosne and Son.
As the bubbles rose they were skimmed off with a spoon

Another syllabub, older in origin than the solid kind, was the whip or whipped syllabub. If the very large number of surviving recipes is anything to go by, it seems to have been very popular, This was very different in nature to solid syllabub. It does not really seem to be understood by modern cooks. The cream/wine mixture was whipped in a large bowl, usually with a birch whisk, but chocolate mills were also used. As the bubbles rose they were skimmed off the surface and put on a sieve to drain overnight. 

The foam was allowed to drain over night until it turned into a much lighter and dryer froth
It is not as fiddly as it sounds and a very large amount of bubbly suds can be accumulated in a fairly short time. Interestingly a very old and ubiquitous rural name for a sieve was a sile or syell, commonly used in dairies for straining milk. Syllabubs were originally made in dairies rather than kitchens. In seeking for an origin for the word syllabub, the etymologists have complete ignored this Old Norse word. Above you can see a sile covered in bubbles - any thoughts?  Once the bubbles had drained thoroughly, which usually takes about twelve hours, an incredibly light,  rather dryish foam of a most ethereal texture is created. This was then floated on top of some wine or whey which had been poured into the syllabub glass. This is much lighter and of a completely different character to the modern version of the dish. The evidence points to the fact that the pan top syllabub glass was designed specifically for whip syllabub. The pan helps to support the foam above as below.

Whip syllabub floating on wine in an eighteenth century pan top glass 
Now all this whipping, whether with whisks or chocolate mills, especially when catering for a large company, was a lot of hard work. So a number of pieces of equipment were designed to make the process easier. The earliest of these was a syringe known as a wooden cow. These are first mentioned in the late seventeenth century. A lot of bubbles can be created by squirting air into the mix with one of these curious implements. They were similar to a device called a butter squirt, which could also be used to make syringe fritters. Syringes of this kind had various applications in the kitchen and dairy. I have never seen any English early modern period images of these things, but Bartolomeo Scappi in his Opera (Venezia: 1570) does illustrate a kitchen syringe. This is a woodcut version from the 1621 edition.

Choose your weapon. Birch whisk, chocolate mill, syllabub pumping engine or wooden cow?
A variation on the wooden cow was the 'syllabub pumping engine', which appeared in the first half of the eighteenth century -  

“Dr. Hayles hath actually published what has been for some time talked of, a tube of tin with a box of the same at the lower end of it...that is full of small holes. This engine, with the help of a pair of bellows, blows up cream into syllabub with great expedition. This complex machine has already procured the doctor the blessing of the housekeeper in this palace, and of all such as she in the present generation (who know the time and labour required to whip this sort of geer), and will cause his memory to be held in reverence by all housekeepers in the generations that are yet to come.” A. Hartshorne, Old English Glasses, (London and New York: 1897), p. 307.

I have reconstructed this 'engine' and it works very well, blowing 'up cream into syllabub with great expedition. I have had a love affair with this uniquely English dairy food most of my rather long life and have written three published papers on the subject. Syllabub has spawned its own unique material culture and I also collect both the tools which were once used to make it, as well the beautiful glasses that were designed for serving it. With this kind of long experience of the subject, it is always tempting to feel smug and consider oneself some kind of an expert. However, it is humbling to find out that in fact one really knows very little. I recently learned that in nineteenth century North America special mills called syllabub churns were manufactured to make solid syllabubs. After nearly fifty years of studying the subject I had never heard of them. As far as I know, there was never anything like these made in Britain, but I could be wrong. 

Below are some photographs of one of these churns, which according to one or two folk who have used them are incredibly effective. They work rather like a plunge butter churn. By pushing the shaft up and down the mixture gets thoroughly aereated. If there are any US readers of this post who have experience of these fascinating utensils, I would love to hear from you. Happy syllabub pumping everybody!


  1. I think that a similar churn was used in Scotland in the 19th century at least to make "Hatted Kit". Hatted kit (and similar dishes) sort of sits the fence between a syllabub and a fresh cheese. References go back to 1600, which is rare in Scotland, most do not mention a chrun, but there is this:


    Scotch Hatted Kit.-~Where this cooling and healthy article of diet is in constant use for children or delicate persons, a kit with a double bottom, the upper one perforated with holes, and furnished with a fosset and a cover, should be got. Into this vessel, put in the proportion of two quarts fresh good butter-milk, and a pint of milk hot from the cow. Mix well by jumbling; and next milking add another pint of milk, mixing all well. It will now firm, and gather a hat. Drain off the whey whenever it runs clear, by the spigot; remove what of the top or hat is necessary, to take up the quantity wanted. This dish if to present at table, may be moulded for an hour in a perforated mould, and strewed over with a little pounded sugar, and then nutmeg or cinnamon. The kit must be well sweetened with lime-water or charcoal every time it is used; and too much milk should not be made at once, it gets so rapidly very acid. A slight degree of coagulation assists digestion, but milk highly acidulated is not wished for in this dish.

    Domestic economy, and cookery, for rich and poor, by a lady (1827)

    Hatted Kit. (Scotch.)
    To make this excellent and healthy dish, a small deep tub, with a cover to shut close like a churn, and a fosset below, to run off the whey, is necessary, and generally kept for it; fill the kit two-thirds full of buttermilk from the churn: when the new milk.comes in warm, add a sixth or eighth part to the buttermilk; mix it well, and cover it close: next milking, put in the same quantity, and mix again: if the weather is hot, it may require no more, which will be known by the milk thickening at the top; let it ripen, and then try it by the spigot, and if the whey is milky, it must stand a little longer till it becomes clear. The whey must be well drawn off; take out what is necessary for a dish, lay it upon a drainer; beat it with a wooden spoon; dish, and strew sugar over, with a little rich cream : it ought to be used quickly, as it soon grows very acid: it is a very healthy and excellent dish.
    Those who wish to make it as an economy should set it in a warm place, and it will require less sweet milk, as well as quicken it.
    The kit will also assist the operation; but care must be taken to keep it in a proper acid; charcoal or lime-water will always purify it: after the cream is made, the whey ought to be well drawn off.

    I'm not sure if this exactly the same, but it sounds like a similar implement?

    1. I think you could be right Adam. The vessels described in these recipes were staved wooden containers, which were known as 'kits'. A kit was also a common name for a wooden milking pail or tub for transporting goods such as fish. Unlike the American 'syllabub churns', the kits described in these Scottish recipes are furnished with a tap - fosset (faucet) or spigot near the base for running off the whey.. Meg Dodd's recipe (the first one) has a double base, the upper of which is perforated with holes, but I suspect that this was a kind of strainer which trapped the thick crust of curds (the hat on the kit) which were created by the gradual action of the lactic acid in the buttermilk on the fresh warm milk from the cow. From Dodd's description the perforated disc seems to have been static and not agitated as it was in a plunge churn. I have searched in vain for kits of this kind for making hatted kits in museums in Scotland. But perhaps I have found one without realising it, but on the wrong side of the Atlantic and made of tin rather than wood. Since you live in Scotland have you ever seen one? Perhaps Scottish settlers transported the idea to America.

      About seven years ago I made a hatted kit for a TV programme called Hungry for the Past. Border Televison made the programme at Ellisland Farm, Robert Burn's former home in Dumfrieshire. I used a 1780s pierced creamware mould to drain the hatted kit curd, like that described in the first recipe. I dredged it with sugar and a little grated nutmeg and served it on the table with a roast leg of mutton and some white puddings in a meal that was meant to pose the question - what did Burns really have for supper? The very kind curator at the museum let me put Robert Burn's own wine glasses from the collection on the table!

      I have found an interesting article about American syllabub churns at this excellent site -

      One of the churns depicted here has an open base and seems to have been used for whipping up egg whites.

  2. It has never been clear to me what the "kit" was in these descriptions. Meg Dodds' description does sound static, but I can't see how that would work, so when I saw you American churn I thought that it may be similar. I haven't seen anything similar in Scotland, apart from butter churns. I have a perforated curd mould (much later they yours) and have made hatted kit a few times now, it is quite delicious.

    What Burns ate (any others like him) is of interest to me. Famously he drank punch (his punch bowl still exists) and he is very unlikely to eaten "Haggis, neeps and tatties"(at least not Swedish Turnips which were introduced experimentally to Scotland at the end of his life only). The National Library of Scotland has a early 18th century (c1722) recipe manuscript from Dumfries, but this is before his period and not likely to reflect the food he ate.

    1. After looking at some of these American cylinder churns which seem to date from the nineteenth and early twentieth century I am wondering if they really were designed for making syllabub. The two on the website have printed labels on them - one is impressed with the name Badger Egg Churn, the other the Ovee Vacuum Butter Maker. Syllabub does n't get a mention.

      I am wondering if the craze for historical re-enactment in the US is responsible for re-naming these churns, because I keep reading the line 'traditionally called syllabub churns." By whom I wonder. I would like to see more evidence for that. A lot of re-enactors seem to be using them in the US to make syllabub.

      The Canadian coppersmith Peter Goebels of Goose Bay, makes reproductions of them out of copper for $180 -

  3. There are American 19th century references to "Syllabub Churns" and in some other recipes for whipping cream etc they seem to be mentioned. Alln the recipes seem to come from the southern states where syllabub seems to be quite popular at this period.

    But I imagine that they were used more extensively for whipping cream etc, as.


    Put one pint of wine in a deep bowl, with the juice of one lemon and half a pound of fine white sugar ; stir in it one quart of sweet cream. Churn it with a tin churn made for the purpose, and skim the froth as it rises. Fill glass bowls with it or put a piece of jelly in small glasses and fill with the froth. Always churn for ten minutes before skimming, as it thickens and is better.

    Sweeten half gallon of rich cream very sweet to taste ; put in half a pint of Madeira wine and same of brandy; let it stand half an hour, then pump it with the tin churn and skim the froth. Have a sieve made of netting ; put it over something deep and pile the froth on the sieve; fill the bowls with the froth from the sieve. This will stand twentyfour hours ; the drip can be returned and pumped over. If it does not rise well, put in a teacupful of cold water and churn hard"

  4. Thanks for this Adam. It is fascinating. My knowledge of American cookery literature is pretty sketchy. As I said before, one never stops learning.

  5. I know very little about American cookery literature also, but the little I do know of suggests a lot of transferance between Britian and the USA,and not just in one direction. Relatively cheap iron for producing modern type enclosed ranges must have radicaly changed cookery in Britain during the 19th century and the use of chemical raising agents for baking for instance. The first English recipe for modern type scones seems to be derived from American potash cakes/biscuits.

    I guess it gets back to some comments you made in an earlier post on food traditions, some of them are just not that old. And not all British food traditions have have a history purely within the UK. Although, I'm not sure how widely accepted this is. With the drive towards regional identity and "traditionalisation" of food, a lot of the really interesting food history gets overlooked.

  6. I have the tin syllabub churn that belonged to my late husband's grandmother. She would cook old fashioned cakes (Lady Baltimore, Japanese Fruit Cakes, Lane Cakes, Fruit Cakes) and we would go to her house in the 1950s one Sunday afternoon before Christmas, have Syllabub and delicious home made cake. She would put one little drop of red food coloring in the syllabub and it was a pale pink. Always served in a glass with a teaspoon to eat the foam off the top, then drink the rest. Hers is like the tin one shown above. I've used it myself over the years inviting neighbors in for a drop in party during December.

  7. In parts of Mexico, milking the cow straight into a mug or glass of liquor, sugar, and cocoa is a common activity. The drink is called a "pajarete", and it is popular for breakfast on many farms. Sometimes, people even organize a party around the morning milking; the guests prepare their own mugs with as much sugar, cacao, and high-proof cane alchol as they want, then line up at the cow, where a few skilled milkers top off the mix with fresh milk. It sounds completely crazy, but it reminds me very much of the syllabub "party" in the English engraving in one of Mr. Day's other posts on syllabubs.