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While its Italian cousin panna cotta is much better known in the United States, blancmange was once quite popular, especially in Europe. It even shows up in Call the Midwife, which is why it appears in the new Call the Midwife: The Official Cookbook, from which this recipe comes. That book contains some "ludicrous" dishes, its author, Annie Gray, told WTTW Food, but this is a simple and attractive dish, one that would soon be eclipsed by the rise of boxed pudding and custard mixes—just one of the convenient modern products that started to define the era, as Gray explained to us. Food always tells you about more than just what people ate; it also reflects changes in technology and attitude.
So don your apron (whether cooking or midwife's) and set to work to try a taste of the past!
Another easily made, cheap recipe based on milk with minimal extras, blancmange started life in the fourteenth century, when it was usually based on rice, almonds, and often included milk and chicken (it was just rice and almond milk on fast days). Over time, the name and contents changed, but it always stayed true to its name, which literally translates as “white eat.” By the eighteenth century, it was an almond pudding or jelly (gelatin) set with isinglass (a fish-based setting agent), and in the Victorian era, it became a simple milk pudding using arrowroot or cornflour. This recipe is an early twentieth century one publicized by Brown & Polson, who made cornflour (cornstarch) and other cooking shortcuts. It was just a short step from there to ready-made mixtures, and by the 1960s, the same company was promoting its “variety custard” range in “fresh and fruity flavours.” The days of blancmange were numbered.
You can leave the chocolate and spice out if you want to make a plain white mixture.
For a more festive dessert, have ready lightly sweetened whipped cream in a piping bag fitted with a star tip. Then unmold the blancmange, pipe a mound of rosettes decoratively onto the center, and dust with mixed spice.
5 cups (1.2 L) milk
2/3 cup (85 g) cornstarch
1 2/3 cup (125 g) sugar
4 tsp salt
1/4 cup (20 g) unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 tsp mixed spice (optional)
1. In a small bowl, whisk together 1 cup (240 ml) of the milk, the cornstarch, sugar, and salt until the dry ingredients are dissolved. In another small bowl, whisk together 1 cup (240 ml) of the milk and the cocoa powder until the cocoa powder dissolves.
2. Pour the remaining 3 cups (700 ml) milk into a saucepan and heat to a gentle simmer over medium-low heat. Do not allow to boil. Whisk the milk-cornstarch mixture and then the milk-cocoa mixture into the hot milk along with the vanilla extract and mixed spice (if using) and cook, whisking almost constantly and not allowing the mixture to boil, until the raw cornstarch flavor disappears and the mixture thickens, about 15 minutes.
3. Remove from the heat, cover with parchment paper, pressing it directly onto the surface to stop a skin from forming (or simply whisk every 5 minutes or so), and let cool for 20 minutes. Have ready a 5-cup (1.2 L) mold. When the mixture has cooled for 20 minutes, pour it into the mold. Cover and chill until set, at least 4 hours or up to 1 day. When ready to serve, simply turn out the blancmange onto a serving plate and bear, triumphantly, to table.
Learn more about the Call the Midwife cookbook from its author.