There’s a new coffee shop just opened in town. A great little place, just a few battered old Chesterfields, up-cycled wooden tables, and two walls fitted out with bookshelves stocked with any and every type of literature you can imagine. It’s coffee shop porn.
Oh aye, and the coffee’s pretty sexy too.
Browsing the other day, I came across a tattered old re-print of an Elizabethan recipe book. The book was titled,
The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened
Good, eh? How could anyone not want to see what was inside?
And it didn’t disappoint. I’ve since done a quick bit of Google research and it seems that this book is actually rather famous. First published in 1669, it purports to be the work of one Sir Kenelm Digby, a privateeer ‘whose interests include cooking, medicine, swordplay, astrology, alchemy, literature, and natural philosophy.’ Wow. What’s not to like? It contains rudimentary recipes for all kinds of seventeenth-century dishes – some familiar, others plain odd – featuring ingredients such as mead, wild sorrel, tulip bud seeds, and harts horn jelly, not to mention a whole section dedicated to… well, to making things that will get you rat-arsed, basically.
Amongst the ‘Marmulate of Pippins’ and ‘Sucket of Mallow Stalks’, I found an old method for making syllabub…
[‘Syllabub’ (from Sir Kenelm Digby’s ‘The Closet of Sir Kenelme Digbie Knight Opened’)]:
My Lady Middlesex makes Syllabubs for little Glasses with spouts, thus. Take 3 pints of sweet Cream, one of quick white wine (or Rhenish), and a good wine glassful (better the 1/4 of a pint) of Sack: mingle with them about three quarters of a pound of fine Sugar in Powder. Beat all these together with a whisk, till all appeareth converted into froth. Then pour it into your little Syllabub-glasses, and let them stand all night. The next day the Curd will be thick and firm above, and the drink clear under it. I conceive it may do well, to put into each glass (when you pour the liquor into it) a sprig of Rosemary a little bruised, or a little Limon-peel, or some such thing to quicken the taste; or use Amber-sugar, or spirit of Cinnamon, or of Lignum-Cassiæ; or Nutmegs, or Mace, or Cloves, a very little.
Obviously, I now had to go home and make a syllabub.
His comments on the addition of ‘a sprig of rosemary’ or ‘a little limon-peel’ seemed, to me, rather a good idea. One of my very favourite ways to prepare a crème brûlée is to steep a sprig of rosemary in the scalded cream. Tell most people “oh yes, tonight for dessert we have a rosemary crème brûlée” and the general reaction will fall somewhere between disgust and confusion. In actuality, pair that subtle rosemary brûlée with a little crystallised stem ginger and some buttery sablé biscuits and the result is like having Tinkerbell herself lap-dance on your tongue.
So yeah, the addition of a little lemon sounded rather a good idea. The thought process then went as so: syllabub is, basically, a mixture of cream, sugar and booze; lemon serves to cut through the richness and take the edge off the sugar; limoncello is a good strong booze that already contains that lemon kick; mix that with sweet white wine to balance the alcohol hit, et voilà! That’s the syllabub sorted. Good sharp rhubarb complements the syllabub. Job done.
Forced rhubarb is one of the great treats of British springtime, and it’s beginning to appear in small batches already. Its tender stems are much sweeter than the later outdoor crops. A combination of the lemon’s acidic properties and the alcohol serve to thicken the cream by way of a chemical process similar to curdling – but crucially, not curdling! If that happens you’ll need to start again.
Lemon Syllabub with Baked Rhubarb and Caramel
75ml Sweet White Wine & 75ml Limoncello
[Fortified wine is the traditional form of alcohol used in a syllabub, but almost anything can be used – champagne, marsala, brandy, Grand Marnier, and Cointreau all work well.]
160g Caster Sugar
300ml Double Cream
Place 55g of the caster sugar, the finely grated zest of ½ the lemon, and 3 tbsp of lemon juice into a pan and heat very gently until the sugar has dissolved. Add the alcohol. For best results, do this the day before and leave in a cool place to infuse overnight.
Peel and trim the rhubarb, and cut into pieces of 1.5” length. Place on a baking sheet, sprinkle with 50g of the caster sugar. Drizzle a little of your chosen alcohol over the top (Grand Marnier is particularly good) and bake in a low oven for 15-20 minutes, or until tender. Remember that it will continue to cook as it cools.
Remove and allow to cool.
Place the remaining sugar in a clean pan and heat gently. When it reaches a deep caramel colour, pour it onto a baking sheet covered in baking parchment. Allow to cool. Once hard, break into shards.
Whip the double cream until only just holding soft peaks. Carefully fold-in the infused lemon and alcohol mixture a little at a time… too quickly and it risks curdling!
To serve, place a little rhubarb in the bottom of a serving glass or bowl, top with the syllabub, and a few shards of the caramel.
Here’s a link to an online PDF copy of the book. Well worth a look… https://prospectbooks.co.uk/samples/Digby.pdf