I was struggling down the supermarket aisle with a shopping basket that weighed more than I do when I caught a glimpse of that familiar packet and did a double take. Blancmange! The dessert my five year old self used to pronounce ‘blank Madge!’ And not just any blancmange either but Pearce Duff’s blancmange. ‘A real classic’ it says on the packet and it is indeed – in fact for a long time it was a cupboard staple. Many a time we’d served it up as a finale to an evening meal and during times when I really wanted to push the boat it, I’d transformed it from humble blancmange into one of the many layers in a trifle. It may be considered a kid’s dessert but we loved our blancmange.
But as with rice pudding, I soon forgot about blancmange and how lovely it was, and found other more sophisticated means to indulge my sweet-tooth. In the last decade or so, I don’t recall anyone even mentioning blancmange let alone whipping up a bowl of the stuff. I haven’t even seen it at a kids party! So blancmange remained a long-forgotten memory… until now.
WHAT IS BLANCMANGE?
Believe it or not, there are still some people who don’t know what blancmange is. Hubby, for one, has never tried it. Blancmange is basically a jelly made using milk or cream, thickened with gelatine or cornflour, and it’s name roughly translates as ‘white food.’ Indeed blancmange is supposed to be white (because, er, that’s the colour of milk!) but I don’t recall ever eating a white coloured blancmange. It’s usually set in a mould – just like jelly – and is served cold. It was traditionally flavoured with almonds but us kids of the ’80s will remember that blancmange was usually strawberry or chocolate flavoured – thus never white!
It is a lot like set custard, and there are a lot of popular, similar, modern day alternatives such as vanilla pudding in the States; crème caramel; Bavarian cream, and panna cotta, while over in Malaysia, many kuehs style desserts are reminiscent of blancmange.
The earliest form of blancmange is believed to have had it’s origins in the Middle East. In the Middle Ages it was considered a meal for invalids and consisted of almond milk, rice, sugar and er, chicken. That’s right, chicken! Thank goodness strawberry came along when it did!
SO WHAT HAPPENED TO BLANCMANGE?
I know blancmange was very popular in the 1980s up to the mid-’90s before it started to become obscure, and I’m sure it was consumed quite a bit in the 1970s. I remember we sometimes used to have this served to us as ‘afters’ for school dinner meals. It was always strawberry and it was definitely one of the better puds! And of course it was served at a lot of the birthday parties I went to as a kid, along side that old favourite jelly!
I have no idea why it lost popularity. Of course the introduction of more sophisticated desserts such as profiteroles and pavlovas meant that what started out as a pudding for the infirm wasn’t quite so desirable any more. But surely kids would still have loved blancmange… wouldn’t they?
PEARCE DUFF’S BLANCMANGE
I’d be lying if I said I’ve made blancmange from scratch in the past. I’d be lying if I said I knew how to make blancmange from scratch! But seeing as I’m never going to be a candidate for Masterchef, I don’t need to worry too much about that. Every time, I made blancmange it came straight out of a packet. Not that it mattered because it was delicious. What I loved about Pearce Duff’s blancmange is that you got five sachets in a pack in four flavours: chocolate; strawberry; raspberry, and vanilla. When I bought it after spotting it in the supermarket that day, it cost a measly sixty five pence. I didn’t think you could get anything for sixty five pence these days so it must have been free when I was a kid!
Once I reached my early teens, I started making up the packets myself. I used less milk than instructed as I preferred a firmer blancmange. I often made them up individually but sometimes I used all the flavoured to create a layered dessert. I would sometimes add a layer of banana when making the vanilla flavour blancmange, and I also used to use them as a substitute for the custard layer in a trifle, of which I made a few for my mum’s surprise birthday party – when blancmanges were still en vogue! I’m actually quite certain that’s really the same as the custard sauce that you use to pour over hot puddings but has been left to set, so I’m sure – although I’ve never tried it – that you could use it the same way if you wanted a flavoured custard. Who knew that it could be so versatile?
While researching blancmange for this post (never did I think I’d ever hear the words ‘research’ and ‘blancmange’ in the same sentence!) I also came across another brand of blancmange mix – Brown and Polson. This immediately looked very familiar to me and I tried to remember where I’d seen it – most probably in my aunt’s kitchen cupboard. I haven’t come across it on any of my supermarket travels so I wonder if it’s still available. Hmmm….
MY RECENT BLANCMANGE EXPERIENCE
I excitedly threw a packet of Pearce Duff’s assorted blancmanges into my already heaving basket and then made my way down the aisle as though I was wading through a sea of treacle with a bad back! But I knew it would be worth the effort.
I got home a decided that I’d start with the chocolate flavour (of course!) but in my haste to prepare it, I didn’t bother to read the instructions that I thought I still remembered, and forgot to put in the adequate amount of sugar. The result was truly yuck! I’d served it up to Hubby who was repulsed by his first ever spoonful of blancmange, and he refused to believe me when I told him that it’s usually very nice – once it has been sweetened!
Round two with the raspberry flavour was more successful thankfully (though Hubby still refused to try it, which was OK as it meant more for me!) as I remembered the sugar. However it would appear that something quite strange has happened to my tastebuds over the years, because although I did enjoy it, and managed to scoff the lot, I have to say that it did taste quite powdery and artificial. Would I buy them again? Definitely, but not as a regular treat – perhaps for a kid’s birthday party or if ever I need a comforting trip down memory lane! Or I could just learn to make blancmange from scratch…
You may not believe it but blancmange still exists. I was surprised to find that out too. But it’s been revamped and given a cool new image for the twenty-first century. Gone are the garish pink colours with hundreds and thousands on top. These days blancmange tend to be white, or very pale colours such as rose or pistachio, and they come in an exciting array of flavours such as lemon and lavender; cinnamon; chocolate and cappuccino; passion fruit; almond and amaretto, vanilla and vodka… the list is endless. Not to mention delicious! These days it has stiff competition in the form of panna cotta which has ousted it from the dessert menus of many top restaurants but with amzing flavours like these, I don’t think it’ll stay of the menu for long!
So here’s a recipe for a gorgeous sounding rose blancmange which has the colour of the original retro dessert but the taste of the twenty-first century. Enjoy!
- 6 gelatine leaves
- 500ml (18fl oz) full-cream milk
- 150g (5oz) white caster sugar
- 1 tsp rosewater or to taste
- 300ml (½ pt) whipping cream
- groundnut or vegetable oil for the mould
- fresh or crystallised rose petals or
- sugar rose decorations see Finishing Touch
- Have ready a 1 litre (1¾ pt) bowl or pretty jelly mould.
- Cut the gelatine into broad strips and place it in a medium bowl.
- Cover with cold water, soak for 5 minutes, then drain and place in a large bowl.
- At the same time, bring the milk to the boil in a small saucepan, pour this over the drained gelatine and stir to dissolve, then add the sugar and again stir to dissolve, and then stir in the rosewater and the cream.
- Cover the surface with clingfilm and leave to cool.
- Brush the bowl or jelly mould with a little oil, pour in the milk mixture, and then cover and chill overnight until set.
- To serve, briefly dip the mould into hot water, run a knife around the top edge, place a plate on top and invert it.
- Tidy with kitchen paper if necessary and decorate with roses.
Use bought decorations or make your own crystallised petals the day before. Lay out unsprayed petals on a work surface and very lightly paint one side with a little egg white. Sift over an even layer of white caster sugar until the petals appear frosted. Repeat with the other side, lay the petals on a rack and leave for several hours or overnight in a warm draughty spot (a fan oven with a defrost setting is ideal).