In a casual conversation about hippocras recipes over a year ago, we realized we had a shared interest in the many ways that texture was represented in recipes, and we wanted to explore this interest in a Recipes Project series. Hippocras, a spiced wine that was popular in Europe and the Americas c. 1400-1800, offers an excellent example of the ways that textures were and can be expressed and experienced in recipes. Making hippocras seems straightforward, if strange. After infusing wine with spices and sweetening it with sugar, hippocras recipes then often call for adding cream or milk. The dairy curdles for over an hour, with creamy lumps slowly coagulating within the wine. The milk solids are then strained out using cheesecloth, sieves, or “jelly bags.” The straining process clarifies the beverage, leaving the dairy’s sweetness behind. But for both of us, the intervening minutes when our precious infused wine was swimming with undesirable curdled matter was absolutely abject. (And we weren’t the only ones who found this process to be fascinating and unsettling: later this month, you’ll see how Emily Brandt undertook a similar project in her piece on “Milk Punch.”)
For us, the curdled dairy in the hippocras was off-putting: clumpy, soft, squishy, the curds sent us messages about rottenness, wrongness. But for early modern Euro-American eaters and drinkers, these curdles would have sent very different, desirable messages. Curdles were essential elements of many premodern dishes. In possets, such as this “London Possett” (excerpted above, see the full image here): eggs, cream, alcohol, and seasonings are combined and heated for the express purpose of forming a curdled layer.
And of course, curdled dairy is a central component of many modern dishes made around the world: Dulce de Leche Cortada, featuring milk curdled with lime and then mixed with egg, cinnamon, and sugar; paneer or chhena, essential to dishes in east Asia.
People who work on recipes from the past are used to thinking about taste as subjective, malleable, and changeable in the ways it signifies. We should remind ourselves that texture works this way, too. It informs what we believe to be edible or inedible, whether that assessment is based on logic, experience, or cultural norms. We experience texture through other senses: touch, taste, and sight. And recipes reveal how texture was considered both in the process and in the product of medicinal and culinary preparations.
In this series, we approach texture from the perspectives of food and medicine, materials and sensations. Over the course of this month at The Recipes Project, we will learn about textures from many different times, spaces, and cultures. Jack Bouchard will discuss methods of preservation and preparation that transform ingredients in his post on stockfish. Susan Brandt will teach us about the textures of medical preparations and their application to the body in her post on “musk julep.” Jennie Egloff and Andrea Crow will write about pleasurable and abject mouth-feel in their posts on a premodern vegetarian diet, and on an early pressure cooker: the “digester of bones.” We’ll learn about encounters with new spices and foods through trade in Emily’s Brandt’s post on “Alcohol’s Empire,” and Elaine Leong will discuss the meaning and feeling of sweetness in her post on honey. A Tales from the Archive Post by He Bian will allow us to consider human milk – warmed by the body, like and yet unlike other animal milks in its consistency, color, and taste – as medicine in Imperial China. And RP Community Editor Sarah Kernan will bring us an Around the Table post from Helen Davies and Alex Zawacki of The Lazarus Project. Sarah, Helen, and Alex will discuss the “texture” of recipes via the materiality of texts, as they talk about their work with multispectral imaging and manuscripts
A sticky substance on a kitchen floor, the jammy center of a hardboiled egg, the weave of a luxe brocade, the slipperiness of a rice noodle, the smooth surface of a metal spoon: the world of recipes is replete with texture, and this month, we’re delighted to explore all of these things with you.