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Like Chocolate, Like Syllabub

Margaret Baker, folio 66 verso & 67 recto, Folger Shakespeare Library

On a recent trip to the Folger Shakespeare Library, I had the opportunity to read cover-to-cover extant seventeenth-century family recipe books of the English household. The above pages from Margaret Baker's family Receipt Book offer a glimpse into the material fascination of bound manuscripts.

‘Receipt books’ as they were then called burst with details about life, health, and culinary predilections. They are generally penned by women of the family and remain, for the most part, in hand-written form. Occasionally, along with the culinary men who took cooking advice to the press, women published them too. But for the first two-thirds of the century, studying 'receipts' means reading the hands of the women who filled precious pages (paper was expensive) to retain ideas about home cuisine and remedies, and pass them down through time.

It’s an exciting prospect, especially if you typically only have the opportunity to read them in later printed or online scanned form. Anyone who has tried to read multiple manuscript pages on a screen can attest to the difficulty. Add to this commonplace that seventeenth-century spelling was not codified and those who could write learned to do so with standardized abbreviation methods that take a modern reader a while to recognize and decipher. Receipt books are a great adventure in history and humility.

The woman (or women) of the day is Anon, whose unsigned family receipt book dates from somewhere between the 1660s - 1680s (Folger Library, V.a.697). It features a series of different scripts and classifies recipes unexpectedly, which bears on today’s discussion of syllabubs and chocolate. What’s a syllabub and what does it have to do with chocolate? Right. Read on.

This very short recipe book covers a variety of home products, from dyes to medicines. Thanks to “A Table of all the Receipts contained in this Book,” the reader quickly has an overview of the book’s typology. The following bullet points list the headings in the Table and nested under them are explanations of what those sections contain:

  • Dying

  • Over seven pages, Anon records recipes for multiple shades of colors of the rainbow and black

  • Pastries

  • This category includes meat pies, sweet tarts, makrounds [almond cookies], biskets and tablets

  • Milks

  • Products, including creams and curds, most made or served with sugar and ‘cinamom’. Creams include Nutmug, Lemmon, Egge and Parnassus Hill (explained below)

  • Distillation

  • To make waters, syrups, preserves, and then, oddly, cheese-cakes and syllabubs (explained below)

  • Physical Receipts

  • Including eye-salves, balsams, the above recipes for cramps and bed-wetting, and a perfectly macabre domestic cure for "Convunsion-fitts": human skull powder steeped in ale.

[In homage to this year's 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a few more details about this cannibal elixir: suffering men are to take female skull powder and vice versa. Incidentally,

The scull of a person strangled, or put to any violent death, is much better than theirs who dye of any disease. And it must be hung in a clean linen cloth before ye fire, so as it may get but a moderate draught, before it be pulveriz’d. (48)

Again, these are home not try this at home.]

Now, cheese-cake and syllabubs (explained soon!) would appear to belong under milk in this list, but the syllabub contains wine and is served chilled in glasses, which may explain its entry under distillation. Or, it could be that the Distillation section, which is very short, was overlooked by the person hoping to add recipes to the Milk section after the first contributor had already written in headings to divide the recipes in the book. The latter makes sense especially as syllabubs are not listed in the Table, which omits a number of entries, probably those added after the first writer completed the content list. Receipt books instigate many more questions than they answer.

Cacao does not figure in Anon’s book (on my admittedly preliminary read) but chocolate comes up as a point of comparison for the manner in which a liquid is to be stirred. The two recipes of note for this blog are Syllabubs and Parnassus Hill. The first mentions chocolate and the second, a “froathing stick.” Here are the recipes transcribed as they were written (as far as my eye could discern):

Receipt to make Syllabubs

Take a mutchkin of cream or more as you wou’d chuse a quanty, and put some syrrups of Lemons, and as much white wine as is agreeable to your taste amongst it: sweeten all together and whisk or rather stir it as you wou’d Chocolate, till it becomes pretty thick then serve it up in Glasses.

Parnassus Hill

Take a mutchken of good sweet cream, and the white of an egg, and a peal of a lemmon; and beat it with the froath-stick till it coms to ane high froath, and then fill up your dish with the froth.

These particular dishes are among the more visually stunning in the book. Both whip their ingredients into a substance that has more heft than the liquids that compose it. Both are served in such a way that the whipping creates the dish’s character. The frothy character of ready-to-serve Parnassus Hill is more obvious than the serving style of the syllabub, which needs to be inferred here. Luckily, it is attested in food history research.

17th-C (right) and 18th-C (left) syllabub glasses, Historic Food.

Reproduced with the kind permission of Ivan Day.

Syllabubs whipped together cream and wine, but before they were served, the liquids were left to separate out of the mass, such that the syllabub of cream and sugar appears to be floating on top of a lake. Historically, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the “drink or dish made of milk (frequently as drawn from the cow) or cream, curdled by the admixture of wine, cider, or other acid, and often sweetened and flavoured” was common from the sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. The dessert was served in the seventeenth century in syllabub or whip glasses. That’s fascinating, but not the most interesting point about the recipe from Cacaosophy’s perspective.

One of the women of the family Anon found it convenient, insofar as this is a form of shorthand, to explain the ideal thickness of a whisked syllabub by referencing how to ‘stir’ chocolate into a froth. Such a reminder, even if made only for herself, reverses what we would expect the comparison to look like in a world where the syllabub was a native dish and the chocolate was not. Instead of comparing the recently known (chocolate) to the traditional recipe (syllabub) to make sense of chocolate, she references chocolate to explain the texture of the traditional dessert. Most of the creams in the book are stirred until thickened so it is striking that this anonymous maker of syllabubs would defer to chocolate, rather than another cream recipe, as a model.

The suggestion, then, is that circa 1670, she and likely others knew how to stir chocolate just so and its perfect frothy consistency was unique enough that one could identify it. Merely 150 years after conquest and only 40 after the first recipes were printed in Spain, Anon used chocolate as a standard thickness in whisked dishes the way Julia Child used the common American dish Eggs Benedict as a reference for how to serve French oeufs en cocotte (coddled or shirred eggs) in Elegance with Eggs.

As for Parnassus Hill (or mount, as it was classically known, or cliff, as sometimes called), the recipe’s name comes from the Greek mountain associated in mythology with Orpheus and the Muses and signifying poetic inspiration. By implication, the whipped treat sits high on its plate just as Parnassus towered above the land. Appropriately, Anon makes it a “hill,” cutting it down to human size.

Egg whites had a history of being beaten and the meringue probably dates from this period, as both the word and the recipe are in François Massialot’s inaugural French cookbook, Le Cuisinier royal et bourgeois (The Royal and Bourgeois Chef, 1691). But the combination of cream and egg white in Parnassus Hill creates something more like thickened liquid froth than stiff snowy peaks. That texture again recalls the ideal serving suggestion for chocolate and indeed appears to call for chocolate’s signature utensil: a “froath-stick.”

The frothing stick—molinillo in Spanish and moulinet in French—was imported from the colonies for the express purpose of frothing the cacao confection. Yet, the OED references an occurrence of the word “froath-stick” in the poem Country Wedding (1706), printed in Watson's Choice Collection of Comic and Serious Scots Poems (1711, iii.47) and defines it as a “stick for whipping cream.” In this poem about young Jock wooing young Jennie, Jennie's mother offers a frothing stick among a host of useful tools coming to Jock (presumably as part of a dowry or the sort of property allowed to be passed between women) if he marries her Jennie.

Anon's suggested use of the tool for cream circa 1670 was perhaps not the first of its kind, but according to the Google Ngram Viewer, the word "froath" was not in high usage in print until about 1680, when its occurrence spikes. Period cookbooks do connect the art of frothing with recipes for "snow," or whipped cream, as in The Art of Cookery Refin'd and Augmented in 1654 (177-78). But here we are taking not simply about the act of whisking or frothing, but about a specific utensil, one first connected to chocolate. Using "sticks" to froth cream prompts the question: Had the molinillo been adapted by 1670 as a utensil suitable for thickening cream, as well, such that it lost its primary connection to chocolate?

More questions than answers, but delicious food for thought all around. Anon and others left knowledge beyond recipes to posterity. They recorded private knowledge that in retrospect opens up public reasons why chocolate came to be regarded as European, as though it always was.

For anyone interested in making the recipes above, just under 2 cups (or .43 liters) of cream fills a ‘mutchkin’.



Anon. Receipt book [manuscript]. Circa 1660-1680. Folger Shakespeare Library. V.a.697.

Baker, Maraget. Receipt book of Margaret Baker [manuscript]. Circa 1675. Folger Shakespeare Library. V.a.619.

Day, Ivan. "Syllabubs." The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets. Ed. Darra Goldstein. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015.

---. "Syllabubs and Possets." Historic Food. Accessed October 27, 2018.

“froth, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, July 2018, Accessed October 25, 2018.

"sillabub | syllabub, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, July 2018, Accessed October 25, 2018.

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