The first time I ever heard of “blancmange” was in watching a British “mini-series” following super-chef Heston Blumenthal and these special “Feasts” he did (if you’ve never heard of him, look him up and some of the shows he’s done, it’s amazing!). The particular dish in question was a “frog blancmange,” served as an early course in a Middle-Ages-themed dinner as a pseudo-dessert, Englanders at the time often eating puddings and other savory versions of sweet dishes as “appetizers.” Soon as I saw it I wanted to make it, doing some brief research to try and figure out what it was and what the little “tricks” were to making it… well, “it.” Suffice to say my recipe and history digging back then wasn’t quite as thorough (well, that words makes it sound like I’m not lazy, and I still am… “refined” maybe?) as it is now.
Dishes of similar name are found throughout the European continent, all of them translating similarly to “white food” or “white mush.” Which country was first to offer the original version is currently up in the air, though it’s said it started through the introduction of rice and almonds via Turkish or other Arab travelers. Grimod de La Reyniere said it originated in Languedoc, a likely candidate due to its closeness towards Mediterranean trading routes.
It was the Europeans’ use of these ingredients that brought up the road to today’s blancmange, and its Caribbean Coconuty version. The first iterations simmered milk with the rice, almonds, and shredded chicken or other such white meats, often flavored with just a bit of anise and caraway (a separate legacy of the Turks). Despite the use of proteins, these “meat jellies” would still be served as sweet dishes, though other puddings based on honey, milk and almonds also emerged to influence blancmange’s history.
Sooner or later the rice pudding refined itself, taking away the particular starch in place of other thickening substances such as powdered stag’s horn or concentrated, jellied stock. These were mixed with thoroughly ground and steeped almonds (aka almond milk), dairy, and any very subtle flavorings and sweeteners desired. Once set, they yielded a delicately tender, subtle flavored jelly fit for French royalty, at early times being referred to as “blandmange” not as an insult but a testament to its beautifully light flavors.
And as the French took over Martinique and Guadeloupe, as mentioned with my post on Cod Accras, the dish followed, mixing and intermingling with the culture for them to twist into their own version. A Coconut milk heavy dish, thickened with what’s popular at the time (nowadays we just used gelatin) and served alongside tropical fruits. Thus is the long but seemingly quick and simple evolution of this dish from the Middle-Aged-Arab pudding to today’s Coconut Jelly.
Chef’s Overdramatic Self-Centered Lecture Corner
Picking a recipe for this, I found I had to take quite a few things into consideration. First and foremost being the base which I was to later thicken and gelatinize. Intriguingly, there are quite a few recipes which, along with their coconut milk flavoring, also add milk, cream, sweetened condensed milk, evaporated, etc. At first it made me quite anxious in picking the “right” combination, only to quickly turn around as I remembered “Hey, they didn’t use some of this crap back in the day.” You gotta keep it simple if you wanna stay traditional, that and maximize coconut flavor. As such, my ‘favorite’ recipe was the one that was almost all coconut milk with a little addition that allowed for other milk products. With a nod towards blancmange’s origins and usual non-coconut composition, I used Almond Milk for this particular mix percentage (sadly, not homemade… too much work if it’s not the main player).
Second consideration was the Gelatin. As it was, quite old recipes, if they wanted to turn this into that particular jelly/pudding, would either cook the lactic mixture down with rice (that was before refinement), or later on mix it with a very concentrated stock (as stocks made from bones often contain a large amounts of collagen, they can become quite gelatinized when cooked down a certain amount) or the powdered stag’s horn thingy, which I’m just not doing, sorry. Though this stock method may work quite well, and be something I’d very much like to do to get the proper and traditional texture and flavor of a regular blancmange, the delicate and sweet coconut version probably won’t wanna taste that good with fish or chicken flavoring.
So what do we do? The main methods nowadays for the simple cook-at-home revolve around the use of gelatin (either powdered or sheet) or cooking with cornstarch and possibly eggs. However, this latter actually involves, again, cooking the mixture on high heat, risking a broken ‘custard,’ plus the texture afterwards looks like it’s somewhat odd. Furthermore, I’ve found most of the recipes that use the technique are “Brazilian” coconut blancmange. Thus, we stick with gelatin, which is the closest thing to the natural pectin medium as we can find anyhow. I suggest using sheet, but powdered is all I had on hand, and is usually the easiest for most people to get, so no shame in using it.
There are a couple things needed to know, though, if one is using powdered gelatin, especially if this is your first time (jello doesn’t count, we’re getting the base unflavored version). We can’t just add it in, first we need to “bloom” the gelatin in the liquid of choice, COLD (believe me, it won’t happen if the liquid is hot, I’ve tried). It should be sprinkled into the liquid slowly, gently from high up, bit by bit… much like trying to thicken a sauce with flour, one doesn’t just dump it in. It needs to be carefully added in so nothing bunches up. If you’re adding a high proportion of gelatin-to-liquid, much like in this recipe, it helps to mix and swirl the setting top in every now and then. Once everything is added and the grains thicken and bloom up, we transfer to heat and it melts fast.
Don’t need any fancy molds either. I ended up using a small round Tupperware for a big personal serving and a funnel cake pan for a fun centerpiece; the jelly comes out pretty easily from any mold one chooses, though the cake pan needed just a bit of “persuasion” beforehand. Oh, and I decided to add a bit of lime zest to the original recipe for an added flavor, sorta like using vanilla in most French pastry such, but for the Caribbean!
400ml (1.7 cups) Coconut Milk
100ml (.42 cups) Almond or other Milk
2/3 cups Sugar
Zest of 1 Lime
2 Tb/Packets Gelatin Powder
1 tsp Vanilla
- Mix Half of the Coconut and Almond Milk with Sugar and Lime in a pot. Heat on Medium-Low, stirring often, until sugar dissolves.
- While this is happening, gently sprinkle Gelatin over remaining, COLD milks, allowing it to “bloom” and thicken.
- Transfer bloomed milk into the pot with the rest, stirring together until the gentle warmth melts/dissolves the gelatin.
- Remove from stove, stirring in the Vanilla, and strain liquid into the prepared “moulds.”
- Cover and move to fridge or other cold area, leaving to set for a couple hours or more.
- Carefully unmold, running a rubber spatula around the edge, or if needed heating up the bottom in a warm water bath (or, you know, maybe a blowtorch…).
- Portion and serve with desired fruit garnish, such as Mango Coulis, Rum-soaked Mango Cubes, and Pan-fried Banana Bread.
Tasty, a fun dessert to use as a flavor base and build a palette through various garnishes, especially if you’re just coming off wisdom teeth surgery! (that was an interesting weekend)
When eating it as-is, though, there are a couple things I think I’d like to change for the next batch. Firstly, the coconut aspect isn’t quite AS strong as I’d like when cold; when warm it comes out, but cold I feel the almond milk flavors become more forefront despite its minimal use. Thus I would suggest pulling the amount of it back and replacing it, and some of the other coconut milk, with coconut CREAM, which should give a nicely thicker consistency and more flavor. Speaking of consistency, also am I not too satisfied about how firm it was; it really did feel like Jello, a little too much “bite.” If I were to properly keep this to the idea of blancmange I have in my head, I’d like it a little looser, tender and svelt. Thus, maybe I’ll try 1.5 Tb (well, I did a double batch myself, so 3 packets instead of 4) of gelatin. I’m curious about trying the use of those condensed and evaporated milks too, so those might help!
Finally, didn’t get the entire lime flavor I wanted, so either up the anty, let them steep longer, or no straining them out.
That said, I still really liked this fun Caribbean version of a French dessert, it tasted delicious at the end of the meal (especially with all the garnishes), and have grown quite the interest towards the art and idea of “blancmange.” I hope to be able to play with the recipes at some other point, maybe even make my own almond milk from scratch!
Much like the Cod Accras, it’s the Caribbean, so Rum Cocktails galore! Maybe a creamy, coconut-heavy Pina Colada, or just some straight shots of Coconut flavored Rum. Not much more to say there.
It’s hard for me to figure what other drink I’d want to enjoy with this besides the rum, but I’ll give it a shot. Certain Fruit Wines could do well, so long as they still have a bit of sweetness, are well balanced, and compliment the chosen fruit garnish. We have quite a few wineries here in Minnesota that still maintain a strong focus on this non-grape alcohol, and I find it can be fun to get into.
Thinking of islands, my mind also wanders towards Madeira and Marsala, two very historical Fortified wines based on islands off of Italy and Africa. They’re sadly not as appreciated today as they were in the far past; most places only sell the cheap cooking versions, even the decent wine shops can only get what are the more “basic” of styles, the upper crust of what used to be a set of very deep and intricate layers. With their foray out of the limelight, navigating even these simple bottle selections can be somewhat daunting. So the ones I would suggest buying, which should be light enough in power and flavor concentration while still containing some sugar, are as such.
For Marsala: The decent ones usually have multiple things on the label (like going through German wines, though thankfully not as insane). Good keywords are Secco or Semisecco, Ambra or Oro (preferred), and Fine.
Other Island pairings could be fun too. There are plenty of Italian islands that make tasty regular and fortified sweet wines with moscato; they’ll usually have Muscat on the label/regional name somewhere, so they’re easy to spot in the dessert section.