Friday, June 30, 2017

Blancmange and Little Women

When I was in fourth grade I caught the measles. I spent several days in bed, during which time I read Louisa May Alcott's Little Women for the first time. I still have the copy.

There was one thing in the book that always mystified me: the reference to “blancmange.” On p. 61 in my edition, Jo stops by to visit neighbor Laurie, who is laid low with a cold, and tells him, “Meg wanted me to bring some of her blancmange; she makes it very nicely.” To which Laurie replies, “’That looks too pretty to eat,’ he said, smiling with pleasure.”

I had no idea what it was. My mother mentioned that she remembered eating it as a child, usually when she was sick in bed, but there the explanation ended. 

Fast forward to the present, when I found a useful book at a yard sale (I paid a dollar for it): Foods and Home Making, by Carlotta C. Greer, who identifies herself as “Head of the Department of Home Economics, John Hay High School, Cleveland.” It’s dated 1928. In her epic (the book is 635 pages long) she described just about everything a young girl might need to know about managing a household. She begins with a prologue “To the Pupil,” wherein she references Alice Freeman Palmer (president of Wellesley College), Mary Lyon (founder of Mount Holyoke College), and Jane Addams of Hull House, whose early experiences of service in their own homes apparently prepared them for “a life of large service to the world.” Descriptions of individual tasks, like dishwashing, go on for pages. There are quizzes at the end of each chapter.

And there is a recipe for blancmange, where it is defined as a “luncheon or supper dessert.” It turns out to be a simple custard thickened with cornstarch. Mystery solved! The author says “custards are . . . among the most wholesome desserts for young persons as well as for those who are not so young.”

The ingredients are ridiculously simple. The only downside is that you have to spend a lot of time cooking it slowly in a double boiler (it would burn quickly in a regular pan) and stirring steadily. (Oh, and waiting for it to set up, or you’ll never be able to unmold it in once piece.)

Blancmange (a la Carlotta Greer)
(In case you don't speak French, "blancmange" translates as "white eat." No, that doesn't make sense to me either.)


2 cups whole milk
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
pinch of salt


Scald the milk. (If you are unfamiliar with scalding, put it in a pan over medium-high heat, watch it like a hawk, and then when little bubbles start to form around the edge and that wiggly skin forms over the middle, remove it from the heat ASAP.)

In a bowl, mix the cornstarch and the sugar until well blended. Add the hot milk to the mixture, stirring as you pour in the milk. Pour the mixture to a double boiler (over boiling water) and cook, stirring constantly until the mixture begins to thicken, then continue cooking (Ms. Greer estimates around 30 minutes). Remove from the heat and add the flavoring and salt. Stir.

Note: I have no clue how thick it’s supposed to be. I followed the instructions and got a thick liquid, but it was nowhere near set up.

I just happened to have a nice vintage mold,
from a yard sale at the house where
I bought Mrs. Greer's book--a year ago.
Rinse out cups or molds with cold water, then pour the pudding in. Set aside to cool. (This is one of the vaguest instructions I have met. How cool is cool? I waited until it was at room temperature: nope, sloshy still. I waited until the next day, actually, before I dared try to unmold it.)

Ms. Greer wraps it up thus: “It is not ready to serve until the mixture is stiff.” Notice there is no mention of refrigeration, and no clue as to how long it will take to become stiff. Try to unmold it too soon and you will get a puddle on a plate.

Hallelujah! It worked!
When stiff, turn from the mold onto a plate or plates and garnish it with sugar and cream or fruit. Or, as Louisa May Alcott would have it, “surrounded by a garland of green leaves and the scarlet flowers of Amy’s pet geranium.”

Sorry, I didn't have any blooming
geraniums handy.
Supposedly it makes five medium servings. You can add other flavoring, such as chocolate.

So now I know what blancmange is. Would I make it again? Well . . . I’m not a big pudding fan, and custard is easier to make, but this does have a pleasant texture and flavor (and little fat!). But I have now paid tribute to literary history. (And if you happen to find yourself in Concord, Massachusetts, you can visit the Alcott house and see the kitchen where no doubt many blancmanges were created. The story told there is that Louisa used her first income from writing to buy her mother a kitchen sink, which is still in place.)

And of course I have to mention the Orchard Mystery Series, because the Alcott home is known locally as Orchard House.



  1. Love these blogs and recipes. And all your books.. thank you, take care

  2. I make blancmange quite often, though I tend to call it vanilla pudding. I find it much easier than stirred custards or puddings using eggs/yolks. The recipe I use is from the Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book (the classic red plaid one everyone's mother or grandmother had) and actually tosses everything together in the pot and cooks until thick. It's an easy, good dessert, and with the chocolate variation, if you pour it into popsicle molds, you can make homemade fudgesicles.

    1. Fanny Farmer has a recipe too, but I'd never looked at it. I must say that I didn't miss the eggs or butter in this recipe--it has a lovely smooth texture. Good to know that it freezes well.

  3. Replies
    1. Just curious! (This from someone who refused to eat mushrooms until I was over 21.)

  4. We are huge fans of puddings! Yum. The original comfort food. 30 minutes to thicken? Mine only takes a few minutes. Go figure!

    1. I may have been a bit cautious, because I didn't want to end up with a puddle. The Fanny Farmer version does say "chill", but I'm not sure whether that works so well with cornstarch as a thickener. I can experiment!

    2. As long as you cook the pudding until thick on the stovetop, it's fine in the fridge. I heat mine over medium heat until it's thickened & bubbly, stirring constantly, and then cook over low heat for another 3-4 minutes. The cornstarch thickens nicely in the fridge, but it won't set up as hard as a custard or a gelatin dessert, it's still a bit wobbly when it's turned out. I have never had any issues with cornstarch puddings setting. I do find it's better with whole milk or milk to which whole fat milk powder has been added. It works with Skim or 2%, but I find it's better with the full-fat milk.

    3. I must not be afraid of my pudding! I think you can get away with the whole milk since there's no butter, nor any eggs. And the whole milk gives it such a nice creamy texture. Thanks!

  5. That's funny! Mom never made custard because Dad declared custard is for sick people. My favorite blanc mange is the one Woody Allen fought in Sleeper.

  6. My mother brought me Little Women when I was sick, too -- and no doubt made custard, for sick people!

  7. I have no doubt Jo would gulp this down as fuel for a new adventure. Laurie and Amy would appreciate the beautiful mold. Brilliant!

    1. And Laurie must have enjoyed all the female attention! Maybe I was feverish, but the book did make a strong impression on me.

  8. I love how you all are so willing to explore the "unknown" in cooking!
    Well done.

    1. I was a very picky eater as a child--I've been making up for it ever since!