Custard with ratafia

A delicious recipe from the eighteenth century

19th-century picture of a milkmaid with a dogcartVla (Pronunciation of 'vla'), a kind of custard, is very popular in the Netherlands as dessert, but it is seldom home-made. Industrial custard is made with sugar and carbohydrates, but no eggs. How different it was during the eighteenth century! Look at the recipe below and set aside any cholesterol-related fears. Just prepare it, and taste a really delicious custard. The article about Vla on wikipedia concerns itself only with the Dutch industrial version.

On this page are four recipes for 'modern' custard. And other historical custard-like recipes on this site are Zabaglione (Italian, fifteenth century) and Crème brûlée (French, seventeenth century).
On the left you see a picture of a milkmaid with her dogcart from the nineteenth century. Since not everyone had a dairy cow grazing in the back yard, the milk necessary for making custard was probably bought from the milkmaid. Already at the end of the fourteenth century the Ménagier de Paris (from the cookbook with the same title, see the recipes for mustard and hypocras) complained about fraudulent milkmaids who adulterated their milk with water.

Vlade, vla and vlaai, a short history
Limburgse vlaai, a fruit pie from the southernmost Dutch regionOriginally, from the fourteenth to sixteenth century, vlade, vlaeye and vla referred to the same thing: a thin, broad cake or pastry, often with candied fruits (see the MNW, the large online Middle-Dutch dictionary). During the eighteenth century the shortest version vla came to mean a specific dish, according to the WNT (the even larger modern Dutch dictionary) "a liquid dessert, eaten cold, prepared with milk, a thickener and various other ingredients" .  The Dutch cookbook De Volmaakte Hollandsche keukenmeid ('The perfect Dutch kitchen maid' ) from 1746 contains several recipes for vlade (with redcurrants, lemon, cherries, rosewater, and a curious baked dish with ambergris and orange), De Nieuwe, Welervarene Utrechtsche Keuken-meid (' The new, well-experienced kitchenmaid from Utrecht' ,1771) offers Akense vlade ('custard from Aachen' with cinnamon), Engelse vlade ('English custard'  with candied fruit) and vlade with almonds, and with berries. The Nieuwe Vaderlandsche Kookkunst ('New patriotic culinary art' ,1796) has three recipes with vla: with lemon, cherries and macaroons or (more probably) ratafia. That last recipe was absolutely delicious. It is remarkable that in all those recipes for vla there is only one recipe (the almondvla from the Utrechtsche Keuken-meid) that does not use eggs as a thickening agent. The modern vlaai is closest to the original medieval vlade: "een plat, rond gebak, bedekt of gevuld met compote of rijst [...] dat in den oven gebakken is" (WNT lemma Vlade I.1.b, translation: a flat, round pastry, covered or filled with compote or rice [...] which is baked in the oven). In The Netherlands there are shops that specialize in this kind of pastry, a regional specialty of Limburg, the most southern province.

19th-century sweetsSo, macaroons or ratafia?
The recipe on this page is for a custard with 'bitterkoekjes'. The Dutch language does not have separate words for cookies with sweet almonds and cookies with a percentage of bitter almonds. Even the cookies made with just sweet almonds are called 'bitter cookies'. Both kinds have a special status in the kitchen: they serve as ingredient in other dishes like the custard below, or as a garnish. The cookies are made using almonds, sugar and egg whites, sometimes rose water or orange blossom water is added. The cookies are baked in a temperate oven, they must remain light-coloured. In the United States, the Netherlands and Germany grated coconut is added to, or replaces, the almonds. These cookies are called cocos macaroons (Dutch: 'kokosmakronen').
The oldest recipes for macaroons date from the seventeenth century. These contain only sweet almonds. From the early eighteenth century onward a version with a large percentage of bitter almonds was popular in England (Alan Davidson, OCF), these were called ratafia (Italian: 'amaretti'). These were used like macaroons in dishes and as garnish. One could buy them ready-made at the confectioner's, as Mrs.  Isabella Beeton describes in her Book of Household Management from 1861 (p.851): "We have given a recipe for making these cakes [i.e. macaroons], but we think it almost or quite as economical to purchase such articles as these at a good confectioner's." Mrs Beeton continues with a recipe for ratafia, in which the ratio bitter almonds/sweet almonds is 1 to 2. One cannot help but wonder whether those cookies were healthy, given the cyanide which is present in bitter almonds (see below). In the Lexikon Lebensmittel und Ernährung from 1989 I found that 5% is the maximum amount of bitter almonds that is allowed, so 1 to 20. (By the way, ratafia is also the name of a cordial, see wikipedia).
Several recipes for macaroons also contain musk and/or ambergris. These are aromatic substances of animal origin that were used in eighteenth-century cuisine (see also this recipe). Today these substances (or synthetic verions) are still used in fragrances.

The original recipe
This recipe is from Nieuwe vaderlandsche kookunst ('New patriottic culinary art', 1796), resp. p.131 and 130. A very nice facsimile edition of this book was published in 1976 (see bibliography). The cookbook is described in greater detail in the recipe for Lamb Chops Pastry. Other recipes from this delicious cookbook: Quince Jelly and Black Salsify with Parsley Sauce.

Vla van bitterkoekjens
Neem een vierendeel pond bitterkoekjens, stamp dezelven heel fyn, zet ze alsdan met zoetemelk op het vuur, en laatze wèl ter deeg kooken: roer ‘er dan 8 eiëren, 4 met en 4 zonder wit, onder, in maniere als boven geleerd is; doe het vervolgends op een assiet.
Deeze vla wordt mede koud gebruikt.
Custard from macaroons (or ratafia)
Take a quarter pound macaroons, pound these same very finely, then put them on the fire with fresh milk, and let them cook very well. The stir in 8 eggs, 4 with and 4 without the whites, as has been described above(*), The put it in a dish.
This custard is also (=just as in previous recipes) used cold.
(From the recipe for lemon custard)
neem vervolgens 8 eiëren, 4 met en 4 zonder wit, klop dezelven fyn, en roerze onder het bovengemelde kookzel; dryf het voords door een zeef, zet het dan weder in de casserol op het vuur, en roer zo lang tot het kookt.
Then take 8 eggs, 4 with and 4 without white. Beat them, and stir them in the mixture mentioned above. Then strain it through a sieve, and put it back in the pan on the fire, until it is boiling.

Modern adaptation of the recipe
Following Mrs Beeton I decided to use macaroons from my confectioner's. Mind that you buy real almond cookies, and not the cheaper version with apricot kernels. Because the cookies already contain sugar, I have refrained from adding extra. The original recipe doesn't do that either. The custard remains a little gritty because of the cookie crumbs.
By the way, there's nothing wrong with apricot kernels as a substitution for almonds. They belong to the same plant family, and are both drupes. But I do wonder why the ordinary consumer can't buy those obviously cheaper apricot kernels instead of almonds, while industries can. The solution is: eat lots of apricots when they are in season, and save the kernels!
Dessert for 4 persons; preparation in advance  10 minutes; preparation 5 to 15 minutes.

18th-century custard with ratafiaIngredients
125 gram/4.5 oz. macaroons or ratafia
1/2 liter (1 pint) milk
3 or 4 whole eggs and 3 or 4 egg yolks
whole macaroons as garnish

Preparation in advance
Pound the cookies in a mortar, or place them in a (clean) plastic bag and roll over them with a rolling pin or glass bottle. Add the crumbs to the milk in a pan and bring to the boil. Simmer for five minutes.

Beat the eggs and yolks until they are frothy. Add a little of the hot milk to the eggs, keap beating. Add more and more hot milk, all the while stirring or whisking, until the mixture is hot. Then pour this into the pan. You can use a bain marie if you are afraid of curdling the custard. Keep stirring until the custard has thickened. Since cooking an egg takes several minutes, do not be worried if it takes a few minutes for the custard to thicken, and keep stirring. If you use an electric hand mixer, you won't need a bain marie, and the cooking time will be shorter.
The endresult will be a creamy custard. Pour into a bowl immediately, to prevent the custard from overcooking in the still hot pan.

To serve
This custard tastes quite well when still warm, but according to the cookbook it is to be eaten cold, meaning at roomtemperature or a little below that. When the custard is cooling, a skin will form on top. Some love to eat it, but most people I know abhor it. So, to prevent this skin from forming, just cover the custard with plastic foil directly on it as soon as it is out of the pan.
Do not serve this custard straight out of the refridgerator. First of all, this appliance did not exist at the time of the original recipe, and secondly: the colder you serve a sweet dish, the more sugar it will need to provide a sweet taste.

All descriptions of ingredients

Bitter almonds contain the deadly poison cyanideAlmonds, bitter - In oldfashioned detective novels, before everything was solved with computers, the hero would kneel over the body and announce that there was an almond smell. The cause of death was clear: poisoning with cyanide. And indeed, bitter almonds contain cyanide, and it is not healthy to consume unprocessed bitter almonds. But they do contain just that acerbic taste that saves good marzipan from dull sweetness. If you make marzipan that will be eaten in large quantities, like the marzipan figurines that are so popular in The Netherlands at the Saint Nicholas Feast, it is best to use almond essence. If you just cover your christmas cake with a thin layer of marzipan, it won't hurt to use a bitter almond or two in a pound of sweet almonds. Bitter almonds can be bought easily in Europe, but in the US they are a banned substance (while weapons are freely available, isn't that strange?).
Musk deer, woodcut from the Hortus Sanitatis (1490). Source: WikipediaMusk - Aromatic substance from animal origin that is now used mainly in perfumes and fragrances. The Arab cuisine made use of it in the kitchen during the Middle Ages as a spice. In Europe musk was in culinary use during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is practically impossible to buy musk, and that is a good thing. Musk is obtained by killing the musk deer, which is now almost extinct. So the industry now mainly uses synthetic musk, and the kitchen can do well without it.

The editions below are in my possession. Links refer to available editions.
All books mentioned on this site (with short reviews)

  • Isabella Beeton, Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management (2011, new edition of the 1861 text)
  • Alan Davidson, Tom Jaine, The Oxford Companion to Food 2nd Ed (Oxford, 2006)
  • Dr. Karl Herrmann, Lexikon Lebensmittel und Ernährung. Ceres Verlag-Rudolph-August Oetker KG, Bielefeld, 1989
  • Nieuwe vaderlandsche kookkunst, Bevattende een volledig en grondig onderricht, om, naar den hedendaagschen smaak, toetebereiden allerleie soorten van spyzen [...], door twee in dit vak zeer ervarene huishoudsters. Johannes Allart, Amsterdam, 1797. Facsimile edition. C. de Vries-Brouwers, Amsterdam/Antwerpen, 1976
  • De Volmaakte Hollandse Keuken-Meid. Steeve van Esveld, Amsterdam, 1746. Facsimilé of the edition of 1761 bij A.W. Sijthoff, Leiden, 1965