You probably already know that people in early America were drinking alcohol. But you might be surprised to know just how much of it they were drinking. Water wasn’t sanitary to drink, so they were boozing it up big time in the thirteen colonies with ales, ciders, wines (like Madeira!) and strong rum punches. What you drank and where you drank it varied by gender and class (an elite lady, for instance, wouldn’t be swigging pints of ale in a tavern), but alcohol was flowing very freely during this time. As food writer Corin Hirsch says in Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England:
‘From the mid-1600s on, a New England rota looked like this: At breakfast, wash down some brown bread and sliced cheese with a pewter tankard of hard cider, the equivalent of two pints of beer. Work didn’t proceed far before a late-morning break (…) an occasion for a glass of beer or another of cider. Lunch necessitated more booze, as did the afternoon break, supper and evening socializing in the local ordinary (aka tavern). A birth? Drink. A wedding. Drink some more.’
You get the idea.
Now, as a writer and as a person, I am deeply interested in food and drink, so for the last few months I’ve been trying to recreate some 18th century recipes and that includes drink recipes. And one of the easiest and most fun drinks that I’ve made is syllabub.
If you’re living in the UK you might be familiar with this drink (which I’ve heard is still served occasionally at restaurants and I actually found this Nigella Lawson recipe for an Amaretto syllabub, bringing an Italian spin on this English drink), but if you’re in the USA or elsewhere chances are you probably haven’t. But it was a very popular drink in 18th century America and the best way that I can describe it is that it’s basically like an alcoholic Frappuccino. And as someone who personally doesn’t always love super creamy beverages, I am a huge fan of this particular drink and have made it at several parties now and it’s always a crowd pleaser. It also looks impressive but is easy to prepare and I wanted to share my recipe with you.
I think recipes are sort of like fairy tales in that there isn’t really an ‘original’, just many different iterations, but it’s useful to think about where your version comes from. The way I like to make syllabub is inspired by this video from brilliant re-enactor/YouTuber Jas Townsend on his YouTube Channel. Really worth a watch if you’re into history or cooking or both. They make 18th century recipes! He was following a recipe (or ‘receipt’, as it would have been called back then) from Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife, 1739. But I have also seen a short recipe for it in Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife or, Methodical Cook, 1860. As I mentioned, it was a pretty common drink/dessert.
So I took those as inspiration, but slightly modernized it to use Prosecco instead of white wine. The reason for that is that I think the bubbles bring a nice lightness to the drink (contrasting with the heavy cream) and also it’s much easier to whip by hand if you’re using something with bubbles in it (like cider or Prosecco). Also because I love Prosecco.
Ingredients (for 4 glasses of syllabub):
– 1 bottle of Prosecco (or white wine or cider)
– 2 lemons
– 1/2 cup sugar
– 2 cups heavy cream
Note on the measurements: these are very approximate and if you don’t have a measuring cup, you could always just use a mug for coffee or tea to measure things out.
How to make it:
- Fill glasses up halfway with Prosecco (or white wine or cider)
- In a separate mixing bowl, add one cup of Prosecco, the juice of both lemons, ½ cup of sugar and stir until dissolved together.
- Add the 2 cups of heavy cream to the mixing bowl and whip together until it becomes thickened like whipped cream! (NB This might take a while if you’re doing it by hand. Maybe 10-15 minutes. You could also use an electric mixer if you have one and want to save time).
- Spoon the foamy whipped cream topping into the glasses over the top of the Prosecco. It should float on top. If it sinks, you haven’t whipped it long enough.
- Add a sprinkle of nutmeg and a squirt of lemon over the top of each drink.
A great non-alcoholic version could also be made with grape juice or apple juice.
As you drink it, you can stir it up together and eat it with a spoon, more like a custard, or eat the foam and then drink the wine after – it’s entirely up to you.
I’ve heard of other ways of making this, including using egg whites, but this is my favorite way. The lemon makes everything taste bright and fresh, not too heavy, and balances out nicely with the cream. The nutmeg on top also looks cool but adds an unusual and very authentic 18th century taste to it (it was a very popular spice in the 18thcentury kitchen).
I’d serve this as a dessert drink after dinner because it’s quite sweet. Another cool thing about it is that it would be good in the winter, a bit like eggnog, or summer, like a Frappuccino. In The Compleat Housewife, 18th century writer Eliza Smith suggests it for June, but I think it would be fun for a winter holiday party too.
Let me know if you’ve had this before or if you end up making it, I’d love to see! It really is a crowd pleaser because of its striking, layered look and is super simple to prepare. You can impress people with your knowledge of historic drinks and then booze it up like it’s 1770.
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and any questions or suggestions feel free to get in touch.