Thursday, July 21, 2016

Dessert Drops: To Clear the Table in Sweet Style

Chocolate and Violet Drops

The English word "dessert" actually translates from the French word “desservir” which means “to clear the table.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "dessert" was in use in this sense in the English language by 1539. Historically, the word dessert referred to the final course of a meal, not necessarily a dedicated sweet course.--that would evolve over time but not until well into the 20th century.

Evolution of Dessert in England at a Glance

The Void:  
Medieval feasts contained 2-3 broad courses of a variety of dishes, both savory and sweet. However, dessert evolved from the Medieval days from an exclusive and only occasionally offered end-of-meal special event called the Void, where sweets and drinks were offered to a select few dinner guests after a sumptuous feast. Voids were special and not always offered at all meals/feasts. The meaning of the word void is similar to the meaning of desservir because the void consisted of the ritualized removal of (or voiding out of) all of the remains of the feast, even the table and chairs, presumably to make room for evening entertainments. Those specially asked to attend the void stood in the cleared dining room/hall while servants offered them a host of sweets such as comfits, wafers, dry and wet suckets, fruit pastes, marchpane, sweetened spiced wines, and other such aids to digestion and energy enhancements.

The Banquet:  
The void eventually transformed into the fabulous Tudor banquets that Queen Elizabeth and the Tudors loved. These banquets were end of feast sweet courses where several dozen to hundreds of sweet dishes were placed in special rooms, houses, or gardens and were designed to both satisfy any diner's sweet tooth but also to astonish their senses with lavish sugar subtleties, sculptures, and numerous lit torches.

The Georgian Dessert Course:  

By the time the Hanovers took over the British throne in the early 18th century (King George I began his rule in 1714), the idea of dining in the service a la francaise style was firmly entrenched among the nobility. This dining style somewhat resembles a Medieval feast because it consisted of 2-3 broad courses of multiple dishes placed on the table family-style. The food was laid out on the dining table in beautiful symmetrical patterns and diners served themselves and their seat-mates by carving at table and passing dishes to one another. Similar to the Medieval feast, savory and sweet dishes could be served within the same course, usually the second course. Notice that in the second course of this menu from 1758 that "sweetmeat tarts of all sorts" are offered in the center of the table:

Eliza Smith, The Compleat Housewife, 1758 edition

If a third course was offered, it would usually be the official dessert course.  However, the modern idea of dessert would not necessarily apply. Offerings such as pies, cakes, or any other elaborate concoctions could have been served in either the dessert course or, more commonly, would have been served in the second course as sweet entremets. The official dessert course would include fruit, flower or chocolate flavored drops/pastils/"cakes" /bonbons or  "bomboons"as they were sometimes known then, nuts, ices, creams, fritters, jellies, conserves, and/or other such sweet delights. 

Here are three separate ideas for dessert menus from 1770:

The Court and Country Confectioner (London, 1770)
This listing from a cookery book published in 1800 shows the range of common period candy-like bonbons:

Hannah Glasse, The Complete Confectioner (London, 1800)

Here are some individual recipes for foods that may have been served at the Georgian dessert course:

Frederick Nutt, The Complete Confectioner (New York edition, 1807)

The Court and Country Confectioner (London, 1770)
Hannah Glasse, The Compete Confectioner (London, 1800)

Chocolate Drops/Pastils: Modern Recipe Adaptation

  • 2 Ounces Unsweetened Chocolate (use a stone-ground product such as Taza Brand to try to mimic the grittiness of chocolate that existed until technological advances in the mid-19th century started to change the way in which chocolate was processed.)
  • 1/4 Cup Granulated Sugar
  • 3 Tablespoons Water
1.  Line a tray with parchment paper and set aside.
2.  Grate the chocolate in a food processor or use a serrated knife to scrape it into flakes. Place the chocolate in microwave safe bowl and microwave in 15-30 second intervals, stirring in between each interval. It should only take between 60-75 second for the chocolate to fully melt.
3.  Add the sugar to the chocolate and mix well. Then, add the water and mix well.
4.  Use a pastry bag to pipe the chocolate onto the parchment-lined tray in small drops measuring about 3/4" in diameter. Press the tops of the chocolate drops with your finger to flatten the a little bot.
5.  Allow them to cool until they harden (just a few minutes is all it takes). Store in an air-tight container.

Chocolate Drops

Victorian and Edwardian Service a la Russe:
Eventually, over the course of the 19th century, a new formal dining style emerged that supplanted the family-style French service where multiple dishes were arranged on the table to be passed from one diner to another. Instead, Russian service (service a la Russe) took over and became the expected type of service at all formal dinners. Russian service did away with family service and offered diners all foods for each course on individual plates served to each diner. Instead of 2-3 broad courses, now diners could expect at least seven or eight courses and sometimes more. The change did not occur quickly and both styles co-existed for quite a long time. As a matter of fact, both styles still co-exit. For example, a holiday meal at home such as Christmas dinner is usually served in the French style with all the food placed on the table at once to be passed from one diner to another. On the other hand, when attending a formal event such as a wedding or a meal at many upscale restaurants, service a la Russe, is utilized where waiters bring each course out to each diner previously plated in the kitchen.

In service a la Russe, dessert, true to the meaning of its name (to clear the table), was still the very last course. However, this dessert course really just consisted of fruit, nuts and cheese. The sweetest course of rich cakes, creams, jellies, pies, etc. was actually served second-to-last. Of course, the 20th century brought about a variety of approaches to serving dessert, depending on the intention of the host; however, it is quite common to start with an appetizer, then move onto the main dish, and then end with a sweet dessert.

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