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Foods from The Yellow Admiral

Hare Soup ~ Steak and Kidney Pudding ~ Sweetbreads and Asparagus
Syllabub ~ Warden Pie ~ Ratafia Biscuits (with recipe)

In anticipation of its imminent publication, we offer a celebration of the foods in The Yellow Admiral. Some of them—Syllabub, for instance—have already occurred frequently in the series; while others—Hare Soup, Warden Pie, and our featured recipe, Ratafia Biscuits—are making their first appearance.

Why Ratafia Biscuits? Partly because we found the name and history interesting; partly because they are delicious; and partly because, in vivid contrast to Portable Soup, they require under a pound of ingredients and take less than an hour to make. (Note: beware of being lulled into a false sense of security.)


Hare is not easy to find in this country, but it is well worth the effort. At this time of year, imported Scotch hare is available from purveyors of game and other exotica; so this is an appropriately seasonal dish. Hare soup is hearty and filling and surprisingly harmless to the arteries—despite its rich taste and almost bisque-like smoothness, there is not a trace of cream in it. [p. 81]


Of the three steak-and-kidney puddings in the Aubrey novels, this is the first that has explicitly demanded larks. We have been dreading such a moment, for larks, alas, are unobtainable in this country unless you are prepared to defy the law and shoot your own. We considered using quail, and may yet do so, though we are not sure the flavor will be quite right. But we had better confess right now that the pudding you see before you, though delicious and quite authentic, was larkless. [p. 171]


These pictures are actually from last March, when we first made Sweetbreads in Malmsey (as eaten in The Surgeon's Mate). Jane Austen and Jack Aubrey were of course contemporaries—and who that has read Emma can doubt that this recipe must be tested in the spring, so it can be paired with the first asparagus of the season? We did it as a matter of course—and now are happy to discover that Sir Joseph Blaine's taste runs parallel to our own. (The puff paste on top is pure poetic license.) [p. 13]


Syllabubs fall into three categories: Everlasting, Whipt, and From the Cow. The first is essentially a flavored whipped cream; the second much the same thing, but floated in a glass of sweetened wine. The last, and most exciting, is the result of the "clabbering" effect of squirting milk directly from a cow into a bowl of sweetened wine (or, in regional variations, sherry, cider, brandy etc.). We are delighted to report that we have been promised usufruct of a cow for this purpose; but since the cow in question is not due to calve until November, we have been forced for the moment to simulate one as shown here: by heating raw milk approximately to cow temperature and violently expressing it from a plastic bottle. The result is a surprisingly delicate and delicious dessert/drink, reminiscent of Miss Patience Muffet and her curds and whey. [p. 57]

More about Syllabub


Like Hare Soup, this is a seasonal dish: the warden is a kind of cooking pear whose documented use dates back to medieval times. It is known to have been brought to America in 1775, but we are not at all sure it still exists. The closest approximation we have found so far is the Worden Seckel, a large (by Seckel standards) firm pear with a good flavor and admirable keeping qualities (the name Warden is probably from the french Garder, to keep). In any case, with puff paste and a little cream, it makes a wonderfully rich, sweet pie. [p. 241]


 "At last, when the cloth had been drawn and the King's health
drunk in a glass of port suited to a very young head, they took
their coffee and ratafia biscuits... in the great cabin."

                             —The Yellow Admiral, p. 126

In the 18th century ratafia biscuits were closely related to macaroons. Today the subtle distinction between them has become blurred: what was then known as a ratafia would now be considered a macaroon; whereas what was then called a macaroon does not have a modern parallel. Both are light, fragile biscuits made of almonds, egg whites, and sugar—but ratafias were flavored with bitter almonds; macaroons were not.

The word itself is apparently creole, but its roots are probably latin. According to legend it began as a toast, "rata fiat" ("consider it done"), and in the late 17th century it came to mean the liqueur in which the toast was drunk, which by then was generally an apricot- or almond-flavored brandy. Subsequently it was applied to several different confections and liqueurs made from members of the rose family: cherries, peaches, apricots, and especially almonds.

The proportion of bitter almonds to sweet varied greatly from one biscuit recipe to another, and does not appear to have been influenced by the early 19th-century discovery that the former are a source of prussic acid. Today they are available only by prescription, unless you choose to crack open apricot pits and use the kernels thereof (a legitimate and historically accurate, though equally poisonous, substitute). If you are really concerned about cyanide poisoning you can accomplish much the same thing and save yourself a great deal of trouble by using pure almond extract, which is made from bitter almonds with the cyanogens miraculously removed by modern technology. We have done both and survived to tell the tale.

The traditional use of brown paper for baking ratafias seems to have evolved from edible "wafers" in the early 17th century, through "wafer paper" in the 18th, to "cartridge paper" in the 19th. (Some cooks in the early 19th century, notably Jane Austen's friend Martha Lloyd, dispensed with paper and baked their biscuits on "tin plates flour'd." We tried this, and it produced a terrible mess and a nasty taste of burnt flour.) Ordinary grocery bags, cut to fit a cookie sheet, are an excellent substitute.

         3 ounces sweet almonds, blanched and peeled, and
         1 ounce bitter almonds or apricot kernels, peeled
         4 ounces sweet almonds, blanched and peeled, and
         1 teaspoon pure almond extract

    1 cup sugar
    2 egg whites
    8 drops rose water
      ice water 

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

Line a cookie sheet with brown paper.

Pound or grind the almonds as fine as possible. Gradually add the sugar, egg whites and rose water (and the almond extract, if you are using it), beating the mixture all the while until it becomes a thick paste.

Using a teaspoon dipped in ice water, drop little mounds of the mixture on the brown paper. They will spread while baking, so place them about 2 inches apart.

Bake 20-22 minutes, or until puffy and delicately browned.

Remove the paper, biscuits and all, from the cookie sheet. Let it cool for a few seconds while you wring out a cloth in cold water. Lay the cloth out flat, and place the sheet of biscuits on top of it. After a few minutes the paper will release its hold, and you can lift the biscuits off to cool on a rack.

Repeat the process (with fresh pieces of brown paper) until you have used all the batter.

Makes 2 dozen.

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