In Which I Make a 17th-century Posset

Happy Christmas Eve to all who celebrate, and a Good Yule and Merry Solstice. So continuing on my current kick of making all the hot ale drinks I can find, for this week’s task, I opted to make a posset. Why a posset this week you wonder? Well, this time of year signals the return of one of my favourite treats, marzipan, and more specifically, marzipan in potato form.

marzipan potatoes

Whilst I was searching for new recipes to make, I came across this one in Robert May’s 1658 The Accomplisht Cook, or the Art and Mystery of Cookery, which is such a delightful title. Possets appear throughout the text actually. Including using a ‘sack posset with cream and sack’ to make almond cheese, which actually sounds lovely: a mix of the sack (a kind of fortified white wine), posset, with almond paste, sugar, and rose water, served with a little bit of cream and sugar. So, because of this posset-almond-cheese concoction, I figured posset would pair well with the marzipan potatoes I plan on consuming in bulk.

So what is a posset? It’s very similar to the other drinks I’ve been making, and, in fact, most closely resembles one of the versions of the Lamb’s Wool I made, minus the apples.  Cream and egg yolks are mixed and heated to form a kind of custard, spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, and then various kinds of alcohol could be added like ale, wine, or sack.

Posset pot from 1710

I have certainly been intrigued by these hot ale drinks, if for no other reason than they have their own glassware. Behold the posset pot. The Met Museum has several of these pots, and their photographs are in the public domain. The featured image on this post is a posset pot from Staffordshire, England dating to 1705, and may reference a christening of a little girl. And my personal favourite is this pot in the image to the left, also from Staffordshire England, with the delightful inscription, ‘The best is not too good for you 1710’. You can find the posset pots here.

Posset has a long history, dating back centuries, and certainly to the medieval period. In the course of my research, a few sources mentioned posset appearing in John Russell’s the Boke of Nurture in 1460. Apparently, Russell said you needed to eat it with cheese so you don’t get sick. So I tracked down his book to see precisely what he had to say about the posset:   

Milke , crayme , and cruddes , and eke the Ioncate , þey close a mannes stomak / and so dothe þe possate ; Eat hard cheese perfore ete hard chese aftir , yef ye sowpe late ,and drynk romney modoun ,  for feere of chekmate.

Which roughly means in modern English:

Milk, cream, and cruddes, and also the Ioncate, they close a man’s stomach, and so does the posset. Eat hard cheese before it and hard cheese after, if you sup late, and drink Romney Modoun, for fear of checkmate.

Ioncate is Junket, which apparently in the medieval period could mean milk set with rennet, but evolved into meaning any kind of sweet dessert type dish.[1]  Cruddes means curds, cottage cheese, or coagulated milk, quite similar to junket actually.[2] And Romney Modoun is a kind of sweet wine according to the editor, Frederick Furnivall.

Furnivall defined posset as, ‘hot milk poured on ale or sack, having sugar, grated bisket, eggs with other ingredients boiled in it, which goes to a curd’. You can find the entire book here. But there are no recipes for posset in this book, so we are going to have to go elsewhere to find a one.

For that we are going to return to Robert May.

May has a host of posset recipes, most call for sack, but you could substitute any of these with ale, if you like.  Such as this one:

              Sack Posset otherways.

Take eight eggs, whites and yolks, beat them well together, and strain them into a quart of cream, season them with nutmeg and sugar, and put to them a pint of sack, stir them all together, and put it into your bason, set it in the oven no hotter then for a custard, and let it stand two hour.

One which does explicitly call for ale, is as follows:

              To make a Posset.

Take the yolks of twenty eggs, then have a pottle of good thick sweet cream, boil it with good store of whole cinamon, and stir it continually on a good fire, then strain the eggs with a little raw cream; when the cream is well boiled and tasteth of the spice, take it off the fire, put in the eggs, and stir them well in the cream, being pretty thick, have some sack in a posset pot or deep silver bason, half a pound of double refined sugar, and some fine grated nutmeg, warm it in the bason and pour in the cream and eggs, the cinamon being taken out, pour it as high as you can hold the skillet, let it spatter in the bason to make it froth, it will make a most excellent posset, then have loaf-sugar fine beaten, and strow on it good store.

To the curd you may add some fine grated manchet, some claret or white-wine, or ale only.

All totaled there are six recipes for posset, but they are all essentially the same thing, add eggs (sometimes only yolks, sometimes with whites), nutmeg, and/or cinnamon to cream. Then you cook it, sweeten it, until its making a kind of curd, then add alcohol. One is actually completely different, in that it is a posset without milk or cream.

              To make a Sack Posset without Milk or Cream.

Take eighteen eggs, whites and all, take out the cock-treads, and beat them very well, then take a pint of sack, and a quart of ale boil’d scum it, and put into it three quarters of a pound of sugar, and half a nutmeg, let it boil a little together, then take it off the fire stirring the eggs still, put into them two or three ladlefuls of drink, then mingle all together, set it on the fire, and keep it stirring till you find it thick, and serve it up.

You can find all the recipes for posset, and the entire cookbook, here.

The finished posset

I’m opting to make one with cream because it seems to be the most popular, so I am going to attempt to make the second recipe from May.

As per usual, I am only making one pint of this, so I will be dividing the recipe accordingly. My steps are as follows

  1. Egg yolks. But how many? Well, this recipe calls for 20 egg yolks, but it doesn’t tell us how much ale to add. Based on my previous recipes, I would aim for two yolks per pint. So mix two egg yolks and set aside.
  2. On your stovetop, heat up the cream to boiling. How much cream? A pottle is an old measurement for what amounts to half a gallon. So 20 eggs for a half gallon, which is 2273 ml, and oh dear we are doing maths again. Divide that by ten (for the two eggs) and we have 227 ml, per pint. Add cinnamon stick, or you can do what I did, and just use a sprinkling of ground cinnamon powder.
  3. Strain eggs with a little cream.
  4. When the cream is well boiled and thick, remove from heat and add the eggs.
  5. In another pot, a posset pot if you happen to be lucky enough to have one, could use a tea kettle in a pinch or simply another pot, warm your ale with some sugar, this is to taste and depends on what beer you are using. Add some nutmeg.
  6. Once the above is heated, add the cream and egg mixture after removing the cinnamon stick, if you used one.
  7. Pour high to make sure it splashes around to get it nice and frothy.
  8. Add some sugar on top.
  9. Drink!

Thoughts: In a word, this was rich. Very, very rich. I can see how it evolved into meaning a dessert because this was a dessert in a glass. Similar to the egg and cream version of the lambswool, but without the apples. I could taste much more of the beer here which was really nice. So it was still quite malty, and I got a kick of the spicy hop flavours, which went well with the nutmeg and cinnamon. Of course, this will depend on your beer of choice. Overall, it was incredibly creamy and thick, not something I could drink a lot of. But it did pair exceptionally well with the marzipan potatoes. So.