I accidentally acquired a new mould at the weekend. I say, ‘accidental’,, but clearly I walked into a shop, ogled, lusted after and paid money for, said mould, so it didn’t exactly fall into my sticky mitts or anything. However, on Friday I had no idea I needed a new mould, and by Saturday evening I was convinced I couldn’t have lived without it. Here it is:
Isn’t it lovely?! Somewhat co-incidentally, I’d recently rediscovered this picture, of a surprise sweet entremets, from Garrett’s Encyclopedia of Practical Cookery, c.1895.
A sweet entremets came about 3/4 way through an à la Russe meal, of the kind Garrett would have had in mind. As a diner, you’d already have ploughed through hors d’oeuvres, soup, fish, a savoury entrée, a roast, a remove, some vegetables or such like and you might be be a tad jaded. Enter….a ham. ‘Not more meat!’ you cry, weeping tears of mutton fat from your buttery brow. But no, for it is ‘en surprise’…. Garrett describes it as a sponge cake, hollowed out from the bottom and filled with sweetmeats or cream, glazed with chocolate for the colour, and garlanded with candied flowers. The corks are yet more cake, (and could also be filled with cream), while the champagne bottles are real. Quite obviously, this could be called a bold and clarion challenge.
Anyway, it was obsess over that or the small fortress made of fried bread, with carrot cannons and truffle cannon balls from Soyer’s Gastronomic Regenerator, and I know my limits.
This picture was, I think it can be said, directly responsible for the mould purchase. For what came next I can only really blame myself.
The cake was a standard fatless savoy recipe, the sweetmeats lemon and cinnamon (essentially they are flavoured marzipan), and the flowers are clary sage (uncandied – it was 10pm by this point). I had a lot of fun.
Hams seem to be pretty popular for this kind of treatment. Garrett also has a swan ‘en surprise’, and this kind of fantasy fun food has a very long history. There are, of course, the mock foods born of necessity – the infamous wartime ‘mock goose’, various mock bacons, and the various vegetarian foods which are made to look like meat (why?). But there is also a lengthy tradition of making one thing look like another. From medieval manuscripts come things like fake guts – actually sweet, but look like something spilled its stomach on the table. Then there’s the cockentrice, which is somewhat different, given it doesn’t actually look like anything real, but it’s pretty cool anyway (there’s a brilliant explanation, with pictures and commentary, from the inestimable Richard Fitch here). I’ve previously done a meat mellon from Eliza Moxon. And then there is a whole range of cakes or pastes sculpted to look savoury – and ham is right up there for your base item.
I think one reason is its colour – hams are bright, striped, and have yellow and red and brown and the potential for some breadcrumb action. Another is that they were often served cold, at ball suppers and the like, so the lack of steam or cover wouldn’t give the game away too early on. And another may well be that serving a whole ham wasn’t that common – hams were used for cooking with, or in sandwiches, or as luncheons or suppers, and wouldn’t often have appeared at the kind of very expensive dinner at which these sweet fakes would have made an appearance. Basically, if you can afford to have a cook spend all afternoon making marzipan look like bacon, you can afford to serve your guests something more upmarket than ham. So, double surprise – ‘good lord! a ham, how plebeian. but – OMG – it’s CAKE!’. etc.
Incidentally, I’m not convinced the illusion really worked. In the case of the cake, diners would have been expecting a sweet course, so they would’ve guessed within seconds. In the case of the one below – well, that’s more interesting. I cooked it at an event at Kew Palace, and in dim light, a lot of people did mistake it for a lump of pig….
Here’s the final ham cake. And here’s a Georgian/early Victorian sham ham made of almond paste, just to ring the changes.