Like most modern Americans, the term ‘aspic’ conjures images of horrific molded ham and pea gelatin creations from 60’s-era cookbooks, and even sweet jello has fallen largely out of popularity. So when I was served aspic at a feast a few years ago, and fish aspic at that, I hesitated, but was overwhelmingly pleasantly surprised when I gave it a fair shot. So when I kept coming across aspics in my recipe research a few years later, instead of skipping them, I bookmarked them for later when I was ready to work up to them. As I continued, I was extremely pleased to find what I’d decided would be my starting point: something simple and familiar to me as a former college student: Wine jellies, or as we laughingly termed them, medieval jello shots.
The concept of what I consider this basic, ‘foundation’ jelly is very simple: Prepare sweet mulled wine, add the gelling agent, let it cool, and serve.
Master chef Lancelot de Casteau wrote in Ouverture de Cuisine (1604, France):
To make jelly.
Take a pot of white wine, & chafe it very hot, then put therein three quarters of a pound of sugar, one ounce of cinnamon, one ounce of nutmeg, & one ounce of coarsely ground ginger, & put it therein to temper the hot wine, & let it sit three or four hours, then pass the wine through a strainer, at the end to have the spices removed, then have a bag of white cloth like those used to strain hippocras, then cast into the wine three spoons of cow’s milk, & have a little handful of coarsely ground almonds without peels, put them into the bag, then pass the wine through the bag two or three times, until it becomes clear, & take two ounces of good husblat [isinglass?] well washed, & put them to boil with a little wine & water, until well melted, then cast it into the wine, when it is passed, through the bag it will make the prize of the jelly: when the jelly is half cold cast it into plates, & let cool until it becomes firm. Note if it doesn’t become at all firm enough, adding more husblat will help, because it could be that the husblat isn’t as good as others.
Master chef Bartolomeo Scappi wrote an extensive passage in his Opera (1570) regarding wine jelly that details making the it from calves’ feet, how to prepare it in a variety of vessels and moulds, and even using it in a syringe to decorate other moulded jellies. I haven’t included it here because it’s a couple pages’ worth of material, but for those who own the Terence Scully book, you can find it in Book II p. 258 – 241. To prepare jelly from wether’s and calf’s feet, with which you can fill various moulds and egg shells.
We find in Nyeuwen Coock Boeck (1560, Netherlands):
2.16. To make a jelly of one quarter (liquid measure) wine
One should add two lead ginger, one lead cinnamon, a half lead nutmeg, a half lead cloves, a half lead grains of paradise, a quarter lead saffron, and some sugar, a half lead liquorice (?see glossary), 3 lead thickening, a half lead galanga. First one should cook the thickening with wine, than one must strain it. The spices one must crush and let it steep in the wine. Then one must strain it through a cloth and [add] salt to it. Then one must boil it together and let it settle (=gelatinize).
2.21. To make jelly of a quart wine
Take 4 lead thickening and steep it in wine. Then cook it in a pan and stir to prevent burning and strain it through a sieve. Then take 1 quarter lead cloves, one quarter lead nutmeg, 1 quarter lead galanga, a half lead ginger, 1½ lead cinnamon [and] an eighth lead saffron. Crush this in a mortar not a lot, and pour it in the wine. Bring it to the boil in a new earthenware pot, let it cool, and pour it several times through a wine cloth. Then take 2 lead syrup with which one colours it, and mingle it with the strained wine. Then take wine and thickener and pour it in the pot and bring it once more to the boil. Stir to prevent burning, then strain it through a cloth and pour it in the dishes.
Note: Turnsole is red cloth with which one can colour red every thing one wants.
Isinglass is a gelatin made from fish bladders and is modernly only readily available from brewing suppliers. In this form, it is mixed with citric acid, among other things, because it used as a clarifying agent, and so it is not a viable modern method to make jelly. Boiling animal hooves in my rental apartment is also not viable, so modern unflavored gelatin packets are the most practical gelatin to use for modern cooks.
I also used a ratio of 1 cup liquid per 3 packages of gelatin, which produces a soft ‘gummy’. In this trial, I learned that 0.75oz of gelatin is enough to produce a solid red wine gummy that holds its form well, but 0.75oz of gelatin makes a more runny white wine gummy — so in the future, a full 1.0 oz of gelatin will be used in the white wine to maintain its shape (and also provide an easier release from the mould).
In the medieval and Renaissance periods, moulds would have been made from pewter or wood. For food safety and practical reasons, my moulds are made of silicone and can be purchased from Amazon or Michael’s.
1 c white wine (steeped in nutmeg, ginger, galangal, and cinnamon to taste)
1 c red wine (steeped in cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and galangal to taste)
Granulated sugar (to taste)
7 .25oz unflavored gelatin packets
This recipe prepares 2 batches – one white wine batch, one red one batch. Each batch is enough to fill more than 2 trays of gummies.
Bring wine, spices, and sugar to boil, then set aside to steep for a couple of hours. When ready to use it, strain out the spices – it usually takes 2-3 passes through a cloth for the liquid to run clear.
Put the wine mixtures back in their pots, then bring to a boil again. Mix in 3 packages of gelatin into the red wine and 4 packages of gelatin into the white wine, whisking until thoroughly blended. Spoon or pour into moulds, then chill.
Briefly set the moulds in a shallow pan of warm water for 5-10 seconds to assist in releasing the gelatin. (The warm water melts the gelatin, so don’t let them sit too long in hot water!)
Myers, Daniel. 2012. Translation of “Ouverture de Cuisine” based on the transcription by Thomas Gloning et. al. http://www.medievalcookery.com/notes/ouverture.html
Muusers, C. and Gerard Vorselman. Nyeuwen Coock Boeck, (KANTL Gent 15) (1560); Een nieuw zuidnederlands kookboek uit de vijftiende eeuw. Scripta 17. (transl. of title: A new southern Dutch cook book from the fifteenth century). http://www.coquinaria.nl/kooktekst/KA15Gent02.htm
Scully, Terence. 2011. The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570).