Tucked away in the back corner of the Beall-Dawson House dining room is a glass-fronted china cupboard, which we use today as a kind of “open storage” for some of our period-appropriate glass and ceramics. Included in this collection are six syllabub glasses, all more or less resembling this one:
A cut-glass syllabub or jelly glass, 4.5″ tall, maker unknown (probably English or Irish). It was donated by long-time MCHS volunteer Jane Cyphers, in memory of her mother Willie Ryan Rolfe. Our glass curator assigned the date range 1770-1820, based on the manufacturing technique and the trumpet shape (earlier versions had handles and/or a spout). It may be possible to narrow that down, but not for me; I particularly like this description of the form, from the Victoria & Albert Museum catalog: “Fundamentally they were just a cone on a small foot . . . produced from about 1700 to at least 1845. They differed in details which are often noticeable only to specialist collectors.”
What is syllabub (other than an increasingly funny word to say/type)? Syllabub, or sillabub, was a popular dessert drink from the 17th to the early 19th centuries, consisting of wine, claret or sack (sherry) topped with a frothy mixture of whipped cream, lemon juice, sack, and other spices, depending on the recipe. According to Merriam-Webster, the word was first used in 1547. By the late 18th century syllabub was typically served in these little flutes, sometimes stacked into pyramids or arranged on salvers just to make the presentation that much more fabulous.
Judging by this morning’s internet search, syllabub is having something of a foodie revival. Food historian Ivan Day (whose website and blog include many syllabub meditations, images, and recipes) notes that many of the modern recipes are versions of the “everlasting syllabub,” essentially a kind of whipped cream, as opposed to a whipped syllabub, where the froth lies on top of your sweetened alcoholic beverage of choice. The 1805 edition of Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy; Excelling any Thing of the Kind ever yet published (first published in 1747) includes recipes for “Whipt-Syllabubs,” “Everlasting Syllabubs,” and “Solid Syllabubs.” She instructs makers of the whipped variety “do not make these long before you use them,” whereas the everlasting “will keep above a week and it is better made the day before.” Her whipped syllabubs require “a quart of thick cream, half a pint of sack, the juice of two Seville oranges or lemons . . . the peel of two lemons, [and] half a pound of double-refined sugar,” as well as “sweeten[ed] red-wine or sack” to “fill your glasses as full as you chuse.”
One of the keys to a good syllabub was (and probably still is) the froth. Mrs. Glasse recommended a whisk for making the whipped, but “the best way to whip [everlasting] syllabub is to have a fine large chocolate mill, which you must keep on purpose, and a large deep bowl to mill them in. It is both quicker done, and the froth stronger.” Other options included an invented “engine,” rather like a bellows. Mr. Day has images and descriptions of your implement choices here.
Though newly-invented ice cream eventually replaced syllabub as the favorite dessert, the frothy beverage did not quite vanish entirely. The Practical Recipe Book, Compiled by Ladies of the Episcopal Missionary Society for the Benefit of Emmanuel Church, Norwich, N.Y. (1878) has a “Whipped Syllabub” with eggs in the “Custards and Creams” chapter (along with three recipes for ice cream). Montgomery County’s own Elizabeth E. Lea, author of the popular cookbook Domestic Cookery, Useful Receipts, and Hints to Young Housekeepers (first published in 1845), includes a non-alcoholic version of “Whips.”
As for the dessert habits of our own Beall family, who moved into their fancy new Rockville house around 1815, we don’t know for certain. Upton Beall’s estate inventory, taken shortly after his death in 1827, mentions only a half dozen silver dessert spoons and $20 worth of “China and glassware in cupboard.” Upton came from a well-to-do family in sophisticated Georgetown, and it is believed he did some relatively high-class entertaining at his Rockville home; it seems likely that he would have glasses on hand to serve the still-trendy dessert.
Intrigued by our little glass and its awesomely-named contents? (I really wanted to simply title this post “Syllabub!”) There are far more recipes, old and new, available online than I could link to here; try your own internet search to get started. If the vessel itself is what you like, there are examples on view in the collections of the Victoria & Albert, the Met, the MFA, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Winterthur (and probably many others).