Friday, July 27, 2012

Outstanding and Outdated: The Posset

A seventeenth century posset pot from the Victoria and Albert
Outstanding and Outdated is a series in which I take a look at historical recipes, particularly drinks, that have fallen out of favor.  Today, I want to consider the posset.

The posset has a long and rich history from medieval times up until the present.  Lady Macbeth famously drugged the possets of the grooms in Macbeth.  In 1638, John Taylor records a story of servants who, making a posset while their employers slept, heard someone coming down the stairs, whereat "one of them took the Bason with the hot Posset, and (to hide it) laid it upon the seat in the House of office, Master Gent suspecting no harme, went thither in the darke, and set himselfe in the Posset, which hee found so scalding, that hee cried out Helpe, helpe, the devil's in the Privie: thus was the Servants deceiv'd, the Good-man scar'd and scalded, and the Posset most unluckily spoyl'd and defil'd."  Clearly the last consequence is the most serious.

But what is a posset?  In practice, it is a kind of spiced hot milk with alcohol.  The first Earl of Carlisle's sack-posset, recorded in 1671, called for sack (which is a dry wine of the sherry family), cream, spices, and a great many eggs, which presumably made the drink very custardy.

Another method of thickening the posset is oatmeal, used particularly in Scotland.  Using this method, the milk is boiled with oatmeal, then strained.  I have used this method myself and found it very effective.  Breadcrumbs may also be used for this purpose.

The kind of alcohol used in a posset is really up to the user.  Wine, ale, and spirits have all been used to concoct possets.  Brandy, whiskey, sherry, or stout are all excellent options, and stout in particular creates a thick, creamy posset with a lot of body.

The posset is generally both sweetened (either with sugar or honey) and spiced with nutmeg, cinnamon, mace, or any combination thereof.

The recipe below is one that I have refined by trial and error.  It will be very foamy; the foam is called the "grace" and may be eaten with a spoon.

Sophie's Posset Cup
Serves two not particularly greedy people

1 c. milk
1 heaped tablespoon rolled oats
1/8 tsp. nutmeg
2 Tbsp. honey
1/2 c. Guiness or similar

In a small saucepan, simmer together the milk, oats and nutmeg until the oatmeal is soft and well-cooked.  Using a fine strainer, separate the liquid and solids, pressing well on the oatmeal with a spoon to extract all liquid.  Stir in honey and add Guinness.

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