Vermicelli pudding

It would be impossible for me to choose a favourite old recipe book, because they are all full of craziness, but I do have a soft spot for 365 Puddings, One for Every Day of the Year. I love its singular focus on a dish that we basically don't eat any more, I love that it's bound on the top edge so it flips open like a calendar, and I love that it doesn't even list a publication date, because Whitcombe & Tombs (the publisher, and I love their name too) knew that people just wanted to get down to the puddings. (Although if you really want to know the publication date, the National Library lists it as 1941, and I suppose they are as likely to know as anyone.)

One of the things I particularly like about my copy is that it includes a loose piece of paper in the back with a handwritten recipe for furniture polish, which seems a little tangential to the subject at hand, but who am I to argue? Since the person who owned this book before me thought it was relevant, I'll include it here too.

Nina's furniture polish (used by National Trust on all antique furniture too & told to her by Mr Childs). Equal quantities of: Turpentine, Raw Linseed Oil, Vinegar. Then to 1/2 pint of that mixture add 1/2 teaspoon of methylated spirit. Cleans & polishes.

All of this is kind of an aside, though, to the main event, which is the June 16th recipe for Vermicelli Pudding.

Steep 1 cupful of vermicelli for 10 minutes in sufficient boiling water to cover it, add 4oz stoned raisins, 2 tablespoons of orange marmalade, 2 beaten eggs and a little sugar with a pinch of salt. Mix thoroughly, pour into greased basin and steam 1 1/2 hours.

When I think of vermicelli, I tend to think of the mung bean starch noodles, or of the rice noodles you get in Vietnamese summer rolls, and if you're doing that too and wondering how that would be in a pudding, you're thinking of the wrong thing. You should be thinking of the Italian vermicelli, which is basically pretty similar to spaghetti. Does that make the whole pudding sound better? No. Does it make you wonder who came up with this in the first place? If not, it probably should.

Shockingly, not the only recipe in the world

What you need to know, though, is that this isn't even the only recipe for vermicelli pudding in my books. The CWA Cookery Book, Tenth Edition (which was published in 1950) includes this recipe, which it credits to the the Cottesloe-Claremont Branch, CWA.

2 oz vermicelli, 1 pint milk, 2 eggs, 2 tablespoons sugar, grated rind of 1/2 a lemon or orange, pinch of salt. Put milk, salt, and rind into a wet saucepan. Bring to the boil, stir in the broken vermicelli and simmer for 1/2 an hour, or until vermicelli is tender, then add the sugar. Cool a little and add well-beaten eggs. Pour into a greased pie-dish, set in a pan of hot water, and place in a moderate oven. Bake until custard is set, about 20 minutes.

Leaving aside the question of whether you have to cook pasta for half an hour to make it tender, this sounds like it would at least be a more successful dish, and considering that Australia had only just stopped the last of its WWII rationing in 1950, perhaps it makes sense. New Zealand didn't start rationing until 1942, so at the time that 365 Puddings was (probably) published, cooks would have been free to go nuts with the sugar and the butter and whatever else they could get their hands on. And yet we have vermicelli pudding.

Going back a little further, the Harmsworth Household Encyclopedia has most of a page on vermicelli (which it calls "a delicate and useful Italian paste", and then proceeds to call vermicelli a paste for the rest of the entry, so obviously that wasn't a typo), wedged between entries on maintaining your verge and traps for vermin. Surprisingly, about half the entry is given over to vermicelli sweets, and vermicelli pudding is the very first thing they mention. Here's their recipe:

Vermicelli pudding is steamed, and will take 1 pint of milk, the rind of a lemon, 2 oz of castor sugar, 4 oz of vermicelli, and 3 eggs. Infuse the rind of the lemon in the milk for 40 min., adding a pinch of salt, but be careful not to let the milk waste. Then strain out the lemon and return the milk to the saucepan used for the infusion. Bring it to the boil and stir in the vermicelli (cooked). Continue stirring over the fire for 4 min., then draw the pan back. Beat the eggs and sugar together, and mix them thoroughly with the milk and vermicelli. Turn into a greased basin and steam 1 1/4 hours.

Harmsworth also suggests a version with almond milk (which, because this is a book from the 20s, started with instructions for making almond milk), and "a very pretty trifle" including a layer of vermicelli set in custard with gelatine.

Vermicelli through time

As usual, I went to Trove and Papers Past to see what would turn up, and what they turned up with was a massive gob of vermicelli pudding recipes. The first Australian reference I found was in the Sydney Morning Herald on 22 May 1857, where it was included in an ad for the luncheon bill of fare for Osmond's hotel (the other dishes included curry of tripe a l'Indienne and epigram of lamb and peas). The first actual recipe was from the Launceston Weekly Examiner on 13 May 1876, and it wasn't too dissimilar to the ones we've looked at so far.

Boil two ounces of vermicelli in a pint of new milk till soft, with a little cinnamon; when cold, add a quarter of a pint of good cream five yolks of eggs, a quarter of a pound of butter, a little sugar; bake it.

The first New Zealand recipe isn't that much later, in the Otago Witness on 4 May 1888. Their recipe is also for a baked pudding rather than a steamed one.

Parboil 12oz vermicelli, drain it in a sieve, and put into a stewpan with a quart of milk, 4oz butter, sugar, the juice and grated rind of two oranges, the grated rind of one lemon, and the juice of half a one, and a little salt; cover and let it simmer slowly until the milk is nearly absorbed; turn out to cool on a dish. Then add the yolks of six eggs, and the whites beaten into a stiff froth; mix thoroughly yet lightly. Put it into a well-buttered mould, and bake for an hour and a half in a moderate oven. When done, turn it on a dish and serve with sauce.

I wanted to see how far back this madness went, so I turned to Mrs Beeton's Household Management, published in 1861. It actually has three recipes for pasta puddings. She has a baked vermicelli pudding that isn't too far off the ones from the Otago Witness and the Launceston Weekly Examiner, as well as a vermicelli and marmalade pudding that looked suspiciously familiar:

INGREDIENTS.-- 1 breakfastcupful of vermicelli, 2 tablespoonfuls of marmalade, 1/4 lb. of raisins, sugar to taste, 3 eggs, milk. Mode.-- Pour some boiling milk on the vermicelli, and let it remain covered for 10 minutes; then mix with it the marmalade, stoned raisins, sugar, and beaten eggs. Stir all well together, put the mixture into a buttered mould, boil for 1-1/2 hour, and serve with custard sauce.

So there we are. 365 Puddings knew what it was about after all, or at least it wasn't completely out of the box. Where it does differ from every other recipe I have seen, though, is the lack of milk. All the other recipes basically boil down to a baked or steamed custard inexplicably enhanced with noodles. The one in 365 Puddings, though, sounds like it will be a sad tangle of mushy noodles interspersed with gobs of scrambled eggs. I think it's fair to say it will be the least delicious of all of them.

What about that third recipe, though?

What about it, indeed? Mrs Beeton's third recipe isn't for a vermicelli pudding at all - it's actually for a sweet macaroni pudding.

Ingredients.-- 2-1/2 oz. of macaroni, 2 pints of milk, the rind of 1/2 lemon, 3 eggs, sugar and grated nutmeg to taste, 2 tablespoonfuls of brandy. Mode.-- Put the macaroni, with a pint of the milk, into a saucepan with the lemon-peel, and let it simmer gently until the macaroni is tender; then put it into a pie-dish without the peel; mix the other pint of milk with the eggs; stir these well together, adding the sugar and brandy, and pour the mixture over the macaroni. Grate a little nutmeg over the top, and bake in a moderate oven for 1/2 hour. To make this pudding look nice, a paste should be laid round the edges of the dish, and, for variety, a layer of preserve or marmalade may be placed on the macaroni: in this case omit the brandy.

Once again, there are a lot of parallels between this and a recipe from 365 Puddings, apparently intended to be served on the 2nd of May.

Cook 3 heaped tablespoons of macaroni in water with a pinch of salt for 20 minutes, strain and put in a deep pie dish. Heat 1 1/2 pints of milk and pour on to 2 duck eggs beaten with 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar, flavour with vanilla essence and pour on to macaroni. Stir well to mix and grate nutmeg on top and add a few dabs of butter. Bake in a slow oven till set.

Harmsworth's Household Encyclopedia doesn't have a matching recipe, but it does have a recipe for macaroni cheese, and a recipe for homemade pasta that doesn't look completely alien today.

Macaroni can be made at home in the following way: Mix 1lb of flour with a pinch of salt and stir into it 2 beaten eggs and enough water to make a stiff paste. Knead well, then roll on a marble slab with the palm of the hands until a long roll is formed. Reverse this and roll across diagonally, thus making a shorter one. Continue these movements until the paste is elastic and quite smooth, then divide into four and roll each piece separately with a rolling pin into a thin sheet. Leave these sheets to dry for two or three hours. Cut them into thin strips and spread these in single layers to harden. This method makes what is known as ribbon macaroni, not the tubular or pipe-like variety; but both are cooked in the same way and vary only in shape.

Speaking of "cooked in the same way", Harmsworth says that "about 1/2 an hour is the time usually required for boiling", so obviously even though the pasta recipe sounds similar, tastes have changed a little in the intervening century.

They changed even more in the century before that, though. Mrs Beeton has three recipes for what she calls "MACARONI, as usually served with the CHEESE COURSE". They are, quite by accident, listed in descending order of probable deliciousness (the third one is basically macaroni, veal gravy, and a little bit of cheese on top), so I will just include the one that sounds the most like modern macaroni cheese.

Ingredients.-- 1/2 lb. of pipe macaroni, 1/4 lb. of butter, 6 oz. of Parmesan or Cheshire cheese, pepper and salt to taste, 1 pint of milk, 2 pints of water, bread crumbs. Mode.-- Put the milk and water into a saucepan with sufficient salt to flavour it; place it on the fire, and, when it boils quickly, drop in the macaroni. Keep the water boiling until it is quite tender; drain the macaroni, and put it into a deep dish. Have ready the grated cheese, either Parmesan or Cheshire; sprinkle it amongst the macaroni and some of the butter cut into small pieces, reserving some of the cheese for the top layer. Season with a little pepper, and cover the top layer of cheese with some very fine bread crumbs. Warm, without oiling, the remainder of the butter, and pour it gently over the bread crumbs. Place the dish before a bright fire to brown the crumbs; turn it once or twice, that it may be equally coloured, and serve very hot. The top of the macaroni may be browned with a salamander, which is even better than placing it before the fire, as the process is more expeditious; but it should never be browned in the oven, as the butter would oil, and so impart a very disagreeable flavour to the dish. In boiling the macaroni, let it be perfectly tender but firm, no part beginning to melt, and the form entirely preserved. It may be boiled in plain water, with a little salt instead of using milk, but should then have a small piece of butter mixed with it. Time.-- 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 hour to boil the macaroni, 5 minutes to brown it before the fire.

Now, I might be wrong, but I do think that the instruction to let the macaroni be perfectly tender but firm isn't quite compatible with the instruction to boil it for at least an hour and a half.

We can keep going back to the 18th century, and we will keep finding macaroni recipes. Here's one from The English Art of Cookery, According to the Present Practice, published in 1788:

Take a quarter of a pound of small pipe macaroni, put it into two quarts of boiling water, with a bit of butter, and boil it till it is tender then strain it in a sieve and let it drain, grate half a pound of Parmesan cheese, put the macaroni into a stew-pan with a gill of cream, two ounces of butter, a few bread-crumbs, and half the cheese, stir it about till the cheese and butter are melted, then put the macaroni into a dish, sprinkle the rest of the cheese over it, and with a salamander or hot iron make it of a fine brown, and send it to table as hot as possible.

And another (just called "A dish of Macaroni") from 1791's The Practice of Cookery, Pastry, Pickling, Preserving, &c:

Put on a quarter of a pound of macaroni in a mutchkin of milk, stir it on the fire close till the milk is reduced, and add to it half a mutchkin of cream. When the macaroni is soft, take it off, grate a quarter of a pound of cheese, season your macaroni with a little white pepper and salt, and put a puff'd paste border ornamented with flowers &c. round the edges of your plate. Put pieces of butter in the bottom of the plate, then some spoonfuls of macaroni, then the grated cheese, then the butter. Repeat these lairs till your ingredients are all in, taking care to have a good deal of cheeese on the top with bits of butter above all. Bake it half an hour in an oven.

A mutchkin, incidentally, is an old Scottish unit of measure that is equivalent to 424 ml.

We can go back even further, to The Forme of Cury, which was published around 1390 and is one of the oldest known English cookbooks, and we will still find macaroni. Well, what actually we find is something called macrows, but you get the idea.

Take and make a thynne foyle of dowh, and kerve it on pieces, and cast hem on boilling water & seep it wele; take chese and grate it and butter cast hynethen and above as losyns and serve forth.

Obviously, 365 Puddings is part of a long and proud culinary tradition.

Vermicelli AP (after 365 Puddings)

The newspaper recipes for vermicelli pudding stopped in 1935 in New Zealand and in 1943 in Australia, so obviously both the CWA Cookery Book recipe and the one in 365 Puddings are outliers. Weirdly enough, though, sweet macaroni puddings kept being popular in Australia for a few more decades - the last recipe for macaroni pudding not prefaced with "old-fashioned" was from a 1966 issue of the Australian Women's Weekly.

You won't find a lot of modern English recipes for vermicelli puddings, but if you go looking, you will find things like Nawabi Semai, which is a custard and fried vermicelli dessert that apparently originated in the north of India.

These recipes tend to go harder on the spices and other ingredients (and much easier on the boiling) than the older recipes, but they aren't completely out of the ballpark.

Honestly, I was surprised at all of this - not just that there was more than one recipe for vermicelli pudding in the world, but that they went back so far. I tend to think of pasta in English cookery as strictly something that came along with Elizabeth David in the 50s, when she was trying to cheer the country up after over a decade of rationing, but it looks like I was about 600 years off the mark. However, I think that we can all agree that vermicelli steamed up with a few eggs and raisins will still be nasty, and that there are better options available.

I'm sure that will help.

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