Not to be an old fusspot but Posset today is not what it used to be. In fact, it is literally true that someone from the 15th century would not be able to recognise, in today’s creamy-set-fool/syllabub type dessert, the three-level primarily drink concoction of froth above a sweet gruel floating above a liquid – which could be alcoholic or citrusy.
A basic posset was made from milk possibly curdled with alcohol or citrus and often spiced. No recipe was standard, so a lot of intuitive or preferential knowledge went into the drink’s creation, says Khristian S. Smith of the Folger Shakespeare Library. Some recipes expected it to curdle, others did not. Some required sack or other fortified wines; others used ale. “Posset ale,” the ale left behind after removing the curds from a posset, was even seen as a common starter for many recipes from the period.
The alcoholic version of the drink was properly called Sack Posset, the ‘sack’ referring to any fortified wine such as Port, Maderia, or Sherry and sometimes, even brandy. The rich perfumed their posset with musk and ambergris. Poorer people made possets with ale and thickened them with bread. A bread thickened posset of this kind survived into the 1950s in the English Lake District and was called ‘fig sue’, says Historic Food.
Everyone, in the 14th and 15th century, would have drunk lots of posset, and references can be found to different variations even in the earliest collections of recipes such as Mary Baumfylde’s Medicinal and Cookery Recipes (c.1626), or the 1669 The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened. One of his recipes, a ‘modern’ development, called for, ‘the addition of “eighteen yolks of Eggs, and eight of the whites,” along with “three grains of Ambergreece and one grain of Musk.”
Back then, when it was a popular after-dinner libation and sleep aid, posset was believed to be beneficial for head colds, indigestion, a cure for the plague, a hangover preventative, a digestif, a delicacy, and, perhaps more importantly for Shakespeare, a sleeping pill.
Khristian S. Smith tells us that,
“Perhaps Shakespeare’s most famous possets are those drugged by Lady Macbeth for Duncan’s “surfeited grooms”. This specific moment in Macbeth parallels the elder Hamlet’s posseted blood in surprising ways. Both evoke a commonplace delicacy that often involves sleep; the latter is even given during sleep, while the former induces it. Both subsume the language of housewifery; Claudius’s posset is domestic in its milky effects, while Lady Macbeth’s offering of the possets to Duncan’s guards is consistent with her role as hostess. Moreover, Shakespeare’s possets specifically sit at an odd intersection between poison and panacea. They are surprisingly demonic—Claudius acts “with witchcraft of his wits,” (1.5.50) and Lady Macbeth’s soporifics blur the distinction between life and death (2.2.7-10).”
Posset was also thought to be an aphrodisiac. The posset pot was passed around after a couple’s wedding ceremony, or, alternatively, some couples received a pot of posset on their wedding night to drink in private. The only surviving modern relic of this custom is the whisky and cream flavoured ‘bridal cog’ still served at Orkney weddings.
The pot was of a particular design that allowed the liquid to be consumed separately from the floating ‘curds’. The sommelier, Jim Newcomb, notes that ‘A properly made posset was said to have “three different layers. The uppermost, known as ‘the grace’ was a snowy foam or aereated crust. In the middle was a smooth spicy custard and at the bottom a pungent alcoholic liquid. The grace and the custard were enthusiastically consumed as ‘spoonmeat’ and the sack-rich liquid below drunk through the ‘pipe’ or spout of the posset pot.” Thus, the spout was for drinking from and not for pouring from. A recent Christie’s auction realised 1,200GBP for the sale of a late 17th century blue Delft Posset Pot.
In the 16th century the drink evolved into a cream, sugar, and citrus-based confection, which is still consumed today as a cold set dessert similar to the less rich syllabub. The Guardian says that, ‘By the mid-18th century, the mixture tended to be thickened with ground almonds, crushed biscuits or egg yolks instead. (However) having gone into a decline, losing ground to relatives such as the syllabub, the eggnog, and the trifle, the posset has made somewhat of a revival on menus in recent years.’ Recently, it’s been revamped by English chefs. It’s a chilled dessert that has a velvety texture similar to a mousse or pudding. Typically, it’s made from three simple ingredients, sugar, cream, and an acidic fruit such as lemons, but really, there are lots of different versions as you can see from these images.
But, I bring you what I think is the very best of the posset recipe available today: Champagne and Raspberry Posset from BBC Good Food. I vouch for this since I have made it lots and without fail, it works, looks good, and is delicious.