I was tempted to change this recipe's name for two reasons: (1) many people might not know what a blanc-manger is; and (2) those who do might not want to make it. Over the years — and the blanc-manger has been around for many years, maybe even a millennium or two — the sweet has managed to make either no name or a bad name for itself. But I do love it — maybe because I never had it in America, where it has devolved into a kind of cornstarch pudding, but learned to make it in Paris, where it is light, pretty and beloved, particularly, I'm told, by newlyweds with no kitchen experience, because it is positively foolproof.
The ancient blanc-manger (pronounced "blah-mahn-jhay") was a nut cake, and today's sweet still has the nuts, usually almonds; but the crushed bones that culinary historians believe may have once provided the thickening have been replaced by gelatin. Used with a light hand, it makes the blanc-manger seem like panna cotta's kissing cousin. In my rendition, the dessert is speckled with raspberries, but you can use an assortment of berries or tiny pieces of peeled soft, ripe peaches.
I make the blanc-manger in a plain round cake pan and do nothing but unmold it before serving. Because of its ivory color and its polka dots of fruit, you don't have to do a thing to it to make it look like a fancy sweet. However, if you want an even more polished finish, look at Playing Around for a couple of additions that will make your blanc-manger more like the cakes displayed in Parisian pâtisseries.
Makes 6 servings
1 1/2 cups cold heavy cream
3/4 cup whole milk
3/4 cup ground almonds
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/4-ounce packet unflavored gelatin
3 tablespoons cold water
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup raspberries (or assorted berries), or soft fruit cut into small pieces
Raspberry Coulis, for serving (optional)
Have an 8-x-2-inch round cake pan at hand. Fill a large bowl with ice cubes and cold water, and set out a smaller bowl that fits into this ice-water bath.
Working with a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the cream until it holds soft peaks. Refrigerate while you prepare the rest of the dessert.
Put the milk, almonds and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally to make certain the sugar dissolves.
Meanwhile, put the gelatin and cold water in a microwave-safe bowl or a small saucepan. When the gelatin is soft and spongy, about 2 minutes, heat it in the microwave oven for 15 seconds, or cook it over low heat, to dissolve it. Stir the gelatin into the almond milk and remove the saucepan from the heat.
Pour the hot milk into the smaller reserved bowl and set the bowl in the icewater bath. Stir in the vanilla and continue to stir until the mixture is cool but still liquid — you don't want the milk to jell in the bowl.
When you've cooled down the milk mixture, use a large rubber spatula to very gently fold in the cold whipped cream, followed by the berries. Spoon the blanc-manger into the pan and refrigerate until set, about 3 hours. (If it's more convenient, you can keep the blanc-manger in the refrigerator overnight; just make sure it is not near anything with a strong odor.)
To unmold the blanc-manger, dip the cake pan up to its rim in hot water for 5 seconds, wipe the pan dry and invert the blanc-manger onto a serving plate. Serve with the raspberry coulis, if desired.
SERVING: The blanc-manger, which must be served cold, can be presented plain with no accompaniments, but it is particularly attractive and extra delicious when it is served with the raspberry coulis. It can also be served with additional fresh berries or a spoonful of fruit salad. Pineapple goes well with the sweet, shimmery cake, but because fresh pineapple reacts with gelatin, put it on the side of the serving plate, if you want to use it, not in the dessert.
STORING: The blanc-manger can be kept in the refrigerator overnight. Keep it well covered in its pan and unmold it at the last minute before serving.
PLAYING AROUND: There are two little things you can do to make your blancmanger a dead ringer for a pâtisserie offering. One is to glaze the top of the cake with a thin gloss of jelly. If you want a clear gloss, use apple or quince jelly; for a pink glow, use red currant jelly. Whatever jelly you choose, bring a couple of tablespoons of the jelly to a boil with a splash of water — you can do this in a microwave oven or in a small pan over direct heat.
Using a pastry brush, spread a very thin layer of the jelly over the very cold cake (the cake must be fully set and cold before you put hot jelly on it).
Then, if the cake looks as if it may have melted a tad, just put it back in the fridge to chill a while before serving.
The second thing you can do is put the blanc-manger on a base: The traditional base is a thin disk of sponge cake — ... any white or yellow cake, homemade or store-bought, would be good; just remember that you want a round that's between 1/4 and 1/2 inch thick, not a whole layer. ... If you decide to use a base, you should build the blanc-manger in a springform pan. Put the cake or baked dough layer on the bottom, then pour in the blanc-manger mixture and chill.
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