Ginger Tablet (1845) ★★★★



Ages ago, in my 4th out of 5 years in university, I submitted an essay to be published in an online undergraduate journal. Unfortunately my essay wasn't chosen, but they told me I was the first alternate choice and they encouraged me to apply again the next year. So my 5th year rolled around and I received an email from the editor, asking if I would apply this time as well. I brushed up my work a bit and resubmitted. And they accepted it! I had to go through gruelling edits, which took months to complete - all during a move to Japan!

My essay was finally published this November. If you're interested in Scottish-Canadian foodways, please have a look! The official title is Cookbooks as Sources of Scottish-Canadian Identity, 1845 – 1934. Its all about the first two Scottish cookbooks published in Canada and how they interact with and reflect Scottish and Canadian identities at the time. Its my first published work, and to be honest, I can see that it needs still more refining. But for an undergraduate work, I'm pretty pleased.

So without further ado, here is a recipe from one of the cookbooks I analyzed in my essay. Modern Practical Cookery was an early cookbook publication in Canada, but it had already been published in Scotland nearly 40 years earlier. It was the first Scottish cookbook published in Canada. Of course I wanted to pick a recipe from this book which was distinctly Scottish.

Before I started research for my essay, I had never heard of tablet (also called butter tablet or Swiss milk tablet). Its actually a traditional Scottish sweet, similar to sucre a la creme, something I ate when I was a child in Canada. The Oxford Companion to Food includes an entry on tablet:


"...a Scottish sweet made from sugar and milk or cream boiled to the soft ball stage (116C/240F), and then stirred vigorously to make it ‘grain’ or crystallize. It is poured into trays and allowed to set before being cut into smaller pieces or ‘tablets’. The texture of this confection resembles crisp fudge. It was known in the early 18th century when purchases of ‘tablet for the bairns’ were recorded in The Household Book of Lady Grisell Baillie (1692-1733), and Mrs. McLintock (1736) gave recipes for orange, rose, cinnamon, and ginger tablets in the earliest work on cookery published in Scotland."

I tried to find this reference in Lady Grisell's book, but all I could find was an offhand reference by the editor of a 1911 edition, edited by Robert Scott-Moncrieff: "Fruits and confections are frequently bought, and occasionally 'taiblet for the bairens.'" Scott-Moncrieff's version is highly edited and transcribed, so plenty is left out. I couldn't find any record of "taiblet" in the book. I suppose we'll have to take his word for it, as I am unable to get my hands on the original source.

Unfortunately, Mrs. McLintock's Receipts for Cookery and Pastry Work seems to be a rare book, so I was unable to examine it myself. However, Food Timeline includes an interesting blurb from Sugar-Plums and Sherbet: The Prehistory of Sweets by Laura Mason:

"Recipes for tablets flavoured with orange, rose, cinnamon and ginger were published in Glasgow by Mrs. McLintock in 1736. These are simple candy recipes, made only with sugar, water and flavourings. This is her recipe: "Orange Tablets with the Grate: Grate the Oranges, take 2 lib. of sugar, and a mutchkin of water, then clarify it with the White of 2 Eggs, and set it on a slow Fire, and boil it till it be almost candyed, then put in the Grate of the Oranges, and take your white paper, rub it with fresh Butter, pour it on your Paper, and cut in little pieces." This is a candy similar to those from the previous century. The word tablet has medicinal overtones, as in the commonly accepted meaning of a small flat disc containing some drug or health-giving substance...In tablet now made in Scotland, both orange and ginger are still found amongst the flavourings, but milk has become essential to the definition."

As for the name, the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it may have come from medicinal origins, which isn't uncommon for candy. This seems especially possible considering the common flavours of ginger, cinnamon, rose, and peppermint.

So what do we know about tablet? It dates back to at least the 1730s. The candy likely had medicinal origins. Popular flavours included ginger, cinnamon, peppermint, rose, and citrus. The earliest recipes were mostly sugar and water, and the dairy component came later. The texture should be hard and grainy, rather than smooth and soft like fudge.


Original Recipe:


GINGER TABLET.

Clarify the sugar, as directed for barley sugar
(p. 308,) and boil it down, but not so high as for
barley sugar ; to know when it is candy high, dip
the end of a spoon in cold water, then in the boil-
ing sugar, and when it hangs to the spoon, ropy,
take it off the fire ; to two pounds of sugar, have
half an ounce of the whitest ginger you can get,
pounded and sifted, put it in the sugar and stir 
it, rubbing it well, and breaking all the knots 
with the back of the spoon against the side of the
pan ; when done, have the marble slab rubbed
over with butter, pour it on it, and let it stand
till quite cold, then score it into dice for orna-
ment, but not too deep, cut it into square cakes,
and lay it by in boxes.

TO MAKE BARLEY SUGAR.

Take two pounds of lump sugar, break it in
small pieces, take a clean brass pan, put in a pint
(mutchkin) of water, drop in the white of an egg,
and whisk it well, put in the sugar, put it on the
fire, and, when melted, bring it to the boil ; as
soon as it boils, draw it to one side, to make it
boil on one side of the pan ; skim it till it be
perfectly clarified, then set on the fire, and boil
it down quick ; in the mean time have a marble
slab ready, rub it over with a piece of butter ; to
know when the sugar is at a proper height, dip
the end of a spoon in cold water, then into the 
boiling sugar, and quickly into the cold water,
if the sugar has gathered round the spoon, slip it
off, and if it be hard, and crimps in your teeth, it
is enough ; take it off, and drop six or eight drops
of the essence of lemon into it, pour it on the
marble slab, and before it gets too cold, with a
pair of large scissors, cut it into long sticks, rol
them on the slab, and lay them to cool ; this do
as quickly as possible, as it will get too cold for
cutting ; when done, keep it in a box, or in some
place from the air, and it will keep a long time.



The Verdict:

Well, the Oxford English Dictionary may be on to something when it says tablet may have had medicinal origins, because this is like medicinal strength ginger. Wow! It's very strong - but delicious! I like it, but I can only eat a small bite at a time. Mr. Man loves ginger and he really loves this. It is very sweet as well, though.

One thing - I wish I had made the tablet a bit thinner, because it was quite the feat to cut through it. Its a very hard candy, although it dissolves in the mouth. It has a rough and grainy texture, very unlike the smoothness of fudge.

It takes a bit of time to make with all that boiling, but overall, simple and tasty. I may make this again with Little Y, as it strikes me as something simple enough that a kid could do a lot of the recipe.

As for clarifying the sugar with the egg white...its probably an optional step by now. I did it just for fun, but I'm not sure it accomplished much.

Note: I used unrefined brown cane sugar (or at least I think so...it looked like it anyway) to make this recipe. I think any kind works fine, since its measured by weight and boiled down. The most authentic way would be to use lump sugar  - I suppose if you have access you can buy it, or if you're really dedicated you could make your own, but its really just sugar wetted with water and formed to a cone.



Modernized Recipe:

(Adapted from Modern Practical Cookery)

1 pint water
1 egg white (optional)
2 pounds sugar
1/2 ounce ginger, powdered
butter for greasing

1. In a large pot, whisk together the water and egg white (if using). Add the sugar.
2. Cook over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved. Then bring it to a boil.
3. If you are clarifying with the egg white, as soon as it starts to boil, move the pot so that only half of it is on the burner. This will allow any scum to shift to the opposite side. Skim it off until there is nothing left to skim.
4. Simmer the candy until it reaches the correct temperature. Make sure to stir and scrape down the sides from time to time. It is ready when it reaches around 240-245F. You can test by dropping a bit onto a plate and seeing that it does not run, or when it reaches the consistency of soft putty when dropped in cold water.
5. When the candy is ready, add the ginger and mix well. Pour it onto a greased marble slab or into a greased pan. Smooth it with a spoon or spatula to the desired thickness.
6. Let the tablet cool completely. Score into dice for decoration and cut into squares.


Sources:

Baillie, Grizel, and Robert Scott-Moncrieff. The Household Book of Lady Grisell Baillie, 1692-1733. Edinburgh: Printed at the UP by T. and A. Constable for the Scottish History Society, 1911.

Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014.

Mason, Laura. Sugar-Plums and Sherbet: The Prehistory of Sweets. Devon: Prospect, 1998.

Olver, Lynne. "The Food Timeline: Tablet." The Food Timeline. Accessed 31 Jan. 2015. <http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodcandy.html#tablet>.

"Tablet (confectionery)." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Accessed 31 Jan. 2015. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tablet_(confectionery)>.

Anje graduated with a Honours Bachelors degree in History with a minor in Museum Studies. She currently lives and works in Japan's least populous prefecture as an assistant English teacher.

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