Reader’s Digest(ibles): Mr. Bingley’s White Soup

RD white soup

For the next installment of Reader’s Digest(ibles), I’m going with white soup. Originating in 17th Century France, white soup (a variation of it, at least) became a popular food to serve at balls in Jane Austen’s time. The dish is referenced in Pride and Prejudice by Mr. Bingley, as he plans the Netherfield Ball.

“By the bye, Charles, are you really serious in meditating a dance at Netherfield?—I would advise you, before you determine on it, to consult the wishes of the present party; I am much mistaken if there are not some among us to whom a ball would be rather a punishment than a pleasure.”

“If you mean Darcy,” cried her brother, “he may go to bed, if he chuses, before it begins—but as for the ball, it is quite a settled thing; and as soon as Nicholls has made white soup enough I shall send round my cards.”

When I first read the book in high school I had no idea what “white soup” could be, and given the context I initially speculated that it might be some weird term for envelope paste or something necessary for the invitations. But eventually I learned that it was an actual soup, and when considering what to make next for this series it immediately presented itself as an option. As implied by its name it’s a creamy soup, generally based on a meat stock, thickened with bread, and it includes almonds.

I found this recipe at AustenOnly.com, where it was reprinted from Jane Grigson’s Food With the Famous. Grigson, in turn, had adapted the recipe from an 1845 recipe by Eliza Acton. Whew!

* Note: There are not a lot of pictures of the process because all of the ingredients are beige and therefore not particularly appetizing in appearance. Just assume it all looks like cream-colored paint.

White Soup

2 ½ pints of veal or light beef stock

2 oz blanched almonds

10 oz white bread, weighed without crusts

1 egg yolk

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup sour cream or milk

Salt, pepper, lemon juice, cayenne pepper to taste

2 oz toasted or fried almonds to garnish.

1. To make the soup, put the almonds and bread into a food processor, and process until fine.

RD white soup crumbs

2. Add some of the stock and either stir or puree to a smooth paste.

RD white soup stock

RD white soup paste

3. Using a sieve, strain the puree into the remaining stock, pushing through as much as you can with a spoon (if it’s too stiff to strain, add more stock).

4. Beat the egg yolk with the dairy ingredients and add to the soup. If possible, leave for an hour or two; this will improve and mellow the flavour. (you can refrigerate at this point for longer storage)

5. Reheat, keeping the soup well below boiling point so as not to curdle the egg. Add salt, pepper, lemon juice, and cayenne pepper to taste.

5. Serve garnished with fried almonds.

I actually reduced the above recipe by half, because let’s face it, I don’t foresee a need for large quantities of white soup (particularly as I am not hosting a ball anytime soon). It turned out surprisingly well. Really, it did! I know the combination of ingredients doesn’t immediately inspire confidence, but it has a similar flavor profile to beef stroganoff. The cayenne is a nice addition, and the lemon punches up the flavor a bit. I would absolutely serve this in small bowls as an appetizer at a dinner party, and it’s so rich and yet light that I can see how it would make a nice dish to show off at a ball.

So, the white soup is a success! Of course, even a half-recipe is too much for one person to eat (my husband isn’t really a fan), so I ended up sprinkling in some flour, pouring it over blanched cauliflower with some slices of cheese, and baking it in the oven for a nice vegetable casserole. It was actually pretty good!

Notes:

1. I fried some sliced almonds (because that’s what I had) with a pat of butter in a small skillet until browned. If you do this, watch them carefully and do not leave them alone! Otherwise you’ll end up with burned almonds (see below), which are not tasty. Next time I think I’d leave off the butter and just toast them.

RD white soup almonds

2. On a related note, I find that sliced almonds (the thin, flat kind) are easiest to process into a powder. Whole or slivered almonds don’t break up as easily.

3. Instead of veal stock or “light beef stock” (whatever that is), I used a half-and-half mixture of chicken and beef stock. I think it was a reasonable substitute, as it was lighter in flavor than regular beef stock but still had a meaty taste.

4. Straining the breadcrumb paste is important for texture– don’t be afraid to add more stock (I used more than half of mine) to make it into a loose enough paste to strain through a sieve. It’s a pain, but not that difficult in the end.

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