As a kid I remember people talking about junket more than eating it.
It evoked strong feelings in my parents’ generation – people who were fed it as children. Seems you loved it or hated it. My mother came down firmly on the ‘hate it’ side, and never served it. I guess other families still ate it. I can certainly remember the packets on supermarket shelves next to the jelly.
Junket’s a lighty set, milk-based dessert. The setting agent is rennet, which curdles the milk, making junket Miss Muffet’s original ‘curds and whey’. Rennet comes from an enzyme in calves’ stomaches. Yes.
My mother’s dislike of things rich and milky was the most likely reason we never had junket, but I’m sure the idea of calf-stomach dessert wouldn’t have made it any more attractive. And yes, I know rennet is a key ingredient in most cheesemaking, but cheese can do anything it wants in my book, and nothing will ruin it for me. And you can get vegetarian rennet these days, can’t you?
Early 20th century junket recipes in Australian newspapers mention rennet tablets and powder being available from chemists. It seems even back then junket was quite doable, and I can see why it would have been a popular dessert option. All you really needed was fresh milk and some sugar, and hey presto, you had dessert, set fast and at room temperature.
Junket was also promoted as the perfect food for fussy children and invalids. I’m not at all convinced about this obsession with dubious textures for children and the ill. More about that another time.
Before the flavoured junkets available in the 1950s it seems you flavoured your plain junket with things like fruit, jam, almond, coffee or nutmeg. Recipes for ‘Devonshire junket’ included nutmeg or cinnamon, a splash of brandy and clotted cream – that certainly takes it beyond the quick and plain dessert.
I found plain junket tablets in the desserts section of my local supermarket, so I thought I’d have a go. The lurid flavoured stuff doesn’t seem to be available any more.
The tablets are packed in foil like aspirins. You heat the milk to ‘blood temperature’ (37 degrees centigrade), adding sugar and any flavouring you want – I used vanilla. Then you add the dissolved rennet tablet, and quickly pour into serving bowls to set.
The set was pretty soft. I used reduced fat milk, which may have contributed.
Look, I need to declare my biases here. I inherited my mother’s distaste for milky, creamy things. I’m also not a big fan of the slippery, smooth texture that you get in desserts like panna cottas and creme caramels. But given all that it, it wasn’t bad. The lower fat milk meant it wasn’t rich, and I served it with some rasperry sauce I’d made which gave it some oomph. Those in the house with greater tolerance for the milky and slippery declared my junket a success.
Given that I associate junket with very homely, older style cookery, it was suprisingly delicate. I could actually imagine it as a really fragrant, sophisticated dish using , say, a teensy bit of rosewater and with pistachios sprinkled on top.
It loses its sophistiation pretty quickly, though. Once you get a spoon into it, the curds break up very quickly and you’re left with something closer in texture to lumpy milk. Or something you might associate with a baby. I can see why you set it in individual serving bowls.
With access to firmer and more reliable setting agents and good refrigeration, it’s probably not terribly surprising that junket has all but disappeared. Then again, maybe the thought of the calves had something to do with it.