A dish dating back to the Middle Ages, biancomangiare, meaning ‘white dish’, is a simple cooked dessert, essentially milk infused with spices and thickened with starch to form a kind of pudding not unlike its far better known cousin panna cotta. It is usually topped with cinnamon or ground nuts. It can be served simply in a bowl (as pictured above) or molded into decorative shapes for a more elegant presentation to end an important meal—like New Year’s Eve dinner perhaps?
- 1 liter (1 quart) whole milk
- 250g (8 oz) granulated (caster) sugar
- 100-125g (3-4 oz) cornstarch or other thickener (see Notes)
- 1 cinnamon stick (or a pinch of powdered cinnamon)
- A few scrapes of lemon or orange zest
- Ground pistachios
- Ground or shaved almonds
- Powdered cinnamon
- Grated or shredded orange or lemon peel
- Grated or melted bittersweet chocolate
Place the milk, sugar and thickener in a saucepan over very low heat. Whisk them all together until the sugar and starch have dissolved into the milk, then add the cinnamon and zest.
Continue stirring the mixture over low heat for a few minutes to give the flavorings some time to infuse. Raise the heat a bit and slowly bring the mixture just to the simmer. When it gets hot enough, the mixture will thicken. This tends to happen rather suddenly, so make sure you’re at the stove mixing to avoid the mixture forming lumps. (If not, a vigorous whisking should make things right.)
When the mixture is thick and smooth. Remove it from the heat and let it cool for just a minute or two, then pour it into serving bowls or, if you want to get fancy, into decorative molds.
Let everything cool for a good ten minutes or more, then place in the fridge to chill until your biancomangiare is quite thick and perfectly cold. (It can be made ahead up to this point.)
To serve your biancomangiare: unmold onto plates (if using a mold), and top with one or more of the toppings suggested above. Serve while still chilled.
Notes on Biancomangiare
The original recipe for biancomangiare was savory, a preparation of fowl or (on fast days) fish poached in milk or almond milk, flavored with exotic ingredients like rosewater, saffron and cinnamon. Rice or rice flour was the usual thickener. The origin of the dish is in some doubt, although many suspect an Arab influence. Given the flavor profile and the use of rice—and its strong association in Italy with Sicily—that sounds right to me. In the 17th century, the dish evolved into a dessert thickened with eggs and cream; it took on its modern form during the 19th century.
You can use almond milk in the modern recipe, as well. The amounts of sugar and thickener can be varied according to your taste. I’ve seen recipes calling for just a couple of spoonfuls of sugar—fine if you’re using almond milk, which is already sweet. Some recipes call for honey rather than sugar. You can increase the amount of thickener for a firmer texture, an especially good idea if you want to mold your biancomangiare into a fancy shape. While cornstarch is the most common thickener today, equal amounts of potato or tapioca starch would work equally well, as would gelatin or the traditional rice flour. (I’ve even seen recipes calling for wheat flour, but I have my doubts.)
Instead of cinnamon, some modern recipes call for a vanilla bean or a few drops of vanilla extract to flavor the milk. The toppings can vary, too. The toppings above are probably the most common, but you can use your imagination: the mild taste of the biancomangiare makes it a fine ‘canvas’ for your personal culinary ‘painting’.