How can you not love a food with such a celestial name as fairy butter? It conjures up images of little gossamer winged nymphs nibbling at golden toasted crumpets while creamy butter drips from them.
Truth isn’t always as fascinating as fantasy, however, fairy butter was probably named because of its similarity in appearance to a yellow gelatinous material found at the base of forest trees in England, Wales, etc. There are as many references in literature to that material as there are to the edible variety.
While English cookery books universally contain a receipt, it was also made in France if the insinuation in Charles King’s version is to be believed. His receipt is called, “French or Fairy Butter”. (1)
Charles Carter’s 1749 receipt was no different from that of Richard Briggs in 1788. Briggs hardly described it as eloquently as the Christ Church cookbook team, who said it should be so light as to create spaces for fairies to live, but he did include a receipt in his book, which like many others contained hard-boiled egg yolks. (2)
Take the yolks of two hard eggs, and beat them fine in a marble mortar, with a large spoonful of orange flower-water, and one of fine powder-sugar; beat it till it is a fine paste, then mix it up with as much fresh butter out of the churn, and force through a strainer full of small holes into a plate, or small dish, as an ornament for supper. (3)
Hannah Glasse’s receipt was the same except she used two teaspoonfuls “of fine sugar beat to a powder”. (4)
Susanna MacIver’s readers were told they could flavor fairy butter with either orange-flower water or rose-water, as they preferred. In Domestic Economy rose-water was used to flavor the butter. Like others, that book recommended serving it over ham and bread for breakfast or with “savoury jelly”. (5)
A receipt from Good Housekeeping from 1903 contained a great deal more sugar demonstrating Americans’ ever-growing demand for sweetened foods. A half cup of butter was beaten with a cup of sugar until white and light, then two tablespoonfuls of cream was stirred in and the mixture flavored with vanilla. (6)
Soon thereafter receipts offered the cook the choice of flavoring the fairy butter with nutmeg, vanilla, or lemon. Some versions were made with egg-whites beaten into the butter rather than yolks, and versions flavored with sherry were quite common around the turn of the century.
Receipts for fairy butter are consistently found in cookbooks from the mid-18th century through the first quarter of the 19th century, and the receipt continued to turn up sporadically into the 20th. Some recommended it be eaten with slices of cake, biscuits, Brown Betty, blanc-mange, fritters, and on puddings of various sorts including Plum Pudding. (7)
Snow Cake and Fairy Butter were meant to be served together [1880’s] and make quite an attractive presentation. The cake contains 7 oz. sugar, 6 oz. butter, 9 egg whites, 4 oz. flour, 5 oz. corn starch, lemon juice or cream of tartar, ½ cup of milk, and flavoring extract. “Warm the butter enough to soften it, rub it and the sugar together to a cream, add the white of eggs a little at a time without previous beating, then the starch and flour. When these are well mixed add the milk and juice of half a lemon or a small teaspoonful of cream of tartar, and a teaspoonful of lemon extract. Grease and flour a mold, and bake the cake about half an hour. It is best when not too deep in the mold.”
The Fairy Butter recipe that accompanied the one for Snow Cake was a simple one made from the yolks of 4 hard-boiled eggs, 1 teacup of butter, 3 heaping tablespoonfuls of powdered sugar, and 1 teaspoon of orange flower water. To the pounded egg yolks the other ingredients were added, the mixture chilled, and then rubbed through a sieve. “They are to be eaten together like bread and butter”. (8)
Recipes for a mixture called Nun’s Butter are sometimes little to no different than those for Fairy Butter, the difference, when there is one, is they contain more spice, or a quantity of wine or brandy. A few books called the recipe Hard Sauce, or Fairy Butter.
Whatever you choose to call it, I’d be hard pressed to find an easier and better-tasting period food to share with that special someone. “A Book of Verses underneath the Bough, A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread–and Thou” – Blissful Meals all, enjoy this simple taste of period splendor.
Nun’s Butter. Beat ½ cup of butter until creamy, and add slowly to it 1 cup of powdered (or granulated) sugar. Add 1 Tablespoon of vanilla, lemon, or brandy, and a sprinkling of grated nutmeg. (9)
Nun’s Butter. Take equal portions of butter and sugar; beat them well together, then add cinnamon and nutmeg to taste. (10)
Nun’s Butter. Four ounces of butter; six ounces of sugar; as much wine as the butter will take. Beat the butter and sugar together, and gradually add the wine and a little nutmeg. (11)
Fairy Butter. Cream four ounces of butter thoroughly, and add five ounces of sugar gradually, beating hard and fast until it is so light that a million fairies may nestle in its cells. Add the grated rind and juice of half a lemon, and beat three minutes more. To be served ‘piled’ as it falls from the spoon—not smoothed, for all the world, for that would seal the hiding places. (12)
NOTES: 1. King, Charles Henry. Cakes, Cake Decorations, and Dessert. 1896. Philadelphia.
2. Carter, Charles. The London and Country Cook. 1749. London.
3. The English Art of Cookery, According to the Present Practice. 1788. London.
4. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. 1780 & 1784. London.
5. A Lady. Domestic Economy, and Cookery: For Rich and Poor. 1827. London. & MacIver, Susanna. Cookery and Pastry. 1789. London.
6. Good Housekeeping. Sept. 1903.
7. Hanover Cook Book. Hanover Library Association, Pennsylvania. 1922.
8. The Chicago Herald Cooking School: A professional Cook’s Book for Household Use. 1883. Chicago.
9. Freshel, Maud Russell Lorraine Sharpe. The Golden Rule Cook Book. 1919. Boston.
10. Bouvier, Hannah Mary. The National Cook Book. 1856. Philadelphia.
11. MacKenzie, Colin. MacKenzie’s Ten Thousand Receipts. 1867. Philadelphia.
12. Christ Church. The Home Cook Book: Tried and True Recipes. 1876. Toledo.