It’s a well understood fact of folklore that woe befalls those who neglect to offer the fae folk their just desserts—hence these old-fashioned creamy puddings. Inspired by blancmange and flummery, two popular “milk jellies” of the Tudor and Elizabethan Ages, they are perfumed, colored, and adorned with flowers—most suitable offerings for the great faerie queens of English literature and folklore.
Queen Mab’s fondness for dairy is well attested to. In Entertainment at Althorpe (1603) Ben Jonson describes her as gathering with her elves “about the Cream-bowls sweet.” John Milton in “L’Allegro” (1645) writes that the “Faery Mistress Mab” favored junkets (a mixture of cream, curds, and honey). Lady Margaret Newcastle’s book of poems The Pastime, and Recreation of the Queen of Fairies in Fairy-land (1653) tells us that Queen Mab’s faeries prepared her puddings and custards.
Queen Mab’s predilection for all things sweet and creamy isn’t surprising considering the fae folks’ renowned obsession with milk. According to Robert Kirk in The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies (1691), they were notorious for stealing dairy products. Three centuries later, in his classic book The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (1911), Walter Evans-Wentz documented the ongoing Irish custom of offering milk to the faeries each night at faerie mounds, knolls, and trees. It was well understood that if you wanted your cows to give milk, the faeries must be granted their tithe. Failure to do so could even result in the cow itself being “taken.”Queen Mab is believed to be inspired by the tales of mythical Irish Queen Medb, Maeve, Maev, Mave, or Maiv, names which suggest she was originally an earth or “sovereignty” goddess who held a great deal of influence over the fertility of the land, crops, and animals—especially the dairy. Medb is said to descend from the original faerie folk of Ireland, the Tuatha Dé Danann (the people whose mother is Dana). Some scholars speculate that it is the goddess Dana who survives in myth and legend as the queen of the faeries.
Shakespeare’s famed Queen Titania from A Midsummer’s Night Dream (1596) is also believed to have roots in the ancient world and faerie folklore. Shakespeare is said to have taken the name Titania from the Roman poet Ovid (43 B.C. to A.D. 18); Titania was Ovid’s collective name for the daughters of the Titans, a godlike race who ruled the earth in the beginning. Ovid specifically equates her with the Roman Diana, a goddess of nature and woodlands whose worship was linked to holy groves and springs. During Shakespeare’s era, one of Diana’s popular epithets was Lady of the Faeries or Queen of the Faeries—and she was commonly offered bowls of milk on her holy days. Like Diana who lives in wild or wooded places, Shakespeare’s Queen Titania inhabits forest groves and waterways where the wild thyme blows, where oxlips grow and violets nod their heads. Titania sleeps in a riverbank, canopied with luscious honeysuckle interspersed with sweet-smelling ramblers and wild roses.
Diana also makes an appearance in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590). This poem blooms with flora, fauna, gardens, and images of the natural world, leading many to suggest his faerie queen is none other than “Dame Nature’’ herself. In her garden she beautifies herself with “all the weeds that bloom and blossom there …” She “bath’d with Roses red, and Violets blue, / And all the sweetest Flowers that in the Forest grew.”
Like any queen of nature, Queen Titania rules over the seasons that clearly follow her moods. In A Midsummer’s Night Dream, her quarrel with King Oberon disrupts the coming of spring and the growing crops. She tartly reminds him, “I am a spirit of no common rate. / The summer still doth tend upon my state.” Shakespeare’s lines warn us of the perils that can befall us if the queen of the faeries is not given her proper respect.
So lest we risk the fertility of the coming spring, I think an old-fashioned milk pudding is called for. And befitting the faerie queen, it is infused and adorned with the spring flowers of folklore. Nodding patches of wild violets were once considered favored faerie haunts, primroses were called faerie cups, pansies were ingredients in faerie love potions, and tulips were used as faerie cradles.
Not quite a blancmange or a flummery, this dessert is a simple and easy fusion of both. By the 17th century, both desserts were set in decorative molds and usually made with a base of milk or cream mixed with gelatin or isinglass (sea moss). Often they were flavored with rose water or other floral water, liqueurs, and wine, and traditionally spiced with nutmeg.
Blancmanges were often colored: pomegranate juice or berry juice for pink and violet, saffron or turmeric for golden yellow, and varied herbs for green. These dishes were intended to entertain and delight through a fanciful appearance; many were served as centerpieces at grand feasts and molded in the shapes of fruits, flowers, and even astrological figures.
These kinds of jellied desserts fell out of vogue by the 20th century. There was a brief resurgence in the 1950s with Jell-O, but for the most part we no longer include milk jellies in our dessert repertoire. While we would be hard-pressed to consider them a health food today, they were once regarded as deeply restorative, healing and medicinal foods used for everything from feeding the ill, treating kidney problems, and easing typhoid. I’m not promising these fae puddings will do anything like that, but I’m betting they will curry a faerie queen’s favor.
To be on the safe side, I made several versions. One I flavored with violet liqueur, one with rose water, one with blueberry syrup, and one with lemon (which I colored golden with just a wee touch of turmeric). The process of making these floral milk puddings is essentially the same, only varying with the addition of flavors, the amount of gelatin, and the choice of coloring. The result is both creamy and slightly wobbly, a cross between Jell-O and pudding and very delicious.
According to folklore, faeries love to hear the tinkling of bells, so much so that they can be conjured by a single one ringing. So go ahead, invite the fae into your kitchen—with these puddings they’ll be sure to send some magical faerie dust your way!
Molded Faerie Dessert
(scented with violet or rose)
3 cups whole milk (or half and half cream)
½ cup heavy cream
¼ cup violet liqueur or violet syrup (or 2 tablespoons of rose water)
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
A few drops of violet or red food coloring (optional)
1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons unflavored gelatin
In a medium saucepan, combine cream and 1 cup milk. Sprinkle gelatin over top. Let stand until softened, about 5 minutes.
Gently heat gelatin, milk, and cream mixture over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally until gelatin is dissolved, about 5 minutes.
Meanwhile fill a decorative mold (4-to-4½-cup or two 2-to-2½-cup molds) with ice water. Let sit to chill. Remove the gelatin and milk mixture from heat.
Pour into a large bowl and add the remaining milk, then stir in your violet syrup or Violette liqueur. Add a touch of food coloring if you wish.
Empty the ice water from your mold but do not dry it. (This makes the pudding easier to unmold later).
Pour your mixture into your mold. Refrigerate until firm, about 6 hours or overnight.
Golden Lemon Faerie Pudding
2 cups whole milk (or half and half cream)
1½ cups heavy cream
2 tablespoons grated lemon rind
1 teaspoon (approximately) of turmeric
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons unflavored gelatin
2 tablespoons of lemon juice
Dash of ground nutmeg
In a medium saucepan, combine cream and 1 cup milk.
Sprinkle gelatin over top; let stand until softened, 5 minutes. Heat milk and cream mixture over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally until gelatin is dissolved, about 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, fill a 4-to-4½-cup mold or two 2-to-2½-cup molds with ice water. Let sit to chill. Remove milk, cream, and gelatin mixture from heat and place in a large bowl.
Stir in remaining cups of milk, lemon rind and juice, and turmeric. Remove the ice water from the mold but do not dry it. Pour your mixture into your mold. Refrigerate until firm, about 6 hours or overnight.
To unmold, quickly dip mold into a hot-water bath to loosen pudding from mold.
Place a serving platter over mold and quickly invert.
Jiggle to loosen; remove mold. Sprinkle with ground nutmeg to serve.