Junket. You've probably seen it at the supermarket. It's usually in a weird place on a high shelf in the baking aisle; I typically happen upon it when looking for Odense marzipan or Bird's Custard powder, which are also often in odd spots on the shelf. In its simple, of-another-era packaging, with a strange name, it seems somewhat forbidding. What the heck is junket, anyway? Well, I intended to find out, so I finally bought a package.
Opening the package, this is what you'll find. It really still doesn't offer many clues as to what the stuff is or what it does, although I do appreciate that it's appropriate "from six months to six feet". What if you're really tall though, or 5 months and 3 weeks old?
If you look at the side of the package, the ingredients reveal little: Salt, Calcium, Lactate, Corn Starch, Rennet, Tricalcium, Phosphate, Calcium Stearate (Food Grade).
Oh, and before you get grossed out about the rennet, quit it: this is man-made rennet, and is both vegetarian and gluten-free (I found out on their website).
Now...if I saw those ingredients and was asked what the product was, I would say it somehow involved cheese, because of the rennet. And I suppose I would be on the right track.
According to the company website, Junket is "for making easily digested milk foods".
The site also says, "Junket Rennet Tablets can be used to make cheese, rennet custard, ice cream, and sugar-free desserts...Not sweetened or flavored. You can add sugar and flavor to taste."
Feeling like I needed maybe just a bit more information, I started creeping around the internet.
What I discovered is that junket might refer to two things (aside from, you know, a press junket, which to the best of my knowledge has nothing to do with the food junket).
1: The dessert itself.
Junket is a milk-based dessert made with rennet. Rennet is the digestive enzyme which makes milk curdle and coagulate (good for making cheese). It is a very soft, custard-like substance.
2: The tablets.
Some people might hear "junket" and think right to the tablets, which are basically an instant path to making the dessert mentioned above; rennet is the key ingredient, along with other thickeners and stabilizers.
According to Elizabeth David, the word junket "derives from the French jonches or rushes, one of the numerous old French names for freshly made milk cheese drained in rushes or a rush basket." (Nova magazine, October 1965)
How do you make junket?
To make junket, you heat milk (with various flavorings and sweeteners depending on what flavor you'd like to make) to what is sometimes described as "lukewarm", but I prefer weird references I found online to heating the milk to "body" or "blood" temperature. Vampirrrrrres!
The reason you heat it to vampire-approved temperatures is that the enzyme is fairly sensitive, and temperature variations will de-activate it, so that the dessert won't thicken.
Junket: a noble rise and fall...and repeat
Junket isn't a new thing. Apparently, predecessors of junket were made as early as Medieval times, where a cream-and-rennet mixture, sweetened and flavored with rosewater, sugar, and spices, was an upper-class food, served to those among noble ranks.
Alas, along with the Tudor era came a taste for the next big thing, syllabub. Syllabub took over like cupcakes taking over cookies in the early 2000s. Junket was no longer a noble food, but it did trickle down to the masses--as it fell from popularity in genteel circles, it became an everyday food for commoners.
Then, in the late 1870s, junket went stateside. Christian Hansen, an owner of a lab in Denmark which made rennet extract for the cheese making industry, relocated to Herkimer County, New York; apparently, at that time, New York was the center of the US cheese industry (this is also the same era in which cream cheese became a Big Deal, btw). While the company's products expanded over the years, junket is the heart and soul of their offerings.
By the 1930s, junket had become a popular convenience food. For many, it was considered a food for the infirm: gentle on digestion for sick children's sensitive stomachs. For others, junket was an easy gateway to making homemade dessert. It's possible that perhaps the manufacturer was going for an elegant, European effect, though; as I learned from this article,
One New Yorker remembers that his first taste was in the Junket Pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair. "The women were dressed in Swiss Miss-type outfits and they were handing out samples," he said. "I was only 3 years old, but one spoonful -- it was chocolate -- and I knew I had found my favorite dessert for all time. When most people think of the '39 World's Fair they remember the trylon and perisphere. I remember Junket."
Actually, junket in its heyday kind of reminds me of Jell-O in that it straddled two worlds at once. On the one hand, it was a food for sick people; on the other, it had aspirations of being an elegant dinner-party dessert.
Junket was a strong-selling item through the 1960s, when instant pudding mixes began to take over the market. Sales began to slow...but they haven't stopped, even today.
Today, Junket mixes and Salada teas are still produced in Little Falls, New York on Hansen Island in the middle of the Mohawk River. Since 1988, Junket and Salada brands have been part of Redco Foods, Inc. You can find Little Falls just off the New York State thruway twenty minutes east of Utica, New York.
Recipe: Vanilla Rennet Custard
I found this recipe in the Junket recipes enclosed in the packaging. It seemed like a fairly easy place to start, a nice base recipe. (Printable version here)
Note: this recipe is vegetarian and gluten-free; Junket tablets' rennet is vegetarian.
- 1 cup whole milk
- 4 tablespoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 junket tablet
- 2 teaspoons cold water
Combine the milk, sugar, and vanilla in a saucepan. Heat on low until the mixture comes to lukewarm (110 degrees).
While the mixture heats, dissolve the junket tablet in the water. Add to the milk mixture once it has attained lukewarm status, and stir for just a few seconds (I did 3 or 4 seconds). Remove from heat and immediately divide between two dessert dishes.
Let the dishes stand right where they are, undisturbed, for 10 minutes. Then transfer to the refrigerator to cool completely, about 2 hours. Enjoy chilled.