After wading through the bookcase I finally settled on two books in particular for inspiration, Anthony Bourdain's "Les Halles Cookbook" and a new release by Australia's Damien Pignolet, "French."
Eventually I opted for the local choice and in particular a dish that I've never made before but always held an interest.
The dish in question is "Blancmanger" or "Milk Jelly" - it's the food that seems to be associated with English boarding schools but according to Damien its an "ancient recipe from the French region of Provence consisting of sweetened almond milk bound with gelatine and lightened with softly whipped cream". Now, I ask you, who could resist that description?
Doing some more research I've discovered that it does have quite an interesting if not confused, history - Larousse claims it's a dish from the Languedoc region; it has Italian connections with the area of Valle D'Aosta as a kind of regional panna cotta; Wikipedia believes it was introduced by the Arabs into Spain and Sicily, the medieval version was a savoury dish, and finally, Escoffier pronounced it to be "one of the best sweets served."
So, for this exercise I will trust Damien on Blancmangers history and now it's time to move onto the best part, the dish!
450ml cream (35% fat - don't use thickened or double)
150ml white water
7.5g leaf gelatine (see note)
250g blanched almonds
Lightly whip the cream until it forms soft peaks - refrigerate until needed.
In a small pan, dissolve sugar in 150ml water without boiling. Soak gelatine in a small bowl of cold water until it softens. Remove the leaves, squeeze gently, then add to hot sugar syrup, stir and the gelatine will dissolve immediately
Using a blender/food processor, purée almonds with milk and water until mixture is slightly granular but smooth. Wet a length of muslin and squeeze, removing any excess water. Lay the cloth over a strainer and pour the almond mix onto it. Gather the ends of the cloth to form a bag and begin to squeeze to release the almond milk. You want to get 250ml of liquid, if you find there is less, then top it up with plain milk.
In a large bowl add iced water. Stir the sugar syrup into the almond milk and place this over the iced water. This speeds up the setting process. Stir the almond milk mixture until it begins to thicken.
Remove the cream from the fridge and beat it a little more to form soft peaks that hold their shape. Beat a quarter of the cream into the almond milk mixture and then using a large metal spoon, fold this into the remaining cream.
Pour the mixture into 6 individual moulds, each approximately 180ml capacity, tap down and seal well with cling wrap. Chill for at least 4 hours before unmoulding.
I've served the Blancmanger with Raspberries. The Raspberries have been splashed with Raspberry Vodka and sprinkled with icing sugar and left to macerate. The sauce that is drizzled over the blangmanger is simply a combination of released juices and vodka.
For the wine match, I've gone for a simple choice - Billecart-Salmon Rosé - it's soft, with good bead and a pleasant subtle nose, plus the tinge of pink adds to the playfullness of the dish. If I wanted to indulge my Italian roots, a small glass of chilled Amaretto would also compliment this dish quite nicely.
Taste wise - the blancmanger is incredibly light and soft, the closest description is that it's like eating clouds (not that we've eaten them but you get the picture). There's a subtle taste of almond that permeates the dish, and it doesn't feel heavy at all. It certainly bought a smile to the face of the taster.
*A note on leaf gelatine:
The amount of gelatine required is dependent on its grade.
If you are using "titanium" gelatine than the rule is that 1 sheet will be able to set 250ml of liquid.
If you use a lower level of gelatine, it might be labelled "gold" then 3 sheets will be needed to set 250ml of liquid.
For this recipe, I would recommend using 4 leaves of "titanium" gelatine.
A similar problem exists with using powdered gelatine as it's available by weight or in sachets. Following the guidelines, 2 teaspoons will set 250ml of liquid so for this recipe use 8 teaspoons.
If you wanted something a little different you could use Agar-Agar - it's also available in two forms, in strands or powdered.
The general rule is that 10g of strands = 7g of powder and will set one litre of liquid, which would provide more than enough setting power for this dessert.