Millet, probably best known as a primary ingredient in birdseed, is making a bit of a comeback.

It’s showing up in mixed-grain products and recipes more frequently, as well as grocery shelves. I used “pearl” millet, it seems there are several varieties, not all related. All judgements and proportions are based on “pearl” millet.

The pitfall I have run into with millet is the need to soak and/or cook for a very very long time in order to combat chalkiness. The seeds are very low in oil and the hulls are just thick enough that it takes a little more work, time, and water to get them to a point of fluffy and light.

whole millet in a bowl

While it looks like coarse cornmeal, it's tiny seeds.

The recipe calls for soaking in hot water three times, but does not suggest how long to soak. In experimentation, I found that at least a 24 hour soaking of pearl millet is needed just to get it started on the way to being pleasant, anything less was unsatisfactory.

After soaking, the next step is to beat the seeds very vigorously with the back of a spoon, in order to crack them and allow them to absorb more milk. Having beaten the millet, and not being vigorous enough for this task, I tried this with both whole millet and “millet grits,” cracked millet.

two small bowls with a coarse, dry-seeming cereal, stiff and lumpy.

I could not add enough milk to make whole millet work.

Once the millet was drained and beaten, I put milk into the pot and seethed it, added the saffron, and folded in the millet. As the milk boiled and thickened, the millet came together much like polenta.

soft, creamy, hot porridge of cracked millet, resting in a 12' cast iron pan to cool. Texture of fresh polenta.

cracked millet, cooling in the form

The contrast between whole millet, requiring “vigorous beating,” and cracked millet, an adapted selection, made all of the difference in the success of this dish.

The cracked millet soaked up twice as much water, allowing the starches the opportunity to convert when heat was applied, where the whole millet soaked up very little water, maintaining a less pleasant flavor and mouthfeel.

Cracked millet also absorbed twice as much milk, making for a thickened porridge, where the whole seeds were a less-well integrated ingredient in a sauce. The whole millet just could not get enough time seething in the milk before the milk ran out or began to burn.

The cracked millet was able to set into a lovely polenta-like dish which held well for two days and reheated well, where the whole millet was crusty, dry, and unpleasant in several hours; the mass was still absorbing liquid days later.

 

We loved the creamy tenderness and gentle texture of the porridge as part of a simple spring dinner. It is basic enough in flavoring to go well with many types of dish, and the way it set when it cooled in a pan into an easily sliced cake was convenient. It reheated very nicely the next day.

Recipe: Viander Millet

Summary: a porridge

Ingredients

  • 1 cup cracked millet “grits” or whole millet
  • 6 cups water
  • (1 tsp) salt (to taste)
  • 4 or 6 threads of saffron
  • 2 cups of milk
  • Strainer
  • cookpot with rounded bottom if you have one
  • Flame tamer if you don’t trust your stovetop
  • Spatula

Instructions

  1. Soak grits 24 hours, changing water three times Use the strainer, grits are small!
  2. If using whole millet, drain it and bash the heck out of it. A little smashing will not do. Destroy it. Smack it around til you think you are done, then do it again. It takes effort.
  3. If using cracked millet… drain it.
  4. After full soaking, begin to seethe milk in the pot, making sure that it does not scorch. (preheating it in a microwave might make sense)
  5. Add saffron to the warm milk, allow to sit for a few moments to start giving color and flavor.
  6. Fold in the drained millet, and begin to stir. Watch for lumps and splattering. It starts to absorb the milk pretty quickly but keep boiling, not just hot, but actually boiling, until the mix begins to set up. Salt it.
  7. At this point the instructions call for it to be set out in bowls, but you can also cool it in a form for later service.
  8. In order to make it ahead, but still serve it as a hot porridge, heat a cup of milk per batch, and fold in the cooled recipe, breaking it with a wooden spoon and a whisk. It won’t be easy, but it works.

Quick notes

Ratings:

-trying to get past the texture issue was a little challenging

-boiling milk is scary

-Millet can be hard to find.

+underused interesting ingredient

+only a little bit of attention needed

+just as pleasant as a make-ahead dish

+ very simple flavor profile, complements many types of food well.

I would be perfectly comfortable serving this in most settings.

Preparation time: 25 hour(s)

Cooking time: 30 minute(s)

Number of servings (yield): 8-12

 

 

The Art of Cooking

The First Modern Cookery Book

the Eminent Maestro Martino  of Como.

I followed the specific amount instructions even when they didn’t seem proportional to the rest of the ingredients I had to hand, and it bit me.

browned and bubbling, fresh from the oven.

Butter bomb

Squash*. Not Hubbard, not orange, and not dense. Think pattypan in texture. Immature loofa from a South American grocery works, zucchini would work. I had some from an Indian market.

a butternut squash and a similar sized and shaped green gourd lie parallel on a wooden cutting board to show similarities and differences between the two while whole

butternut in front for size comparison, conjectured historical squash from Indian market in back. While similar in size, the butternut weighs about twice what the other does.

There were two types available, I got both.

The bell-shaped one was spongy and soft, light and pleasant in flavor when tasted raw, and very slightly astringent.

The straight one was slimy when peeled, sticky where cut, somewhat more dense, and did not need to be cored to use. It was sweet and astringent as well, though slightly brighter in flavor. The difference was little enough that it might have been growing or transport conditions, not variety.

all ingredients needed for the recipe gathered together.

it looks so neat.

I shredded them as called for, and poached the vegetable in milk, which was an option mentioned in the recipe. The milk immediately curdled and separated, though in a pleasant manner consistent with fresh cheeses.

slender shreds of pale vegetable in milk showing how the squash caused the milk to curdle and form a natural cheese

it curdles, but not in a bad way.

It was slightly challenging to tell when the flesh was fully cooked, as it changed texture and color quickly, but didn’t really soften for about 10 minutes.

The recipe called for passing the vegetable through a stamine. I had to decide whether I was going to press it well, or try to pulverise it. I went with pressing, as I do not have the strength to force that density through cloth.

shredded, cooked squash in a strainer sitting atop a catch-basin, being squeezed dry

this is how I chose to press the vegetable

While that was going on, I folded the cheeses together, added way too much butter*, and the eggs.

I did use two whites as a sub for one whole egg, as I had two left from making the crust.

eggs, and cheeses in a bowl as sugar and cinnamon are poured in

it’s so pretty! It’s so much butter!

The cinnamon went in as part of the sugar, to prevent clumping. Clumps of cinnamon are the opposite of fun. Salt also went in; it’s not mentioned, but it almost never is.

The recipe specified either animal fat or butter. My own very strong preference when feeding people who are not me is that any dish which resembles a cheese dish ought to be completely ovo-lacto friendly if possible. The fact that this recipe called for a substitute for animal fat made me quite happy, but the amount it called for did not work with the quantities of cheeses and veg that I was working with. I’m not kidding, there’s an oil slick going on in my baking pan =/ Happily I used a baking tray, as I did anticipate this problem.

(The crust is explained below)

raw pie filling in raw pie crust, with parchment lining in an aluminum tin

I used parchment.

Though I have a period style pottery pie pan, I didn’t feel comfortable using it for this recipe. I went with a drop-bottom, straight sided tart pan. Because I don’t know for sure whether bain-maries were in  use at the time of this book*,  I sadly placed the pan directly on a baking sheet and put it in a 350* oven for 30 minutes, then dropped the temp to 300*.

I need to learn more about the history of bain maries, it would have helped a lot.

The crust I used is rather late period, as I wanted a tender “eating” crust for this pie.
It’s the one presented by Master Basilius Phocas at Pennsic XL, which he adapted from the Libro Novo (Banchetti) by Cristoforo Messisbugo. Not my recipe, so I did not include it here.

There’s a CD available of the book and his notes, but it’s in some obsolete format, and it took a while to extract the information.

I’m a fan of this pie crust, though it is quite sweet. I left out the saffron, it’s hard to talk myself into using it for an experiment.

As the crust called for two egg yolks, I saved the whites and subbed them for one of the whole eggs in the pie filling.

eggs, flour, sugar and butter sitting in a processor waiting to be blended into a crust

such a pleasant crust

a pie crust pressed in to a straight sided pan

q

Next time, I will make far less filling, and weigh the ingredients based on proportions for a quiche or other custard pie, the excess of butter is disheartening and unappetising.

The dairy variant instructions called for an extra cup of milk, but I could not use it. The batter was so wet, and so loose, that I would have had a puddle, not a pie.

In hour and 20 minutes, it puffed up and began to brown on top, but a stick test still came out gloppy.

An hour and 30 minutes, it was done. The house smelled great, rich and sweet and a little herbal.

It was very tempting looking before being cut, but after cooling, was grainy with curds, slightly astringent from the vegetable, and a bit greasy.

A higher proportion of vegetable and a creamier cheese are two changes I will work with next time.

Equipment used;

shredder for squash

one cookpot for the squash

strainer

catch basin

bowl for cheese/egg mixture

processor for pie crust

a few knives, a peeler, a bunch of spatulas, bowls for ingredients, and cutting boards.

 Recipe as I did it;*

2 lbs gourd, shredded fine
a quart of milk (to cook the gourd in)
a pound of farmers cheese (not recommended)
2 oz asiago cheese, grated fine
2 sticks of butter (really. Too much.)
6 oz sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tbsp rosewater and
1 tsp sugar overtop at the end.

Ratings;

-Somewhat scarce vegetable

+but it’s inexpensive if you do find it, has minimal waste, and travels pretty well.

-Lots of dishwashing, too many appliances

+minimal pre-cooking

-Long slow cooking time, so oven-thief

-Fickle proportions.

-I would need to do a lot of work to get it to a useful balanced dish, and I don’t like the gourd enough to do so.

+ wants rather more vegetable than custard.

If you need a dairy veggie dish, this could work out. Don’t use farmer’s cheese, it gets gloppy and gritty.

All in all, not worth fighting for in our home, though I can see the value for larger scale service. A processor shredder, a large boil-pot, and a better choice of dairy products could well make this a high-value dairy dish to be served as part of lunch or dinner service. It does take a lot of oven space. Maybe if you have convections?

 

*I identified the type of squash to use by looking at paintings of the time, and matching varietal names.

*many recipes call for varying amounts of most ingredients, and only give one measurable quantity to key from. Unfortunately, this can lead to unbalanced dishes, as the proportions for success can be a mystery.

*I think they are, but I can’t find the documentation. Do you have a thought on where I need to look?

*(things left out; I cannot cook with ginger, so it’s gone.
I do not have sesame oil, and the dish was so wet I could not find a way to add the last cup of milk)