What is this Junket, Anyway?

As I wrote yesterday, I'm having fun flipping through a century-old cookbook that once belonged to my great-grandma. Most of the recipes are somewhat familiar, but there was one title in the desserts section that stopped me cold: "Junket Pudding."

Since the only kind of junket I'm aware of is a "press junket,"  I was left scratching my head. The recipe itself didn't help, either:

Junket custard mix at VT Country Store, courtesy Flickr user jyllish

1 junket tablet 1 quart milk 1/2 cup sugar 1 teaspoonful vanilla

Break up the junket tablet into small pieces, and put them into a tablespoonful of water to dissolve. Put the sugar into the milk with the vanilla, and stir till it is dissolved. Warm the milk a little, but only till it is as warm as your finger, so that if you try it by touching it with the tip, you do not feel it at all as colder or warmer. Then quickly turn in the water with the tablet melted in it, stirring it only once, and pour immediately into small cups on the table. These must stand for half an hour without being moved, and then the junket will be stiff, and the cups can be put in the ice-box. In winter you must warm the cups till they are like the milk. This is very nice with a spoonful of whipped cream on each cup, and bits of preserved ginger or of jelly on it.

Okay...so what's a junket tablet? Google was quick to answer: Rennet. I have heard of that: it's an enzyme that makes milk proteins coagulate, used in many types of cheese and ice cream.

The mention of rennet has always made me squirm a bit, because I've also heard that it is made from the linings of calves' stomachs. Yet I never really wanted to find out for sure, because for a long time I was a vegetarian, and I happened to LOVE cheese and ice cream. After making the crushing discovery in college that marshmallow Peeps were NOT vegetarian (because of gelatin), I concluded that a certain amount of ignorance was indeed bliss. Life without cheese was a fate too terrible to ponder.

Well, I can stop squirming. According to this biology professor's site, since about 1990 most rennet (also called chymosin or rennin) has been made in a lab, using genetically modified bacteria. There are also vegetarian rennet products available.

As for junket tablets, I was surprised to realize that this obscure product still has at least one manufacturer in the United States: Junket Desserts, with a factory in upstate New York. Founded by a Danish chemist in the 1870s, the company is now part of food giant Redco. You can order tablets and dessert mixes on their web site—there's even a junket gift set. Now there's something I should have included on my holiday gift guide!

So, am I the only one who's never heard of junket before? Do any of you use it? I'd love to hear your comments.

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