From the Homestead Kitchen: Junket, a Terrible Name for a Delicious Dessert!

by Gennie Truelock

One of my favorite things about going through the Museum’s collection of recipe books is discovering the variety of odd-named desserts and treats that were once popular favorites but have since faded into memory. Growing up on the West Coast and in the latter half of the 20th century, I never had the pleasure of eating hermits (a type of spice cookie from New England), buckles (a cake made with fruit and streusel), or in the case of today’s historic recipe, junket. When I came across the bizarre sounding name while looking through Famous Recipes for Baker’s Chocolate and Breakfast Cocoa published in 1928, I leapt at the chance to recreate this funny-sounding treat.

Ah, junket!

What sounds like a Shakespearean insult, is actually a custard-like, rennet-based dessert with an incredibly long history. The name might have been derived from a French dish from the Middle Ages, made from a sweetened curdled cream known as jonquet. Once reserved for European nobility in the 14th and 15th century, junket eventually made its way to American dining room tables by the late 19th century. It remained a popular dessert and was eventually touted as a beneficial food for “invalids and healthy people of all ages” since it encouraged the consumption of milk, which was considered part of a healthy diet for most of the 20th century. However, junket seems to fallen out of favor by the 1960s.

Advertisement for the California Milk Producers’ Association from The Los Angeles Herald, January 11, 1921. From the California Newspapers Archive.

But what is rennet? Today, it is typically a plant-based product, but historically, rennet is the digestive enzyme found in the stomach lining of nursing calves, sheep, goats, deer, elk, and other ruminant animals. When mixed with milk or cream it coagulates, producing cheese curds and whey (the liquid that is left after curds form). In 1874, Christian D. A. Hansen, a Danish chemist and pharmacist, established the Hansen’s Technical-Chemical Laboratory in Denmark to create a stable rennet extract for the cheese-making industry. According to Hansen, he sought to make “an extract of high keeping quality, uniform strength, and free from contaminating impurities characteristic of the, often foul, liquid of uncertain coagulating power produced by soaking the stomachs in whey in the dairy.”

It was another Danish man, Johan D. Frederiksen who brought rennet extract to the United States. In 1878, Frederiksen, a former dairyman and recent immigrant opened a branch of the Hansen Laboratory in New York State, which at the time was the center of the American cheesemaking industry. In 1886, he decided to expand the business beyond cheese manufacturers and created a product for home use: Hansen’s Household Rennet Tablets. A recipe for junket was included in every box. As the popularity of the dessert soared, people began to refer to the tablets as purely “Junket tablets” and the company followed suit in 1895. Two years later, they produced a recipe booklet titled, Dainty Delicacies for Artistic Desserts, in which they stated, “We are pleased to present to the cooks and housekeepers of America the first and only collection that has ever been made of recipes for the preparation of Junket…” This would not remain true for long.

With a quick internet search I was able to have this in my kitchen within a few days of finding this recipe.

With the wide-spread popularity of junket, soon other companies began to find ways to incorporate recipes for the dessert into their promotional pamphlets. This was the case for our featured recipe from the booklet, Famous Recipes for Baker’s Chocolate and Breakfast Cocoa. Produced by Walter Baker & Co., Inc., of Dorchester, Massachusetts, the pamphlet contains a variety of ways to use baking chocolate and unsweetened cocoa powder (i.e., breakfast cocoa). But before we dive into the recipe, a little background on chocolate in the United States and the Baker company.

Cover of the 1928 Famous Recipes for Baker’s Chocolate and Breakfast Cocoa recipe pamphlet. From the Homestead Museum collection.

Walter Baker & Co., Inc.

The chocolate trade began in North America more than 250 years ago, primarily centered around major port cities, such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. In 1764, Dr. James Baker provided the financial backing for John Hannon to begin grinding and making a beverage chocolate in a grist and saw mill on the Neponset River outside Boston. Hannon, an Irish immigrant, learned chocolate making in England and brought it to the US, where it was still relatively new. After Hannon’s disappearance and presumed death when a ship he was traveling on was lost at sea in 1779, Hannon’s wife, Elizabeth, sold the company to Dr. Baker, who changed the name to Baker’s Chocolate. His grandson, Walter Baker took over the company in 1823 and it was during the course of his tenure and the ensuing ownership by Walter’s step-nephew, Henry Pierce, in 1854 that the business would be greatly expanded and Baker’s Chocolate would become a household name. The business remained in the family until 1895 when it was purchased by a group of Bostonian businessmen known as the “Forbes Syndicate” for $4.75 million. The Second Industrial Revolution radically changed chocolate production shifting it from a labor-intensive product, to one that could be entirely machine made, which radically reduced the cost and made it an affordable treat for everyone. The Syndicate implemented new technologies, such as cooling systems and air conditioning, and electric and gasoline powered delivery trucks. Baker’s advertising, marketing, and promotions expanded; new mills were built, and a new production facility was created in Montreal, Canada, in 1911. In 1927, Postum Cereal Company acquired Baker’s for approximately $11 million (for more on the history of Postum from a previous blog post, click here). Baker’s continued to survive through a variety of company changes, including Postum’s name change to General Foods in 1929, the acquisition of General Foods by the Philip Morris Companies in 1985, and the Phillip Morris merger of Kraft and General Foods in 1989. Today, Baker’s remains a division of Kraft Foods.

Chocolate Junket Recipe

Junket recipe from the 1928 Famous Recipes for Baker’s Chocolate and Breakfast Cocoa recipe pamphlet. From the Homestead Museum collection.

I was able to make the recipe pretty much as written, I didn’t look in my local grocery for the Junket tablets (I’ve never noticed them before), but I was able to order them online after a quick search. I also swapped out the brand of cocoa powder since I didn’t have the Baker’s brand on hand. Although, I used another variety of natural cocoa powder, if you only have Dutch-processed cocoa that will work too for this recipe. The difference between natural and Dutch-processed has to do with acidity levels that only become a factor when baking an item, which may be a topic for another post. The type of milk and the amount used is very important. If you are using a low fat, skim, ultra-pasteurized, or alternative milk product, the rennet will not set. For this application, I would recommend using whole milk and reducing the amount in the recipe by at least half. The rennet tablets that I used did not set an entire quart of milk and when I tried doubling the amount of rennet, I ended up with small chocolate cheese curds and whey instead of creamy pudding. Also, the temperature of the liquid should reach 110˚ F before you add the dissolved rennet, and do not stir it vigorously when it is added, stir 1-2 times and quickly pour into small serving dishes. Lastly, it should sit on the counter for a minimum of 20 minutes, undisturbed, before you move it into the refrigerator to chill for several hours.

How does it taste?

It is very creamy and tangy, which helps to cut down the sweetness of the dessert. It isn’t necessarily something that I would want to eat if I am feeling ill, but it is a quick treat to make. I added a little whipped cream on top and the addition of nuts or granola might be nice to add some texture. Just like in the past, the box of Junket tablets came with a recipe booklet for other junket flavors, but also include ice cream and cheese recipes. Since I have a few tablets remaining, I might try my hand at a homemade cheese recipe. I wonder if we have anything in the Museum’s collection on cheesemaking? If you have memories of eating junket growing up or decide to give this recipe a try, we would love to hear what you think of it. Let us know in the comments section or tag us on social media @homesteadmuseum.

2 thoughts

  1. In the late 1960s or early 1970s I discovered a wooden roll of junket tablets at the back of a kitchen cupboard. Like a roll of dimes, made from turned pine. Maybe my mom got it from her mother, Mary Workman Dugan. My mom and I made junket together at least a couple of times. Since we would have made it with 2% milk, it was very delicate, and pleasant. If we had made the junket with cocoa, we probably would have made it more often. My siblings and I still drink an unreal amount of milk, and I passed that habit on to my children. So I might just send them some junket tablets and see what they do with it!

  2. Thanks so much for sharing the memory! I really enjoyed the texture of junket, even using whole milk I found it to have a lighter mouth feel than a boxed pudding mix. I hope that you share your story and the tablets with your children. It would be great to pass this dessert on to a new generation.

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