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What wonders the whisk hath wrought—or why my arm hurts

November 8, 2009

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The blur of motion that whisking brings to mind is certainly what the origin of our English word emphasizes. Whisk comes from 14th-century Scottish and Scandinavian words denoting the rapid, sweeping movement with which we animate the little tool. This is vivid enough: I see the blur, hear the light metallic tsk-tsk-tsk.

The French word is vivid in another way. Fouet comes from the Old French fou, meaning beech tree. I appreciate how this brings us to the root of things.

Our only vestige of a twig-like whisk now may be the bamboo ones used to beat matcha into a froth, but the etymology of the French word conjures for me a medieval kitchen scene: a housewife brandishes a bundle of twigs just plucked from the courtyard, and swears by many saints that she will tame that gravy if it’s the last thing she does.

I’ve recently been given reason to renew my reverence for whisks, whatever their origin. Compared to your average modern kitchen, mine may seem slightly medieval. Let me be clear: I have no electric mixer. This is an interesting situation to find oneself in when setting out to make a trifle from scratch.P1020889

Beating two batches of springy genoise sponge cake by hand (the second was required after the first collapsed into a miserable eggy pancake in the oven—eight straight minutes of batter-beating notwithstanding), and then a batch of whipped cream for the trifle’s snowy crest, taught me respect.

I marvel at the way whisks whip egg whites into frothy meringues. Are they not miraculous, with their minuscule honeycombs of air, their peaks that turn satin shiny, as air and protein molecules find a precarious but exquisite state of grace? Or cream, which makes such beautiful mounds, heavier and more voluptuous. How can I not be in awe?

In making my trifle, I followed in the footsteps of the Victorian as much as the medieval housewife. 18th century cookbooks describe desserts similar in their gentle frothiness. And here we see the whisk’s debut in print. In the identical recipes from Susannah Carter’s The Frugal Housewife (1765) and Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery (1796)—yes, there was liberal borrowing of published recipes at the time—a Whipt Syllabub (a wine and cream elixir topped with egg white froth) calls for the following:

“Take two porringers of cream, and one of white wine, grate in the skin of a lemon, take the whites of three eggs, sweeten to your taste, then whip it with a whisk, take off the froth as it rises, pour it into your syllabub glasses or pots, and they are fit for use.”

Note the whisk.

Two hundred and fifty years later, I admire its beautiful simplicity, which matches the simple miracles of science—of air and matter—it helps us create.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 30, 2010 5:23 pm

    Maybe every aspiring chef should have to whip up a batch or two of meringue or whipped cream by hand. I’ve always been a fan of whipped dishes, both for their fluffy texture and taste and for the ease with which I could pour egg whites or cream into my electric stand mixer and watch the bubbles form and rise. However, stranded at college with only a (lovely) wood-handled whisk donated by some generous local friends, I’ve only now discovered the true pain and pleasure of whisking by hand. After the first double-batch of meringue, my arm ached for a day, but it was a real joy watching translucent, viscous egg whites shape themselves into a stiff, light protein matrix with nothing but the flick of my wrist and the ache in my arm. And after all that work, they were tasty, too.

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