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Illusion Dishes  

As I stumbled into the kitchen this morning, I glanced out the window and was somewhat surprised to see a wild tom turkey strutting about in the back yard. Half asleep, I drifted from thoughts of roast turkey with all the trimmings to recollections of Chef Paul Prudhomme's marvelous recipe for turducken, a wonderful dish of a turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken. Collecting illusion food recipes has been a hobby of mine for a long time, you see, so it doesn't take much to get me thinking about it. (If you're not familiar with them, illusion foods are dishes that appear to be something that they're not.)


Illusion foods probably got started out of necessity. For example, what do you do if you're the king's cook, it's a twelve day journey by foot over dirt roads to the nearest sea, and he's demanding fresh anchovies for dinner? Well, if you're the cook to Nicomedes, King of Bithynia, you fake it! "...He took a fresh turnip and cut it in slices thin and long, shaping it just like the anchovy. Then he parboiled it, poured oil upon it, sprinkled salt to taste, spread on the top exactly forty seeds of black poppy, and satisfied the king's desire in far-away Scythia. And when Nicomedes had tasted the turnip, he sang the praise of anchovy to his friends. The cook and the poet are just alike: the art of each lies in his brain." 1

In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, illusion foods were elevated to an art form, and were used for the amusement of the wealthy. A cook might present a pastry castle, its towers filled with meats, fruits, or custard; or a boar's head, endored with gold leaf, and made to spit fire. A peacock might be skinned and roasted, then stuffed back into its skin and feathers and presented sitting on a platter as if still alive. "Apples" might be made of meat, and brushed with colored batter while they roasted on a spit.

Some elements of illusion food art have survived to this day. Fruits made of marchpane (almond paste), for example, were quite popular in earlier times, and can still be found in confectionery shops:

"How to make Strawberries. Take the paste of Massepain, rowl it in your hands into the shape of Strawberries, then dip them in the juice of Barbaries, or of red Corants, and stir them well, after this, put them in a dish, and dry them againe three or four times in the same juice."2


Sugar work was also extremely popular (for those who could afford it). Plates, cups, fruits, and animals (some life-size, and moulded from real animals) were moulded out of sugar, painted, and presented as the real thing. We can still find hollow sugar eggs around Easter-time, as well as candy "ribbons" near Christmas, but this elaborate type of work is not too common anymore:

"#169. TO CAST ALL KINDE OF FRUTAGE HOLLOW IN TURN'D WORKE & TO PRINT THEM Take your double moulds and wet them in cold water, then tie 2 of ye greatest peeces together, & poure yr sugar into them, & clap them one upon another quickly. then put ye third piece upon ye holes & turne ye moulds round in yr hands, & your fruits will be hollowed..."3


Sadly, now-a-days, apart from a woman lying motionless on the buffet table, dressed only in chopped liver and a few strategically placed olives, it's not too often that you see illusion foods anymore. Simplicity is in. Well, with luck, and with the return of elaborate presentations, perhaps we'll soon see simplicity on its way out. However, modern cooks will have a long way to go to rival the imagination and artistry of times past. Take Sabina Welserin for example. In her cookbook (dated 1553), can be found one of the most elaborate aspic illusions I've ever read (#198). It is a spiced fish aspic, poured onto a new wagon wheel (inside a deep platter). The aspic sets between the spokes (and the platter is broken and removed), then the wheel is re-attached to its axle and set upright on another aspic of different colors. This marvelous dish was used for a centerpiece.

Many years ago I prepared a medieval feast dedicated entirely to illusion foods gleaned from period manuscript cookbooks. Nothing was what it seemed to be; even the salt-shakers were made of real acorns. The butter was hidden inside the lemons; emptied chicken skins were filled with meatloaf and re-shaped to look like chicken, and so forth. The menu also featured a non-edible boar made of papiér mache, gilded, and garnished with radish roses. The "boar" was hollow and contained a haslet of fruits (strung fruits and nuts, dipped in batter and roasted to resemble entrails). The servers entered in procession, carrying the "boar" and singing the Boar's Head Canticle. "The Boar's Head, you understand, is the finest dish in all the land!" There was great fanfare and the "boar" was cut open with a real sword. Servers grabbed fistfuls of "entrails" and ran around the room with them before serving them to the guests. Such fun!

If you'd like to try your hand at illusion foods, here's an easy one to start with from Le Ménagier de Paris (1393):

"FARCED CHICKENS, COLOURED OR GLAZED. They be first blown up* and all the flesh within taken out, then filled up with other meat, then coloured or glazed as above..."


Farced chickens take about 20 minutes each to separate the meat from the bones. Work on a cold surface and put the flesh in a chilled bowl. Slip your hand in the rear end of the chicken, between the skin and the meat and gently loosen the membrane. Use a short-bladed paring knife to remove the meat. Alternately, slit the skin up the back, peel back the skin and remove the flesh that way (use toothpicks to re-fasten the skin together, and remove the toothpicks before service). Prepare a stuffing of your choice of ground meats, and season to taste. Stuff the bird between the skin and bones with the meat mixture, and shape the meat to look like a whole chicken. If you wish, you may glaze the bird with egg yolk mixed with saffron as it roasts. Roast at 350 degrees F. about 1 hour, or until the juices of the meat and the chicken run clear when poked with a fork.

(*The "blown up" part refers to a method of removing the skin by inserting a straw between the skin and flesh and blowing up the bird like a balloon. This won't work well with store-bought chickens since the heads are off, but it makes for an amusing mental picture. See also The Swiss Family Robinson, where they employ this trick on a kangaroo.)

Sources and Suggestions for Further Reading:

Power, Eileen, ed. The Goodman of Paris (LE MÉNAGIER DE PARIS), George Routledge & Sons, Ltd., London, 1928. A partial webbed version of Le Ménagier de Paris, in French, can be found at The Medieval & Renaissance Food Homepage. An English translation can be found here.

Sabina Welserin's Cookbook, 1553, tr. by Valoise Armstrong, #40.

1Athenaeus. The Deipnosophists, or The Sophists at Dinner. Tr. by Charles Burton Gulick. Wm. Heinemann, Ltd. London. G.P. Putnam's Sons. New York, 1927, vol. 1, pp. 31-33. (This 7 volume set dates from circa 228 A.D., and contains a great deal of information on the wines and foods of ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt.)

2The French Cook, by Francis de La Varenne, 1653, Englished by I.D.G., 1653.

3"A Booke of Sweetmeats", Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery (17th century), edited by Karen Hess, pp. 330331. Note: There are some very nice illustrations of the tools & molds required for this type of work in Diderot's Pictorial Encyclopedia of Trades & Industry, 18th c., Vol. 2, plates 480-483. Dover Publ, ISBN 0-486-27429-2

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