When you’re sad or you had a bad day, try this: make bird’s milk. When it’s ready, it looks like immaculate clouds floating on a sky made out of sweet cream; or like a foamy flotilla crossing a custard sea; or, if you decide to add (the way I do) a drop of sour cherry jam on top of the meringues, like a feathery nest holding a tiny treasure. Go ahead, make it, then improvise: it should help you forget your troubles.
Bird’s milk is a Romanian dessert that I remember from my childhood. My grandmother used to make it for me, as my mother never quite got the hang of it, or was busy at the lab where she worked, or was even busier after she came home and she had to clean up the house and do laundry and get my father’s dinner ready. My grandmother had retired, and she spent her mornings cooking and waiting for me to come home from kindergarten or school. If I was good, or if she was in the right mood, she’d make bird’s milk.*
*This is not to be confused with the Russian dessert called bird’s milk, which is a chocolate-covered marshmallow. The bird’s milk that I’m writing about originates in Central Europe, perhaps in the Austrian Empire; Hungarians call it bird’s milk too, and Germans snowballs (in vanilla sauce). The same dessert is described in French cookbooks as “eggs in the snow” and in British ones as “floating islands,” although the British floating islands sometimes includes biscuits dipped in rum, clearly a departure from what I’m describing here.
Here’s something almost all Romanian children remember. At some point in their early life, at the age of three or four or maybe even five, after hearing for the tenth or twentieth time that their mother, grandmother, or aunt was going to make bird’s milk, something clicked in their minds, their eyes lit up, they raised their heads and loudly proclaimed:
“But birds don’t give milk!”
“Of course not!”, their grandmother, or mother, or aunt, said, working in front of the stove, and they laughed together in the kitchen filled with the thick vapors of milk and vanilla.
I used to love bird’s milk. The name had a tricky coherence, as both birds and milk made me think of a farm. We lived in an apartment building, on the seventh floor, and I’d never been on a real farm, so the one I imagined looked like the storybook pictures that showed a rooster and a cow and a little girl like myself carrying a pail, helping to take care of the animals.
My grandmother—I called her buni—lived in a small town a few hours away, and often came and stayed with us for several weeks at a time. I liked being around her in the kitchen. We had a red and white cupboard with a plank that you could pull out and use as either cutting board or a table; we called it the katzetisch, and I liked eating there, rather than at the kitchen table, which stood under the window that overlooked the primary school where I ended up going, together with all my friends from the block. There wasn’t much space in the kitchen, but my grandmother was small and her gestures precise. If I stayed out of the way, there was plenty of room for both of us.
Buni joked she was going to make rooster’s milk.
“But the rooster doesn’t give milk!” I said, feeling smart.
“Yes, but still, you’re going to have it later, right? How can you explain that?”
She separated the eggs, carefully wiping the inside of the shells with her index finger, to avoid wasting even a drop of egg white.
I knew she was joking, and that there was some explanation that I’d figure out later. Safely ensconced in her love, I contemplated a world that tolerated small absurdities, like a dessert called bird’s milk. Then I ate it, with my children’s spoon, which had a small flower on the handle.
The simple reason why I think this is called bird’s milk is because it doesn’t require much more than milk and eggs to make it.
Here’s what you need:
4 cups of milk
one or two inches of a vanilla stick
a cup of sugar
Mix the milk with half the sugar in a wide mouth pan and add the vanilla bean. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Then lower the heat, so that the milk simmers.
Separate the eggs, then beat the egg whites with the rest of the sugar, until it makes stiff peaks.
With a spoon, take dollops of meringue and drop in the simmering milk. Boil for one or two minutes on one side; flip the meringues and boil for another minute. With a slotted spoon, remove the soft meringues to a bowl or a plate.
Let the milk cool down to room temperature (this is really important, otherwise you’ll end up with an omelet instead of a custard). Mix the milk with the egg yolks. Bring to a slow boil while stirring constantly. When the mixture thickens, remove from heat. It should be like a thin sauce. If you prefer it thicker, add a spoonful of flour to the cool milk before mixing it with the egg yolks. Remove the vanilla stick.
Pour the custard in a bowl, add the meringues on top, and refrigerate for a few hours. When serving, drop a spoonful of your favorite fruit preserve in the middle of the meringues.
A brief note about ingredients: I use a vanilla bean instead of vanilla extract. If you don’t have a vanilla stick handy, a teaspoon of extract would do. Add it to the milk before setting it to boil for the second time, because boiling removes some of the flavor.
The vanilla bean usually comes in a glass tube, which seems delightfully scientific, although this is vanilla in its most natural form, the way our grandmothers and great grandmothers used it. The vanilla bean has to be moist, so it should be stored in an airtight container. Yet in spite of the thin glass tube, my grandmother’s vanilla bean ended up rather dry and twisted, a shiny, fragrant small cane the color of wet bark. My grandmother used to cut it diagonally, to release more seeds, and took it out of the milk after it boiled.
My grandmother died of a heart attack in early 2002, at the age of eighty-six. I had just started my doctorate in the United States, and, although she didn’t say it directly to me, I think she was anxious that I was so far away from home, and still not married, and spending so much time in school instead of having children. Whenever I called her—usually the conversations were rather short—she asked whether I had warm clothes or if I was eating well, which made me feel very modern and free. After all, so much of my life was beyond her experience: I was presenting my research, at conferences, and my boyfriend didn’t speak Romanian.
I went back to Romania that winter, and we spent Christmas together, and I visited her on New Year’s Day. As a Christmas gift, she gave me a ring she had saved for my wedding—a ruby surrounded by diamonds, which her father had bought for her before the Second World War. I’m trying to remember more details about that trip, but it’s all a blur. I had to visit neighbors and family friends and it all felt like a long list of chores sandwiched between jetlags.
Then, three days before my departure, while I was having coffee with a girlfriend, my mother called to tell me that my grandmother had had a heart attack and passed away before the ambulance arrived. I was able to go to the funeral, one day before embarking on the twenty-two-hour trip from Arad, Romania, to Buffalo, NY. I’m ashamed to say that my presence at the funeral was rather perfunctory. She wasn’t a big part of my life anymore. I was still, at the time, trying to get away from my family, my background, my country. Her funeral seemed like another chore that yanked me away from my world of international travel and foreign boyfriends, into her old-fashioned, limited universe.
After a while, as the noise of adjusting to a new life gradually subsided, I found myself thinking about my grandmother every so often. I wished she could have known that I ended up finding a job and that I married my American boyfriend. I thought she’d have liked our big, old-fashioned house in New Jersey, which had a small, sixties-style kitchen with a katzentisch and an oak in front of the window. I wore the ring buni gave me every once in a while, but it was too fancy to wear it every day, and I rarely went to parties where people wore expensive jewelry.
I mostly thought of my grandmother when I cooked. With my index finger, I wiped the inside of the eggshell to avoid wasting the egg white. She rarely raised her voice at anybody, and never at me. As I remembered her, I realized I didn’t need to escape my childhood anymore. I’d looked away for a moment, and it was gone.
One day I was at the supermarket, looking at spices, when I noticed vanilla beans in a jar. I was actually looking for vanilla extract, because it’s so easy to use. But there it was, the vanilla bean, in its old fashioned glory, like a messenger from other times. I could pick it up with the store-supplied tongs, drop it in a plastic bag, and take it home, all for less than a dollar. At home, I put the vanilla bean in the cupboard and promptly forgot about it.
I first made bird’s milk for one of my American nieces. Ellie is eight and lives on Long Island, is generous with her hugs, and speaks in a voice that’s loud and clear, so that everything she says sounds like a verdict. She’s very nice to me, though. Once I was making sundried tomatoes and she tried one and said that she didn’t like it, but it had an interesting aftertaste.
It was raining, and Ellie and I ended up in the kitchen. I offered to bake something for her.
“Something from Romania?” she asked.
I usually baked vegan cookies.
“Ok, I’ll make something. It’s called bird’s milk,” I added in a moment of inspiration.
She answered, like many others before her:
“Birds don’t give milk!”
“Ok, how about roosters then?”
She made an incredulous face and then laughed. Maybe the joke wasn’t very good after all, and she was too old for that.
I reached for the vanilla stick. In the recesses of the cupboard it had dried out, in spite of the plastic bag. I handed her the shiny gnarled stick.
“This is vanilla.”
She didn’t believe me at first, but then she took it, rubbed it between her small fingers, and smelled it.
“It smells like vanilla,” she said, doubtfully.
The milk reached a boiling point, then I lowered the heat to a simmer. The wide mouth pan could only fit four meringues or so at a time. With a slotted spoon, I removed them and placed them in a bowl. They came out alright, but the custard was too thick, almost like a pudding. But then I added a drop of sour cherry jam, and it tasted the way I remembered it.
I didn’t refrigerate the bird’s milk. I just waited for it to cool down a bit, then, in the kitchen still filled with sweet vapors of milk and vanilla, I put a small bowl in front of my niece, who dipped her spoon into the soft meringue.
“It looks like a cloud,” she said, dreamily.
The rain had stopped. A squirrel ran down the oak tree in front of the kitchen window and scampered away in the wet grass.
“Wait, why do you call this bird’s milk?”
Author photo courtesy of Charles Adair.
Ileana Florian is a Romanian-American writer. Her work has appeared in The Atticus Review, The Rumpus, PANK online, and elsewhere. She has hosted and been featured at Trumpet Fiction, one of the longest reading series in New York, and is the essays editor of ducts.org. She is currently at work on a full-length collection, Memoirs of a Socialist Childhood.