This cooling summertime favorite originated in the Middle East as sharab, the Arab term for a sweetened drink, and was initially defined as a cold, fruity, non-alcoholic beverage made from varying combinations of fruit juice, flowers, seeds, nuts, spices and sugar or honey, often chilled with snow. At some point in the late Middle ages, sharab evolved to describe a drink with alcohol, so the term sharabat emerged to denote the non-alcoholic version and began to make its way into European language vocabularies. The Turkish word s(h)erbet stems directly from this updated terminology. Since sherbet preparation could be time consuming and ingredients were not always readily available, confectioners made convenient syrups, pastes and tablets that kept indefinitely and were used to whip up sherbet drinks.
When fizzy drinks became all the rage in the 19thcentury due to the invention of effervescent bicarbonate of soda, these were added to sherbets. The sugary powder was also used to make fizzy candies, such as dabs and lollipops that were dipped into the packets of sherbet powder. During this timeframe, the term sherbet was also used interchangeably with “ades,” fruit juice with added sugar and water, especially when served ice cold like the frozen dessert we know today. This was a common way of serving juice – favorite flavors were apple, lemon, orange and strawberry.
By the 1880s, sherbet recipes in the U.S. had begun to develop from a beverage to an icy, scoopable dessert. Cookbooks from the era featured flavors such as pineapple, strawberry, raspberry, currant, lemon and orange, often with the addition of gelatin or egg whites to give them a lighter, more creamy consistency than ices, although some used the terms sherbet, water ice, and fruit ice interchangeably. By the early 20th century, many recipes still incorporated gelatin or egg whites, but some started to substitute milk or cream to give sherbet a smoother texture, similar to the frozen treat we know today. For example, as per The Twentieth Century Book for the Progressive Baker, Hotel-Confectioner, Ornamenter and Ice Cream Maker (1913) by Fritz Ludwig Gienandt, “by adding a spoonful of heavy cream to the quart the quality of the sherbet may be greatly improved.”
The recipe for Lemon Sherbet I used was from my Great-Grandmother, Henrietta Ingram Finger Lawrence. This refreshing sweet-tart delicacy was whole-heartedly enjoyed by my grandmother, Catherine Lawrence Ellsworth when she was a girl in the early part of the 20thcentury and later, my mother, Mary Ellsworth Libourel and her five siblings in the 1940s and 50s. My aunt, Nancy Ellsworth Prince happened to be over while I was making it and gave her enthusiastic approval, saying it tasted exactly like her grandmother used to make. My Mom said the same thing when she tasted it. I am honored to carry on this tradition. I did make a few minor tweaks, as I used my ice cream maker. Feel free to try it as per the original method. I hope you enjoy it as much as we do!
The original recipe:
Grandmother Lawrence’s Lemon Sherbet
1 ½ cups sugar
1 quart milk
Bring sugar and milk to a boil. Chill. Freeze stiff. Beat in chilled bowl. Add juice and rind of 2 lemons. Freeze in refrig.
And here’s my revised version:
- 1 ½ cups sugar
- 1 quart milk (I used 2%)
- Juice and zest of two lemons
- Bring sugar and milk to a boil. Pour into glass bowl and chill in refrigerator for about an hour.
- Remove from fridge and add lemon juice and zest. Pour mixture into chilled bowl of an ice cream maker and mix until frozen.
- Transfer to a glass bowl and store in freezer until ready to serve. Scoop into dishes and garnish with a mint sprig if desired.
Sources: Oxford Companion to Food, by Alan Davidson, 2nd edition edited by Tom Jaine [Oxford University Press: Oxford] 2006; An A to Z of Food and Drink, John Ayto [Oxford University Press: Oxford] 2002; Sherbet and Spice: The Complete Story of Turkish Sweets and DessertsBy Mary Isin, [I.B.Tauris], Jan 8, 2013; Ice Cream! Delicious Ice Creams for All Occasions by Pippa Cuthbert and Lindsey Cameron Wilson [Good Books] 2005.