The Great Kitchen at Hampton Court Palace was open for a grand 200 years, and even had its own confectionary. This would have produced any number of different sweet treats, but one of the most popular sweets in the Elizabethan era was the comfit. This was any particulate or seed covered in many layers of sugar. These treats were neither healthy nor time-effective, as each of the many layers of sugar had to be dried before the next layer could be applied. And before this could be done, a separate layer of gum Arabic had to be applied so that the sugar would stick in the first place. It could take anywhere between 50 and 100 layers – and a great deal of time – to make a set of comfits which were fit to serve to the Queen.
Comfits were one of the many dishes which were often served at great meals and banquets. They were served at meals for very select individuals, owing to their incredibly expensive nature, alongside all of the other luxurious foods of the time such as almonds, spices and citrus fruits. These delights would be transformed into incredible models and creations, some of which were even coated in gold.
At the centre of the banqueting table, there would be a treat called a subtlety, which would be gloriously decorated and designed to be looked at rather than eaten. These could be made of almost anything, but were often made of sugar or marzipan. Comfits were not the only ridiculously time-consuming sugary treats on the table.
Unlike the subtleties, the technique used to create comfits was actually fairly simple. The seeds would be coated in sugar syrup and allowed to dry just enough so that they were still warm enough to take the next coating of sugar. Very little syrup was used in each layer, as the comfits were small and their layers were very thin. To apply a layer, they were simply added to a pan with a small amount of sugar syrup and tossed about until they were all thoroughly coated.
With the new layer added, the comfits are spread out and allowed to dry. At this stage, you stop tossing them so that the layer you’ve just added doesn’t get taken back off. As they dry, you just have to give them a gentle bump every now and then to make sure they aren’t sticking together.
With the layer dried, the process is simply repeated another 50-100 times. The finished products were small, smooth and round, with sizes that could vary depending on the seeds or nuts that were used. Comfits came in many different forms, some of which survive to this day: think of sugared almonds, gobstoppers and aniseed balls. Any type of spice or powder could be used for the centre, provided it was something that the sugar could latch onto.
Comfits could even be coloured to make them more attractive. Green colouring could come from parsley juice, red from cochineal and yellow from saffron. Despite their small size, each batch could take up to 12 hours to make!