Saturday, April 1, 2023
April 1, 2023

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Take a Junket to sweet spot

Rennet, other old-time products still available for delicious desserts

By , Columbian staff writer
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4 Photos
Rennet tablets are sold under the brand name Junket and can be used to make cheeses or this mild, sweet eggless custard.
Rennet tablets are sold under the brand name Junket and can be used to make cheeses or this mild, sweet eggless custard. (Monika Spykerman/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

My father is a collector of vintage ephemera. That’s a nice way of saying that he likes old stuff, but then, so do I, so I guess we’re even. Occasionally he’ll send me pictures of old-timey advertisements from the 1930, ’40s and ’50s that now seem charmingly earnest and naive.

Dad is especially amused by advertisements for things that used to be considered healthy (or at least socially acceptable) but nowadays are known health risks, such as daily smoking, three-martini lunches and eating heaps of juicy red meat. A mere 70 years ago, sugar was a wholesome energy boost and the best cooks used pure lard. Caffeine was once a desirable way to put pep in your step rather than an addictive substance that may or may not be good for you, depending on the current science. As far as I’m concerned, a cup of strong coffee will never fall out of fashion. I’m going to keep having 23 cups a day, just like I always have.

Last week he sent me a very old advertisement for Junket brand rennet custard. Rennet, used in the cheese-making process, is a set of enzymes produced in the stomachs of ruminant mammals that causes the casein in milk to solidify. In bygone years, rennet was commonly used to make milk custard, sweetened with sugar or maple syrup and colored with a drop or two of Junket brand food coloring. It was considered extremely healthful, full of protein and easy to digest, good for children or anyone convalescing from illness.

I was delighted to discover that Fred Meyer carries several Junket brand items for a few dollars a box: unsweetened rennet tablets, chocolate or vanilla ice cream powder and a fruit-flavored sugar-and-cornstarch powder called Danish Dessert. I bought a box of rennet tablets and two kinds of Danish Dessert, beguiled by the pretty slice of pie on the container.

At home, I followed the directions on the back of the box to make pie filling: Dissolve the powder in 1¾ cups juice, boil the juice until it thickens, add four cups of fresh fruit, pour into a pre-baked pie crust and chill for four hours. It seemed at least as easy as Jell-O, so I gave it a whirl.

Danish Dessert

1 package Danish Dessert

1¾ cups juice or water

4 cups sliced fresh fruit

Dissolve Danish Dessert powder in fruit juice. Bring juice to full boil, stirring constantly, and boil for one minute. Remove from heat and cool slightly. Mix in fresh fruit. Spoon into ramekins or dessert cups and chill for four hours. To make a pie, reduce liquid to 1 cup and pour into pre-baked 9-inch pie crust before chilling.

Rennet Custard

4 servings

2 cups milk

¼ cup plain kefir

3 tablespoons sugar (or other preferred sweetener)

1 teaspoon vanilla

½ teaspoon cinnamon or cardamom

1 rennet tablet

1½ teaspoons cold water

Dissolve rennet tablet in water. Heat milk and kefir to 98 degrees. Add sugar, vanilla and spices. Add rennet. Pour into cups. Let set in warm room for 10 to 15 minutes then chill for two hours.

I used cherry and apple juice mixed with fresh strawberries and blueberries, then poured everything into a store-bought chocolate crust. The pie was a beautiful ruby red and chock full of fresh fruit. I let it chill for four hours and cut a big slice, but the semi-firm filling oozed gently out of its triangular formation. I realized later that this is because I actually made the recipe for “pie glaze” instead of “pie filling.” The directions on the box are rather confusing; if you want to make a pie, it’s best to follow the directions at, which calls for 1 cup liquid instead of 13/4 cups.

Nevertheless, the dessert was absolutely scrumptious, sweet but a little tangy, refreshingly cool and of course very fruity. I wouldn’t necessarily call it “healthy” because sugar is the primary ingredient in the powder and fruit juice is also full of sugar, but it can be made with water instead of juice. The next time I make it, I will chill it in individual ramekins or layer it with other ingredients in a parfait.

I also wanted to try rennet custard, even though that seemed a little more complicated and fraught with error. The milk must be heated to precisely 98 degrees and it must sit in “a warm room” for 10 or 15 minutes before being chilled. I was afraid that, this deep into winter, none of my rooms would be warm enough.

Additionally, it’s best to use whole milk for rennet custard. Low-fat, nonfat or ultra-pasteurized milk won’t work, as the rennet needs some fat and milk’s natural proteins or enzymes (or something scientific like that) to thicken and set. Some recipes recommend using raw whole milk or adding kefir to help the rennet set.

In the end, I settled on a combination of pasteurized whole milk and plain kefir and decided to let the rennet chips fall where they may. Really, what was the worst that could happen? I could end up with four servings of semi-curdled milk and that would not be the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.

A tiny book of rennet recipes is tucked into the box, but I was inspired by a recipe for rennet custard from I started by dissolving one rennet tablet in 1½ teaspoons of water, crushing it with a spoon and stirring it until all the little bits had disappeared and the liquid turned cloudy. I set it aside then put 2 cups milk and ¼ cup plain kefir in a saucepan to warm on very low heat.

The recipe suggested using a candy thermometer to make sure the milk gets heated to the proper temperature. Since I don’t have a candy thermometer, I didn’t see why I couldn’t use a meat thermometer instead.

Well, it’s because a meat thermometer starts at 130 degrees and goes up, that’s why. I figured not every homemaker in midcentury America had a candy thermometer, and apparently they were able to make rennet custard just fine. Given that 98 degrees is body temperature, I just put my finger in the milk and waited for the temperature to feel like I was holding my own hand. (That makes me think of the Zen koan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” I can say with authority that it’s exactly the same sound as one hand in a pan of lukewarm milk.)

When I got the milk warmed, I took it off the burner and added 3 tablespoons sugar, 1 teaspoon of vanilla, ½ teaspoon cinnamon and ¼ teaspoon of cardamom, then stirred in the rennet liquid. I poured the mixture into four teacups and could see the rennet immediately get to work thickening the milk. I set the cups on the kitchen windowsill to keep warm in the sunshine and went to read a quick chapter in book about a haunted house in 1940s England, where I’m sure they must have enjoyed an occasional dish of rennet custard, even if the author didn’t mention it. After 15 minutes, I transferred the cups to the fridge, where I let them chill for two hours.

The resulting custard had a cloud-soft, silky texture, somewhere between custard and flan, and a mild, comfortingly milky flavor. I loved it. The custard was sitting in a bit of wheylike liquid, but that didn’t take away from the flavor or bother me one bit. I will definitely make this again, trying different sweeteners and flavorings, like honey, syrup or almond extract. Rennet tablets stay active for one year so I’ll have plenty more chances to dunk my hands in lukewarm milk.