I was hoping to find some interesting word-stories to share with you this week as we approach World Dictionary Day, and I think I may just have another one in the word ramekin.
A ramekin is a small, single-serving sized round dish, usually with ribbed sides, is it not? That would have been my definition anyway. The Oxford English Dictionary agrees that a ramekin is a dish.
Ramekin: A small mould or dish, traditionally round with a fluted exterior, in which ramekins or other individual portions of food, such as soufflés or mousses, are baked and served; (also) a small container for an individual serving of sauce.
The first supporting quotation is:
1895 I. K. Funk et al. Standard Dictionary of the English Language: Ramekin, a dish in which ramekins are baked.
A ramekin is a dish in which ramekins are baked? Let us back-track.
This particular definition from the OED is of the second usage of the word ramekin. The first meaning given is:
Ramekin: A type of savoury dish based on cheese, mixed with butter, eggs, and seasonings, and usually baked and served in a small mould or dish (or formerly in a paper case). Formerly also: a dish of minced meat, pounded onion, or melted cheese, toasted with butter and other ingredients on bread.
The first two citations given are from the seventeenth century, almost two and a half centuries before the ‘ramekin as a dish’ usage:
1653 tr. F. P. de la Varenne French Cook Alphabet. Table sig. A12, Ramequin, it is a kind of toste.
1653 tr. F. P. de la Varenne French Cook 88 Ramequin of kidney... Ramequin of flesh... Ramequin of Cheese. Take some cheese, melt it with some butter, on onion whole, or stamped … spread all upon bread, pass the fire shovell over it red hot, and serve it warme.
So, the food ultimately gave its name to the container. Nothing really unusual there. The fun is in the etymology. The French word ramequin has its roots Flemish, and in the mid-sixteenth century was had military connotations. It seems to have referred to a battering ram – although the OED says “the semantic motivation is unclear.”
But … in 1547 there was a small sea-fort constructed in Zealand. It was called Fort Rammeken, and it was “of angular and pointed design.” From 1585 to 1616 this little military outpost was under the control of the English, and the name was adopted to refer to similar small fortifications. Florio’s English-Italian Worlde of Wordes, published in 1598 has:
Belloardo, Bellouardo, a bulwarke, a blockhouse, a skonce, a forte, a ramekin.
So, a small dish with a rather turret-like shape and with the name ramekin is not a great stretch, is it? Which makes it all the more puzzling that it was not recorded as a dish until 1895.
I leave further thoughts on the subject to my logophile friends, and leave you with two fine version of ramequins from The Art of Cookery (182) by John Mollard.
Warm in a stewpan two spoonsful of milk with two ounces of fresh butter; mix over a slow fire for five minutes with three ounces of sifted flour then add two ounces of fresh butter, four ounces of grated Parmesan cheese, two eggs, a small quantity of mignionette pounded with a little sugar, the white of an egg beaten to a solid froth with a table spoonful of cream, and a little salt; mix the ingredients well together. Put the mixture in cases of writing paper four inches square, wash the tops with yolk of egg, bake in a brisk oven for a quarter of an hour, and serve hot.
Ramequins (another way).
Roll out puff paste, and strew grated Parmesan cheese over it; fold, and roll it again. Stamp it with a patty cutter, mark the top with a smaller cutter, brush over with yolk of egg, and bake of a light colour. Before serving, take out the top, and fill with bechamel.