A beguiling temptress.
A beguiling temptress. Matt Baume

You have not known humility until you have had to approach the clerk at a liquor counter, an idiotic question tumbling in your head like a stone in a rock polisher, knowing that it is a stupid thing to say but that you cannot return home until you have said out loud like a weird space alien: “Um yes, hi, could you tell me, what is… brandy?”

I was on a mission to make a semi-obscure dessert called “syllabub,” a confection that dates back to around the 16th century and is basically chilled citrusy alcoholic whipped cream. It is delicious and refreshing and perfect for the sweltering misery-heat we endured last weekend, but it is also my nemesis: As is the case with so many topics I write about, I am eminently unqualified to make, evaluate, or write about syllabub; in this case because I am lactose intolerant and also I drink alcohol so rarely I don’t really even know what alcohol is.

And yet syllabub I must have. When the heat becomes so unpleasant that the act of grimacing causes sweat to ooze out of your face, syllabub is one of the great reliefs of summer. I was not going to be deterred.

It’s a fairly simple recipe, though it took me a few tries to find a variation that truly works. The first version I attempted failed on several levels: It began by calling for a blend of brandy and white wine, both of which were surprisingly challenging to obtain.

It was difficult even to approach the alcohol section of the grocery store, which for some reason is apportioned off from the rest of QFC as though the broccoli will be corrupted if allowed a glimpse of gin. Because we’re in the middle of a pandemic, the liquor section would only allow three people in at a time; and when it was my turn, I had no idea where to look for brandy. Is it a kind of whisky? Is it brown? Is it only sold at fancy-people stores? I was acutely aware that there was an impatient line of drunks envying my spot in front of the shelves and the pressure was unbearable.

Finally I had to reveal my ignorance to the clerk, who revealed the hidden brandy section behind a cabinet (how dare they), and then selected my white wine: A cheap Moscato that, in hindsight, was my undoing.

Back at home, I grated some lemons, combined my alcohols, and attempted to whip it with cream. But it remained a soupy liquid, I suspect because the Moscato was so low in alcohol that it wasn’t strong enough to make the cream curdle. Even in my own kitchen, I am defeated.

Attempt number two was more validating. I grabbed a recipe from the excellent Max Miller, host of Tasting History, who advised splurging on sherry — whatever that is. After a return trip to the grocery store to get more cream and avoid the judgmental gaze of inebriates, I managed to churn up an acceptable syllabub: Two and a half cups of heavy cream, a half cup of sherry, one juiced orange, and one zested lemon, with two-and-a-bit cups of powdered sugar.

I slopped a healthy heaping into a tupperware thing, sliced up a few brownies left over from a boxed recipe, and scampered out to Cal Anderson Park to enjoy a lightly alcoholic delight as the sun set. A full productive day of humiliations was now behind me.

Or so I thought. It wasn't until after I'd consumed numerous heaping mouthfuls of the world's most dairy-based dessert that I realized that I’d left my lactose pills at home.