I find it strange that the gooseberry has become a metaphorical signifier for social awkwardness. When one remarks that one "feels like a gooseberry", for example when forming the third person in an uncomfortable triangle whose other two members are romantically involved, it would make sense to identify oneself with a fruit that is as culinarily awkward as one feels socially awkward at that moment in time.
And yet the gooseberry is by no means an awkward and incompatible ingredient. In fact, it couples beautifully and harmoniously with many other things; so much so that I simply cannot understand why it has become sadly underrated and used more as a metaphor for uncomfortable isolation than as the delicious kitchen treat it really is.
Gooseberries identify very closely with rhubarb, both in my mind and in my kitchen. In fact, they are pretty much interchangeable in all recipes.
They are both unpromising when raw, tough and bitter and crying out for the sweet tempering treatment of a snowy sugar coating and a gentle heat. They are both available for a certain period of the year, outside which it is impossible to source them from abroad as there simply isn't the demand to produce them. Gooseberries especially - you're lucky if you can find them outside the months of June and July.
They both mellow and transform into something soft, pastel-hued and delectable with the brief heat of a flame or oven and a generous few spoonfuls of sugar to round out their aggressively acidic edge.
They both have similar sweet and savoury applications. If you want to be a bit risqué, try pairing your cooked rhubarb or gooseberries with fatty meats or fish, such as pork belly or mackerel (fresh or smoked). They provide the perfect foil to its cloying strength, a refreshing partnership that takes both ingredients to new heights.
On the more mainstream sweet side, you can't beat a pie or crumble. You really need something lovely and buttery to stand up to all that sweet tartness. Perhaps a fool, where the collapsed fruit is folded into softly whipped cream (although being a hater of cream, I'm not really a fan of fools. In fact I loathe them and would rather eat Ryvita).
Or a cheesecake.
I can't think of many fruits that don't go well with a creamy cheesecake batter. Something about that soft, bland, blank canvas just begs for a vibrant and flavour-packed fruit to decorate it.
The gooseberry is your fruit. It's soft and delicate to look at, collapsed from its heat treatment like a deflated football but still possessing that jade hue and tart juice. It has a fragrance reminiscent of muscat grapes and sweet dessert wine; mellow, honeyed tones that partner perfectly with cream. Or cream cheese.
Rhubarb has many friends, from ginger to strawberries, but gooseberries have their fair share too. Cream, for one, but also elderflower, a completely classic and divine pairing that makes you wonder, rather like the combination of apple and cinnamon, which genius discovered it. Ideally you'd simmer gooseberries with heads of freshly picked elderflowers, but I can never find any, so I settled for elderflower cordial, which also provides the benefit of sweetening the berries as well as imbuing them with a heady floral fragrance.
These cheesecakes (aren't they gorgeous?) were inspired by a recent trip to York, which will be my home for at least the next three years when I embark on my PhD this October. I've visited Cafe No. 8 Bistro twice now on visits to this beautiful city, and really cannot wait to make it a regular haunt as I love their food. On my most recent visit, I couldn't resist ordering the 'Gooseberry crumble cheesecake' that I saw scrawled on the blackboard dessert menu. A dessert whose name literally just takes three of my favourite food-related words and puts them together? It was obviously going to happen.
It was pretty as a picture and tasted even better. The cheesecakes had been individually made in little moulds, so I got a circle of biscuit base all to myself, with a very light, creamy topping, lots of sweet-tart berries, and generous shards of buttery crumble. The whole thing was drizzled with cream, which I initially thought might be overkill, but I loved the way it mellowed the tangy edge of the gooseberries.
I knew it was going to be good before I even tucked in, because the biscuit base to cheesecake ratio was approximately 1:1, which is obviously going to result in a damn fine eating experience.
I've been thinking about that little cheesecake ever since, and dying to replicate it at home. Now that gooseberries are on the market once more, it had to happen. I also picked up these beautiful little trifle glasses for the princely sum of 20p each on a recent impulse visit to the charity shop, and I just loved the idea of serving individual cheesecakes, with all their pretty pastel layers of goodness on display.
This recipe is very simple, using a mixture of melted butter and digestive biscuits for the base, which is chilled before the topping goes on, for maximum crunch. The topping is a simple mixture of Quark (fat free cream cheese), cream cheese, icing sugar and elderflower cordial, set with gelatine to a soft, quivering creaminess. It's sweet and unintrusive, setting the scene for the burst of flavour provided by the gooseberries, which I simmered with sugar and elderflower cordial until they were fragrant and delicious.
These, for me, are a perfect summer dessert. They showcase this tragically maligned fruit to its full potential. They look simply beautiful, with their subtle colours and defined layers. They taste fabulous, the buttery crunch of the biscuit coupled with the sweet creaminess of the cheesecake, all lifted by the tart, floral berries.
They're very English, very summery, very understated, and just very tasty.
So please, next time you feel socially awkward, please pick a more apt fruit to identify with. Surely the durian fruit, which reportedly smells like rotting flesh and is actually banned in several countries for this reason, is a more realistic candidate. Leave the poor gooseberry alone.
How do you like to eat gooseberries? Have you discovered any good friends for them in terms of ingredients?
Gooseberry and elderflower cheesecakes (makes 6 mini cheesecakes or one large one):
10 digestive biscuits
60g butter, melted
250g light cream cheese
150g icing sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 tbsp elderflower cordial
1 sachet powdered gelatine
350g gooseberries, topped and tailed
Sugar, to taste (probably around 2 dsp)
1-2 tbsp elderflower cordial
Blitz the biscuits in a blender to fine crumbs, then mix with the melted butter. Spoon the mixture into six individual trifle glasses, or into a greased and lined 20cm springform cake tin. Place in the fridge for an hour to chill.
Whisk together the quark, cream cheese, icing sugar and vanilla extract. Place the elderflower cordial in a small heatproof bowl and microwave until hot and starting to bubble. Sprinkle the gelatine over the top and leave for a minute or so, then stir vigorously to dissolve. If it doesn't all dissolve, blast in the microwave for another few seconds.
Add this to the cheese mixture, then quickly whisk it all together. Divide the mixture between the six glasses or pour into the cake tin. Place in the fridge for a couple of hours to set, or overnight.
For the gooseberries, put the berries in a small pan with a couple of tablespoons of sugar and heat until starting to burst and release juice. If the berries release a lot of liquid, drain it off as you go - you want it to be the consistency of a compote, not watery. Stir the berries to squish them together a bit. Add the elderflower, then taste the mixture to check the sweetness - it should be quite sharp, but not unpleasantly so. Add more sugar if necessary. Leave to cool, then chill the mixture in the fridge.
When ready to serve, spoon the gooseberries over the cheesecake mixture. You could scatter with some flaked almonds, if you like.