There are lots of perks to living alone. A beautifully quiet house; the placid joy of going to sleep knowing that you’re not going to be woken up by marauding housemates. Never having to queue for the bathroom. Knowing that any crumbs in the kitchen or burnt on spills in the oven are solely yours, which somehow makes cleaning them up more bearable. Not having to make small talk when you come in at the end of a long day and would rather stick pins in your eyes than have a conversation with anyone. Knowing that whatever particularly appetising foodstuffs you leave in the fridge will still be there the next day. Never finding that someone has taken a metal implement to your non-stick pans, or left the freezer open overnight. Perks indeed.
However, this does come with a price to pay, particularly at mealtimes. Eating alone is not a problem; in fact, I often enjoy nothing more than sitting down to a meal alone, catching up with the newspaper or whatever food TV happens to be on at the time. The problem lies in the food I’m sitting down to.
While you can make some lovely meals for one, you do miss out on a whole range of deliciousness that is only really viable for a group of people. Roasts, for example – there’s something fundamentally odd about roasting a chicken just for yourself, however good the leftovers will be for the next few days. Any dishes that have to be served immediately and won’t keep, like salads or stir-fries. Anything that needs to be served hot and crispy, and will deteriorate in a sad and flaccid fashion if held onto in the fridge: pastry is the main culprit here, or anything involving molten cheese.
And pancakes. One of the ultimate comfort foods, pancakes are emphatically not a one-person dish. It is very hard to scale down pancake recipes, which normally make a quantity of batter that will serve at least two. Furthermore, I can never be bothered to make pancakes for just myself. Perhaps it’s the lack of a companion to share the pan-flipping drama with, or perhaps it’s their association with Pancake Day festivities, but pancakes, for me, require company. And this is coming from the girl who will happily wake up on a Sunday morning and make a lavish brunch (think breakfast crumble, or homemade bread) for just herself.
Since I moved to York, I don’t have brunch with friends as often as I’d like. Perhaps it’s because I’m often busy at the weekends, visiting friends or horse riding or just feeling like I’d rather sit and be solitary and relaxed than attempt any cooking. Perhaps because my friends are often busy too. It’s something I intend to change once I go into the new academic year, because a brunch gathering is probably one of my absolute favourite food-based social events.
There’s something so decadent and satisfying about a good brunch. The overload of bolstering, comforting, sweet carbohydrates. The provision of copious quantities of caffeine. The inevitable fact that at least one person will be hungover and can therefore serve as an object of mirth and mockery. The license to eat all sorts of indulgent dishes that you wouldn’t normally: smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, pastries, muffins…and, obviously, pancakes.
Pancakes come in all shapes, sizes and varieties, of course. I am fond of both delicate French crêpes and the thicker, fluffier, altogether more indulgent American variety, particularly if their buttermilk batter is strewn with chunks of sweet fruit – pear or blueberry work particularly well. I also like to make fluffy, slightly creamy and gooey pancakes with ricotta cheese, which have a wonderful soufflé-like texture, irresistibly light and delicate, slightly crispy on the outside from where they’ve been sizzling in butter. I call them ‘cheesecake pancakes’, because they’re basically cheesecake fried in a pan rather than baked in a tin. They’re so much lighter than normal pancakes, perfect for teaming with a flavoursome compote or sauce.
This recipe combines those ricotta pancakes with a gorgeous gooseberry compote. The gooseberry season is sadly drawing to a close, so I’ve made the most of it while I still can by simmering those beauties into an utterly fabulous compote, inspired by a recent Yotam Ottolenghi recipe in the Guardian. He puts orange zest in with the berries, but I like to use JustIngredients orange peel powder instead in orange recipes, as it gives an amazingly rich, earthy, Christmassy orange flavour to whatever you put it in.
I was a bit sceptical about the combination of gooseberry and orange – I tend to be quite conservative and only team my gooseberries with established flavours like elderflower or vanilla – but it’s absolutely amazing. Enriched with the warmth of cinnamon, too, and fresh ginger, this compote has all the wonderful perfumed tang of gooseberries, but it’s somehow enhanced by all the other magical spiced goodness going on in there. It also turns a beautiful dark rose colour as it simmers and the gooseberries break down, releasing their luscious fragrant juice.
Soft, fluffy, cheesecake-like pancakes, with a hint of vanilla; a good dollop of sweet and tangy compote. This is the perfect brunch to bid the gooseberry farewell. Actually, it’s just the perfect brunch. I really must do this more often.
Ricotta pancakes with spiced gooseberry compote (serves 4):
Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi in the Guardian.
- 700g gooseberries, topped and tailed
- 160g golden caster sugar
- 1 tsp orange peel powder
- 10g fresh ginger, finely sliced
- 1 short cinnamon stick
- 4 large eggs
- 500g ricotta cheese
- 90g plain flour
- Seeds from 1 vanilla pod, or ½ tsp vanilla extract
- ¼ tsp salt
- Butter, for cooking
Put the gooseberries, 100g of the sugar, the orange peel powder, ginger and cinnamon in a large saucepan and heat gently until the sugar dissolves and the gooseberries start to burst. Cook over a medium heat for 30-40 minutes until the mixture is thick and compote-like; it will turn a lovely dusky pink colour. Set aside to cool.
For the pancakes, whisk together the eggs and ricotta in a large bowl until smooth. Add the remaining sugar, flour, vanilla and salt, then whisk again to incorporate. Cover with clingfilm and refrigerate for an hour or two.
When ready to cook, heat a little butter in a wide, non-stick frying pan. Wipe it around the pan with some kitchen roll. Ladle small dollops of the pancake mixture into the pan – about 10cm wide and 1cm high – you will probably need to cook them in batches. Cook over a gentle heat for 4-5 minutes or until you can see they’re nearly cooked through, then flip over (careful – they are quite fragile!) and cook for another couple of minutes. Put in a baking dish and keep warm in the oven while you make the rest. Serve with the gooseberry compote, and some crème fraiche if you like.