One of the biggest disappointments a gastronome can experience is to order their favourite dessert from a restaurant menu, only to find it presented to them in unrecognisable compartmentalised format. Instead of ‘lemon tart’, a Cubist explosion of prismatic pastry shards, perfectly piped mounds of glossy lemon curd, and a smattering of smug mint leaves for garnish. Instead of the glorious marriage of hot, sweet-tart fruit syrup and a toothsome crunchy topping, your ‘crumble’ will instead manifest as something that resembles the dreams of a Scandinavian minimalist with obsessive compulsive disorder; a piece of poached fruit here, a slick of compote there, and a stingy scattering of crunchy granola that refuses to interact on any sensible basis with the other two elements and entirely misses the point of a crumble. Or, heaven forbid, a cheesecake that anarchically ignores the latter part of its title and instead of being a sliceable paean to dairy and biscuit is a Kilner jar full of cream with a shot of fruit juice and a cookie on the side, more like the individual components of a child’s packed lunch than anything suitable for restaurant consumption.Read More
‘And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.’ So reads the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, the bitter knowledge imparted by the forbidden apple bringing forth shame and humiliation and leading to the expert crafting of loincloths out of a piece of foliage so perfectly suited to cloaking the human genitalia that you’d almost think God had all this planned out. Whether the forbidden fruit of Genesis was, as many have speculated, actually a fig rather than an apple (other contenders are pomegranates and quinces), there’s no denying that fig leaves are associated with a certain frisson of eroticism and desire in western culture. Depictions of Adam and Eve from the medieval period onwards feature modesty-preserving fig leaves, strategically and titillatingly placed, and the Renaissance period witnessed the fabulous ‘fig leaf campaign’, during which lascivious artworks were hurriedly covered with branches from nearby bushes to avoid offending delicate religious sensibilities. And, to use a slightly less highbrow cultural example, there is the successful internet underwear brand, Figleaves.com.
But the fig leaf has had its time in the limelight. I want to talk about blackcurrant leaves.Read More
I’ve eaten more peaches this summer than probably the last five or six summers combined. I usually give up on peaches in England, because they’re imported rock hard and never ripen properly, tasting sad and woolly and a tragic shadow of what you know they could be. But they’re so cheap and abundant right now that I can’t resist buying a punnet or two in the supermarket, safe in the knowledge that, if all else fails, I can at least rescue them with the application of some sugar and searing oven heat.Read More
Do you remember that Ribena advert, proudly proclaiming that '95% of Britain's blackcurrants end up as Ribena' (or something to that effect)?
How many of you, like me, ponder that figure in your food-addled brain and think, 'wow, what a waste'?
A recent study discovered that blackcurrant juice, from concentrate, only accounts for 5% of the total Ribena product. You don't have to be a mathematician to work out that something is tragically wrong here. Take 95% of a crop of something totally beautiful, and dilute it to the point of vapid, watery nothingness? This is not how blackcurrants should be treated.
Blackcurrants are another of those slightly elusive and much-underrated fruits that I have a certain penchant for. By 'penchant', I mean 'tendency to buy large quantities and hoard them in the freezer for months on end'.
While I'm self-confessedly awful at hoarding foodstuffs in general in my freezer, there are some things that find themselves in there much more frequently, and in greater quantity, than others. Beautiful bright pink Yorkshire rhubarb is one, for the main reason that the season is so short and you just can't get that gorgeous colour all year round. Odd cuts of meat are another, because I find myself carnivorously intrigued by them and know I won't be able to get them just anywhere - ox cheeks, goose breasts, pigs cheeks, grouse breasts, whole stuffed wild ducks and venison loins have all found themselves snuggling in the frosty depths of my voracious freezer at some point or another.
Other peripherally but not immediately useful things, too, like bags of egg whites (usually a relic of a vigorous ice-cream making session), breadcrumbs, homemade stock, and apple purée (great for baking and making homemade granola), also take up valuable space in there.
The worst, though, for catching my eye and ending up consigned to the chilly white halls of the freezer, is fruit. Specifically, seasonal fruit that is only around for a short time (gooseberries, redcurrants, cranberries...), and which I therefore snap up in order to indulge in when it is in short supply.
Except I don't. I buy it all, it sits in the freezer awaiting a recipe idea worthy enough to make the most of its sumptuous scarcity...until the season comes round again, thereby totally invalidating the idea of saving it for when it's not available.
I realised quite recently that this saving of gluts for hard times is completely ridiculous, because there is always something new and delicious in season at any given point of the year, which more than makes up for the lack of something else. I save winter rhubarb for the summer months, yet in the summer months I'm far more likely to make the most of the fresh apricots in the market than want to make a rhubarb crumble. I bottle those apricots for the autumn, yet when it comes around I'm gorging myself on beautiful juicy English pears and gorgeous plump Turkish figs. Even winter isn't exactly barren of delicious things: imported lychees and persimmons, fresh cranberries, and fabulous blood oranges. I don't think there's ever been a point where I've wished for a fruit outside its season, because there's simply so much else around to tempt me.
So, in the spirit of using up things in the freezer and trying to break this compulsive hoarding habit, I decided to finally use up a punnet of blackcurrants that have been sitting there since last summer.
There's a reason I bulk-buy these little black beauties. They are quite unlike any other fruit or berry, possessing the most amazingly complex flavour and fragrance. I always think there's something floral, even grassy, about their aroma and taste. They have a mouth-puckering sharpness, but one that is infinitely more pleasant and complicated than that provided by, say, a lemon, adding its unusual qualities to whatever you choose to do with those currants. They're also beautiful, often ranging in size from tiny black dots like little bullets to much rounder, swollen globules, their skins somehow matt yet glossy at the same time, utterly fragile and yielding to the slightest bump or pressure.
And when they do yield, they pour forth a deep, rich purple liquor, possessing a gorgeous fragrant sharpness and an addictive sourness. A mass of blackcurrants, softened in a pan until just starting to release their shining juice, is a lovely addition to so many things.
Why on earth you would take that potential and water it down and sugar it up until it barely resembled the original product, I really don't know. I can think of so many better ways to use our blackcurrant crop.
They do have an affinity with apples, a pairing capitalised upon by many a soft drink, although I actually think they do better with pears, which are less sharp than apples and therefore form a beautiful soft, fragrant partnership to the assertive currants. They are also delicious with anything buttery or crumbly, as are most tart fruits.
Where blackcurrants really come into their own, though, is with dairy. Nothing like the beautiful bland, sweet foil of dairy to let their complex aroma shine, as well as set off their vibrant purple colours.
These cheesecakes capitalise upon all those partnerships: apples, butter and dairy. There's a buttery shortbread biscuit base, somehow richer than the usual Digestive biscuit base and a mellower match for the currants. There's a sweet unbaked filling, perfumed with vanilla and rippled through with a basic blackcurrant compote. There are spiced, caramelised apples on top, providing the deep warmth of ginger and mixed spice (from JustIngredients) to complement the sweet dairy and buttery base.
These are inspired by a cheesecake I had recently for dessert at one of my favourite restaurants in York. The combination of sharp, fragrant currants, creamy cheese filling and that super-crunchy buttery base is fantastic. The spiced apples on top lend a sweet and warming note to the whole thing. I made these in individual glasses, for the very pragmatic reason that I knew if I made a whole cake, I'd end up going back for seconds and then thirds and disgusting myself. That said, you can pack quite a bit of cheesecake into my individual dessert glasses, so I ended up feeling pretty gluttonous anyway.
Totally worth it, though - these are delicious. Clearing out the freezer has never tasted so good.
Apple and blackcurrant cheesecakes
This recipe can either make one cake, between 18-20cm diameter, or several individual cakes. Depending on the size of your individual moulds/glasses and your appetites/greed, it will make four to six individual cheesecakes.
- 10 shortbread finger biscuits
- 50g butter, melted
- 250g blackcurrants, stems and leaves removed (frozen are fine)
- 2 tbsp caster sugar
- 250g Quark
- 250g light cream cheese
- 150g icing sugar
- 1 vanilla pod
- /1 tsp vanilla extract
- 3 tbsp water
- 1 sachet powdered gelatine
- A large knob of butter
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- 1/2 tsp mixed spice
- 1/2 tsp ground ginger
- 2-3 apples, cored and cut into thin slices
First, make the base. Blitz the shortbread in a blender to fine crumbs, then stir into the melted butter. If making one large cake, grease and line an 18 or 20cm springform cake tin and place a circle of greaseproof paper in the bottom. Pour the biscuits into the tin and press down to form an even layer. If using individual glasses or moulds, use the biscuits to line the bottom of each. Chill in the fridge for an hour.
Meanwhile, make the blackcurrant compote. Place the blackcurrants in a small saucepan with a tiny drop of water and the caster sugar, then cook over a low heat just until they've started to soften and release juice. Set aside and leave to cool.
For the filling, beat together the Quark, cream cheese, icing sugar. Either beat in the vanilla extract or, if using a pod, scrape the seeds from the pod into the cheese mixture. Beat together until well combined.
Bring the 3 tbsp water to the boil in a small saucepan, then remove from the heat. Immediately sprinkle the gelatine evenly over the surface, then leave for a minute. Stir the gelatine into the water, until it has all dissolved. You need to work quickly now before the cheese mixture sets. Pour the gelatine into the cheese mixture, then quickly whisk it in. Pour half of the blackcurrant compote (reserve the rest for garnishing) into the cheese mixture, then stir gently to ripple it through the cheese.
Divide the cheese filling between the individual moulds, or pour into the cake tin. Place in the fridge and chill for a few hours, or overnight.
For the spiced apples, heat the knob of butter together with the brown sugar in a non-stick pan until foaming, then add the spices and sliced apples. Sauté over a fairly high heat until the apples turn soft, brown and caramelised. Turn off the heat and set aside until ready to serve.
When ready to serve, spoon the apples over the cake(s) to decorate, then finish with the remaining blackcurrant compote.