Occasionally, in my youth, I would go out in the evening, to some throbbing venue slick with other people’s sweat where the music was too loud and the lighting just the right level of dimness to enable middle-aged men to sidle up to you and ‘helpfully’ put their hands on your waist as they squeezed past. I’d dress up. There would be bright colours, sparkly jewellery and painful shoes. Sometimes I would even wear false eyelashes. Once they came unstuck mid-evening, and I spent a couple of hours chatting to people, glass of wine in hand, enveloped in the aura of my own sophistication and blissfully unaware that my spidery plastic eyelashes were hanging away from my eyelids by a strip of congealed glue. I’d drink a bit too much and end up crying on boys I fancied, then try to rectify the situation by offering the excuse that I was ‘on medication’. My girlfriends and I would go to the toilet together and gossip. I’d go to get a drink at the bar of Wetherspoons, step away to go back to my table and find my feet removed from my shoes, which were still stuck fast to the floor. There would be silly photos on Facebook the next morning, always featuring the same core components: a bottle of wine, my wide-eyed leering face next to those of my friends, too much cleavage from all of the girls involved, a wisp of fake tan here and there, a stray false eyelash or two, and probably some poor token male who had been hijacked for the purpose.Read More
The other night, some of my fellow PhD students and I got together for a ‘Dinnertation’ party (I sadly cannot take credit for the coining of this excellent term). This involved cooking and bringing a dish related – on however tenuous a level – to your thesis, either in terms of period or theme. So for anyone out there thinking I’m not quite sure how to have fun, I hope you now stand corrected. As you’d expect from anything that involves bringing together a bunch of overachieving, highly neurotic, borderline nocturnal individuals whose everyday conversations are peppered with words like ‘ontological’ and ‘epistemology’ and who refer to their desks as ‘nests’, it was a total riot.Read More
[Just a quick - and excited! - note to say that I've been nominated for Best Food Blog in the Cosmopolitan Blog Awards 2012!]
I'm pretty sure that there has never been an occasion over the last three years when I haven't had at least one punnet of blueberries either in my fridge or freezer. I would hoard them obsessively during my time at Oxford, where they could regularly be found at the Wednesday market priced at a mere pound. Given that I've seen punnets fetching up to £4.49 in Marks & Spencer, this was a pretty bargainous find. (Luckily I have a mother who insists on blueberries with her morning muesli, so we now have a constant supply in the fridge, which I don't have to pay for - win). I'd stash them away for a later date, a date which actually rarely happened to be much later, because the uses for blueberries in my kitchen are numerous.
I like to use them to stud a moist, squidgy loaf of banana bread, perfuming the crumb and creating sweet little pockets of purple. Continuing the banana theme, they also work well folded into banana pancake batter, or simmered gently in a pan until their skins burst and they release tart inky juices, which can then be spooned dramatically over a pile of pancakes. I also use them in every variation of this baked oatmeal I make - sometimes the chewy crust hides a hot-pink bed of tart, tender rhubarb, sometimes a comforting blanket of baked banana, and sometimes a marigold shock of jammy soft apricot slices, but there are always blueberries infusing their mild sweetness into that molten fruity puddle.
I like them folded through hot, bubbling porridge, engulfed in its nutty, milky blanket, sending ribbons of juice twisting through the creamy canvas like capillaries. They work well in this context with all fruits, but particularly - again - chopped banana, or grated apple.
They're also rather good in savoury dishes, for example as a sauce for venison steaks, and sometimes I use them instead of pomegranate seeds to add a welcome burst of sweetness to a wild rice or couscous salad with shredded duck or chicken.
Yet I rarely bake with blueberries. Maybe I consider them too obvious - I generally like to bake vaguely unusual things with tragically underrated fruits, such as rhubarb and gooseberries. In fact, maybe that should be my blog's new tagline.
'Nutmegs, seven. Baking vaguely unusual things with tragically underrated fruits.'
I was leafing through this month's delicious magazine when I came across Signe Johansen's recipe for blueberry and elderflower cake. It's taken from her latest book, Scandilicious Baking, and I was drawn in both by the title - a combination I'd never come across before, having only used elderflower with gooseberries - and the enticing photo, depicting a rustic-looking wedge of cake topped with a juicy, dimpled purple carpet of squishy berries. The colours really struck me - such an intense, vibrant blue-purple, a hue you very rarely see in food.
Today, in need of a summery cake to combat the distinctly un-summery torrential rain occurring outside my kitchen window, I put on my apron, rolled up my sleeves, unearthed several punnets of blueberries from the freezer, and got to work.
This is an upside-down cake. The blueberries are scattered over the base of a cake tin, drizzled with elderflower cordial, left to steep while the cake mixture is made, then covered with a layer of batter before being baked. After its spell in the oven, you turn it over to reveal a beautiful purple topping that has soaked down into the crumb, as if the whole thing has been drenched wantonly in ink.
I made a few changes to Signe's recipe, using a sponge recipe that I came up with myself and always use in upside-down cakes, mainly because it uses a lot less butter than standard recipes but still tastes incredible, therefore I can justify eating more cake. (Right?) However, it actually relates pretty closely to her original, just with fewer eggs and less butter and sugar. I added ground almonds to my cake mixture, as she does, for a light texture and to help give a moist crumb. I also used spelt flour, as she suggests, because I think it lends a lovely nutty texture to the finished cake, which is a great contrast with the sweet, vibrant fruit.
This emerged from the oven everything I hoped it to be. The crumb has a really lovely mellow flavour to it, from the use of yoghurt in the sponge and from the almonds and hint of vanilla. It tastes robust, somehow, because of the spelt flour - subtly nutty, with a hint of biscuit about it. It has the perfect light, crumbly texture. The blueberries burst and drench the cake in their sweet juices, lightly perfumed by the elderflower cordial, giving a delicious contrast in both texture and flavour. Rich, earthy cake, and juicy, sweet berries.
Above all, I just love the look of this cake. It's so vibrant and joyful; just the thing to perk up a somewhat lacklustre British summer. The berries glisten in a jewel-like fashion; dark, inky and mysterious. Fresh from the oven, it is exquisite with a cup of tea in the afternoon - it's substantial enough to raise your energy levels and fill that sad gap between lunch and dinner, and it's not too sugary or sweet so still feels vaguely nutritious. It's also delicious served warm with ice cream for dessert.
I'm ashamed to admit this, but I ate half of this entire cake in one day. That's how good it is.
Blueberry and elderflower upside-down cake (serves 6-8):
- 200g blueberries
- 50ml elderflower cordial
- 50g soft butter
- 2 eggs
- 150g caster sugar
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 160g spelt flour
- 40g ground almonds
- A pinch of salt
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 200ml plain yoghurt
Grease an 18-22cm springform cake tin with butter (I used an 18cm tin, but a 20/22cm tin would also work fine, it will just give you a shallower cake). Tightly wrap a piece of foil around the outside edge of the tin to prevent any juices escaping. Scatter the blueberries over the base and pour over the elderflower cordial. Toss them together and leave them to soak.
Pre-heat the oven to 170C/160C fan oven. Put an oven tray under the shelf you'll be baking the cake on, just in case some of those lovely purple juices do escape.
Mix together the butter and caster sugar in a large bowl using an electric whisk until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well. Sift in the flour, baking powder and ground almonds then add the salt and vanilla. Fold in until you get a stiff dough, then mix in the yoghurt to form a soft batter.
Ensure the blueberries are arranged in a fairly even layer over the bottom of the tin, then top with the cake mixture. Bake in the oven for 40-60 minutes (a smaller tin will mean a thicker cake, which will mean longer in the oven) - it's ready when a skewer comes out clean, or when the top springs back when pressed and isn't wobbly inside.
Leave to cool for five minutes in the tin, then run a knife around the outside of the cake. Open the side of the springform tin, then put a plate over the top. Carefully invert the cake and remove the base layer of the tin to reveal gorgeous moist inky berries. Serve warm, with a cup of tea or some ice cream.
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 Quark
- 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.