Sometimes, you need a dessert that is pure chocolate indulgence. Not a scattering of chocolate chips here and there, or a bit of cocoa added to a sponge mixture, but a proper mouthful of thick, rich, silky molten chocolate. The kind that envelops your tongue like dark cashmere, and leaves you wanting to bathe in a pool of rippling cocoa. This is that dessert. A layer of smooth, fudgy dark chocolate ganache is baked until just set inside a crunchy, buttery pastry shell, flecked with hazelnuts for that praline hit. It's so thick and smooth you need a hot knife to cut through it, and it's scattered with freeze-dried raspberry pieces for delicious bursts of fruity sharpness in every mouthful. On the side, a glorious ice cream rippled with vanilla, crushed meringues and a tangy raspberry coulis, vibrant with the fragrant heat of pink peppercorns. It's perfect against the silky, complex ganache and the crisp pastry. Head to my post on Great British Chefs for the recipe!
For someone who didn't eat any of them, I have very vivid memories of school dinners. Although every lunch time I would, without fail, pile my plate with the same old combination of stale bread roll and sawdust-textured luminous grated cheese (which, naturally, came out of a giant wholesale sack), I paid great peripheral attention to the feats of gastronomy quietly occurring around me.
I remember 'pasta Wednesday', when the whole school was treated to vats of waterlogged, flabby pasta with a dollop of ketchup-coloured sauce. I remember the ripple of excitement that passed through the lunch queue on the sporadic occasions that chips featured on the menu, even though they were inevitably tragic, flaccid specimens sporting a thin film of grease and possessing all the crunch of a waterlogged marshmallow.
I remember the smell of 'minty lamb stew' that crept through the halls and corridors like a noxious green ghost, assaulting my nostrils with its foul barrage - an indescribably vile smell, despite the fact that lamb and mint are inherently good things - and how it looked in the serving hatch like a vat of gravy with grass cuttings floating in it.
I remember the cold pizza that appeared at the salad bar and was always sought after, despite bearing an exact resemblance both visually and gastronomically to an item of roadkill smeared over a wedge of polystyrene. I remember my friendship group's obsession with the green Granny Smith apples in the fruit box at lunch, and the anxious wait for the first person to bite into theirs and declare whether they were a good or a bad batch - the former possessing the correct amount of crispness and acidity, the latter eating about as well as a tennis ball. I'd say it was about a 50-50 ratio, for the duration of my school days.
I remember the giant wedges of flapjack that often graced the dessert plates, and were one of the only desserts I would eat. They were thick, solid, sticky, peppered with raisins and saturated with fat and sugar; thus, I loved them. I still remember a friend of mine snatching one from my hand and taking a huge bite out of it, for no apparent reason. I don't think I've ever quite forgiven her.
Let's not forget the cornflake tart, which was some inexplicable creation resembling a treacle tart but using cornflakes instead of breadcrumbs. Today I wonder if one of the school cooks made it up for a dare/had run out of breadcrumbs/had a box of cornflakes to use up/was drunk/blind and/or deranged.
I remember what it was that put me off school dinners for good; the reason why my lunch for nine years consisted of a decidedly un-nutritious mix of long-life carbohydrate and fatty, processed cheese. It was my first and only bite of a 'tuna and sweetcorn lasagne', which so repulsed me that I remember declaring my outrage to my mother that such an item was even allowed to exist. To be fair to my school, at this point I ate nothing other than cheese, bread and fish fingers, so it's unsurprising that their hideous pseudo-Italian pastiche repelled me.
There was also 'Eve's pudding', a classic school-dinner combo of uniform fruit pieces (apple, in this case), probably from a tin, nestled underneath a giant wodge of wobbly, chewy sponge. This obviously came complete with a puddle of lurid custard, seeping wetly into the crumb. There were, naturally, variations on this, sometimes using pears. There was apple crumble, now my absolute favourite dessert, but back then something I never touched, as - not registering on my food radar because it didn't belong in any acceptable categories (i.e. a species of bread, cheese or processed fish product) - I steered well clear and regarded it with xenophobic suspicion.
I remember what a treat it was to be allowed a 'snack pack', only issued under highly strict conditions (forms had to be filled in) in dire circumstances - i.e. when you had a club or some other character-building extracurricular activity taking up your lunch break so were unable to make it to proper lunch. For some reason, these were always much nicer than the lunch served in hall. They also contained huge jam doughnuts, which were their main attraction. Sometimes, if you got to lunch really early and were very lucky, there might be a doughnut or two sitting proudly amongst the other lacklustre pudding offerings. Me being me, that notoriously picky so-and-so, I would nibble around the oozing jammy centre and then allow whichever of my friends had irritated me the least that day to finish off my sugary spoils.
Finally, I remember the lemon meringue pie. I remember this chiefly because I think it is the reason I now wear contact lenses. So blinding was its radiant neon yellow centre that my retinas have never been the same since it first graced the school pudding area.
It wasn't even yellow. Not yellow as you might think of yellow. Not the colour of dandelions or buttercups. This was a colour that I have never seen in any natural shape or form. The closest I can come to describing it is that it was the exact colour of the light sabers in my Star Wars lego sets. The colour of a yellow highlighter, tinged with green, lurid and unabashedly luminous. Like nothing in nature.
Actually, I know how to describe it perfectly. Imagine a large vat of washing-up liquid. The vivid yellow-green kind. Now imagine adding an almost-equally-sized vat of gelatine to this liquid. Now imagine pouring the resultant viscous slop into a pastry case, and whacking a pillowy froth of quivering meringue on top. You have, dear readers, my school lemon meringue pie.
I can only guess at its flavour and texture because, naturally, I never took a single bite. But I saw the way the tines of my friends' forks would cling tenaciously to that gelatinous neon interior, the way it would slice cleanly under the pressure of metal suggesting a texture reminiscent of Turkish delight. It glowed brightly in the dinginess of the lunch hall rather like a jellyfish loitering dangerously in the depths of the ocean, waiting to inflict its fake lemony sting upon the unsuspecting diner. I don't remember the meringue or pastry part, so preoccupied is my mind with this feat of engineering that was the green-yellow pie filling.
Despite this, I have an inkling that proper meringue pie can be a lovely thing. After all, I love pie, I love fruit, and I love meringue. Surely only good things can come of combining them all into one gloriously hedonistic and billowing dessert.
I've been meaning to make a meringue pie for a good few years. I really thought it was going to happen this spring, when I was totally set on the idea of a rhubarb and blood orange meringue pie, filled with a wonderful bright pink compote of Yorkshire rhubarb laced with the astringent snap of blood orange zest. I never got round to it, but the idea has nestled at the back of my mind for months. Then, the other day, faced with a glut of gooseberries (I am so into gooseberries at the moment), I came across a recipe in the trusty Diana Henry's Food From Plenty for gooseberry meringue pie. It was obviously a great idea - gooseberries have a lovely sharpness to them that is ideal for counteracting the sweetness of a frothy swathe of meringue.
Making a meringue pie is a lot easier than I thought. Yes, you can get all fancy with Swiss meringue and cooks' blowtorches and the like, but this is a simpler, more homely pie that just requires the composition of various elements and then a bake in the oven. There's a simple shortcrust pastry case, enriched with only the tiniest amount of sugar to provide a lovely savoury biscuity crunch against the other sweet elements; there's a rich, textured and delicious filling of stewed gooseberries thickened with cornflour and enriched with egg yolks; finally, there's a brilliant white blanket of meringue draped lovingly over the entire creation, light and airy in the centre with a crisp sugary exterior.
The gooseberry filling I could eat on its own; thick with chunks of berry and possessing that gorgeous honey-muscat aroma that gooseberries enjoy, it is sweet-tart and delicious. The use of cornflour and egg yolks to thicken it means it's really rich and lovely, almost like a jam. I used a mixture of red and green gooseberries, meaning the filling came out a lovely pink-tinged colour. It could have been rhubarb after all.
While the gooseberry and pastry combination is delicious on its own, it needs the sweet meringue to take the edge off the sour berries. This is a real adventure in tastes and textures, with the buttery crunch of the pastry playing against the gooey, sweet-sour filling, all smothered in the light and fluffy meringue that takes the edge off the tartness and provides a delicious crunch where its edges have browned and crisped in the oven.
I ate this first when it was still warm from the oven, but I'd actually recommend serving it chilled - keep it in the fridge and remove half an hour before serving. I don't know why it's better this way, but it just is - all the flavours seem to become more pronounced (which is odd, because usually the opposite is the case). It seems to improve with keeping, too, the filling becoming even more flavoursome.
I'm pretty thrilled that my first attempt at a meringue pie was successful. And what a far cry from that lurid yellow creation that still haunts me.
What are your memories of school dinners? Are there any particular culinary horrors forever imprinted in your mind?
Gooseberry meringue pie (serves 6):
(Adapted from Diana Henry's 'Food From Plenty')
- 140g plain flour
- 80g cold butter, cubed
- Pinch of salt
- 1 tbsp caster sugar
- Cold water
- 750g gooseberries, topped and tailed
- 150g caster sugar (or more to taste)
- 4 tbsp cornflour
- 3 egg yolks
- 3 egg whites
- 175g caster sugar
First, make the pastry. Put the flour, butter and salt into a food processor and blitz until it looks like breadcrumbs. Don't overprocess it as this will warm up the butter. Add the sugar and blitz again for a second, then gradually add enough cold water to make the mixture start to come together - around 1-2tbsp. Tip it out onto a floured work surface and press into a ball, then wrap this in clingfilm and chill for an hour or so.
Meanwhile, make the pie filling. Put the gooseberries in a pan with 2 tbsp water and the 150g caster sugar. Cover and heat gently, stirring occasionally. The gooseberries will release a lot of juice; some will turn to mush while others will keep their shape. When they are tender, strain through a sieve, reserving the liquid, then put the liquid back into the pan and simmer until there is around 200ml left.
Take 4tbsp of this gooseberry juice and mix with the cornflour, stirring vigorously to remove any lumps. When it forms a smooth paste, put this back into the juice in the saucepan and add the gooseberries. Bring to the boil and stir; the mixture will thicken. Turn off the heat, beat in the egg yolks, then pour into a bowl and leave to cool.
Pre-heat the oven to 190C. Grease a 22-23cm tart tin with a removable base. On a floured work surface, roll out the pastry and use it to line the tart tin. Leave some pastry hanging over the edges so it doesn't shrink - you can trim these bits later when the pie is baked. Line the pastry with greaseproof paper, fill with baking beans and bake for 15 minutes, then remove the paper and beans and bake for another 10 minutes, so it is golden and biscuity. Remove from the oven and cool for a few minutes, then use a knife to trim off any overhanging pastry from the edges.
Put the egg whites in a clean bowl and beat with an electric whisk to stiff peaks. Add a little of the 175g sugar, beat again, then add the rest of the sugar gradually while whisking, until the mixture has the appearance and consistency of shaving foam.
Pour the gooseberry mixture into the pastry case. Spoon the meringue evenly over the tart, covering the pastry edges and all of the filling. Put the oven temperature down to 180C and bake for 25 minutes, until the meringue is golden on top. Leave to cool on a wire rack, then remove the pie from the tin (the easiest way to do this is to rest it on an upturned bowl or a tin can; the rim of the tin should just fall away, and you can then transfer to a plate and slide the base off using a palette knife).
Dust with icing sugar, and serve at room temperature or lightly chilled (remove from the fridge around 30 minutes before serving).
You know you're on your way to mastering a foreign language when you're able to glean information regarding the flavour, texture and culinary potential of a strange fruit that you've never seen before, entirely in the vernacular. Such was the case in Italy last week, when I stumbled across a box of 'nespole' in a little fruit shop. I'd never seen them before; they looked rather like apricots, but more oval-shaped. Intrigued, I asked the shop-owner, a devastatingly sweet little old lady, if she knew what they were called in English. She shook her head. A rather faltering (on my part) Italian dialogue then ensued, during which I attempted to find out if they were like apricots, and - more importantly - if they were edible raw, or likely to poison me. The lady was effervescent about the virtues of this fruit, to the extent that she picked one up and started stroking it, and assured me that it was "dolce, dolce!"
My curiosity got the better of me, and I bought one, to her immense delight.
After a brief exchange during which I thought she was telling me about an English man she was going to marry in April, and which I later realised was her asking about the Royal Wedding (the word principe should probably have given it away - running a greengrocers didn't seem like the typical choice of job for an Italian prince's fiancee), I unwrapped my curious fruit from its paper bag and took a bite. It was delicious, and unlike any fruit I've tasted before. It had the texture of an apricot or a peach, but a more watery, juicy texture and a tartness reminiscent of underripe pineapple. Delighted, I decided I was going to buy a big bag to take home and experiment with in the kitchen.
Unfortunately, Mr Ryanair got in the way of these plans. My luggage was already four kilos over the allowance (which resulted in me having to carry back three kilos of rice, four cakes and a packet of biscuits in my hand luggage), and realistically I would never have been able to take a huge bag of fruit home without it turning to mulch, even if I could have fitted it in my bag. I said goodbye to Italy and to the nespole, wistfully thinking of culinary possibilities that might have been.
A quick google informed me that the more commonly-known (at least in England) name for these fruit is loquats. This excited me a little, because I had actually heard of them, and because I'm rather enjoying kumquats at the moment. It was rather like meeting the parents of a boyfriend you really like, and discovering that they too are excellent specimens of the human race. The 'quat' family keeps getting better and better with every introduction.
So imagine my sheer, unadulterated delight when, shopping in Cambridge market yesterday, I stumbled upon a box of 'nesperos', from Spain. They were right there, at the forefront of the market stall, as if the hand of some gastronomic god had descended from heaven and placed them there for me to witness. I eagerly bought a kilo, mind ablaze with excitement and wild culinary ideas. I am not ashamed to say that this literally made my day. I know it's a bit tragic, but I do get unfeasibly excited about new ingredients and new ways of cooking them, and couldn't wait to try out the loquats in a recipe other than simply 'eating raw in the streets of Vercelli'.
The ones I bought weren't completely ripe: they were very tart and had an astringency rather like a lemon. It was clear that I'd have to cook them before I did anything, which meant that the lovely custard tart with a topping of sliced loquats would have to take a back seat for a while. Undeterred, I quartered them, and mixed them with some brown sugar, orange flower water, cinnamon, and apricot jam. The reason being that they are similar, in a kitchen context, to apricots, and I usually bake apricots with honey, orange flower and cinnamon to bring out their rich sweetness. The apricot jam added a tart sugary flavour that really enhanced the loquats. The smell of the baked fruit emerging from the oven was sublime.
The loquats would have been perfect just like this, with no other adornment than maybe a scoop of vanilla ice cream (or one of my more strange flavours, like Earl Grey), but it struck me that their gorgeous marigold colour would look beautiful atop a mound of snowy meringue, and the sugary crispness of the meringue would marry perfectly with their dense, grainy texture and tart sweetness.
I whipped up a batch of meringues in the KitchenAid, baked them for half an hour, scattered with flaked almonds, and they were ready for their topping. Instead of whipped cream I used ricotta sweetened with icing sugar - I much prefer this as a meringue topping, and generally for any occasion where cream is required, largely because I don't like whipped cream (it tastes of air! it's a waste of calories! I'd much rather skip the whipped cream with my cake and have more cake!). A little ricotta, a pile of glistening, fiery loquat slices, and a nest of meringue, crumbly and crispy on the outside but beautifully gooey in the middle. I was delighted when I served them to a Spanish student we have staying with us, and she recognised the fruit at once: "we have these in our garden - nesperos!"
Oh. Actual bliss. I cannot express how delicious this is. Loquats are going to be my new fruit obsession. The remaining fruit I had on porridge for breakfast, with a drizzle of its roasting syrup, and it was probably the best start to the day I've had for a long time.
Thank you, little Italian greengrocer, for bringing this wondrous fruit into my life. Grazie mille.
Roasted loquat meringues (serves 5):
- 300g loquats, quartered and stones removed (you could also use apricots or plums)
- 2 dsp apricot jam
- 3 dsp brown sugar
- 1 tsp orange flower water (optional, but lends a lovely fragrance)
- 2 tsp water
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 175g caster sugar
- 3 egg whites
- A handful of flaked almonds (optional)
- Half a tub of ricotta cheese
- 4 tbsp icing sugar
First, place the loquats in a dish with the jam, sugar, cinnamon, flower water and normal water. Roast in the oven at 170C for about 30 minutes, until the fruit has softened and the liquid and jam has formed a syrup. Remove and leave at room temperature. Turn the oven down to 160C.
For the meringues, beat the egg whites until thick and soft peaks form. Gradually add the sugar until the mixture is the consistency of shaving foam. Make five little nests on a sheet of baking parchment with the mixture and a spatula, then scatter over some flaked almonds, if using.
Place the meringues in the hot oven and immediately turn the temperature down to 130C. Bake for half an hour, then leave to cool with the oven door slightly ajar.
Mix the ricotta with the icing sugar. Spoon a little on top of each meringue, then top with a spoonful of roasted loquats. Dust with icing sugar and serve immediately.