Last week I took the daring step of taking all the half-opened bottles of red wine out of my wine rack. There were seven. It's probably a good thing wine doesn't have a sell-by date on it, which would give me some indication of when those bottles were last opened and drunk from, because I'd probably be horrified by the length of time they'd been languishing. I'm not the biggest fan of red wine, nor do I cook a lot of heavy casserole-type recipes that involve stewing a piece of animal bathed in it, so wine brought by dinner guests tends to have a fairly extended shelf life in my kitchen. Seven bottles, though, is verging on ridiculous and they were taking up valuable space in the wine rack that I wanted to fill with gin. Naturally.Read More
There’s an obvious answer to the question ‘Why don’t people cook with gin much?’
The answer is, of course, thus: because why on earth would you want to cook with gin when instead you could do all of the following things with it, preferably in the following order:
1. Admire beautiful simplicity of bottle of gin.
2. Feel small thrill of excitement at the promise contained within said bottle’s glassy depths
3. Wonder if it is the right time of day to drink ginRead More
The other day, I found myself standing outside the Co-op near my house crying a little bit. I had been trying to lock up my bike, when it fell violently onto my leg, scraping off all the skin and hurting rather a lot (there is very little cushioning on a shin). It had generally been a pretty bad day, a day that started at 5.30am due to my inexplicably overactive mind deciding it needed no further rest, and which by 2pm had turned into - in my mind - a tragedy of epic proportions. Why had I not just gone straight home and avoided this painful bike scenario, I hear you ask? Well, obviously, I needed to buy two pineapples.
At the moment, I am completely obsessed with pineapple. It started with these pineapple pancakes, an attempt to assuage feelings of deep nostalgia after my trip to Vietnam. I ate quite a lot of pineapple over there - in pancake form but also in the smoothies that I became obsessed with, a fixture of my daily diet. You can also buy prepared pineapple in supermarkets over there, just like you can in the UK, but the Vietnamese have an interesting habit of eating underripe pineapple as a savoury snack, with salt and chilli - it would come shrink-wrapped accompanied by a little sachet of this spicy salt, for dipping. I prefer my pineapple sweet, though, hence the delight caused by its inclusion in breakfast pancakes.
After caramelising chunks of fresh pineapple with cinnamon, vanilla and brown sugar, a revelation occurred in my kitchen. While fresh pineapple is, of course, delicious - bursting with juice, sweet yet tart at the same time, bright and almost perfumed - having tasted its cooked and sugared form, I'm not sure I can possibly express how infinitely more wonderful pineapple is after a little heat treatment.
Then there was this recipe for chilli and ginger stir-fried pineapple, a dish I've made at least fifteen times since discovering it only a couple of months ago, which is something I can't say for anything else I've ever made. The combination is just ridiculously moreish, with the sour and salty notes of fish sauce and the aromatic ginger and garlic spiking the sweet juice of the fruit. I'm now a big fan of pineapple in savoury dishes, a combination found in this incredible Cuban-influenced caramelised pineapple and avocado salad recipe from the excellent Food 52: I stumbled across it recently and had to try the very next day.
It didn't disappoint; my favourite part was sprinkling thick wedges of the fruit with molasses sugar and caramelising them under the fierce heat of my grill, ramped up as high as it would go. The combination with the creamy, delicate avocado and the peppery watercress was something else.
A few weeks ago, I visited Dishoom, a fantastic 'Bombay Cafe' in Covent Garden. My menu choices were completely based around the fact that I knew I had to leave room for the pineapple crumble on the dessert menu. When it arrived, I was so glad I hadn't devoured a second bowl of lentil dahl. Underneath a deliciously buttery crumble lay a sweet, sticky blanket of caramelised pineapple, juicy and ridiculously tasty. The crumble crust was unusual in its texture, full of crunchy seeds and, I think, coconut, which added a beautiful dimension to this fabulous spin on a classic pudding. There was a hint of fragrant spice - the menu mentioned black pepper - which mellowed the acidic sweetness of the fruit. To top it all off, a scoop of cinnamon ice cream. It was one of the best desserts I've ever eaten.
So, naturally, I had to bring this combination of flavours into my own kitchen. And, incredibly, I think I got it absolutely right. It tasted exactly the same as the restaurant crumble. It's too good not to share. (The crumble itself, incidentally, is way too good to share - halve your estimation of how many people it will serve, right now).
When you melt butter in a pan and add molasses sugar (the really really dark, sticky, caramel-scented stuff), the world is instantly better. When you then add a sprinkling of cinnamon and a large amount of juicy fresh pineapple, it is almost too good to be true. When you then let that caramelise and turn soft, golden and toffee-esque, you may as well accept that few things will ever be as good. Finally, a splash of vanilla - heady, tropical fruity perfection. I added a dash of black pepper to my pineapple, to emulate the restaurant version - just enough to give the fruit a very slight spicy edge, but you'd never detect it was there unless you knew.
I've come across black pepper with pineapple before, in an Indian-style chutney. It works very well in dessert form too. Pineapple, though quite tart raw, is incredibly sweet once cooked with a little sugar; the pepper helps to mellow it a little, yet also allow its flavour to shine.
Tumble the pineapple into a baking dish. Then it's time for the crumble. This basically involved putting all the ingredients I love into a bowl. Spelt flour, for nutty flavour. Butter - of course. Demerara sugar, to give that all-important crumble crunch. Then we start to turn things a little bit sexy and exotic.
Ground cardamom, because its mellow fragrance works so well with all kinds of fruit and sweet confections. Desiccated coconut, an ingredient many people cannot spell and I wish would learn because it infuriates me. Sunflower seeds, for delicious nutty crunchiness and because I think the restaurant crumble had them, though it may have been pumpkin. Slivered pistachios, because they are green and pretty and I cannot think of anything that isn't improved by them (except perhaps a nut allergy).
Oh, the sweet goodness that was this crumble. I was thrilled with how it turned out, exactly as I was hoping. If I made it again, the only slight tweak necessary would be to add a little more butter to the topping - I used my normal crumble topping, but because I added a few extras (coconut, seeds, etc), I needed a little more butter to hold it together. It was, as I suppose it should be, quite crumbly, which is why it perhaps looks a bit of a mess in the photos. This had no impact, however, on the resulting taste. I've adjusted the recipe below to include a bit more butter.
Butter issues aside, the heady mix here of juicy, sticky, toffee-scented pineapple with an exotically spiced, crunchy, coconut-sweet, nutty crumble is just ridiculously good. For traditionalists who believe crumbles belong solely in the realm of orchard fruits or perhaps rhubarb, it's time to rethink things.
This is a dessert that will surprise and delight. The unexpected inclusion of pineapple in a crumble is pretty exciting alone, but when you combine that with the hint of peppery spice and the exotic allure of cardamom and coconut, you have something really special. I couldn't stop eating this. It's fabulous with vanilla ice cream, though one day I want to make cinnamon ice cream to go alongside, à la the restaurant original.
It's time to take pineapple out of the fruit salad and into the kitchen. If you haven't experimented with cooking this wonderful fruit before, I suggest you change this situation, starting with this crumble.
Definitely worth crying over outside the Co-op.
Spiced pineapple and coconut crumble (serves 4-6):
- 2 medium pineapples
- 25g butter
- 2 tbsp molasses sugar/dark brown sugar
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 160g plain/spelt flour
- 100g cold butter, cubed
- 50g demerara sugar
- 8 cardamom pods, seeds ground to a powder
- 80g desiccated coconut
- 25g sunflower seeds
- 1-2 tbsp cold water
- 40g pistachios, roughly chopped
First, make the pineapple mixture. Peel the pineapple and cut into small chunks, discarding the woody core. Heat the 25g butter in a large non-stick frying pan and, when melted, add the sugar and cinnamon. Add the pineapple and cook over a high heat, stirring, until soft, juicy and caramelised - about 5-10 minutes. It should have released a little bit of juice and be quite sticky and golden. Turn off the heat and add the black pepper and vanilla extract. Pour the fruit into a baking dish - I used a pie dish about 30cm in diameter.
Next, make the crumble. Pre-heat the oven to 170C. In a large mixing bowl, rub the butter into the flour with your fingertips until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar, cardamom, coconut and sunflower seeds, then stir in the cold water so that the mixture forms small 'pebbles'. Pour the mixture over the pineapple, gently pressing it down, then scatter over the pistachios.
Bake for around 35 minutes, until the topping is crispy and golden. Remove from the oven and leave to cool for 5 minutes before serving with vanilla ice cream.
My favourite meals are always the ones I feel I've earned. I don't generally like admitting to this, because the notion of 'earning' one's meals is often associated with pretty uncool food-related neuroses, and just generally isn't very socially acceptable. I'd hate you to think that I'm not the kind of person who gets anything less than the utmost joy out of food and eating. Obviously, if you know me at all you'll realise that food not only brings me joy, but it is basically the life force around which my universe revolves. Food brings excitement to my otherwise mediocre days. The act of sitting down three times a day to consume it is always a pleasure.
However, there are definitely certain circumstances under which I enjoy food a little more than usual.
Breakfast, for example, I find most enjoyable when consumed after I've made the gargantuan effort to get out of bed, don my swimming costume and head straight to the pool. This is best done seconds after waking, before my brain has time to fully register the madness of what I'm doing, and the fact that any sane person would be snuggling groggily under the covers, attempting to prolong that wonderful feeling of sleepy laziness before having to get up and be productive. I don't manage it as often as I'd like, to be honest, because I am not superhuman, but when I do occasionally find it in me to swim 1.5km straight after waking, the wonder of breakfast is multiplied tenfold.
There are hazards, admittedly. I often tend to eat twice as much for breakfast as I normally would if I've been swimming beforehand. There seems to be this giant bottomless pit of negative calories inside my stomach that requires a truly shocking amount of porridge/muesli/toast to bring it back to normal.
In fact, I generally have a bit of an obsession with exercising before eating. The food just tastes so much better if you're conceiving of it as not just food but fuel, as battery-recharging goodness that can be wolfed down without guilt or self-loathing. This is probably why some of my favourite meals have been those consumed while skiing. I remember doffing my ski gloves last winter to tuck into a giant crepe bursting with cheese, ham, and a quivering, just-cooked egg. I can still practically taste it, and the memory fills me with joy. There's something about this sport that seems to make it OK to consume vast, vast quantities of carbohydrates and fat without any second thoughts whatsoever.
Oh, I know what it is. It's the hunger brought on by the sheer terror of plummeting down a mountain with wooden planks strapped to your feet. Whets the appetite somewhat.
This notion of earning food doesn't always have to be exercise related, though. A few weeks ago I fainted while having one of those super-simple pin-prick blood tests. Properly passed out on the poor guy who was doing it. I felt horrendous afterwards, even once the blood had returned to my face and my lips stopped being the same colour as my skin. That was creepy. But oddly fascinating; I've never looked at myself in the mirror straight after fainting before. Anyway, I staggered home (deciding, quite wisely I think, not to cycle on the very busy road home) and the first thing I did was to cut myself a thick slab of the lemon drizzle cake I'd made for my mum earlier that week. I hadn't eaten any of it as I knew how much butter and sugar went into it, and was attempting not to be fat. But after that traumatic episode, all concerns about my waistline went out of the window. I had two pieces.
I told myself I needed it, anyway, to restore my blood sugar. Right?
Stress and sheer exhaustion are other factors that bring on this misguided feeling that I've 'earned' highly calorific foodstuffs. Last week I commuted to London to teach an English Literature summer school. It's great fun, but getting up at six every morning, cycling frantically to the station, sitting on the train for an hour, walking to school then teaching at a frenetic pace for five hours before repeating the commute in reverse definitely takes its toll. The most annoying thing is that after finishing a day's teaching I'm always really alert and buzzing (you kind of have to be, to keep up with a class of fourteen kids who at times seem to be cleverer than you), but by the time I've sat on the train home for an hour I feel like collapsing on the station platform.
This feeling gave rise to this banana pudding.
It's based on a recipe from one of my favourite dessert blogs, Pastry Studio. There it's termed 'Banana Sauce Cake', but in my eyes it's more of a pudding. The butterscotch element arises from the liberal use of dark sugar and brown butter, which lends it a gorgeous toffee-esque flavour.
I made this in part to use up a load of wrinkled black bananas which I couldn't bear to freeze. I normally peel and freeze them to use later in banana bread, but my freezer is already packed with them so I felt guilty about using up more space. Perhaps it's ridiculous that I couldn't just throw them out, as bananas cost about 10p each, but I loathe food waste. Seriously. If even the slightest morsel of food ever needs throwing away, I have to get someone else to do it. I physically can't bring myself to be the tipper of food into the voracious, gaping mouth of the kitchen bin.
The bottom of the pudding is a layer of sliced bananas. The spongey part is made rich, dark and delicious by using brown butter. For this you heat butter until it separates into white solids and yellow liquid, and then the liquid gradually turns golden, flecked with nutty dark bits that lend it this incredible warm, toasty, hazelnut taste (hence its French name, beurre noisette) and aroma. It's worth trying even if you don't intend to use it in a recipe: just sit and inhale the toasty butter. I guarantee it will make the world seem a better place.
To this is added lots of dark sugar, for a caramel colour and flavour, more banana, mashed, plus flour, egg, vanilla, milk, and other general cakey ingredients. You end up with a loose, golden batter, which you spoon over the sliced bananas.
But then magic happens. Seriously, it's a bit mad. You mix together a boiling, bubbling mixture of butter, water, molasses sugar (super-dark sugar that smells like coffee and Christmas and spices) and treacle, adding warm cinnamon and nutmeg (the banana's favourite flavours). You then pour this over the batter in the tin, being careful not to disturb it, then put the whole lot in the oven to bake.
Somehow, during baking, the liquid mixture soaks through the crumb of the sponge to saturate the cake at the bottom, pooling in luscious, toffee-scented puddles around the bananas and soaking into the pudding. It's like one of those self-saucing puddings. The top bakes to a chewy crunchiness, while the underside remains gooey, buttery, caramelly, and warm with the flavour of bananas, sugar and spice.
This was pretty much everything my exhausted (physically and mentally), world-weary self could have hoped for. It was rich, spongey, cakey, dense, sticky, gooey, buttery, sugary. Reminiscent of sticky toffee pudding in appearance and texture, only with more of a banana flavour. In future I might experiment with adding some dates and pecan nuts to the batter too, as I feel they could only improve it.
It's not a dainty pudding. It's not pretty. It's not really the most healthy, although there's actually very little butter in it, just rather a lot of sugar. But it's unrefined sugar, so that goes some way to making it better in my book. But the gist is that this is a rustic, hearty, proper pudding. It begs to be eaten with vanilla ice cream, which works so well with the hot toffee sauce and the sticky sponge that the recollection almost makes me want to weep with joy.
I most definitely, definitely earned this.
Although I probably didn't earn all three helpings that found their way into my mouth.
Banana butterscotch pudding (serves 4-6):
- 55g butter
- 3 very ripe bananas
- 150g plain flour
- 100g light/dark brown sugar
- 1 3/4 tsp baking powder
- 1/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 egg
- 120ml milk
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 240ml water
- 60g molasses sugar (or dark brown sugar if you can't find this)
- 1 tbsp black treacle
- 15g butter
- 1/4 tsp cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg (or more if, like me, you're a nutmeg fiend)
Brown the butter. To do this, heat it over a medium heat in a small saucepan (one with a light-coloured interior is best, so you can see the butter changing colour), swirling occasionally, until the white solids separate out and the liquid starts to become golden with small brown flecks in it. (There's a nice 'how to' guide here). Remove from the heat.
Lightly grease an 8x8in/20x20cm square cake tin. Slice two of the bananas and arrange evenly over the bottom of the tin. Pre-heat the oven to 170C.
Mix together the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, bicarb and salt in a small bowl. In another larger bowl, beat together the egg, milk and vanilla, then add the third banana and mash into the mixture using a fork. Add the browned butter to this and mix well. Fold in the flour mixture until you have an even batter with no white bits of flour remaining, then pour this over the bananas in the cake tin.
For the sauce, put the water, molasses sugar, treacle, butter, cinnamon and nutmeg in a small saucepan and bring to the boil, whisking to mix it all together. Leave to cool for a minute or so, then pour this evenly over the cake batter. Don't worry if it looks like it's curdling the mixture a little. Immediately put the cake in the oven, trying not to disturb the liquid on top too much.
Bake for 25-30 minutes, until golden and chewy on top and liquid underneath. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.
Now, I'm a firm believer in not messing around with the classics. The saddest thing I have ever eaten was a 'deconstructed rhubarb cheesecake'. I had actually awaited it with great anticipation. Quite naturally, I thought this 'deconstructed' business would essentially mean 'more biscuit base', so I was definitely game for that. In fact, I was basically imagining a huge bowl full of biscuits mixed with butter, and maybe some creamy concoction alongside. There may have been a bit of salivation occurring.
Imagine my utter horror when I was presented with a shotglass full of rhubarb juice, and another containing a bland white creamy substance with a few stray biscuit crumbs strewn across the top.
I feed the birds in my garden more crumbs than that.
It was utterly, utterly vile. It must have been, because I am still sickened by it eighteen months later, and I told everyone who would listen (i.e. no one) for weeks after the dinner about my horrifying experience.
If you are going to deconstruct something as wonderful as cheesecake, why in heaven's name would you take the BEST BITS and diminish them? Cheesecake should not be presented in a shotglass. The clue is in the name: cake is something that, generally, does not often find itself encased in glass. A bit like...oh yes, cheese. Cheese is also something that should not be found in this sorry state.
A few weeks ago, Tom from Masterchef tried to present a 'deconstructed lemon tart'. It was met with widespread condemnation and ridicule, drawing such comments as "it looks like he made a lemon tart then dropped it on the floor". In fact, I don't understand how it could have looked like it did without being dropped on the floor. Does 'deconstructed' translate as 'poorly and unsubtly rescued'?
Or just 'guaranteed to dismay'?
I once watched Raymond Blanc, my husband-to-be (apparently he's also quite good at cooking and some people have heard of him) make a deconstructed crumble on his Kitchen Secrets show. It is a mark of how strongly I feel about deconstructed desserts (and about crumble) that even this wonderful man could not tempt me with his bowl full of summer fruits topped with a circular biscuity thing.
That, my friends, is not crumble. Crumble is not a biscuit. Crumble is like a biscuit that you've taken a sledgehammer to, and then baked. On fruit. So it oozes up sumptuous sticky juice around the edges. Bubbling voluptuously. Calling out to be eaten with a scoop of ice cream. Begging to be returned to for seconds, and possibly thirds, and then that thing that I like to call 'fourths' that is generally best eaten with a teaspoon, straight from the pot, pan or dish, after the meal has ostensibly finished and you're just 'clearing up'. With your mouth.
The gist of all this being that classics are classics for a reason. They're awesome. Don't mess with them. Don't put cake in a glass. Don't try and make geometric art out of a crumble. Don't drop your lemon tart and then add some weird coulis and other rubbish to make up for it.
But then what do I go and do?
I put cardamom in a treacle tart.
Except I didn't put the tart in a glass. I didn't drop it, nor did I cut it out into a circle. I left it well alone. Apart from that teeny tiny little addition, I stuck with the classic.
And oh, my god. I can't understand why no one has ever done this before.
My thought process for this recipe was as follows:
I really, really, bloody want a piece of treacle tart. Like, now. Sticky and oozing and gooey and dentally suicidal and cringeworthily full of golden syrup. Ooh, I made breadcrumbs the other day and stashed them in the freezer. Definitely an excuse to make a treacle tart - frugality is my middle name. Oh no, wait, it's Frances. Close enough. I also have some awesome rhubarb in the fridge. I reckon they'd go really well together - the sharpness of the rhubarb will cut through that intense syrupy sweetness and also look very pretty on the plate. Hmm...what else could I add? I like to think in trios of flavours, for neatness. Rhubarb and cardamom go well. Would cardamom work in the tart? It could either be sublime or a total failure. But then if you think about it, some of the sweetest desserts and pastries I can think of, namely baklava and other syrup-drenched Middle Eastern sweets, use cardamom liberally, and that combination of intense sugar and citrussy spice is heavenly. Surely it should work. We will see. Time to buy a whole tin of golden syrup, empty it into a bowl of breadcrumbs, add some eggs, put the whole lot in a pastry case, then ring my dentist and arrange for either a filling or false teeth depending on how much of this tart I eat.
I love the look and feel of a treacle tart fresh out of the oven. It's gorgeously golden and satisfyingly spongy, with a lovely burnished rim of caramelised sugar around the edge. It's rustic in the extreme and promises total joy with every mouthful. I would like to sleep on it, occasionally rolling over and taking small bites to soothe me when I have nightmares.
It's also catastrophically bad for you, seeing as it contains an entire can of golden syrup. But you're hardly going to be eating it every day, so who cares. Embrace the syrup. Not literally - it's a nightmare to clean. My camera is covered in the stuff. As, probably, is the lining of my stomach.
Anyway, my gamble paid off. This is the best treacle tart I've ever had.
The addition of cardamom is, I have to say, a stroke of genius. Plus I scoured the internet and I've never seen cardamom added to a treacle tart before, so dare I even venture that this might be an original idea?
Surely not. But I like to dream, so humour me.
It's sticky and sweet, but the filling doesn't adhere to your teeth because of the eggs beaten into it, which keep it light and almost fluffy. There's the juice of a lemon which, coupled with the citrussy, fragrant cardamom lifts the whole thing into that gorgeous sweet-slightly sour territory that is just so addictive. The pastry is light, crumbly and buttery, balancing everything perfectly.
Add some poached rhubarb on top (not, I should add, served from a shot glass) for a sweet tang and a contrast in texture, and you have one of the best desserts I've ever made, or even eaten for that matter. You don't have to include the rhubarb - the tart on its own is incredible and is perfect eaten with some cold cold vanilla ice cream to counteract its chewy sweetness.
Seriously, I cannot get over how good a treacle tart is with cardamom in it. I want to make it again, just to check I wasn't hallucinating and that it is actually as amazing as I think it is. Actually no, I want to make it again so I can eat the entire thing. It's reminiscent of all those syrupy Middle Eastern pastries, but even better.
I'm a firm believer in not messing with the classics...with this small and sublime exception. At least I didn't drop it and put it back on the plate.
Cardamom treacle tart with poached rhubarb (serves 8):
(Adapted from a BBC recipe here)
- 225g plain flour
- 110g very cold butter, cubed
- Cold water
- 450g can golden syrup
- 90g fresh breadcrumbs
- 2 eggs, beaten
- Zest and juice of 1 lemon
- 1 heaped tsp ground ginger
- 10 cardamom pods, seeds crushed and ground to a powder
- 200g rhubarb
- 4 tbsp caster sugar
First, make the pastry. Blitz the flour and butter together in a blender (or rub together with your fingertips) until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the cold water, 1 tbsp at a time, until the dough just comes together. Tip out onto a floured work surface, form into a ball, then roll out to a thickness of 0.5cm. Line a 23cm tart tin with the pastry, letting it overhang the edges a little (you can trim them after cooking - it'll shrink otherwise). Chill for 30 minutes in the fridge.
Pre-heat the oven to 190C. Prick the bottom of the pastry case with a fork and line with greaseproof paper. Fill with baking beans/dried pulses to weigh it down, then bake for 15 minutes until turning golden. Remove the beans and paper and bake for another 5-10 mins until crispy.
For the filling, mix together the syrup, breadcrumbs, eggs, lemon juice, ginger and cardamom. Pour into the case then bake for 30 minutes until golden and slightly brown around the edges. Leave to cool before dusting with icing sugar.
For the rhubarb, slice it into 1-inch lengths and place in a small pan with the sugar and a tiny splash of water. Simmer until it just starts to disintegrate. Check the sugar - you might want a little more if your rhubarb is very acidic.
To serve, slice the tart using a very sharp knife, spoon over a little of the rhubarb compote, and serve with vanilla ice cream.
I may have mentioned my habit of obsessively hoarding fruit in season. The other day I woke up with a faint sense of panic. It took me an entire morning to realise its cause; I had a vague inkling that cherries were slowly disappearing, steadily growing in price which no doubt signalled an upcoming dearth. Slightly maddened by this, thinking of all those cherry recipes I had yet to try, I rushed to the market and the supermarket and stockpiled a kilo and a half of the little red fruits. I spent a pleasant twenty minutes (apron-clad, of course) pitting them before methodically placing them into freezer bags and consigning them to the icy depths of the deep freeze. Suddenly I became sadly aware of their multiple sweet and savoury possibilities, painfully conscious of the fact that a mere one and a half kilos would not be enough to satisfy my creative culinary requirements. I spent a difficult day in this state before reminding myself that actually, I don't even like cherries all that much. I now just feel slightly ashamed at my ridiculous, child-like nature, wanting something just as I realise I might not be able to have it for much longer.
So when I spied some damsons on sale the other day, I snapped them up without hesitation. I'm on holiday in Yorkshire at the moment (as I speak the rain is falling in thick curtains outside the open door, the patio already so flooded that ripples appear where the drops fall, and the sky is a steady, unwavering shade of grey that, if I had to name it on a paint chart, I would call "Meh"), and revelling in all the wonderful things the countryside provides. Unfortunately it's a bit too early for blackberries (though they're proliferating wildly down south, which just goes to show the massive difference in climates that my mother, a Yorkshire lass born and bred, is always so keen to deny), but a trip to the little deli on the high street near our cottage turned up some treasures, as usual. The last time I paid a visit there, I was rewarded with huge thick stalks of neon-pink Yorkshire rhubarb, sweet and tangy, which I simmered into a compote and ate smothered on top of hot, raisin-studded porridge. This time, it was the turn of plums and damsons.
Plums and damsons have also succumbed to my hoarding tendencies. Last autumn I became rather fond of plums on my porridge, and decided that I should try and preserve some. I'd done it with apricots a few weeks previously, keeping them suspended in a large kilner jar in a sugar syrup infused with cinnamon, orange flower water and cloves (I ate them about 6 months later, once apricots had disappeared from the market and I was missing their sunshine colours and beautiful jammy sweetness - they were delicious). I tried it with plums, throwing a few damsons in there too simply because I'd heard they were good and worth preserving, though I'd never actually tried them myself. Unfortunately, this experiment was a disaster. For some unknown reason, the plums started to ferment, bubbling viscously out of the sealed jar to the point where my mum, terrified that they'd explode all over the kitchen, moved the jar outside and begged me to let her throw them away. Heartbroken at the thought of parting with my plums, but more afraid of breaking the lovely preserving jar, I eventually agreed. Fail.
I now realise that this was a bit of a fruitless notion (literally), because plums are around pretty much all year. Yes, they're imported and often horrible, but I've feasted on delicious specimens from the market in Oxford for months after the English ones have gone; huge, regal purple orbs that soften deliciously when simmered in orange juice with raisins, cloves and ginger. Plums, like apricots, are one of those fruits that you can nearly always rectify with cooking and judicious use of warm spice. My desire to preserve them, I think, stemmed mainly from the fact that the English varieties are so much more beautiful than their imported cousins, which are often uniformly spherical and uniformly coloured, a dark maroon bordering on black. English plums come in all shapes and sizes, are often delicate ovals rather than squat spheres, and are frequently beautifully coloured, a delightful mottling of green, blushing pink and dark purple, sometimes with a patch of blood red or black. I love seeing them all piled up at the market, several different varieties on sale, all with their individual charms and culinary advantages.
Damsons are new to me. They're like tiny little plums, often used to make jams or jellies because of their strong, sweet-tart flavour (you can also use them to make gin, as with sloes). They're only around for a short time, usually early autumn, though the seasons seem to be a bit weird at the moment, and everything is appearing earlier. I've read a lot about them, particularly in Nigel Slater's books, but I've never cooked with them before, mainly because they're such a faff to de-stone. However, the sight of them at the deli the other day couldn't fail to entice me. They were tiny, like marbles, some perfectly round, others more tapered, some with little green stalks still attached, all of them a wonderful deep, inky purple. I bought a few handfuls, along with some lovely little plums. There were greengages, too, which I hope to cook with again before the season is over, after the success that was my greengage and almond cake. The damsons were indeed a pain to de-stone, leaving me with filthy fingernails and mild RSI, but the result was worth it - I didn't want spitting out stones to get in the way of good cobbler enjoyment. I didn't have my cherry pitter here, but I'm not entirely sure it would have worked anyway, as the stone to fruit ratio is higher than with cherries.
I didn't really need to think about what to do with the plums. It was always going to be a cobbler, my absolute favourite pudding and so versatile, working with almost all fruits. You end up with a gorgeous layer of warm, jammy, soft fruit, topped with a delicious scone crust that is all soft and fluffy where it meets the fruit juice, and crunchy on top where it's been sprinkled with demerara sugar and baked to a satisfying sweet crisp in the heat of the oven. I thought the dark plum juices would work perfectly with the scone topping. Damsons, it transpires, are really very tart - you need quite a lot of sugar in this cobbler to balance out their sourness, but it's still delicious even when on the sharp side, especially with lots of vanilla ice cream to introduce some calming, sugar-laden dairy.
As an aside, don't you just love this pie dish? I found it in the cupboard here - I think it must have been my Nanna's. It's just the right size to fill with sugar-sprinkled fruit and a comforting doughy crust - not quite apple pie, but still deliciously sweet, warming and autumnal.
This is exactly the thing for a rainy evening in Yorkshire. I love the tart plum juices against the dense, crunchy scone dough. I had to make do with the ingredients I found in the larder up here (one of the perils of being an obsessive cook and going self-catering is that there's always one 'crucial' ingredient missing) - I'd have liked to put almond essence in the plum mixture and some flaked almonds on top of the cobbler to turn toasty and delicious, but this was still wonderful without. You can play around with the spices, too, using ginger instead of cinnamon (or both), or maybe some nutmeg or cardamom. The inclusion of oats and wholemeal flour in the topping gives it a delicious nutty texture and flavour which is perfect against the sharp fruit. Delicious.
Plum and damson cobbler (serves 4):
- 800g plums and damsons, stoned and halved
- 6 heaped tbsp caster sugar
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- A splash of orange juice
- 100g wholemeal flour
- 40g oats
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 25g cold butter, cubed
- 25g demerara sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
- 150ml buttermilk or yoghurt
Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
Arrange the plums in a pie or baking dish. Mix with the caster sugar, cinnamon and orange juice. Put in the oven for 10 minutes while you make the cobbler topping.
Put the oats, flour, baking powder and demerara sugar in a large bowl. Rub the butter into the mixture until it resembles fine breadcrumbs, as you would for a crumble. Pour in the buttermilk and mix to a soft dough.
Remove the dish from the oven and dollop the cobbler mixture in spoonfuls over the top. Sprinkle with a little more demerara sugar and return to the oven for 30 minutes. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.