When I start to see gooseberries at the market, I get almost as excited as when I spy first season rhubarb at the market. I feel quite similarly about these two fruits: they're underrated, quintessentially British, and great fun to experiment with in all sorts of recipes, both sweet and savoury. They both work well with mackerel, they both make great jam, and they both add a pleasing tartness and vibrant colour to creamy or baked desserts. One of the classic partners for gooseberries is elderflower; I often wonder who first came up with this idea, but it does work: the elderflower gives a pleasing fragrance and sweetness to what can be a very sharp berry. It also helps to mellow the rather unpleasant aroma of cooked gooseberries; they taste great, but always smell a bit weird, rather like ripening tomatoes. After receiving a box of gooseberries in my organic veg box last week I decided to try them out in a cobbler, my favourite hot pudding. It may be June, but it's pretty damn cold: I'm not abandoning my cobbler in favour of a fool or a sundae just yet.
The recipe booklet in my veg box featured a pear and gooseberry crumble. I would never have thought of combining gooseberries and pears, but it makes sense. A crumble or cobbler with pure gooseberries might be a bit overpowering, as they are quite tart, and also turn to mush during cooking. The inclusion of pear provides some texture - it remains fairly crunchy if you don't pre-cook it - and their flavour is mild enough not to exclude the lovely gooseberries. They also have a nice fragrance about them that works well with the elderflower. You could use apples, but you wouldn't get the same effect.
I love the look of these pears; they have the most beautiful matt, russet skin, which usually suggests a fragrant specimen. I think they are the Bosc variety. I wasn't disappointed, and nibbled my way through a whole one while chopping them for the cobbler; they were quite crunchy, but still flavoursome. I didn't bother to pre-cook them, but if you like your fruit fairly soft and soggy in a crumble then you might want to. After topping and tailing nearly two kilos of gooseberries (a kitchen task second in tedium only to de-bearding three kilos of mussels), they went in two dishes with the chopped pears, a generous splash of elderflower cordial, and quite a lot of caster sugar - gooseberries are extremely unpleasant to eat raw, so you need quite a lot of sugar - the same goes for summer rhubarb. The fruit looked rather beautiful, sitting in the dishes with its frosty sprinkling of sugar. It also, as my friend observed, gave me the opportunity to "show off my Le Creuset collection". I bought a beautiful purple heart-shaped baking dish ages ago at the Le Creuset outlet store and hadn't used it before now.
For the cobbler topping, I rubbed butter into flour and baking powder, added brown sugar, then stirred in some natural yoghurt. This is actually a rather healthy dessert, as there's only a small amount of butter required. It's much less fattening than crumble, and I love cobbler because of the way the top cooks to give a nice crunch. It's essentially a sort of scone dough, dropped in spoonfuls on top of the fruit and left to spread out and fluff up in the oven. Adding demerara sugar to the top gives it a pleasing sugary crunch. You get a nice crisp crust with a lovely fluffy interior, and because it has less fat you can eat twice as much. Brilliant.
About half an hour later, I removed my bubbling cobblers from the oven. Perfect, apart from one small issue: gooseberries emit enough water when cooked to save Britain from drought for the entire summer. I hadn't considered that when I put the dishes into the oven. However, it's a problem easily solved: either add a couple of tablespoons of cornflour to the fruit when you mix it with the sugar and elderflower (it will form a sort of paste and look horrible, but persevere), or pre-cook the gooseberry and pear filling for a few minutes and remove the fruit from its juice with a slotted spoon. I'm not sure which would work best; next time I'll try the cornflour as it's easier. It doesn't really matter though - I just dished up the cobbler with a slotted spoon, so that each portion got all the fruit but wasn't drowning in watery juice.
Despite juiciness, this is really delicious. As I said before, you get a really nice contrast in texture between the squashy berries and the firm chunks of pear, as well as a contrast in tartness; the gooseberries are still quite sour, but the pear is lovely and sweet so they work very well. There's also a hint of sweet elderflower running through the whole thing. Add to that a golden, fluffy scone layer on top, soft underneath where the fruit juice has soaked into it, and you're pretty close to dessert perfection. All you need with it is some good vanilla ice cream - I thought about making a weird and wonderful flavour to go with it, but there are so many nice flavours going on in the cobbler that it would just complicate matters. This is the perfect summer pudding for when the weather consistently proves disappointing.
Pear, gooseberry and elderflower cobbler (serves 4):
- 4 pears, cored and chopped
- 500g gooseberries, topped and tailed
- 3 tbsp elderflower cordial
- 180g caster sugar
- 2 tbsp cornflour
- 140g plain flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 25g butter
- 25g light brown sugar
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 150ml buttermilk or natural yoghurt
- Demerara sugar, for sprinkling
Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
Mix the pears, gooseberries, cordial, caster sugar and cornflour in a baking dish. In a separate bowl, rub the butter into the flour and baking powder until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the ginger and brown sugar. Add the buttermilk or yoghurt, and mix to form a fairly thick, sticky dough. Dollop this in spoonfuls on top of the fruit mixture in the baking dish - you don't have to completely cover it. Sprinkle generously with demerara sugar.
Bake for about 30 minutes, until the topping is golden and the fruit is bubbling around it. Serve with vanilla ice cream.