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"A gentle hum of happiness" Dessert

"a dessert must feel familiar, yet somehow improved." Yotam Ottolenghi

Another day, another quote, this time from Yotam Ottolenghi - yes both of the above - because it was his turn to introduce/edit the weekly Guardian newsletter which is now called Feast.

The full context of this post's header is as follows:

"I’m always grateful for a little more time at the dinner table. Dirty plates out of sight, it’s time to tuck into an espresso and something sweet. It’s the natural end to any meal, a neat wrap-up that means we leave the table with a gentle hum of happiness."

I so liked that last phrase as it made me feel warm and content. Of course it's just an introduction to some featured recipes from The Guardian, and it may not even have been written by him, but never mind. What it did, other than the warm and cosy glow, was make me ponder on why David and I hardly ever have dessert. Not even as a weekend treat. Indeed I suspect that these days many people no longer do dessert, and even when eating out I am always somewhat disappointed when everyone declines dessert. I think it's because they are either conscious of their weight, or maybe their wallet, and do not want to appear greedy. I eat out so rarely that dessert would be a real treat.

And desserts should be a treat, although I have memories of lots of desserts at home, and at school - even if some of them - the school ones - were not that wonderful. Tapioca and semolina definitely not, but jam roly-poly, spotted dick, pink blancmange - yes even blancmange - and lemon meringue pie - now all of those I remember fondly. And I forgot bread and butter pudding. Rice pudding at school was pretty horrible but rice pudding at home was wonderful.

And custard - such a wonderful thing. I remember my poor mother had to make two lots - one runny and one thick, because of the fussiness of her children. Well I guess she didn't have to - but she did. I fear it was made from a packet, but we loved it anyway. Well we didn't know any better. It was interesting that when Ottolenghi canvassed his test kitchen people on their favourite desserts a large number of his multicultural crew definitely veered towards those very same things that:

"for Brits it tends to denote a warm, jammy or raisin-studded dessert cradled in a pool of custard, cream or semi-melted ice-cream." Ottolenghi

He also noted that most of the favourites of his team - of anyone really, were very closely related to nostalgia, and memory:

"Dessert, to me, isn’t always meant to impress, either; it’s sometimes meant to take you somewhere. To your grandma’s kitchen table, maybe. Or a time you spent abroad. Even the school canteen, perhaps." Yotam Ottolenghi

I fear the dearth of desserts these days - at least among the dietary conscious class - is all down to a belief that we should not be eating anything sugary and sweet and calorie laden. And to be fair most of those desserts I have mentioned - plus all the sumptuous things from the rest of the world, are indeed not good for you. But then as my grandmother used to say: "A little bit of what you fancy, does you good." It gives you a "gentle hum of happiness"

Also interestingly - well interesting to me because I agreed - was that his test kitchen team didn't much go for chocolate. In our house David is a chocolate freak, so actually what happens is that he makes us feel good by eating an apple after dinner, but then fills up on chocolate. As many people do. Chocolate is overpowering thought. We had an immensely rich chocolate cake at our book group meeting the other day. It really was just too much. Chocolate after dinner, however, doesn't quite count as dessert. Neither do the biscuits and cheese that I often have late in the evening. We deceive ourselves.

Amongst all those British puddings, Ottolenghi mentioned lemon meringue pie and featured a few including that one at the top of the page, which is a no bake version from Ravneet Gill which might end up looking wonderful but it's basically just whipped sugary egg whites, blow-torched. So I got a bit distracted from the more general topic of dessert by lemon meringue pie, because it has been lurking at the back of my consciousness for a while now.

Apparently Ottolenghi began his cooking career as a pastry chef and during that time made thousands and thousands of meringues. He is apparently famous for these passionfruit curd meringue tartlets which you can buy from his English delis. I cannot find the actual recipe online, but the website He-Eats has a slightly adapted one. I noticed that he too did not cook the meringue - just blow-torched it. Now I'm sure my mother didn't use a blow torch but maybe she just put it under the grill.

Felicity Cloake, of course, checked out a few ways of doing the whole lemon meringue tart thing in order to find the absolutely perfect way of doing it, and she had such a lovely introduction:

"If any dish could be described as blowsy, it's the lemon meringue pie; that overblown Dolly of desserts, all sweet bouffant meringue above a core acid enough to put young Jolene right off her game. There's something joyously vulgar about its showy charms, and its brief but brilliant flowering – it won't keep long enough to reward moderation, so gorge yourself before it's gone. Because of this, and because it seems to be something of an endangered species on menus these days (right up there with black forest gateau and île flottante), the LMP is a recipe well worth mastering. After all, who knows when you might be called upon to soothe a broken heart with such sugared succour?"

I like the idea that because it doesn't last very long you have to really spoil yourself and eat it all up at once. She also doesn't think the blow torch thing is the way to go because: "It looks good, but lacks the crisp shell that cracks so satisfyingly beneath the spoon in the other pies." So she bakes the tart shell, makes the lemon curd, which is poured into the shell and left to cool, before topping with the meringue and baking for around a quarter of an hour. I think this is probably what my mother did. And I bet she didn't pipe the meringue on top either, and she may have just used a bought jar of the lemon curd. Maybe I should have a go next time somebody gives me a big bag of lemons.

No custard with this though. Ottolenghi and his people divided their favourite desserts into four categories - creamy, boozy, fresh and fruity. His favourite was creamy and boozy - Zabaione and yet there is apparently no recipe online anyway for this particular dish from him. He simply gives a link to Rachel Roddy's version. Which is interesting again, because you would think that if it was a favourite thing he would have messed with it a bi - 'improved' it. But maybe that's exactly the point. His mum used to make it - topped with peaches in syrup with a can - and therefore it is perhaps too precious to share - or indeed change.

Maybe we should have written down all those favourite things that our mothers used to make for us. Some were so simple that I can indeed replicate them - that rice pudding for example. Just cover the bottom of a dish lightly with short grain rice, sprinkle over a good layer of sugar, cover with milk - quite deeply, sprinkle over mixed spice or nutmeg and bake in a slow oven for a longish time. It's a winter dish though. Others I cannot remember how she made.

Last weekend I made dessert for my family - it was a very hot day, so I just stewed some fruit, with sugar, maple syrup, red wine and mandarin juice which we ate with ice cream. There was some left over and we brought it home. Ottolenghi's article prompted my memory. I had forgotten it - so that's what we shall have tonight. It's Friday - quiche night - mushrooms and bacon tonight - and some chilled stewed fruit will be perfect to eat in front of the television afterwards, because it's warm again today. In this case simple really is best.

Is it 'familiar but somehow improved'? Yes I think so - we would not have added red wine or even maple syrup in my youth. And you know if worst comes to worst, even fruit from a tin is OK in spite of Jane Grigson's tart words about tinned fruit. I often choose it from hotel breakfast buffets - topped with toasted muesli. I should also add yoghurt, but I'm not that healthy in the morning.

After dinner and at breakfast are the true treat times.

So I will end with these wise words from Zoe Williams in The Guardian, as they particularly apply to desserts I think. Think about this next time you are thinking about cooking a dessert:

"never assume you can do something just because you’ve seen it on TV a few times."

And I vow from now on to have at least one sweet treat every week.


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Mar 15

Ate a French style vanilla slice after oven baked pork and fennel sausages last night. Felt guilty . Not to be repeated too often.


Mar 15

We have dessert after every meal. It wouldn’t be complete without something sweet

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