The New York Chronicles Part 2: Thomas Jefferson’s favourite

Thomas Jefferson – aesthete, polymath and third President of the United States – was also an ice cream fanatic. I love the fact that this intellectually dazzling politician was also the first American in history to write a recipe for home-made ice cream.

I know all about ice cream obsessives; my Grandfather ate a wedge of vanilla every day of his adult life and grew so inured to the chilly temperature that he could bite through ice cream as thick as a house-brick without wincing. He told me that he must have wooden teeth, which would have given him something in common with the first President of the United States, George Washington. It got me thinking – perhaps Thomas Jefferson churned ice cream for George Washington while they eased the Declaration of Independence into life. Maybe the United States of America really was built on ice cream.

On my recent trip to New York I ate ice cream that’s come a long way since Jefferson laboured over his churn. At a restaurant in the West Village I was served the culinary equivalent of a ten denier stocking and a walking boot – a quenelle of delicate Earl Grey Tea ice cream, sandwiched between two biscuits of porridge oats and dried cranberries.

You should know that I take tea very seriously – I drink so much of it that my children say I need to go into tea rehab. Seriously, what would possess anyone to combine the perfume of Earl Grey with a biscuit you could sole a shoe with?

You can probably guess where this is going. The dignity of tea must be restored.

Lemon Biscuit and Earl Grey Tea Ice Cream Sandwich

Earl Grey ice cream

1 cup full cream milk

2 cups of single cream

3/4 cup of vanilla sugar

6 Earl Grey tea bags

6 eggs yolks

Keep a jar of vanilla sugar in the cupboard, made by placing two vanilla beans in a jar and topping it up with caster sugar.

Warm the milk, sugar and one cup of the cream in a pan until hot but not boiling. Plonk the tea bags in, remove the pan from the heat and let it sit happily for an hour. Take the tea bags out, having given them a very gentle squeeze.

Beat the eggs yolks until smooth. Place the second cup of cream in a bowl with a sieve on top and put to one side. Reheat the milk, cream and tea mixture in the pan until it is warm but not hot. Very slowly whisk the cream mixture into the bowl of egg yolks, a ladleful at a time, stirring like mad so the yolks don’t transmogrify into scrambled eggs. Once the eggs have been completely incorporated into the cream mixture, tip the whole lot back into the pan and reheat, stirring constantly. Do not let it boil. Once the mixture has thickened enough for it to coat the back of your spoon rather than slosh straight off again, the custard mixture is ready. Pour it thorough the sieve that has been waiting patiently over the bowl containing the second cup of cream. Stir thoroughly and chill immediately for several hours.

Pour your custard into your ice cream maker, following the instructions.

Lemon Biscuits

Finely grated zest of one lemon

60 g of softened butter

Half cup vanilla sugar

2 eggs whites, lightly beaten

Half cup plain flour

Preheat the oven to 200 c.

Mix the butter and lemon zest together well. Beat in the sugar, stir in the egg whites and finally add the flour. The idea is to make biscuits that are neat circles. The easiest way to do this is to grease fairy cake tins and to spoon a thin layer into the bottom of each fairy cake depression. Bake in the oven for around six or seven minutes. Keep checking on them – they’re done when they’re pale in the middle but caramel brown at the edges. Prise out of the tin carefully and cool them on a plate.

Sandwich a tablespoon of ice cream between two biscuits – I think they look more chic if the bottom of the biscuit is on the outside. Like Willy Wonka’s tomato soup/roast beef/blueberry pie chewing gum, these ice cream sandwiches combine a complete meal in one mouthful – English Afternoon Tea. Earl Grey tea with a slice of lemon, posh sandwiches and delicate biscuits. Eat them outside and if it’s raining, so much the better. You want it to be authentic don’t you?

The New York Chronicles Part 1: there are welcomes and welcomes

There’s been some kind of mistake…. I’m supposed to live in New York. I’m quite sure about that. But in the absence of solid evidence that it’s going to happen any time soon, I paid my fantasy home city a brief visit to check that the two of us are still suited. Of course it was as wonderful as ever – once I’d got over the stone-cold greeting at JFK, surely the most churlishly unwelcoming airport in the world.

When it comes to being welcoming, the restaurant BLT (Bistro Laurent Tourondel) on East 57th Street has it taped. The waitress didn’t just bring delicious rolls the size of household buckets to the table the moment we sat down, she brought the recipe for them too. I’m serious. One of the dough mountains had a miniature recipe book dangling from its summit. The mini book has now crossed the Atlantic with me and is enjoying a cultural exchange with my cookery book collection in Oxford.

Shouldn’t more restaurants be doing this? Less of the ‘it’s a highly complex secret recipe that you couldn’t possibly recreate at home’ and more of the ‘yes, you can make it too and possibly just as well as we can.’

To be strictly accurate, BLT popovers are a cross between cheesy Yorkshire puddings and a hat you could wear to Ladies Day at Royal Ascot. And since BLT were so generous with the recipe, I’m sure they’d be happy for you to try it too.

BLT Popovers – makes 12

4 cups milk

8 eggs

4 cups flour

1.5 heaped tbsp salt

2.25 cups grated gruyere cheese

Popover pan

Place the popover pan in the oven. Heat the oven and pan to 350 degrees F. Gently warm the milk over low heat and set aside. Whisk the eggs until frothy and slowly whisk in the milk (so as not to cook the eggs). Set the mixture aside. Sift the flour with the salt. Slowly add this dry mixture and gently combine until mostly smooth. Once combined, remove the popover pan from the oven and spray with non-stick vegetable spray. While the batter is still slightly warm or room temperature (definitely not cool) fill each popover cup three quarters full. Top each popover with approximately 2.5 tbsp of the grated gruyere.

Bake at 350 degrees (175 degrees c) for 50 minutes, rotating pan half a turn after 15 minutes of baking. Remove from the oven, remove from the pan and serve immediately.

I made my version in a pan half as deep as BLT’s, but I don’t like chomping through a popover the depth of a good sized flower pot. I greased the pan with butter instead of vegetable spray and since I used half as much batter, I cut the cooking time from 50 minutes to 40.

Ten out of ten to BLT. One and a half to JFK … and in the airport’s case I’m being generous.

Rice pudding in stilettos

I’ve known how to make my Granny’s rice pudding forever. It was the first recipe I could recite by heart, not counting the Fried Bread Coated in Tomato Ketchup I created as a six year old to earn my Hostess Badge in the Brownies.

Granny hated being old enough to be called anything other than Peggy. So that’s how I always think of her. Peggy made a rice pudding most days, using a Pyrex bowl that was scoured and scratched with age, like a skating rink on a frenetic Friday night.

Into the misted bowl went 6 teaspoons of pudding rice, 6 teaspoons of sugar, 1 pint of full cream milk and a grating of nutmeg. The oven door was opened and the bowl filled with swirling white liquid disappeared inside. Two and a quarter hours later it emerged in triumph, a sweet, rich, creamy confection with the thinnest of brown, toasted tops. Rice pudding makes me think of home, steamed-up kitchen windows, laughing like a drain, dancing on the table and shocking pink lipstick … with a slightly mournful top note of past times.

Peggy’s recipe is still delicious and I often make it, but I’m going to give you a posher version in her honour. Peggy was glamorous, showy and full of fun. And she loved anything posh. She was a devotee of the eyebrow-pencil-down-the-back-of-the-legs alternative to unaffordable seamed nylon stockings. She had a collection of trompe-l’oeil polo neck jumpers that were nothing but a ribbed rollover neck, with a mini oblong flap attached front and back that she tucked into a patterned shirt – think prototype Versace. With so little to them, the fake jumpers were cheaper than their genuine rivals so she could afford to buy several colours.

To Peggy, the epitome of luxury was being able to do something ‘just for show’. So in her memory, here’s a rice pudding with glamour. A rice pudding in stilettos.

Posh Rice Pudding

Serves 4

6 teaspoons of pudding rice

6 teaspoons vanilla sugar

Half pint full cream milk

Half pint single cream

1 pinch saffron

Quarter cup sultanas soaked in quarter cup warm pudding wine or sweet sherry for an hour

Half cup unsalted pistachio nuts

Freshly grated nutmeg

Drain the sultanas and drink the sherry if you feel in the mood. Combine everything apart from the nutmeg and the nuts in an oven proof pudding bowl large enough to leave a one inch gap at the top.

Top with the finely grated nutmeg and then place in the oven for two and a quarter hours at 150 degrees C. The rice should be soft, but the mixture creamy rather than sticky.

As you serve it, finely grate another shower of nutmeg over each bowl and scatter a handful of crushed pistachio nuts on top.

Eat with your eyes closed while listening to Nat King Cole singing Unforgettable. This last part of the recipe is most important.

A Chocolate Palimpsest


I’ve found the oddest books in a secondhand book shop – First-Line Index of English Poetry 1500-1800 in Manuscripts of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, edited by Margaret Crum. The two huge volumes contain just the first lines of over 23,000 poems, spread across more than 1,000 pages. I hated the idea of all that effort sitting abandoned on the shelves, when other more flirtatious books were slinking out of the shop without even having to try. So I bought both volumes.

I’ve been teaching undergraduates the history of the English novel and at the end of term I felt they deserved a treat. The choice was either chocolates or a glorious new word to add to their lexicons. In the spirit of Margaret Crum, I chose the word over the confectionery.

My word gift was a really good one: palimpsest – a manuscript that’s been erased and on which new words have been written. Not a word to be used very often but, like caramel souffle, perfect for the big occasion. I asked my students if they agreed with my choice: palimpsest over Cadbury’s. Well, it turns out I got it wrong.

But I’m not giving up on the palimpsest. I’ve created a chocolate version, so the students get their way and I get mine. It’s called diplomacy. Or having your palimpsest and eating it too.

Chocolate Palimpsests

You should end up with a dozen.

Manuscript 1 – peanut butter biscuits

100g butter – if it’s unsalted, add a pinch of salt to the mixture. If it’s not, don’t.

100g crunchy peanut butter

125g golden caster sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 egg

Either 165g plain flour with a teaspoon of baking powder OR 165g self raising flour.

Mix the butter, peanut butter and sugar until smooth, then trickle in the vanilla extract and add the egg. Combine the lot into a tan coloured mixture. Separately, blend the salt and the baking powder and mix well into the flour (or just weigh out 165g self raising flour – it really doesn’t matter.) Fold the flour into the butter and peanut butter.

On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out and then flatten the top and sides to form a solid brick about five inches long and 2 inches square. Wrap the brick in cling film and chill in the fridge for a couple of hours. Don’t miss this bit out – if you do, the biscuits will ooze all over the baking tray before they get a chance to cook.

Heat the oven to 180 degrees C and butter a baking tray and line it with baking parchment. Cut the dough into 5 mm slices and place them on the tray with plenty of room to expand. Bake for about 10 minutes until golden. Allow to cool, while you make Manuscript 2.

Manuscript 2 – chocolate cream

150 g chocolate (70% cocoa solids)

150 ml double cream

25 g butter

20g icing sugar

Chop the chocolate roughly and put it into a bowl with the cream and butter. Melt it over a pan of simmering water, stirring well. Sift in the icing sugar. When it’s thoroughly mixed and a uniform glossy brown, put it to one side to set, but not too hard.

Turn the biscuits upside down to reveal their flatter sides, scoop up a wodge of chocolate paste on a knife and spread it on in a good, thick layer. Write something important/funny/daft/endearing/educational in the chocolate using a skewer or a cocktail stick.

Manuscript 3 – toasted almonds and chocolate shards

40g chocolate (70% cocoa solids)

A handful of flaked almonds

Melt the chocolate in a bowl placed over a pan of simmering water. Butter a baking sheet and cover it with baking parchment. Pour the melted chocolate onto the paper and spread it to a 5 inch by 7 inch rectangle. While it cools, toast the almonds in a dry frying pan, or in the oven for about ten minutes at 180 degrees C.

When the chocolate is firm but not rock hard, pull it off the paper and tear it into strips about half an inch inch wide. Tear each strip into half inch lengths. Push overlapping pieces of chocolate into half the peanut biscuits spread with chocolate paste and coat the remaining biscuits with almonds you’ve toasted lightly in the oven for ten minutes. You no longer have posh chocolate biscuits, you have palimpsests. If the message carved into the paste is one you’d like the recipients to see, ask them to peel back the top layer of chocolate or nuts. If you’d rather keep it secret, stay silent while they devour the evidence.