Faster than the Speed of a Poached Pear

The news that sci­ent­ists have recor­ded sub­atomic particles trav­el­ling faster than the speed of light has been greeted with aston­ish­ment. I’m no doubt miss­ing out a mil­lion links in the sci­entific chain here, but in its simplest form it shoots craters into Albert Einstein’s sac­red prin­ciple that noth­ing travels faster than light. It might be pos­sible to watch these particles, known as neut­ri­nos, leav­ing after they’ve arrived in the place where we’ve already seen them. Roughly trans­lated, it raises the pos­sib­il­ity of going back­wards in time.

Time travel is some­thing cooks have been able to do for gen­er­a­tions of course. Noth­ing will trans­port you back to a moment in your child­hood, a summer’s day or a per­fect birth­day, like the taste and aroma of the food that you ate at those golden moments.

Without fail, the sight of a poached pear takes me back to Italy circa 1991. A softly spoken, eld­erly chef called Benito told me that the only way to check if a poached pear is per­fectly cooked is to pierce it with the quill of a wild Umbrian por­cu­pine. To make sure that I’d always cook per­fect pears in future, he gave me a quill as a present. (Benito didn’t speak a single word of Eng­lish, so it’s per­fectly pos­sible that I com­pletely mis­un­der­stood him and that what he was really say­ing was that the sharp point of a por­cu­pine quill is the per­fect weapon to attack people steal­ing pears from your tree.)

This morn­ing, I was trans­por­ted back to my con­ver­sa­tion with Benito when I found some beau­ti­ful Con­corde pears at the market.

So, com­pletely unaided and without a single neut­rino in sight, I take you back 20 years. Until neut­ri­nos really prove their stuff, this is the finest time travel I know — the culin­ary kind.

POACHED PEARS WITH BUTTERSCOTCH ICE-CREAM AND PEAR CRISPS

Serves 4

For the Poached Pears

  • 4 ripe, firm pears such as concorde
  • 300ml red wine
  • 100ml water
  • 1 cin­na­mon stick
  • 1 star anise
  • 80g caster sugar

Peel the pears, slice a piece off the bot­tom so they will stand up straight once cooked, Remove the core from under­neath, or leave it in if you prefer. Com­bine all the other ingredi­ents in a pan, heat until the sugar is dis­solved and then add the peeled pears. Make a car­touche out of greaseproof paper. This is simply a circle of paper the same dia­meter as the pan with a small circle cut out of the middle to allow steam to escape. Press the car­touche onto the pears to keep them in the liquid as they cook. Sim­mer gently for around an hour, until the point of a knife, or a por­cu­pine quill of course, slides in eas­ily. Allow the pears to cool in the poach­ing liquid. When the pears are cool, remove them from the liquid. Reduce the liquid to a rich syrup.

For the Pear Crisps

  • I pear
  • 25g caster sugar
  • 1 table­spoon lemon juice
  • 100ml water

Heat the oven to 110 degrees C. Boil the water, pour into a bowl and add the sugar and lemon juice. Stir until dis­solved. Slice the pear finely using a man­dolin if you have one, or a very sharp knife. Dip the slices in the sugar water. Bake in the oven on a tray lined with bak­ing paper for around 1.5 hours, until the slices are dried out, but not yet brown.

For the But­ter­scotch Ice-Cream

But­ter­scotch

  • 225g unsalted butter
  • 170g brown sugar
  • 50ml water
  • Pinch of salt
  • 150ml cream
Cus­tard
  • 225g cream
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 475g semi skimmed milk
  • 8 egg yolks

First make the but­ter­scotch, by com­bin­ing the but­ter, sugar, salt and water. Sim­mer for 15 minutes, until the col­our darkens to a pale car­a­mel brown. Keep stir­ring so that it doesn’t burn. Take off the heat and stir in the cream. It will bubble and churn up. Put to one side to cool.

Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together until they become pale, creamy and form trails when you lift the whisk and let the mix­ture drip into the bowl. This is called the ‘rib­bon stage’. Com­bine the cream and milk and bring almost to the boil.

Whisk a spoon­ful of the cream mix­ture into the egg and then trans­fer the egg mix­ture into the pan of cream. Keep whisk­ing con­stantly to avoid it turn­ing to scrambled eggs. Con­tinue to heat gently and when the cus­tard is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. sieve the mix­ture onto the but­ter­scotch, stir well and pour into a chilled bowl to cool down. Once cold, churn in an ice-cream maker.

Assemble the pear, crisp, ice-cream and syrup. While you eat, spec­u­late about the pos­sib­il­ity of eat­ing poached pears which haven’t been made yet. That way you get to eat them before the washing-up even exists.

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Smoked Salmon and Pentimenti

The Leonardo da Vinci exhib­i­tion at London’s National Gal­lery has only just opened, but it’s already sold out. Not bad, con­sid­er­ing that fewer than twenty of his paint­ings survive.

I was cap­tiv­ated to hear that the work newly attrib­uted to Leonardo, Sal­vator Mundi, was only firmly estab­lished as being his by its ‘pen­ti­menti’. Loosely trans­lated, pen­ti­menti are ‘marks of repent­ance’ — in other words, adjust­ments, mis­takes, rethinks, alterations.

As a meta­phor for life, what could be bet­ter than the real­isa­tion that we’re defined by our mis­takes, rather than by our breezy suc­cesses? You can take the gloomy view and assume this means we can never shrug off our fail­ures. Or, like me, you can take the Pol­ly­anna line of argu­ment that we’re shaped, tempered and for­ti­fied both by our imper­fec­tions and by the things we elect to change.

One of my most pre­cious pos­ses­sions is a sil­ver ring made for me by one of my chil­dren. Look closely and you will see its ‘pen­ti­menti’ — the fin­ger­print glan­cingly cap­tured in the sil­ver before the metal hardened. It wouldn’t fetch much at auc­tion, but it’s price­less to me.

Or exam­ine the pin cush­ion made for me by one of my old­est friends, who knows all too well that I have an abid­ing pas­sion for strong tea. It fea­tures a teapot, two tea­cups and a milk jug, all picked out in pin heads, along with my ini­tial. Its pen­ti­menti are a couple of miss­ing pins, and isn’t it beautiful?

Or the hand-made jugs and and bowls I col­lect, each of them marked by a thumb print, mis­shapen edge or wonky sig­na­ture. The pen­ti­menti make them more glor­i­ous than per­fect ver­sions could ever have been.

The pen­ti­menti argu­ment works with food too. I’ve just made Smoked Sal­mon Pen­ti­menti, in fact. Not a new, elaborately-shaped form of pasta, but a way of feed­ing six unex­pec­ted guests with only 140 grams of smoked sal­mon. Logic says that smoked sal­mon shouldn’t be cooked and that 140g is nowhere near enough to feed so many. But what could have been a mis­take turned into a triumph.

SMOKED SALMON PENTIMENTI

Serves 6

  • 50g but­ter
  • 75g flour
  • 1 litre semi skimmed milk
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 300g mature Ched­dar cheese, grated
  • Half cup or 125ml dry white wine
  • 2kg floury potatoes
  • 1kg white onions
  • 140g smoked salmon

Pre­heat the oven to around 165 degrees C. You will need an oven-proof bak­ing dish around 25cm wide, 30cm long and 10cm deep.

Peel and slice the raw pota­toes and onions into 2mm thick rounds. Melt the but­ter and make a roux by adding the flour. Stir to com­bine and heat gently for a couple minutes to ensure the floury taste is cooked out. Heat the milk in a sep­ar­ate pan and once sim­mer­ing, add the onions to the milk. Keep the milk sim­mer­ing for a few minutes until the onions have softened slightly before remov­ing them with a slot­ted spoon and put­ting them to one side.

Gradu­ally add the hot milk to the roux and keep stir­ring with a whisk. The heat of the milk will make it much easier to com­bine with the roux, as well as redu­cing the risk of lumps. Once all the milk has been added, con­tinue to whisk until you have a creamy sauce which has a custard-like con­sist­ency. Stir in the white wine and keep at a sim­mer. Add the bay leaves and 200g of the Ched­dar cheese and whisk until melted in. Check the season­ing and add salt and pepper.

Ladle a scant spoon­ful of sauce over the bot­tom of your dish. Then altern­ate a single layer of potato slices, fol­lowed by smoked sal­mon, onion and then one third of the remain­ing cheese sauce. Repeat the lay­ers of potato, sal­mon, onion and sauce, fol­lowed by a final layer of potato, sauce and the remain­ing 100g of cheese. Place in the oven and cook for 1 and a half hours. If you’re wor­ried that the top is brown­ing too much, cover with a layer of foil. Check that the pota­toes and onions are soft by pier­cing them with a fork.

Serve with a simple green salad. Any­thing more elab­or­ate would be a pen­ti­mento too far — trust me.

Review: Tasting India by Christine Manfield

Eggs On The Roof Reviews

Tast­ing India by Christine Man­field
Pub­lished by Con­ran Octopus, Novem­ber 2011, £40.00
Pho­to­graphy by Anson Smart

Com­batants in the fight over e-cookery books versus prin­ted ones have new ammuni­tion. Or should that be heavy artil­lery. If you believe paper books take up too much room, you’ll no doubt point accus­ingly at Christine Manfield’s new book, Tast­ing India. It’s vast — the biggest, heav­iest and most lav­ish cook­ery book I’ve ever seen. Its tur­meric yel­low satin cover embossed with vivid pink pea­cocks is just about as showy as it’s pos­sible to be.

Yes, it’s imprac­tical — one splash from an unruly, bub­bling pan of dahl and its gleam­ing golden jacket would be ruined. And yes, its girth puts it in the super heavy­weight class. It’s not a book to amble through so much as rock-climb over. But, call me a romantic if you like, I’ve fallen in love with it.

The Aus­tralian chef Christine Man­field has been vis­it­ing India for more than twenty years. Her rev­er­ence for the coun­try, tempered with a prag­matic under­stand­ing of its faults, shines through the text. It’s part travelogue, part encyc­lo­pe­dia, part mem­oir, part cook­ery book. Where she’s been so shrewd is to avoid a ped­es­trian, dogged tramp through each region. That’s not how cuisine works, and cer­tainly not in India. As she says, ‘For me, part of the excite­ment of con­tem­por­ary Indian cuisine lies in the way each cook or chef car­ries the recipes and her­it­age of their home­land with them, wherever they hap­pen to find themselves.’

Immerse your­self in the pages of this book — there are nearly 500 of them, so it will take a while. Mar­vel at the stun­ning pho­to­graphs by Anson Smart. Savour the recipes for tea-leaf frit­ters, scal­lops in spiced coconut, desert-bean koftas with onion curry and curd dump­lings soaked in saf­fron milk. Just ima­gine what they must taste like, or throw cau­tion to the wind and lug this book into the kit­chen and actu­ally cook from it. Either way it’s entrancing.

Hot Cold Wasabi Ice Cream for Anne of Green Gables

The won­der­ment with which Anne of Green Gables ima­gines what ice cream might taste like has always made me feel slightly guilty.…

I don’t feel that I could endure the dis­ap­point­ment if any­thing happened to pre­vent me from get­ting to the pic­nic. I sup­pose I’d live through it, but I’m cer­tain it would be a lifelong sor­row. It wouldn’t mat­ter if I got to a hun­dred pic­nics in after years; they wouldn’t make up for miss­ing this one. They’re going to have boats on the Lake of Shin­ing Waters—and ice cream, as I told you. I have never tasted ice cream. Diana tried to explain what it was like, but I guess ice cream is one of those things that are bey­ond imagination.

We lost our sense of won­der about the majesty of ice cream a long time ago. The glor­i­ous alchem­ical effect of com­bin­ing eggs, cream and a deep-freeze has become as routine as a walk to the bus stop. Which is why I was so pleased to be sent Ben Vear’s new ice cream book, Make Your Own Organic Ice Cream, pub­lished by Spring Hill.

I tasted Ben’s ice cream at a won­der­ful lunch to cel­eb­rate the online food magazine The Foodie Bugle. After the exquis­ite feast cooked by the Bugle’s founder Sil­vana de Sois­sons, we ate ice cream made by Win­stones Ice Cream, the busi­ness cre­ated by Ben’s great grand­father Albert Win­stone in 1925. Albert used to drive around the Cots­wolds on his motor­bike, selling home-made ice cream from the sidecar.

Ben’s book is simple, charm­ing and invent­ive. It’s not a hugely elab­or­ate affair crammed with lav­ish pho­to­graphs, but an hon­est and above all inspir­ing paean to the mar­vels of ice cream. I’ve already made his recipe for cof­fee and cream, a rich, aro­matic cre­ation with crushed cof­fee beans, and I’m plan­ning to make mulled wine ice cream next. But this morn­ing I made Ben’s was­abi ice cream. Was­abi is also known as Japan­ese horseradish. It is, of course, fero­ciously hot which, much to my sat­is­fac­tion, makes this a hot cold ice cream.

BEN VEAR’S WASABI ICE CREAM

  • 250ml organic double cream
  • 200ml organic full-fat milk
  • 150g Fairtrade caster sugar
  • 1 large organic egg
  • 50g was­abi paste, also known as Japan­ese horseradish (adjust to taste)

Pour the cream and milk into a sauce­pan. Tip in half of the sugar and place over a low heat, stir­ring at reg­u­lar inter­vals and not allow­ing the mix­ture to boil.

Whisk the egg yolk and the remain­ing sugar in a mix­ing bowl, beat­ing with an elec­tric whisk for about 2 minutes, or until the mix­ture has become a smooth, pale paste.

Com­bine both mix­tures and return the pan to a low heat. Cook, stir­ring all the time, for approx­im­ately 10 minutes, until the mix­ture has a thick, custard-like con­sist­ency. Add the was­abi paste and con­tinue to stir.

Set aside to cool, then pour into your ice cream maker, fol­low the manufacturer’s instruc­tions and leave to churn. (Altern­at­ively, pour the mix­ture into a freezer-proof con­tainer, seal it firmly with a lid and place in the freezer. Whisk after 1 hour to pre­vent ice crys­tals from form­ing; repeat 3 times before leav­ing it to set.)

Ben sug­gests serving was­abi ice cream with chicken, red meat or game. But I com­bined this eleg­ant eau de nil-coloured cre­ation with hot-smoked trout, rocket leaves dressed with olive oil, lemon juice and zest, and red onion pickles. Make sure that you add plenty of lemon juice and zest when you dress the leaves, to coun­ter­bal­ance the slight sweet­ness of the ice cream. The astrin­gency of the red onion pickles adds an extra bal­ance to the dish too.

I sus­pect the nose-twanging prop­er­ties of was­abi ice cream would have been sev­eral steps too far for Anne of Green Gables. But she would have approved of my face when I ate it, because my expres­sion was as full of won­der as hers.