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.

 

.

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.