Six Ingredients In Search Of A Recipe

In the league table of celebrated plays that should never be performed on stage, Shakespeare’s gruesome Titus Andronicus has to come top. But I’ve always thought Pirandello’s 1921 play Six Characters in Search of an Author may be up there too. His opening night audience in Rome yelled ‘manicomio’ or ‘madhouse’ throughout the performance and the humiliated Pirandello had to slip out of a side door.

The play’s eccentric premise is this: a rehearsal is taking place on stage when six half-written characters barge into the theatre demanding to be allowed to act out their drama. The bewildered Director gives in and the bizarre event concludes with a drowning and a suicide. This weekend I’m seeing it on stage for the very first time, so I’ll let you know if it’s performable or not.

I love a good postmodern experiment, in food as well as literature. So when I had a whim to make lemongrass and lemon thyme ice-cream, it struck me that this might be my Pirandello moment. Great concept, madhouse in reality? Or daft idea, sublime result? Would my six ice-cream ingredients make for the perfect performance or would I be forced out of the kitchen, pursued by members of my family waving rolling pins and shouting ‘manicomio maniac’?

LEMONGRASS AND LEMON THYME ICE-CREAM WITH TUILE BISCUITS AND MANGO MILKSHAKE – OR SIX INGREDIENTS IN SEARCH OF A RECIPE

For the ice-cream

  • 1 cup semi skimmed milk
  • 2 cups double cream
  • 3/4 cup caster sugar
  • 6 large egg yolks (you can use the whites for the biscuits)
  • Three handfuls of fresh lemon thyme, including the soft stalks
  • 2 bulbs of fresh lemongrass, bruised with a rolling pin and sliced finely

For the biscuits

  • 2 egg whites
  • 60g softened unsalted butter (I like Lescure butter best)
  • 1/2 cup plain flour
  • 1/2 cup caster sugar
  • Finely grated zest of a lemon

For the mango milkshake

  • Slightly overripe Alphonso mangoes or 1 tin Alphonso mango pulp. The exquisite, perfumed fruit are in season in April, but if you can’t find any, the tinned pulp is exceptionally good
  • Equal quantities of ice-cold semi skimmed milk

To make the ice-cream, combine the milk, sugar, 1 cup of the cream, the thyme and the lemongrass. Warm it through until hot, but not boiling. Take off the heat, cover and allow the flavours to infuse for around an hour and a half.

Once the cream has infused, whisk the egg yolks. Still whisking, pour a little of the warm cream mixture into the bowl. Add a little more, whisking all the while, and then pour the tempered eggs back into the pan containing the rest of the cream mix.

Put the pan back on a gentle to medium heat and continue to stir until the mixture becomes custard-like and coats the back of a wooden spoon. Add the remaining cup of cream and pour the whole lot into a cold bowl. Once cooled completely, strain the mixture into your ice-cream maker and churn it.

To make the biscuits, whisk the egg whites very lightly and combine with the other ingredients. Pour a little of the batter into well-buttered fairy cake tins or larger tartlet tins if you prefer. I used tartlet tins approximately 12 cm in diameter which produced 9 biscuits. Bake at 200 degrees C for around 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and ease the biscuits gently out of the tins with a plastic knife.

To make the mango milkshake, combine equal quantities of mango puree and ice-cold milk. If you feel that an authentic milkshake needs a few bubbles, froth it with a milk frother.

After I laid on my first night performance of Six Ingredients in Search of a Recipe, my son – who’s no pushover – announced that it’s now his number one favourite ice-cream. And this from a teenager who would happily eat my chocolate and peanut butter ice-cream seven days a week. The flavour of the ice-cream is perfumed and creamy, with a subtle and delicate promise of lemon. The mango is the perfect counterbalance and the biscuit provides a much needed element of crunch.

Manicomio or paradise? Try it and let me know.

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The sixth sense and an extra dimension…

I was given the perfect going-home present last night, after supper with friends; two plump, mottled, ever so slightly misshapen and exquisitely perfumed quinces. They fulfilled everything you could wish for in a gift: taste, touch, scent and rarity, with a sprinkling of eccentricity.

My visit to Tate Modern in London to see Ai Weiwei’s new Sunflower Seeds exhibit was anything but fulfilling. Now that we’ve been banned from walking, ankle-deep, through the one hundred million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds, the work has been stripped of a dimension. The snootier art critics claim the work is the same whether we walk through it or not. But that’s just wrong. Sunflower Seeds was supposed to be a work to experience not just with the eyes, but with our ears, our hands and our feet. Roping it off with the kind of prosaic black barrier you would find at an airport has stripped it of its democratic power – and its glory too, for that matter.

I stomped grumpily away from Sunflower Seeds to join the line for the new Gauguin exhibition. That was possibly even worse as an artistic experience. Ducking and dodging around the crowds, I saw more shoulders, elbows and necks than I saw paintings.

My disappointing day got me thinking about what happens when our senses are cheated. Biting into a tasteless, scarlet tomato. Smelling a bunch of hothouse flowers devoid of scent. Slicing a downy, blushing peach and finding it has the texture of moss. And even when all five senses of seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling are fulfilled, there’s still a little something missing. Shouldn’t we add the sense of moving to the list? Trailing through the sea-shore with the salt water frothing at our ankles; picking blackberries while zig-zagging along a shaded lane with thorns snagging at our sleeves; eating a perfect apple on a climb up one of Dorset’s highest hills. Or following the curve of the hedgerow while hunting for sloes to add to gin.

The slightly tricky thing about sloe gin is when to drink it and what to drink it with. Lunch time? Not really. In the evening, before dinner? Not sure about that. And then it struck me. It needs that extra dimension. Just as the Italians drink sweet Vin Santo while eating biscotti, why not pair sloe gin with spiced ginger biscuits? Ginger goes perfectly with the plummy-ness of sloes, and if you invite a friend to share your feast and you pick the sloes yourself you will have fulfilled all six senses by the time you’ve finished. Sight, sound, touch, taste, scent and movement. Better than Tate Modern can manage as it turns out.

Spiced Ginger Biscuits

Preheat the oven to 175 degrees C

80 g butter

80g light brown caster sugar

2 desert spoons black treacle or molasses

250g plain flour

Half teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

2 rounded teaspoons ground cinnamon

2 rounded teaspoons ground ginger

1 egg yolk

2 or 3 tablespoons milk

Icing sugar to dust

This is a variation on Nigel Slater’s ginger biscuits, but it’s slightly more suited to sloe gin. Beat the butter and sugar together until it is light and well mixed. Add the treacle, followed by all the other ingredients apart from the milk. Add the milk gradually until the consistency is perfect for rolling but not too soft. Cut into shapes and bake in the oven for ten minutes. Sprinkle the biscuits with icing sugar and pour the sloe gin.

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