Desserts


Mexican watermelon ice

So, summer is drawing to a close. I first realised this when I saw plants and bushes slowly shrivelling, ready to turn into skeletons, marvelled at apple and pear trees already heavy with fruit, and experienced the crunch of brown leaves under my feet. Actually, it dawned on me even sooner: when my brother got his ‘A’ level results, I started seeing ‘back to school’ notices everywhere, and somebody invited me to an end-of-summer ball.

This simple, 3-ingredient watermelon ice is typical of what you would buy from a street vendor in Mexico. Everywhere in Mexico you see vendors proffering fresh fruit, from the mundane to the paradisiacal. The fruit may be peeled, sliced and ready to eat, or pureed and blended with mineral water for liquid refreshment, or even poured over crushed ice and served as a slush in a wax-paper cone. Whatever the form, the basic notion is essence of fruit. Watermelon ice is delicious served with cookies for a dessert: Mexican wedding cookies (available in some delis), lime cookies or chocolate cookies are all ideal.

The tequila is optional, but it does more than add flavour: the alcohol prevents the mixture from freezing so solid that you can’t spoon it out without completely defrosting it. You can use cantaloupe, honeydew or any other type of melon in this recipe, or even substitute mangoes or berries. However, the watermelon gives it a richly seductive, sinful scarlet colour. And why not? This may be your final fling of the summer: the sunny season’s last hurrah. Until next year, of course…. Serves 4.

4 lb/ 2 kg ripe watermelon (weight after removing rind and seeds)
2 oz/ 50g to 3 oz/ 75g caster (superfine) sugar, depending on the fruit’s sweetness
3 tablespoons tequila (optional)

1.    Roughly dice the watermelon and puree it in a food processor.
2.    Transfer the puree to a large bowl. Stir in the sugar to taste, and the tequila, if using. Mix well to dissolve the sugar.
3.    Place the fruit mixture in the freezer and chill for about 2 hours, or until it begins to freeze around the edges and across the top.
4.    Remove from the freezer and whisk to break up and mix in the ice crystals. Return to the freezer and chill for about 2 hours more.
5.    Once again, remove from the freezer and whisk again, breaking up the ice crystals and remixing into an evenly granulated mixture. Cover with a plastic wrap and return to the freezer until frozen through – from another 2 to 3 hours, up to several days.
6.    Remove from the freezer 45 minutes before serving so that the ice softens enough to spoon it out. Serve in attractive glasses, sundae dishes or paper cones.

lavender, gin and honey ice cream with lavender biscuits

August is one of my favourite times of the year. I try to take a break from my relentless work-related travelling, even if it’s just for a few days, to spend quality time with family and friends. My Aunt Christina owns an enormous farmhouse in a breathtakingly beautiful, tiny village in Provence. All the siblings and cousins have a great big pre-Christmas get together throughout the month, travelling in from all over the world. Some, like my cousin Amy who is a recently-qualified doctor, can only stay for a couple of days, while others, like all the little nephews and nieces, stay for several weeks, typically running riot. It’s one heck of a party.

My aunt’s farmhouse is surrounded by acres of picturesque lavender and sunflower fields. The distinctively musky perfume of lavender is heady to the point of being overwhelming.  This year I was determined to make cooking with lavender a success. This is no mean feat: use too much lavender and your dish will taste like shower gel (or “dear old Victorian ladies’ undergarments”, as my cousin Jonathan put it – an image I would rather not linger on for too long); too little and it will taste like an unfulfilled promise: all fragrance and no flavour. The trick is in getting the balance of floral flavour right.

My attempts at raspberry and lavender preserve, lavender bread and butter pudding, and lavender crème brulee have ended in disaster in previous years. So would I get it right this year? Well the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. The ice cream and biscuits were polished off within minutes.

This isn’t really a French recipe. I have simply taken Provencal lavender, which grows abundantly in most English gardens anyway, left it to dry for a couple of days on strings and, with the addition of gin, I’ve concocted a sort of English summer garden recipe. Or maybe it’s Anglo-French. Oh, I don’t know. All I know is that the recipe – or rather, recipes, as I have done two this week – tastes pretty spectacular. You can, of course, eat the ice cream or biscuits on their own, but together they’ll seduce you with sunshine-infused magic that will linger in your memory for days. Makes 2 pints/ 1 litre ice cream and approximately 25 – 30 small or 12 – 15 large biscuits. Serves around 6.

For the ice cream:
5 tablespoons gin
1 level tablespoon dried lavender flowers
6 medium egg yolks
¼ pint/ 150 ml honey (ideally lavender or other flower honey)
½ pint/ 300 ml double (thick) cream
Fresh lavender flowers to garnish (optional)

For the biscuits:
9 oz/ 225g unsalted butter, plus a little more for greasing
4 oz/ 100g white caster (superfine) sugar
I medium egg, lightly beaten
7 oz/ 175g self-raising white flour
1 level tablespoon dried lavender flowers

To make the ice cream:

1.    In a small saucepan, warm the gin slightly, and then pour it over the lavender flowers in a small bowl. Cover tightly with cling film, and leave to infuse for an hour or so.
2.    Sieve the lavender-infused gin through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing the flowers against the sieve with the back of a spoon to extract all the flavour. Discard the flowers. You should end up with about 3 tablespoons of strongly-flavoured gin. If it is a little under, top it up with some plain gin from the bottle.
3.    In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks with an electric whisk (or a wire, balloon-type whisk) until they are very light and fluffy.
4.    Heat the honey in a small saucepan until it reaches the boiling point, then remove from the heat.
5.    Pour the hot honey in a thin, steady stream over the egg yolks, whisking continuously. Keep whisking vigorously until the mixture has cooled and the yolks have increased in volume. This should take about 2 – 3 minutes if you’re using an electric whisk, or 5 – 10 minutes by hand.
6.    Add the flavoured gin and stir thoroughly to combine.
7.    Whip the double cream into soft peaks. Carefully fold it into the egg yolk mixture, blending everything well.
8.    Pour the mixture into a bowl or container and freeze for 8 hours. There is no need to remove the ice cream at regular intervals and beat it (as is the case in many freezer ice cream recipes) – simply leave it be. Just before serving, garnish with fresh lavender flowers, if using.

To make the biscuits:

1.    Pre-heat the oven to 350F/ 180C/ gas mark 4. Line a baking tray with lightly buttered non-stick baking paper.
2.    Cream the butter with the sugar (this is easily done in a food processor). Add the egg and beat well.
3.    Add the flour and mix thoroughly. Mix in the lavender flowers, and stir with a light hand until well-blended.
4.    Place small teaspoonfuls of the mixture on the prepared baking tray, shaping them in circles with the back of the spoon and allowing plenty of space around for them to spread. (Alternatively, place tablespoonfuls of mixture on the tray, and shape them into medium-sized oblong or rectangular shapes).
5.    Bake for 15 – 20 minutes or until the biscuits are pale golden in colour (be careful not to let them get too brown). They will not feel crisp to the touch until they have cooled.
6.    Allow the biscuits to cool thoroughly on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container until ready to serve with the ice cream. As both the ice cream and biscuits are very rich, serve in small, European portions!

Caribbean mango ice cream

Everyone talks about summer berries and stone fruits at this time of the year – but what about mangoes, which are in season right now? How can you possibly resist their voluptuous shapes, their vibrant sunset colours, their heady fragrance that is somewhere between flowers and honey and, of course, their seductive juiciness?

This is a rich, old-fashioned Caribbean recipe – it harks back to the time when people didn’t feel guilty about eating so much cream and eggs, and when essences used in cooking weren’t synthetic but natural. Enjoy it in that spirit – and don’t forget to use only the best quality ripe, sweet, juicy mangoes (any variety is fine), and only a touch of spice, to bring out the flavour of the mangoes and not overwhelm the ice cream. Buy fresh cream from a farm shop or farmers’ market if there is one near you – it really will make a difference to the taste.

In Britain, not only is it near-tropical weather right now (and it looks like it’s here to stay), but we also have National Ice Cream Week kicking off this week – so what better excuse to indulge in a delicious, cooling sweet treat?
Makes 2 pints/ 1 ¼ litres.

8 oz/ 200g fresh, ripe mango flesh (weight after removing skin and stones)
Around 2 oz/ 50g white sugar (optional, depending on how sweet the mango is)
3 pints/ 1 ½ litres single cream
6 egg yolks (from medium-sized organic, free-range eggs)
6 oz/ 150g caster sugar
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
¼ teaspoon allspice berries, finely crushed in a mortar
1 or 2 drops natural vanilla extract

To serve:
Fresh mango slices

1.    Pulp the mango flesh. Add sugar if needed, and stir until it has dissolved. Set aside while you get on with the rest of the recipe.
2.    Heat the cream on medium heat, stirring frequently. Bring to a boil, then remove from the heat immediately. Let it cool a little, stirring occasionally to prevent a skin forming.
3.    Whisk the egg yolks with the caster sugar until fluffy and creamy, and gently combine with the cream. (You can use the remaining egg whites to make meringues or omelette).
4.    Mix well, and add nutmeg, crushed allspice and vanilla extract.
5.    Return the mixture to a low heat (or use a double boiler). Cook until the mixture becomes creamy custard, thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Stir constantly to prevent lumps forming and burning. Do not allow to boil, otherwise the mixture may curdle.
6.    Remove from heat and allow to cool completely – it helps to stand the pan in ice cold water. While the custard is cooling, add the mango pulp and stir frequently.
7.    To freeze the ice cream: either use an ice cream maker, the ice cream compartment of a refrigerator or a freezer. If you use either of the latter two options, the ice cream must be taken out approximately every 30 minutes and beaten or whisked to prevent ice from forming, and to obtain a creamy consistency. Once you have done so, return the ice cream to the freezer immediately. Repeat the process until the ice cream has set and you have reached the desired texture. Serve with fresh mango slices.

old-fashioned-english-rhubarb-fool

I get excited by flamingo-hued rhubarb: their slender, tender spears attached to plumes of attractively vibrant yellow-green leaves are a delight to behold. Rhubarb, which has fruity, tangy flavour when cooked, is plentiful in kitchen gardens, farmers’ markets and even supermarkets at this time of the year. I love turning it into jams, drinks, cakes, and puddings – like this one.

Traditionally, you can flavour any rhubarb dish with ginger, cinnamon, strawberries or orange – but I have left this basic recipe plain, and have simply perfumed it with vanilla. You can build on it as you wish.

This is an old-fashioned recipe, dating back to the era of my grandmother’s generation. It contains vegetarian gelatine, which makes the rather runny rhubarb mixture set quickly and easily. These days, fools are usually made without gelatine, and often with yoghurt rather than double cream. Although thick, creamy Greek yoghurt will work fine in this recipe (not the insipid, low-fat variety), double cream gives the necessary opulent texture. And if you don’t mind your fool being somewhat sloppier, you can leave out the vegetarian gelatine altogether (omit step 4).

For variation, add a tablespoon of rosewater for a taste of Victorian England, and then garnish the fool with a few ruby-red pomegranate seeds to bring it back to the 21st century. Serves 4.

2 lb/ 1 kg forced rhubarb
1 vanilla pod (vanilla bean), split, with seeds scraped out
8 oz/ 200g caster sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
¼ oz/ 7g sachet of vegetarian gelatine, such as Vege-Gel
15 fl oz/ 400 ml double cream

1.    Wash the rhubarb, trim the leaves and stems, and chop into small pieces.
2.    Place the rhubarb, vanilla pod and seeds, sugar, and lemon juice in a saucepan. Do not add extra water, as the water clinging to the rhubarb pieces is enough. Cook on gentle heat until the sugar starts to melt. Simmer with the lid on for approximately 15 minutes until the rhubarb is cooked.
3.    Remove from the heat, and mash the cooked rhubarb with the back of a spoon. Allow the mixture to cool a little. (If you want your fool to have a very smooth consistency, blitz the rhubarb in a blender for a few seconds).
4.    Add the vegetarian gelatine to the rhubarb mixture, and stir thoroughly. When the gelatine has dissolved, place the bowl of cooked rhubarb over ice so that it cools and sets a little.
5.    Whip the double cream for 2 or 3 minutes. Then mix the cream into the rhubarb, and divide the fool between 4 Martini glasses, or other types of glasses or cups. Lightly cover the containers with cling film. Chill in the refrigerator for 4 to 8 hours. Just before serving, remove the cling film, and accompany the fool with a small platter of shortbread biscuits or sponge fingers to dip into.

ricotta-coffee-dessert-with-biscotti

This traditional, elegant Italian dessert – ricotta al caffe – is so amazingly simple that I’m almost embarrassed to give you a recipe for it. However, it’s useful to have one on hand for days when you’ve spent hours slaving over a hot stove and are looking for an easy, fuss-free, but still satisfyingly indulgent dessert.

For best results, buy top quality, freshest ingredients you can find. Buy the ricotta from a speciality cheese shop, Italian deli or the supermarket fresh cheese counter – you really will be able to taste the difference. The coffee beans – or freshly ground coffee – could come from your local coffee shop. Serves 4.

10 oz/ 250g very fresh ricotta cheese
4 oz/ 100g white or light golden brown caster sugar
2 tablespoons finely ground fresh espresso coffee beans
2 tablespoons dark rum or brandy (optional)
A few drops natural vanilla extract
2 tablespoons toasted hazelnuts, finely chopped (optional)

To serve:
Double or whipped cream
Italian biscotti

1.    Remove any excess water from the ricotta. Sieve in a colander or through a piece of muslin (cheesecloth) if necessary.
2.    Add the sugar, ground coffee, rum/ brandy, and vanilla extract. Mix well.
3.    Refrigerate for at least 3 hours for the flavours to develop. The longer you leave it, the stronger will be the flavour.
4.    Sprinkle with toasted hazelnuts, if using. Serve with cream and biscotti in little coffee cups. See, I told you it was simple!

fried-date-cakes

If you like sweet, sticky Middle Eastern sweets but don’t want to spend too long in the kitchen preparing them, you’ll enjoy these quick and easy pan-fried date cakes. The flavour is reminiscent of the sweetmeats found in Lebanon and Morocco.

If you are vegan, substitute butter with light, unflavoured oil like sunflower, omit the honey and add a splash of orange juice with a little finely grated orange rind instead.

Add orange flower water only if you have it on hand: no need to buy it especially for this recipe, which will taste good without it anyway. Serves 4.

6 oz/ 150g plump, juicy, smooth-skinned dried dates
4 oz/ 100g whole almonds
4 oz/ 100g plain white flour
1 tablespoon orange blossom honey (or other honey)
2 teaspoons orange flower water (optional)
3 oz/ 75g butter, melted, plus more for greasing
1 oz/ 25g sesame seeds

To serve:
Plain yoghurt, double cream or vanilla ice cream
Honey

1.    Remove the stones from the dates. You should be left with approx 4 oz/ 100g date pulp.
2.    In a food processor, pulverise the almonds until they are coarsely crushed but still retain some texture. Add in the dates, and whizz again.
3.    Add flour, honey, orange flower water if using, and about half of the melted butter and whizz once more. Make sure everything is mixed thoroughly, but do not overprocess as the little cakes will lose their texture.
4.    With lightly greased palms, shape the date mixture into medium-sized patties. You should have around 10 to 12.
5.    Spread the sesame seeds on to a plate, and roll the patties in them until they are evenly coated.
6.    Heat the remaining butter in a non-stick frying pan. Fry the patties for 2 or 3 minutes on each side until lightly golden. Drain on kitchen paper.
7.    Serve hot with yoghurt, cream or ice cream, and a drizzle of honey. Some sliced fresh or grilled bananas (or grilled oranges) would also go well with these cakes.

baked-pears-with-fudge-sauce-on-blue-plate

Ok, so you’ve been good all month. You’ve eaten healthily… most of the time. You’ve kept to all your new year resolutions (well, you have, haven’t you?). So you certainly deserve a little treat.

This is a slightly elaborate dessert of pears stuffed with dried fruit and nuts, bathed in a sweet spice-infused honey and citrus sauce, dolloped with hot chocolate fudge sauce. What’s more, the heart-shaped fruit is perfect to feed your loved one on Valentine’s Day. Tempted?

So how does this healthy but indulgent treat fit into the concept of ‘global veggie’? Well, it’s loosely inspired by the poached pear desserts of Italy (I also make those), the stuffed baked apple puddings of England (I spent my childhood making those), and the classic Pears Belle Helene of French cuisine. But to be honest, I never need an excuse to whip up a sweet treat.

Ideal for dinner parties, these pears can be served with the sauces on their own, or accompanied by double cream, mascarpone, or vanilla ice cream for an extra flourish of extravagance. Serves 6.

For the pears:
6 ripe but firm, unblemished pears (any variety)
2 oz/ 50g hazelnuts, toasted and finely chopped
2 oz/ 50g almonds, toasted and finely chopped
2 dried ready-to-eat apricots, finely chopped
1 tablespoon apricot jam
Amaretto liqueur, to taste

A little softened butter, for greasing

For the honey and citrus sauce:
5 oz/ 125g aromatic honey (such as orange blossom)
3 fl oz/ 100 ml orange juice
Juice of 1 lemon
3 fl oz/ water
2 cloves
1-inch piece cinnamon

For the hot fudge sauce:
3 oz/ 75g unsalted butter
1 oz/ 25g good-quality cocoa powder
1 oz/ 25g good quality dark chocolate, finely chopped or grated
6 oz/ 150g white or light golden brown sugar
3 fl oz/ 85 ml evaporated milk
Small pinch of salt
A few drops vanilla essence

Edible flowers for garnish (optional)

1.    First, prepare the pears. Peel them, but leave the stems intact. Using a corer, carefully remove the cores from the bottom end of the pears.
2.    Mix together the nuts, apricots, jam and liqueur. Stuff the mixture into the pears, packing in firmly.
3.    Grease a baking dish that’s just large enough to hold the pears. Arrange the pears so that they are closely huddled together, stem side up.
4.    Heat the oven to 180C/ 350F/ gas mark 4.
5.    Combine all the ingredients for the honey and citrus sauce in a saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil.
6.    Pour the honey and citrus sauce over the pears. Cover the dish with a lid or a piece of aluminium foil, and bake in the pre-heated oven for approximately 40 to 50 minutes. The pears should be tender, but not falling apart. Take the baking dish out of the oven every 15 minutes or so, and baste the pears with the sauce.
7.    Meanwhile, make the hot fudge sauce. Melt the butter in a non-stick saucepan, add the cocoa powder, and whisk until smooth.
8.    Stir in the chocolate, sugar, and evaporated milk. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, stirring continuously so that it doesn’t stick. Remove from the heat immediately.
9.    Add a pinch of salt and a few drops of vanilla essence, and mix well. Cool a little.
10.    Place the pears in individual serving dishes along with any remaining honey and citrus sauce, and pour the hot fudge sauce over each pear. Garnish with edible flowers, if you like.

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