This Side of the Pond – May 4

By Sarah Pridgeon

Contrary to appearances over the last week, spring is once again upon us. All those bright colors and wonderful smells – not to mention the rising temperature, which once again makes ice cream a valid life choice – has a habit of making my sweet tooth vibrate.

Meanwhile, several of my colleagues and friends have found themselves addicted to “The Great British Baking Show”, which doesn’t surprise me as it’s positively relaxing to watch a group of calm and confident bakers decline to make a fuss near their ovens. One friend commented that they had no idea Britain enjoyed so many cakes and desserts.

I explained that the sheer breadth of choice is thanks to our geographical location. We sit next door to dozens of European countries, each with its own culture developed over hundreds or thousands of years, and we’re not above thieving a good idea when we see it.

On the other hand, we do have plenty of our own ideas, a few of which I thought might be appropriate for the balmy spring I am determined is on its way. First up, a dessert for sweeter teeth even than mine.

Eton mess is named for the posh college where princes and nobles learn to read and write. It was first served at the annual cricket match against Harrow school and also sold in the “tuck shop” (a little concession stand in our schools where those of us with pocket money to burn can stock up on candy).

As you might expect for a dessert invented by schoolboys, it’s both easy to make and incredibly sweet. Simply mash a box of strawberries with a little sugar and a splash of port, then fold in broken meringues and softly whipped cream and serve in a tall glass.

Another favorite in warmer weather is the fruit fool. We’ve been eating it since the 15th century, usually with gooseberries as the main ingredient, though nobody seems able to explain its name.

One of my favorite fool recipes comes from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. Whiz together a handful each of raspberries and strawberries with two apricots (stone removed) in a food processor.

Whip half a pint of heavy cream with three tablespoons of confectioner’s sugar until you can make soft peaks. Place a tablespoon in a glass, cover with some fruit and repeat until the glass is full. This recipe is mouthwatering when served with shortbread to dip into the cream.

An alternative from Scotland is cranachan, which adds porridge oats and a splash of whiskey to the mix. Toast three ounces of porridge oats in a frying pan, then whip a pint of double cream to soft peak stage and fold in seven tablespoons of whiskey and three of honey. Layer the cream mixture, oats and a pound of fresh raspberries (puree or leave whole, depending on your preferences) in a glass.

The fruit fool also evolved into a recipe that I’m pretty sure has been served at every family get-together in British history: the trifle. This dessert is so beloved by my father that he has been known to growl from the other side of the house should anyone place a finger on the leftovers.

Trifle, too, has been around for centuries, though it didn’t take on its modern appearance until the eighteenth century, when Hannah Glasse published The Art of Cookery. You can play with the ingredients to your heart’s desire, but the basic recipe is as follows:

Spread raspberry jam in the center of an angel cake or similar sponge and cut into small chunks. Layer these across the bottom of a large, glass bowl and pour 150 ml of dry sherry across the top.

While the sherry soaks in, make your custard by warming a pint of double cream in a pan until just below simmering point. In a bowl, whisk four egg yolks, an ounce of sugar and a tablespoon of cornflour.

Whisking all the time, pour the hot cream over the top, then immediately return the liquid to the pan and heat until the mixture thickens. Leave to cool.

Scatter two sliced bananas and half a pound of raspberries over the cake layer, then pour the cooled custard over the top. Whip half a pint of double cream until thick, spread it over the top and scatter toasted flaked almonds over the top to garnish, then place in the fridge to chill until it’s time to serve.

A dessert that combines the genius of both our countries is the banoffee pie. So the story goes, it was invented at the Hungry Monk Restaurant by amending an “unreliable” American recipe called “Blum’s Coffee Toffee Pie”.

Make a caramel by combining 3.5 ounces each of butter and sugar in a pan and stirring until the sugar dissolves. Add 14 fl oz of condensed milk and stir until it thickens, then allow to cool.

Place five ounces of crushed graham crackers and four ounces of halved pecans in a bowl with three ounces of melted butter. Use this to line a cake tin, then add three chopped bananas to the caramel and pour over the top. Cool for 30 minutes, then spread half a pint of whipped double cream over the top and sprinkle four ounces of pecans over the top.

And finally, because I am determined to include ice cream, the British-as-it-gets Knickerbocker Glory. Depending who you ask, it’s called this because of the shape of the glass resembling a lady’s skirts or because the idea came from New York City’s first settlers, the Knickerbockers.

Either way, it’s been a staple of seaside restaurants for almost a century. There’s no one recipe – you can include everything from chocolate and caramel to fruit and syrup – but here’s a good fruity one:

Make a raspberry coulis by blending nine ounces of raspberries with two tablespoons of confectioner’s sugar and then pushing the mixture through a sieve to remove the seeds. Dice a mango and divide between sundae glasses, add a handful of blueberries over the top and cover with a scoop of ice cream. Drizzle coulis over the top, then repeat the layers and top with chopped pistachios.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a hankering for a scoop of ice cream and a jug of sweetened cream…