This Side of the Pond – Nov. 9

By Sarah Pridgeon

Sometimes, while attempting to describe an entrée I think a friend might enjoy, I find myself up against a challenge before I’ve even listed the ingredients. The Bard once asked us what’s in a name; well, in the case of toad-in-the-hole, the answer is, “not what you’re thinking”.

My husband is of the opinion that British names follow one of two conventions. Either we choose a moniker that’s very much a case of, “say it how you see it”, or we go to the opposite extreme and call things by names that make no sense at all.

Fish and chips, for example, is a dish that consists of fish and also chips – no great mystery there. But if I asked you to guess what a stargazey pie includes, would you have any indication at all that it’s a pot pie containing pilchards, eggs and potatoes? This is also an excellent example of a name being considerably more enticing than its owner.

Toad-in-the-hole, as I’m sure is obvious, falls into the latter naming category. The existence of holes in this dish is debatable and no amphibians will be harmed in the making of your meal.

Nevertheless, this hearty meal is my mother’s favorite and a family staple. It popped into my head while discussing flavors with my friend, as it’s a comfort dish that’s perfect when the thermometer starts to sink – but I perhaps should have anticipated her instant look of bemusement.

I wish I could explain to you why a dish of sausages baked in batter that rises and enfolds the meat was given this curious name, but we’ll never know for sure.  Some argue that the sausages poking through the batter look like toads sticking their heads out of holes, but it’s a dubious connection for any inventor to make.

Toad-in-the-hole has been around since at least the 1700s, but nobody thought to write down its origins. That hasn’t stopped people from coming up with theories, of course.

One such idea is that the dish is named after a pub game of the same name, in which brass discs called “toads” are thrown across a table in an attempt to have them land in a hole in the center. Another is that, in medieval times, meat was scarce and some took to eating frogs and toads, covering them in a mixture of powdered grains to protect the delicate meat in the fire; children were then given the concoction and instructed to extract the toad from its hole.

Still another theory suggests that the dish refers to the old custom of calling a stone found in a horse’s hoof a “frog”, as the pieces of meat tend to be distributed unevenly in the batter. But my favorite origin story comes from a little town called Alnmouth, which has long hosted tournaments at its golf course.

So the story goes, there are certain times of the year when that golf course is overrun with Natterjack toads. During one particular tournament, many years ago, the players had reached the final hole and breath was bated to see who would win the title.

One player made his putt, found the hole and prepared to rejoice, only for the ball to pop back out, having been ejected by an irritable toad that had been sleeping in the bottom of the cup. The chefs at the town hotel came up with the dish that very night to commemorate the new legend.

No doubt your curiosity is now piqued as to what might be involved in creating such a gastronomical treat, if only to see the looks on everyone’s faces when you tell them what’s for dinner. It’s an easy dish to try and a tough one to perfect, but I consider the effort to be worthwhile.

Before you begin, you’ll need to locate some British style sausages – easier said than done, as I have discovered. A British sausage is a cased link containing pork, often seasoned and dramatically greasy. Whatever sausage you use, it must release plenty of fat while it’s cooking – hot dogs, breakfast sausage or German sausage simply won’t do.

The closest I’ve come is “bangers” from a butcher. However, my grandmother used to prefer uncased sausage and I have had good success with simple pork sausage meat.

Assuming you’ve opted for the latter, take a a shallow glass oven dish (the kind that gets very hot during the cooking process) and use enough roughly pulled chunks of sausage to cover the base while leaving small gaps between each piece; place it in the oven at 425 degrees. It will begin to brown and release its fat – it’s ready for the next stage when that fat begins to sizzle.

(Incidentally, if you choose to use bangers, you need only arrange them in the pan and prick the casing with a fork to encourage them to release that juicy fat).

Meanwhile, make your batter mix by sifting 3oz of all purpose flour, seasoning with salt and pepper, breaking one egg into the mixture and beating it with a whisk until the mixture is even. Gradually mix in 3 fl oz of milk and 2 oz of water.

Give it a final whisk and then remove the sausages from the oven, pour the batter over the top and place the dish right back into the heat. This is where the fun begins if your oven door lacks a window.

From this moment until the dish is ready, you see, you must not open the oven door. You will cause the batter to collapse in on itself, ruining what could have been several inches of crispy, risen deliciousness.

Patience is therefore the key. Your toad-in-the-hole will take around 30 minutes to cook and will be well risen and browned when it’s ready.

Serve with onion gravy, made by sautéing onions until brown, sprinkling with flour and then adding beef stock and stirring until it thickens. Mashed potatoes and peas make excellent accompaniments.

There you have it: a dish that will warm your belly and comfort your heart while you ponder why it was given such a peculiar name and your kids gaze at you mistrustfully in case you’ve served them croaking pond life. And the moral of the story? A good mystery should always be tasty to eat.