I'm at Blakes Hotel in Amsterdam. Death by a thousand cushions. If you order dessert they bring four, which instantly makes this my sort of place. Your exquisite collection of designer puddings comes arranged in a black lacquered bento box that brings a whole new meaning to the term 'precious'. There is a gentle apple and cardamom sorbet served in a frosted glass cup (actually, it's a candle holder - I've got them at home); a darling little raspberry tart the size of a doll's tea set; a milk-chocolate mousse in a dark-chocolate case, and a passion fruit pannacotta so delicate that it shakes as the waiter whispers its name. Heaven.
Looking round at my fellow diners, I suddenly realise you are supposed to order one per table, not one each. It's a frivolous luxury, but that is only as it should be. Mousses, trifles, syllabubs and the like exist only to amuse and delight. Which is why I get exasperated when people try to turn them into something that is 'good for you'. Anyone who uses wholemeal flour in a fruit pie has rather lost the plot.
Back at home, the spring sunshine means I have put the fruit pie dishes away until the autumn. What I need now is something to amuse me till the first really good strawberries arrive, and mine aren't even in flower yet. Something fresher, lighter and prettier than a plate of steamed pudding. Maybe a little creamy. Perhaps with a citrus note or two. The greengrocers' is a good place to start, for while there is nothing in the way of home-grown soft fruit yet, there are some cracking pineapples about, cheap and literally swimming in juice, and there are plump Italian lemons and some decent enough blueberries. Not bad for a start. I have always wanted to make a pineapple fool, but cream deadens its sweet voice like a great white duvet. Yogurt turns out to be a different matter, its acidity putting a spring in the fruit's step. What could have been bland becomes a lively and far from sweet recipe.
A shop-bought brandy snap on the side, with its burnt-sugar crispness, finishes things nicely. You can never have too many ice creams, and at last I have made one for which you need neither ice-cream machine nor the beat-freeze-beat alternative. You just whip and freeze. Good though it is (oranges, lemons, sweet wine, double cream), I have decided to put it in a crunchy case of crushed, peppery little ginger biscuits, which work texturally with the creamy filling while giving the whole thing a sharper edge.
And then there are the sweet pancakes I made yesterday. Flavoured with ricotta and orange, they are made in minutes and are as decadent as you could imagine. As soft, light and plentiful as the cushions at Blakes.
Lemon ice cream tart with ginger crust
for the base:
400g ginger biscuits
for the ice cream:
150ml white wine
2 tbsp dry marsala or brandy
4 tbsp caster sugar
500ml double cream
Line the base of a loose-bottomed tart tin about 21cm in diameter with a single piece of greaseproof paper. Melt the butter in a small pan. Crush the biscuits in a food processor or bash them in a plastic bag with a rolling pin. You want them to be a fine powder. Stir the biscuits into the butter. Line the base of the tin with the buttered crumbs, pushing some up the sides as far as you can. It doesn't matter if the edges are rough. Put the crumb-lined tin in the freezer. Pour the wine into the bowl of a food mixer. (Or a large mixing bowl.) Add the marsala and the finely grated zest of the lemons and the orange. Squeeze one of the lemons and add the juice. Reserve the orange for later. Add the sugar and cream to the wine and zest mixture, then beat slowly until thick. You want the consistency to be soft and thick, so that it lies in soft folds rather than standing in stiff peaks. Scrape the mixture into the crumb-lined tart tin and freeze for at least four hours. Remove from the freezer 15-20 minutes before you intend to serve it. I find it easier to remove the cake from the tin while it is still frozen, running a palette knife around the edge first. Cut the peel from the orange, slice the flesh thinly and serve at the side of each slice of cake.
Pineapple yogurt fool
This works well enough without the sugar, but leaving the fruit to sit overnight with the lime juice and sugar deepens the flavour. Serves 6.
1kg ripe pineapple
2 tbsp caster sugar
400ml thick natural yogurt
Peel the pineapple and remove the brown 'eyes'. Chop the flesh roughly, then blitz it to a thick pulp in a food processor. I prefer to stop while it is fairly coarse, so that the dessert retains some texture. Scrape the pineapple into a stainless-steel or glass mixing bowl, then add the finely grated zest and juice of the lime. Sweeten with the sugar, cover tightly with clingfilm and leave for at least a couple of hours. Stir the yogurt into the crushed pineapple, spoon into glasses, cover and refrigerate for an hour or so.
Ricotta orange pancakes
These are thick, soft and about the size of a Digestive biscuit. Serve with blueberries and, if you wish, a drizzle of warmed apricot jam. Makes 8 and so serves 4.
250g ricotta cheese
4 tbsp caster sugar
finely grated zest of a large orange
50g plain flour
2 tbsp melted butter
fresh blueberries, warm apricot jam and a little icing sugar to dust
In a large mixing bowl, combine the ricotta, caster sugar and egg yolks. Grate the orange into the bowl and stir it gently in with the flour. Beat the egg whites with a balloon whisk till they are stiff, then fold them lightly into the ricotta. Do this gently, so as not to knock the air out. Warm a non-stick frying pan over a moderate heat and add the butter, then, as it starts to sizzle lightly, place 1 heaped tbsp of mixture into the pan. You will probably get three in at once, but leave room for them to spread. Let them cook for a minute or two, till they have risen somewhat and the underside has coloured appetisingly, then, using a fish slice or palette knife, flip them over to cook the other side. Let them colour, then serve immediately with the fruits and a slight shake of icing sugar.