When I was approached by the tiny Candlestick Press to pen a short introduction to one of its charming "poetry pamphlets" - a little collection of poems to send to someone instead of a greetings card - I couldn't resist. Ten Poems About Puddings sounded just what I would like to drop through the letterbox on my birthday.
There is much poetry in a pudding, and it is difficult to think of one I would turn my nose up at, especially the summer offerings, with their crimson juices peeping through their bread and pastry crusts and layers of cream. Many of you have asked me how you get the collective juices of raspberries, red and blackcurrants to soak right through the bread crust of a traditional summer pudding. The problem arises because you need the bread to be thick enough for the pudding to stand to attention when you upturn it from its china basin, which often results in an effect more blotchy pink than all-over seductive carmine.
The answer is that I cheat a bit. When I boil up the raspberries, red currants, blackcurrants and occasionally blackberries with their sugar and water I always include a little more liquid than most recipes advise, so that there is plenty of rich red syrup to play with. (If you end up with too much you can always mix it with sparkling mineral water and jagged ice cubes for a summer drink.) Then I dip each piece of bread into the heady liquor before I push them tenderly into place. Providing your bread is not too fresh or too airy, it will be both firm enough to stand and will look suitably bloodied. I find a two-day-old sourdough loaf offers just the right amount of backbone.
I'm not entirely sure a summer pudding has to stand up. We shouldn't feel tortured by culinary tradition, and if we fancy laying our dessert in a deep dish and spooning it out instead of cutting a slice from a more formal pudding then we should do so. If pudding pedants don't like it they can always take their hungry spoons elsewhere. It is also worth considering making individual ones in generous wine goblets, china ramekins or even beakers, sliding bread, roughly torn or cut into neat triangles as the mood takes you, into the deep puddles of warm berries and juice.
Just the sight of a gooseberry version of summer pudding can be cooling - as if some thoughtful person had held a wet wipe to your glowing brow. This generous summer has had me trying every way with the bread and fruit genre, including a take-no-prisoners blackcurrant version whose intense tartness made some of us squeal with delight and a pale-English-rose version made with both gooseberries and white currants - a pudding of extraordinary elegance.
Those who are less keen on the idea of soggy bread might like last night's offering where I spooned poached fruits and their syrup over slices of toasted brioche then trickled cream over the top. The hot, crisp toast, dark fruits and thick yellow cream resembled a deconstructed summer pudding, but its warmth and hidden slosh of eau de vie took you by surprise. A summer pudding for the impatient, I suppose.
My "Careless" gooseberry bush, home to more sawflies than fruits, has finally met its maker, but there are enough of our sharpest berries in the markets and shops to keep us in dreamy fools for a few weeks yet. (They freeze better than most.) Several of you have mentioned curdling problems as you fold the cream or custard into the fruit. I find a little more sugar than usual often helps, instantly reducing the acidity that so upsets the dairy produce. The way I prefer is to keep the sugar on the low side but make sure the fruit is well chilled before you marry it to the cream. Making certain that the cream never gets whipped beyond the point where it can slide slowly but unhelped from the spoon is another.
Stirring crushed, chilled gooseberries into carefully whipped Jersey cream to make a classic fool is one of those quietly satisfying kitchen moments that has been part of summer days since Victorian times. You can mix the fruit with custard or cream or yogurt, or modernise the recipe with a slow golden dribble of elderflower cordial or orange blossom honey. You could contrast the fool's cool hills and valleys of cream with brittle almond cookies or a chunk of sugared shortbread. The gentle turning of the wrist, the two pale colours swirling together, the marrying of the sour with the sweet is not so much cooking as pure poetry.
A gooseberry summer pudding
It is not often I say this, but cream, thick and preferably unpasteurised, is essential here. Choose bread that is firm textured and quite thick. "White sliced" will just turn to slush and your pudding won't stand up. I have sometimes used a white sourdough loaf with much success. Serves 6.
6 pieces of firm white bread about
10cm x 6cm, plus further slices of bread for the top and bottom of the dish
You will also need a 1.5l pudding basin
Top and tail the gooseberries then put them in a saucepan with the sugar and water. Bring gently to the boil then lower the heat so the fruit cooks gently for 8-10 minutes until the fruits turn opaque and start to burst. Remove from the heat and leave to cool. Don't let the berries cook to a slush.
Cut a round of bread to fit snugly in the base of the pudding basin. Place the slices of bread around the inside of the basin, pushing them together tightly and cutting to fit where necessary. You want a basin lined entirely with bread, with none of the inside of the basin showing.
Spoon the gooseberries into the bread-lined basin, pouring any spare juice over the bread as you go. Cut a final piece of bread to fit the top, tucking it in snugly. Place the basin on a shallow dish to catch any juice, then wrap the pudding in a layer of clingfilm. Place a plate and heavy weight on top of the pudding. Put the basin and dish into the fridge and leave overnight.
Remove the weight, plate and clingfilm, then slide a palette knife carefully between the bread and the basin. Turn upside down and shake firmly to dislodge the pudding. Serve with cream.
Toasted brioche, summer fruits and cream
for the fruits:
150g red currants
50g caster sugar
2 tbsp of eau de vie de framboise,
4 thick slices of brioche, or similar sweet bread
cream, or crème fraîche to serve
Pull the fruits from their stalks, dropping the fruit into a stainless-steel or enamelled saucepan. Sprinkle over the sugar and the eau de vie or cassis, cover with a plate (more eco-friendly than clingfilm) and set aside at cool room temperature for about an hour.
Warm the fruit over a low to moderate heat for 8-10 minutes or so until the fruit starts to burst and the juices become deepest purple. Remove from the heat.
Toast the brioche on both sides till crisp. Spoon over the fruits and some of their syrup. Fruit left over? Use it up over yogurt for breakfast or add it to the cooking juices of roast game bird.