One of the things that exasperates me about the insatiable demand for 'new' recipes is that it doesn't give anyone time to get something well and truly right. I see nothing wrong with tinkering with an idea until it is as good as it can be; in fact, I see everything right about it.
I just don't understand the desire (or is it desperation?) for snatching up a new recipe, rushing through it, then dashing off for the next cookery magazine, book or television programme for the next new thing. What is it exactly that these cooks are frantically searching for? Wouldn't it be better to find a dish that they know and like and then to work at it until it is absolutely to their taste?
There is much, much pleasure to be had in honing a dish to perfection. To get to know the little nuances and pitfalls, the tricks and the intimacies of a recipe, and add your own signature if you wish. If this is a search for perfection - and I suppose it is - then we have to work out the crux of it all: the real reason why an idea appeals to us. We need to identify the heart and soul of a dish and get that part of it right. In some ways you can get this from a well-written recipe. But the truth is that there is more to it than that. Some of it is intuition, a gut feeling that you have understood what I like to call the 'essence' of the thing. The part of something that really rings your bell. If you like, the whole point. Identify, and then pursue.
By identifying that point, you will know what you are aiming for and why you are cooking something. I would argue that in a risotto, say, it is not just the grains of stock-saturated rice that are the essence of the dish, but the way in which the limpid stock holds those wet grains together on your fork. (Which is why vegetarian stock never makes quite the perfect risotto, because it lacks the gelatinous quality of chicken stock.) In a piece of roast pork it is the contrast between the sweet, rich meat, succulent fat and crisp, salty crackling. And in a chocolate brownie it is (for me, at least) the contrast between the crisp crust and the moist, but not wet, cake beneath.
I could go on, and indeed I will - at least once a month over the next few weeks.
We are not talking about textbook perfect here, as in the arrogant and often misguided notion of how something 'should be' (usually by self-styled tin gods of the cookery world, who are hiding their ignorance behind a smokescreen of arrogance), but in that it will give you as much pleasure as you can possibly get from it. So, not only have you had the pleasure of sniffing, stirring and tasting, but the end result is as near to perfection as you can ever imagine it being. You have found and understood the very reason for that dish, that recipe. Now that is what you call cooking.
And so it is with summer pudding, that rough'n'tumble of raspberries, currants and bread. I rank it with Christmas pudding as one of the best recipes ever, except, of course, that the weather is usually better. It matters not one jot if you make it in a shallow dish, a pudding basin or, charming this, in individual china dishes. What is important - no, essential - is the juice and how the bread soaks it up. This is your 'essence'. The crux of the matter.
We must work out our own preference for the ratio of the three different berries.
I like a proportion of blackcurrants, a tart counter to the ever-sweeter varieties of raspberries and redcurrants. Purists will not accept a blackcurrant in a summer pudding. I add them for their glorious colour and for the extra snap of tartness that they bring. The sweet of tooth can leave them out. Then again, too many blackcurrants will overpower the raspberries. My perfect berry count is 150g blackcurrants to 250g of redcurrants to 500g raspberries.
Historically, this pudding was made with a raspberry to redcurrant ratio of 4:1. (The idea goes back to the 18th century and was a favourite of health spas, the bread being
a substitute for butter-rich pastry.) Purists will stick to this. But our tastes move on, and this balance is now considered a little insipid; a few blackcurrants turn up in most versions now.
My suspicions about the wisdom of solemnly following a recipe were once again founded this week. The currants I bought for my summer pudding from a large supermarket chain looked bright and fresh, but were flabby and flat-tasting, and sweet rather than sharp. To have followed a recipe blindly, 'yes, sir, no sir,' would have resulted in a sweet and flat-tasting pud. Luckily, I tasted the fruit and added less sugar by way of compensation - though, ideally, I would have preferred tarter currants. The offending redcurrants, by the way, were Rovada, the oversweet raspberries Tulameen.
The bread is more than just a case to hold the fruit. Its texture is crucial to the whole pudding.
Without it you would have nothing more than a compôte - stewed fruit. Soft, 'plastic' bread turns slimy rather than moist. God knows why it turns so nasty - it's like eating a soggy J cloth. No, the bread needs enough body to hold its shape should you decide to turn your dome of fruit out, and the closeness of texture not to turn to pink pap.
A well-made white sandwich loaf will work.
Dense bread such as sourdough is often too tight to soak up the juice. Brown bread is disgusting in this instance. Come to think of it, brown bread is disgusting in most instances.
The centre of attention, the difference between a good pud and one that is utterly sublime is the juice that soaks into the bread. It is this - its flavour and sheer abundance - that will make or break this dessert. It does need sweetening though, so a shake of sugar over the berries is essential. I use 3 tablespoons for fruit of normal tartness. This doesn't sound a lot, I know, but you will have, at the table, the tempering effect of the cream.
A jug of cream is a necessary part of a summer pudding. Don't even think of offering crème fraîche, the pudding is tangy enough as it is. You want pouring cream, not whipped or extra thick, but good old-fashioned double cream. And preferably unpasteurised. You will need a 1l pudding basin.
850g mixed raspberries and currants, with an emphasis on raspberries
7-8 slices firm, good quality white bread
3 tbsps white sugar
3 tbsps water
cream to serve
Sort through the fruit, tenderly, picking out any that are unripe or mouldy. There's nearly always a few. Pull the currants from their stems then put them, with the raspberries, in a stainless-steel saucepan over a low heat. Taste the fruit for sweetness and add sugar accordingly. For normal, sweet raspberries and slightly tart currants, I add 3 tablespoons or so of sugar. Sometimes you may need slightly less or more. Use your own judgment, bearing in mind that the finished pudding should have a bit of sharpness to it. Pour in a little water, a couple of tablespoons will do, then bring it to the boil.
The currants will start to burst and give out their juice. They need no longer than three or four minutes at a cautious simmer. The fruit should be shiny and there should be much magenta juice in the pan. Turn off the heat.
Slice the bread thickly. Each slice should be about as thick as your little finger. (Thinner if you are making several smaller puddings in individual moulds.) Cut the crusts off the bread. Set one piece aside, then cut the rest into 'soldiers', that is, each slice of bread into three long fingers. Using a glass or cup as a template, cut a disc of bread from the reserved slice and push it into the bottom of the pudding basin.
Line the inside of the basin with the strips of bread, pushing them together snugly so that no fruit can escape, and keeping a few strips for the top. Fill the bread-lined basin with the fruit and its juice - it should come almost to the rim. Lay the remaining bread on top of the fruit, tearing and patching where necessary, so no fruit is showing.
Put the basin in a shallow dish or bowl to catch any juice, then lay a flat plate or small tray on top with a heavy weight to squash the fruit down. Some juice may escape, but most will soak into the bread. Leave overnight in the fridge. (You may have to remove a shelf depending on how deep your fridge shelves are.)
Remove the weights, slide a palette knife around the edge, pushing carefully down between bread and basin so as not to tear the bread. Put a plate on top, and then, holding the plate in place, turn quickly upside down and shake firmly to dislodge the pud. It should slide out and sit proud. Pass a jug of cream around - it is an essential part of the pudding. Serves 6-8.