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Holidays have long inspired traditions, and, for me, nothing inspired them more than Christmas. Many of my family’s traditions were passed down from Mom Skanes, my maternal grandmother, whose Christmas joy belied her otherwise solemn demeanor.
Her house was the center of our celebrations. It sat on an island that, in winter, was overwhelmingly bleak. My grandfather painted the clapboards bright green to temper the slate sky and ocean, and at Christmas, when snow draped the eves and red lights shone from every window, the house beckoned us inside to celebrate.
Mummers, too, sometimes took part in the celebration. Wearing flour sack hoods or more elaborate and less frightening masks, they re-enacted a Newfoundland, Canada, tradition still observed then in isolated communities such as ours, of going from house to house in disguise, demanding glasses of rum and slices of fruitcake. Some, like Marley’s ghost, dragged chains behind them, slapping the links against doors for entrance but, if they wanted my grandmother’s bread pudding, they had to leave the chains outside. They would do so gladly for a taste of the Queen of Puddings.
British pudding recipes have withstood the test of time
Variations of Mom Skanes’ refined “bread soaked in milk” pudding date back to 17th century Britain, and one version in particular, Monmouth Pudding, was an early version of the one she made. Both consisted of layers of meringue, jam and bread soaked in milk (or milk and cream).
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Her recipe came across the ocean to Newfoundland with her English ancestors. A story also accompanied the recipe on the journey, that of a duke tasting the pudding and declaring it the most delicious thing he’d ever tasted.
Although she told the story from time to time, Mom Skanes put no stock in such a fanciful tale — although, secretly, I think she thought any duke would have been lucky to taste that pudding. We commoners certainly understood our luck as we offered up our bowls and begged for more. At Christmas, though, there was no need to beg, because there was always plenty.
She served the Queen of Puddings after our traditional Christmas Eve supper of lamb chops, mashed potatoes and molasses bread. While my parents and grandparents lingered at the table, I took my pudding into the den, curling up in my grandfather’s big chair where I so often fell asleep to the sound of music on the radio. On Christmas Eve I was too excited for the sound of hoofs overhead to fall asleep, and, besides, there was pudding to get me through to the next treat.
I ate it in layers, starting with the meringue, which I slurped off the spoon, filling my mouth with sweetness. Then I ate the raspberry jam and bread custard layers together. Although it was terrible manners to lick the bowl, I did, and the telltale signs of guilt lingered on my chin when my grandmother came to check on me. On that night, however, instead of chastising me, she simply marched me upstairs to wash my face and hands.
Mom Skanes was generous with food throughout the year, but at Christmas she went out of her way to make sure there was enough, not only for family and friends but, more especially, for neighbors in need. She baked for weeks leading up to the holidays, often with me perched on a stool at her elbow, watching as she measured and sifted, mixed and stirred. She creamed butter and sugar for cakes by hand but whipped egg whites for the pudding with an electric mixer that whirled around the bowl, making a cloud of white that rose higher and higher. Soon, I thought, it would float up to the ceiling, but instead, it ended up on top of the pudding’s raspberry jam.
The pudding was the last thing she made, and on Christmas Eve morning, with Bing Crosby dreaming of the “White Christmas” beyond our windows, she began by slicing and then buttering stale bread. After layering the bread in a baking pan, she made the custard, allowing it to soak into the bread before carrying the pan to the oven, me trailing behind to make sure she didn’t spill anything. The pan was so heavy that her strong arms shook as she took it from counter to oven.
Soon the aroma of vanilla filled the kitchen and, later, when the jam and meringue had been added and the pudding returned to the oven, I was charged with watching through the glass as the meringue turned golden.
The Queen of Puddings was delicious, but some loved it most because of its lightness, a lovely change from the dense and heavy fruitcakes of Christmas. I loved the meringue the most because of the magical way my grandmother transformed egg whites into a cloud; for a while, I thought it was a skill only she possessed.
For Mom Skanes, the pudding was a way of using up stale bread, because she couldn’t abide wasting food that was a blessing. There was something else she loved about the pudding, though: It was refined and, serving it softened, for a little while, what could be a hard life on that bleak island.
I still make the Queen of Puddings on Christmas Eve, carrying on her tradition, making it as much for the memories it evokes as for its taste. Like the little girl who ate the meringue first, curled up in her grandfather’s chair, I still slurp it off my spoon and fill my mouth, again, with sweetness.
The Queen of Puddings (Mom Skanes’ recipe)
Prep time: 25 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes
Total time: 65 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
For the bread pudding:
1 cup whole milk
1 cup table cream (18%)
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup granulated sugar
5 slices white bread, crusts removed
1/4 cup melted butter
1 cup raspberry jam
For the meringue:
4 egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1. Preheat the oven to 325 F.
For the bread pudding:
1. In a medium saucepan, add the milk, cream and vanilla. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk the egg yolks and sugar until the mixture is light and creamy. Slowly whisk the egg mixture into the hot milk and cream, whisking constantly until the egg mixture is incorporated. Remove the pan from the heat.
2. Brush both sides of the bread with melted butter. Place the bread evenly into the bottom of a greased 2-quart baking dish.
3. Pour the custard mixture over the bread. Use a fork to gently submerge the bread so the liquid soaks into it.
4. Place the baking dish into a roasting pan (or another large, high-sided pan). Pour enough hot water into the roasting pan to reach halfway up the sides of the baking dish.
5. Carefully place in the oven and bake until the pudding is set (the bread will be firm when pressed with a fork), about 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from the oven.
6. Increase the oven temperature to 375 F.
7. In a small saucepan, warm the raspberry jam. Spread the jam evenly over the bread pudding.
For the meringue:
1. In a large clean bowl, add the egg whites. Beat using an electric or hand mixer until soft peaks form.
2. Add the cream of tartar and continue beating until stiff peaks form.
3. Gradually add the sugar and beat until all sugar has been added and the meringue is thick and glossy.
4. Spread the meringue evenly over the jam layer. Bake until the meringue is golden brown, about 8 to 10 minutes.
Note: The pudding can be served hot or cold.
Main image: Queen of Puddings. Credit: Sharon Hunt
People today have at least one unlikely thing in common with the Neolithic bog people of thousands of years ago: oat porridge. It was found in the stomachs of their 5,000-year-old bodies in Scandinavia and Europe and would no doubt be found in our stomachs if somebody digs us up thousands of years from now.
Oatmeal — or porridge as we called it, giving a nod to my grandfather’s Scottish ancestry — has been a breakfast mainstay since I was a girl. Now, with the return of cool fall weather, I am drawn to warm foods, especially in the morning.
My mother made oatmeal before sending me off to school, and although hers was a bit “gluier” than I liked, it was filling and took me through a morning of memorizing poems or learning long division. More important, especially for a child, it tasted great with a liberal slosh of table cream and an equally liberal sprinkling of brown sugar. Sometimes she grated apples on top or arranged slices of pears in a circle and, like Oliver Twist, I begged for more, although my oatmeal was surely better tasting than his gruel.
Porridge is made of oats cooked in water, milk or both and served hot with a variety of toppings. My grandfather made it in a big steel pot, reminding me of a wizard stirring a potion, although I’d never seen a wizard in a floral apron. Like me, he had grown up eating oatmeal for breakfast, but sometimes it was his dinner, too. It was inexpensive, which was an important consideration after he became the breadwinner for his mother and sisters at 10, his father having died, forcing him to leave school in fourth grade.
Oatmeal in the early years
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In his 1755 monumental work “A Dictionary of the English Language,” Samuel Johnson described oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” Lord Elibank, a proud Scotsman, soldier, lawyer and author, was said to have remarked about Johnson’s definition of oats, “And where else will you see such horses and such men?”
Porridge was originally a means of preparing crops before ovens became common enough in Europe that more people could make bread. British inmates in prison were said to be “doing porridge,” a slang for doing time. They also ate porridge while behind prison walls.
Oats were well suited to Scotland’s short and wet growing season. Scottish universities, during the 17th century, observed a holiday known as Meal Monday (or Oatmeal Monday) when students, whose diet consisted largely of porridge, returned home to stock up on supplies for the coming months of study.
Oatmeal remains popular for breakfast today and is available in long-cooking, quickly prepared or instant varieties.
On a recent trip to Ireland, I found oatmeal on breakfast menus from Dublin to Belfast and towns in between. In Dublin I enjoyed it with sour cherries and grated nutmeg; and in Belfast, it was delicious with thick cream, honey and cinnamon. The best oatmeal I had (and, for that matter, the best breakfast) was at Coolefield House Bed and Breakfast in tiny Millstreet.
Coolefield House is a jewel, as warm and welcoming as the dish of oatmeal that Pam and Mike Thornton, the owners, prepare for their guests. Their oatmeal, made with organic oats by Flahavan’s, a popular Irish brand, was cooked in milk until creamy and topped with caramelized bananas, buttery and sweet. As a special treat, the Thorntons sometimes add a splash of Drambuie, the aged Scotch whisky blended with honey, spices and herbs, which adds extra richness to an already rich and delicious bowl.
How to make oatmeal
Make oatmeal with your preference of water, milk or a combination of the two. Scottish traditionalists like my grandfather used only water, but milk makes a richer porridge. If you prefer to use both, a ratio of 1 part milk to 2 parts water gives a good consistency or, if you wish for less milk, try 1 part milk to 3 parts water. Cook the oats according to the directions on the package.
Quick-cooking oats — different from instant oatmeal — are, as the name implies, quicker to prepare, whereas instant oatmeal is faster still, although I prefer longer-cooking oats for a deeper flavor.
For a nutty flavor, consider toasting the oats for a few minutes over low heat in a dry pan or under the oven broiler before cooking, or let cooked oatmeal sit, with the lid on, for 5 to 10 minutes to develop more flavor.
Choose from a variety of toppings to add flavor to your bowl of oatmeal. Ideas include caramelized apples or bananas; sour cherries; blueberries; raspberries; peaches; brown sugar; honey; Greek yogurt; table cream; grated fresh nutmeg; and cinnamon.
Main photo: Oatmeal with caramelized bananas. Credit: Sharon Hunt
My father loved to fish, his East Coast genes commanding that love. Dad loved camping too but only camping where water was nearby. After all, nothing tasted better than fresh fish frying on a camp stove, unless it was fresh fish accompanied by the wonderful cherry jam he made to go with it.
While Mom set the table and my sister trotted off with her Barbie dolls, Dad’s fishing pole arced and fell, and I caught up with Nancy Drew’s latest mystery. When Dad had enough fish, even Nancy was cast aside for lunch.
While the fish sizzled, he caramelized onions for the cherry jam. How he fell upon this combination I don’t know, but the jam, little more than fresh cherries, green pepper and onions, was tart and sweet, and we slathered it onto the hot fish. With coleslaw and bread, we had a midday feast.
After lunch, we were logy, sluggish in our movements but content in our thoughts. Even Barbie looked ready to stretch out on her lounge chair for a nap.
Fresh cherries open up new possibilities
Before moving to Ontario, Canada, we never ate fresh cherries, the ones arriving at the grocery store already covered with a fuzzy coating of mold. So we contented ourselves with maraschino cherries in canned fruit cocktail or topping an ice cream sundae or the glace cherries in a cake that had been passed down from my Great-Grandmother Hunt.
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I never knew her, but in Dad’s words she was “a corker” (an excellent or astonishing person). All of 4 feet and practically as wide as she was tall, she wore a black apron that fringed her ankles and had a Newfoundland dog, looking more pony than canine, that rarely left her side.
When Dad spent summer holidays with her and his grandfather, she made boiled dinners that were often gray in the pot and roasts of beef that inevitably blackened in her care, but she also made a cherry cake that he and the dog salivated over. The cake was one of the few things that she made — along with poached eggs, fish stew and gingerbread — that was a keeper, he said.
Although really just a pound cake with glace cherries added, it was the beating of butter and sugar until silken and the addition of almond flavoring and orange juice that elevated the cake to something special. She used a wooden spoon and an English mason bowl that she sat in her lap, creaming the butter and sugar with a steady rhythm, while the other ingredients waited to be added. The last thing mixed in was the cherries, which had been sprinkled with flour so they wouldn’t fall to the bottom of the cake as it baked.
Great-Grandmother Hunt hummed while the spoon beat against the bowl, the oil stove undulating in the heat and Dad and the dog sitting close by, waiting.
Later, when she took the cakes out of the oven, they hardly had time to reach the cooling racks before boy and beast were at her elbow, begging for slices that had been tinged pink from the cherries.
Decades later, Dad made those cakes for me and my sister, but by then, we’d also become fresh cherry lovers. The Bing cherries that grew on a tree in the back garden of our new home were fat and glossy, and what a wonder it was to pick a handful whenever we wanted.
I was sometimes sent out with the step stool and a bowl to pick enough cherries for a new dessert Dad discovered in the only cookbook he ever bought, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Later, he found the tall and gangly author of the book, Julia Child, on television by accident and learned to make new, French dishes, but Cherry Clafoutis remained one of his favorites.
It looked like a puffed up pancake as it baked, but it was so much more — light textured and bursting with cherries. Powdered sugar sprinkled on top added an extra touch of sweetness. Cherry Clafoutis became a weekend treat and a camping specialty. Dad even made a metal hood for the camp stove so he could bake the dessert on it.
The aroma of the baking clafoutis lured friends and strangers to our camping spot. Soon, slices were being passed around, powdered sugar was coating lips and cherry juice dribbled down chins. It was hard to imagine life before this dessert and before fresh cherries.
Dad tweaked Child’s clafoutis over the years, adding ingredients and changing amounts, but he always credited her with opening up a whole new direction in cooking and baking for him. His clafoutis is the version I still make.
I stay true to Great-Grandmother Hunt’s cherry cake recipe, though, like he did, and although Bing cherries are still my favorites, I also like light-fleshed Rainiers, the “Princess of cherries,” while the Lapin’s deep red skin and flesh makes a cherry jam that is still perfect slathered on pan fried trout.
Inspired by Julia Child's recipe.
- Pinch of salt
- ½ cup all-purpose flour
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup white sugar, divided
- ½ cup buttermilk
- ½ cup 10% cream
- ¼ cup orange juice
- 2 teaspoons almond extract
- 2 cups cherries, pitted (fresh work best, but frozen cherries, thawed and drained, work well too)
- Powdered sugar
- Preheat the oven to 350 F.
- Sift the salt and flour together in a small bowl.
- In a medium-size bowl, whisk the eggs until frothy. Add ½ cup sugar and whisk until combined, then add the buttermilk, cream, orange juice and almond extract; whisk until smooth.
- Add the sifted flour and salt and blend well.
- Pour half the batter into a greased baking dish (about an 8-cup capacity) and place in the preheated oven. When the batter has started to set around the sides of the pan (about 10 minutes), remove the pan from the oven.
- Sprinkle the cherries and then the additional ½ cup of sugar over the batter. Add the rest of the batter and return the dish to the oven.
- Bake for about 45 minutes (or until the clafoutis has puffed up, is golden and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean).
- Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve warm.
Main photo: Fresh cherries. Credit: Sharon Hunt
I am a cake person. For people who know me, this is as irrefutable a fact as the Earth orbiting the sun. Given that, when I picked up Diana Henry’s new cookbook, “A Change of Appetite” (Mitchell Beazley, 2014), and it fell open to a recipe for Pistachio and Lemon Cake, I felt the book and I were destined to become true friends.
And so we have.
If you read my review of her previous book, “Salt Sugar Smoke,” you know that Henry is one of Britain’s best-loved food writers. She was twice named Cookery Journalist of the Year by The Guild of Food Writers.
I have enjoyed all eight of her books — particularly “Roast Figs Sugar Snow” — filled with winter recipes that make me long for frigid temperatures — and “Crazy Water Pickled Lemons” — for the name of the book and the Middle Eastern Orange Cake, among other things — but “A Change of Appetite: Where Healthy Meets Delicious” is timely because, like her, I have realized a change of appetite is in order.
Although I don’t eat an unhealthy diet (yes, I am a bit too fond of sweets), it could do with some tweaking — less meat, more vegetables and grains and different flavors. Still, I don’t want to sacrifice taste in pursuit of healthier eating, and, as the title attests, I don’t have to.
‘A Change of Appetite’ suggests seasonal eating
The book is divided into seasons, and the Pistachio and Lemon Cake is one of the spring recipes. About eating in spring Henry notes, “We find we want different foods: greener, cleaner, sprightlier flavors.”
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A Feta and Orange Salad with Honeyed Almonds certainly provides sprightlier flavors, as does White Fish, Saffron and Dill Couscous Pilaf, a dinner that takes 15 minutes to prepare and is a delicious reward at the end of the day.
In summer the “appetite is fickle,” but even the most fickle will likely find something to enjoy here. Two summer recipes stood out for me.
The first, Turkish Spoon Salad with Haydari (a yogurt dip), involves much chopping of chilies, tomatoes, cucumbers and other ingredients, but you are rewarded with a lovely looking salad that is also delicious. For me, fine dicing promotes patience. It also reminds me of my father, who had abundant patience and always diced vegetables in this precise manner for his soups and salads, and they always tasted better because of the care he took in preparing the ingredients.
The second summer recipe, Shaken Currants with Yogurt and Rye Crumbs, was a lovely surprise. Given the addition of rye crumbs, I wasn’t sure I would appreciate this dish. Happily, I was wrong. Although other summer berries can be substituted, I loved the currants’ tartness, which complemented the earthy rye. I grew up eating currants because my maternal grandmother picked them from her garden and fed them to me with thick, fresh cream. When I complained that raspberries and blueberries, also abundant in her garden, were sweeter, she reminded me that life was not made up of sweetness only, so I should set my mind to other flavors too. I was 5 at the time, but the lesson must have taken hold because I’ve always relished other flavors, almost as much as sweetness.
“I love the pull toward the kitchen that cooler weather engenders,” Henry writes about fall. For me, that pull is a pull toward soup, and her Eastern Broth with Shallots, Lime and Cilantro will be a great addition to my fall lineup. A lovely broth on its own, it becomes a soothing and filling meal with the addition of tofu or chicken and vegetables.
Roasted Tomatoes, Hummus, and Spinach on Toast is filling as well, especially when a quick Watercress and Carrot Salad is added. Spiced Pork Chops with Ginger and Mango Relish are hearty, while Citrus Compote with Ginger Snow is a light and refreshing end to any fall meal.
Like her previous books, “A Change of Appetite” is stylish. Interesting food essays (“Japanese Lessons,” especially so) are interspersed with clear and easy-to-follow recipes, often accompanied by gorgeous photographs that inspire rather than intimidate. They draw you into the kitchen.
Cool weather cooking and sweet treats
When winter descends, the instinct to eat for survival, carried with us over eons, takes hold despite the fact that many of us are now blessed with the certainty of our next meal. Winter cooking, perhaps more than cooking in any other season, is for sharing, and a dish like Georgian Chicken with Walnut Sauce and Hot Grated Beet offers warmth and comfort against the harshness beyond our windows.
The recipes in “A Change of Appetite” reinforce the truth that healthy eating does not require depriving yourself of flavor and pleasure at the table. Far from it. And although cutting back on sugar is never a bad idea, you can still have dessert. When it is made a special treat, it will be enjoyed even more.
Returning to the special treat that began my friendship with this cookbook, Pistachio and Lemon Cake may well be a “perfect cake for spring,” but I won’t limit it to this season. It’s made with olive oil instead of the butter I so liberally use in my cakes, stale breadcrumbs instead of flour, and finished with lemon syrup that makes the cake even more moist and delicious.
My grandmother may have taught me that life will not be made up of sweetness only, but at times there will and must be some, so I will slice the Pistachio and Lemon Cake just a little thinner. Delicious.
Main composite photo: “A Change of Appetite” by Diana Henry. Credits: Book cover image courtesy of publisher Mitchell Beazley and author photo by Chris Terry
In Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” written in the 14th century, pilgrims on their way to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket lightened their journey with stories. Among the pilgrims was a cook who made “sweet blanc-mange.” This is one of the earliest mentions of a dish we now often think of as an almond-flavored pudding.
Blancmange, which in Chaucer’s time was made with rice, almonds and chicken, has fallen out of favor over the centuries, which is a pity. August Escoffier, whom some consider the patron saint of chefs, believed that “blanc-manger … when well made … can be one of the best sweets served,” which is high praise from a man whose culinary skills were legendary. Because of his love of the dish, he made it a favorite once more — this time in the early 20th century.
From labor-intensive to ‘instant,’ blancmange has evolved
Escoffier’s version required skinning, crushing and straining almonds to make an almond milk base; the results ushered in a new appreciation of blancmange among diners lucky enough to enjoy it. Eventually, though, such a labor-intensive dish gave way to commercial, “instant” versions, which were particularly popular in the 1960s.
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I grew up with the labor-intensive blancmange, introduced to me by my grandmother. She made it in summer, when its cool, creamy flavor soothed the afternoon heat. While it set in the refrigerator, she and I wandered down behind her house in search of tiny nubs of strawberries or raspberries to enjoy with our “ghost pudding,” as we nicknamed it.
By this time, rice and chicken had long been abandoned as ingredients, but milk, cream, sugar and almond flavoring remained. She, my mother and I were devoted to blancmange and couldn’t understand others’ indifference to or hatred of something we thought of as perfect.
Even my grandfather, who loved sweets so much he would settle for a spoonful of jam to finish a meal if no dessert was offered, grimaced at the sight of “that white stuff.” My father was not much better, calling it “mucilage” — the thick glue we used to paste pictures into scrapbooks. Although he couldn’t have been more wrong about the texture of my grandmother’s blancmange, he still turned up his nose at the prospect of eating it.
After a while, we stopped caring because their refusal just meant there was more of it for us.
Our devotion to blancmange was as much a devotion to expanding our world as it was to loving this delicious dessert. We lived on a speck of rock in the Atlantic Ocean (Bell Island, Newfoundland, Canada), hemmed in by grayness and isolation, but we knew there had to be more to the world than what was contained within the perimeter of that place. Food like blancmange (the name couldn’t be pronounced without sounding at least a little sophisticated) allowed us to step onto a path that might lead us somewhere different.
My grandmother did not know the true age of blancmange — later, I would become the one obsessed with food history — but she knew the dessert she made was old because her mother had made it and her grandmother before that.
Despite its French name, blancmange most likely originated in the Middle East, where sweets made from chicken were common in medieval times. With the introduction of rice and almonds to Europe by Arab traders, the dish eventually became popular with the nobility and upper-classes.
While other dishes of the time were well-spiced (spices were thought to help balance the humors of the body as well as help keep food from spoiling), blancmange usually had no spices. Cooks made dazzling presentations for feasts by coloring part of it (red was a popular choice) while leaving the other part white. Sometimes the pudding was scented with roses, another Middle Eastern influence.
King Richard II’s chefs included a recipe for “blank mang” (the Middle English spelling) in their cookbook “Forme of Cury,” written in 1390.
I never saw a recipe for the blancmange my grandmother made. I suspect it was never written down, but passed from mother to daughter and learned by heart as a young girl. (She began working in her mother’s kitchen when she was 4 years old.) Likewise, I never saw her use a cookbook, although she occasionally glimpsed a green notebook in which she had written some recipes — perhaps even the blancmange recipe — but the book disappeared when she went into a nursing home.
After she and my mother died (within months of each other), I started working on my grandmother’s recipe for blancmange. Although I still revise it from time to time, it comes close to what we ate on those summer afternoons as our world expanded with each delicious bite. My world continues to expand, although when I eat blancmange now, it is in the company of ghosts.
This recipe is in memory of my mother and grandmother. Makes six servings.
1 cup blanched ground almonds
1½ cups whole milk
1 teaspoon almond extract
Pinch of salt
2 packages unflavored gelatin
2 tablespoons cold water
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 cup whipping cream (35% milk fat)
1. Brush six half-cup ramekins (or small tube pans) with a neutral-tasting vegetable oil.
2. In a bowl, stir the ground almonds and the milk together until combined.
3. Spread a clean cheesecloth in a sieve set over a bowl and pour the almond mixture into the cheesecloth. Wrap the cheesecloth and squeeze 1 cup of almond milk into the bowl, then discard the almonds.
4. Stir in almond extract and salt.
5. In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over water and let stand for 2 minutes.
6. In a saucepan, combine the almond milk and sugar and cook over medium heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Add a little of the milk mixture to the softened gelatin and stir until smooth, then pour the gelatin into the saucepan and cook, stirring the milk until the gelatin has dissolved.
7. Pour the mixture into a bowl that has been set in a larger bowl of ice and stir constantly until the mixture has cooled and thickened (approximately 3 to 5 minutes). Remove the bowl from the ice.
8. In a large bowl, whip the cream until stiff peaks form, and then gently fold the almond mixture into the cream (in three additions) until well combined.
9. Spoon the pudding into the ramekins. Cover with plastic wrap and chill until set, at least 2 hours.
10. To unmold, gently run a sharp knife around the side of each blancmange and invent it onto a dessert plate. If the dessert doesn’t release, tap the bottom and sides of the ramekin or place a hot cloth on the bottom for 5 seconds.
11. Serve with fresh fruit in season (strawberries, raspberries or cherries are delicious, or for a more tart flavor, try mango or gooseberries).
Note: If you don’t wish to make your own almond milk, you can substitute 1 cup of commercial almond milk.
Main photo: Blancmange. Credit: Sharon Hunt
As children, my sister and I spent Saturdays in the spring as knights-errant, challenging each other to duels with rhubarb stalks. We thrust them at each other, but our swords connected gently, so as not to damage what would later become delicious treats. A neighborhood bully once intruded, threatening to kill us with a touch of his rhubarb leaves. Just one touch would mean instant death, that’s how poisonous the leaves were, he said. I pushed him into a ditch, and when he didn’t die instantly, as the leaves touched his shoulder, I took my sister home for a dish of rhubarb Mom had cooked that morning.
We were rhubarb lovers. Mom and my sister loved it cooked with sugar, slathered on fresh bread and topped with heavy cream. They also loved it as Rhubarb Fool, the pink strands of rhubarb swirling through the whipped cream. Occasionally, rhubarb showed up in a cobbler, which they spooned into their mouths with abandon. Although Dad and I loved rhubarb these ways too, we loved it most in pies, his pies, since he made the best in the world.
“There’s no better pie than rhubarb,” he’d say wherever he got ready to make one.
Rhubarb’s long history started with medicinal uses
Nineteenth-century cooks would have agreed with him in that regard. They dubbed rhubarb the “pie plant” because of its popularity as a filling, but it had been popular for medicinal purposes much longer.
Rhubarb originated in Russia, Siberia and China, and was written about more than 2,700 years ago in “The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic,” an early Chinese text. Its roots were prized near and far as a cure for dysentery, diarrhea and constipation.
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In Tudor England (from the 1400s to 1600s), rhubarb was grown in herb gardens. A century later, in the 1770s, the Duke of Athol grew Turkey rhubarb in Scotland, selling the roots to an Edinburgh druggist.
The rhubarb variety now eaten came to 17th-century England from Italy. Its cultivation spread throughout the 18th century, but it took awhile for rhubarb recipes to appear in English cookbooks — in part because the sugar needed for sweetening was not widely available or affordable. When sugar became more common, recipes for pies, tarts and other desserts followed, in the 19th century.
In 1771, Benjamin Franklin sent Chinese rhubarb seeds to John Bartram, an American botanist, thus introducing the plant to America. Soon, rhubarb was cultivated in Maine and flourished after that in Massachusetts as well. By 1822, rhubarb was sold in New England markets, and later that century, Luther Burbank, a pioneer in agricultural science, developed a variety better suited to California’s climate.
Rhubarb stalks, the parts we eat, are really leaf bases called petioles. They vary in color, from pink to red, green or white, depending on the variety.
The rhubarb that Dad grew was pink. It spread between the fences separating our back garden from our neighbors’, with Dad doing the harvesting and all of us, including our neighbors the Leckies, sharing in his baking.
Dad was a born baker, although six decades of practice certainly helped fine-tune his innate skills. Although he could make anything, his genius was pastry, which demands a gentle touch. He was a gentle man, so the two were made for each other.
He was an orderly baker as well, first laying out all the ingredients: flour, salt, lard, water, vinegar, sugar, cornstarch and rhubarb (without those “murderous” leaves, which, in fact, contain toxic oxalic acid that can be lethal if ingested). Then, measuring cups and spoons, a pastry knife and fork, mixing bowls, a rolling pin, pie pans and cooling racks were assembled. He always made three pies: one for our neighbors and two for us (the second pie was for lingering over a little more because the first barely left the oven before it was devoured).
The worst thing about his pie making was waiting for the pies to bake and then cool. I was not patient when it came to waiting for rhubarb pie, but if you didn’t wait, the slice of pie collapsed into soup on your plate and burned your mouth too. When the pie was cool enough, the sight of that first slice of rosy rhubarb between layers of flaky pastry made me drool.
If that bully hadn’t been a bully, he might have been invited to drool over that sight too, before tasting Dad’s rhubarb pie. Then he would have understood the truly deadly aspect of rhubarb. It wasn’t in the leaves touching you but, rather, in that first perfect bite, when the sweet rhubarb melded with pastry that melted on your tongue. That bite was deadly because you knew how terrible it would be when you could no longer eat such a perfect thing. If he hadn’t been a bully, I might have pitied him for never having had that experience, but, instead, I was just grateful that we did so often.
Dad’s Rhubarb Pie
Makes one 9-inch pie
For the pastry:
2¼ cups all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup cold lard (unsalted butter, if you prefer, or half lard and half butter)
¼ cup cold water
1 tablespoon white vinegar
For the filling:
3½ cups rhubarb, leaves removed; stalks trimmed, washed and dried thoroughly and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 to 1½ cups granulated sugar
¼ cup cornstarch
For the pastry:
1. Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl. Using a pastry knife, cut the lard into the flour until it is in pea-sized pieces.
2. In a measuring cup, stir together the water and vinegar. Using a fork, stir only enough liquid into the flour mixture to bind the ingredients. (Note: You might need more or less water, depending on how the dough comes together. In humid weather, it might require less water because flour, if not stored properly, can absorb water from the air.)
3. Form the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
4. While the dough chills, prepare the rhubarb filling.
For the filling:
1. Combine rhubarb with sugar in a bowl and set aside. (For a more tart pie, use just 1 cup of sugar.)
Assembling the pie:
1. Cut the chilled dough into two equal pieces. On a lightly floured surface, roll one piece into a ⅛-inch thick circle. Gently wrap the circle onto the rolling pin (or lift it) and press into a 9-inch pie pan, trimming any excess from the edges.
2. Spoon the rhubarb mixture into the pastry-lined pie pan. Sprinkle cornstarch evenly over the fruit.
3. Cover the rhubarb with the rolled-out top crust. Seal the pastry edges with your thumb and finger (or press a fork against the edges to seal). Cut slits into the pastry. (Alternatively, cut the top crust into strips and make a latticework design on top of the pie, as show in the accompanying photograph.)
4. Press a thin strip (about 1 inch) of aluminum foil around the edges to keep from burning.
5. Bake the pie in a preheated 450 F oven for 12 to 15 minutes (or until the pastry is golden). Remove the aluminum foil, and reduce heat to 350 F. Bake the pie for an additional 40 to 50 minutes (or until the rhubarb is soft).
6. Cool well before cutting.
Note: You can also add ¼ cup of strawberries (washed, dried and cut into equal-sized pieces) for additional sweetness and flavor. If you choose to use strawberries too, reduce the amount of rhubarb accordingly.
Top photo: Rhubarb pie. Credit: Sharon Hunt