A throwaway comment made by a friend a few days ago made me start thinking about desserts, and what five desserts would I take with me to a desert island. You know, like the Radio 4 programme about records. I guess the “discs” part would be the plates the desserts would be served upon. Anyway, I figured the rules would be pretty simple:
- You can only have five desserts, at least until you’re rescued from the island.
- that’s it.
Before I start banging on about my five desserts, I’m going to add an extra rule because I’m like that. It has to be something you can make yourself, from (pretty much) scratch. I’m not saying that you have to grow your own wheat and mill it yourself, but you can’t have a brownie sundae without making brownies first. Or ice cream. You’re on an island, for goodness’ sakes; you’ve plenty of time to muck around making stuff.
Ok, we’ll agree you’ve got a magic fridge containing infinite cream and butter.
Here’s my 5 (with shorthand recipes) in no particular order. Also, until I land on the island I reserve the right to change this list completely.
Love this stuff. I mean, it’s just lovely. If you get it right the joy you get from the textures and freshness and the smell is worth the (really quite minimal) faff of making it. You can keep your Eton Mess, if I can smell strawberries I’m making this. You can make minor presentation tweaks to this pretty much for ever, too.
- Rinse, hull and halve strawberries, lightly sprinkle with caster sugar, zest half a lemon in there if you like, leave in a bowl for a couple of hours. If the strawberries don’t smell or taste properly amazing you can finely – and I really mean finely – dice a tiny bit of red chilli into the bowl as well, but this is overkill for good strawbs.
- Make shortbread. Or biscuits. Something with a bit of crunch and a lot of butter. At the moment I’m all about the Breton sablé but that could change tomorrow. Make them leaf-shaped with a bit of a ridge around the edges.
- Make creme pâtissière. Milk, vanilla, eggs, cornflour (or wheat flour, but that really needs cooking out or it tastes chalky).
- Make a strawberry gel by taking a few tablespoons of your strawberries, mashing them, adding 50% sugar, a squeeze of lemon juice & 2% pectin powder, boiling for a few minutes then straining the pulp out.
- Whip up & blob the creme pat on the shortbread base, strew with strawbs, paint with gel.
It’s deep fried dough. I mean, come on. There’s no way this ends badly.
- Make jam. At the moment I’m liking rhubarb for doughnuts, but whatever floats your boat.
- Make creme pat, again. You’d be surprised just how often this comes up.
- Make brioche dough. Enriched with eggs & butter & (a little!) sugar, use milk as the liquid, make it fairly sticky but not runny. Leave to prove.
- Rip bits of the dough off, roll into balls, prove again. Then gently drop into pretty hot oil & flip over every now & then until cooked.
- Toss in cinnamon sugar, leave to cool until you can, yanno, hold them without burning your fingertips. Then pipe the jam & creme pat into the middle.
I have banged on about brownies before. Read that article, it’ll give you everything you need to make phenomenal gooey chocolate delights. A Great brownie cannot be cakey, or dry in any way. A Great brownie must be dense and fudge-like. The mixture should be more like a batter than a sponge, and when it comes out of the oven it must have that crispy, flaky top that disintegrates as you touch it and sticks to your fingertips. If the chocolate is good enough, the sugar interesting, the eggs fresh then you don’t need to mess about with nuts or fruit or – heaven forfend – creme eggs. They should stand up on their own. Still, that shouldn’t stop you experimenting.
- Melt chocolate. Cream butter & sugar. Add eggs. Pour in chocolate. Add cocoa powder & the smallest amount of flour & baking powder you can get away with. Bake. eat.
Back in the day I was paid to do essay typing in ice cream. Those days are long gone thanks to (i) a proper job which pays money and (ii) attempts to make my trouser size smaller, or at least not get any bigger. Really great ice cream is one of the joys I cherish; that whippy nonsense that Thatcher had a hand in inventing set back ice cream innovation 30 years.
- Make creme anglaise. Try to avoid using cornflour. Do use real vanilla and double cream. Pour into a wiiiiide conductive container like a roasting tin so it can cool down quickly, then stick in a freezable lidded container like a clip-lock plastic tub.
- Freeze. Every now & then tip out the contents of your freezable container into a bowl and bash it about with a fork, or whisk, or something. Maybe stir in some of the rhubarb jam you made for doughnuts. Maybe break up a few accidentally overcooked brownies and stir those in too. Maybe change the vanilla out for a couple of espresso shots, reduced and reduced and reduced.
You want to know how I judge the quality of a restaurant? By how good its lemon tart is. Or Tart aux Citron, if you’re being swish (but if it’s on the menu as that it had better be bloody good). It has to be zingy and fresh and have crisp, thin, structurally sound well-baked pastry and not be oversweet – bad lemon tart can be like eating sweet & sour sauce – and the accompaniments be limited to maybe a few fresh berries. No need for cream. No need for chocolate (unless it’s a tiny shard of something impossibly dark). Mint sprig? Get away from me. Salted caramel sauce? I’m looking for what’s wrong with the tart if you need to hide it with that. Meringue? Oh my days, no. I understand that the top of a lemon meringue pie is there to use up the whites from making your lemon custard filling but I cannot overemphasise just how much I cannot stand that too-sweet claggy glop. Dust it with caster sugar and run a blowtorch over the top so you get a fine bruleé if you want to stand out from the crowd.
- Make pastry. Or pate sucre, or pate brisee if you like. Handle it as little as possible. I’ve seen recipes where the butter & flour & a bit of sugar are blitzed in a processer and then not bound into a paste with water or egg but left as a crumb, which is then packed into the tart tin. I’m not brave enough for that yet and I applaud those who are. Freeze the case. Bake the case, mostly. Paint with egg. Bake again.
- Make lemon custard. I’m into the recipe from Serious Eats at the moment (about 2/3rds of the way through this recipe here) but honestly use whatever floats your boat. You don’t even need to pre-cook your filling, sometimes. Just use lots of lemons, lots of eggs, a bit of sugar, maybe a bit of cream. Pour into case.
- Bake until just – just barely – set. It should still wobble in the middle, but not be runny when you cut into it. Chill. Eat.
Just look at that list. It’s a joy and a half, right there. But it doesn’t even begin to cover some of the true joys in desserts. There’s no choux pastry, for a start – who doesn’t love profiteroles? Nor clafoutis, which would be in second or third place during cherry season. Tarte tatin, perfect with a blob of creme chantilly. A simple chocolate mousse with a biscuit and a dab of blackcurrant coulis. Where’s the cake? I love cake. Maybe I don’t consider it a dessert, more of a basic human right.
So what would your five be? What five desserts would you need to have to keep body and soul together trapped on a desert island, with only a record player and an infinitely-fulfilled dairy fridge for company?