There’s an old Russian story about two sisters who were both in love with the same prince. The younger, prettier sister was favoured, and the older sister magnanimously agrees to prepare the wedding feast. As she stirs and folds and bakes and crimps, she weeps. She weeps into the doughs and the broths and creams and dumplings, and stares out of the window into the middle distance, as though hoping to glance her lost youth disappearing over the tundra and beyond the horizon. At the wedding feast, the guests merrily tuck in to the sister’s offerings, only to find themselves overcome, at first but love, then by sadness, and then by an urgent need to vomit in a ditch.
I’d already written this paragraph when I realised it was actually the plot of Como Agua Para Chocolat, or Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, which is Mexican and brilliant, so you should read the book or watch the movie right now. Probably the best book ever novel about food, for those of us who cook our feelings. Although Nora Ephron’s Heartburn and Joanne Harris’ Chocolat are very honourable mentions.
I will admit to a tendency to conflate the old wives tales of Eastern Europe with the plots of movies, and with things that actually happened to people I’m related to. The reason for this is that my knowledge of folklore, family gossip and the plots to arthouse movies all come from the same source: overhearing one side of the conversation my mum was having over the phone to her brother Peter.
My Uncle Peter was many things - a novelist, photographer, screenwriter, composer - but he was mainly a bum. He would travel the globe, his worldly possessions and two outfits fitting into one or two bags, writing, recording, making friends, and getting in to scrapes. He was my absolute hero. He was mum’s little brother and the two of them were very close and very different. Whenever he could, he would write her long emails or if someone else was picking up the phone bill, make a long call from wherever he happened to be. They would catch up on the latest eccentricities of my grandparents or my father, the latest news of old friends. But mostly they would talk about movies. As a film buff and frequently flier, he was always full of recommendations which my mum would then record off the telly. I loved listening to them talk on the phone. My mum’s expressive tones and squalking PAH! of a laugh. The scandals, the intrigue, the jokes. The plot twists revealed, the endings ruined, deliciously, warmly, humourous, and with love.
These phone calls, and my uncle’s antics, were a real source of joy and wonder to me. We had a lot in common. He sent me cool new music on tape, and I was added on to his phonecalls and his email list. He always encouraged me as an artist, and seemed bemused that I was constantly going after real jobs, instead of getting on with living life and making art. He’d never had a real job and didn't see why I should have to work for living when there was a whole world out there, waiting for me. As I got older I’d roll my eyes at this. I was far too sensible and realistic for this malarkey. Real jobs were what all of us just had to get on with an do in real life. We couldn’t all be hobos.
It was after his sudden death last year, aged 60, in Kuala Lumpa on New Years Day that I decided to start living less realistically. After all, what good was it doing me? I couldn't just pack it all in and jet off round the world - I had accumulated responsibilities and possessions and relationships which could not just be shrugged off. But I could focus less on a career, and more on doing stuff I actually wanted to be doing. Living life, making art. I could say Yes to opportunities that might not be steps on a ladder, or be quantified in a salary, but as long as I could keep afloat then why on earth not?
So, this time last year I accepted my first writing commission. It was just ghostwriting, and just for a friend of a friend, probably just a vanity project, but nonetheless I could say - at last - I was a writer. It turned into something of a saga. Writing someone else’s misery memoir is a very schizophrenic experience, and I felt like I was drowning in bad decisions and self-loathing that wasn’t even my own. For hours and hours, the subject would recount their story then I’d go away and transcribe then sculpt the story into something readable, something filmable.
But my subject's words left a bad taste in my mouth. The practicalities of a writer’s life were a challenge to me. How can you tell the difference between a good and a bad day? Should I write at night and sleep in the day? Should I go to the library, or a cafe? Stuck at home, the fridge would call to me. Never the best typist, I managed to turn a vicious custody battle into a viscous, custardy one, and so my mind went immediately to dessert.
I am a relative newcomer to custard. Not that I was deprived of it as a child, indeed I was practically drowning in it. Industrial tureens of the stuff graced every school dinner, and a steaming pyrex jug or gravy boat of Birds would finish off the family meal more than once a week. But I was a custard-avoider. I shunned the yellow peril. Because why would one opt for a creme anglais when so many other cremes were available? Whipped cream, ideally the sweet and plasticky squirty stuff, but lovingly hand-whipped with icing sugar and marsala wine would also do. Brandy cream at Christmas and leftovers taking you the whole way through January. Sour cream on stewed cherries, creme fraise on lemon tart, clotted cream on scones, single cream spilling photogenically over berry crumbles and strudels, chocolate puddings swimming in a moat of double cream.
And best of all, the king of all creams, the ice cream.
Ice cream is not a dessert, by the way. It is a condiment to accompany and enhance a dessert. It may be taken as light meal or snack, like afternoon tea. Or, it can take the place of a cheese course, by which I mean it can be eaten after dessert, say, on a warm summer night on your way home from the restaurant.
Don’t get me started on sorbet. Suffice it to say that sorbet is not ice cream, it is not interchangeable with ice cream. I married a man who prefers sorbet to ice cream, ice cream to real dessert, and custard above all things. Rhubarb crumble and custard, apple crumble and custard, tinned fruit cocktail and custard. And worst of all, trifle. Wet cake. Jelly with bits. The nastiest booze. Bird’s custard powder, or Ambrosia from an effing packet.
Over the years I have, grudgingly, tentatively, come to an understanding with custard. There is a time and place for everything, and the trick for me and custards - as with many things you can’t stand - is to burn it with fire. Crisp and oozy Pastel de Nata. The bouncy mouthful of Canneles. The bittersweetness of a creme caramel. And my particular favourite, Crema Catalana. And with Catalonia so much in the news, and the general 1930s-theme to current events of late, what better to indulge in that a comforting, boozy dessert, which risks blistering your tongue with molten sugar or slicing through the roof of your mouth with jagged shards of caramel?
This particular recipe has been in my repertoire for some time, and I have no idea where it came from. I thought is was Moro, but it turns out not. Perhaps adapted from Claudia Rosen (although why mess with perfection? Seriously, why are you following my recipe whilst Claudia’s is still in print?) Perhaps it was found on t’internet, and honed over the years. The two things that really do elevate this recipe (if not to Claudia standards, then certainly to that of any fashionable dinner party) are the thick crust of burnt sugar on top, which should shatter hard and sharp like ice on a winter pond, and the infusion of flavours in to the custard before you bake it.
I had been playing with this infusion for years, experimenting with different flavours and combinations and quantities. Different chilli peppers, sharp, smokey, piquant, sweet. Various citrus fruits (seville oranges for bitterness, lime leaves for the exotic, yuzu because its the law to but yuzu in desserts now). The amount of saffron, the type of cinnamon bark, alcoholic pick-me-ups like Grand Marnier or Pedro Ximenez sherry. Warming spice mixes like garam masala or ras al hanout. Peppercorns of different hues and habits: green, long, numbing, hot and pink. I would imagine the old spice routes and the Silk Road; the adventurers, merchants and gypsies, their caravanserai winding their way from Canton to Catalonia and back, their luggage scented with the campfire and the souk and and the journey.
But on one occasion, something odd happened. I thinking about my book, the misery memoir. I was thinking about life in 1970s and 80s Essex. I was thinking about the trifles and tinned puds of the white British working class experience. I was thinking about how small one’s world could be, and how simultaneously vast and terrifying. What is the whole wide world to someone who was not a merchant, an adventurer, a traveller? As I stirred in a pinch of this and a scattering of that, the spices seemed to scorch and go acrid, and then burn out to mellow blandless. The result tasted fine, the flavour sweet and familiar. It reminded me of something. I gave it to my husband to try, and he said, “Delicious. Tastes like real custard”.
“Yeah, like from a packet.”
Sometimes you cook your feelings and end up with Birds Instant Custard. Go figure.
- 600ml double cream
- 600ml whole milk
- 8 egg yolks
- 4tbsps cornflower
- 160g caster sugar, plus 4 more tbsp for the toffee
For the custard infusion:
- 2 tbsp orange zest
- 2 tbsp lemon zest
- 1 cinnamon stick
- A mix of 10 pink, black and sichuan peppercorns, lightly crushed
- 1 dried chilli pepper
- Pinch of fennel seeds
- 1 star anise
- 4 tbsp of Grande Marnier, sherry, brandy, or dark rum.
Pour the cream and milk in to a saucepan, dd the cinnamon stick and zest, and bring to the boil. Add the optional infusions, packaging the dry ingredient in a pouch of muslin or a tea strainer. Remove from the heat and leave to stand for an hour before removing the infusion pouch and cinnamon stick.
Beat the egg yolks and sugar together till pale, thick and fluffy. Add the cornflower and beat until combined and all lumps have gone.Put the saucepan back on the heat and bring back to the boil. Sieve whilst still hot. Combine 2 tbsp of the cream mix into the egg mix, and then add the rest of the cream mix. Over a low heat, stir the mixture until it looks like custard.
Chill for 4-6 hours. Just before serving, coat with the caster sugar attack with with either a blow torch, or put under a scorching grill to caramelise the top.