I have a book called English puddings Sweet and Savory by Mary Norwak. Actually it isn’t my book, it’s my dad’s, a gift from my mum to her pudding devoted husband. Dad – it will be returned. It’s a glorious little book, part history, part recipe book and part rhapsody on the noble treat that is English pudding. I’ve spent the last few days lost in fools, flummeries and frumenty, in thoughts of thin cream pancakes scented with orange flower water, tipsy cakes and trifles, in hungry contemplation of apricot tansy, spiced cherries and Mrs Wightman’s delicious sauce.
Uncharacteristic behaviour I know. For although I am most definitely my father’s daughter: height and shortsightedness, views on breakfast and taking the bus, Elvis Costello and fractious Philip Larkin, I don’t usually share his intense passion for pudding. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a spoonful or slice every now and then, I do. I just don’t save space or get unduly excited about pudding. Well not usually.
I pulled The book of English puddings from the shelf to cross reference a recipe that had caught my eye in Claudia Roden’s The Food of Italy called tartarà dolce. Always on the lookout for connections and similarities, a sort of inept Miss Marple contemplating evidence in old recipe books, the recipe for tartarà dolce or almond pudding seemed familiar. On opening my dad’s treasury of puds at chapter 3: Custards, creams and fools, I realised why! Tartarà dolce, an old farmhouse recipe from Piemonte in northern Italy, is almost identical to an old English recipe for almond cream I’d bookmarked a while back.
Of course there is sense to this gastronomic likeness, reasons why two such different places have almost identical dishes. Sense and reasons comprehensible even to an incompetent detective like myself (that said, I did single-handedly resolve the case of the missing gorgonzola last week: it was Ms Roddy, with a cheese knife, in the kitchen.) The Greeks are credited with the invention of custard; that is milk – whether it be cow’s, sheep’s or almond – thickened with eggs. The Romans, great keepers of domestic fowl, borrowed the idea. The Normans too. Both of whom brought these ideas to England. Medieval recipes in both English and Italian recipes books note the delicate custards and creams of the wealthy (often scented with spices and thickened with almonds brought by boat from the Mediterranean,) while folklore gives us clues about the elemental and sustaining dishes of those of more modest means.
It was timely connection too. I’ve been meaning to write about a custard-like pudding here for a while. I was toing and froing between something Italian: zabaglione (whipped eggs yolks, sugar and Marsala wine) or Creme di mascarpone (mascarpone cheese with egg yolks, beaten whites, sugar and an unruly slosh of rum) or something English: honey syllabub (double cream, sherry, clear honey) or the irresistibly named suck cream (cream, sugar, egg yolks and white wine.) Then there was this, a recipe common to both here and there, a gentle egg custard scented with lemon zest and thickened with both sweet and bitter almonds! Almond cream or tartarà dolce it would be.
Having separated the eggs (and set the whites aside while mumbling I will, I will make meringues! I will not watch you slither shamefully down the plughole on Sunday) you put the yolks and sugar in a bowl suspended over a pan of gently boiling water. You stir until the mixture is as pale and smooth as Tilda Swinton and then you add the milk you have warmed with the lemon zest. You keep stirring diligently, figure of eighting and beating as best you can with a wooden spoon (a metal balloon whisk would make the mixture too frothy.)
Once the mixture has thickened a little – not much though, it should coat the back of the spoon in much the same way as single cream – you add the ground and chopped bitter almonds. You stir and stir. The almond cream is ready when the mixture is as thick as double cream but still pourable, at which point you divide your almond cream between four glasses or ramekins.
Luca and I ate a glassful immediately while sitting on the kitchen floor. I spend rather a lot of my time on the kitchen floor these days! Alas no! I’m either wiping, weeping, picnicking, arranging farm-yard animals or constructing some sort of tiny transport system. Sat on the floor eating a warm, softly set custard-like-cream. A custard-like-cream given substance by almonds, a tart lift by lemon zest and marzipan whiplash by bitter almonds.
There is something othertimely about this pudding. It’s adaptable too, one moment an elegant, scented cream fit for a fine table, the next a wholesome, nourishing pud at ease in a rowdy family kitchen or a cramped Roman one in April. Ah yes, what an excellent thing is an English/Italian pudding I might have thought if I was Dr Johnson or hadn’t been quite so busy supervising an over excited 18 month old brandishing both our spoons and a glass of sweet cream pudding.
We ate another at lunchtime, chilled, which meant it was another thing altogether; more firmly set, the flavours settled but more pronounced without the warmth. It was maybe even more delicious! I think almond cream would be nice with shortbread or sable biscuits. Now If you’ll excuse me I need to go and investigate the case of the missing telephone. I have a horrible feeling the child did it, with a splash, in the bathroom.
Almond cream, Almond pudding or Tartarà dolce
- 4 egg yolks
- 75 g fine sugar
- 500 ml whole milk or single cream
- the zest of a large unwaxed lemon
- 100 g ground almonds
- 6 bitter almonds finely chopped or a few drops of almond essence
- a few drops of orange flower water (optional)
Beat the egg yolks together with the sugar in a bowl sitting over boiling water until smooth, pale and creamy. In a small pan mix the milk and the lemon zest, bring to the boil, cool slightly and then add to the egg mixture which is still balanced over boiling water.
Keep stirring the mixture until it thickens (it will only do so a little.) Add the almonds, essence and orange flower water if you are using it and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture has become a thick cream. Pour into glasses or ramekins. Serve warm or cold.