Divin Assembly

When you think about it, French patisserie is just complicated versions of very simple foods. A millefeuille is just pastry layers with cream in between. Macarons are just biscuits. Brioche is just a rich buttery bread. So you shouldn’t be put off making French patisserie at home. If you can make biscuits, you can probably have a go at making macarons. Sure, you might not get it right the first time, as I frequently don’t, but it wouldn’t be fun if it was easy. One or two bits of French patisserie is a very useful thing to have in your culinary repertoire, and if you start getting something consistently right, you’ll feel great about your culinary abilities.

The Divin I made with a friend at the weekend was no different; it is basically a glorified raspberry Victoria sponge. A Divin has two cakes, with raspberries, a raspberry jelly, and a cream in between. Writing such a simple description is mildly depressing, given the afternoon we spent cooking and morning trudging around London looking for ingredients, just to make a glorified Victoria sponge, but that’s what it is.


So how is it different from a raspberry Victoria sponge? Firstly, the cake isn’t a sponge. It’s made from ground almonds and egg whites, not unlike a macaron, and piped into shape on a baking tray instead of poured into a mold. You have to whisk, fold, and sift, rather different than just putting all the ingredients into the Kenwood, as I do with sponge cake. Perhaps even more complicated is the cream, a nougat crème mousseline, which is a thick egg-based cream combined with a nougat cream. Finally the raspberry jelly is made from a raspberry coulis. “Fussy” doesn’t begin to describe the four page recipe we were working from.

All these differences add up to an increased difficulty. Get one or two things a little wrong, and you’ve not got quite the dessert you set out to make. Unfortunately this is what happened to us. Perpetually afraid of cooking the eggs in a sauce, I didn’t thicken it quite enough, and even after some time in the fridge, it just didn’t have the right texture. We hopefully spooned it on to the cake, thinking that the cream might just be thick enough for the raspberries to hold as a dam, but sadly not. After trying to top with raspberry jelly, disaster struck, and cream started flooding out.

Divin Cream

The Divin we made was still great though. The thinner cream meant eating it out of a bowl- not unlike a trifle, actually- but that was hardly a problem. All of the flavours worked really well together, and the rich cream absorbed by the sponge. After using this as pudding one evening, we had seconds for breakfast the next morning, with tea the next afternoon, and there was still some to leave behind as I headed back to Oxford. But not for long, as shortly after I left, “I ate it all, no regrets” was the text I received.

So have a go at some more advanced cooking once in a while. It’s a great social activity, will help improve your cooking, and even if it doesn’t turn out quite the way you wanted, you’ll still have food to be excited about.

The Divin


Blackberry and Port Ice Cream

Most of the blackberries in my life have been destined either for a crumble or for jam. Last time we went out picking blackberries, there was a great crop, so we got both a large crumble and a large pot of jam out of them. So when we went out to pick some more- blackberries are free food after all- I wanted to be a bit more creative with what we made out of them. We didn’t get so many this time, just what we needed; there are still plenty of blackberries out there to pick. Collecting some blackberries, and cooking with them, makes for a great evening or weekend activity.

In the UK, blackberries are usually in season from late August to early November, but they seemed to be in early this year, perhaps due to the fact we seem to have skipped summer. I used to pick loads of blackberries as a kid- we would take tubs out to hedgerows and collect several kilos- then make crumble, jam, or just freeze our spoils. Perhaps the reason why even kids can pick them, blackberries are probably the easiest wild fruit to identify and pick. They’ll occur on many hedgerows on bramble-y plants, and the fruit turns black when ripe. The ones you want to pick are the ones that come off the plant easily- if they don’t, they are probably not ripe. Similarly, don’t pick the ones below knee-height, as dogs may have ..er.. spoiled the fruit for you.

You can make ice cream without an ice cream maker, but it is tricky. The keep to making a good ice cream is to get small water crystals forming, as this creates the smooth texture you want. Ice cream makers work by churning the ice cream as the cream mixture is freezing, to stop large water crystals forming, and to create this churning effect by hand requires a lot of patience- you put the cream in a tub in the freezer, then every ten minutes, give it a good stir with a fork, then put it back. I’ve had ice cream made this way, and the texture has been fine, but the effort that goes into it is considerable. I use this Cuisinart ice cream maker, which I got for Christmas a couple of years ago, and I’ve been very pleased with it. It requires pre-freezing a bowl, typical among the cheaper ice cream makers- so make sure you get a large bowl that can cool down your cream quickly. The bowl with this machine is quite large, make sure your freezer can fit it inside. Ice creams are very easy to make, and can add a lot to a pudding for little effort.

This ice cream is a variation on a fig and port ice cream I made a while ago- as blackberries and figs grow around the same time of year, the blackberry and port combination should work well too. In general, you have to be very wary when adding alcohol to ice cream mixtures, as it will lower the freezing point of your mixture, and so you may not get ice cream anymore, but very cold cream. Assuming you have added some sugar as well, you can have around 15-20% concentration by weight of alcohol before your ice cream won’t freeze in a domestic freezer anymore (result taken from The Kitchen As Laboratory). This might seem like a lot, and it is, but the problem often comes in getting your ice cream maker to get that cold for the initial freezing. However, here, we don’t need to worry about this: the alcohol is boiled off when stewing the blackberries in the port. So if you like the port taste, like I do, then feel free to be a bit liberal with the quantity.

Blackberry and Port Ice Cream

400g blackberries
100ml port (I used a Ruby port, as it is cheap)
500ml double cream
500ml milk
80g caster sugar
20g liquid glucose

1. Purée the blackberries. Put the blackberries in a frying pan with the port. Stew over a medium heat until the blackberries are soft and mushy. At this point you can purée with blackberries with a hand blender, and strain them, but personally I quite like the rustic rough texture without puréeing them.
2. Make the ice cream. Add the purée to the milk, cream, caster sugar, and liquid glucose, and leave in the fridge overnight. Then make into ice cream in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Dark Chocolate and Orange Eclairs

Eclairs, to me, are just cool. The ultimate tea-time treat, delicate, chocolatey, airy, creamy delights. When, as a kid, my family used to buy selections of pastries, I would always go for the eclair, despite there being bigger, creamier pastries available- something about their size and self-contained-ness always appealed to me. They seem designed specifically with afternoon tea in mind- light and pretty, and if you’ve made them yourself, it shows you’ve put a bit of effort in for the occasion. Mastering their construction was something I had long meant to figure out how to do, but somehow I’d never got around to it.

So one Saturday, when a friend was coming over to do some cooking, I thought it would be fun to finally try making some eclairs. I knew they wouldn’t be particularly easy, requiring one or two specialist bits of equipment (see recipe), and parts of the method would be quite fiddly. The basic recipe I’ve started from is based on one from BBC Good Food, but I thought I would give the eclairs an orange twist, by making the custard filling into an orange custard filling. Also, I thought it would be fun to switch to plain chocolate for the top of the eclairs, to pair with the new orange flavour in an interesting way. I wouldn’t use high cocoa plain chocolate here- otherwise the eclair will become too bitter- but something with a bit more cocoa than milk chocolate is nice. Putting your own stamp on a recipe is half the fun of cooking, but you could try many different combinations like passionfruit and dark chocolate, lemon and white chocolate, or mint and dark chocolate, for a few suggestions.

My first time making eclairs was also my first experience making choux pastry. Choux pastry produces a very different end product than puff pastry, for example, making profiteroles or gougeres. In that sense I knew what to expect in the end product- that fluffy, light, airy texture- but had no idea how to make it, or what might happen in the cooking process. What really got me was how thin and sloppy the pastry became after adding the eggs. Piping it onto the baking sheets was like piping a thick sauce, I just ended up with long, thin pools of pastry. Putting them in the oven, I knew something special needed to happen, otherwise I would have to start again, perhaps with a different recipe. But special it was. According to Wikipedia, “Instead of a raising agent it employs high moisture content to create steam during cooking to puff the pastry”, and indeed.in the oven the pastry rose a huge amount, forming eclair shapes, and had a nice hollow inside, a bit like pitta bread. They were easy to pipe cream filling into, had the texture you would expect, and made me wonder what I ever worried about.

A very enjoyable afternoon- a great time with a friend, new cooking techniques explored, and learning how to make eclairs (which I will definitely do again). Oh, and the dozen or so eclairs left over…

Dark Chocolate and Orange Eclairs

There are a few bits of kit which are key here. You’ll need a piping bag with a 1cm nozzle to pipe the choux pastry onto the baking sheets- having two baking sheets would be helpful here, as the piping procedure is quite messy and you’ll want to work quickly. Similarly, you’ll need another piping bag- I found a piping syringe useful here- to get the cream into the choux buns. I used another piping syringe for the drizzed icing, but I imagine that a spoon or knife would work fine too. To paint the chocolate onto the tops, you’ll also need a pastry brush.

Ingredients (makes around 20):
For the choux pastry:
140g flour
pinch caster sugar
125ml milk
100g butter
4 eggs

For the orange custard filling:
300ml milk
50g caster sugar
2 egg yolks
1 vanilla pod
4tsp plain flour
4tsp cornflour
600ml double cream
500ml orange juice

For the topping:
50g plain chocolate
40g icing sugar
Red food colouring
Yellow food colouring

1. Make the custard filling. Scrape the vanilla pods into a pan, then pour the milk on top, to spread out the seeds. Add the vanilla pods to the pan as well.  Slowly bring to a boil. Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks and sugar in a bowl until creamy, then stir in the flour and cornflour, whisking until a smooth paste. Remove the vanilla pods, and add the paste to the hot milk, whisking constantly. Cook over a high heat for about 5 minutes until thick, whisking constantly. Don’t worry if it goes a little lumpy, just keep whisking. Pour onto a dinner plate, cover with clingfilm, and chill. Boil the orange juice down until it reaches 50ml. Whip the cream until it reaches firm peaks. Once the custard has chilled, whisk with the orange juice until smooth, then fold into the whipped cream. Chill until you need it later.

2. Make the choux pastry. Heat the oven to 200°C. Sift the flour, sugar and a pinch of salt in a bowl. Put the milk, butter and 125ml water in a pan, and heat gently until the butter melts completely. Bring slowly to a boil, and immediately take off the heat and add the flour mix. Stir with a wooden spoon until the dough is smooth and homogeneous. Spread the pastry onto a dinner plate to cool. Once cool (so that you don’t cook the eggs at all when you add them), stir in the eggs one by one.

3. Pipe and cook the buns. Cut two large sheets of baking paper. On each, draw two sets of lines with a 10cm gap- these are your piping lines. Put the choux pastry into a piping bag with 1cm nozzle, and pipe eclair shapes in between the guidelines- working quickly here will help you. Place the buns into the oven, for 25 minutes, immediately turning the oven down to 180°C. Put the cooked buns onto a cooling rack until chilled.

4. Assemble the eclairs. Put the custard cream into a piping syringe, and stick the syringe into one end of the choux bun. Pipe the cream into the bun- you might need to use multiple piping points to get cream into the entire bun. Melt some chocolate in the microwave, keeping an eye on it to make sure that it doesn’t burn. Brush the melted chocolate onto the top of the eclairs. Mix the icing sugar with 5ml of water and a drop of the red food colouring. Mix, then keep adding the yellow food colouring and mixing until it achieves the orange colour you want. Drizzle over the eclairs, and chill until you want to eat them.

Panna Cotta with Kumquats and Mint

Panna Cotta is one of my favourite desserts to make. It’s quick, easy, and incredibly versatile- panna cotta will go with practically anything. All of the work in making it is in preparation, so if you are making food for guests, all you have to do is get the finished dessert out of the fridge. The recipe calls for vanilla pods, which can be expensive, especially when vanilla extract is a much cheaper option, but I’d really recommend them here: you get a really pure vanilla flavour from the pods, and when that is the main flavour of the dish, it’s definitely worth it. Given then that panna cotta is just vanilla-y cream set with gelatin, I’ll often make panna cotta if I have something interesting and fruity I want to put with it, just as a normal fruit and cream combination, like with strawberries and cream, or a cheesecake.

The “interesting and fruity” thing here I want to put with it is kumquats. Recently I had that experience with kumquats that it seems everybody has- I saw some kumquats that had been put out for people to eat, thought “I’ve not tried one of those before”, then, unsure how to eat it, just bit into it, and immediately regretted it. They’re very bitter by themselves, quite unpleasant to eat, so I a look around online and in books, and the suggestions I found was to roast the kumquats, or to soften and puree them, adding sugar in both instances. So when I saw some kumquats at Borough Market in London, and hadn’t got a pudding sorted for that evening, it seemed like a good opportunity to try to get the most our of the dish.

Adding the mint though, is where it gets interesting. Mint and orange is hardly a classic combination (in fact I would recommend against it usually), but I thought that with the bitterness of the oranges, a slight hint of mint would add something fun- and it really did. I would be careful not to overdo the mint in the cooking- you only want a touch of it to contrast the orange flavour. But if you get it right, the flavours work with the vanilla cream very well, and make for a pretty nice dessert.

Panna Cotta with Kumquats and Mint

Whilst being all done beforehand, you will need quite a bit of time for the panna cotta to set, so if you are planning for an evening dinner, I’d suggest making them in the morning.

Ingredients (makes 4 ramekins):
For the panna cotta
400ml double cream
100ml milk
2 sheets leaf gelatin
1 vanilla pod
100g sugar
For the kumquat and mint syrup
150g kumquats (if you can’t find kumquats, you could use some pieces of orange instead)
100g sugar
1 bunch mint

1. Make the panna cotta. Place the gelatin in a bowl of cold water to soften (this will take ~10 minutes). Cut the vanilla pod in half length-ways, and scrape out the seeds into a pan. Pour the milk, cream, and sugar into the pan, aiming at the seeds, to prevent clumping of the vanilla. Heat until just boiling, squeeze out all of the water from the gelatin, and add to the pan. Pour into ramekins and leave to cool, before putting in the fridge.
2. Make the kumquat and mint syrup. Cut each kumquat in half and remove the seeds and stalk. Place in a pan with the sugar and about 200ml water, and bring to a boil. The kumquats will now soften in the pan over time. Keep an eye on the water levels- the water will boil off as you heat- and add more to retain a syrup consistency. Once the kumquats are nicely softened, add the mint to the pan, saving four leaves for presentation. It will only take a short while for the mint flavour to get into the sauce, so keep stirring and tasting the sauce to make sure the balance of flavours is good (be careful as it is hot). Once softened, put aside to cool. You may want to add more sugar to the syrup if you find it too bitter. This softening could take an hour or so.
3. Assemble.  Pour some of the syrup onto each plate. Take the panna cotta from the fridge and put onto the syrupy plate. Put a leaf of mint on top, and a handful of the roasted kumquats.