Sweet stuff

Sweet stuff

Claire Thomson
20 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
Mike Lusmore

I have a love-hate relationship with puddings. Given a choice, I will always opt to cook and eat something savoury over something sweet. In a restaurant, I will always choose good cheese over pudding. I am first in line to bring a main course offering to any friend’s potluck suppers – I rarely bring dessert. I like sweet things but hardly ever make them. And yet, I am aware that to be able to effortlessly offer something sweet at the end of a meal is always a good thing.

Setting the scene: I think it must have been about my third or fourth job as a chef in London. It was in a restaurant I had really wanted to work in. The restaurant had a gorgeous leafy garden near the Thames (good for sunbathing on split shifts), a quirky roster that gave you every other weekend off (the holy grail in restaurant life), good produce and relative freedom with what you could do with it menu-wise. On the day of the interview (I say interview, but there I stood in the kitchen surrounded by bubbling pots and the chefs all listening keenly) I lied and told the owner I had experience in pastry and would be willing to cover that position in the kitchen. In what was then my short career as a chef, what I loved most about learning to cook professionally was developing my taste, discovering different ingredients and mastering new cooking techniques and skills. I revelled under the intense pressure of cooking in a team for big numbers, of sending food out on time and in unison to the other chefs in the kitchen. How, when you are really flying on a restaurant service, you begin to feel an innate connection with what you are cooking, adjusting and tinkering with numerous different items in the same moment, and on cue sending out finished dishes to waiting customers.

Pastry or pâtisserie work is a very different kitchen discipline. As a pastry chef you have to be far more exacting with your cooking; for more finicky recipes you have to follow them to the letter. It is a craft, a science of sorts. There is less space for culinary spontaneity, less room to manoeuvre within a recipe. In a small restaurant team, the pastry chef will often work alone and at a different kilter to the rest of the kitchen. If you don’t count the very smart restaurants serving flash canapés, pastry chefs are last off the blocks on a service and last out of the kitchen at the end of the day. As for me, I hated it. I didn’t enjoy the lonesome and nerve-racking accuracy of pastry work and far preferred the nuance of cooking in tandem at the stoves with the other chefs in the kitchen. It wasn’t long, a week at most, before the chef on the hot (stove) section (we shared an oven in prep time) queried my pastry credentials. I can barely remember my litany of pastry fails from that week, I think I’ve blocked them out, but a leaking lemon tart finally gave the game away. I confessed to the curious chef, who then offered to switch positions in the kitchen with me. He felt like a change, he said, and was sure the owner wouldn’t mind. His name was Matthew, and I later married him.

In the years following my failed stint as a pastry chef, and the many kitchens I have worked in since, I have managed to carve out an approach to puddings and pastry work that I am proud of. I have come to realize that the puddings and desserts I love to make the most, no surprises here, are often the simplest ones. For example, I love bottling fruit and find it gives way to a sort of beautiful patience, when you have ripe seasonal fruit and capture it at its most perfect, suspending it in flavourful syrup. Stored in the fridge, bottled fruits will last for up to a month or more and give you an elegant pudding matched with a little cream, ice cream or thick Greek yoghurt. With the fruit long gone, you can then freeze the fragrant syrup in moulds for knockout ice lollies, dilute with sparkling water and lots of ice for a refreshing long drink, or use short measures of the syrup in any cocktail-making. Quick freezes like the chocolate and prune juice sorbet or the honey, pear and bay leaf ice cream have so few ingredients, they are as stark as they are delicious.

Most prominent in my storecupboard and in sweet cooking, not least in my first cup of morning tea or spread on the children’s toast, is honey. I am lucky that my stepfather has some beehives in the field behind his house. I love how the character of the honey changes with the season as the various flowers in the fields come into blossom. The first of the season’s honey is grassy, quickly turning almost fudgy in consistency; the bees have mostly fed on rapeseed flowers. Later on in the summer, when the meadows are flush with a variety of colourful wildflowers, if it has been a good year and the bees have fed well, they will produce yet more honeycomb still, and their honey is softer and more floral in taste. In the honey, nutmeg and black tea bread or spooned over grilled cinnamon oranges, the extraordinary complexity of honey is alchemy in these disarmingly simple recipes.

You’ll find my enthusiasm for good stale bread does not stop at puddings, and the banana pain perdu and caramelized apple and maple bread pudding are both flattered by the addition of robust cooked-again bread. As for brown bread? Everyone knows that brown bread ice cream really is the very best sort of ice cream, and I make mine with rye bread and include malt extract for a nutty flavour. Where I can relish the slow pace of baking with sourdough and the lure of setting about a shop-bought panettone, slicing it open and filling it with a ludicrously easy-to-make Sicilian-style cassata filling is a telling comparison and says a lot about my approach to puddings. Bursting at the seams with ricotta, nuts, and dried fruit, I honestly cannot imagine a more impressive, or more colossal pudding to serve as a special dessert.

With more recipes in this chapter than I can draw your attention to individually, read on for my blueprint on all things sweet. To close, what I will say is that I can’t get enough of rose water (never the strong essence), splashed here and there in bottled fruit syrups, for example, and especially when matched with soft berry fruit and cream, as in the blackberry, rose water and pistachio freezer cake. I love its dusty ethereal whiff and buy rose water often from my local Turkish shop, a clear bottle with a gaudy display of pink roses on the label. In addition, stem ginger, cocoa, treacle, condensed milk, candied peel, dried fruit and nuts – these ingredients sit together on my shelf and I value the year-round reliability they offer to my cooking. And finally, a few squares of deep, dark chocolate, high in cocoa solids, is the very best pudding of all, and I always have a bar or two in my larder.

Larder basics

bottled fruit


condensed milk


maple syrup

cocoa powder

dark chocolate

whole almonds

ground almonds


pistachio nuts

unsalted peanuts

peanut butter

candied peel


dried dates

dried figs

rose water

stem ginger


How to bottle fruit for the fridge

Fruit for bottling should be ripe, but firm, and never over-ripe or bruised. Small fruits may be left whole, but larger fruits with stones should be halved or quartered. Apples and pears are good bottled, though they should be first peeled and also cored. To peel fruit with a skin, peaches or apricots for example, briefly blanch the whole fruits in plenty of boiling water until the skin loosens – about 3–5 minutes – then drain and cool in a bowl of cold water with some ice cubes in it. The skin should slip off easily.

Syrup preserves the longevity of the fruit in terms of colour, taste and texture. The syrup will also eventually take on the flavour and colour of the fruit. To make syrups, slowly bring cold water and sugar to boiling point and simmer until the sugar has dissolved; 300g of sugar to 500ml of water is a good ratio to use and will make about 800ml of syrup. This should easily be enough for a large punnet of soft fruit or 6 or so peaches, for example, depending on the size of the fruit you are bottling and the jar you are using. You can use wine instead of water if you like, diluted or straight. You can flavour the syrup with any number of additional ingredients. Choose ingredients that will flatter the fruit you are bottling. Vanilla pods, bay leaves, allspice, star anise, cinnamon quills, juniper, clove, citrus peel, fresh ginger, kaffir lime leaves, lavender buds, rose water or petals, orange flower water, peppercorns, chilli flakes, thyme, mace blades, cardamoms and elderflower heads are all wonderful when paired in simpatico groups and bottled with complementary fruits.

The ice lolly shown is a sensational combination. It’s simply the frozen syrup from some bottled peaches, including kaffir lime leaves, cloves, cinnamon and star anise. The cherries pictured were bottled simply in sugar syrup with star anise and a few peppercorns.

Fruit may be bottled cooked or raw, depending on the type you choose to use. Bottled raw is best for soft fruits such as berries, plums, currants and cherries. Firm fruits such as apples and pears are best cooked in the sugar syrup until soft, making them more manageable to pack into jars. Cook peeled stone fruit in the syrup until just tender – pierceable with a thin skewer. Add lemon juice or a splash of white wine vinegar to any syrup destined to bottle fruit that will oxidize – apples and pears for example.

Jars must be sterilized well before use. Wash any jars in clean, hot, soapy water, rinse well, then stand the washed jars upside down in the oven at 150°C/fan 130°C for 25–30 minutes. The jars should be hot when you ladle in the hot fruit and the hot syrup.

Pack the fruit into the jars in layers, ladling hot syrup over each layer as you do so. Firmly tap the jars on the work surface to remove any bubbles before putting the lids on tightly. Cool down, then store in the fridge. The bottled fruit will keep for a month or more if refrigerated.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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