Learning to love the wobble

BONET

I’m going to need a bigger plate

So many food likes and dislikes can be traced back to childhood encounters, experiences that fix an immoveable opinion. The lottery of school dinners in the 70s was the arena where I learnt to be faddy about what I ate, approaching meal times with suspicion and trepidation. I can remember a particularly vivid nightmare, where I was served up a stew of slugs – even today I can viscerally recall the muscular sliminess that I tasted, jolting me awake.

Puddings were where the high stakes games were played – there was so much that could go right, or go awry.  A glorious day would be chocolate cracknel (I think just cornflakes and chocolate balled up by a ice cream scoop), with mint custard; conversely the mood could sink to untold lows if it was creme caramel, anaemic wobbling rubber in a pool of brown tears.  Its sweetness could not hide its mediocrity. It was the taste of disappointment.

As an adult, as a cook, I have never overcome my childish impressions of creme caramel – never been tempted to revisit, retaste and potentially unlearn my prejudice.  However, today, in a surprising development, I have segued in its general direction, almost by mistake.  But first you have to put everything I’ve said so far, out of your head.  Instead think of almonds; amaretti and amaretto, think fresh caramel and chocolate.  Think patience and sensuality.

This is Bonet, a pudding of the Piemonte, in the north of Italy.  It’s easy to make, although requires precision (not one of my main attributes, but with guidance, I pulled it off).

How I discovered this wonderful, silken thing is in itself a result of new experiences and changes to life brought about by the lockdown across the world. Exactly a year ago today – 16 November 2019, I was in Rome to learn about artichokes with Rachel Roddy and Carla Tomesi at the Latteria studio. It was a wonderful weekend of food, storms and art – which I wrote about here. I’d never met Carla before and was bowled over by her knowledge, humour and the way she made everything look so effortless, but was so keen to pass on everything she knew.

Come the new year, the lockdowns that rolled across the world and the explosion of Zoom, Carla came up with idea of having an occasional catch up, anyone was welcome – to talk about food, what we were cooking, which ingredients we couldn’t get hold of. And over the months, Carla’s chit chats have grown, people dropping in and out from across the world and across timezones. On these Sunday afternoons (or mornings for some of us), strangers from Italy, France, the UK, Canada, America, Mexico and more, sit for an hour, often longer, and become friends. There are regular faces, reunions, people ‘meeting’ for the first time after months of Instagram messaging – it is one of the positive things in the year that I have valued the most.

Often, Carla will send out a recipe beforehand, so those who want to, can cook along with her – learning new techniques and flavours. There is a lovely companionship to be had, knowing that we are simultaneously preparing the same dish in numerous countries and across thousands of miles.

And this then is how I came to discover and make Bonet, overturning my dread of wobble on the anniversary of the day that I met and began learning from Carla.

Bonet

For the caramel 

200g caster sugar

6 tablespoons of water

For the custard

1 litre full fat mill

25 amaretti biscuits crushed.

5 medium eggs

5 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

4 tablespoons caster sugar

Ameretto liqueur

You can either make individual puddings in ramekins, or one large one a 20cm pie dish.

Set the oven at 160 C or Gas mark 3

The caramel

Make your caramel by putting the water and sugar in a pan on a low heat. Without stirring, until it starts to colour, allow it to simmer and then melt. It can easily burn, so watch carefully, you’re aiming for something the colour of a ginger nut.

When it’s ready, use the caramel to line your pie dish, or ramekins.

It’s very hot, but will set quickly, so work fast but carefully – wearing gloves if you’re nervous.

Roll the dish around (like you’re sieving for gold), and the caramel will coat the sides as you tip it, setting into a solid, glassy finish.

You can do this bit in advance, which has the added advantage that, as the caramel cools – it starts to crack like breaking ice, which is both exciting, and strangely beautiful.

The custard

I assembled everything in bowls beforehand, which made everything very simple, and meant I could work quickly.

Start by heating the milk and sugar, and whilst this is happening, beat your eggs.

While whisking, pour the boiling milk over the eggs, and keep whisking til they’re well mixed.

Now sieve this mixture (which will remove any bits of egg white that didn’t get beaten in).

Pour the sieved mixture over the crushed amaretti (I blitzed them in the blender to get a fine powder) and leave to soak for five minutes.

Resieve the mixture, to remove any larger bits of biscuit.

Now into the sieved cocoa powder add a couple of tablespoons of the mixture, stirring together to form a paste, and getting rid of any lumps.  Then add the rest of the mixture and stir thoroughly.  One final sieve will remove any stubborn lumps of cocoa powder.

Fill your pie dish or ramekins and place them in a water bath in the oven. (A deep roasting tin is ideal), fill the water to just over half way up the side of the pudding dish.

Check after 20 mins for individual puddings, 40 mins if you’re making a large one. It is ready when you have a set wobble – my oven is always cooler than it says it is, so mine took over an hour to set.

Ideally, you make this the day before, so once it’s done, allow it to cool, and then refrigerate.

Serve by placing your plate over the dish and flipping them over quickly – revealing your triumphantly glazed, milky decadent Bonet, luxuriating in its own bath of delicious caramel.

As you can see from the photo – I need a bigger plate!

Roman Holiday

I’ve not long come back from Rome, my first visit.  Yes, it overflowed with art, history, architecture, treasures, but, let’s be totally honest, I went there for artichokes, globe artichokes, by the bushel.

Heaven

It vexes me that they are treated with such apprehension and confusion in the UK, that you can’t buy them easily or cheaply (even though their season is nearly six months long). We can fly insipid blueberries and asparagus in from South America, year round, but seldom manage to haul a few loads of thistle heads the short distance from southern Europe.

Not that they even need to come that far, mind. They can grow perfectly well here in the UK, if you pick the right spot and the right variety. And I do grow my own on the allotment, across a shorter season and in constant fear of hard, claggy winters; but they are temperamental and I’m definitely a long way from self sufficiency. Consequently my knowledge on how to prepare and cook these most delicious of never-to-blossom flowers, is woefully inadequate.

So I went to Rome.  Needs must, and all that.

Two Roman cooks, Carla Tomesi and Rachel Roddy, do many wonderful things with words, food and people, one of which is a day devoted to the artichoke.  The buying of, the prepping of, the cooking of and, oh my, the eating of.  I have been waiting for this day to reappear in their calendar since I first spotted it last spring, right at the end of the artichoke season.

And I have been squirrelling my pennies away into a special artichoke piggy bank, and raiding the replacement car fund (again), for the sake of my peculiar passion. And so, finally, two weeks ago, I jumped on a plane and found myself in Testaccio, the old slaughterhouse district of Rome; I am full of cold and anticipation.

The weekend was apocalyptic – storms and rain the like of which I’ve never encountered. The kind that blows open the windows and billows the curtains of your AirB&B. Gothic, sprang to mind. And given that I was staying two minutes from the Protestant Cemetery, with its slew of Romantic Poets, all seemed very appropriate.

Rome with a view

It being Italy, I feasted on the first night; artichokes, of course, braised with lemon and butter; pasta with crab, wonderful parmesan by the chunk and grapes of Canaan. But this was just a prelude. The antipasto before the Saturday, which dawned with me overflowing with cold, deaf in my right ear and missing both my senses of smell and taste. A great start to a day of cooking and eating.

Purely by chance, I’m staying less than a minute from the mercato di Testaccio, where we’re meeting. So, I’m there, early of course, brimming with excitement and influenza. It is, as to be expected, a grotto of wonderful things. The market is, let’s be kind, late century modern, I’m guessing 90s. Purely functional, a hollow box in the terracotta shadow of the Monte di Testaccio . But inside is the meat and the marrow. Charcuterie, cheese, bread, vegetables, flowers, fruits, wines, oils. There is mundane, there is high end. It’s not huge, but, Lordy, it is bountiful.

Dogs in Markets; two of my favourite things

And we meet up – six artichoke fans, and Rachel, who is all height and exuberance, and we buy bags of artichokes, taste olive oil (I sneak in a couple of Citrons to fill up my hand luggage; another story, another day), and then make our way through the old abattoir, over the Tiber

to the Latteria Studio – a cookery school that is also, as near as damn it, my perfect kitchen. And if I can have a resident Carla, all knowledge, droll and raised eyebrow, I shan’t complain.

In a laid back whirl of prep and information, we trim and tidy 36 artichokes. These then are chopped and sliced to be braised, pureed, battered, soused. Carla makes focaccia, and makes it look easy, studding it with sweet grapes and dusting with cinnamon. Rachel pours cocktails, Cynar (more artichokes) and Prosecco. My cold improves instantly. There are eggs and oil to be whipped for mayonnaise, pasta to be rolled for lasagna. A caponata of artichokes emerges, all agrodolce Sicilian, and wonderful. A jammy cake of polenta and oranges from the oven, joined by buttered, drunken pears baked in their own steam.

A day of cooking is always fun, but cooking in good company, being taught by cooks whose knowledge and enthusiasm is endless, followed by a late and long lunch together, is definitely worth travelling to Rome for. Hell, it may even be worth moving to Rome for.

As dusk unfurled, and in the ceaseless rain, we tripped our way back down the hill, over the river and went our separate ways, six very contented and dedicated fans of the artichoke. There was, I knew, still a little room in my hand luggage. So I stopped at the supermarket, and bought just a few more artichokes, to squirrel back to Birmingham.