The kitchens of Brambly Hedge were full of activity. Cool summer foods were being made. There was cold watercress soup, fresh dandelion salad, honey creams, syllabubs and meringues.
Brambly Hedge Summer Story, Jill Barklem
London is cold and grey this week. Our winter this year has been even milder than usual - the daffodils were already in bloom when I came back to London in February. Predictably, now that it's (technically) spring, the mercury has finally dropped. It's the type of weather that makes me want to draw my mittened hands inside my cloak and fold them up in my scarf. The type of weather that induces even more people than usual to question my living here on this cold and blustery isle, rather than the semi-tropical one I left behind at 21.
The truth is that I love this winter weather. I love it, just as I love spring, autumn and summer - not as defined as they used to be, I'm told, but more defined than the 'hot and wet' or 'less hot and less wet' that I grew up with. I remember standing on a train platform last winter with two friends, hoods pulled up, eyes shielded, declaring my adoration for drizzling rain. You see, it's all part and parcel of the same: the long sunny evenings, the crisp winter mornings, the grey, rainy March days. They're so wonderful precisely because of the changing seasons, the way one flows into another.
I've spent weeks eagerly anticipating spring and summer - the produce they will bring and the joy of eating out of doors. I've had my fill of stews and soups and crumbles, as much as I enjoy them. I have plans instead for food from Sarah Perry's After Me Comes the Flood, Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited and Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows - tales that take place in the height of summer. But we're not there yet.
As I wait patiently for the approaching spring, my eyes fell on this on the bookshelves, on its sweet floral cover, and the tales of mice making cheese and celebrating weddings. Later this summer, there will be watercress soup and fresh strawberries that smell warm and damp and sweet. For now, there is syllabub. Rich and yet light, and tasting worthy of a much warmer day. Syllabub has been made in England for hundreds of years, sometimes with egg whites, gelatine or - as in what is perhaps my favourite ever recipe, just combine two simple ingredients:
"If it be in the Field, only milk the cow into the Cyder, and so drink it"
(The Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary, John Notts, 1723)
So there you have it: add cream to alcohol, and then drink it. The recipe below is a simple one, not straying too far from this concept. The flavourings here are gloriously adaptable too, so go with whatever you have in the house, or whatever looks good at the greengrocer. This week, brandy and blood oranges were the ticket. In summer, I'll be making this again with elderflower, honey and prosecco.
1 blood orange (zest and juice)
2tbsp caster sugar
300ml double cream
75g spelt flour
25g golden caster sugar
Large mixing bowl
1. Zest and juice the blood orange, and put these into the bowl with the brandy and sugar. If you've thought of doing this in advance, leave them together in the fridge overnight. If not, don't panic. An hour or so in the fridge will still be useful, so give them a stir and pop them in.
2. Once the sugar, booze and citrus have had time to mingle, add the cream. Whisk by hand until the cream is soft and falls in ribbons from the whisk. You can use an electric hand whisk for this, but a syllabub is at risk of curdling. Doing it by hand allows you to keep an eye on it; I'm notoriously good at turning cream into butter, so need to be particularly careful here. Take your time, halting often, especially once the cream starts to thicken, to check it.
3. Spoon the syllabub into chilled glasses and serve immediately. Top with more zest and some crumbled biscuits, if you like.
4. If you do fancy some biscuits with this (they add a welcome texture), plain shortbread is a good way to go. Rub the butter in the flour, sugar and salt with your fingertips, then squidge the dough together and roll into a log. Wrap the log in cling film and refrigerate for half an hour. Preheat the oven to 170C. Slice the log as if you're slicing salami - into half centimetre thick discs, then distribute them out on a lined baking sheet and bake for 12 minutes.