My father’s motto ‘Always leave room for dessert’
I grew up in London. Damp, cold, wet London. The long-awaited arrival of summer and less inclement weather caused the local population to flood outdoors to local parks and expose their pale, vitamin D deprived bodies to the sun’s rays. We were no exception. With the first hint of a blue sky and vaguely warm weather we would rush across Hampstead heath, have a picnic and cavort in the grass, rolling down hills, flying kites and sailing small boats on the local ponds. These activities were only interrupted by the clarion call of the ice cream van’s jingle that summoned all the children in the park like the pied piper, all of us running full tilt to get there first, clutching pennies in our sticky hands to buy iced lollies with fantastic names such as Orange Kwench, Fab and Zoom; the last, a three tied, multi-flavored, rocket-shaped concoction that stained your tongue bright red. This was how we knew summer had nearly arrived.
British school holidays began in the third week in July. Then, for six glorious weeks, we would escape across the Channel to France and head south. My brother and I would be crammed in the back of my parent’s convertible as we drove through the winding roads of Provence, top down, sun blazing, sunglasses on, as the Beach Boys were waxing lyrical, at full volume, about the joys of Surfin’ USA on the car’s eight track tape…
If everybody had an ocean
Across the U. S. A.
Then everybody'd be surfin'
Like Californi-a ….
This was the sound of summer; Nancy Sinatra sang about her boots, the Beatles took us on journey in a yellow submarine and Van Morrisan sang about his Brown Eyed Girl. These were the sounds that drifted through the warm breeze in the afternoon as we came in from the sun, sand still on our feet for an afternoon siesta, and these were the tunes that would accompany us as we drove to get the best of all summertime treats – magnificent ice cream. We discovered ice cream unlike any we had tasted before. Vanilla ice cream that was delicately scented and flecked with the telltale signs that real vanilla beans had been used and left a lingering sweet, creamy taste in one’s mouth, pale pistachio ice cream that capture the essence of that nut, and lemon sorbet’s so tangy they made your mouth pucker and your eyes to squeeze shut.
As years passed, the sound of summer included Petula Clark, The Rolling Stones and Mongo Jerry singing about what he did In the summertime, and we kept on a quest to find the best ice cream we had ever had. If chocolate and vanilla were the benchmarks by which we tested and compared each establishment, it was ice creams made with fresh fruit that reflected the mastery of the ice cream maker.
In a small village on the Mediterranean we finally found the acme of ice cream shops. It was a miniscule establishment tucked away down a narrow alleyway that led to the harbor. We’d actually have to stand in the alleyway so “shop” might be a bit of an exaggeration. The owner would roll up the metal shutters, maneuver the refrigerated display case to the front of the shop and edge behind it in order to serve his customers. He was a magician when it came to ice cream, particularly those made with fruit. They exuded the very essence of the ingredient. His cassis ice cream was nothing short of miraculous in its depth of flavor. Summer after summer, we would walk down the alleyway, with snippets of music floating on warm wisps of air from a Summer Breeze to Bob Marley who had us Jammin on our way to this teeny place to taste new creations filled with peaches, nectarines, raspberries and blackberries.
Many years later, I introduced my children to the ice cream man. Each had their favorites. My son, chocolate of course, my daughter strawberry, and I would delve into his slightly tangy ethereal blackcurrant gem. We would stroll along the harbor walls, ice cream melting as we looked out over the boats, to the sound of Pharrell Williams encouraging everyone to Be Happy blaring out from a local bistro.
It became our summer ritual. When oldies came on the radio, they would scream in embarrassment as I would sing Got to Give it Up a la Marvin Gaye perhaps, then all would be forgiven as we headed to the ice cream man. You can understand our dismay then, when on our last visit to this little village, thinking of nothing else than THAT ice cream, the little emporium had simply vanished, a gaudy jewelry shop in its place. This was tragic. We stood bemused, unsure where to go and what to do. Thankfully the old shop owner had imparted a soupÃ§on of his technique during our many discussions over the years. Basically it came down to combining a purée made with the finest fruit available and wondrous cream. I returned home and vowed to make the best ice cream I could, keeping his principles in mind. The plum ice cream (below) is the result of those experiments.
If ice cream was one part of the taste of summer, fruit was the other. This was (and still is) the time of lush peaches, one bite of which would release a bracelet of sweet juice running down your arm, of fragrant strawberries, of luscious, fat, ripe figs, and of Cavaillon melons whose honey sweetened flesh tasted of the ripest apricots. Summer desserts tended to revolve around what we could pick, often, it was just a simple piece of fruit, or perhaps, on special occasions, fruit and ice cream, and, if you were at my grandmother’s house, fruit and crÃ¨me fraiche, or perhaps a clafoutis or tart. The essential ingredient was the berry or stone fruit at hand. We made jams, jellies, and canned fruit for the winter from everything we picked in her garden. After weeks soaking up the sun, my brother and I would return to London to start another school year, carefully bringing back a jar or two of our grandmother’s favorite jams. For a month or so afterwards we would savor the essence of the season encapsulated in those canning jars, the jam would rarely last longer than that.
I recently ate a nectarine which transported me back to those childhood summers. It was a perfect pale white and pink sphere. As I took a bite, time compressed in an odd Harry Potter-like time-tuning way, and I was whisked back to my grandmother’s tiled kitchen, pots bubbling on the stove as she crafted her preserves, then, in a kaleidoscope of images I was carried at warp speed to London and a series of classic desserts popped into my head, strawberries and cream, lemon possets, summer pudding and syllabubs. Funny how the taste of something can trigger such instant memories, and in this case a desire to recreate one of those dishes.
A syllabub. Don’t you love that word? It sounds like something that came out of a novel by Dickens or Jane Austen. I found this historical tidbit whilst searching the term. Peek inside the Universal Cook: and City and Country Housekeeper, written in 1792 by John Francis Collingwood and John Woollams, cooks at The Crown and Anchor Pub in the Strand in London, and you will find three recipes for syllabub including this one, which is priceless: “A Syllabub Under a Cow. Having put a bottle of red or white wine, ale or cyder [sic], into a china bowl, sweeten it with sugar, and grate in some nutmeg. Then hold it under the cow, and milk into it until it has a fine froth on the top. Strew over it a handful of currants cleaned, washed, and picked, and plumbed before the fire.” This whipped cream concoction has a touch of wine and sugar in it. It’s pretty much the perfect match for any fruit, including nectarines. Most of all it’s easy to make and utterly delicious.
If the taste of a piece of fruit can transport you, so can a song. One Sunday, not long ago, driving back to Santa Barbara, with a flat of rather extraordinary dark red, sweet strawberries from Ventura in the back of the car. I was listening to a 60s oldies station on the radio to much eye-rolling from my daughter, who immediately put in her ear buds to drown out all possible singing from me. As we rounded the long bay leading into Carpinteria watching the waves rolling on shore, the Beach Boys Surfin’ Safari played. I cranked up the volume and belted out the song:
Let's go surfin' now
Everybody's learning how
Come on and safari with me
(Come on and safari with)
At huntington and malibu
They're shooting the pier
At rincon they're walking the nose
We're going on safari to the islands this year
So if you're coming get ready to go
and then it hit me…. MALIBU, RINCON… You mean to say that the song I sang as a child driving around France in the seventies is about the same beach I am driving by now! I was stunned. I stopped singing as the revelation struck me. I was living that sun-kissed Californian dream that I fantasized about when I looked out my rain-splattered windows in London, and my daughter was, is, well, a California Girl! I pondered this as we drove the rest of the way home. We were having friends over for a late lunch in the garden. I had planned to make a Pavlova for dessert, hence the strawberries. This dessert managed to combine my French and English childhood favorites into one, meringues, cream and fruit, a type of vacherin meets Eton Mess. It seemed oddly appropriate.
Plum Ice cream
Serves 8 people
1½ lbs plums
1 teaspoon rose water
4 egg yolks
5 oz sugar (2/3 cup)
1 pint (2 cups) heavy cream
Seeds from 1 vanilla bean, 1 teaspoon vanilla paste, or pure vanilla extract
1. Place a large bowl in the fridge to chill.
2. Blanch the plums for 1 minute in a saucepan of boiling water. Drain, peel and pit the plums. Purée the fruit with the rose water using a blender or food processor. Refrigerate the purée until cold.
3. In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and the sugar until pale.
4. Pour the cream and vanilla into a medium-sized saucepan. Bring almost to a boil. Remove from the heat. Then whisk the cream, a little at a time, into the egg yolk mixture to make a custard.
5. Pour the custard mixture back into the saucepan and heat slowly, stirring continuously until the mixture coats the back of a spoon. The custard will be fairly thin at this point. Pour the custard into the chilled bowl and refrigerate until the mixture is cold.
6. When the custard is cold, combine it thoroughly with the plum purée. Using an ice cream machine, freeze according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
Summer Berry Pavlova
Serves 8 people
4 egg whites at room temperature
Pinch of salt
8 oz (just under 1 cup) ultra-fine sugar ( you can make your own by proceeding the sugar in a food processor for 1 minute)
2 teaspoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon white-wine vinegar
Few drops of good vanilla essence or vanilla paste
¾ pint of cream
1 tablespoon sugar
2 pints strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries
1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
2. Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until satiny peaks form. Then beat in the sugar, a fourth at a time, until the meringue is stiff and shiny. Sprinkle the cornstarch, vinegar and vanilla over the whipped egg whites and fold in lightly.
3. Draw a 9-inch circle on a piece of parchment paper. Place the parchment paper on a baking sheet. Mound the meringue mixture onto the parchment paper, flatten the top and smooth the sides.
4. Place on the bottom rack of the oven and immediately reduce heat to 250 degrees and cook for 1 ¼ hours. Turn off the oven and let it cool with the door closed.
5. Whip the cream with the sugar until it holds soft peaks. Top the meringue with whipped cream and berries and serve.
Fun fact: On July 15, 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed a proclamation declaring July National Ice Cream Month, and called "upon the people of the United States to observe these events with appropriate ceremonies and activities."