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Issue 78 - Comfort Food

Scotland Magazine Issue 78
December 2014

 

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Comfort Food

Sue Lawrence explores the spirituality of textures and taste

Comfort food is at once nostalgic, familiar and soothing, whether it is steak pie, like the one your granny used to make; or scrambled eggs on toast, which your mother used to bring when you were ill in bed. Even those dishes which might evoke memories of horrid school dinners, assume a new role as comforting link with the past. So, even though your school’s semolina and jam was the lumpiest imaginable and the hotpot the stringiest, nowadays these dishes, when well-executed, serve to annihilate all thoughts of everlasting revenge to be wreaked upon the school dinner cook.

Apart from the spiritual aspect of comfort food, the actual texture is also significant. You can forget your al dente vegetables or boldly dressed frisée. No, what we want is a soft, soothing texture that will assuage some innate craving to be spoon-fed. There is, however, a distinction to be made between school dinner’s foul, malodorous three-hour cabbage and a dish of quickly cooked stir-fried cabbage and garlic.

At other times of the year, the word stodgy is abhorrent. Imagine stodge in the middle of August when all you want is a bowl of strawberries. But start to contemplate stodge in the autumn and winter and a smile will begin to play on your lips, for suet puddings only make sense when the wind is howling and the rain lashing against the windows. Hot pies and thick soups are appropriate now, not when barbecue smells waft over from your neighbour’s patio.

Stovies most definitely fall into the comfort category: a delicious Scottish dish of onions and potatoes cooked in dripping (the white fat on the surface of the meat jelly after pouring off the meat juices from your roasting tin and chilling), then cooked slowly in the meat jelly - or stock -– until tender. Stovies are classic pub fare throughout Scotland and as you travel around Scotland, stovies will vary. In Arbroath and Aberdeen, corned beef or chopped roast meat are often added and they are served with oatcakes. In Orkney, pieces of brisket are stirred in. Slices of crisply fried black pudding are also wonderful served on top. Or, just serve them as they are with thick oatcakes and a glass of cold milk.

Treacle pudding, syrup sponge and spotted dick – all with a generous flood of custard - are some of the most comforting puddings. And just because they take a little longer than opening a pot of yoghurt, this should not lessen their appeal. For comfort food also suggests anticipation. It is all about the eager expectation of how some unpromising looking raw oxtail will be transformed into the most rich, delicious stew. Or how the reassuring rattle of the pudding bowl in the steamer will
ensure that after two hours, you will have a glorious coconut and jam sponge pudding vaguely reminiscent of school dinners, but tasting leagues better, because you have used butter instead of margarine and home-made jam instead of mixed fruit spread. Your custard is also skin-free, lumpless and hot.

Comforting puddings come in all shapes and forms but for an easy hot pudding, try Lemon Delicious or Sticky Toffee Pudding; I defy you to stop at just one serving!

Sticky Toffee Pudding

Serves 8

175g / 6 oz stoned chopped dates
1 heaped tsp bicarbonate of soda
75g / 2¾ oz butter, softened
75g / 2¾ oz Demerara sugar
75g / 2¾ oz dark muscovado sugar
1 tbsp black treacle
200g / 7 oz self-raising flour, sifted
2 large free-range eggs

Sauce

100g / 3½ oz butter
125g / 4½ oz dark muscovado sugar
300 ml tub double cream

For the sponge, place the dates in a bowl and cover with 300 ml / 10 fl oz boiling water. Stir in the bicarbonate then leave to cool.

Place the remaining ingredients in a food mixer and add the dates and liquid. Process until combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl.

Tip into a well-buttered, wide baking dish. (The dish must be no more than half-full.) Bake in a preheated oven (180C / 350F / Gas 4) for about 35 - 45 minutes or until just firm to the touch. Test by inserting in a wooden cocktail stick; it should have some moist crumbs but no wet batter.

While it is cooking, make the sauce by putting everything into a deep saucepan with a good pinch of salt, and stir regularly, until smooth. Bubble for a couple of minutes.

Once the pudding is done, pour about a third over the top of the pudding then place under a hot grill for a couple of minutes until it bubbles. Serve in bowls with extra sauce and single cream.

Lemon Delicious Pudding

125g/4 oz butter, softened
200g / 7 oz golden caster sugar
The zest and juice of 4 medium un-waxed lemons
4 large eggs, separated
125 ml / 4 fl oz milk
75g / 3 oz plain flour

Beat the butter, sugar and lemon zest together with electric beaters (or in a mixer) until creamy. Beat in the yolks one by one. Add the milk and flour alternately. Stir in the lemon juice; don’t worry if it looks curdled.

Whisk the egg whites until stiff then gently fold these into the mixture. Pour into a buttered baking dish and bake in a preheated oven (180C / 350F / Gas 4) for 35 minutes until firm on top, but still with a wobble in
the middle.

Leave for 5 minutes before serving, with pouring cream.

Stovies with black pudding

3 tbsp dripping (use butter if you have no dripping)
2 onions, peeled, sliced
1 kg/2lb 4 oz potatoes, peeled, thinly sliced
3 tbsp meat jelly (or beef stock)
8 slices quality black pudding
Olive oil

Melt the dripping in a heavy saucepan and fry the onions for 10 - 15 minutes until golden. Add the potato slices and turn carefully in the fat; be careful the slices do not break up. Season well with salt and pepper. Add the meat jelly (or stock) and heat until melted, then cover tightly and cook over a low heat for about 40 minutes or until the potatoes are tender and they have absorbed all the liquid. (Add a splash of hot water if too dry) While they cook, shake the pan often to prevent sticking; do not stir or you will break up the potatoes.

Meanwhile, cook the black pudding in a little olive oil for 4 - 5 minutes ( depending on thickness) turning once, then drain on kitchen paper. Serve the stovies piping hot topped with the black pudding.