What a thing of beauty is batter. The crisp dense doughnut, its hole of silken jam revealed through the dough like a gun-shot wound. Sausages in batter, a Seventies masterpiece. Churros, those Spanish curly wurlies of ridged, hot, sugary rope. And gribbles. Gribbles were bits of batter, scrag ends you could get at the fish and chip shop for free. They would be scooped up, grudgingly, if you asked for them, and given to you in a cone made out of newspaper.
The fish and chip shop, Capel’s, was opposite the swimming pool on Heavitree road in Exeter, where I had my weekly swimming class with a monster called Miss Diamond. She made me cry underwater. I also had to tie knots in my trousers, blow them into a balloon and wait to be ‘rescued.’ These were public baths and always full to bursting on a Wednesday night, with kids having fun after school. Trying to get from one end of the pool to another was a challenge. Trying to do it fully clothed in order to save someone who was pretending to drown was a joke. Miss Diamond bellowed instructions at us or blew on her whistle to get above the racket. Never has the term ‘treading water’ felt so apposite, as I waited for the tyranny to end.
After swimming I would have hunger pangs but no money. I remember standing in the chippy with wet hair, watching golden hunks of fish being laid to rest in glass cabinets on the counter. But it was the batter I was after. Sometimes there was a landslide of gribbles, and you could even direct the server to which bits you wanted. Other times, strangely there was nothing. If I was ravenous, I would challenge them weakly. Were they sure? Absolutely nothing? And then the hill-climb home seemed particularly hard.
Peppery, puffy batter shrouds these sweet apple slices, which are ever so slightly cooked while remaining al dente. A pinch of saffron, steeped in a couple of tablespoons of boiling water and then strained into the mixture, will turn the batter a lovely crocus-yellow. Alternatively, you can add sparkling water, cider or beer. You must eat these quickly, even standing over the still-smouldering pan of oil. I can imagine they would work well on a lazy Sunday morning – you can prepare the batter the night before and keep it in the fridge (give it a quick whisk). Do not omit the pepper.
Inspired by Emma Gardner, Poires au Chocolat
Adapted from a recipe from Jane Grigson, English Food
6 eating apples
125g (4 oz) flour
2 medium eggs
1 tablespoon of butter
Up to 300ml (1/2 pint) milk
Freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of sea salt
Pinch of saffron (optional)
2-3 tablespoons of sparkling water, cider, beer (tap water is fine)
Caster sugar (superfine), to toss
Cinnamon for the sugar (optional)
Oil to fry – sunflower, canola, peanut, coconut
In a small pan, melt the butter. You can take this to the browning stage for a nuttier flavour, if you like. Leave to cool. Beat the eggs in a bowl, then add the flour, and the water/cider/beer/saffron juice (delete as applicable), and sea salt. Gradually beat in half the milk and whisk until smooth. If the batter is too thick for your taste, add more. It should be thick enough to coat the apples well, and more or less stay put in the pan. Add the cooled butter. Grind the pepper two or three times over the basin and stir it in.
Peel the apples, then use a corer to take out the centre. Cut into 1cm thick slices (but again this is up to you). Prepare two plates: one with kitchen roll and another with a generous layer of sugar, mixed with a sprinkling of cinnamon if you like. Pour about 2cm of oil in a heavy-bottomed pan and heat over a medium high heat until just starting to smoke. Let a drip of batter fall into the oil – that will give you an idea of whether it’s ready.
Dip the slices of apple into the batter and fry until golden brown on both sides. Transfer to the kitchen roll plate for a minute to soak up any excess oil, then move to the sugar plate and toss. Enjoy now.