Cherries in November, I hear you ask? No, I have only the dried versions – wizened little blisters plumped up by liquor – but I love the look of these deep, dark orbs. And oddly they seem more suited to winter in my mind. This story is a pulling together of the different threads of my England trip, and the genus comes from a visit to Brighton, the streets slaked that day with dirty rain. It was also cold and people were standing in doorways looking out, not at anyone in particular, but simply looking on with flattened, peeved expressions. My mum and I had the idea to see the Biba exhibition at the Brighton museum, but instead went to Primark. The rain washed away any ingenuity that day, but at least I came away with a good packet of pants.
We ran out of the rain into a cafe. It was warm inside and there were some lovely looking cakes on the counter, although with my mother the assumption is always that we will have soup. Soup and tea. The girl behind the counter was bewitchingly friendly. She was Polish, and it was her mother, Ella, who did all the baking. Her mother was downstairs. There was a Black Forest cake, with all its turrets and glossy layers, a plum crumble tart, and whirling pastries. We ordered soup, which was beef and leek – delicate and creamy. My mum ate the plum crumble tart. A chocolate cake arrived, carried by Ella.
By this point, I knew that my mum would be engaging in conversation with Ella, and that this would happen as soon as the cake was released. It began as it always does – with a few compliments, and a request for ingredients. A slow and delicate deconstruction of the soup followed, and then onto the plum crumble tart. Without this dandling, this gentle back and forth, I know Ella would not have brought out a jar of her homemade black cherry jam for us.
When it came to packing for the return trip to LA, I decided to leave the jar of jam behind. It was too heavy, and it was glass. Besides, my mum would enjoy it. I put it in the cupboard but it found its way back into my bag. I returned it, hid it behind some tea, but there it was again, sitting at a jaunty angle in amongst my clothes. It eventually stayed with her. I assumed you could get black cherry jam in LA. I was being rather cavalier about it; it was fine, it was only jam, she should have it. But on my return here, it gnawed at me. I missed it. I thought often of the contents, and the patterned lid, and the way Ella had presented it, her face flushed with promise and oven heat. It’s funny the things we regret.
I would like to think these cakes are based on the Ischler torte, the Viennese chocolate cake with cherry and almond filling, and not the smothering Black Forest. But ultimately, there is something very British about these little chocolate fondants. We are so in love with the oozing and glaucous pudding, with dark and brooding chocolate. And cream, of course. If you can’t find dried cherries, you could try prunes soaked in brandy, raisins soaked in whisky or dried cranberries in vodka. And, of course, if you have some homemade cherry jam, use that.
Warm cherry and chocolate cakes
Adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Three Good Things on a Plate
100g dried cherries
A little cocoa powder for dusting
150g dark chocolate, broken into small pieces
150g unsalted butter, diced, plus extra for greasing
3 large eggs
75g caster/superfine sugar
35g plain flour
Soak the cherries in the Calvados in a small bowl for at least 2 hours (or overnight), to absorb most of the liquid.
Preheat the oven to 200C/400F and put a baking tray inside to heat up. Butter 6 dariole moulds or ramekins well and dust with the cocoa. Melt the chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl over a pan of barely simmering water. Stir gently at the end to blend and leave to cool a little. Beat the eggs and sugar together for a good 5 minutes until the mixture is thick and creamy and ‘holds a trail’ (when a little is dropped from the whisk it sits on the top of the mixture before slowly sinking back in).
Fold the melted chocolate and butter lightly into the egg mousse. Sift the flour over the mixture, then fold it in carefully. It should be throughly incorporated, but don’t overwork the mixture. Fold in the cherries and Calvados.
Divide the mixture between the ramekins. You can prepare these cakes ahead to this point, if you like, and refrigerate them for up to 2 hours. Bake the puds on the hot tray in the oven for 10-12 minutes. Turn out immediately into shallow bowls and serve with thin, chilled cream.