These are red gooseberries, in case you were wondering. I didn’t realize that gooseberries could be anything but green, but here, as in many areas of my life, I am wrong. Red, yellow and white can be the goosegog, though Jane Grigson argues that none are as good in cooking as the green. These red ones were also on the small side, but I was too excited by the colour to do anything but shovel them up in my palsied hands and throw them into the nearest paper bag.
If you are English and have once seen a hedge or climbed a tree, you have also probably eaten a green gooseberry raw. It comes with a certain feral spirit and being too young not to be able to discern what is and isn’t ‘palate appropriate’. I do remember picking gooseberries (along with elderflowers, their natural bedfellows) and sampling the hairy little pod, being slightly put off by the veins, but somehow knowing I couldn’t not eat it. I was bemused by the elderflower picking, as it was for the making of wine, bottles of which would be stacked outside my bedroom window to ferment and mature etc but be still off limits to me.
However, the gooseberries would at some point make their way under a crumble or pie crust and then be served with cream or possibly ice cream. I even liked the sourness, that puckering beyond-lemon tartness, and the errant seeds that could be shot out like a catapult.
All of this under an intermittently blazing and then thunderous English sky. Because I am now back in England, back in time for the thunder and lightning and wild seas and bursts of heat and ladybirds. It’s all gone a bit Brazil here, with long languorous days at times humid and close then cloudy then bucketing down then warm, blank skies of blue. People swim with an abandon I find worrying. Far far out to sea I can see a lone swimmer doing front crawl out beyond the buoy. Children dive in and sometimes they’re naked; another signifier I’m no longer in LA. I’m walking again and so is everyone else.
We are all striding out, wading through fields of old rape and thick stiff wheat. Everyone is eating ice cream – big swathes of white – and everywhere there are bodies in various stages of rotundity; tattooed, jolly, in love, or sullen with a fag on, and I find I’m watching them with the tutored eye of an Angeleno. I’ve become aware of size and shape and it makes me feel uncomfortable. Suddenly I’m shallow. I’ve come back just in time.
But in the meantime there’s cake, or more specifically baked gooseberry pudding using a genoise sponge. All I previously knew about the genoise was that it was ‘difficult’ and a finalist from The Great British Bake Off dropped his all over the floor and was forced to scrape it back on to the plate, presenting it as a strange cloud of something dark with cream.
I made the gooseberry pudding to bring to a party, which served as an object lesson in what you shouldn’t do if you can avoid it: make something you’ve never made before for people you barely know. It looked fine, beautifully brown in that natural way of burnt fields and it smelled voluptuously puddingy. The gooseberries had risen up in revolt at being smothered and had formed a rim of sweet tacky juice. We walked along the seafront in Seaford to the party and the Pyrex dish kept itself cleverly hot all the way. And then the top collapsed, not in the way a flourless cake slumps, but it caved in the way meringue does. It simply all disappeared down a hole.
I grabbed what was down there and it was lovely and hot and gungy, and, I thought, terrifyingly uncooked. I then started to pick at it until there was an undeniable gaping hole in the centre of the pudding which was now unpresentable. ‘It’s the gesture that matters,’ my mother said reassuringly which translated into British English means, “This is a complete disaster and no one will say anything”.
By the time we got there people were peeling off to swim, taking advantage of the sudden heat and sun and all around us were half-demolished cakes, a gammon ripped to shreds, bowls of depleted food and children dancing in that deranged way that happens just before an emotional collapse. My empty cake did not look out of place and by the time everyone had trailed back from the sea under a blanket of rain it appeared to be cooked. It’s rather like meringue in that way, I realize; a crisp outer crust, followed by a hole and then a deep drift of softness below. Actually it’s pudding – that is what it is.
Everyone said ‘Wow!’ a lot but they were also quite drunk. They talked at length about the sweetness, the miraculous crust and the tartness of the gooseberries. And that I had made a cake at all and who was I again? And would I like to come to Faversham? Did I want curry? More Steely Dan! the children cried and they danced red and sweating under the raindrops.
Baked Gooseberry Pudding
Adapted from Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book
I didn’t find the genoise sponge particularly tricky to make, though this might have something to do with my mother’s ancient Chefette free-standing mixer which whisked the eggs and sugar to buggery while I got on with reading the recipe. However, how difficult can it be to stand for seven minutes holding some beaters? This has quickly become my stand-by pudding and is also wonderful with rhubarb – in both cases the fruit can be chucked in raw with the barest tumble in brown sugar. You could use any sharp fruit here – cranberries also work well.
For the sponge
125g butter, plus a bit extra for buttering the bowl
1 large egg and 1 egg yolk (room temp)
175g unrefined caster sugar
100g plain flour, sifted (or rice flour)
½ teaspoon of mace and/or allspice
½ tsp sea salt
For the gooseberries
250-300g gooseberries (they do cook down)
25g-50g demerara sugar or any soft brown sugar
Preheat the oven to 160-170C/325F. Generously butter a Pyrex dish of about 1 litre capacity and 3-4 cm depth. Put in a tight-fitting layer of topped and tailed gooseberries and throw the sugar over them, tumbling them about to get full coverage. Gently melt the butter in a pan and leave to cool slightly.
Now for the sponge – the ‘trick’ is to aerate the eggs and sugar mixture, which means to whisk them together until they are very pale and light, almost white. At first they’ll be gloopy but after about 7-8 minutes the mixture will reach what is known as the ‘ribbon’ stage where it will leave a trail when the beaters are lifted out. Mix the flour, mace/allspice (actually whatever spice you fancy – ginger would be nice) and salt together in a separate bowl and then sift about half over the eggs and sugar, folding very gently using a metal spoon and working in a figure of eight. Fold in the rest of the flour very carefully, so as not to knock out any air.
Now drizzle the melted butter down the sides of the bowl, again gently but quickly working the batter. Now spoon this mixture over the gooseberries, smoothing it out to be level, and then bake for about 45-50 minutes. It will rise and then crack probably. Lovely warm but also gorgeous cold. It is not – though it will appear to be – uncooked inside.