Sometimes all you need is a little time away.
Today’s time away comes in the form of a multinational café chain, bad coffee and even worse cake, but it does afford me a few uninterrupted minutes free of the distractions of working from home (minutes which, I might add, I’ve wasted most of procrastinating on Instagram. Such is life).
It’s been a weird cooking week. The delicious-looking winter vegetable salad with Middle Eastern spices, haloumi and tahini dressing I tried turned out fine but absolutely uninspiring. There have been two steam oven cheesecake recipes tested and I wasn’t happy with either of them, so that’s gone back to the drawing board. And I’ve been trying (and failing) to get around to making a much loved Rick Stein recipe for spicy lamb flatbreads for 4 days. Maybe tomorrow.
In the meantime, there have been a couple of shining moments, the following one included. I’m constantly on a quest for decent gluten free and/or dairy free dessert recipes. I have several family members and friends with these particular dietary exclusions so as much as I love making a big fat wheat-and-butter-laden cake for celebratory events, sometimes it’s nice to give consideration to those who would otherwise miss out.
I don’t like the idea that because a dish is ‘free from’ it should taste noticeably different or only be eaten by the special diet brigade, so in this spirit I give you steamed coconut custard and roasted (well, combination steamed) quince with bay and star anise. It’s dairy, grain and gluten free, yet the absence of those ingredients isn’t missed because the dish is not trying to appeal to any special dietary need – it’s just a really good dessert. What it is not is fat or sugar free, but, well, it’s dessert. Live a little.
I hope you’ll give this a try next time you’re on dessert duty (is it really a duty? I think not). Both components can be prepared up to a couple of days in advance, so it’s an easy dinner party dish. If you can’t get quinces roasted rhubarb would be an excellent substitute, and much quicker to cook (the bay and star anise will go perfectly with that, too). Or just macerate a few handfuls of sliced strawberries in a little orange juice and caster sugar, and throw in some torn basil leaves if you want a herbal note.
Steamed coconut custards and combination steamed quince with bay and star anise
Makes 6 serves
If you haven’t cooked quince before I definitely encourage you to try them. Though they look like strange knobbly yellow apples and taste appallingly tannic when raw, a bath in sugar syrup and a turn in the combination steam oven renders them perfumed, ruby red and sweet (those tannins are what cause the magical change in colour – potted history of the fruit here if you’d like to win at food trivia). Texture-wise, they are tender and toothsome all at once – slightly reminiscent of pears or apples but more dense and fudgy. They’ll cope with a lot of different flavourings, but the dusky spice of star anise and earthiness of bay suit perfectly. And they’re an excellent counterpoint to the coconut custards, which on their own are almost too silky, too rich. The quantity below will give more than enough for the custards – the leftovers are great spooned over yoghurt or ice cream.
I like the sameness of the custard and the soft fruit in this dessert but it probably would benefit from a little textural crunch. I’d go for crushed meringues – which would use up some of the leftover egg whites from the custard - or maybe gingersnap biscuits, if you don’t need to go gluten free. Do let me know if you try either, I’d love to hear about it.
Lastly, as with many ‘eggy’ steam oven things, I find the cooking time of the custard can be thrown out greatly by using different dishes. My little (flat) oval and round ramekins took 18 minutes, but as I’d run out of dishes I cooked one serving in a little glass bowl, which only took 15 minutes. Pay attention to the wobble in the centre more than the timing, as that’s what will tell you they’re cooked.
Steamed coconut custards
6 egg yolks
2 tbs caster sugar
One 400ml tin full fat coconut milk (don’t use ‘lite’ coconut milk here, the higher water content means the custards will be prone to splitting)
2 tsp vanilla extract or paste
Set your oven to 85⁰C on steam setting.
In a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks and sugar until they are foamy.
Whisk in the coconut milk and vanilla, then strain the mixture into a jug.
Divide mixture between 6 half-cup ramekins (or tea cups, little bowls, whatever you have is fine as long as you adjust the timing to suit).
Put the ramekins in a tray and cover the whole tray with aluminium foil to stop water dripping onto your custard – you can cover individual dishes with small bits of foil but it’s more of a pain to check if they’re cooked.
Steam for 15-20 minutes until the custard is set but with a slight wobble in the centre.
Remove from oven and let cool to lukewarm then chill, covered, until ready to serve (at least 4 hours and up to 2 days). Top with warm combination steamed quince for serving.
Combination steamed quince with bay and star anise
2/3 cup (165ml) water
½ cup (150g) clear honey
½ cup (110g) caster sugar
Peeled skin and juice from 1 lemon (I just peel of 3 or 4 big strips of skin, avoiding the white pith as much as possible)
2 bay leaves
2 star anise
1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped out (delicious but not essential – throw in an extra star anise if you haven’t got vanilla)
4 large quinces, peeled, cored and each cut into 6-8 wedges
Set your oven to 170⁰C on combination steam (if your oven has variable steam settings, use 80% steam).
Mix all ingredients except the quince in a bowl, stirring to dissolve the honey and sugar (don’t worry if it doesn’t completely dissolve).
Put the quince, single layer, in a baking dish and pour the syrup over it. Cook for about 2 hours, until it’s tender and bright ruby red, and the top bits are browned. Cool to barely warm, then serve or refrigerate, covered, for up to 5 days. Your syrup will probably set into a jelly when cold, so just reheat in the steam oven or very gently on the stovetop to bring it back to a liquid before serving.
But I don’t have a steam/combi-steam oven! Good news for you – your regular oven will be just fine. The quince component can be roasted with comparable results: bake it at 180⁰C for about 3 hours, covering the dish with foil until the last half hour to keep the moisture in. The custards can be baked in a water bath at 140⁰C: cover the ramekins individually with foil, set them in a deep baking dish and carefully put water in the dish to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake for 25-35 minutes until set but still wobbly in the centre.