Thursday, 30 June 2011

Heston Blumenthal’s treacle tart with vanilla ice-cream

 First, a bit of fandom.

A couple of weeks ago, Heston Blumenthal was rumoured to be appearing on Masterchef, and I located the relevant remote with difficulty and tuned in to Channel 10. The emotional displays and cliffhangers and competitive wranglings and repeats of imminent crisis around those commercial breaks are usually enough to keep me away, but there was Heston.

I’m almost as much of a Heston fan as The Guitar Teacher, who is a frustrated scientist. TGT has every TV series and book he’s ever put out, as well as the Harold McGee On Food and Cooking tome from which Heston says he draws inspiration. All fascinating reads of incredible depth and curiosity and experimentation and scientific enquiry, including the McGee chapters on eggs and ice-cream, which are as far as I’ve got with him. I do intend to read the whole thing one day.
Heston’s recipes and their equipment requirements are almost invariably beyond our humble reach, although we’ve managed the pizza and tomato sauce from one of the In Search of Perfection books.

I love his later books, but not for the practical aspect of their recipes – here must be a brief photographic digression into their beauty. The Fat Duck Cookbook (and this is not even the slipcase version with its multiple ribbons) and Fantastical Feasts go way beyond food porn and into a weird art.
All the equipment you need for lickable wallpaper.
And Heston’s equally fascinating and bizarre TV shows present him as a pleasantly obsessive and refreshingly non-ego-driven chef, after the Gordon Ramsey-style histrionics found so widely elsewhere.

I can’t believe I even attempted to book a table at The Fat Duck when we visited the UK last year. Got a phone card and sat there pressing redial to call first thing in their morning, exactly two months before the first possible date. But it was no go. I knew it was popular, but not that 30,000 people try and fail to get in each week or month or something.

Anyway, so it was my birthday last weekend, and The Guitar Teacher asked a week beforehand what I wanted to do, which is a question that can generally be taken to centre around food and eating for the day. I told him I just wanted him to make me dinner without me having to plan anything.

TGT smote his brow and promised to take me out anywhere I wanted, anywhere. I didn’t want. I would sit back and leave everything up to him. It could be as simple as he liked. Did he listen, and decide upon a simple but delightful entrée of cannellini beans dressed in olive oil, followed by a slow-cooked beef cheek on celeriac puree, perhaps with a tiramisu to follow; all things he has made before without drama and with great success? Nooo, he went straight to blow the dust from the Heston Blumenthal books.

Ultimately, TGT settled on the treacle tart with vanilla ice-cream, and I was called three times at work the day before my birthday with urgent questions about where to get dry ice for the ice-cream (I counselled him to abandon it and make a more-doable David Lebovitz version), where to get Lyle’s Golden Syrup, where to get pastry flour, was it wrong to have thrown out six eggs when the last one's yolk broke (so wrong I can barely think of it).

I ended up getting involved with the tart; it was no job for one person. And one extra in the kitchen would have been welcome just to read aloud the endless stages of the recipe. I'm sure treacle tarts are never the soul of restraint, but this one was a monument to excess. Every component had the contents of a vanilla bean in it, one even allocated to the few pinches of sea salt for sprinkling on at the finish.

The pastry was an almost-even match of flour and butter, with four eggs besides, and as rich and sticky as that implies; it was rolled out under great duress but looked good enough in the tin chilling before its bake; 

then it shrunk and oozed litres of butter everywhere as it cooked, not browning until it had been in the oven for twice as long as the recipe suggested, and its sides collapsed over the blind-baking beads and swelled and thickened.

 Because the capacity of the tart case looked drastically reduced, we halved the filling to use up only one tin of hard-to-come-by Lyle’s Golden Syrup instead of two (King & Godfree’s delivered the goods, as it turned out), which in the fullness of time proved the perfect amount.

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