There are some things that simply should not be messed with. Just ask the Coca-Cola Company. In 1985 they decided to take the formula for Coca-Cola that had made them a fortune since Atlanta drugstore owner John Pemberton develoed it in 1885 and tweak it as a centenary celebration – on other words, they decided to mess with it. They tweaked a little here and tweaked a little there, and came up with “new” coke – and the public hated it. Within three months, they had to re-release the old recipe Coke as Classic Coke. Lesson learnt? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Similarly, there are some recipes that just should be left alone. Caesar salad is a good example. It is the height of simplicity, relying purely on good ingredients to create a classic and umami-rich dressing for lettuce, enlivened with croutons and anchovies. I recently had an example where the creator had seen fit to “improve” on the classic recipe, with the addition of (wait for it) caramelised onions and goat’s cheese. WTF?? Or take the French classic peasant dish, cassoulet. No, you cannot make a reasonable approximation using baked beans; or cheap pork sausages; or anything that can be called a “quick” cassoulet. Juet because it has pork and beans in it does not make it a cassoulet; and any attempt to make it fat-free or vegetarian is just plain wrong!
And then you get the classic recipes that are crying out to be customised and messed with. The purists may want to shoot me, but I love making tarte tatin with all sorts of things other than classic apples – and it works beautifully. Pear and cardamom; nectarines and ginger; even a savoury yellow pepper version. All are wonderful incarnations of the original – not a replacement, but intriguing alternatives.
Another classic that can take a lot of messing about with and still come out on top is Eton mess. This classic English summer dessert is so named because a) it is traditionally served at the eponymous school’s annual prizegiving; and b) because it looks, well, a mess! Strawberries are mixed with whipped cream and crushed merigues before servig – delicious but messy. The original version was made with strawberries, but nothing stops you from trying versions using other berries. I have made it with blackberries before, and at the recent Plate to Page workshop in Somerset, we made a wonderfully tart raspberry Eton Mess, which got me thinking about other berries that I could use. Having a few guests around recently for a summer barbecue gave me the perfect opportunity to test my theory that blueberries would work well too – and they do! It’s a less exuberantly colourful version, and also slightly less strongly flavoured, but provides a lovely, subtly sweet end to a meal – and seeing as blueberries are packed with antioxidants, you can even kid yourself that you are having a healthy dessert
BLUEBERRY ETON MESS (serves 8)
500g fresh blueberries
600ml double cream
1 tsp plus 1 heaped Tbsp caster sugar, divided
1 tsp vanilla essence (I used Nielsen Massey one of the very kind sponsors of Plate to Page)
8 small meringue nests (store-bought is fine)
Rinse the blueberries. Take about 50g of them and place in a small saucepan with 1 tsp of caster sugar and a little water. Heat over gentle heat until the blueberries can be crushed with a fork to form a chunky coulis. Leave to cool.
Whip the cream together with the remaining caster sugar and vanilla essence until soft peaks form. In a separate bowl, crush the meringues.
In a pretty glass bowl, mix the whole blueberries, the whipped cream and the crushed meringues. Swirl the coulis through but do not mix too well – you want to see swirls of colour.
Serve immediately, garnished with a few fresh blueberries.