Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Just desserts

I have to admit that I have a sweet tooth. To be honest, the rest of them are pretty sweet too and when eating out, I find it hard to resist the dessert menu.
It does not matter if I have wolfed down a huge starters and a massive main course, as well as polishing off the remnants of the plates of the rest of the party. It does not matter if I have already loosened my belt two notches and am starting to doubt whether I shall ever rise from the chair without the aid of a winch. The fact of the matter, as doctors and surgeons around the world will attest, is that desserts go down a different compartment and thus can always be squeezed in.
My grandmother, with whom I lived for a period of my childhood, was a great dessert woman, although she referred to them as ‘pudding,’ or ‘afters.’ Dessert, or sweet, was what the nobility had after dinner and implied something light and insubstantial, like a fruit salad. For us, ‘afters’ were big, thick chunks of jam roly poly pudding or spotted dick, or rhubarb crumble, or treacle sponge, each bowlful probably containing our recommended annual allowance of carbohydrate and starch and drowned in a vat of thick yellowy custard, brimming with sugar.
Seldom do any of the puddings of my childhood appear on the menus of the restaurants I occasionally frequent. When they do, a wave of nostalgia sweeps over me and I am tempted to try and recapture a part of my youth. I am usually disappointed. The bread and butter pudding somehow doesn’t taste quite as creamy as I remember it and the bakewell tart is made with thick, comparatively tasteless pastry.
But then of course, I am being unfair. The puddings of my formative years were prepared by an old lady with fifty years experience who had nothing better to do than sift a bowl of flour for twenty minutes and careful grind lemon onto a saucer. Modern restaurant kitchens can hardly be expected to spend three hours nursing a jam roly poly to fruition!
But the dessert menu today (strange how the word ‘dessert’ now has no class connotations!) very often appears to be an afterthought to the main menu, with very little variation between restaurants. I first came across Sticky Toffee Pudding ten years ago in Windermere and now every restaurant worth its custard seems to contain it (or Sticky Chocolate Pudding or Sticky Toffee and Chocolate Pudding.) Profiteroles, cheesecake and ice cream make up the other staple ingredients with one or two other specialities completing your choice.
Whereas I can understand the reluctance of restaurants to tackle spotted dick (recently re-named as Spotted Richard by one large British retail chain, in response to people being “too embarrassed” to ask for it) due to time constraints, I have no idea how some of the tastiest desserts in Christendom, Muslimdom and Jewdom are criminally ignored at the end of a perfect meal.
Semolina. Have you ever seen it on a menu? That luscious and rich creamy texture with just a hint of grit is conspicuous by its absence. Oh what fun we had adding a spoonful of strawberry jam and stirring the whole thing into a pink paste.
Rice pudding, too, and tapioca have never come into the reckoning when proprietors have chewed pencils concocting dessert menus, though zabaglione often rears its foreign-sounding and therefore exotic head. My mother-in-law makes a wicked banana bread, whose like is unequalled in the annals of Irish baking, but you never get the opportunity to complement your carvery lunch with it. When was the last time the waiter suggested evaporated milk to pour over your bowl of Sunny South peaches?
And then there is my own personal favourite, the Emperor amongst Desserts, the King of Cool, the John, Paul, George and Ringo of the sweets world – Butterscotch flavoured Angel Delight.
Just the merest spoon tip of this light and fluffy dessert melts on the tongue before suffusing the taste buds in an ocean of pure delight. Even the act of digging in to that smooth coffee-coloured surface to reveal the deeper texture beneath is pure unadulterated joy, a visual preamble to the taste extravaganza that is to follow.
Not only is it never seen in restaurants but Dunnes have also stopped stocking it, concentrating their merchandising power on strawberry, raspberry and banana, all fine desserts in their own right, but lacking that ultimate frisson of excitement supplied by the butterscotch.
But find it on a dessert menu in the Greater Dublin area? You may as well be looking for a witness with a good memory at the Mahon Tribunal. Okay, I can accept the connotations of adding “Butterscotch Angel Delight” to the menu, when everybody knows how much it costs in the shops, but you could maybe add a slice of kiwi to it and sprinkle the plate with icing sugar and bits of Flake and call it “Butterscotch sensation – a serving of aerated and finely whisked butterscotch mousse topped with fresh fruit and chocolate slivers” which sounds a lot more upmarket.
In defence of Irish dessert menus, as anyone who has travelled at all will vouch, they are a darned sight better than in many countries, which simply serve pre-packaged ice-cream in a plastic Disney figure mould. The Americans, despite their many accomplishments in combatting terrorism and promoting world peace, are blissfully unaware how good desserts can really be. A few European countries treat desserts with the deference they deserve – notably Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy – but by and large in many foreign restaurants you are obviously expected to be too stuffed after your main meal to continue eating.
I once ordered the only item on the dessert menu in a restaurant in the Siberian town of Irkutsk. With the menu being in Cyrillic I had no idea what it was until it arrived. To my untrained eye and nose, it looked and smelled like a bowl of milk that had gone lumpy and sour after being left out in the heat for a week, with streaks of blue and green coursing through it.
It remains to this day the one dessert that has refused to go down the separate compartment.

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