For the past few weeks, it has been blistering hot here in New Delhi. Step outside and you feel as if your eyeballs are melting, retreat inside and the air conditioning is wilting and the water from the cold tap is hot enough to scald you. To make matters worse, someone has devised a smartphone app which tells you not just that you are suffering in 43-degree heat, but that it actually feels like 50 degrees. Although, on the plus side, there is lots of fun to be had frying eggs on the bonnet of your car. Anyone who can has bolted to the hills or Europe to cool down. We had a big birthday to celebrate in our family last week—one with “0” in it—so we decided to scoop up our nearest and dearest and spend a long weekend at the wonderful Sitla Estate in Mukteshwar, Uttarakhand. We sat under the apricot trees and watched the sun go down over the slopes. We drank to longevity, devoured mulberry crumble and slept like babies in the cool mountain air. Too soon, though, we were on our way home—and there’s nothing more dispiriting than a 10-hour, bum-numbing drive with the prospect of only searing heat and dodgy air conditioners at the end of it. But for me the journey home was made bearable by the hundreds of roadside stalls selling freshly picked soft fruit, and I drifted off into a reverie of recipes involving peaches, plums and apricots. We stopped at a long row of stalls to try the fruit, first choosing a particularly voluptuous display of peaches. The vendor cut off a slice and handed it over. I put it in my mouth, expecting an explosion of soft, sweet flesh, but the vendor had sprinkled the perfectly ripe fruit with a liberal amount of salt and with a single bite my reverie was over. I’ve often said that a certain amount of sharpness in fruit is best for baking but salty fruit? I don’t think it will catch on. Once I had recovered from the salt attack, I bought vast amounts of peaches, apricots and plums, and their beautiful aroma sustained me for most of the journey home. The peaches were the most ripe and delicate so they were eaten quickly raw and in a cobbler, but the apricots and plums have kept very well in the fridge so I have been able to savour them in a variety of dishes. I made compotes and fools with the apricots and the plums have nearly disappeared in various attempts to make a good dessert with them. I wanted to turn them into a dessert similar to clafoutis called flaugnarde from the Auvergne, Limousin and Périgord regions of France (strictly speaking, and the French are always quite strict about these things, this dessert can only be called a clafoutis if it is made with cherries, with all other fruits it’s called a flaugnarde). But the first couple of attempts weren’t sweet enough—baking the plums seemed to enhance their sharpness. So I have upped the sugar quantities and rounded out the sharpness with some ground almonds and orange flower water, just enough to showcase the beautiful plums. The result is a perfect, quick, summer dessert. Plums on toast, the recipe for which comes from a 1950s Elizabeth David book, French Country Cooking, is more of a snack than a dessert. But what a snack—simple and quick, and so much more than the sum of its parts. It makes the perfect solitary elevenses, I discovered, along with some beautiful mint tea made from hand-stitched tea bags I had also brought back from Sitla. For a moment, the roar of the ACs subsided and I was almost back in the hills.
Plum, Almond and Orange Flower Flaugnarde
400g plums, halved, stones removed and each half cut into three 4 eggs 125g sugar 450ml milk 50g flour 25g ground almonds 2 tsp orange flower water A handful of flaked almonds Method Butter a 10-inch baking dish. Preheat the oven to 190 degrees Celsius. Put the eggs, sugar, milk, flour, ground almonds and orange flower water in a bowl and whisk until completely smooth. Put half of the plum slices at the bottom of the baking dish and pour over the batter. Bake for 20 minutes until the flaugnarde is puffed up and golden. Take the flaugnarde out of the oven and arrange the remaining plum slices over the top, sprinkle on the flaked almonds. Bake for 5-10 minutes—the plums on top should be soft and the flaked almonds lightly toasted. I prefer this warm or at room temperature but it’s also good cold from the fridge.
Plums on Toast
Serves 1 (I can’t urge you strongly enough to try this. You could serve it as a rustic dessert but I prefer it as a solitary treat.)
2 slices of good-quality fresh white bread, crusts on—for a more indulgent version, use fresh brioche Soft butter (unsalted tastes best here),50-75g 4 plums, halved and stones removed Brown sugar, 50-75g Method Preheat the oven to 160 degrees Celsius. Butter an ovenproof baking dish large enough to hold the slices of bread. Butter the slices of bread thickly on one side. Arrange four halves of plum on each slice, cut side up. Put a little butter and sugar into each half plum and put the slices into the baking dish. Cover the slices with butter paper and put the dish into the oven near the top. Bake for about 30 minutes, by which time the bread will be golden and crisp and flavoured with delicious buttery, sugary, plummy juices.