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Cloudberries, coffee bavarois, and meringue
Beautiful, terrifying, distinctly northern...
She’d march around the kitchen, all 5 foot 1 of her, screaming “time, time, time, hurry, hurry, hurry” in her beautiful, terrifying, distinctly Northern British accent and, if memory serves, a charred wooden spoon in her hand to better gesticulate to the clock and occasionally hit us with and, holy potatoes, had she been just 30 years younger you better believe she’d have been just the kind of woman I’d have been much too afraid to ask out for dinner and a movie with.
Impossible love affairs aside, being a teacher at the West London culinary school I went to in 2015, Helen also taught me the vast majority of what I know about classical French cookery.
For that, and whatever time management skills I have, I’ll always be grateful to her.
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There’s a pretty long list of things I learned at culinary school that never did serve much use in my restaurant cooking career.
How to “turn” vegetables, for example, or the proper way of serving poached salmon in gelatine-set “aspic”. I’m not kidding, dreadful things are done with gelatine sometimes.
Today, I’m sharing one very classical, very French technique I think is both a joy to make and eat: the crème bavaroise. This is a light, custard dessert, given body with (ahem) a little gelatine and lightened with whipped cream.
So how does the guy who has been writing tutorials on nailing salmon to wooden planks for grilling and has such a conflicted relationship with gelatine end up pivoting to delicate French set desserts like bavaroise?
It’s all about celebrating a very special fruit called the cloudberry.
Not unlike my dear old cooking teacher, cloudberries are, though hardly terrifying, very beautiful and distinctly Northern. I appreciate you may never have heard of them before, let alone tasted them. They grow only in the very north of the Northern Hemisphere in places like Finland, Canada, and Scotland.
And as you might expect from a berry born of boreal lands, its flavour isn’t defined by simple sweetness. It has a profound tartness, a little astringency, and a lot of sourness. But it also manifests an intensely floral flavour, with notes bordering on earthy almost musky that are really unlike any fruit I’ve had before.
If the flavour is more challenging than, say, a strawberry or raspberry, then so is its structure. They are very seedy. Something you either come to enjoy or end up just feeling gets in the way.
How to eat cloudberries
Here in Finland, cloudberries are something of an unofficial national fruit. And a traditional way of eating them is with a mild cheese called Leipäjuusto and a cup of strong coffee.
That might sound odd, but I promise this pairing is absolute genius. The mild creaminess of the cheese mellows the tartness of the berries, while the earthy but fruity coffee complements the berry’s complex aromas as well.
Though the short cloudberry season has already passed in Finland (it lasts about 3 weeks in July/August) I recently bought some frozen. I wanted to create a dessert that referenced these traditional Finnish flavours, but made sure the cloudberries were the star act.
A very light but creamy bavarois, only mildly flavoured with coffee, topped with the unadulterated berries turned out to be the perfect showcase for this very special fruit.
A light and crisp meringue finishes the dish and adds a lovely crunch.
Cloudberries with Coffee Bavarois and Meringue
To serve about 4
For the bavarois
200ml heavy cream (around 36% fat content)
3 egg yolks
1 tsp ground coffee
1 leaf of gelatine
For the meringue
3 egg whites
150g caster sugar
First we’re going to make a simple custard (or crème anglaise if ya nasty) flavoured with our coffee. Start by warming your milk until it begins to steam but isn’t yet boiling. They call this the “scalding point” in the food world, which does rather make you wonder what kind of people came up with these terms originally. Anyway, at the point your milk could scald someone, take it off the heat, add your coffee, and let it infuse for 15 mins or so. Meanwhile, separate your egg yolks from the whites. Be careful not to let any yolk into the white or you’ll ruin them for your meringue later (the fats from the yolk inhibit the creation of a light fluffy meringue).
With your whites safely separated, pop them in the fridge for later, and mix your yolks with the sugar. At this point you can pop your gelatine leaf in cold water to soften before adding to your custard later.
Like a kid in a play park
Pass your coffee-infused milk slowly through a fine sieve into your yolks and mix it together well. Put this into a clean sauce pan and on to a low heat. Now, here’s the thing about making custard. Helen, my dear cooking teacher, had a habit of slapping the back of my hand when I stirred my custard too much as it thickened. The thing is, you do need to keep it moving, so it doesn’t catch on the bottom of the pan. But too much stirring, as Helen taught me, reduces the heat in the pan and slows the process down. Now I’m a father, I think of it like letting your kid play on their own in the play park. Don’t smother them, let go of their hand, leave them to it.
Leave your custard to it as well (occasionally, and don’t ever let it boil) and it’ll thicken quicker than constant stirring. Anyway, once it’s turned from watery to something thicker and creamier and coats the back of a spoon, you can take it off the heat and add your leaf of gelatine (having squeezed it of any water first) then stir it well together.
Let this cool a bit while you whisk your cream to very soft peaks, you should still be able to pour the cream, otherwise it will be too firm to fold into your set custard later.
Now the fun/therapeutic/reason-people-probably-don’t-make-bavaroise-much part. We need to bring the custard and gelatine to “setting point” while constantly stirring it. I don’t want to insult your intelligence or anything here but by setting point I mean the point it’s just turned from merely thickened, to cool enough to start setting firm. With constant stirring we encourage a consistent set throughout the custard.
To do this, place your bowl of custard into a second larger bowl filled with ice water and get stirring. I use a rubber spatula for this. And keep stirring for some time. Maybe 10 minutes, maybe fifteen. When it starts to thicken to a gravy-like consistency, I tend to pop it in the fridge to rest my wrist a moment. Then, after no more than a few minutes, I get stirring again.
The parting of the waves
Now is the point I hear Helen’s voice again shouting “parting of the waves, parting of the waves”. She may have been some kind of religious evangelical for all I know, but what she was referring to in this instance is how the custard will eventually be thick enough to visibly “part” for 3 seconds or so if you pass your spoon/spatula through it before “flooding” back together. Once it’s this consistency you’re at setting point and you can gently fold in your whipped cream.
If you want to plate it as I have in the images, you can leave this to set in one batch together. If you want individual portions, pour it into your bowls/cups/etc at this point. If you are very extra and want to do things a la Française then you can lightly oil a small mould and place a circle of greaseproof paper on the bottom before filling with your bavarois mix so they can be turned out for serving.
Firm, proud peaks
While they are setting (ideally overnight), we can make the meringue. Put your egg whites into a large bowl and start (electric) whisking on a low speed. Why the low speed? Helen used to tell me this was to create a “network of larger bubbles” that would better support the “finer bubbles” once you start creating the meringue. I’ve never tested whether this makes a difference but hopefully Helen would approve of my sharing her advice here. Once your egg whites create firm, proud peaks, start adding the sugar a tablespoon at a time and whisking about 10-15 seconds between each spoonful of sugar until it’s all combined.
To create the sheets of thin meringue, try and spread it no more than 5mm thick on baking paper as smoothly as you can manage. Cook this gently for an hour at 110°C/230°F. Keep an eye on it. If it starts to turn at all beige, turn your oven down to maintain the lovely white colour. This is less of a cooking process and more about drying it out really. Once it is entirely dried out and firm, take from the oven and leave flat on a table to cool. It gets even crispier at room temperature. You will have leftovers, but if you dried them out properly they can last for weeks in a sealed container.
Shards of meringue
Time to plate. Spoon out a portion of the bavarois and anoint with a generous amount of the cloudberries. Then hide everything under a few artfully placed, angelic white shards of meringue. If you used moulds, dip each in hot water before turning them out and removing the greaseproof. Dab away any melted bavarois with some kitchen paper.
And that’s all she wrote. In my opinion, the perfect dish to celebrate a very special berry.
I hope Helen would be proud.
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If you can’t find cloudberries fresh or frozen, well, that’s a kick in the teeth, but blackberries would be great as well.