A fruit sponge or cobbler

My mother loved cooking desserts, probably, I guess, because she received so many standing ovations. The earlier courses were just food for fuel, but desserts were a different matter. And the most consistent winner was probably the simplest—stewed fruit, usually apples, or blackcurrants during Christmas, topped by a buttery cake.

She called it a sponge, the Americans call it a cobbler. Delicious, firm cake on top, bursting through to a bubbling, richly flavoured chunky mess of fruit underneath. Doused with cream or ice cream, it made for a wonderful finale.

Not surprisingly, in a big family, there was never any left for tomorrow. My favourite of all those we gobbled down would be blackcurrants, but they have such a short and glorious season. Blackcurrants, raspberries, gooseberries and blueberries are particularly appropriate for this sort of pudding without a base; when cooked in a pastry case, they give out a tremendous amount of juice, affecting the crispness of the pastry. With the batter on top, that succulent mix of berries, juice and sugar will mostly sit at the bottom of the bowl, with some bubbling into the batter. With summer approaching, any of the great summer fruits works brilliantly—we used plums and peaches, but there are no rules: toss any or all of them in together.

And, although it’s unlikely to last until the next day in a big family, it’s just as wonderful re-heated the next day, with cold yoghurt replacing the ice cream.

Making a pound cake, by hand, as my mother did, required patience and stamina and lots of bowls. The Thermomix does it all in a jiffy. Just spoon that easily done pound cake mix—which will have the consistency of lava—atop the stewed fruit and whack it in the oven. You can see the recipe, a sneak preview of what’s to come in our next issue, here.

A Time For Change

Warning: food lovers might find the following distressing

Earlier this month, my wife, Sally, spent a week in a prominent Melbourne hospital after undergoing significant surgery. Among other things that any visit to a hospital contains—selfless service and care by the medical and nursing staff, optimism and realism in equal mixes, bustle and hustle, sadness and joy—she, and me, were also exposed to the food on offer, after a pre-warning from the surgeon to ‘bring your own’.

It’s a long time since I’ve had that experience, since a knee reconstruction in 1976, but it seems nothing much has changed, despite a greater understanding of quality cooking in restaurants and some institutions—the offer we saw made airline food look three-star Michelin.

Consider just some of the options on the daily menu: osso buco with vegetables, chicken schnitzel with roast potatoes and mixed vegetables (photo below), chicken breast with herb cream sauce and vegetables, roast beef with shiraz sauce and vegetables, gnocchi Italiano with Napoli sauce. Creams and acids aplenty.

There was a salad option, served with vinegar-laced commercial sachets on the side, and a dessert of a chocolate éclair and cream.

Were any of these delivered with a light and sensible touch, the dishes as listed on the menu MAY have been appropriate. Be assured that none had any lightness, any sensitivity to the needs of the patient—or any patient for that matter. I tried one of the potatoes in the photo—it may have been cooked in the same week, and then re-heated, but I wouldn’t bet on it. It was all but inedible, and to achieve that with a potato is some doing. The picture tells its own story about the extra vegetables. What I didn’t photograph was the waste, as plate after plate was hardly touched, and reloaded onto the trolley, to be sent who knows where?

Our visit corresponded, coincidentally, with a re-run of just another Heston Blumenthal TV show on SBS (how does he have time to run four restaurants?), this one titled Mission Impossible, looks at ways to change institutional cooking, on planes, in submarines, and in hospitals; the episode in question saw Heston out to change the food offering at the largest children’s hospital in Liverpool (in case you missed it you can watch it on YouTube here). Why? Simply because these sick kids had no interest in the food they were presented with, food that looked pretty much what Sally had to endure.

Heston, being Heston, went vaudeville, with balloons attached to food trolleys, and menu items that were more in line with Dr Seuss than any ‘normal’ menu, including, bizarrely, fried worms, stuffed with tomato ketchup. The kids lapped it up, despite a few curled lips when confronted with the worms!

Said Heston, as the credits rolled: “This was never going to be about me giving the hospital a bunch of recipes and teaching some chefs how to cook.

“This is bigger than that.

“This is about changing the context of meal time, doing things that make the kids excited about food which means they are going to get better, quicker.” Heston’s mission is obviously not confined to Liverpool; it’s international, and it’s not only about kids, it’s about all of us destined to a stay in care. What is understandable is that catering for institutions is never easy, but surely simplicity, sensitivity, and lightness of touch should be the only options necessary when feeding the sick. With a big dose of common sense. Perhaps it’s time those who control these menus tried the food themselves. Once would surely be enough to have them spruiking for change, or as Heston says, commissioning providers to do things with food to help their patients get better, quicker.