Food: Up the apples and pears

Forget the flown-in soft fruits, it's time to turn to the hard stuff
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The Independent Culture
As the soft-fruit season draws to a close, it is time to think of apples, pears and the magisterial quince. The latter big yellow fruit, with its attendant mottled mantle of furry grey down, has a scent that would perfume the largest spare bedroom in the world. Well, that's where apples from the trees in the garden of the house in which I grew up were stored.

The all-pervading smell of stored fruit such as these is well on the way to being as intoxicating as the first inhalation of a Calvados or an eau de vie de poire: that clear and clean distillation of William pears, which remains my favourite after-dinner tipple - tippled under the table sometimes. The one made from quince, called coing, is also remarkable, its odour a heady mixture of that fruit in all its intensity, coupled, perhaps, with the niff of used bed linen from the bed in the spare room, which had never been changed (an impossible thought in my mother's house, but a useful metaphor).

In order of personal preference, I'm afraid the apple rolls in last of these three. I have never been one to regularly bite into a Cox's. Ninety per cent of people to whom I mention this invariably do the "Oh reallys?" or the "I just adore thems". (I encounter exactly the same reactions to my problem with honey.) The first bite of a noble-grown, newly picked, crisp apple is quite nice, almost really interesting, in fact, but once into the third and fourth mouthful, I start to become bored. Cooked as a tart, rolled in a pancake or incorporated into a steamed pudding, they take on gloriously alluring properties.

Very good Cheddar with apple is an exception, as is a ripe pear and a tidy slice of cold Roquefort. I emphasise "cold" here only as a suggestion and would not necessarily endorse this for other cheeses. Room temperature Roquefort not only over- emphasises the (important and essential) saline kick, but also muddles its flavour. A cold cut of the stuff crumbles into tiny nuggets under the knife which, when warmed by the tongue, dissolves on to the palate neatly and cleanly. Just a mildly important observation, you understand. Otherwise, I would also prefer a pear cooked, rather than raw.

The quince must be cooked (hurrah!) and is usually only eaten raw by wasps. Their scent is such that just a brush of the branches of a quince tree is enough to release a powerful waft of sweet-smelling fragrance. The right quince to pick or purchase is one that has turned from green to yellow. They will still be hard (a ripe quince will never "soften up"), so only by their colour and smell will one know them.

Apple Hat, serves 6

The first time I ever ate an Apple Hat was at Rules restaurant in Covent Garden. It was beautifully turned out, a little individual steaming damp dome sitting in a moat of yellow custard. With this family recipe, the hat is at least a size 678 rather than that of an infant's pate. Once more, I am indebted to Sara Paston-Williams's book, Traditional Puddings.

225g/8oz self-raising flour

pinch of salt

125g/8oz shredded suet

6-8 tbsp cold water

700g/112lb cooking apples (Bramleys)

50g/2oz raisins and sultanas

75g/3oz soft brown sugar

3 cloves

pinch of cinnamon

pinch of ground ginger

grated rind and juice of 12 lemon or orange

50g/2oz unsalted butter

1 tbsp clotted cream

Generously butter a 1 litre/2 pint pudding basin. Sieve flour with salt into a mixing bowl. Stir in suet and mix with sufficient cold water to make a soft, light dough. Knead lightly and roll out on to a floured board to thickness of about 0.5cm/14 ". Use two-thirds of the pastry to line the prepared basin.

Peel, core and slice the apples and fill the lined basin with layers of apples, raisins (or sultanas), sugar and spices. Add lemon or orange rind, juice and the butter, cut into small pieces. Cover basin with reserved pastry, dampening the edges and pressing together firmly. Cover with a piece of well-buttered, pleated grease-proof paper followed by a piece of similarly buttered foil with a further pleat, but placed at right angles to the paper, so as to allow the pudding to rise. Tie securely around with string. Steam for 2 to 212 hours.

Turn out on to a warmed serving plate and remove a piece of the pastry from the top of the pudding. Pop in the large tablespoon of clotted cream, which will melt into the pudding. Serve hot with more cream and brown sugar or with custard.

Pear Clafoutis, serves 4

The original recipe for this involved the use of honey as a sweetener. It no longer does.

25g/1oz butter

450g/1lb ripe pears, peel, core and cut up into small pieces

100g/4oz caster sugar

1 whole egg, separated

2 egg yolks

1 tsp pure almond essence

tiny pinch salt

1 tsp potato flour (fecule)

250ml/8fl oz whipping cream

1 tbsp flaked almonds (optional)

a little sifted icing sugar

Melt half the butter in a non-stick pan and add the pears. Sprinkle with 25g/1oz of the sugar and gently stew the pears for a few minutes until sticky and pale golden. Use the remaining butter to lightly grease a fairly deep oval oven dish, scrape the pear mixture into it, and put on one side

Pre-heat the oven to 350F/180C/gas mark 4. Beat together the yolk from the separated egg and the other two egg yolks, 50g/2oz of the sugar, almond essence, salt and potato flour. Stir in the cream and thoroughly incorporate. Briefly whisk the egg white with the remaining 25g/1oz sugar until glossy and fold into the custard mixture. Pour over the pears and place the dish into a roasting tin. Fill the tin with water so that it comes at least 34 of the way up the side of the dish. Sprinkle the surface of the clafoutis with the almonds if using, and sift a little icing sugar on top. Carefully slide into the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes until slightly puffed and golden.

Switch off the oven and open the door half-way. Leave like this for 10 minutes before removing the clafoutis. Take out of the roasting tin, allow to cool to luke-warm, sprinkle with a little more sifted icing sugar and serve with lightly sweetened whipped cream, perhaps flavoured with a trickle of pear eau de vie.

Baked quinces, serves 4

The original recipe for this dish - from Joyce Molyneux's Carved Angel Cookery Book - also uses honey. You can, too, if you really wish to, but I prefer to add a split vanilla pod, bay leaves and a little more sugar. For best results with baking quinces, try to use a heavy-lidded cast-iron pot of a size that will snugly accommodate the fruit .

4 tbsp golden caster sugar (or honey)

8 tbsp water

1 vanilla pod, split lengthways

2 small bay leaves, fresh if possible

4 ripe unblemished yellow quinces, well washed, left whole and unpeeled

Pre-heat the oven to 350F/180C, gas mark 4

Melt together the water and sugar and add the vanilla pod. Bring to a simmer and put in the quinces. Put the lid on and bake in the oven for 45 minutes to one hour. The flesh will be a lovely shade of pink and the texture soft, though still a little granular. Eat warm.

Baked quinces are lovely served just like this, but eaten with a properly made vanilla custard, they are transformed into luxury class.

Custard

275ml/10fl oz milk

12 vanilla pod, split lengthways

4 egg yolks

65g/212 oz caster sugar

75ml/3fl oz double cream

Heat the milk together with the vanilla pod in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Remove from the stove and whisk for a few seconds to release the vanilla seeds into the milk. Leave to infuse for 10 minutes and remove the vanilla pod (wash and keep for re-use). Briefly beat together the egg yolks and sugar and strain the warm milk over them, whisking as you go. Return to the saucepan and cook over a very low heat (with a heat-diffuser pad, if possible) until limpid and lightly thickened. Some say it should coat the back of a wooden spoon, but I don't go along with this theory; it should be taken further than this, almost until there is the odd simmering blip on the surface. When you think it is ready, add the cream, give a final vigorous whisk to amalgamate and pour into a warm jug.

Note: If you are unlucky enough to separate the custard, then give it a quick blast in a liquidiser.

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