When life's not too short

In the holiday period, the enthusiastic cook can find time to try a tou ch of festive friovolity. Michael Bateman recommends a Van Gogh of puddings
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The Independent Culture
LIFE should not be too short to stuff a mushroom, not at Christmas anyway. There is hardly a better time to win Brownie points for frivolity. So, accordingly, mushrooms should be enthusiastically stuffed, pineapple slices teased into candied sunfl owers,filo pastries shaped into Christmas crackers, fish and chips miniaturised.

Here are some agreeable absurdities to consider, brought to you by a band of boys whose mothers never told them that it was bad manners to play with their food. They are complexities dreamed up by some of our leading chefs.

Let us start with the easier ones. Make miniaturised dishes and serve them as canapes with pre-meal drinks. When the Lancashire cook Paul Heathcote led a group of chefs on a promotional tour to New York recently, he anthologised the taste of the North byserving scaled-down units of cottage pie, potted shrimps, fish and chips, black puddings and mash, and kedgeree in filo parcels. Crazy, but it was a great hit with the Americans. "They are actually very simple things, the staples of our diet," Heathcotesays, "and easy to make."

He regularly serves them in Heathcote's, his restaurant in Long-ridge, near Preston. The fish and chip canape, for example, consists of no more than two bite-sized goujons - morsels of fish, floured and quickly deep-fried - served with three small chips;small but not as thin as the tiny French allumettes (matchsticks). "They have to be authentic chips," he says. Easy to make, though less easy to come by, are miniaturised copies of the Manchester Evening News, 6in by 4in, which Heathcote rolls into a cone in order to serve them.

He serves cottage pie in tiny pastry cases. This is simply good minced beef with a blob of mashed potato on top, glazed under a very hot grill. "It's important not to use milk or cream in the mashed potato or it won't hold together," Heathcote says.

He serves Morecambe Bay potted shrimps in a tiny pile placed on discs of toast no bigger than a 10p coin. He sharpens up the taste with some shallots sweated in butter, moistened with white wine and wine vinegar. He dribbles melted clarified butter on them and chills them before serving.

He wedges slices of black pudding into teaspoon-sized scoops of mash-ed potato and serves them in little pastry cases. And he wraps kedgeree, a mixture of fried rice, flaked haddock, curry powder and minced hard-boiled egg, in a filo pastry purse, which he then bakes.

Filo pastry is a perfect medium for Christmas nonsense. In his Soho restaurant, dell'Ugo, Antony Worr-all-Thompson uses it to fashion Christmas crackers stuffed with steamed plum pudding.

To make the Christmas cracker, he brushes melted butter on to four pieces of filo pastry, 6in-8in square. He wraps them round a sausage-shaped piece of pudding, twisting the ends to form a cracker, then puts a piece of foil in each end so the crack-er doesn't collapse while baking.

He serves it with a Christmas pudding ice-cream. He chops tiny cubes of pudding into a chilled, rum-flavoured egg custard just before the mixture freezes firm. This is slightly more restrained than his greatest frivolity, the Rock Pool, which consists ofa crayfish sitting on a piece of seaweed in an oyster shell - the `rock' - sunk into a jellied fish consomme.

Raymond Blanc is the master joker in the culinary pack. But there is method in his madness, as he showed on his recent television series, demonstrating that an understanding of chemistry and physics is as important as aesthetics in the pursuance of gastronomic goals.

In contrast, his instructions for making dried sunflowers from pine-apple slices are a doddle. He employs them in his recipe for Iced Pineapple Parfait with Pine-apple Sunflowers, one of his most elaborate desserts, as you can see from the picture here.

Beginners who haven't got beyond mushroom-stuffing may not wish to try sunflowers, though they could experiment with other fruits which he dries the same way, thinly-sliced apple, even sliced strawberries. All make a beautiful garnish for desserts.

Advanced cooks might like to add his parfait, a frozen dessert which is the rich cousin of an ice-cream, to their repertoire. But if you want to go all the way with Raymond's elaborate recipe, you should on no account attempt it in a kitchen full of children. Careful concentration is of the essence: we're talking about the calm of the British Museum reading room; tranquillity of Bodleian proportions.

ICED PINEAPPLE PARFAIT WITH PINEAPPLE SUNFLOWERS Serves 5

For the dried pineapple slices: 1 small pineapple, about 12-14oz/350-400g juice of 1/4 lemon 31/2fl oz/100ml water 1/2oz/15g caster sugar For the candied pineapple: 1/2 small pineapple, about 6-7oz/175-200g, diced 2fl oz/50ml water 2oz/50g caster sugar For the parfait: 3oz/75g candied pineapple (see above)

4oz/100g caster sugar 11/2 fl oz/40ml water 2 egg whites juice of 1 lemon 31/2 fl oz/100ml whipping cream 4 teaspoons kirsch For the pineapple sauce: 1 small pineapple, about 12-14oz/350-400g 2fl oz/50ml tinned coconut milk 1 tablespoon Malibu (coconut liqueur)

a small pinch of freshly ground black pepper For the cherry garnish: 25 black cherries, stoned 4 teaspoons kirsch 11/4oz/30g caster sugar a dash of lemon juice a small pinch each of freshly ground black pepper, ground cloves and ground cinnamon Planning ahead: The dried pineapple can be prepared the day before and kept in an airtight container. The parfait should be prepared the day before.

Preparing the pineapple slices: Peel the pineapple. You should have a central barrel of fruit of about 3in/7.5cm high and 234in/6.5cm across. Slice it into the thinnest possible slices. Place them in a bowl, and sprinkle with lemon juice Bring the waterand sugar to the boil together in a small pan, then pour this boiling syrup over the slices. Stir to allow the syrup to coat all the slices, then cover with clingfilm and allow to marinate until the mixture has cooled.

Drying the pineapple slices: Preheat the oven to its lowest setting (about 80C/175F). Drain the syrup from the slices and place them on two non-stick trays (or non-stick parchment). Place both trays into the preheated oven and cook slowly for 2-3 hours until the pineapples have dried. Check occasionally to make sure that they do not darken. Remove the trays from the oven while they are still hot, using a palette knife to slide the slices off the trays. Place them in an airtight container, cool, cover and reserve.

Making the candied pineapple: Peel the baby pineapple, and cut out and discard the hard central core. Chop the remaining flesh into 14in/5mm cubes. Bring the water and sugar to the boil together in a suitable pan, and when the sugar has dissolved, pour it over the pineapple cubes. Allow to marinate for a few hours.

Making the parfait: Drain the candied pineapple cubes and discard the syrup. Place the parfait sugar and water in a pan, heat to dissolve the sugar, and cook the syrup to 120C/250F. Check, using a sugar thermometer.

While the sugar syrup is cooking, whisk the egg whites to soft peaks. Turn down the setting, and gradually pour the cooked sugar syrup in between the side of the bowl and the whisk (to prevent spitting). Whisk until incorporated, then allow to cool, still whisking. Gradually, and still whisking, add lemon juice to the egg white mixture.

Separately, whisk the cream to soft peaks. Fold in the kirsch and drained candied pineapple cubes. Reserve.

Add one-third of the egg white mixture to the whipped cream and mix in. Return the mixture to the remaining two-thirds of egg white and carefully fold together.

Line a 12in x 8in/30cm x 20cm tray with a sheet of greaseproof paper. Spread the parfait mixture evenly over this. Place in the freezer for about 3 hours, or until it has hardened.

Preparing the pineapple sauce: Peel and chop the pineapple, then puree. Place in a small pan, then add the remaining ingredients. Bring to the boil and pass through a fine sieve. Reserve.

Cooking the cherry garnish: Place all the ingredients for the cherry garnish in a saucepan, cover with a lid, and place on a medium heat for about 3 minutes. Remove the lid and carry on cooking for a further 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and leave to cool in a bowl.

Serving: We want to create on each plate a flowerpot with sunflowers made out of pineapple, drawing the stalk and the pot with cherry juice.

Cover the bottom of five plates with the pineapple sauce. Each plate should be 714 in/18cm in diameter, not including the rim.

Pour about 1 teaspoon of cherry juice on the base of the plate and, dipping the tip of the spoon into the juice, draw a flowerpot shape by running the cherry sauce into the pineapple sauce. Still dipping the tip of the spoon into the cherry juice, draw three stalks.

Place three dried pineapple slices per plate at the top end of each stalk. Cut out 15 discs of pineapple parfait with the pastry cutter. Place one disc on the top of each dried pineapple slice. Top each disc of parfait with another slice of dried pineapple.

Place three cherries on to the base of each flowerpot and one cherry or two in between each flower, and serve to your guests.

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