A Proper Fool

The British have an absolute genius when it comes to naming foods; there’s bangers and mash, which are nothing more than sausages and mashed potatoes; Welsh rabbit, a dish made with bread and cheese; spotted dick, a pudding made with suet and fruit; and toad in the hole, eggs or sausages in bread. You can also include laver bread (seaweed), black pudding (blood sausage), haggis (stuffed sheep’s stomach), and many others, but my favorite is a fool.

In Britain, a fool is nothing more than fruit in whipped cream or more traditionally sweet custard, sort of an unfrozen parfait (which, by the way, in Britain is what they call a pâté). For instance, in England, what we’d call peaches and cream would be called a peach fool. The oldest versions of a fruit foole, which use gooseberries, may date back to the 15th century, though it is first mentioned as a dessert (together with the trifle) in 1598, and the earliest recipe dates to the mid-17th century. Why it’s called a fool is anyone’s guess, though some claim it derives from the French verb fouler meaning “to crush” or “to press” (as in pressing grapes for wine), a claim dismissed by those pontificating nitpickers of the Oxford English Dictionary as “baseless and inconsistent with the early use of the word”.

Most recipes you find today are nothing more than whipped cream and fruit. Unsurprisingly, you’re not going to find gooseberries used very often at all, since even if you find them they’re going to cost you an arm and a leg, but we have many types of fruit available here throughout our long warm season: Louisiana strawberries, foraged blackberries, Chilton County peaches, figs from your grandmother’s tree, hill country blueberries, even that good late-season cantaloupe from the Ozarks as well as the early Florida Valencias. But simply using whipped cream is improper, and substituting yogurt or even worse vanilla pudding is just trashy; to make a proper fool, you must make custard.

For six servings, scald two cups milk and add to  a blend of two well-beaten eggs with a half cup sugar. Put in a double boiler and heat. As it begins to thicken, add a tablespoon of corn starch blended very well in a tablespoon of milk. Once very thick, refrigerate. As to the fruit, it should be chopped or sliced and macerated with a sugar (a quarter cup sugar to two cups of fruit) to leach out the excess water. Layer fruit, custard and sweetened very stiff whipped cream in a pretty glass, and refrigerate until serving.

Steak and Kidney Pie

According to “The Old Foodie” Janet Clarkson, who as an Australian is well-versed in the British table, steak and kidney pie (also known as beef and kidney pie) is a late 19th /early 20th century variation on an older recipe, steak/beef and oyster pie. Clarkson claims this variant developed because in time oyster populations in the UK were decimated by over-harvesting and pollution, so those indomitable Brits found a viable substitute for oysters in kidneys, usually those of veal or lamb. But despite its relatively shallow roots, steak and kidney pie has become very much an iconic British foodstuff. References to it can be found in the Harry Potter series and more notably in Joyce’s Ulysses, but it also appears in American works by Anglophiles such as Clark Blaise and Marjorie Rawlings, who mentions steak and kidney pie in conjunction with her recipe for blackbird pie (Marjorie was a big hunter) in her wonderful work, Cross Creek Cookery

Now, kidneys aren’t something you’re going to find in the grocery store, but I found some at the Farmer’s Market on High Street. These I cored, diced and sautéed in butter with onions a bit of flour. I used about the same amount of cubed top round, also sautéed with a bit of flour and onion, then slow-cooked until very tender in a beef stock I had on hand. To these I added about a half-pound of sliced mushrooms, also sautéed in butter. These three ingredients went into a skillet with a bit more stock that I seasoned with salt, black pepper and Worcestershire and thickened with corn starch into thick gravy. I lined an 8” cast iron skillet with crust, filled it with the kidney/beef/mushroom mixture, topped with another layer of crust and baked in a moderate oven until nicely browned. It’s a wonderful old savory dish, a great addition to your menu.