The Great Pudding 'Failure'
What does a star chef do when his dessert is judged to be woefully inadequate? The answer came in series three of 'Great British Menu'. In the heats Glynn Purnell's initial pud offering was roundly condemned. He went back to the drawing board and came up with this banquet-winning dish. Strawberries with tarragon and black pepper honeycomb with burnt English cream surprise
That was in June 2008. Two weeks later, with my increasing kitchen confidence (otherwise known as blissful ignorance) I decided to have a go myself. I was serving it at the end of a Sunday roast lunch. My first effort had to be presented without the tarragon. I had not understood the niceties of delicate frying and a small corner of the bin was full of toasted, bitter leaves.
The rest of the recipe is fairly straightforward. The strawberries need a delicate touch to prevent them going mushy. One friend was delighted to realise that I had used his favourite Banyuls for the marinade. I know he enjoyed the dessert but his pleasure was truly complete on finding that the wine was available on special offer at one of our local supermarkets.
The rich custard is a winner with most but, whenever it's served, I must confess to making a mischievous point of announcing how many egg yolks contribute to its velvety luxury! The likelihood of scrambling those eggs and having to start again has been reduced over the years. You'll still need to keep the temperature under careful control but the purchase of better, thicker pans gives an even spread of heat and a much fairer chance of success.
The honeycomb is a wondrous foaming mass - but only for a fleeting moment. Tipped out onto a tray, it needs a generous grind of pepper before the surface crusts over. Things must slow down after that. If you are tempted to taste too soon lip balm will be needed for the blisters! On its own the honeycomb has been shared at many workplace coffee breaks. Do try the same in any similar situation - take the praise... and even pretend that it's very difficult to make!
Glynn Purnell first served his competition winner at the top of the "Gherkin" building in London. Three years later, I was at his restaurant in Birmingham sharing a lovely meal there with my wife. I'd enjoyed sweetbreads and my cod dish remains the most perfectly cooked fish I have eaten to date. The list of desserts was shown to us but I already knew what was included on the list and the finale to my meal was inevitable.
I'm sure that the desire to develop and innovate existed then as it must now at 'Purnell's'. Keeping an item on the menu for three years shows much more about consideration of customer demands than about a great chef's wish to move forward. However, I was happy to be one of those demanding customers and my expectations were high.
One thing before you find out if those expectations were rewarded... we wanted to match our puddings with wine and called over the restaurant manager, Jean Benoit Burloux. He has since moved on to Abu Dhabi. No extra Banyuls for me - that was recommended for my wife's mixed berry fruits. With my strawberries, Jean Benoit suggested a plum-infused sake.
Our check fails to mention either dessert so I guess it's time to fill in that gap by giving my verdict. My delectable dining partner was already enjoying her sweet choice enough for me to give full attention to what I'd been waiting for.
I understood the dish and had successfully re-created it at home. What came out of the 'Purnell's' kitchen delivered each element with complete assurance. Strawberries from English June shouted out their intoxicated, acid-sweet fruit. Peppered-honey 'cinder toffee' crunched into chewiness but refused to be too cloying. Breaking through a crust of caramelised sugar, the custard was rich and lush but then tiny bright green pops of vibrant tarragon balanced everything again.
The sake could have contradicted all that summery, freshness but I enjoyed the plummy reminder of autumnal fruits to come.
This is not a technically demanding dish but it had been given such attention to detail that it exceeded my hopes. I know that the practice, dedication and experience of a professional kitchen had produced my treat but that did nothing to diminish the magic of eating something which had been given perfect expression.
I've since worked out how to crisp delicate herbs successfully. I've found a supplier of the lovely Akashi-Tai sake. I've repeated the recipe a few times... but, unsurprisingly, it's not quite matched up to my restaurant experience. That does not mean that you shouldn't try this one at home. All elements of the recipe are approachable. Make them individually for separate meals if you like. The custard alone is a regular smile-inducer here.
I recommend a visit to the restaurant... take a look at the website to prepare for the stylish modern atmosphere: purnellsrestaurant.com. Service from all staff was top drawer. I especially enjoyed our chat with the youngest server there who took most of our orders. A few months earlier she had 'failed' her interview for a job with McDonald's. The Purnell team had evidently recognised some important things which others had missed - she was excellent!
As for the quick-thinking, recipe-adapting boss; take a look at Glynn's Twitter feed where he styles himself @yummy_brummie
We were close enough to the kitchen to see him poppping in and out. He is an immensely talented, laddish Bluenose and his food is undeniably delicious.
That pudding?... in the end, failure just wasn't an option.