It’s a tough job, but someone had to taste all the recipes in Rachel Allen’s new book, All Things Sweet. The mum and cook tells us how family, friends and neighbours all got stuck in
As a mum of three, Rachel Allen had no shortage of recipe tasters when writing her new book, All Things Sweet.
But after weeks of sampling cakes, puddings and pastries (the book contains 100 of them), Joshua, 14, Luka, 12 and five-year-old Scarlett had more than their fill.
“They got to the stage where they said, ’Oh no, no more sweet things’,” says Allen, speaking from her home overlooking Ballycotton Bay in County Cork.
“So we started giving things to our bus driver, who brings the two youngest back from school. We said, ‘Would you like some biscuits or a cake?’, because you can only have so much in your house before things go stale or off.
“We ended up giving him something every day, and then he was passing them on to friends and neighbours, and there were all these people sending messages back saying, ‘Thanks for that’. It was lovely.”
As a busy author, TV presenter and teacher – at the acclaimed nearby Ballymaloe Cookery School – Allen found inspiration for her recipes on the go.
“I was looking at my notes and writing down say, ‘blueberry and coconut’, or just walking along through Heathrow Airport and coming up with a combination that I love, or thinking, ‘Rather than in a muffin being sold there, I’d like that in a cake or a tart’,” she says. “That’s my favourite bit.”
The 42-year-old is effusive in her love of cooking and baking, but one aspect she’s less enthusiastic about is the washing up.
“It’s me who does it,” she says with a slight sigh. “I need to get the kids trained into that…”
The Dublin-born chef was 18 when she enrolled in a course at Ballymaloe, and met her now-husband and manager, Isaac (son of world-famous Ballymaloe chef Darina Allen).
Book deals and TV series followed, and Allen still makes time to teach at the cookery school (“it’s kind of the core of everything I do; you’re constantly learning from the students’ questions”).
“Most of the time it works, and the very odd time when it tips in the wrong direction, I go ’Aaah!”’ she says of her work-life balance.
“Poor Isaac has the unenviable task of managing the diary. I’m sitting there going, ’What? I have to do that as well?’, and he’ll say, ’Rachel I told you that two months ago…’.”
When she does want to unwind, she will go for a run with a friend on the cliffs near her home – “You feel like you’re on the edge of the world” – or have a glass of wine with her husband.
“I love it when Isaac and I are cooking supper together and catching up on the day,” she says.
And she doesn’t mind discussing work matters outside office hours.
“If we’re out having dinner, sometimes it will slip into work, and then we’ll slip back out of it again conversationally,” she says. “I don’t mind that, because I love my work. I count myself so lucky.”
Want to try some of Allen’s treats at home? Here are three recipes from her new book.
BALLYMALOE VANILLA FUDGE
(Makes about 96 squares)
- 225g butter
1 x 410g tin of evaporated milk
900g caster sugar
3tsp vanilla extract
Melt the butter in a heavy-based saucepan over a low heat. Add the evaporated milk, 200ml of water, sugar and vanilla extract and stir with a whisk until the sugar is dissolved.
Turn up the heat to simmer and stir often, for about 35-45 minutes. It’s ready when it reaches 115C (239F). If you have a sugar thermometer, use it as soon as the mixture boils. If you don’t have one, test for the soft ball stage (to do this, place a blob – teaspoon or so – in a small bowl of cold water; as it cools, it will form a soft ball).
Pull off the heat and stir until it thickens and reaches the required consistency, with the saucepan set in a bowl of cold water. Allow to set for two minutes and then stir to break up any sugar crystals. Pour into a 23x33cm Swiss roll tin and smooth out with a spatula.
Allow to cool a little, then cut before completely cold.
LAVENDER AND HONEY PANNA COTTA
- 10 stalks of lavender (2tsp of buds if already off the stalk)
300ml double or regular cream
1 sheet of gelatine
Fresh raspberries or poached peaches, to serve
Pick the flower buds from the lavender stalks and place in a saucepan with the cream and honey. Place on a medium heat and bring just to the boil, then remove from the heat and allow to infuse for 10 minutes.
Place the gelatine sheet in a bowl of cold water for three to five minutes, until softened. Remove the gelatine from its soaking water and squeeze out any excess liquid.
Re-warm the cream mixture and drop in the softened gelatine, stir to dissolve, then strain through a sieve and divide into four serving glasses or little pots. Leave in the fridge to set for about three of four hours.
Serve with fresh raspberries or poached peaches.
ZESTY FLUFFY ORANGE PUDDING
- 25g butter
250g caster or granulated sugar
2 eggs, separated
25g plain flour
Zest and juice of 1 orange
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 litre capacity ovenproof dish
Preheat the oven to 180C (350F), Gas mark 4.
Place the butter, sugar and egg yolks in a bowl and cream together, using a wooden spoon or the paddle attachment of an electric food mixer, until light and fluffy.
Sift in the flour, then fold into the mixture along with the orange zest, orange and lemon juice, and milk.
In a separate, clean, dry bowl, whisk together the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Fold the egg whites into the orange mixture.
Pour the mixture into the dish, then place in the oven and bake for about 40 minutes. The top should be set, with a layer of orange curd on the bottom. Remove from the oven and serve with softly whipped cream or ice cream.
- All Things Sweet by Rachel Allen is published by HarperCollins, priced £25 (eBook £12.99)