Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Gooseberry Meringue Pie

Gooseberries and Elderflower

Gooseberries grow best in cool, damp climates.  England is excellent, in Scotland it's even better (where they are known as 'grosarts'), but they grow unhappily in France, hence their low status there.  The northern French do at least appreciate them as a sauce to cut the oiliness of fish such as mackerel, but certainly not as a dessert fruit.

Needless to say, the gooseberry has nothing to do with goose, the name being a mishmash of grosart, groser and groseille (French for currant), all of which go back to the German Frankish 'krรปsil', meaning crisp berry.  The are the first fruits of Spring and the prickly shrubs can produce into August.  For me, it's the sharpness of the young green fruits of the plain old' Invicta' gooseberry that appeals.  Later they turn yellow and need less sugar to bring out their flavour, but nothing beats the crisp freshness of the early pickings.  There are around 300 varieties, some of which are naturally sweet enough to be eaten straight from the bush.

Elders come into flower just as the first goosberries appear.  I don't know who it was who first thought to pop a head of elder-flower into a pan of gooseberries and sugar but the pairing is exquisite.  If you do so, make sure you choose a flower from an elder which grows in clear, unpolluted air, dust off any insects and wrap it in muslin.  Once the fruit is poached you can remove the flower head to leave a heavenly scented compote.

Gooseberries are packed with vitamin C, and are rich in pectin, making them excellent for jam making.  Poaching the fruit until it just bursts, the resulting compote can be used for fruit fools, parfaits, syllabubs, tarts and cakes.

Gooseberry meringue pie

Here is a take on Lemon Meringue Pie, a delicious pudding in its own right, if a little rich.  This one is a bit lighter.  The essentials are a crisp, buttery pastry and a sugar meringue topping sandwiching a sharp filling.  Now that I'm picking gooseberries from my one lone bush (yielding 12lbs last year), it's time to ditch the eggy-lemon filling in favour of a sharp fruity one.  Melting the sugar in a little butter before adding the gooseberries enriches the juice and means you don't have to cook the fruit for long, helping it to hold its shape.  I noticed when I was cooking this that Jane Grigson has a richer meringue version 'Gooseberry Meringue Tart' in her invaluable 'Fruit Book'.

Gooseberry meringue pie slice

Gooseberry meringue pie
(20-22cm loose-based tart tin - Serves 6-8)

Sweet Shortcrust pastry:
110g (4oz) soft butter
55g (2oz) icing sugar
2 tablespoons beaten egg
170g (6oz) soft plain flour
pinch  of salt
A little coarse polenta to scatter on the baked pastry base

Goosberry Compote:
600g (20 oz) gooseberries, topped and tailed
30g butter
2 tablespooons soft brown sugar

Meringue Topping:
2 egg whites
125g caster sugar

For the pastry, cream the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy.  Beat in the egg, then gradually add the flour and salt, mixing to a smooth paste.  Cover and rest in the fridge for at least 1 hour.  (This makes a very fragile, buttery pastry which is best if not handled).

In a wide-bottomed pan, melt the butter and sugar together.  Add the prepared gooseberries and cook until their green colour mellows, they burst but generally remain whole.  Remove from the heat and put aside.

Butter the tart tin lightly and press pieces of the pastry into the tin to form a thin layer- you will probably have more pastry than you need, the important thing is to apply it thinly. .  Push a rolling pin over the top of the tart tin to leave a clean edge.  Prick the base with a fork and place in the fridge for another 30 minutes (this helps to reduce shrinkage in baking).   

Heat the oven to 200C (180C fan).  Bake the pastry case blind for 15 minutes.  Remove the baking beans and return the tin to the oven for a further 5 or so minutes to make sure the base is lightly browned.  Remove from the oven.  Reduce the oven temperature to 140C (120C fan). 

Beat the egg whites until soft peaks form then add half the sugar gradually, beating until the mixture is firm and fluffy. Gently fold in the rest of the sugar with a metal spoon.  
Scatter a thin layer of coarse polenta over the pastry base to soak up excess juice from the fruit.  Place the gooseberry mixture into the case and spoon the meringue on top taking it right to the edges of the pastry to cover the fruit completely.  Bake for about 40 minutes, until the meringue is browned.

Best served at room temperature to appreciate the flavour of the gooseberries.