A week ago today we lost our lovely old tabby cat, Meg, to kidney failure. She was everything I ever wanted in an animal; fiercely independent, gloriously, fastidiously, clean and (at times, strictly her times) wonderfully warm, loving and friendly. Our very own stripy mini-tiger took no prisoners when it came to what she would and wouldn't tolerate, but she was surpisingly forgiving with our two young kids and I often found all three of them curled up together on the sofa after school. A true feline character and part of our family for 13 years, Meg was the first thing my husband Rob and I accumulated when we first moved in together. Rescued from the local cat home, chosen together with care and the limitless energy of young love, in my mind she symbolises the start of 'us' and all that we have gone on to become. For an animal that was almost entirely silent, the house feels so quiet without her and I miss her dreadfully.
We buried her up the garden on a cold windy evening, each absorbed in our own thoughts, as we dug the damp soil and prepared her resting spot. Over her we planted a beautiful little Mirabelle plum tree and the thought of it dropping its young leaves shortly, then sleeping winter-long only to unfurl gently into blossom next spring is very comforting. The thought of the plums we shall harvest more comforting still, out of death becomes new life, and tasty new life at that. Maybe by the time the tree fruits next summer we shall all feel ready to give another feline waif and stray a new home.
Plums are possibly one of my favourite fruits, and this crumble recipe is a lusciously comforting pudding to make as the nights draw in. Filling my home with the delicious smells of good cooking, surrounded by plenty of warmth, laughter and wine. These are the simple things that will get me through the coming autumn and winter.
Plum, amaretto & almond crumble with proper vanilla custard
100ml double cream
½ vanilla pod, cut in half down the length
3 large egg yolks
55g caster sugar
for the plums:
700g plums, stones removed & cut into bite sized pieces
2-3 tbsp amaretto
1-2 tbsp caster sugar
for the crumble:
200g plain flour
125g cold unsalted butter, cut into small dice
75g golden caster sugar
50g whole blanched almonds
I always begin by making the custard first so it has plenty of time to cool to my perfect serving temperature. In a heavy based saucepan heat the milk and cream, together with the split vanilla pod, until just below boiling point. Turn off the heat and leave to infuse for 30 mins before removing the vanilla pod, scraping in the little black seeds and stirring them through the creamy milk.
In a large bowl whisk together the egg yolks and sugar until thickened. Strain over the vanilla milk and whisk together thoroughly. Wash and dry the saucepan, pour in the uncooked custard and cook over the lowest possible heat until it thickens to the consistency of double cream. This will take longer than you might imagine it to - at least 15 minutes - and you need to watch it like a hawk. If you keep stirring, almost constantly, and do not let it get anywhere near simmering point you should have no problems with it separating. But it can happen if it gets too hot too quickly so its handy to have a large metal bowl near you in case of disaster. If it does begin to split then quickly pour the lot into the bowl and whisk as fast as you can to cool it down and, hopefully, rescue it from scrambling.
Lightly butter an ovenproof dish and tip in the prepared plums. Sprinkle over the amaretto and sugar. Set aside.
Make the crumble in a large bowl by rubbing the flour and butter together between finger and thumb until it resembles breadcrumbs. A delicate touch with cool fingers will produce the light, crisp crumble you are after. You can do this in a food processor if you prefer but I find the result can be heavier and slightly cake-like.
Toast the almonds for a couple of minutes in a dry frying pan until they are golden brown, then tip onto a chopping board and cut up roughly. Stir the almond pieces through the crumble along with the sugar. Sprinkle the crumbs lightly over the plums, trying not to pat down or level too vigorously as you will lose the valuable air that creates a lovely open texture. Bake in the oven at 180°C for around 40 minutes until the crumble is crisp and golden brown. Serve piping hot with the custard poured generously over the top.