Making a dessert is still cooking, as much as, say, cooking a piece of fish. It took me a long time to really learn this. Cooking requires you to engage your senses, no matter what you’re making. Intuition and feel have as strong a place in the sweet kitchen as they do in the savoury, sitting alongside skill and technique in the same way. The more you cook, the more you learn to trust your instincts.
Learn to understand sugar, which provides structure, but, just as importantly, seasoning. Think of sugar in the same way you do of salt in savoury food. It should amplify flavours, and should only be tasted when you want it to be a flavour. Use sugar to make fruit taste more intense, to balance the bitterness of coffee, as the base of caramel.
The use of salt and acid as seasonings is also incredibly important but often ignored in the pastry kitchen. I love using flavoured vinegars in fruit dishes, and a couple of flakes of Maldon sea salt on your ice cream is revolutionary the first time you try it.
I encourage you when creating desserts to think about what ingredients you have to hand or what’s excellent right now. Make that dish, tasting everything constantly as you go, and it will most likely be delectable.
Ricotta ice cream with magnolia syrup recipe
The magnolia needs to remain the star here; the oil should just bolster it. I’m never a huge fan of tableside theatrics, but this dish really does look best when the magnolia syrup and oil are poured into the bowl as it’s served.
- 1 large scoop ricotta ice cream small pinch of Maldon salt
- magnolia petals, to serve
- 2 tbsp chilled magnolia syrup
- 1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
Place a small bowl in the freezer to chill 30 minutes before serving. Scoop a large quenelle of ricotta ice cream into the chilled bowl and place just off-centre. Sprinkle on some Maldon salt and lay one or two magnolia petals beside the ice cream. Combine the magnolia syrup and olive oil (they will remain split). Pour the syrup and oil into the bowl next to the ice cream.
Ricotta ice cream
Ricotta’s flavour is gentle but it’s in its creamy, slightly grainy texture that it truly shines. I love that texture transformed into ice cream. For me, the best ricotta comes from Westcombe Dairy in Somerset, where they make it with the whey left over from Cheddar production. This recipe also works beautifully with fresh buffalo or sheep’s milk ricotta.
- 150g caster sugar
- 500g fresh ricotta
- 25ml lemon juice
- pinch of salt
Combine the sugar with 150ml of water in a saucepan, whisk well and place over a medium heat. Stir occasionally until the sugar is completely dissolved, leave to cool then chill thoroughly. Once the syrup is completely chilled, add the lemon juice, then blend in the ricotta until it is smooth and season with a little salt. Churn in an ice cream machine then transfer to a container and leave to set in the freezer before serving.
It felt like a true revelation the first time I bit into a petal. Although the flavour will differ slightly depending on the pigmentation of the flower, as a general rule, magnolia has the flavour of young ginger: slightly spicy with a beautiful floral quality. The whiter flowers tend to have more citrussy, cardamom notes while the deeper fuchsia flowers get spicier and more gingery. Try to pick buds that are younger and have only just opened and avoid any that have started to brown on the edges.
Makes 1 litre
- 150g caster sugar
- 100g (2-3) magnolia flowers
- 7g (1 tsp) citric acid
Combine the sugar with 750ml of water in a saucepan. Bring to a rolling boil over a medium heat until the sugar has dissolved. When the syrup is boiling, add the whole magnolia flowers. Return to a rolling boil and add the citric acid. Immediately transfer to a shallow container then chill over ice or in the fridge. I like to leave the flowers in the syrup as they have a pleasingly ethereal quality. Store chilled. This is superb poured over ice cream, used to dress or poach fruit, or added to a drink.
The Last Bite: A whole new approach to making desserts through the year by Anna Higham was published in May 2022 (£22, DK)
Award-winning pastry chef Anna Higham was most recently executive pastry chef at The River Café in west London. Starting out in 2012 at the Gordon Ramsay group, she also worked at the Gramercy Tavern in New York, and Flor and Lyle’s in London.
The wines to drink with ricotta ice cream with magnolia syrup
By Fiona Beckett
Well, being asked to come up with a wine match for magnolia is certainly a first, and I can’t claim I’ve had vast experience of pairing the two. But Anna Higham’s description of the flavour as gingery provides a good starting point. The ice cream, too, is light and delicate, so I think you’d be looking at an equally fresh-tasting dessert wine or even, given the olive oil, an off-dry white. I’m intrigued by the thought of Torrontés or maybe a young Gewürztraminer or Gewürz blend.
Lighter dessert whites such as Coteaux du Layon or a young Spanish Moscatel should also work, as should off-dry and sweet sparkling wines such as pink Prosecco, Moscato d’Asti or the seductive, gently sparkling Bugey Cerdon ‘méthode ancestrale’ from Savoie, which is a real show-stopper.
One tip you might find useful. From a wine point of view it really helps to serve a crisp, home-made biscuit or shortbread which will offset the coldness of the ice cream and allow the wine to shine. (There are some delicious biscuit recipes in the back of Higham’s book.)