Zippy, my almost-three-year-old daughter, has, for the past few months, become somewhat obsessed with food. I have always encouraged us to cook together and she is by far the most adventurous eater in our family, which she recently proved by licking a sprat at the fishmongers. A raw sprat. In front of the fishmonger. However, her fanatics have taken her into the realms of desserts. Puddings – or whatever it is that may be the ceremonious closing of her dinner once a week, tops – have become all-consuming and occupy her fizzing little brain 24-7. When reading, she hones into pictures of cakes, jellies, ice-cream and biscuits as if each illustration is a ‘Where’s Wally’ meets ‘Larousse Gastronomique’ lip-licking game. I tell myself that this is probably completely normal for a toddler whose time at home is spent huddled with her family around the cooker (yes we spend a lot of time cooking but the AGA is actually the warmest being occupying the house), but often she is disappointed and, frankly, let down by the end of a meal when a massive, cream-filled sundae isn’t plonked down in front of her.
The truth is, I worry about sugar. I’m being honest. Ok, so I grew up chomping on 10p Chomps and gnawing at acid-coloured Irn Bru bars (and my god they were awesome, especially after you’d just smoked three fags in the forest next to the school and burnt your eyebrows in the process), and I still have all my own teeth and most of my own marbles. And, yes, I am aware that if you withhold or elevate certain foods you risk fetishizing them and, well, making matters worse. But sugar really is pretty bad for us physiologically, psychologically and sociologically (do your research, it isn’t hard to find the evidence against refined sugars, fructose, corn syrups and the like). And it is absolutely EVERYWHERE, in most processed food, and especially in those foods marketed at children (grrr!!!!!!!!).
So, I’m finding a middle way as a parent and attempt conversation about food, its provenance, nutrition, what happens when people can’t afford to eat and why, so that Zippy and Roo are given as many of the facts as I can give. The fact that they are 2 and three-quarters and 9 months old summons the words ‘falling’ and ‘ears’ to mind, but there’s hope… In the meantime, we have fun cooking together and this sometimes includes making stuff that contains just a little bit of sugar.
When looking for an easy-to-make-with-children dessert for dinner guests last Friday, I came up with a tangy, just sweet-enough jelly to round off a robust, wintry meal of jerusalem artichoke soup, oven-roasted plaice and braised root vegetables. It’s easy-peasy to throw together and a delight for both milky-toothed toddlers and grown-up children alike. Needless to say, my daughter was very, very happy when the wibbly wobbly pudding arrived.
This recipe was inspired by one of my favourite cookbooks, ‘A Year in My Kitchen’ by Skye Gyngell. It’s a beautiful book in every sense of the word – the recipes, the writing and the photography.
Skye Gyngell’s recipe is for blood orange and rosemary jelly. I make mine with other sweet orange varieties (like navel or valencia) which are readily available, but I have also used blood oranges when in season. I replace the rosemary with fresh bay leaves (we have numerous bay trees growing in our garden – they are prolific multipliers) and find that they add a lovely bittersweet floral scent and an ever so delicate flavour to the tangy orange. You can use dried bay if you can’t get hold of fresh leaves but use less as they have a more concentrated flavour, as with all dried herbs.
My recipe uses considerably less sugar than most others – just 2 tablespoons – so it’s relatively child-friendly for a dessert, especially for a jelly. Blood oranges can be more tart than other types of sweet oranges as they contain hints of raspberry in their flavour profile. So when using the sanguiferous variety you could up the sugar content of my recipe if you want to (Skye Gyngell recommends 100g of caster sugar for 600ml of blood orange juice).
Also, it’s worth noting that I personally use vegetarian gelatine in the form of agar agar although my recipe denotes amounts for agar-agar, leaf and powdered gelatines. Agar agar is a mixture of complex carbohydrates (rather than animal proteins) and minerals derived from gelidium seaweed species of Red Sea algae. It gives you a more set and chewy jelly compared to the silky, melt-in-the-mouth jellies you get from using gelatine. (Find out more about agar agar at this great site). However, do refer to the instructions on all vegetarian, leaf (or sheet) or powdered gelatine packets as strength differs from product to product.
500ml freshly squeezed orange juice (I use navels, Valencias or blood oranges, depending on availability) plus a little extra for serving (about 8 oranges worth, depending on their size)
1 orange for serving
2 tablespoons caster sugar (I used golden)
3 fresh bay leaves (or 1 dried bay leaf)
1.5 teaspoons of agar agar or 3 sheets of medium-strength leaf gelatine or an 11g sachet of powdered gelatine
Sunflower oil for greasing moulds
Individual pudding/jelly moulds or a muffin tray (this is what I use and it makes 4 perfect little jellies!)
Lightly crush your bay leaves (or bay leaf, if using dried) between your fingers to release their flavour and scent, which will infuse the jelly. Add the bay to a saucepan and pour on the orange juice and sugar. Place the pan over a gentle heat, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar.
Whilst your pan is heating, and if using leaf gelatine, soak the gelatine sheets in a bowl of cold water for 5 minutes. Then remove from water and squeeze out excess liquid. If using powdered gelatine follow the packet instructions for use. If using agar agar, soak in cold water and remove after 5 minutes but then add to the saucepan and boil together with the juice, sugar and bay for another five minutes – this activates the setting agents in the agar (gelatine has a lower setting temperature so you never add gelatine to liquid if it is still boiling).
Once your juice has come to the boil, remove from the heat and add the gelatine (if you’re using agar agar skip this step as you have already added your setting agent). Stir to ensure the gelatine has completely dissolved.
Then, using a sieve, strain the juice into a jug to remove the bay leaves and pith.
Using a little oil, wipe round your moulds before pouring in the warm liquid. Set aside to cool completely and then pop in the fridge for a couple of hours to set.
When ready to serve (ideally on the day you make them), briskly dip the bottom of the mould (or muffin tray) in warm water and run a palette knife around the edge of the jelly to dislodge. Squeeze a little juice and place a slice or two of orange (peel and pith removed) on each plate, and complete with your little wobbly jelly balanced atop.
The jelly is best served on the day it’s made but will happily sit in the fridge overnight to be gobbled up for lunch the next day.