So many food likes and dislikes can be traced back to childhood encounters, experiences that fix an immoveable opinion. The lottery of school dinners in the 70s was the arena where I learnt to be faddy about what I ate, approaching meal times with suspicion and trepidation. I can remember a particularly vivid nightmare, where I was served up a stew of slugs – even today I can viscerally recall the muscular sliminess that I tasted, jolting me awake.
Puddings were where the high stakes games were played – there was so much that could go right, or go awry. A glorious day would be chocolate cracknel (I think just cornflakes and chocolate balled up by a ice cream scoop), with mint custard; conversely the mood could sink to untold lows if it was creme caramel, anaemic wobbling rubber in a pool of brown tears. Its sweetness could not hide its mediocrity. It was the taste of disappointment.
As an adult, as a cook, I have never overcome my childish impressions of creme caramel – never been tempted to revisit, retaste and potentially unlearn my prejudice. However, today, in a surprising development, I have segued in its general direction, almost by mistake. But first you have to put everything I’ve said so far, out of your head. Instead think of almonds; amaretti and amaretto, think fresh caramel and chocolate. Think patience and sensuality.
This is Bonet, a pudding of the Piemonte, in the north of Italy. It’s easy to make, although requires precision (not one of my main attributes, but with guidance, I pulled it off).
How I discovered this wonderful, silken thing is in itself a result of new experiences and changes to life brought about by the lockdown across the world. Exactly a year ago today – 16 November 2019, I was in Rome to learn about artichokes with Rachel Roddy and Carla Tomesi at the Latteria studio. It was a wonderful weekend of food, storms and art – which I wrote about here. I’d never met Carla before and was bowled over by her knowledge, humour and the way she made everything look so effortless, but was so keen to pass on everything she knew.
Come the new year, the lockdowns that rolled across the world and the explosion of Zoom, Carla came up with idea of having an occasional catch up, anyone was welcome – to talk about food, what we were cooking, which ingredients we couldn’t get hold of. And over the months, Carla’s chit chats have grown, people dropping in and out from across the world and across timezones. On these Sunday afternoons (or mornings for some of us), strangers from Italy, France, the UK, Canada, America, Mexico and more, sit for an hour, often longer, and become friends. There are regular faces, reunions, people ‘meeting’ for the first time after months of Instagram messaging – it is one of the positive things in the year that I have valued the most.
Often, Carla will send out a recipe beforehand, so those who want to, can cook along with her – learning new techniques and flavours. There is a lovely companionship to be had, knowing that we are simultaneously preparing the same dish in numerous countries and across thousands of miles.
And this then is how I came to discover and make Bonet, overturning my dread of wobble on the anniversary of the day that I met and began learning from Carla.
For the caramel
200g caster sugar
6 tablespoons of water
For the custard
1 litre full fat mill
25 amaretti biscuits crushed.
5 medium eggs
5 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
4 tablespoons caster sugar
You can either make individual puddings in ramekins, or one large one a 20cm pie dish.
Set the oven at 160 C or Gas mark 3
Make your caramel by putting the water and sugar in a pan on a low heat. Without stirring, until it starts to colour, allow it to simmer and then melt. It can easily burn, so watch carefully, you’re aiming for something the colour of a ginger nut.
When it’s ready, use the caramel to line your pie dish, or ramekins.
It’s very hot, but will set quickly, so work fast but carefully – wearing gloves if you’re nervous.
Roll the dish around (like you’re sieving for gold), and the caramel will coat the sides as you tip it, setting into a solid, glassy finish.
You can do this bit in advance, which has the added advantage that, as the caramel cools – it starts to crack like breaking ice, which is both exciting, and strangely beautiful.
I assembled everything in bowls beforehand, which made everything very simple, and meant I could work quickly.
Start by heating the milk and sugar, and whilst this is happening, beat your eggs.
While whisking, pour the boiling milk over the eggs, and keep whisking til they’re well mixed.
Now sieve this mixture (which will remove any bits of egg white that didn’t get beaten in).
Pour the sieved mixture over the crushed amaretti (I blitzed them in the blender to get a fine powder) and leave to soak for five minutes.
Resieve the mixture, to remove any larger bits of biscuit.
Now into the sieved cocoa powder add a couple of tablespoons of the mixture, stirring together to form a paste, and getting rid of any lumps. Then add the rest of the mixture and stir thoroughly. One final sieve will remove any stubborn lumps of cocoa powder.
Fill your pie dish or ramekins and place them in a water bath in the oven. (A deep roasting tin is ideal), fill the water to just over half way up the side of the pudding dish.
Check after 20 mins for individual puddings, 40 mins if you’re making a large one. It is ready when you have a set wobble – my oven is always cooler than it says it is, so mine took over an hour to set.
Ideally, you make this the day before, so once it’s done, allow it to cool, and then refrigerate.
Serve by placing your plate over the dish and flipping them over quickly – revealing your triumphantly glazed, milky decadent Bonet, luxuriating in its own bath of delicious caramel.
As you can see from the photo – I need a bigger plate!