Culture: Food with Nicola Miller - Prunes and their bad reputation
Don’t let the memory of school dinners stop you from enjoying fabulous prunes, says food writer Nicola Miller
Prunes have such a fusty reputation, which is entirely the fault of institutional caterers who served them up as a kind of penance; prunes were something you had to eat because they were ‘good for you’. In the novel The Shining, chef Dick Hallorann told young Danny “you got to be regular if you want to be happy” as he showed him the bins packed with prunes and apricots in the cavernous kitchen larders at the Overlook Hotel, but that’s not all that prunes are good for. Reduce a food to a digestive aid and you suck all the joy from it.
If you are a lover of dried fruit then the pruneau d’Agen is the sine qua non, a dark and luscious dried plum from south-west France which, if you buy the new season’s ‘mi-cuit’ (half-dried), are a world away from the hard, wrinkled pellets drowned in custard which were served for school lunch when I was a kid. Agen prunes are fabulous enough to eat as they are, straight from the bag, but soak them in liquor and they become even more sublimely plump and juicy. They’re also wonderful dipped into dark, deep chocolate. I bought my Agens from Waitrose, but they are often available via independent grocers and can be easily found online. Use Californian prunes if you can’t find Agens, but give the bag a squeeze to make sure they’re nice and squidgy.
You may groan “not another brownie recipe” but these ones really are special, although I cringe a bit typing this because, to be honest, you should be the judge of that. I’ve macerated the prunes in Quinta do Noval Late Bottled Vintage Port (2012) whose richly intense cherry-chocolate and dried fruit flavours are a perfect match. Chocolate can be tricky to pair with wine but the general rule of thumb is the higher the cocoa percentage of the chocolate, the more full-bodied the wine has to be, hence my use of what I see as the Marilyn Monroe of the Port world.
Quinta de Noval is not an inexpensive Port and if you prefer, you may wish to use a less costly brand or even omit the alcohol completely which would still leave you with perfectly delicious brownies, but I’m a fan of using excellent alcohol in recipes which are in themselves fairly prosaic. I’ve also been reading The Missing Ingredient by Jenny Linford which explores the concept of time as an ingredient when we cook or produce food. I was delighted to discover that Linford travelled to the Quinta de Noval vineyard in Portugal to tell the story of a wine with ‘a special capacity to age remarkably well’. The creation of these brownies may not have been written in the stars, but it feels as near as dammit.
Port, prune and double chocolate brownies
150g unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
200g plain chocolate, chopped (for melting)
175g soft brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 large eggs
75g plain flour
50g dark chocolate, chopped into 0.5-1cm chunks
50g milk chocolate, cut into 0.5-1cm chunks
Vintage port to soak the prunes in (about six tablespoonfuls)
The day before, place the prunes in a bowl, pour over the port, cover and leave to macerate overnight. Give them an occasional stir.
The next day, preheat the oven to 160°C/fan140°C/gas 3 then grease and line the base and 2 sides of a 20cm square cake tin with baking parchment.
Drain the prunes. I wouldn’t blame you if you drank the dregs of the port they were soaked in. It’s delicious.
Whisk the eggs in a separate bowl. Set aside.
Place 200g of the chocolate and the butter in a large heatproof bowl (I use a Pyrex one) and set it over a pan of gently simmering water without letting the base of the bowl touch the water. Heat, stirring occasionally until melted and the butter and chocolate are incorporated then take the bowl off the pan and allow it to cool slightly.
Beat the caster sugar and vanilla into the chocolate mixture and then whisk in the eggs slowly, until the mixture is well combined. Now add the plain flour and fold in to make a smooth batter.
Stir in the plain and milk chocolate chunks.
Pour the mixture into the lined tin and stud it with the drained prunes, pushing them into the batter slightly.
Bake in the oven for 30 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the brownie comes out with just a few crumbs attached to it.
Allow to cool and set completely in the tin before removing the brownie by lifting the edges of the baking parchment. Cut into squares.
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