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A-Z of Vegetables: Violets

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Friday, 27 Oct 2023, 15:24

Roses are red, but violets are better. The classic in the world of British chocolate making is to have pink-dyed rose fondants sharing the box with purple-dyed violet fondants, but in my experience there are always too few violet ones... because they’re not all violet ones. 

Rose is far too common a flavour to genuinely feel exciting: they’re the wtf flavour of so many hand-creams and perfumes, and their gaudy can-can petals make them popular in gardens all over the place. No wonder violets shrink when confronted with so much ubiquity. If Forrest Gump was British, the box of chocolates metaphor would mean the path well-travelled (rose) versus the individualistic, hedonistically fulfilling and unexpected option (violet).

Another fascinating thing about violet flavour is that the particular scent of the flower – that is to say, what it smells like in the wild – has chemicals in it which numb the receptors in your nose. This gives violet its magical, fleeting quality, the sort of miracle you forget the majesty of, thus keeping it secret and special. Unfortunately, this forgettability seems to be driving violets out of existence, culinarily speaking. Crystallised violets, for instance, used to be a common and popular garnish for sweet things like chocolate cake or poires belle Hélène, and now you will be hard-pressed to locate it in a shop which isn’t either online or Fortnum & Mason. And since I don’t have the sort of budget which covers frequent forays into a wedding-cake-masquerading-as-a-Mayfair-department-store, I have to make do with alternatives. Namely: online shopping. Ugh (says the blogger).

In a high-stakes game of most important flavours, violet would easily be at the top. I associate it with happy holidays: the crystallised violets which my baking-fan sister got in a box of fancy cake decorations, which included crystallised roses, coloured sugars and dragées; the violet shortbread which I picked up on my very first visit to Fortnum & Mason, in its own embossed purple tube; the aforementioned violet fondants which was my introduction to expensive chocolate, when my father bought Prestat one Christmas as a special treat (and then taught us all a valuable lesson in sharing); lastly, and perhaps most importantly for me, glace à la violette, which I ate in Brittany and remains for me the very nicest ice cream flavour.

It seems, like so many other foodstuffs, that we have to rely on the French for the continued availability of violet flavour. In order to continue the use of violet in my sweets, I buy concentrated violet flavour or the more accessible violet Monin syrup, which I use in the recipe below. You can also use the Monin syrup to make no-churn glace à la violette: just whip 300ml double cream, 50g icing sugar, 2 tbsp lemon juice and 125ml violet syrup to firm-to-stiff peaks, then stick in a tub and freeze. It helps to whip the first three ingredients whilst pouring in the fourth in a steady stream.


Violet and chocolate shortbread

  1. This recipe is adaptable! Hallelujah! Preheat the oven to 160ºC fan and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.
  2. Cream together 100g vegan baking block and 50g white sugar. This means beating it until its light and fluffy – I must have read that phrase a million times when researching baking as a teen.
  3. Carefully incorporate EITHER 3 tbsp violet syrup OR 6 drops concentrated violet flavour. Obviously, concentrated violet flavour varies by brand, so you will have to taste-test this now, before you add other ingredients. Therefore, it needs to be stronger than you would want, but not so strong that you go ack before you add the flour. Don’t be tempted to add more syrup if you’re using syrup though, because otherwise your biscuits will have no structural integrity.
  4. Slowly and carefully incorporate 175g flour, until you have a shortbread dough. 
  5. Incidentally, if by some miracle you have actual violets you can cook with, add these now. Don’t use crystallised violets, they will go burned and horrible. 
  6. Chop up 50g chocolate and add this in, being unafraid to knead a bit. I won’t tell you not to use milk chocolate but I only ever use dark or white with violet: dark because it’s a classic combination, white because the violet might be shrinking and the diminished intensity of white chocolate coddles it back into excitement. In this scenario, white is my favourite.
  7. Just using your hands, make little balls of dough and press them down into the tray to make rounds. Aim to get them all the same size. Bake the biscuits for 15 minutes – they won’t colour much, but shortbread is meant to be pale. Leave to cool on the tray for at least 7 minutes, then move to a wire rack to cool down.

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Fruit

A-Z of Vegetables: Fennel

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Tuesday, 21 Nov 2023, 17:43

There are two types of people in this world. No, I know people have said this a lot in a variety of humorous deviations (emphasis on the deviance) but I mean it this time. Because there are two types of people in this world. People who like liquorice and sad people.

Liquorice, as the most intense member of the anise flavour family, blows your socks off with a satanically sweet darkness you thought was reserved only for molasses, raw cacao and committing arson on a candy-floss factory. If you’ve never tasted liquorice before, you’re just going to have to taste it; it’s of that rare breed of flavours, along with quince and violet, which is so wholly unique that describing it in terms of other things is both futile and reductionist. Imagine crude oil but for eating and you’re not far off.

As intoxicating as liquorice is, like all sweets, it’s not something you can eat regularly. Also it has laxative properties and that’s not the most appealing thing at a dinner party. That’s why we liquorice-lovers eat it in secret, away from liquorice-haters’ sad, judgmental eyes. Fortunately, for people craving an aniseed hit without the sugar can resort to fennel which, sliced finely and eaten raw, tastes like liquorice in salad form. Being also a big fan of vegetables, this is as close to flavour nirvana as its possible for a liquorice-lover to get. Or it is until I invent chocolate-flavoured cauliflower. Watch this space.

Fennel can be stir-fried, sautéd, gratin-ed, braised, roasted, baked, souped, puréed, juiced, candied and thrown out of the window at passing seagulls but for me, my favourite way to eat fennel is simply raw, thereby preserving as much of its flavour and satisfying crunch as possible. I also realise that it’s not possible to give a recipe for eating fennel raw (wash it, slice it, chew ostentatiously because there’s no other way to chew it). So I decided to go down the extravagant route, play up the confectionery which inspired my love for fennel, and do something I’ve never done before: namely, turning fennel into a pudding. I’m candying it. This essentially amounts to boiling it in syrup. Don’t panic, it’s very easy. Not so easy that you would let a child do it, because they might lick the spoon OF BOILING SUGAR, but easy enough.


Candied fennel – it’s really simpler than the length of this recipe implies

  1. Quarter 1 fennel and give a quick wash behind the thick outermost leaves in case of dirt. Often fennels don’t have this problem, but better safe than muddy. Now cut each quarter in half, keeping the core on each slice intact.
  2. Put the fennel quarters into a small saucepan so they’re all snugly tucked in. Just cover with cold water, then measure how much this water is and make a note of it. Bring to the boil.
  3. Remember how you had to measure how much water you covered your fennel with? Measure out enough granulated or caster sugar to match the weight of water, i.e. 200ml water means use 200g sugar. Add in 1 tsp fennel seeds for extra liquoriceness, heat until the sugar dissolves and simmer the mixture for 18-20 minutes until the liquorice is glassily translucent and butter-soft.
  4. Remove the fennel quarters from the syrup and lay out on some greaseproof paper – this is by far the easiest way to ‘dry’ candied food, because the syrup drips off and is absorbed by the paper, which you then ostentatiously throw in the bin.
  5. Boil down the syrup until it’s the consistency of runny honey, then pour into a clean, airtight container (a jug and clingfilm will do) and put in the fridge to use in place of golden syrup when you make flapjacks tomorrow.
  6. Eat the candied fennel, once cool, with yoghurt and grated chocolate as an elegant pudding for two, or go one further by baking a large round of shortbread for the yogurt, fennel and chocolate to sit on. Do this by beating together 50g vegan butter and 25g sugar until light and fluffy, and then gently incorporating 75g flour (not rye) until a dough forms. Pat out on a lined baking tray to a round 1cm-thick, then bake for 15 minutes at 180ºC or 160ºC fan until pale golden. Leave to cool before transferring to a plate to load up and slice like a pavlova.

Notes: I’ve cheerily kept the syrup from step 5 for a week in the fridge, and you could equally use it in tea, coffee, hot chocolate, custard, salad dressings, acidic tomato sauces, gingerbread, cocktails – wherever there’s need for sweetening liquids or use of syrups.


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