Before moving to Los Angeles last year, I had been living in London for 4 years. Lazy Saturdays wandering the markets and too many rainy hours passed in the pub for Sunday roasts gave me time to wrap my head around the nuances of British cuisine. Many British classics are centered around meat, whether wrapped around a scotched egg or baked into a shepherd's pie or tucked inside a Cornish pasty. And often the meats are of the gamiest variety - hare, pheasant, partridge - that many Americans faced with the option would choose a cheeseburger. I learned about the vegetable side of things - aubergine, courgette, marrow, rocket - and the sweeter side of things - pudding, treacle, biscuits. I learned some non-meat recipes, like cream scones with clotted cream and nut roasts and the perfect vegetable curry. Here now in Southern California, drinking cold pressed juice and eating $14 avocado toast, these delicacies feel far away.
I wanted to make a traditional British dish, lightened up both for the season and the California palate. The most rudimentary of British comfort foods is the toad-in-the-hole, a homely and hearty meat 'n batter dish meant for keeping warm and padded in the colder climes. Traditionally a toad-in-the-hole is made with whole sausages baked into a deep dish of Yorkshire pudding and topped with gravy. It's a cheap and easy way to make any cut of meat - good or bad - stretch further by adding a filling batter and fatty gravy to it. Toad-in-the-holes have been made for centuries across England with anything from pigeon meat to rump steak, as well as any kind of banger - sausage - you can dream up. One thing I've learned is that the composition and cooking technique of the Yorkshire pudding batter is something Brits are very specific and polarized about, kind of like the American divide over cornbread.
The inspiration for this dish comes from photographer and cook Marte Marie Forsberg, whose hazy photo collection documents the dreamlike beauty of slow life in the English countryside. My life in England was not nearly as slow or dreamy, but I miss it every day and find myself strangely relieved whenever it rains in Los Angeles.
This recipe takes the toad-in-the-hole and freshens it up using spring produce in place of sausage and a batter version that doesn't require a cup of pan drippings - Yorkshire pudding is traditionally served alongside a roast, and baked using drippings from the meat. We also opt for buttermilk over regular milk for its tangy depth. Forsberg makes a full pan-size version and sautés her vegetables with onions to get the flavor of the onion gravy in there. Here we add a teaspoon of caramelized onions to each cup, and rather than one large dish, we bake these puddings into individual muffin size making them perfect for an appetizer or side dish. In this form, they're similar to a popover, which is the American version of Yorkshire pudding.
The magic of the Yorkshire pudding - slash popover - is the impressive puff and rise produced by the egg-milk-flour batter. They blow up like balloons in the oven. The trick is maintaining high heat exposure throughout the cooking process. The little puffs get their height by heating the oil-filled muffin pan at a high temperature before adding the batter, then quickly putting the pan back in the oven before it's able to cool down too much. To achieve maximum pop-over, you can invest in a popover pan, made of separate metal cups held together by bars, which increases the amount of surface area exposed to the heat. Long ago the pans were made of cast iron, which is the best material for holding heat, and I've read oven-glass cups also do the trick. I settled on a lower rise in favor of my jumbo muffin pan...and jumbo popovers.
Once you master the art of the popover, you can add anything to the center - like chocolate or cheese! - or nothing at all and enjoy them on their own in all their puffed up glory.
BURSTED TOMATO POPOVERS
I used a 6-round jumbo muffin tin here. The quantities below would also be enough for one large 9-inch square pan pudding or a 6-round popover pan. For a 12-round regular size muffin tin, double the recipe below (you may have batter leftover).
2 large eggs
6 tablespoons buttermilk
6 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon vegetable oil, plus 1 teaspoon per muffin tin
3/4 cup all-purpose flour (light spelt flour will also work)
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, sliced
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
olive oil for drizzling
salt and pepper to taste
Heat oven to 400°F.
Start by making the batter. Whisk together eggs, buttermilk, water and oil in a medium bowl. Combine salt and flour, and slowly whisk dry ingredients into wet. Let the batter stand for 30 minutes.
Melt butter in a medium cast iron over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook until soft and translucent. Add garlic and a pinch of salt, stir, and turn the heat down to medium. Continue to stir until onions are caramelized - sticky in consistency and deep brown in color.
Meanwhile, toss your halved tomatoes with olive oil, salt and pepper and spread in a baking pan. Roast tomatoes for 15-20 minutes in the oven, or until soft, wrinkled, and the pan is pooled with syrupy juice and seeds. Remove from oven and let rest.
Once oven has come to temperature, pour 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil into each muffin round and heat the muffin pan for 10 minutes in the oven. After 10 minutes, remove pan and add batter to each muffin round so that the well is 1/3 full. Quickly add a spoonful of caramelized onion to the center of each round, and a spoonful of tomatoes on top of the onions. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until golden brown and raised over the lid of the muffin round (the time will vary depending on your pan, so watch carefully around the 20 minute mark). Top with a teaspoon of pest (recipe below) and serve warm.
2 cups tightly packed fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons chopped walnuts
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/3 cup good quality extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely minced and mashed with the back of a knife
1/3 cup freshly grated parmesan
Bring a saucepan of water to boil and fill a medium bowl with ice water. Once boiling, add basil to water and count to 5, using a spoon to make sure all leaves are submerged. Remove the basil from the hot water with a slotted spoon and immediately transfer to the ice water. Drain the basil and push down on it to remove any excess water.
Pulse walnuts in a food processor and until ground into small pebble-size pieces. Add basil and salt and process until finely chopped. With your machine still running, slowly pour in the olive oil and continue to process until the mixture is puréed. Transfer to a bowl and stir in mashed garlic and parmesan until thoroughly incorporated.