JEmma Melvin, the winner of the competition to find a pudding to mark the Queen’s platinum jubilee, called her lemon roll and amaretti trifle a “humble” dish. But as I stand in my kitchen in the early morning light, wearily contemplating her recipe, it seems anything but modest.
For starters, there’s its size. “For 20 people”, I read. Should I swap my glass bowl for a bucket? It’s also ridiculously complicated, requiring the cook to make not only jelly and custard, but also Swiss rolls, lemon curd, amaretti biscuits, “thick” mandarin coulis, and “bark of white chocolate.
Melvin insists it’s okay to cheat. Buy a jar of lemon curd, a tin of Italian biscuits and a jar of ready-made pastry cream, she advises nervous cooks. Doing that, however, would make the whole exercise pointless, wouldn’t it? You might as well buy a Colin the Caterpillar cake from M&S and be done with it.
I start at 9am, just as the beeps sound on Radio 4. Swiss roll? That, at least, I can do. Alas I don’t have any parchment paper – to be more precise the parchment paper fell to the bottom of the cupboard and can only be retrieved by drone – so I lightly oil parchment paper and line one mold instead. Then I beat the eggs and sugar, add the self-rising flour and put in the oven. While cooking, I make lemon curd, something else I can do while I sleep (my star dish is lemon curd meringue).
In this case, the curd is the filling for the swiss roll, and if you’ve never made it before, honestly, it’s easy: just heat up the egg yolks, sugar, butter and juice lemon in a bain-marie and stir until it thickens. So at 10 am I have some nice sticky slices of Swiss roll to line the bottom of my bowl with as shown. There are gaps, which makes me nervous. Melvin objects to gaps. But when I press the sponge with my hands, they disappear, no harm.
Then, the St Clement jelly. I play around with using orange Chivers, of which I inexplicably find a packet in my pantry. In the end, I go for it, doing it right with gelatin sheets and a combination of orange and lemon juice. Once cool, I pour it over the roll and let it set, which will take about three hours, during which time I can make the coulis and the bark.
The coulis rolls out canned tangerines, which for good reason I haven’t eaten since I was in school (I once spilled a disastrously botched chocolate pudding that I had decorated with canned tangerines and Dream Topping during a whole-man home economics class on the upper deck of my return bus). You thicken it with arrowroot, an ingredient that the recipe – be warned: it’s poorly written and not quite accurate – jumps out at you out of the blue; I had to use cornstarch instead. White chocolate for the “bark” should be melted and spread on a baking sheet. You then sprinkle it with the mixed zest and stick it in the fridge until it hardens.
At 3 o’clock, it’s time to put everything together. It goes like this. First, cover the custard jelly and custard with a layer of amaretti cookies (I’m cheating now, because life is too short to make amaretti cookies). Then add the coulis, followed by a layer of whipped cream, and finally the bark, which is broken into shards and laid out on top. This last flourish is, I think, a bad example of lily gilding. Standing in the cream, the chocolate soon starts to sag, and I know without even tasting it that it won’t stand up to the citrus flavors.
The finished pudding looks – am I allowed to say that? – quite magnificent: the layers are distinct; I avoided the dreaded infiltration. But when I serve it, the reviews are mixed. We think it’s a bit boring and too sweet. The recipe was inspired by the lemon posset that was served at the Queen’s wedding breakfast, but possets are much easier to make and so much more zesty and pungent than this trifle. He wants a kick. Maybe dip the sponge in limoncello?
And what a joke! The work-pleasure relationship here is quite offbeat. The competition organizers – Fortnum & Mason being the main instigator – believe that, like the great Constance Spry’s coronation chicken before it, Melvin’s Trifle will last, that we will be making it for decades to come. But I’m not so sure. How’s that better than a sherry trifle, made with a tipsy sponge and raspberry jam? The durability of Coronation Chicken lies not only in its indulgence, but in its simplicity: the sauce is made with a very basic wine reduction, curry powder, apricots and mayonnaise, nothing more.
But Mary Berry, Monica Galetti and all the other pageant judges are right about one thing. Last Thursday, shortly before the Duchess of Cornwall announced the winner on BBC One, a food historian called Regula Ysewijn, who was dressed for the Blitz, reminded viewers that our history is written in our food ; that every decade comes with its defining dishes, and that these can tell us more about ourselves than we realize, but not all of them good. The Coronation chicken was born in extreme austerity. In 1953, wartime rationing had not yet ended. Its flavor belies the relative banality of its ingredients.
To make Melvin’s Trifle, on the other hand, you’ll need over a kilo of sugar, 13 eggs and a liter of double cream. I don’t want to be a total killjoy. I know it’s for a special occasion. But it’s a pudding, outrageously sweet and slightly tasteless, for a nation that may have lost sight of what the word candy really means.