My wacky mother and her wacky family and, in fact, a huge percentage of her wacky generation and culture have a belief that ice cream is digestive. It was common that after a meal she would ask, “A little digestive ice cream?” If the meal was huge, as it invariably was, the conversation would go like this:
“Would you like some ice cream?”
“No, I can’t, thank you. I’m too full.”
“But it’s a digestive!”
It probably helped that she loved ice cream so much. She may have loved other sweets, but she was fine without the them; on the other hand, the house was never without ice cream. So one Christmas, when ma’s friend Lily came to stay with us and brought the dessert, a “frozen Christmas pudding” composed of chocolate ice cream, dried fruit and spices, she was in hog heaven. As she was the following year, when she decided that for dessert she would make a frozen sweet called Parfait Fantastique, from the redoubtable "La Petrona".
It was round about that time that two important things happened: I stopped merely being my mother’s kitchen hand and actually started cooking stuff, and my best friend, Brian, started celebrating Christmas with us.
Why are these two things important, and how are they related? Because thanks to Brian, that very first dessert I made has been THE SAME DESSERT I’VE MADE EVERY YEAR SINCE. This has been going on SINCE 1984. Even though I HATE THE BLOODY THING. Even though I TRIED MAKING SOMETHING ELSE ONE YEAR (“Yes, that was very nice,” Brian said, patting my shoulder, “now can we go back to parfait next Christmas?”). Even though I am allowed to make as many other desserts as I like, but I CANNOT LEAVE OUT THE PARFAIT. Even though my sister hosts Christmas every other year I still get to bring dessert, AND IT IS PARFAIT.
Why the fuss? All the recipe is, as you can see, is something that crossed ma’s parfait and Lily’s frozen pudding, and I can’t stand the sight of it. Make no mistake, though: it is actually quite good. Brian, pretending to be Donkey in Shrek has, since Shrek came out, greeted the appearance of the Christmas dessert with, “Parfait’s gotta be the most delicious thing on the whole damned planet!” and I have to admit: it is delicious, festive, and light enough to follow the heaviest Christmas meal (and help digest it, thank you ma).
So last week, I made the yearly parfait. Grudgingly, as is the yearly custom. But my grumbling and whingeing and whining fell flat. See – Brian is not here. Brian moved to England last year, and where he is people love him and wine-and-dine him as is right and good because it is nothing less than he deserves, but I’m over here having a freakin’ existential crisis because of this stupid parfait. Because my grumbling is nothing without his badgering me and cajoling me. Because he won’t be here to look at me after having a mouthful, hunch his shoulders and mouth out, “YUM!” Because he’s not here to have a third helping and the rest of my own helping after I’ve had the obligatory, grudging spoonful. Because he may conceivably hate the dessert as much as I do but may have been wise and clever enough to realise long ago that this is one of our games. Because he bugs me into submission and there’s no one in this world that I enjoy giving in to quite as much. Because he’s not here to remind us that parfait is the most delicious thing on the whole damned planet. Because the tradition of the parfait is precisely the same age as the tradition of Brian-for-Christmas, and having one without the other is just not the same. Because truth be told, come Christmas, I don’t want to do without either.
You can make the parfait up to a month before serving. Keep well wrapped, however, in layers of both plastic wrap and foil. And don’t be tempted to halve the recipe: despite my personal misgivings, I can assure you that it will get eaten!
1/3 cup slivered almonds, toasted
1/3 cup red and green glacé cherries
1/3 cup chopped (candied) peel
2/3 cup raisins (or raisins and sultanas, half and half)
1/3 cup currants
1 tsp. mixed spice
1/4 cup rum, or apple or orange juice (if using fruit juice, you can also add 2 tsp. rum essence if you like)
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
3 tbsp. cocoa
4 cups cream
1 tbsp. gelatine
1 cup milk
2 tsp. vanilla essence
Red and green glacé cherries, extra
What you do:
1. Combine almonds, cherries, peel, raisins, currants, mixed spice, and rum or juice in a medium bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, and allow to macerate and swell overnight. (If you're pressed for time, you can place these in a microwave container, cover, and cook on HIGH for 5 min.). The next day, mix in cinnamon, nutmeg, and cocoa. Set aside.
2. With an electric mixer, beat eggs and sugar until very thick and pale. Add vanilla. In a separate bowl, beat cream until soft peaks form.
3. Scald milk, and sprinkle over the gelatine. Whisk with a fork to dissolve. Add gelatine mixture to eggs and beat well. Fold in cream. Divide mixture in two, one rather bigger than the other. Fold fruit mixture into the smaller quantity.
4. Place extra cherries in a decorative pattern in the bottom of a two large loaf or bundt pans, or three medium pans. Carefully spoon in fruit parfait mixture, and place in freezer about 15 min., until thick. Carefully spoon in vanilla parfait mixture. Cover with plastic wrap, place in freezer, and freeze a minimum of six hours or overnight. Allow to soften in refrigerator one hour before serving. Unmould and slice to serve.