What does Autumn taste like? It looks buttery red and like brown leaves turning soft on dew drop lawns. It smells like damp earth and apple juice. It sounds like a breeze ruffling what’s left on the trees. Or, if you live in London, it sounds like leaf blowers at 9am, the cockwombles.
But what does it taste like? It needs to be something that warms from the inside, redolent with black pepper to make your lips tingle. It needs to act as a shield against the snivels and sniffs that those first foot stamping days bring on. In short, it’s got to be proper comfort food – the sort that comes out of agas in Grandmothers’ kitchens to appreciative sighs.
Call me a traditionalist, but this isn’t a season for extravagances or for experimentation. Flambés and fermentation and all the various exotica of the summer and spring kitchen have had their fun. This is a time for old-fashioned English stodge, a proper hug in a hot pan.
There’s really only one dish that could ever fit the bill – Toad in the Hole (Medicinal version). I can’t think of anything more English, more comforting, more autumnal or more utterly, completely and totally satisfying than toad in the hole and this version – with its heavy hand on the pepper and the crispy roasted sage leaves floating in the clouds of Yorkshire pudding – this version cures all ills.
Toad in the Hole (Medicinal)
Equal quantities (I generally use around a pint when cooking for 6, and this really is a sharing thing) of –
- Beaten egg
- Eight good quality sausages. I like the sage and black pepper flavour of Cumberlands, but the rich red wine of Toulouse sausages work nicely too.
- Six or seven fresh sage leaves.
- Three red onions, one and a half finely sliced and one and a half chopped into eighths.
- Chicken or beef stock
- A big glass of dry white wine, and an extra one for you
- A dash of balsamic vinegar
- Salt and black pepper
Pre-heat the oven to 225ºc.
In a metal roasting tin, scatter the sage leaves, the chunks of red onion (keep back the sliced red onion) and your sausages. Drizzle with a good quantity of vegetable oil – you’ll need a fair bit if the pudding’s going to puff up like you want.
Roast the sausages, onion and sage for a good 15 minutes. You want colour on the sausages and the onion to darken and sweeten. Whilst they’re cooking, get your sliced onions into a heavy bottomed saucepan over a low to medium heat with a big pinch of sea salt. Sweat them down and keep stirring them. If they stick, turn the heat down.
Make your batter – start with the flour, and make a well in the centre of your mixing bowl. Chuck in the eggs and whisk as you slowly add the milk. You want it completely smooth. Add a very healthy dose of salt and particularly black pepper – it’s best if the batter has a bit of a kick. It clears the tubes.
Once your sausages and onion have had a good fifteen minute blast, get them out and quickly close the door of the oven. As fast as possible, pour the batter over the lot and get it back in the hot oven. Whatever you do, leave that oven door closed for the next 25-30 minutes or your toad in the hole will sag disappointingly on serving.
The onions in the saucepan should be starting to take on a bit of colour and look really soft by now. Stir in about half a tablespoon of flour and cook for a few more minutes. Now turn up the heat and add your glass of white wine. Simmer until almost evaporated and add about a pint and a half of stock with a timid little splash of balsamic vinegar. Simmer until velvety smooth and reduced by about a quarter. Taste, adjust seasoning and serve with your toad in the hole, which should be looking brown and crisp atop by now.
If I were you, I’d also take Baudelaire’s very wise advice – “let us not be the martyred slaves of time. Be drunk. Continually drunk.” And that is what Autumn tastes like.