By the time you read this column on Saturday, the news of Myrtle Allen’s passing will be well known. She was 94 and up to very recently was ‘hale and hearty’ although age had dimmed her brilliant intellect in recent years. What a legacy my beautiful mother-in-law has left us all. Loved by her extended family and staff, her six children and spouses, twenty two grandchildren and thirty six great-grandchildren, virtually all of whom live within forty five minutes of Ballymaloe.
What an inspiration, this gentle woman who couldn’t cook a thing when she got married at the age of nineteen to Ivan Allen, a handsome young farmer from East Cork has been to all of us. They used to joke that they learned ‘a lot’ about each other on their honeymoon, she realised that he played a bridge a lot and he discovered she couldn’t cook at all, so the story goes that he taught her how to scramble eggs when they arrived home to Shanagarry from their honeymoon on Caragh Lake in Co. Kerry.
From then on she was determined to teach herself how to cook, convinced of the importance of delicious wholesome nourishing food for the health and happiness of her family and to delight her husband who loved and appreciated every delicious morsel and encouraged her attempts to master each new recipe.
I love this quote from the Ballymaloe Cookbook which she wrote in 1977, still in print after 41 years. “I was many years married before I first triumphantly put a really good brown soda bread loaf on the tea tables. Of course, this brought me no prose, only a few disillusioned grunts about the pity it was I had taken so long to learn the art!
In 1964 when all of her children except her youngest daughter Fern were boarding in Newtown School in Waterford, she decided to open a restaurant in the dining room of the family home in Ballymaloe House in the midst of a farm in East Cork, an extraordinary thing to do at that time when it was unheard of to open a restaurant outside a town of city. At that time it was called The Yeats Room, because it contained Ivan’s collection of Jack Yeats paintings. From the beginning, she wrote the menu every day depending on what produce was in season in the garden and on the farm and what lovely fresh fish was landed by the boats in Ballycotton. She cooked and served the food simply so the beautiful fresh flavours of the produce shone through.
She was much loved too by the huge network of farmers and artisan producers, local butchers, cheese makers, fish-smokers, greengrocers and foragers from whom she sourced for Ballymaloe and always made sure they were paid well for producing top quality produce.
Myrtle served children’s tea at Ballymaloe House for all the guest children with home-made lemonade and delicious fresh fish and crispy hand-cut chips and many other really good things that children loved. Before supper she organised for the little ones to collect the freshly laid warm eggs from the nests for their, very own boiled egg with soldiers – many now ‘grown up’ Ballymaloe Guests have happy memories ….
I’ve just realised the date, June 16th 2018…By sheer coincidence, 50 years ago today, I arrived at Ballymaloe House to work with Myrtle Allen …how fortunate am I that our paths crossed in life. I’ve chosen a few quintessential recipes that will always remind me of Myrtle.
Ballymaloe Chicken Liver Pâté
Serves 10-12 depending on how it is served.
This recipe has certainly stood the test of time, it has been the Pâté Maison at Ballymaloe House since the opening of the restaurant in 1965 but Myrtle also made it for family and guests for many years previous to the opening of The Yeats Room
225g (8oz) fresh organic chicken livers
2 tablespoons) brandy
200-300g (8-12oz) butter (depending on how strong the chicken livers are)
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 large clove garlic, crushed
freshly ground pepper
Clarified Butter to seal the top
Wash the livers in cold water and remove any membrane or green tinged bits. Dry on kitchen paper.
Melt a little butter in a frying pan; when the butter foams add in the livers and cook over a gentle heat. Be careful not to overcook them or the outsides will get crusty; all trace of pink should be gone. Add the crushed garlic and thyme leaves to the pan, stir and then de-glaze the pan with brandy, allow to flame or reduce for 2-3 minutes. Scrape everything with a spatula into a food processor. Purée for a few seconds. Allow to cool.
Add 225g (8oz) butter. Purée until smooth. Season carefully, taste and add more butter, cut into cubes if necessary.
This pâté should taste fairly mild and be quite smooth in texture. Put into pots or into one large terrine. Tap on the worktop to knock out any air bubbles.
Clarify some butter and spoon a LITTLE over the top of the pâté to seal.
Serve with melba toast or hot white bread. This pate will keep for 4 or 5 days in a refrigerator.
Watchpoint: It is essential to cover chicken liver Pâté with a layer of clarified or even just melted butter, otherwise the pâté will oxidize and become bitter in taste and grey in colour.
Ballymaloe Brown Yeast Bread
Many guests will recognise this bread, now synonymous with Ballymaloe House. Myrtle loved to pass on the recipe and techniques of this nourishing loaf that involved no kneading and only one rising and has been a staple on Ballymaloe tables since the 1950’s, well before the start of the restaurant.
Makes 1 loaf
400g (14oz) strong (stone-ground) wholemeal flour plus 50g (2oz) strong white flour
425ml (15floz) water at blood heat
1 teaspoon black treacle or molasses
1 teaspoon salt
20g – 30g (3/4oz – 1oz) fresh non-GM yeast
sesame seeds – optional
1 loaf tin 13x20cm (5x8inch) approx.
Preheat the oven to 230C/450F/Gas Mark 8.
Mix the flour with the salt. The ingredients should all be at room temperature. In a small bowl or Pyrex jug, mix the treacle with some of the water, 150ml (5floz/generous 1/2 cup) for 1 loaf and crumble in the yeast.
Sit the bowl for a few minutes in a warm place to allow the yeast to start to work. Meanwhile check to see if the yeast is rising. After about 4 or 5 minutes it will have a creamy and slightly frothy appearance on top.
When ready, stir and pour it, with all the remaining water (9fl oz/275ml), into the flour to make a loose-wet dough. The mixture should be too wet to knead. Allow to sit in the bowl for 7-10 minutes (time varies depending on room temperature). Meanwhile, brush the base and sides of the bread tin with a good sunflower oil. Scoop the mixture into the greased tin. Sprinkle the top of the loaves with sesame seeds if you like. Put the tin in a warm place somewhere close to the cooker or near a radiator perhaps. Cover the tin with a tea towel to prevent a skin from forming. Just as the bread comes to the top of the tin, remove the tea towel and pop the loaves in the oven 230C/450F/Gas Mark 8 for 20 minutes, then turn the oven down to 200ºC/400ºF/Gas Mark 6 for another 40-50 minutes or until it looks nicely browned and sound hollow when tapped. The bread will rise a little further in the oven. This is called “oven spring”. If however the bread rises to the top of the tin before it goes into the oven it will continue to rise and flow over the edges.
We usually remove the loaf from the tin about 10 minutes before the end of cooking and put them back into the oven to crisp all round, but if you like a softer crust there’s no need to do this.
Note: Dried yeast may be used instead of baker’s yeast. Follow the same method but use only half the weight given for fresh yeast. Allow longer to rise. Fast acting yeast may also be used, follow the instructions on the packet.
Baked Plaice, Dover Sole with Herb Butter
Myrtle devised this recipe for cooking the Summer plaice from Ballycotton on the bone for maximum flavour. It could be served with or without a herb butter or a rich sauce.
This is a very simple but inspired ‘master recipe’ for plaice and sole but also for all very fresh flat fish, e.g. brill, turbot, dabs, flounder and lemon sole. Depending on the size of the fish, it can a starter or a main course. Needless to say it is also delicious with Hollandaise Sauce.
4 very fresh plaice or sole on the bone
2-4 ozs (50-110g/1/2 – 1 stick) butter
4 teaspoons mixed finely-chopped fresh parsley, chives, fennel and thyme leaves
salt and freshly ground pepper
Preheat the oven to 190°C/375°F/regulo 5.
Turn the fish on its side and remove the head. Wash the fish and clean the slit very thoroughly. With a sharp knife, cut through the skin right round the fish, just where the ‘fringe’ meets the flesh. Be careful to cut neatly and to cross the side cuts at the tail or it will be difficult to remove the skin later on.
Sprinkle the fish with salt and freshly-ground pepper and lay them in 1cm (1/2 inch) of water in a shallow baking tin. Bake in a moderately hot oven for 20-30 minutes according to the size of the fish. The water should have just evaporated as the fish is cooked. Check to see whether the fish is cooked by lifting the flesh from the bone at the head; it should lift off the bone easily and be quite white with no trace of pink.
Meanwhile, melt the butter and stir in the freshly-chopped herbs. Just before serving catch the skin down near the tail and pull it off gently (the skin will tear badly if not properly cut). Lift the fish onto hot plates and spoon the herb butter over them. Serve immediately.
My mother-in-law, Myrtle Allen, made these for her children, and has passed on the recipe to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They’ve also been a favourite at children’s tea at Ballymaloe for over 50 years. They cook into funny little shapes, uneven in texture, and can look like little monsters which amuses the children and create lots of fun.
Makes about 10 balloons
150g (5oz/generous 1 cup) white flour
2 teaspoons caster sugar
pinch of salt
1 level teaspoon baking powder
200ml (7fl oz/scant 1 cup) or more full-cream milk
extra caster sugar or cinnamon sugar (granulated sugar mixed with a little ground cinnamon) to coat
Sieve the dry ingredients into a bowl. Mix to a thick batter (dropping consistency) with milk.
Preheat a deep-fryer to 190°C (385°F).
Take a heaped teaspoonful of the mixture and push it gently off with your finger so that it drops in a round ball into the fat. Fry until puffed and golden. Remove and drain. Repeat the process until you have used up all the batter.
Roll the balloons in caster sugar or cinnamon sugar and serve at once.
Delicious with sweet apple sauce flavoured with a little cinnamon, and a bowl of pastry cream for dipping.
Ballymaloe Ice Bowl
I remember how thrilled Myrtle was when her attempts to make an ice bowl to keep the ice cream chilled on their famous sweet trolley at Ballymaloe House was finally successful.
“It took me twelve years to find the solution to keeping ice cream cold on the sweet trolley in my restaurant. At first we used to unmould and decorate our ices on to a plate. This was alright on a busy night when they got eaten before melting. On quieter occasions the waitresses performed relay races from the dining-room to the deep freeze. I dreamed about 19th Century ice boxes filled from ice houses, to my husband’s increasing scorn, and then I thought I had a solution. A young Irish glass blower produced beautiful hand-blown glass cylinders which I filled with ice-cream and fitted into beautiful tulip shaped glass bowls. These I filled with ice cubes. Six months later, however, due to either the stress of the ice or the stress of the waitresses, my bowls were gone and so was my money.
In desperation I produced an ice bowl. It turned out to be a stunning and practical presentation for a restaurant trolley or a party buffet”
To make a Ballymaloe Ice Bowl
Take two bowls, one about double the capacity of the other. Half fill the big bowl with cold water. Float the second bowl inside the first. Weight it down with water or ice cubes until the rims are level. Place a square of fabric on top and secure it with a strong rubber band or string under the rim of the lower bowl, as one would tie on a jam pot cover. Adjust the small bowl to a central position. The cloth holds it in place. Put the bowls on a Swiss roll tin and place in a deep freeze, if necessary re-adjusting the position of the small bowl as you put it in. After 24 hours or more take it out of the deep freeze.
Remove the cloth and leaves for 15-20 minutes, by which time the small bowl should lift out easily. Then try to lift out the ice-bowl. It should be starting to melt slightly from the outside bowl, in which case it will slip out easily. If it isn’t, then just leave for 5 or 10 minutes more, don’t attempt to run it under the hot or even cold tap, or it may crack. If you are in a great rush, the best solution is to wring out a tea-towel in hot water and wrap that around the large bowl for a few minutes. Altogether the best course of action is to perform this operation early in the day and then fill the ice bowl with scoops of ice-cream, so that all you have to do when it comes to serving the ice-cream is to pick up the ice bowl from the freezer and place it on the serving dish. Put a folded serviette under the ice bowl on the serving dish to catch any drips.
At Ballymaloe, Myrtle Allen surrounds the ice bowl with vine leaves in Summer, scarlet Virginia creeper in Autumn and red-berried holly at Christmas. However, as you can see I’m a bit less restrained and I can’t resist surrounding it with flowers!
However you present it, ice-cream served in a bowl of ice like this usually draws gasps of admiration when you bring it to the table.
In the restaurant we make a new ice-bowl every night, but at home when the dessert would be on the table for barely half an hour, it should be possible to use the ice bowl several times. As soon as you have finished serving, give the bowl a quick wash under the cold tap and get it back into the freezer again. This way you can often get 2 or 3 turns from a single ice bowl.
Don’t leave a serving spoon resting against the side of the bowl or it will melt a notch in the rim.
Carrageen Moss Pudding
Myrtle’s recipe for Carrageen Moss pudding is the very best… Light delicate and super nutritious. It is still served in Ballymaloe every evening with a seasonal fruit compote and softly whipped cream.
7g (1⁄4oz) cleaned, well-dried carrageen moss (1 semi-closed fistful)
900ml (1 1⁄2 pints/3 3/4 pints) whole milk
1 vanilla pod or 1⁄2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 organic egg
1 tablespoon caster sugar
soft brown sugar and softly whipped cream or a compote of fruit in season
Soak the carrageen in a little bowl of tepid water for 10 minutes. It will swell and increase in size. Strain off the water and put the carrageen into a saucepan with the milk and the vanilla pod, if using. Bring to the boil and simmer very gently, covered, for 20 minutes. At that point and not before, separate the egg, put the yolk into a bowl, add the sugar and vanilla extract, if using, and whisk together for a few seconds, then pour the milk and carrageen moss through a strainer onto the egg yolk mixture, whisking all the time. By now the carrageen remaining in the strainer will be
swollen and exuding jelly. You need as much of this as possible through the strainer and whisk it into the egg and milk mixture. Test for a set in a saucer as one would with gelatine.
Whisk the egg white stiffly and fold or fluff it in gently; it will rise to make a fluffy top. Serve chilled with soft brown sugar and cream, or with a compote of fruit in season.