Our empty plates were cleared away and we leant back on our chairs to enjoy the vibrancy that the signs of imminent summer had brought to this little corner of Clerkenwell. A beautiful day for a beautiful meal... But it wouldn't be complete without sampling one of the desserts... A slice of chocolate and apricot tart? Two scoops of home-made ice cream – made the River Cafe way, I later discovered – laced with Madiera soaked raisins, perhaps? Yet sat at the foot of the menu, was this most unusual of dishes, simply described as ‘yogurt cake’.
Our waitress said it was something of a house speciality, rarely having been off the menu. A North African dish, we were told, with a texture that somehow managed to blend cake and custard, in a single mass. I'm paraphrasing, of course, however it must be said that her description only served to make it seem more intriguing.
We ordered one portion with two spoons, and awaited the bounty of our decision. And soon enough, between us arrived a creamy and inviting plateful, certainly not what I was expecting, and if I'm honest, unlike anything I had ever seen before. Firstly, a light, almost golden crust, not too dissimilar to that of a rice pudding after a long, slow baking in the oven. On top of that lay a generous sprinkling of coarsely crushed emerald pistachios. Below, a fluffy sponge, which gave way into a citrus-scented custardy liquid at the base. The dish was finished with a slick of Greek yogurt, and a scattering of ruby pomegranate seeds, as if a handful of Persian jewels had been strewn across a white satin cloth.
The taste was even more surprising than the way it looked; a delicate balance of sweetness, lemon, orange, vanilla, held together with a sharp undertone of rich yogurt. Taking a mouthful, the sponge melted from the spoon to my mouth, and the custard carried the flavours coating every taste bud on my tongue. A rich and comforting pudding, which combines lightness and luxuriousness. The perfect end to our meal.
I was lucky enough to be taught how to make this desert by the masters, the chefs at Moro, after having recently completed a short stint working there. A stage, as it is called in the trade. I learned about its Labanese origins, and how a similar dish is eaten for breakfast in parts of Spain. The key is in striking the right balance of sweet and sharp, citrus and vanilla. Every chef at Moro seemed to have their own trick, the little touch or technique that they thought made theirs the best. Whether it be the level of water in the bain-marie, the length of time you whip the egg yolks, the temperature of the oven to begin with, and when you turn it down... But each time, whilst there were subtle differences in texture, the taste was always exceptional.
In my attempts thus far, I have tended towards over-cooking the cake very slightly. Keep an eye on yours as it cooks, and as the top begins to colour, test its’ done-ness by gently tapping the sponge on top. There should be a noticeable wobble, indicating the layer of runniness hiding somewhere beneath.
Serve with Greek yogurt, or a combined mixture of Greek and natural yogurt. If you choose not to use pomegranate seeds, then other seasonal fruits – peaches, blackberries, or even plumbs – would work just as well. Enough for six.
3 large organic or free-range eggs, separated
70g caster sugar
2 vanilla pods, split in half lengthways
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon and orange
Juice of 1 lemon
20g plain flour
30g shelled unsalted pistachio nuts, roughly chopped
Preheat the oven to 180 C/gas mark 4, and put a bain-marie of water in to warm on the middle shelf. Have ready a 25cm round or square baking dish or cake tin with a solid bottom, preferably stainless steel, or lined with greaseproof paper. Having said that, I used an oven-proof dish at home, which was more than satisfactory.
In a bowl, beat the egg yolks with half of the sugar until thick and pale. Scrape out the seeds from the vanilla pods and mix into the egg-sugar mixture. Add the yogurt, lemon zest, lemon juice and the flour, and mix well. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites with the remaining sugar until soft peaks form. Gently and evenly, fold the whites into the yogurt mixture. Pour the mixture into the baking tin.
Place the tin in the bain-marie, making sure that the boiling water comes halfway up the tin, and cook for about 20 minutes. Then add the chopped pistachios, sprinkling them gently on top, and continue cooking for a further 20 minutes or until the top is light brown in colour. The correct consistency of the cake should be a light sponge on top with a wet custard below.
Delicious warm or chilled.