Nov 102018
 

Today is the birthday (1668) of François Couperin, a French Baroque composer, organist and harpsichordist. who was known as Couperin le Grand to distinguish him from other members of the musically able Couperin family.

Couperin was born into one of the best-known musical families of Europe. His father Charles was organist at Church Saint-Gervais in Paris, a position previously occupied by Charles’s brother Louis Couperin, a highly regarded keyboard virtuoso and composer whose career was cut short by an early death. As a boy, François must have received his first music lessons from his father. Unfortunately, Charles died in 1679. The church council at Saint-Gervais hired Michel Richard Delalande to serve as new organist, on the condition that François would replace him at age 18. Meanwhile, the boy was taken care of and taught by organist Jacques-Denis Thomelin, who served both at the court and at the famous church of St Jacques-de-la-Boucherie.

In 1689 Couperin married Marie-Anne Ansault,  and the next year he published  Pieces d’orgue, a collection of organ masses that was praised by Delalande (who may have assisted with both composition and publication). In three more years Couperin succeeded his former teacher Thomelin at the court. The new appointment was extremely prestigious and brought Couperin in contact with some of the finest composers of his time, as well as numerous members of the aristocracy. His earliest chamber music dates from around that time. The numerous duties Couperin carried out at the court were accompanied by duties as organist at Saint Gervais, and also by the composition and publication of new music. He obtained a 20-year royal privilege to publish in 1713 and used it immediately to issue the first volume (out of four) of his harpsichord works, Pieces de clavecin. A harpsichord playing manual followed in 1716, as well as other collections of keyboard and chamber music. In 1717 Couperin succeeded one of his most eminent colleagues, Jean-Baptiste-Henry d’Anglebert, as ordinaire de la musique de la chambre du roi pour le clavecin, one of the highest possible appointments for a court musician. However, his involvement in the musical activities at the court may have diminished after Louis XIV’s death in 1715.

Couperin’s health declined steadily throughout the 1720s. The services of a cousin were required by 1723 at Saint Gervais, and in 1730 Couperin’s position as court harpsichordist was taken up by his daughter Marguerite-Antoinette. Couperin’s final publications were Pièces de violes (1728) and the fourth volume of harpsichord pieces (1730). He died in 1733. The building where Couperin and his family lived from 1724 still stands and is located at the corner of the rue Radziwill and the rue des Petits Champs. The composer was survived by at least three of his children: Marguerite-Antoinette, who continued working as court harpsichordist until 1741, Marie-Madeleine (Marie-Cécile), who became a nun and may have worked as organist at the Maubuisson Abbey, and François-Laurent, who according to contemporary sources left the family after François died.

Couperin acknowledged his debt to the Italian composer Corelli. He introduced Corelli’s trio sonata form to France, for example. Couperin’s grand trio sonata was subtitled Le Parnasse, ou L’apothéose de Corelli (“Parnassus, or the Apotheosis of Corelli”). In it he blended the Italian and French styles of music in a set of pieces which he called Les goûts réunis (“Styles Reunited”).

His most famous book, L’art de toucher le clavecin (“The Art of Harpsichord Playing”, published in 1716), contains suggestions for fingerings, touch, ornamentation and other features of keyboard technique. This link has dozens of Couperin’s pieces on it:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gm3Ep0_-cpc

Couperin’s four volumes of harpsichord music, published in Paris in 1713, 1717, 1722, and 1730, contain over 230 individual pieces, and he also published a book of Concerts Royaux which can be played as solo harpsichord pieces or as small chamber works. The four collections for harpsichord alone are grouped into ordres, a synonym of suites, containing traditional dances as well as pieces with descriptive titles. They are notable for Couperin’s detailed indication of ornaments, which in most harpsichord music of the period was left to the discretion of the player. The first and last pieces in an ordre were of the same tonality, but the middle pieces could be in other closely related tonalities. These volumes were admired by Johann Sebastian Bach, who exchanged letters with Couperin, and later by Brahms and by Ravel, who memorialized their composer in Le tombeau de Couperin (Couperin’s Memorial).

Many of Couperin’s keyboard pieces have evocative, picturesque titles (such as “The little windmills” and “The mysterious barricades”) and express a mood through key choices, adventurous harmonies and (resolved) discords. They have been likened to miniature tone poems. These features attracted Richard Strauss, who orchestrated some of them.

I have taken a recipe for a venison stew with beetroots from the 1674 classic, The English and French Cook, to commemorate Couperin. In the 17th and 18th centuries, there were a great many recipes shared by English and French cooks before the cordon bleu school put its stamp on French cooking. The recipe is straightforward except noting that “sweet spices” could be thyme, sage, parsley, rosemary, etc., and Saunders is red sandalwood (Pterocarpus santalinus) that was used in Medieval cooking to give a red color to dishes.

Potage of Venison

Take a Haunch of Venison, and cut it into six pieces, and place them in the bottom of a Pan or Pot, then put in no more Water than will cover it, let it boil, then scum it, after that add to it a good quantity of whole Pepper; when it is half boiled, put in four whole Onions, Cloves, and large Mace, some sliced Ginger, Nutmeg, three or four faggots of sweet Herbs, let it boil till the Venison be very tender, and a good part of the broth be wasted; after this pour out the broth from the meat into a Pipkin, keep your Venison hot in the same Pot by adding other hot broth unto it; then take a couple of red-Beet roots, having very well parboil’d them before, cut them into square pieces as big as a shilling, and put them into the broth which is in your Pipkin, and let them boil till they are very tender, add unto the boiling four Anchovies minced, then dish up your Venison on Sippets of French-bread, then pour on your broth, so much as will near-upon fill the Dish, then take your roots by themselves, and toss them in a little drawn Butter, and lay them all over the Venison; if the Beets be good, it will make the broth red enough, which you must have visible round about the Dish sides, but if it prove pale, put to it some Saunders: This is a very savory Potage.

Jan 042018
 

Today is the birthday (1809) of Louis Braille, inventor of a system of reading and writing for use by the blind or visually impaired. His system remains virtually unchanged to this day, and is known worldwide simply as braille. The immense personal legacy of Louis Braille was described in a 1952 essay by T.S. Eliot:

Perhaps the most enduring honor to the memory of Louis Braille is the half-conscious honor we pay him by applying his name to the script he invented – and, in this country [England], adapting the pronunciation of his name to our own language. We honor Braille when we speak of braille. His memory has in this way a security greater than that of the memories of many men more famous in their day.

To honor Louis Braille’s achievement, today is celebrated as World Braille Day.

Louis Braille was born in Coupvray, a small town about twenty miles east of Paris. He and his three elder siblings – Monique Catherine (b. 1793), Louis-Simon (b. 1795), and Marie Céline (b. 1797) – lived with their parents, Simon-René and Monique, on three hectares of land and vineyards in the countryside. Simon-René maintained a successful enterprise as a leather maker and manufacturer of horse tack. As soon as he could walk, Braille spent time playing in his father’s workshop. At the age of 3, he was playing with some of the tools, trying to make holes in a piece of leather with an awl. Squinting closely at the surface, he pressed down hard to drive the point in, and the awl glanced across the tough leather and struck him in one of his eyes. A local physician bound and patched the affected eye and even arranged for Braille to be met the next day in Paris by a surgeon, but no treatment could save the damaged eye. In agony, he suffered for weeks as the wound became severely infected. The infection then spread to his other eye, likely due to sympathetic ophthalmia.

Braille survived the torment of the infection but by the age of 5 he was completely blind in both eyes. Braille did not realize at first that he had lost his sight, and often asked why it was always dark. His parents made many efforts to raise Braille in as normal a fashion as possible. He learned to navigate the village and country paths with canes his father made him, and he grew up seemingly at peace with his blindness.

Braille went to school in Coupvray until the age of 10. Then he attended one of the first schools for blind children in the world, the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles (National Institute for Blind Youth), in Paris. At the time the Institute was underfunded, but it provided a relatively stable environment for blind children to learn and associate together. The children were taught how to read by a system devised by the school’s founder, Valentin Haüy, who was not blind himself, but was a philanthropist who devoted his life to helping the blind. He designed and manufactured a small library of books for the children using a technique of embossing heavy paper with the raised imprints of Latin letters. Readers would trace their fingers over the text, comprehending slowly.

Braille was helped by the Haüy books, but he also despaired over their lack of depth: the amount of information kept in such books was necessarily small. Because the raised letters were made in a complex artisanal process using wet paper pressed against copper wire, the children could not hope to write in this manner by themselves. So that Braille could send letters back home, Simon-René provided him with an alphabet made from bits of thick leather. It was a slow and cumbersome process, but he could at least trace the letters’ outlines and write his first sentences.

The handcrafted Haüy books all came in uncomfortable sizes and weights for children. They were laboriously constructed, very fragile, and expensive to obtain: when Haüy’s school first opened, it had a total of three books. Nonetheless, Haüy promoted their use enthusiastically. To him, the books presented a system which would be readily approved by educators and they seemed – to the sighted – to offer the best achievable results. Braille and his schoolmates, however, could detect all too well the books’ crushing limitations. Haüy’s efforts still provided a breakthrough achievement – the recognition of the sense of touch as a workable strategy for sightless reading.

Braille read the Haüy books repeatedly, and he was equally attentive to the oral instruction offered by the school. He proved to be a highly proficient student and, after he had exhausted the school’s curriculum, he was immediately asked to remain as a teacher’s aide. By 1833, he was elevated to full teacher status. For much of the rest of his life, Braille stayed at the Institute where he taught history, geometry, and algebra. Braille’s ear for music also enabled him to become an accomplished cellist and organist through classes taught by Jean-Nicolas Marrigues at the school. Later in life, he played the organ for churches all over France. Braille was a devout Catholic, and held the position of organist in Paris at the Church of Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs from 1834 to 1839 (where Marrigues had played on a famous Clicquot organ), and later at the Church of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul.

Braille was determined to invent a system of reading and writing that could bridge the gap in communication between the sighted and the blind. In his own words:

Access to communication in the widest sense is access to knowledge, and that is vitally important for us if we [the blind] are not to go on being despised or patronized by condescending sighted people. We do not need pity, nor do we need to be reminded we are vulnerable. We must be treated as equals – and communication is the way this can be brought about.

In 1821, Braille learned of a communication system devised by Captain Charles Barbier of the French Army. Some sources depict Braille learning about it from a newspaper account read to him by a friend, while others say the officer, aware of its potential, made a special visit to the school. In either case, Barbier willingly shared his invention called “night writing” which was a code of dots and dashes impressed into thick paper. These impressions could be interpreted entirely by the fingers, letting soldiers share information on the battlefield without having light or needing to speak. The captain’s code turned out to be too complex to use in its original military form, but it inspired Braille to develop a system of his own.

Braille largely completed his system by 1824, when he was 15 years old. From Barbier’s night writing, he innovated by simplifying its form and maximizing its efficiency. He made uniform columns for each letter, and he reduced the twelve raised dots to six. He published his system in 1829, and by the second edition in 1837 he had discarded the dashes because they were too difficult to read. Crucially, Braille’s smaller cells were capable of being recognized as letters with a single touch of one finger.

Braille created his own raised-dot system by using an awl, (ironically, the same implement which had blinded him). In the process of designing his system, he also designed an ergonomic interface for using it, based on Barbier’s own slate and stylus tools. By soldering two metal strips across the slate, he created a secure area for the stylus which would keep the lines straight and readable. “It bears the stamp of genius” wrote Dr. Richard Slating French, former director of the California School for the Blind, “like the Roman alphabet itself.”

The system was soon extended to include braille musical notation. Braille was passionate about his own music, and wanted a musical notation system for the blind that would be “flexible enough to meet the unique requirements of any instrument.” His first book, published in 1829, Method of Writing Words, Music, and Plain Songs by Means of Dots, for Use by the Blind and Arranged for Them, included music notation along with standard writing. By a strange twist of fate, this book was first printed by using the raised letter method of the Haüy system.

Although Braille was admired and respected by his students, his writing system was not taught at the Institute during his lifetime. The successors of Valentin Haüy, who had died in 1822, showed no interest in altering the established methods of the school, and, in fact, they were actively hostile to the use of braille. Dr. Alexandre François-René Pignier, headmaster at the school, was dismissed from his post after he had a history book translated into braille.

Braille had always been a sickly child, and his condition worsened in adulthood. A persistent respiratory illness, long believed to be tuberculosis, dogged him, and by the age of 40, he was forced to relinquish his position as a teacher. Despite the lack of a cure at the time, Braille lived with the illness for 16 years. When his condition reached the terminal stage, he was admitted to the infirmary at the Royal Institution, where he died in 1852, two days after his 43rd birthday.

Through the overwhelming insistence of the blind pupils, Braille’s system was finally adopted by the Institute in 1854, two years after his death. The system spread throughout the French-speaking world, but was slower to expand in other places. However, by the time of the first all-European conference of teachers of the blind in 1873, the cause of braille was championed by Dr. Thomas Rhodes Armitage and thereafter its international use increased rapidly. By 1882, Dr. Armitage was able to report that “There is now probably no institution in the civilized world where braille is not used except in some of those in North America.” Eventually even these holdouts relented: braille was officially adopted by schools for the blind in the United States in 1916, and a universal braille code for English was formalized in 1932.

I am not a great fan of television, and I especially dislike so-called “reality” shows, which are clearly manipulated (sometimes even scripted). I used to watch chef competitions once in a while, however, not because I was interested in the competitors, but because I got inspiration from the dishes they prepared once in a while. By chance I came across a blind competitor, Christine Hà (Vietnamese: “Hà Huyền Trân) on Masterchef in 2012 when I was flipping channels one evening. I especially despise Masterchef, and really cannot watch it. Gordon Ramsay is a (carefully crafted) self-important prick, and it’s abundantly clear that his “reality” cooking shows are staged. I expect Masterchef predetermines the winner for the sake of entertaining television. The fact that Hà won seems like a no-brainer in crafting a following and good ratings. Nonetheless, her dishes are worth a look.  This was her audition to see if she would get an apron in able to be a competitor in the 3rd series.

If you are not convinced it is fake, take note of the judges’ votes. The first is enthusiastic, the second says no. So it is up to Ramsay (big drama !!!) to cast the deciding vote. I’m sure she is a good cook, and she is certainly comfortable in the kitchen. The fact that she had no rice to accompany the soup in her first dish was a major mistake. In SE Asia in general, soup is always accompanied by rice. There is no recipe given, or even shown, on the Masterchef clip, but canh chua (catfish soup) is a well-known Vietnamese dish.  Here’s a recipe for you to try.

Canh Chua

Ingredients

½ lb catfish steaks (on the bone)
2 tbsp fish sauce
8 cups chicken stock
5 tbsp granulated sugar (or to taste)
2 tbsp tamarind powder
1 tsp salt (or to taste)
1 medium size taro stem (sliced thin)
2 cups bean sprouts
4 large tomatoes, quartered
1 Thai pepper, sliced thin.
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced thin
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp fresh Thai Basil, sliced in thin strips

Instructions

Douse the catfish with fish sauce, and let it sit for at least 30 minutes (preferably refrigerated overnight).

Bring the chicken stock to a boil in a large pan. Add the catfish, with its juices, and simmer for 15 minutes. Skim any scum that rises as the fish cooks.

Heat the vegetable oil in a skillet and sauté the garlic until it is pale golden. Remove with a slotted spoon and dry with paper towels. Mix with the chile and basil, and set aside.

Add the tomatoes, taro stems, sugar, tamarind, and salt to the soup, and cook for 3 minutes. Add the bean sprouts and immediately remove from the heat.

Serve the soup in bowls with the garlic, chile, and basil mix as a garnish. Serve plain boiled rice separately.

 

Nov 262013
 

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On this date in 1379, New College, Oxford, was founded by William of Wykeham.  This is taken from the college’s website:

New College was founded in 1379 by William of Wykeham (1324-1404), bishop of Winchester, as ‘the college of St Mary of Winchester at Oxford’. Almost immediately it became known as ‘New College’ to distinguish it from the other Oxford college dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Oriel (1326).

New College was founded to praise God; support the Faith, pray for the souls of the Founder, his relatives and other benefactors; and to provide higher education for the clergy. Wykeham had risen from modest beginnings in rural Hampshire to become the chief minister of Edward III, his parvenu status being reflected in his self-confident personal motto adopted by his college: ‘Manners Makyth Man’.

His statutes provided for a college comprising a Warden and 70 fellows, both graduates and, a novelty at the time, undergraduates. Senior fellows taught the juniors, the beginning of a formal tutorial system. Every fellow had to have been a scholar of Wykeham’s other foundation, Winchester College (1382). The provision of religious services, chaplains and choristers were central to Wykeham’s scheme; the choir and choir school persist to this day.

Architecturally New College was innovative in its enclosed quadrangle (finished 1386). The cloisters were completed in 1400.

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In its first medieval heyday, it produced leaders of church and state such as Archbishops of Canterbury Henry Chichele and William Warham and humanist scholars such as William Grocyn, the first teacher of Greek at Oxford.

The Reformation stripped the college of its intellectual leadership, late sixteenth and seventeenth century fellows tending to introspective learning. After the Civil War, during which the college supported the king, the college expanded in wealth and luxury. An additional storey was added to the Front Quad in the 1670s. Between 1682 and 1707 the Garden Quad was built to accommodate a handful of fee-paying Gentlemen Commoners.

Many fellows only lingered after taking their degrees until appointed to lucrative college parishes at which point they resigned and could get married. Until the 1860s, fellows could not marry, although Wardens had done so since 1551.

While not entirely a sybaritic, slothful backwater, New College was prevented by its medieval statutes from adapting to rising demand for university education. The largest college by far in 1379, by 1800, it was one of the smallest, with at most 20 of the 70 Fellows undergraduates, all exclusively Wykehamist and dominated by Founders’ Kin.

I like the “not entirely” in that last paragraph.  Of course, now New College is as up to date as any Oxford college (although I had a couple of pals there in my freshman year for whom “sybaritic” and “slothful” would have been entirely apt epithets).

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At the time of its founding, the College was a grand example of the “Perpendicular style” (late English Gothic)  with the closest resembling college being Merton. New College was larger than all of the six existing Oxford Colleges combined.  At this time the Quadrangle did not have the upper storey seen today, and the the bell tower was added later in the fifteenth century. The upper storey was added in the sixteenth century as attics which, in 1674, were replaced by a third storey as seen today. Also, the oval turf is an eighteenth-century addition. Today, the college is one of Oxford’s most widely visited.  The College’s grounds are among the largest of the Oxford University colleges.

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The Hall, the dining room and formerly lecture hall of the college, measures 80′ by 40′. The paneling was added when Archbishop Warham was bursar of the College in the late fifteenth century. The marble flooring replaced the original flooring in 1722. The open oak roof had been covered by a ceiling at the end of the eighteenth century and little is known of it. It was not until the Junior Common Room offered one thousand pounds to restore the hall roof, that work began on the roof seen today,under the architect Sir Gilbert Scott in 1865. The windows were replaced at the time with painted glass and the portraits moved to a higher level. In giving the uses of the Hall, Wykeham forbade wrestling, dancing, and all noisy games because the chapel adjoined it, and prescribed the use of Latin in conversation.

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The Cloisters and the Chapel are of particular note; much of the medieval stained glass in the ante-chapel has recently been restored. Renowned for its grand interior, some of the stained glass windows were designed by the 18th-century portraitist Sir Joshua Reynolds and contain designs by Sir Jacob Epstein and El Greco. The organ was built by the firm of Grant, Degens, and Bradbeer in 1969, in a case designed by George Pace. Somewhat revolutionary at the time, it remains a remarkable instrument today.

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The choir stalls contain 62 14th-century misericords (folding shelves to lean against during long standing prayers), which are of outstanding beauty.

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The niches of the reredos (altar screen) were provided by Sir Gilbert Scott and were fitted with statues in the 19th century.  Near the east end of the chapel is the Founder’s Crosier, a relic overlaid with silver gilt and enamel that resembles a pastoral staff. The bell tower contains one of the oldest rings of ten bells in England, rung by the Oxford Society of Change Ringers and the Oxford University Society of Change Ringers. If you don’t know what this means, don’t worry, English change ringing is a mystery to all but the chosen few.  Just accept that a tower with a ring of ten bells is a BIG DEAL. Bell ringers wait years to have a chance to ring them — once or twice in a lifetime.

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The cloisters are often used for dramatic productions.  As an undergraduate I saw a wonderful set of Medieval plays performed here — a perfect location. The cloisters can also be seen in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Some Oxford colleges are famous for their recipes.  Queen’s college, for example, originated the tradition of the decorated boar’s head for Christmas, and Magdalen college has served specially marinated venison (culled from its deer herd) once a year at a special dinner every year for over 250 years.  These recipes have entered modern cookbooks.  Other colleges’ recipes are less well known, and may not be used nowadays, although they can be found in the college archives.  Such is the case with New College puddings. Recipes can be found in several eighteenth century cookbooks such as this one in English Housewifry by Elizabeth Moxon (1764)

422. To make new COLLEGE PUDDINGS.

Grate an old penny loaf, put to it a like quantity of suet shred, a nutmeg grated, a little salt and some currans, then beat some eggs in a little sack and sugar, mix all together, and knead it as stiff as for manchet, and make it up in the form and size of a turkey’s egg, but a little flatter; take a pound of butter, put it in a dish or stew-pan, and set it over a clear fire in a chafing-dish, and rub your butter about the dish till it is melted, then put your puddings in, and cover the dish, but often turn your puddings till they are brown alike, and when they are enough grate some sugar over them, and serve them up hot.

For a side-dish you must let the paste lie for a quarter of an hour before you make up your puddings.

The entire text of the original book can be found here: http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/book1764moxon.htm

A virtually identical recipe is reported by Janet Clarkson, “the old foodie,” in her excellent blog:, http://www.theoldfoodie.com/2009/07/old-pudding-time.html, taken from Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife (1736), entitled “To make New-College Puddings.” I am ever so slightly perturbed by the lower case “n” in Moxton, making it seem that this is a new recipe for college pudding (a boiled suet pudding reminiscent of Christmas pudding) rather than a recipe from New College.  But I am going to tamp down my qualms and accept that this recipe is, indeed, from New College, even though I asked an old friend who went to New College about them and he said he had never heard of them.  Not surprising; my college has old recipes it never uses, even for special occasions.  Here is my effort at creating the dish.

New College Pudding

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Combine 1 cup of breadcrumbs and 1 cup of shredded suet. Rub the flour and suet well together with your fingers as you would for pastry, and then add a small handful of raisins and a pinch of salt.  The recipe calls for currants, but I cannot get them in Argentina. Currants would be more delicate.

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Mix together 1 egg with an equal volume of sherry (sack) or brandy, 1 tbsp of sugar, and 1 tsp of nutmeg, and add this to the flour/suet mix.  Knead with your hands to form a stiff dough.  Let it rest 15 minutes.

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Form into slightly flat egg-shaped balls.

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Fry in ½ inch of vegetable oil heated to 325°F/160°C until they are browned on one side, then flip them.  Do this in batches to avoid lowering the temperature of the oil too much, and overcrowding.

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Drain on a wire rack and dust with granulated sugar.

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They are delicious hot, but a bit heavy cold.  Using self raising flour in place of the breadcrumbs would make them lighter. They screamed to me to be dipped in whipped cream.

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I was not willing to spring for 1lb of butter for frying but I did save one pudding to shallow fry in a knob of butter. It was definitely richer and sweeter than those fried in oil.  In future I will shallow fry them all in butter.

Yield: 6 puddings.