Recipes, memories and doodles in Rory O'Connell’s new cook book

Talented Cork-based chef Rory O’Connell talks to CHRIS DUNNE about his new cookbook, hopes for 2021, and also shares a tasty recipe
Recipes, memories and doodles in Rory O'Connell’s new cook book

Rory O'Connell co-founded Ballymaloe Cookery School

NOT only is Rory O’Connell a master chef who teaches people about the joy of preparing, cooking and eating food at Ballymaloe Cookery School in Shanagarry, East Cork — he has also turned his hand to doodling!

“While I was writing the The Joy Of Food: ACelebration Of Good Things To Eat over the last few years, I was using my iphone and my ipad to do some drawing which ended up as illustrations in the book!” he explains.

While Rory is a talented chef, appearing regularly on our TV screens, he doesn’t claim to have a secondary occupation.

“I’m not a talented artist, I hasten to add,” says Rory, laughing.

“But I thought the doodles added an extra charm to the The Joy Of Food.

The book, which Rory says is a labour of love, packed full with recipes showing you how to make the most of what’s in season, has a personal charm sprinkled inside the pages in the form of personal essays penned by Rory.

“Writing the book was a time for me to be more personal and more reflective,” explains Rory, who joined his sister Darina Allen in Ballymaloe Cookery School 35 years ago.

“I hope my own personal stories will give people a better insight to what makes me tick as a professional cook and teacher, and I hope the book promoting local food and local produce makes them think more about what they eat.”

Rory, cutting his teeth in some of the best restaurants in Europe, got his just deserts when he broke a famous London Restaurateur’s favourite wooden spoon when he was standing in for his traveling commis chef at Chez Nico.

“The wooden spoon I was using just snapped in my hand,” recalls Rory.

“A silence descended in the kitchen and Nico (Ladenis) proceeded to tell me in detail how far the wooden spoon had travelled with him and how he felt it was part of his success.”

How was the matter resolved?

“The diners started arriving and our minds were diverted to the matter in hand, feeding the guests.”

But soon Rory had Nico eating out of his hand.

“He was delighted with my cooking and his shiny Michelin stars remained intact,” says Rory.

“At my departing lunch, Nico presented me with an enormous wooden spoon engraved with a message, ‘Rory’s lucky wooden spoon’!”

Another charming essay included in The Joy Of Food is about picnics. This is particularly timely given that many of us have this year had to resort to the simple joy in the great outdoors.

“Picnics have always featured in my family,” says Rory, who grew up in Cullohill, Co. Laois, and is the second youngest of nine children.

“We had a childhood filled with our mother’s great cooking, aimless wandering in the woods, and plenty of fresh air.

Rory O'Connell co-founded Ballymaloe Cookery School Picture: Clare Keogh
Rory O'Connell co-founded Ballymaloe Cookery School Picture: Clare Keogh

Mrs O’Connell had many hungry mouths to feed.

“The propensity to eat al fresco when travelling may well have been borne out of my mother’s need to feed a large brood more economically rather than a deep-seated desire to be en plein air,” says Rory.

The day trips generated much excitement in the O’Connell household.

“Coming from the landlocked county of Laois, we adored the prospect of swimming in the sea. Tramore was always a popular destination because of its carnival atmosphere, its long wide beach with waves and salty water.”

How did the adventurous family prevent sand getting on their home-made soda bread or their warm roast chicken?

“We knew a spot, we called ‘two little fields away’,” says Rory.

“We hoped nobody else would be in our special little fields as we somehow felt ownership of them for our occasional visits. Our picnic was a special happening and not particularly for sharing.”

In The Joy Of Food, Rory shares some lovely childhood memories, including little bite-sized gems about his beloved mother.

“Flasks of boiling water would have been included for my mother’s cup of tea,” says Rory.

“And a little jar of cream she took in her tea instead of the more conventional milk. One essential trip included a visit to a corner shop in Kilkenny where my mother bought butterscotch and nougat that she had a controlled weakness for.”

The sweets served a sweet tooth and boisterous children.

“At some point during the journey, if we were getting too boisterous, we were each given a single piece of butterscotch to individually unwrap and enjoy. Silence would be restored as we watched the countryside whizzing by.

“Later that night the nougat would re-appear, which we cut up carefully with a knife into smaller pieces, doled out with a reverence we grew to respect.”

Rory has huge respect for the seasonal food yielded by the autumn harvest at this time of year.

“The countryside is bathed in apples,” says Rory.

He goes into intricate detail in the book on how to cook the perfect baked pink-skinned Bramley apple.

“I have my own apple tree. Apples just off the tree are full of juices and you will get the fluffiest and lightest baked apple then. Nuts, raisins, cherries and dates are in abundance,” says Rory.

“My dried fig, almond, pistachio cake is a tasty rich alternative to the traditional Christmas cake. Cooks who want some of the dried fruit flavours of the season, but not the full-on traditional cake with all its bells and whistles, will enjoy baking this cake. The glossy chocolate icing turns the cake into a rich confection suitable for serving as a dessert cake as much as a tea cake.”

Is The Joy Of Food a cookbook for novice cooks or experienced cooks?

“This is a book for people who like to cook and who love food,” says Rory.

“I hope people will find a few gems of recipes in there and draw on them for a lifetime.”

Does it seem like a lifetime since he joined his sister in Ballymaloe Cookery School, becoming a household name just like her?

“My mother suggested I join Darina at the cookery school when I decided Law wasn’t for me. At the end of the summer, after working on reception, I hadn’t a notion of what I wanted to do,” says Rory.

“I asked Mrs Allen if I could go into the kitchen because there were a few dishes I wanted to learn how to cook that I hadn’t picked up from my mother.”

He took to the kitchen like a duck to water.

“It was apparent to me that I was able to cook and I actually loved it. Really, really loved it.”

Rory, a natural cook, brings all his senses, sight, sound, smell, touch and taste, into the mix as he creates culinary delights.

Describing the joy of a perfect pomegranate, the sharp green inside a freshly pickled cucumber, the delicacy of creamy savoury custard, gives us a flavour of the joy Rory gets out of cooking.

“Food is a great comfort and when it is shared with loved ones it is even a greater joy,” says Rory.

“Hopefully we can share some part of Christmas this year with loved ones so it won’t be lonely.”

What else gives Rory joy apart from preparing food and lovingly cooking it?

“I take a quick dip in the sea every morning for literally 60 seconds!” says Rory.

“It sets me up for the day. I feel so blessed living near the sea.”

He also feels blessed looking forward to spring and renewed hope.

“I planted spring bulbs in the garden and a few other bits and pieces,” says Rory. “It is like a message of hope.”

The Joy Of Food; A Celebration Of Good Things To Eat by Rory O’Connell is in all good bookshops and is available on Amazon for €24.99.

The Joy of Food, Rory O'Connell
The Joy of Food, Rory O'Connell

Rory’s recipe for Dried Fig, Date, Almond, Pistachio and Chocolate Cake.

Ingredients (Serves 8-12.)

Cake:

4 eggs

170g castor sugar

200g butter melted and cooked, plus extra for greasing the tin

200g ground almonds

150g Medjool dates, stoned and chopped into 5cm dice

150g dried figs, chopped into 5cm dice

100g pistachios coarsely chopped

1 teasp orange flower water

1 teasp orange or vanilla extract

Icing:

8gm chocolate roughly chopped

8gm butter chilled and diced

To serve: softly whipped cream or crème fraiche.

You will need a 1 x 2.4 cake tin

Method:

  • Pre-heat the oven to 170%. Paint the sides of the cake tin with a little melted butter and line the base of the tin with a disc of non-stick baking paper.
  • Place the eggs and the sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer and whisk until the mixture is pale and light. This will take about five minutes to achieve. The mixture should be firm enough to hold a figure of eight if lifted up with the whisk.
  • Using a long-handled flexible spatula, fold in the melted butter followed by the ground almonds, dates, figs, pistachios, orange flower water and orange or vanilla extract. Pour the butter into the prepared tin and smooth the surface.
  • Bake in the pre-heated oven for 50 minutes, by which time the cake should be well coloured and beginning to come away from the sides of the tin.
  • Remove from the oven and place the cake, still in the tin, on a wire rack to cool. After 30 minutes run a blunt table knife around the inside of the tin and turn out the cake. You will notice that the fruit and nuts have fallen to the bottom of the cake, which is perfect as you will be serving the cake upside down. I like to leave the disc of baking paper on the cake until it is completely cool.
  • To make the icing, place the chocolate in a Pyrex bowl and sit the bowl over a saucepan of cold water. The water must not be touching the bottom of the bowl. Bring the water to a simmer and immediately turn off the heat. The chocolate will not be fully melted, but will still continue to melt over the residual heat in the saucepan.
  • When the chocolate is melted, remove the bowl from the saucepan and allow to cool until barely tepid. This is very important as if the chocolate is too warm as you beat in the butter, you may end up with a sauce rather than a spreadable icing.
  • Using an electric hand whisk, whisk the butter into the chocolate a few pieces at a time until all the butter is incorporated to yield a glossy, spreadable icing. If you have whisked in the butter too quickly oar if the chocolate was too hot as you added the butter, the icing may become runny and more like a sauce. If this happens place the bowl in the fridge and allow it to become cold. Whisk it again and it should firm up to a spreadable consistency.
  • Remove the disc of the baking paper from the cake and place it fruit side up on a large flat plate. Using a spatula or flexible palate knife, spread the icing over the top and si

des of the cake. The cake is now ready to serve with whipped cream of crème fraiche.

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