JR Ryall went from student to pastry chef at Ballymaloe House in County Cork, Ireland. His book “Ballymaloe Desserts: Iconic Recipes and Stories from Ireland” details treats from the infamous Ballymaloe dessert trolley.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
KCRW: What do St. Patrick’s Day festivities look like in Ireland?
JR Ryall: it tends to be quite a relaxed affair – it's very much a family holiday. Growing up, St. Patrick's Day at home would have involved us getting ready in the morning to go to the local town. We'd walk in the parade. My primary school would often organize us all to dress up in some way and we'd be marched down the town as a group and our parents would take pictures, and be very proud of all of us making it to the end. Then we'd go home and usually have what we'd consider a very traditional Irish meal. It was always bacon, cabbage and potatoes that my mother would cook. You'll find that throughout the country in the bigger cities, there'll be large parades, and people really go to town on it. So everyone gets involved. It's a very convivial, colorful affair. The holiday usually involves a couple of drinks afterwards as well, depending on what age you are. So depending which part of the country you're in, it can be relaxed or a little bit more revved up.
Is there a dessert that's particularly associated with the holiday?
Many households would probably have an Irish apple cake or an apple tart – or pie as you might know it. In Ireland when I say apple cake, usually they will be baked on a plate and traditionally in a cast iron pot on a fire. Of course now we bake them in ovens. So we usually have either an apple cake or tart, or maybe rhubarb as well, if we're lucky enough to have the first stems from the garden.
Ireland has a rich history of using seaweeds, especially carrageenan. Most people see that word on ingredient labels and have no idea what it is. Tell us about it. How's it used in cooking desserts in particular?
It fascinates a lot of people to learn that this great tradition of using seaweeds in Ireland that goes back centuries, especially for carrageenans, as we call it. Carraig is the Irish word for ‘rock,’ and carrageenan means ‘little rock.’ Even the name itself is lovely. So carrageenan moss means ‘little rock moss’ when you translate it from the Irish language. So it's a nation of seaweed. It's about the size of a closed fist, and it grows in the little rock pools all around our coastline. And the tradition around the part of the country where I live is that during a spring tide when the moon pulls the tide out further than normal, usually during the first two weeks of July, you'd pick the carrageen from just below the tide line, and lay it out on the nearby cliffs, the sun would dry it, and the rain would wash it in a time-honored way. Then, the dried seaweed could be brought indoors, and you'd have enough for the year. So the tradition then is that you would simmer the seaweed and milk to set it. You end up with a soft-set seaweed dessert. If you talk to some people, particularly of my mother's generation, they will have memories of a very overset milk dessert, and they might not look at it so fondly. But if you get your hands on a good recipe, and you soft set the milk, it's really a wonderful thing.
Tell us about your desert called Mrs. Allen's Carrageen Moss Pudding.
That is one of the signature desserts that we serve in Balymaloe House. Our desserts are served from a dessert trolley or a cart that roams the dining room that goes from table to table. People can have a little bit of each dessert on the trolley. So there's always five things that change every day. But then there's a sixth item that never changes, and that’s the moss pudding – the seaweed set milk.
Mrs. Allen always set great value on traditional Irish dishes. And when she opened the restaurant, she took great pride in serving these vernacular things, but elevating them. So the idea of having a folk food in a restaurant would have been quite revolutionary in the 1960s in Ireland. Now, there's great appreciation for these foraged foods and, you know, unusual delicacies. We like to serve the seaweed set milk, usually with a little fruit compote, whipped cream, and a sprinkle of dark brown sugar. And it's a wonderful thing, because as well as being delicious, it's sustenance. It’s full of iodine and minerals, it's good for your health. So as well as being a delicious dessert that isn't too sweet, it's also very good for you.
Custards have all kinds of the backbone of the kind of sweets that you make. What happens to all the egg whites left after us all those yolks for custard?
Indeed, egg whites are a problem for a lot of kitchens. Sometimes you'll see people discouraging them. I almost leap out of my skin when I see it because I love to make meringues. One of my favorite meringues would be an Irish coffee meringue gâteau – that is a great one for St. Patrick's Day. We wouldn't have had it at home growing up because we'd have been a little bit fancier than my mother would do. But let me explain it to you: I would flavor meringue with coffee, bake it in discs and sandwich it with a whiskey cream, and the cream slightly softens the meringue. It’s a really wonderful thing – a play on the Irish coffee, but great fun and a great way of using the egg whites.
I have a love-hate relationship with meringue, having made just way too many weeping pie tops. What are some tips you can give us to create a stable meringue that won't weep.
Start off by making sure all of the equipment is spotlessly clean. Then you have the best chance of getting the stiffest meringue when it’s whipped. And a stiffer meringue will always bake into a better finished product.
Next, I wouldn't bake anything else in the oven with the meringue because the meringue will deteriorate in moisture. If you were baking a cake or a pie, and you decided to slip some meringues into the oven at the same time, it wouldn't be such a good idea because all of that steam will interfere with the meringue. Usually I would bake meringue at a low temperature if I wanted to have a nice crisp meringue the whole way through, and I'd have nothing else in the oven. Also, be patient with it. Let it bake fully through, then you should have a good result.
The way that you pipe meringue over your lemon meringue pie is so gorgeous and different. Can you describe it and how you do it?
Growing up, my mother used to make wonderful lemon meringue pies and she'd always swirl the top with a spatula. But about 10 years ago, I got a really fun piping nozzle. It's a circular tip that you put in the bottom of the piping bag and it's a little v-notch taken out of it. Often used for French pastries, but you can get lots of different shapes with it on meringue. So I use that nozzle and pipe circles on top of the meringue, and you end up with a really striking pattern. It turns something that would normally be a very homestyle-looking dish and something that definitely has a bit of a wow factor to us.
You have quite a range of other desserts using meringue. Can you give us an idea of that range?
Sometimes I'll just spoon meringue freely into blobs. They can be wonderful to serve alongside fresh fruit and composites or even with custard and ice cream. Sometimes you might decide to push the boat out a little, in which case, I would make something like a baked Alaska, where you would cover an ice cream dome with meringue. And I love to really go to town on the patterns with that and have it nice and peaky. You’re baking it in a very hot oven – so you have a frozen ice cream center, but a lovely crisp, warm meringue exterior. Of course, there's the queen of the meringue desserts, which is the gâteau marjolaine. That’s where you fold lots of ground nuts into the meringue and bake it and thin sheets and layers with butter creams and ganache. That would be very much a special dinner time one. But there's loads of directions you can go within meringue – from the simplest blob to something that's really a show-stopping dish.
It’s almost spring. Let’s talk rhubarb. I'm really looking forward to when it finally comes to our markets here. I understand that rhubarb is one of the many plants grown at Ballymaloe.
Yes, it is. It’s the first thing we harvest every year from the walled garden. So I should mention there's a century-old walled garden adjacent to the house where the restaurant is in Ballymaloe. As soon as we get to St. Patrick's Day, we'll start picking the very first stems of rhubarb. It’s very exciting because it's the first fresh produce of the year. The variety that we have here – we actually don't know what it's called, but the stock came from a farm on the edge of Cork City, near a city to Ballymaloe from a farm that Myrtle Allen’s family had in the 1940s. So it's been in her family for over 100 years. It has a wonderful deep red color, but also a fantastic flavor. It's kind of an eye-opener when you have a flavorful rhubarb, and it sweetens it off when it's cooked. It's so good and can almost rival anything else.
What are some of the dishes you make with rhubarb?
One of the very first things I always love to do is just to poach the rhubarb simply in syrup, because that's one of the very best ways to taste it. And then that can accompany so many other desserts. It could go with the moss pudding, or on the side of a creme brulee or creme caramel, paired with an almond praline ice cream, or beside a praline cake. One of my favorite rhubarb recipes is the rhubarb custard tarte, because growing up, rhubarb and custard was a big thing in our household. The tarte elevates it a little where you have a lovely crisp, buttery shortcrust base. Then you fill it with custard and the pieces of rhubarb and bake it and it's just tender, and it’s a really wonderful way to enjoy the fresh rhubarb.
What do you consider a pie?
Around Ballymaroe, I think what most of my American friends might call a pie, we would call a tarte. We would vary the filling throughout the year. A pie is when I would have pastry beneath and on top of the fruit. So if I was making a pie, I would line a pie dish or a heat-proof plate with shortcrust pastry, and put a mound of fruit on top. The fruit could be anything from plums, apricots, apples, blackberries, or gooseberries. Put plenty of sugar on it, and then cover the top of that with some sort of flaky pastry, like a puff pastry. Or a cream pastry – that might be new to people, and that's in the book, and I think might actually have been invented at Ballymaroe because we can't really trace its origin. Then, bake it in the oven so you have a lovely crisp golden top and a nice biscuity base and a lovely juicy fruit filling.
Tell us about that cream dough.
To make it, you rub cold, salted butter into flour, but equal weights. This is a lot of butter in a pastry. If you have a pound of flour, you'd use a pound of butter. This tips the balance in the direction of something really good already. If you use that proportion, you’ll add a pint of cream. It looks like so much liquid going into the mixer, but suddenly it comes together to quite a sticky dough. Then, we chill it overnight. And miraculously, it firms up, and then we roll it from the fridge.
It’s a really wonderful versatile dough because you can make it in a machine. So anyone who feels like they have warm hands or they don't have the touch for pastry – this is very easy to make. I would use it for making little tartlets where I would cut circles of the pastry line, use little metal molds and put a fan of apple, gooseberries, or a slice of rhubarb – or whatever fruit I had on hand into it. Then, I’d sprinkle sugar on top and bake it. So you literally end up with five ingredients in the little tartlet.
When they bake, the pastry goes crisp, and it puffs up a little bit. But it's also slightly tender. It’s just a joy to eat. But you could also use that pastry to cover a pie or a tarte (as I would call it). It’s really great to have up your sleeve. It's also an egg-free pastry for anyone who doesn't want to have anything too eggy. It's one of the pastries we always have in stock in the fridge. It's really great.
Cherries are just about to come into season here, and the first recipe I make from the book will be the cherry almond galette. Could you describe it for us, please?
I'm so jealous that your cherry season starts so early. For us, we'll have another couple of months to wait. But that particular galette is a puff pastry base, so I would cut a circle of puff pastry and spread some from frangipane (an almond cream or an almond mixture) on top of the pastry, leaving a border around the edge. For the cherries, I would run a knife around the stone, twist the cherries, take the stones out – but trying to keep the best shape, and then arrange them on top of the almond mixture. Then, sprinkle some sugar on and bake it in a hot oven. In the time it takes to bake. The cherries soften and some of their juices run into the frangipane, and the pastry puffs up around us. And it's a really, really good thing. I actually love to bring that on a picnic. There's a lovely spot on the nearby cliffs with that bouncy grass that you can sit on, and if you bring one of those galettes over on a sunny evening, it's a good day.
Irish Coffee Meringue Gâteau
This gâteau plays on the flavours of Irish coffee. The cream is flavoured with Irish whiskey and the meringue is flavoured with coffee. I like to assemble this gâteau a few hours before I plan to serve it, to give the boozy cream a chance to slightly soften the meringue.
A fun variation of this recipe is to pipe the coffee meringue into small ‘kisses’, which when baked can be sandwiched together with the whiskey cream, to make whimsical baby meringues.
FOR THE MERINGUE:
- 3 teaspoons instant coffee powder (not granules)
- 1⅔ cups, plus 2 teaspoons icing (confectioners') sugar
- 3 large (US extra-large) egg whites
TO ASSEMBLE AND DECORATE:
- 3 tablespoons Irish whiskey
- 2½ cups whipped cream
- icing (confectioners') sugar, for sprinkling
- unsweetened cocoa powder, for sprinkling
- TO MAKE THE MERINGUE: Preheat the oven to 265°F. Cover a large baking sheet with baking paper and use a pencil to draw three 7-inch diameter circles on the paper. Flip the paper over so the pencil is on the underside.
- Sift the instant coffee powder and 2 teaspoons of icing (confectioners') sugar together and set aside.
- Place the egg whites and 1⅔ cups of icing sugar into the spotlessly clean bowl of an electric stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Begin whisking at medium speed. After about 1 minute, increase the speed to full and whisk until the mixture forms stiff peaks, about 10 minutes.
- Gently fold the coffee and sugar mixture into the stiff meringue, let it sit for about
- 30 seconds and fold once more. In this time the coffee powder will begin to dissolve into the meringue.
- Transfer some of the mixture to a piping (pastry) bag and pipe twelve small meringue kisses on the lined baking sheet. Evenly spread the remaining meringue in three thin disks, using the pencil circles as a guide. Bake for about 1 hour until crisp and set. When the meringue is cooked it will lift easily away from the baking paper. Allow to cool completely.
- TO ASSEMBLE AND DECORATE: In a bowl, fold the whiskey into the whipped cream. Put one of the meringue discs on a serving plate. Spread or pipe just less than half of the whiskey cream over the meringue, taking care to keep the edges neat. Put the second circle of meringue on top and cover with a similar amount of cream as before. Place the third meringue circle on top and press down lightly. Decorate the top with the remaining whiskey cream, the coffee meringue kisses and a light dusting of icing sugar and cocoa powder.
Excerpted from Ballymaloe Desserts, Iconic Recipes and Stories from Ireland © 2022 by JR Ryall. Photography © 2022 by Cliodhna Prendergast. Reproduced by permission of Phaidon. All rights reserved.