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Suffolk-based food writer Nicola Miller serves up an affogato with a difference and says adapting a traditional recipe is not sacrilege





In 2015, when a cookbook and an accompanying TV series called Simply Nigella were released, two recipes in particular made a few viewers and journalists lose their collective shit. Feature after feature recycled quotes, most of them lifted from social media: “Preposterous, lazy and not ‘real’ recipes.” “They say cooking's hard? I could do that!” “She’ll be teaching us to make a cuppa next”- you get the gist. However, cookery skills are not innate, and no recipe is ‘simple’. We all start at the beginning.

No one is born knowing how to make a cuppa; a task is so culturally embedded into British daily life that one of the ways by which occupational therapists (OTs) assess their patients' cognitive, motor and sequencing abilities is a teamaking assessment. Making a cuppa feels easy and rote for you because you've internalised, through repetition, a relatively complex series of actions that have been tested in different situations. Consider how you explain this task to someone who has never made a cup of tea - or needs to relearn how. Where do you start? What are its most significant steps? Try writing out the actions involved, explaining the rationale for each step and how it contributes to the end result. Looks kind of like a recipe, doesn’t it? And it's not a particularly easy one either.

One of Lawson’s ‘too easy’ recipes was a deconstructed ‘riff’ on a Caesar Salad where she basted a halved Romaine lettuce with a sauce made from olive oil, minced garlic and chopped anchovies, baked this in the oven for ten minutes, spooned over the zest and juice of a lemon, then returned the lettuce to the oven for a few more minutes. Lawson suggested topping the whole thing with a fried egg and - if you’re very hungry - some toasted bread instead of croutons. It looks simple, low-effort, and even lazy, as one critic said, although since when has a ‘lazy’ recipe been a bad thing?

‘Affogato’ - but with Beer
‘Affogato’ - but with Beer

Some critics objected to what they saw as Lawson’s unnecessary reworking of a classic dish. She’d anticipated this: ‘There are those who hold the view that a classic recipe is just that: a dish that’s earned its status because it, enduringly, works and to fiddle with it is an act of desecration’, say the recipe’s headnotes. ‘It’s not a dishonourable stance, but I think it essentially flawed. The classics, in food as in literature, are the very forms that can withstand and, indeed, spawn a plethora of interpretations’. Lawson has form when it comes to fiddling; an earlier recipe for Caesar Salad in her first book, How To Eat, which deploys little ‘croutons of roasted potato instead of bread’, went unremarked by the Caesar Salad purists. This twist works because Lawson knows how to decode an iconic, seemingly unimprovable recipe to understand better how each ingredient’s sensory and aesthetic qualities and the way they are treated transform into something greater than the sum of its parts. TL;DR (Too Long, Didn’t Read): to maintain a dish’s equilibrium, removing a salty, crunchy, noisy ingredient requires replacing it with something similar.

Nigellissima, published in 2012, is Lawson’s tribute to Italy via recipes she describes as ‘not authentically Italian’ (she avoids giving them Italian titles) but nonetheless reflects her expansive relationship with Italian food in a way she describes as authentic to her. As a result, Lawson has attracted many highly engaged Italian followers on social media whose default response to innovation is not one of suspicion ‘so long as there is no appropriation going on’. Not all of them welcome innovation: every time Lawson republishes a link to her famous recipe for Spaghetti with Marmite, you’ll read replies from Italians shocked at what they see as a British desecration of pasta closely followed by Lawson’s rebuttal explaining how this recipe comes from Anna Del Conte’s memoir, Risotto with Nettles, and is not as unmoored from Italian tradition as it first appears. “There is a traditional day-after-the-roast pasta dish, in which spaghetti is tossed in stock, and I have eaten shortcut versions of this in Italy which use a crumbled stock cube. . .” Lawson justifies. “If you think about it, Marmite offers saltiness and savouriness the way a stock cube might.”

When I tell you my recipe this month is for Italian-style affogato made not with espresso as is traditional but with dark beer instead, it would be reasonable to interpret everything I have written here as a giant defence mechanism against potential accusations that two scoops of ice cream drowned in beer is not a proper recipe - or even an ‘authentic’ improper recipe. You might argue that a correctly made affogato barely qualifies as a recipe. Yet this apparently easy two-ingredient recipe is anything but: there’s simply nowhere to hide if it goes wrong. And using cheap ice cream or gelato, stale coffee or an unharmonious beer will mess things up.

Affogato coffee with ice cream
Affogato coffee with ice cream

Why would anyone wish to mess with the simple perfection of a ‘proper’ affogato served after a meal - preferably in Italy? How arrogant, says my inner critic, and lazy. But the thing is, I’m not trying to convince Italians to ditch the espresso in favour of beer, nor do I have any desire to overwrite affogato’s cultural history with my own Anglicised version. I’m not even sure I should call my version by that name. And I’d encourage you to try the ‘ur-recipe’ (original) before you make mine because Anna Del Conte is right to describe it as one of Italy’s most delectable modern dishes.

I’d been toying with combining beer and gelato since the summer of 2022 when I visited Vespers Belgian beer bar, the younger sibling of Beautiful Beers, a well-established local store. I’d tried my husband’s beer, a pastry-style stout from Magnify Brewing Company in the States that glowed red in the glass where the light caught it and filled my nostrils with rich scents of chocolate, burnt caramel and coffee as it was poured. I posted the details on Instagram, writing that it would work well as a beer float or a guest star in Lawson’s Chocolate Guinness Cake. And then I forgot about it until another evening in Vespers a few weeks ago, where a sip from a glass of chunky 11% Barista Chocolate Quad from Belgium, whose aromatic, creamy smooth texture packed with flavours of richly roasted coffee, toffee and the darkest of chocolate blew me away. ‘It’d be insanely good in a venison stew, carnitas or chilli, fruit and nut chocolate cake, beer-roasted chickpeas and nuts, all sorts of marinades and as a substitute for coffee in red-eye gravy’, I wrote on Instagram later that night, adding ‘I have another idea too, but I’m saving that for a recipe column’. Well, here it is.

‘Affogato’ - but with Beer

Place two scoops of gelato into a chilled, wide-rimmed heavy glass. Slowly pour a single 30ml shot of room-temperature beer over the gelato in a thin stream, ensuring you cover the entire surface. Leave it for a minute or until it begins to melt. Spoon the gelato into your mouth and drink the creamy meltwater.

Notes

» In Italy, I like my affogato made with fior di latte gelato. It is hard to find here, so I use the best quality clotted-cream ice cream/gelato I can afford. A delicious vanilla gelato will do, too. There are so many variations: I’d like to see what the Barista Quad beer will taste like paired with hazelnut, coffee, almond, or cardamom gelato or sprinkled with cocoa nibs, toasted almonds or grated chocolate.

» Beautiful Beers has stocked both ales in the past. It’s worth watching their website or popping into the store if you’re nearby. Otherwise, the Barista Chocolate Quad can be ordered from Beersniffers, The Real Ale Store, Heaton Hops or The Belgian Beer Company.

» You can buy Affogato glasses, but to be honest, a Duralex-style tumbler is just as good.